[Interview] Uncovering the cultural, spiritual energy behind the Korean Wave

Posted on : 2022-06-09 17:36 KST Modified on : 2022-06-09 17:36 KST
Choi Joon-sik says Koreans’ “cultural energy” that encompasses a love of song and dance is at the root of the Korean Wave
The K-Culture Center’s founder Choi Joon-sik sits down for an interview with the Hankyoreh. (Cho Yeon-hyun/The Hankyoreh)
The K-Culture Center’s founder Choi Joon-sik sits down for an interview with the Hankyoreh. (Cho Yeon-hyun/The Hankyoreh)

Editor’s note: The Korean Wave continues to sweep the world. We’ve reached a point where what’s most Korean is being considered the most global.

What about the Korean Wave inspires such enthusiasm from people across the world? The international community has reacted before we could even answer this question.

No culture and art can consistently grow and bear fruit without having spiritual and ideological roots. This is why the Hankyoreh and Foundation Academia Platonica have come together for the interview series “Now This Is the K-Spirit,” in which we spoke with 10 thought leaders in the fields of religion and the humanities about what they consider the roots of the Korean Wave, full of energy and warmth.

The second interviewee for the series is none other than 66-year-old Choi Joon-sik, the president of the International Council on Korean Studies and professor emeritus at Ewha Womans University.

Having majored in religious studies at Temple University in the US, Choi has been a professor of Korean studies at the Ewha Womans University Graduate School of International Studies since 1992. Since helping establish the International Council on Korean Studies in the mid-1990s, he has been working to raise awareness of Korean culture through the K-Culture Center, a multipurpose cultural space he created 10 years ago.

On June 1, the Hankyoreh spoke with Choi at the K-Culture Center’s offices next to Gyeongbok Palace in Seoul.

Choi is wary of merely following in the footsteps of what came before. This is evident in his championing of shamanism and its spiritual energy as the fundamental character of the Korean people — in contrast with other religious studies and theologies scholars who uniformly treat shamanism with disregard due to their concerns about pressure from the establishment.

Rather than the term “musok,” which is used to deliberately disparage shamanist beliefs, Choi uses the term “mugyo,” which emphasizes its equivalency with other religions.

As major aspects of the Korean people’s nature, he identifies “cultural energy,” (mungi) which is rooted in the power of neo-Confucian humanistic culture, and shamanist spiritual energy (singi). In books such as “Cultural Energy,” “Spiritual Energy,” and “A World That Abounds with Excitement,” he discusses the roots of the forces behind the Korean Wave.

To begin with, he argues that “all Koreans are half shaman.” He sees parallels between the energy that drives shamans to leap throughout the night and the 7 million people who came out in the streets to sing and dance when South Korea reached the semifinals of the 2002 World Cup; the nationwide movement to gather up gold during the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s; the ways in which Koreans jump up and down for four to five hours straight on tour buses from Seoul to Busan; and the nightly crooning at karaoke rooms nationwide.

“In the past, shamanism was marginalized by the people in power and by Buddhism and neo-Confucianism, or disparaged as ‘evil spirits’ by Christians and people who had studied in the US. But Koreans have never forsaken shamanism,” he stresses.

The K-Culture Center’s founder Choi Joon-sik plays the daegeum, a type of bamboo flute. (Cho Yeon-hyun/The Hankyoreh)
The K-Culture Center’s founder Choi Joon-sik plays the daegeum, a type of bamboo flute. (Cho Yeon-hyun/The Hankyoreh)

He notes the guardian tree that still stands in the middle of Andong’s Hahoe Folk Village, which is considered one of Korea’s leading neo-Confucian communities, and argues that there is little difference between the shamanist gutpan (exorcism ritual) and the ways in which people at Christian revivals will sing for 30 to 40 minutes before entering a state of ecstasy, in which they pray out loud and speak in tongues.

In particular, he observes how even Koreans who subscribe to other faiths will not hesitate to visit a shaman when they run into difficulties. He also mentions how some people will present themselves like traditional Confucian scholars during the day, but turn into shamans by night.

In Choi’s view, the fact that even the modernized Korea of today still boasts 200,000 to 300,000 shamans, and the fact that it is not seen as strange to use shamanist terminology in the titles of TV programs like “The Knee-Drop Guru” and “Unpredictable Fortunetellers,” is because of the shamanist energy that courses through Koreans’ veins.

He also predicted that the Korean Wave would be more than just a one-hit-wonder. The basis for his prediction lies in the cultural energy behind that wave.

Choi disputes the claim that Korea only recently joined the ranks of “advanced nations” for the first time in its history. As noted in the book “The Kind Barbarian and the Sage of the Orient” by the French comparative literature scholar and former Hankuk University of Foreign Studies professor Frederic Boulesteix, Korea may have been an unknown land to Westerners, but it was one of the world’s 13 most advanced powers between the Three Kingdoms era and the 17th century, and only spent around 100 to 200 years as an “underdeveloped” country.

He explains that it is Korea that created Hangul, the greatest writing system in human history; Korea that was the first in the world to develop movable metal type, which is so essential to the information industry; Korea that produced Goryeo celadon, using what would be considered high technology even by today’s standards; Korea that maintained the world’s greatest archiving culture with documents such as the “Annals of the Joseon Dynasty” and “Journal of the Royal Secretariat”; and Korea that was able to achieve industrialization and democratization simultaneously in the shortest time, thanks to the powers instilled by studying the humanities at seodang (village schools) from a young age.

Suga of BTS in the music video for “Daechwita” (still from YouTube)
Suga of BTS in the music video for “Daechwita” (still from YouTube)

The following is the Hankyoreh’s interview with Choi.

Hankyoreh (Hani): What is the source of Koreans’ cultural energy?

Choi Joon-sik: The humanities of Joseon were at the greatest level. When you went to a seodang (village school), the first thing you learned was the “Thousand Character Classic.” Then you studied primary school-level ethics and history texts, followed by the Four Books and Five Classics and the “Book of Changes.” Where else do you find a system with that kind of humanistic education? Why do you think the French soldiers who attacked Ganghwa Island during the 1866 expedition to Korea felt so inferior after seeing books in even the humblest of homes?

Koreans are mad for education. Even if the Buddha or Jesus were to reappear in our times, they would not be able to quell Koreans’ passion for education.

This is what has enabled us to become the country with the lowest illiteracy rate in the world, and it’s also the source of the talented individuals who allowed us to achieve industrialization and democratization.

The fact that Koreans top the world rankings for IQ could be seen as the effect of this zeal for education — its brains added to shamanist passion. It’s the reason Warren Buffett called Korea a “country that cannot help succeeding” when he visited in 2011.

Hani: What do you see as the force that allowed Korea to achieve both industrialization and democratization?

Choi: Shortly after World War II ended, many people were predicting that since the Philippines was an American colony, they would achieve American-style democracy. But it didn’t turn out to be the Philippines after all.

Joseon has a superior system of rule to the Ming or Qing dynasties [in China]. Within that system, the king was officially monitored, his every action was recorded, and people could speak frankly to the king. It was a time when people could say “no” to the supreme leader far more than is possible today, when both progressive and conservative presidents tend to be surrounded entirely by yes-men.

There was a spirit of resistance and a willingness to put your life on the line or risk exile even if the king would not accept it. That’s why the world-renowned American linguist Noam Chomsky mentioned Korea as the ideal country, one that achieved democratization and industrialization simultaneously.

Hani: Why do you see Korea’s collectivist culture as having contributed to the Korean Wave?

Choi: Koreans always speak in terms of “us”: they talk about “our house” or “our daughter” [rather than “my house” or “my daughter”] and they call Korea “our country.” People say “our husband,” not “my husband.” If someone were to say “my husband,” people would laugh at them and say, “What, you’re the only one with a husband?”

You also see it when a person is drowning. Individualist Westerners will say, “Save me,” but Koreans will say, “Saram sallyeo” [which literally means “save a person”].

Even in gatherings, Koreans use kinship terms like “brother” or “sister,” which makes them become like communities of kinship. It’s this family-centered collectivism that enables Korean pop stars to withstand their difficult training through the group norms during their apprenticeship period.

Hani: What distinguishes Korea’s culture from China’s or Japan’s?

Choi: Foreigners marvel at how you can just cross a single river from China, the Amnok (Yalu), and see how everything changes — not just the language and writing or the food and clothing, but even the beat of the music. In China and Japan, traditional music is based on four beats, but in Korea, it’s based on three.

When they’re making gardens, people in China and Japan make ones that are completely human-centered, whereas Koreans try to create gardens that do not detract from nature. To put it in terms of brain structure, Japan is left-brained or logical, and Korea is right-brained or emotional.

In Japanese traditional music, those who do not imitate their teachers completely are kicked out. But in Korean pansori, completely imitating your teacher’s voice is the thing they warn against the most. Within Korean blood, there’s a desire for freedom and creativity.

Hani: Why do you see “cultural energy” and “spiritual energy” as Koreans’ most important characteristics?

Choi: Korea, China and Japan all share neo-Confucian and Buddhist culture. What distinguishes them? China has Daoism, Japan has Shinto, and Korea has shamanism — that is where the three countries differ.

In contrast with Daoism or Shinto, Korean shamanism consistently regards singing and dancing as religious rites. When I go to a karaoke room with foreign students, the Japanese ones will clap along and have fun. Then I’ll see the Koreans jumping up and down and just marvel at it and think, “Only Koreans could jump like that.”

You also see the same singing and dancing during election campaigns. Look at the World Cup, and the way Koreans enter a kind of collective ecstasy and exude passionate energy. It’s an amazing spiritual energy that is now rippling out into the rest of the world.

By Cho Hyun, religion correspondent

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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