Shamans, Nostalgias, and the IMF: South Korean Popular Religion in Motion
280pp. November 2009
Shamans, Nostalgias, and the IMF: South Korean Popular Religion in Motion
Author: Kendall, Laurel;
Winner of the Yim Seuk Jai Award, Korean Society for Cultural Anthropology

Thirty years ago, anthropologist Laurel Kendall did intensive fieldwork among South Korea’s (mostly female) shamans and their clients as a reflection of village women’s lives. In the intervening decades, South Korea experienced an unprecedented economic, social, political, and material transformation and Korean villages all but disappeared. And the shamans? Kendall attests that they not only persist but are very much a part of South Korean modernity.

This enlightening and entertaining study of contemporary Korean shamanism makes the case for the dynamism of popular religious practice, the creativity of those we call shamans, and the necessity of writing about them in the present tense. Shamans thrive in South Korea’s high-rise cities, working with clients who are largely middle class and technologically sophisticated. Emphasizing the shaman’s work as open and mutable, Kendall describes how gods and ancestors articulate the changing concerns of clients and how the ritual fame of these transactions has itself been transformed by urban sprawl, private cars, and zealous Christian proselytizing.

For most of the last century Korean shamans were reviled as practitioners of antimodern superstition; today they are nostalgically celebrated icons of a vanished rural world. Such superstition and tradition occupy flip sides of modernity’s coin—the one by confuting, the other by obscuring, the beating heart of shamanic practice. Kendall offers a lively account of shamans, who once ministered to the domestic crises of farmers, as they address the anxieties of entrepreneurs whose dreams of wealth are matched by their omnipresent fears of ruin. Money and access to foreign goods provoke moral dilemmas about getting and spending; shamanic rituals express these through the longings of the dead and the playful antics of greedy gods, some of whom have acquired a taste for imported whiskey.

No other book-length study captures the tension between contemporary South Korean life and the contemporary South Korean shamans’ work. Kendall’s familiarity with the country and long association with her subjects permit nuanced comparisons between a 1970s "then" and recent encounters—some with the same shamans and clients—as South Korea moved through the 1990s, endured the Asian Financial Crisis, and entered the new millennium. She approaches her subject through multiple anthropological lenses such that readers interested in religion, ritual performance, healing, gender, landscape, material culture, modernity, and consumption will find much of interest here.

11 illus.

“A tour-de-force of cultural specificity, narrative sophistication and historical insight. . . . Kendall’s account is most remarkable for capturing the last quarter century of Korean development history, while relying almost solely on the prognostications and performances of a handful of spirit mediums. . . . Most notable perhaps is Kendall’s seamless integration of 30 years of fieldwork and research into a meaningful, and almost timeless, narrative. Her book will be an invaluable source for students and scholars of globalization and folk religion in Korea and throughout the greater Pacific.” —Pacific Affairs (85:1, March 2012)

“[Kendall’s] book, which will remain authoritative for years to come, will be one of the first read by scholars and students of Korean religions and Korean shamanism.” —Journal of Religion (2011)

“Demonstrates Laurel Kendall’s rigorous and masterful observation that the aboriginal belief system and its practices can serve as a lens through which we can see modernity and social life as they continually unfold in South Korea. [This book] is a paragon of work written by a mature ethnographer having built a long-term engagement in the field, in this case in exploration of issues relating to Korean religion and modernity.” —Anthropological Quarterly (84:3, 2011)

"Laurel Kendall has written a study of contemporary Korean shamans that is both entertaining and enlightening. Most studies of the topic treat shamans as an anachronistic remnant of the past. Kendall challenges that approach, drawing on several decades of close observation of shamans in action to reveal how shamanism is constantly evolving. It is an important work that will appeal to a wide audience." —Don Baker, University of British Columbia

"With the publication of Shamans, Nostalgias, and the IMF, Laurel Kendall opens a new chapter in the study not only of shamanism in Korea, but also in many societies undergoing the process of industrialization and modernization. It is distinguished by its rich ethnographic data and novel theoretical approach to the field of Korean popular religion. One of its many merits is that, unlike conventional studies that focus on ‘authentic’ shaman ritual performances, it reveals a wide spectrum of shamans and rituals within a grand system of practice." —Kwang Ok Kim, Seoul National University

"Laurel Kendall’s sympathetic and lucid writing consistently leads from vivid narratives to penetrating theoretical insights. In her hands the IMF becomes a brilliant trope for the interplay between magical causality and the bewildering modernity which moulds our lives, as it does the lives of her shamans' clients." — Piers Vitebsky, University of Cambridge

Author: Kendall, Laurel;
Laurel Kendall is Curator in Charge of Asian Ethnographic Collections in the Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History, and also teaches at Columbia University.
Read the introduction (PDF).

Introduction: Shamanic Nostalgia
1. Shifting Intellectual Terrain: "Superstition" Becomes "Culture" and "Religion"
2. Memory Horizons: Kut from Two Ethnographic Presents
3. Initiating Performance: Chini’s Story
4. The Ambiguities of Becoming: Phony Shamans and What Are Mudang After All?
5. Korean Shamans and the Spirits of Capitalism
6. Of Hungry Ghosts and Other Matters of Consumption
7. Built Landscapes and Mobile Gods

Index and Glossary