The most outstanding aspect about both Chinese customary religion and Korean Shamanism is their eclecticism; both faiths have absorbed several elements from other religions and have also contributed in the same manner to these faiths. However, while Shamanism is regarded as more of a form of medicine than religion, Chinese customary religion is deeply superstitious.
Korean Shamanism is a religious faith practiced in Korea. It is highly polytheistic and adherents also believe in the existence of spirits. The religion reflects the connection of the Korean people with their traditional customs and rites.
In this faith, believers assert that spirits can be found everywhere; some of them emanate from their ancestors while others come from nature. These spirits are supposed to help man during his weak moments, restore justice by punishing wrong doers and guide man in his endeavors.1
Historically, Shamanism started as far back as 1000BC. At the time, society already had an organized government, and relied heavily on agriculture as the backbone of its economy. A number of religious festivals started springing up during agricultural harvests so as to facilitate thanksgiving among the people.
Attendants in the festivals were called mudang, which came to be a central part of Korean Shamanism in the future. The kut is the name of a similar ceremony that takes place today. Later on, other religions started emerging, and most of them penetrated into the three dynasties that characterize Korean history.
Shamanists struggled to assimilate these elements into their faith owing to influences from Buddhism and Confucianism. In subsequent times, the religion continued to diminish. At first, in the Koryo era, Buddhism appeared to be the most influential religion of all.
Rituals such as Yun Deung Hoi (an annual festival) were quite common. However, although the festival was labeled as a Buddhist one, its internal structure borrowed heavily from traditional Shamanism.2 In the Cho-Sun period, the kut was reduced to a lower class.
Even Buddhism was not spared as rulers wanted to establish Confucianism as the only legitimate religion in the land. This joint persecution of Buddhism and Shamanism led to greater exchange of elements between these two faiths. At the time, Shamanism was perceived as primitive and out of touch.
In the subsequent era, which was Japanese colonization, many Japanese attacked the kut because they knew that it gave Koreans a strong ancestral bond. In the new world, the practice continued to dwindle even more as it became incompatible with modernization. Western thought is more predominant and influential thus leading to further marginalization of the practice today.
While many adherents may not consider themselves as followers of this faith; they think of it as a remedy or form of medicine that man can use in order to meet his own objectives. In this school of thought, believers are not expected to strive for spiritual perfection or some sort of moral goal.
A Shaman is the person who must be consulted when people require intervention in their lives. Nonetheless, this religious practice has been responsible for greater nationalism in Korea. It has encouraged most people to value the cultural aspects of song and dance that revolve around the kut. Some sort of revival has started occurring in various cities and currently, the cultural practices in this faith have solicited renewed attention.
Chinese customary religion
Chinese customary religion is regarded as a faith that is based on superstition more than a particular doctrine. Folk religion is regarded as a vital part of contemporary China owing to the influences that it placed on subsequent religions as well as on the Chinese peoples’ lives. The religion emanated from people’s desire to meet the needs of their ancestors.
The living believed that there was a lot of power in nature hence their need to exalt it.3 In fact, nature worship is a key element in Chinese customary religion today. A further analysis of this religious practice illustrates a blend of occult practice with superstition and governmental influence. Between 202 BC and 220 AD, the Han dynasty played a large role in changing religious practices in China.
The government was responsible for the creation and maintenance of shrines. It prescribed the rituals that its citizen needed to perform in shrines.4 Some of them included practices in honor of the mountain spirits, rain, soil and other kinds of nature gods. However, locals created their own agents who would make contact with the spirits, and thus perpetuated an occult practice.5
The religion is a collection of myths, rituals, festivals and other forms of worship. Since the adherents believe in nature gods and existence of spirits everywhere, then the practice of communicating with these spirits is not uncommon.6
Furthermore, the followers listen to a series of myths that talk about certain figures in their history. Additionally, some levels of animism are practiced today where the followers will communicate with animals. The version of the religion that is known to many is Shenism. Shenist temples are widespread and are managed by a series of associations or local leaders.7
How Chinese customary religion compares to Korean Shamanism
The most obvious similarity between these two forms of religion is their eclectic nature. Just like the Koreans, the Chinese have been subjected to several influences from subsequent leaders. The adherents may worship inconsistent gods owing to their integration with other religions.8
Since governments in both China and Korea were heavily involved in the religious practices of their people, then it is no wonder that sometimes the religions would dwindle and resurface as weaker versions of the same. Various dynasties in both countries prescribed the areas of worship for their adherents.
Consequently, the local religions were subjected to continuous marginalization. In fact, it was this government interference that led to the declining popularity of Korean Shamanism and Chinese customary religion. Only traces of the original forms can be found in current practices because practices have been watered down or oppressed by those in power.
In line with the above school of thought is the polytheistic nature of both types of religion. There are numerous spirits and gods in Chinese customary religion as well in Korean Shamanism. In the Chinese school, one can find a creator god called Pangu, an agricultural god called Shennong and an Emperor god called Huangdi, who many regard as the founder of China.
Other gods are responsible for long life, health, happiness, wealth distribution, success at work, scholarship and academic work, city living, and love. Likewise in Korean Shamanism, worshippers have a myriad of gods that range from mountain gods, tree gods and other administrative gods who are found in heaven and rule over various elements of their lives.
Consequently, one can assert that the Korean Shamanists and the Chinese folk adherents wanted to meet various facets of their spiritual needs by having gods and goddesses from almost each aspect of their lives.9 However, in modern times, a Shaman has the right to select just a few of these gods in order to practice his faith.
Ancestral worship is also another common phenomenon in both religions. In ancient China, ancestral worship emanated from the funeral practices of the traditional religions. Family heads would be buried with their earthly belongings as well their wives.
In the modern era, people would be buried with cars, money and other possessions. Today, one is likely to witness ancestral worship in the forms of names on scrolls. Followers will place these lists in one particular hall in their house.
Some of them may consider sharing meals with the dead ten years after the burial. It is believed that the ancestors can provide solutions to their problems. However, if one neglects these duties, then one may land oneself in trouble.
For instance, if there are no relatives to take care of the dead, then they may be sent from Hell to forage for food. This is the reason why the community has festivals where they offer money and food to get rid of the ghosts in their land.
Likewise, the Korean Shamanists have their own form of ancestral worship. They will carry out rites such as Ssitgim-gut in order to cleanse a dead man’s spirit.10 They will also have rites such as Hwanghaeodo in order to create salvation against angry ghosts or spirits.11
In another Shamanist rite, the villagers may worship tutelary grandparents. A number of them revolve around guiding the dead into paradise or the land of the dead, hence the reason why many of them are held at regular intervals such as during the anniversary of one’s death.12
One major feature that makes the Chinese customary religion distinct is its followers’ willingness to accept the inevitable. An outsider may think of Korean Shamanism as chaotic and highly disjointed. The same impression may be held with regard to Chinese customary religion.
However, the Chinese folk religion differs from Shamanism because its adherents believe in the power of a High God. The Chinese are firmly rooted in Taoist belief systems which advocate for peace with the universe. Therefore, adherents of the Chinese customary religion believe that a Supreme Being ultimately controls the universe. It is his will which must be trusted and not any other. 13
The one High God balances life inequalities and ensures that everything goes according to plan. Men must accept the involvement of this being in their lives hence explaining why most followers appear to bow inevitably to earthly occurrences such as totalitarianism and dictatorship.
In Korean Shamanism, no such belief in an ultimate God exists, so other reasons must be sought in order to understand why followers were affected by external forces.14
Another feature that differentiates Shamanism from Chinese customary religion is the concept of Shamans. Most shamans are female intercessors whose work is to assist humans in achieving fulfilled lives.
Most of them provide services to cure illnesses or eliminate any evil spirits. The process by which a person becomes a Shaman is quite dramatic and unique.
The person may get some sort of “illness of the spirit” that results in hallucinations, loss of sleep and no need for food. This illness can be cured when the person receives a god spirit and becomes a Shaman.15 Although some levels of fortune-telling exist in traditional Chinese religion, the concept does not form a crucial backbone of their faith.
The two religions studied are highly amorphous, which is a quality derived from the lack of unified teachings. Followers do not have to strive for moral or physical perfection as it is assumed that they can change their paths autonomously.
Ching, Julia. Chinese religions. Chicago: Orbis books, 1993.
Covell, Alan. Folk art and magic: Shamanism in Korea. Seoul: Hollym Corp., 1986.
Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism: Archaic techniques. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University press, 2004.
Gates, Hill. Hegemony of Chinese folk ideologies. NY: Sage, 1987.
Heinz, Carolyn Brown. Asian Cultural Traditions. Minneapolis: Waveland Press, 1999.
Hyun-Key Kim, Hogarth. “Kut: Happiness through reciprocity.” International Society for Shamanistic Research 7, no. 13 (1998): 413-438.
Latourette, Kenneth. The Chinese: their history and culture. NY: Mcmillan Company, 1964
Lee, Jung Young. Korean Shamanistic rituals. The Hague: Mouton, 1981.
Kendall, Laurel. Shamans, housewives and other restless spirits: women in Korean ritual life. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1985.
Keoghtley, David. Heritage of China: Early civilizations in China. California: University of California Press, 1990.
Kim, Chongho. Korean Shamanism: The cultural paradox. England: Ashgate, 2003.
Kim, Tae-Kon. Korean Shamanism. Seoul: Jimoondang publishing company, 2005.
Manchao, Cheng. The origin of Chinese deities. Beijing: Foreign Language press, 1995.
Munro, Donald. The concept of man in early China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1969
Wm, Barry. Theodore de, with Wing tsit Chan and Burton Watson, Sources of Chinese tradition. Columbia: Columbia University Press, 1960.
1 Chongho Kim, Korean Shamanism: The cultural paradox (England: Ashgate, 2003), 66.
2 Alan Covell. Folk art and magic: Shamanism in Korea. (Seoul: Hollym Corp., 1986), 404
3 Hill Gates. Hegemony of Chinese folk ideologies (NY: Sage, 1987), 97.
4 Julia Ching, Chinese religions (Chicago: Orbis books, 1993), 34.
5 Kenneth Latourette, The Chinese: their history and culture (NY: Mcmillan Company, 1964), 104.
6 Munro, Donald. The concept of man in early China (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1969), 63.
7 David Keoghtley, Heritage of China: Early civilizations in China (California: University of California Press, 1990), 80.
8 Cheng Manchao, The origin of Chinese deities (Beijing: Foreign Language press, 1995), 25.
9 Hogarth Hyun-Key Kim, “Kut: Happiness through reciprocity,” International Society for Shamanistic Research 7, no. 13 (1998): 413-438.
10 Jung Young Lee, Korean Shamanistic rituals (The Hague: Mouton, 1981), 52.
11 Laurel Kendall, Shamans, housewives and other restless spirits: women in Korean ritual life. (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1985), 147
12 Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic techniques (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University press, 2004), 121.
13Barry Wm, Theodore de, with Wing tsit Chan and Burton Watson, Sources of Chinese tradition (Columbia: Columbia University Press, 1960), 48.
14 Carolyn Brown Heinz, Asian Cultural Traditions (Minneapolis: Waveland Press, 1999), 58.
15 Tae-Kon Kim, Korean Shamanism (Seoul: Jimoondang publishing company, 2005), 222