Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Fortunetelling business booming in the bad economy

Despite all its modernities, there's no small amount of superstition remaining in the collective Korean psyche: The number four is bad luck because of its homophonic association with death; proper names of people should not be written in red ink because of its clerical association with writing the names of the dead; praising a newborn will invite jealous and wrathful demons who will do harm to the baby; eating American beef will give you Mad Cow Disease; etc.  

So it should come as no surprise that lots of South Koreans still seek the advice and wisdom of fortunetellers. Some do it because they are dead serious about heeding the advice that is given based on the time, date, and year in which you were born; others do it with their significant other because it's sort of a hoot to see what the fortune teller will say about your prospects as a married couple. 

Most of the latter group really see the whole process as entertainment, but if a particularly bad omen is revealed, they might alter their routine a bit, especially if the delay helps normalize things. 

I've brought a number of non-Korean speakers to fortune tellers and they got quite a kick out of it. One was a GI who wanted a little "inside information" from the sidewalk sage in Insa-dong on what she should do for her as-yet unborn baby. The other was a future girlfriend who may actually have been influenced by the Taehangno fortuneteller's insistence that the man for her was someone born in the same year I was and with the same profession (something that the fortuneteller did not know about me). 

South Koreans seek out information from the country's 300,000 practicing fortunetellers in the form of kunghap (궁합/宮合; also gunghap) to determine their marital compatibility or saju (사주/四柱) for other things like job prospects or vocations to choose, etc. Many of them are located in cafés, like the "Hyunam" (현암?) in the picture above. It's quite the social activity in dating-friendly areas, and at around 12,000 won (think $12, though the exchange rate brings it closer to $8 or $9 for the moment). 

And, as the Los Angeles Times reports, in these difficult economic times, more and more South Koreans are heading for the fortuneteller for an edge in job searches. To the tune of 60% of job seekers, in fact. The staying power of fortunetelling with a new crop of young people bodes well for the profession of prophecy. 

The article is a pretty good introduction and overview of the subject. At any rate, it's interesting to note that some traditions are not likely to die anytime soon, no matter how modern the ROK becomes. 

UPDATE (next morning):
In a post he put up about this same article six full hours after I put up mine (heh heh), Marmot's Hole contributor Wangkon936 writes this:
It’s interesting that a country as modern as Korea would still have such wide spread ancient superstitions, but I guess that’s what happens when a country modernizes in just a couple of generations.
While I think that there is something to that — traditions don't always fall as fast as the economy rises — we should all be reminded that almost every major newspaper in the United States (can't speak for the rest of the industrialized world) carries a daily horoscope. 

While seeking out fortunetellers may not be as common in the United States, there are enough of them out there and they tend to do a thriving enough business that they have brick-and-mortar shops, not makeshift tents on the street as in Korea. 

I'm certainly not saying this to excuse Korea in some way for the ubiquity of fortunetellers, especially since I think it's a charming part of life in modern Korea, but just to point out that this type of tradition is not so unusual even in "advanced" economies, just that the form may be different. (MH Commenter Charles Tilly makes a similar point.)

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