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Shingugan: Past and presentThe gods must be crazy
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승인 2017.01.20  15:15:31
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▲ Korea’s patented “escalator to heaven”, allowing for quick escapes from angry deities Photo courtesy Jeju City Hall

Moving, even under the best conditions, is a stressful task. A new house has to be found and the old one cleaned. Things have to be packed and then unpacked, and there is always the danger of breaking or losing valuable possessions while they are being moved. But in Korea there is an additional concern – angering the gods and spirits.

George Heber Jones, an American missionary who lived in Korea in the late 19th century wrote:

“Every Korean home is subject to deamons, here, there and everywhere...They are on every roof, ceiling, oven and beam. They fill the chimney, shed, the living room, the kitchen - they are on every shelf and jar...They touch the Korean at every point in life, making his well-being depend on a continual series of acts of propitiation, and they avenge every omission with merciless severity, keeping him under this yoke of bondage from birth to death.”

Many of these spirits and gods act as guardians – protecting the homes and those within from other malignant spirits. However they are extremely jealous and demanding. They do not like change or being defied.

Many superstitious Koreans on the mainland try to move on 손없는날 or “soneopsenennal” (days without ghosts). These are days that end with a nine or a zero.

It is believed that the ghosts or spirits that haunt houses are gone on those days – possibly to receive new orders from their superiors. On these dates, the residents quickly move to their new home, ensuring that they leave their old home in a relatively unkempt state (unswept and dirty) so that the guardian spirits will be fooled into believing nothing has changed.

It is only after the new owners have moved in and cleaned up the house that the spirits become aware that they were tricked, but by then it is too late and they are unable to find their former residents.

Jeju, however, has a unique moving period. Rather than having several days each month in which to move, residents on Jeju have only about a week during the “shingugan”, which literally translates into “a period of time between the old and the new”.

The shingugan takes place five days after “daehan”- literally the big cold, which is traditionally one of the coldest days of the year - and three days before “ipchun”, the entrance of spring or the first day of spring.

This is all still based on the lunar calendar, which, this year, is from January 26 to February 1.

During this period the 18,000 gods or spirits who manage the affairs on earth ascend to the heavens to receive their orders from the Jade God (玉皇上帝/옥황상제).

It is during this time people are able to move without their resident spirits’ knowledge, thus sparing them from malevolent acts of revenge from the spurned spirits.

But not all of these supernatural entities depart the mortal domain. A god known as Mokgong (목콩) stays behind to protect us from harm during this period. As he is only concerned with the protection of the islanders, he seemingly turns a blind eye to his charges’ activities.

▲ How Jeju moved long ago Photo courtesy Jeju City

It isn’t clear when and how this custom came about. Some people believe that it traces back to “saegwangyosoong” (세관교승) which took place almost during the same period but was one day shorter, ending two days before the ipchun.

During this period people were allowed to begin construction of houses, make repairs to their existing homes - including the front gates - and to make repairs to less savory items such as graves and outhouses without fear of offending the gods and spirits.

Aside from the superstitions, it actually had a practical purpose. Moving and doing repairs to the outhouse and graves during this colder period may have helped prevent the spread of disease.

But not all island residents are fond of this quaint tradition. Large numbers of homes were destroyed during the April 3 Uprising, and with the subsequent Korean War, housing became a very serious concern to islanders.

On January 21, 1953, the newspaper, Jeju Sinpo, reported that the residents of the island were experiencing great financial difficulties because of the costs associated with finding a house and moving during this period.

The local authorities also had the problem of dealing with the large amount of garbage that was generated during shingugan.

With commercialization in the 1960s and the growing population, the housing situation worsened, especially as everyone tried to move during a relatively short period.

This was very beneficial to moving companies and real-estate agencies who were able to charge premium prices to their desperate customers. However it became such a problem that in the 1960s and 70s the Korean government deemed shingugan as one of the “six bad traditions” (I am not sure what the other five were) and tried very hard to get rid of it.

Obviously it failed.

The island continues to celebrate shingugan. People tend to move during this period, stores offer special sales, and businesses make concessions to their employees. Of course, the problems are still there, the inflated prices and the large amounts of garbage.

But time may be running out. With the island’s increasing development and the rapidly changing makeup of its population, it is questionable if shingugan will continue to enjoy the popularity and impact it plays in the lives of Jeju residents. Another victim of the transition from the traditional past to the commercialized future.

The author would like to express his gratitude to Richard Pretti for his assistance.

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