By Yang Sung-jin
Last week, a female shaman attempted suicide soon after being arrested on the charge of driving dozens of knives and iron spikes into the tomb of Adm. Yi Sun-shin, a national hero who fought off the Japanese invaders in the late 16th century.
Other sacred tombs such as King Sejong and King Hyojong in Yoju, Kyonggi-do, suffered a similar vandalization on April 24, sending shockwave throughout the country.
The horrid tomb damages are reportedly linked with the deep-rooted geomancy, or the theory of “pungsu (풍수),” which is shared by Chinese, Korean and Japanese.
For instance, the Japanese imperialists who ruled the nation in 1910-45 put countless iron spikes in what they saw “critical pulse” of Korea’s land in an attempt to eliminate the spirit of Korean people for good.
It is true that the public awareness — and misguided fanaticism — about geomancy runs deeper than usual in Korea. Historically, the topic was never in short supply.
According to a Choson Annals article dated on July 7 of 1433, King Sejong sought out a geomancy expert in order to settle a geomancy-related dispute over a royal mausoleum.
A ranking official An Sung-son immediately opposed the king’s move: “The court discussion is designed to seek fundamental truth of politics. Geomancy is the most outrageous and ugliest gimmick, which is unfit to interfere with the central politics.”
King Sejong, however, was far from impressed by An’s remark.
An continued to argue that even the Chinese rulers dismissed marginal studies and promoted only the six major texts, setting a precedent which blocks lowly geomancers from stepping into the court.
Kwon Do, an official at the Ministry of Rites, filed a lengthy appeal to King Sejong, downplaying the reliability of geomancy, on July 15, 1433: “Choe Yang-sun said that the site of Sungmunwon is a propitious site while Kyongbok Palace is not. Although Choe’s vanity-laden personality is well known, his vicious remark has certainly shaken the heart of Your Majesty, which is deplorable.”
Kwon argued that no historical evidence backs up the geomancy theory that an auspicious site guarantees the prosperity of a nation.
King Sejong did not buy Kwon’s patriotism-driven appeal: “Because the current site of Kyongbok Palace has no water, kings will be held captive, history books said. Although geomancy books are sometimes nonsensical, we cannot shed the theory altogether.”
The king took three examples: the ancestors did not give up the geomancy theory, founding fathers of Choson Kingdom selected Seoul with the help of geomancy and citizens follow the rules of the theory when they bury their parents.
Intriguingly, King Sejong did not forget to criticize some government officials who pursued mysticism at home even though they scorned the practice outside.
As the king showed no sign of concession on the sensitive topic, Sahonbu (Office of the Inspector General) fired its attack on those who first put forward the geomancy issue.
“Choe Yang-sun and Po Ung filed the appeal in an ill-disguised attempt to get promoted through such prejudice-ridden theory. We fear that others will try the same trick if Your Majesty does not punish those who spread quackery,” Sahonbu said on July 26.
Next day, the king issued a formal statement in which he defended his position favoring a free discussion about geomancy. Conscious of Sahonbu’s personality attack on Choe, King Sejong said he should listen to as many as opinions (even from a humble farmer) in order to have a balanced judgment and wisdom.
King Sejong was not the only king who defended geomancy. A bitter confrontation between a Choson king and his officials flared up over geomancy in January of 1481.
King Songjong ordered the demolition of about 2,000 private houses overlooking the royal palace in order to correct “ominous” structure of geomancy.
Court officials, however, did not like the idea of driving innocent people out of their houses only because the king believed in geomancy.
Lee Chang-shin voiced his concern over the fate of people living in the “ominous” sites: “The houses which directly overlook the palace should be demolished, but there is no reason to remove other structures.”
Another official named Lee Pa argued that King Taejong burned all the books about unorthodox theories and gimmicks, leaving only two books, which is a piece of evidence against the use of geomancy.
But King Songjong countered that King Taejo, the founder of Choson, also upheld the usefulness of geomancy by banning people from damaging critical points of mountains.
Min Sa-kun, an official who joined the escalating controversy, pointed out that the king ordered the demolition of all the constructions overlooking the palace, excluding Buddhist temples: “Even though Your Majesty is not a Buddhist follower, it seems likely that descendants will take issue with your decision.”
The frequent dispute over geomancy permeated into the lower layer of society in the later Choson period. People often spent a lot of money in searching for “auspicious” burial sites which they believed were a guarantee for a greater prosperity of the family.
Annals historiographers observed on March 4 of 1696 on the rampant public myth about geomancy: “The endless lawsuits concerning the grave sites result from the greedy geomancers who extort money from the vanity- ridden class intent on securing a better burial site.”
Although many Koreans still believe in geomancy, there is no scientific evidence about its effect on the prosperity of the posterity. Yet there is an indisputable angle to the geography-determines-future theory: a selfish pursuit of geomancy does more harm than good.