Korean Geomancy Tales


I attended a really interesting lecture once, by Hong-Key Yoon, on the analysis of geomancy in Korean folk tales. Yoon has also written on the subject, so I mix up some of his written work here with just a couple of my notes from that lecture

Yoon asserts that “folklore is a record of a people’s cultural behavior” (p21) and, because folklore is not bound by the responsibility of authorship, you can really use it to understand a people’s desires, fears, and worldviews.

“The [Korean] geomancy tales [which he analyses in his article, ‘An Analysis of Korean Geomancy Tales’] reveal many aspects of Korean cultural behavior including wishes, beliefs and ethics. According to the tales, it was evident that the most important Korean wish was for the prosperity of the family but not of the individual. Although Confucianism was strong, their belief was more strongly affiliated with Buddhism than with any other major Korean religion. It is especially noticeable that some geomancy tales preserved a non-Confucian parent/son relationship where it is the parent who makes the sacrifice. It is my conviction,” Yoon concludes, “that geomancy has been an influential cultural process in the regulation of the cultural behavior of the Korean people.” (p34)

Understanding Geomancy

Auspiciousness, Yoon pointed out, is often associated with time, but in this case, it is associated with place. “Probably few ideas in the world are more closely related to the natural environment than geomancy. This concept is known as Feng-shui in Chinese and Pung-su Korean – both of which literally mean ‘wind and water’ and is based on the premise that certain sites or localities are more auspicious than others. Feng-shui teaches that man should not bring about disorder in the geomantic harmony of nature (however, it allows for corrections of geomantic disharmony of nature) by modifying either natural and/or cultural landscapes. Moreover, in the acquisition of one’s prosperity, the selection of an auspicious place for a house or burial site must be made by means of geomantic principles. Thus, geomancy is a quasi-religious and pseudo-scientific system which regulates human ecology by influencing man in the selection of various locations.” (p.22)

During the lecture, Yoon explained that the environment/nature is seen as a magical being (which can bless). An auspicious site can manifest itself in human life. It is also a vulnerable being, though, which can be created and destroyed.

“According to the Ts’ang-shu, which is known as Kuo P’u’s writing, when the spirit of Yin-Yang flows under the ground, it becomes a vital energy. An auspicious place is located where a vital energy stays, and people believed that if a man was buried in such a place, his descendants would receive good fortune from the grave.” (p.22) “The basic principles of geomancy are simple enough. As put forth in Ts’ang-shu, they are, first, the acquisition of water and then the storing of wind. This means that an auspicious place is mainly determined by the location of surrounding mountains which store the wind and by nearby watercourses.” (p.23)

Main motifs/themes of Korean Geomancy Tales

Yoon offers four motifs (themes) of Korean Geomancy Tales. “Although some tales have more than one motif,” he writes, “all of the stories can be classified into one of the following four categories:” (p.23)

“1. An auspicious locale is given to a good person.” (p.23)

“This is an extremely popular motif. Many tales say that when one has been a good person, he (or she) has been able to obtain an auspicious place for a house or a grave. …Ethics have been greatly emphasized in the geomancy tales as well as in other Korean tales. The ethics emphasized include charity, filial piety, parental sacrifice for children and so on. The ethical principle most emphasized was charity to all poor living things, such as suffering animals and travelling monks. The plots of many tales involve offering help or charity to poor creatures who then, in gratitude, choose an auspicious place for their benefactor as a reward.” (p.23)

“2. An auspicious place can be either destroyed or recovered.” (p.24)

“Another important motif is that an auspicious place can be either destroyed or recovered by human agency. …Because they firmly believed in this, people have often opposed artificial modification of harmonized geomantic landscapes by modern technology, and many people are very careful in remodeling old-fashioned houses into modern styles.” (p.24)

“3. The grave manifests its benefits to the descendants.” (p.25)

“Traditional Koreans probably believed in geomancy as strongly as westerners believe in their sciences. The pre-modern Koreans firmly believed that if they buried their ancestors in auspicious places, they would get good fortune from the grave. This benefit, however, was often available not directly to the son of the buried man, but, after lying dormant for several generations, to distant descendants. According to a geomantic saying, the characteristics of each local pungsu (feng-shui in Chinese) is solely responsible for the kind of good fortune received. Some locales are of mild benefit; others produce spectacular results. Some will cause their good fortune to manifest itself immediately after the funeral, while others will not do so for several generations.” (p.25)

“4. The regional landfigures (landforms) are living things or inanimate objects.” (p.26)

“Koreans often considered the mountains and rivers as living things, and so they tried to provide the necessities for these geomantically personified landfigures. They believed that if the personified landfigures were lacking something for the necessary harmony of their local geomantic landscape, the merits of that place would not be available to them. For instance, if a local landfigure has only the landfigure of a mouse, the people might make an artificial geomancy cat in front of the mouse in order to keep the mouse from running away. …people were often enthusiastic about so stabilizing their landscapes. Another example of such balancing would be to provide many male soldiers for the grave site located in the landfigure of a general who had no landfigure of soldiers.” (p.26)

Korean Religions, ethics and geomancy tales

Yoon observes that through the analysis of Korean folk tales “Korean geomancy can be differentiated from that of its neighbouring countries.” (p.27) “One difference between Chinese and Korean geomancy tales,” he writes, “lies in the role of Buddhist monks in selecting auspicious places. In the Chinese tales, in many cases, the auspicious places are selected by geomancers. In the Korean tales, however, the situation is rather different; in many cases, the Buddhist monks appear as geomancer-monks who choose most of the auspicious places. This is evidence that Korean Buddhism has cooperated more closely with geomancy than has Chinese buddhism. In fact, Korean Buddhism has often accepted geomantic principles for the selection of temple sites, and Korean geomany has accepted Buddhist influences such as the establishment of a pagoda or temple compensate for the inauspiciousness of a place.” (p.27)

“…most Korean tales are closely tied to a Buddhist ethics (such as charity). …Despite the fact that Confucian ethics ruled the country for so long, it is interesting to note that the folktales were actually influenced more by Buddhist ethics than by Confucian precepts. This may be interpreted as an indication that although the upper class (Yangban) was neo-Confucianist during the Yi dynasty, the common people (and many upper-class women) remained essentially Buddhists while their husbands are thoroughgoing Confucianists. However, there have not been any serious religious conflicts between these husbands and wives, or between the common people and the elite. This probably the case because, unlike the Judeo-Christian religions, Buddhism and Confucianism are not exclusive.” (p.28)

“The influence of Taoism on the Korean geomancy tales seems to be almost non-existent.” (p.29)

Elsewhere, Yoon has written: “While matters of proper social ethics and political ideology were the neo-Confucians’ main concerns, teaching people how to overcome suffering 9especially by consoling the human mind) was the Buddhists’ main concern. Buddhism as a religion exerted greater influence on Korean people’s social psyche than did Confucianism, which is probably why Buddhist values are more commonly featured in Korean geomancy tales.” (Hong-Key Yoon, The Culture of Fengshui in Korea: An Exploration of East Asian Geomancy, p.202)

Korean wishes revealed in Geomancy tales

“Through the wishes in their geomancy tales, the Koreans inform us of some of their important concerns. For instance, the tales vividly describe particular attitudes towards one’s family. / When people chose a grave site, they were little concerned with whether the place was good for the dead or not, but mainly with how good the site would be for the descendants of the family. Usually, people did not expect to benefit from the grave in the generation in which the dead was buried, but rather several generations later.” (p.29)

“…Thus, we can probably say that the Koreans lived for the preparation of tomorrow rather than for today. These wishes for family prosperity center around either wealth or the appointment of high governmental officials. This may reflect the average Korean’s poverty-stricken life as well as the bureaucratically-oriented Korean society. In comparison with the Chinese tales, however, the Korean wish for a descendant who became king or emperor was quite weak.” (p.30)

The non-Confucian ethical aspect of the tales…

“Confucian ethics concerning the parent/son relationship ask for every son’s indefinite and unquestionable sacrifice to his parents, but this does not require any parents sacrifice for the children. In the geomancy tales, however, there are stories about poor parents sacrificing themselves to provide grave sites that will guarantee a prosperous future for their descendants. …These stories show us the sacrifice of parents for their family lineage. …The emphasis in these storeis is on parental sacrifice for their children rather than on children sacrificiing for their parents, as one would expect from Confucian ethics.” (p.32)

“Another very popular moral principle in these tales which is also not Confucian is charity for poor living things. This may be considered as a Buddhist influence on Korean folk society. …Because of this, we may conclude that charity, while not a Confucian ethic, was emphasized in Korean folk society.” (p.32)

“According to many tales, playing tricks or cheating was not considered as evil as it is in Christianity or even in Confucianism.” (p.32)

Ref:  Hong-Key Yoon ‘An Analysis of Korean Geomancy Tales’ Asian Folklore Studies 34(1), pp.21-34    Hong-Key Yoon (lecture given as part of Complit 202; Interpreting Folktales course, 2001, University of Auckland: Comparative Literature)

NOTE: related work by Hong-Key Yoon: The role of Pungsu (geomancy) in Korean Culture (Keynote speech) …and by others, but which also looks interesting: ‘Landscape and Soundscape: Geomantic Spatial Mapping in Korean Traditional Music’, http://www.dailygrail.com/blogs/Cernig/2004/6/Theory-Geometry-Geomancy-and-Sacred-Landscape, PUNGSU JIRI 풍수지리,


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