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Kum-Hwa Kim

Category: Shaman


Kum-Hwa Kim is a Korean mudang,  - a shaman – and also an educator and entertainer. 

Her performances and ceremonies include both healing and unusual feats of environmental control – such as knife blade walking in bare feet.  Born in 1931, she is now ‘retired’ in the sense she does not travel the world giving performances as she used to, but she is still active in helping those interested in shamanism.

Many mudang of Korea practice kut healing ceremonies with very few present, as often the purpose is to heal psychological hurt which is causing illness. Kum-Hwa in contrast encouraged the participation of large audiences concentrating on raising people’s spirits by giving them joy, and then if possible raising them to further levels of experience towards ecstasy.  As such she used a different approach – albeit a successful one.

Korean Shamanism – The Cultural Paradox – Dr Chongho Kim

Among Korean shamans, Kum-Hwa Kim is probably the most well known, especially in anthropological circles. She appears in many anthropological writings (for example, Canda, 1992; H-Y. Cho, 1990; C. Choi, 1987, 1991; Covell, 1983, 1986; Guillemoz, 1992: I-H. Kim, 1987; Kim and Choi, 1983; S-N. Kim, 1989; T-K. Kim, 1988; Howard, 1990: 165; R-S. Hwang, 1986, 1988; Schechner, 1985; Vitebsky, 1995; Zolla, 1985), some of which include one or more photographs of her in colourful costumes. (It should be noted that her name is given somewhat differently in these various references - for example, Kim Kum Hwa, Kim Keum Hwa, Kim Kum-hwa, Keum Hwa Kim, Kum-hwa Kim, or Nami, her pseudonym.) Kim has also often appeared at anthropological conferences. For instance, she performed for Claude Levi-Strauss and other anthropologists during an international conference held in Korea in 1981, and for British anthropologists of the Royal Anthropological Institute when they visited Korea in 1984.


 Her contribution has been widely recognised in academic and national circles, for example the 'Certificate of Appreciation' presented by the Smithsonian Institution to her said:

In official recognition and appreciation of exceptional contributions to the increase and diffusion of knowledge about folk cultures and folk life traditions which contribute to the heritage of our nation and of the world.

She was an official guest in July 1994 at the Third International Women Playwrights Conference, held in Adelaide, Australia.  The week-long conference brought together more than 400 delegates from about 35 countries to look at the relationship between women's traditional ritual or storytelling and contemporary theatre created by women.  At one time in Australia, she was treated like a superstar. In Melbourne, the leading local newspaper introduced her under the heading,-'shaman is National Treasure':

Korean Shamanism – The Cultural Paradox – Dr Chongho Kim

Shamanism is so deeply embedded in Korean culture that it now enjoys Government protection ... Madame Kim is the acknowledged leader of Korean charismatic shamanism, the origin of all performing arts in the Korean peninsula, and is acknowledged as a living national treasure by the Korean government. ... The South Korean Government has designated shamanism part of the country's 'intangible cultural assets' and the rites are protected. ... Madame Kim and her troupe are story-tellers and educators as well as spiritual leaders.

Early Life

Korean Shamanism – The Cultural Paradox – Dr Chongho Kim

Kim had extensive experience of the stigma attached to shamans in the years before she became an established arts performer.


She was born in 1931 in Hwanghae a southern province of North Korea (see Maps). Because her maternal grandmother was a well-known shaman when Kim was a little girl, she had many opportunities to observe shamanic rituals near her home. She liked to watch her grandmother’s performance. Ritual offerings also attracted the hungry girl.
However, the grandmother never allowed Kim to go near a kut ritual. Whenever she snooped around a ritual place, her grandmother shouted, 'Wretched girl! Go away!' The grandmother was particularly discouraging to Kim. In her book, Bogeun Nanugo Hwaneun Pusige [Sharing Fortune and Removing Resentment], Kim says, 'Her shouting upset me back then, but now I understand the reason. She must have noticed some signs that I was destined to be a shaman'
 At the age of 11, Kim began to suffer from a lingering illness, but her family was so poor that they could not afford hospital treatment. Then, when she was 13 years old, her father died. His death made the family's life so difficult that her mother arranged a marriage for Kim so that there was one less mouth in the family. However, her husband's family was not happy with Kim who was too frail for hard agricultural work. Because she could not do the work well enough, Kim was often beaten by her mother-in-law. Her husband was not kind to her either.
To make matters worse, she was struck down with typhoid fever for a year soon after her marriage. The long illness further weakened her and, as a result, she could not cope with hard physical work. Eventually, when she was 15 years old, she was driven out and returned to her natal home. Her illness grew more severe from then on. Every time she saw a knife she felt the urge to grab it. She suffered badly from nightmares as well and, in her dreams, she was often bitten by a tiger accompanied by an old man with a white beard. (These are important symbols in Korean shamanism.)
She also started telling people's fortunes, another important sign of becoming a shaman. Whenever she met someone she would spontaneously utter predictions. Eventually, when Kim was 17 years old, her grandmother performed an initiation ritual for her. After the initiation, she recovered. However, her mother cried and lamented, saying 'How bad my fate is! Because my mother is a shaman, I've been looked down on throughout my life. I was taken only as a second wife. Now my daughter has become a shaman. I'm really ill-fated!' Holding Kim's hands, her grandmother cried too.
Kim learnt shamanic performances, such as dancing and singing, from her grandmother and other shamans. She was a talented student and learned quickly. However, the apprenticeship was hard. She had to do everything for the senior shamans, and received no pay. Still, as an apprentice, she did not have to starve anymore, because food was always available in the ritual places. When she was 20, the Korean War broke out. Although it was a hard time for every Korean, her experience was particularly difficult.


During the war Kim defected to South Korea, where she continued her shamanic work as there was no other way of making a living. However, the modernization movement from the early 1960s to the late 1970s meant another hard time for her. In an interview, she remembers how badly the Koreans treated her:

During the height of the Saemaul (New Community) Movement promoted by President Park Chong-hui, the public perception of the shaman and the kut was terrible. One of the Movement's favourite slogans was 'Stamp out superstition'. Traditional shrines were destroyed all over the country so we had no choice but to perform kut in private homes. The police would drag the shamans away, and scavengers would rip the leather off our drums. People would come knocking on our doors, crying, 'Stamp out superstition' and then they'd take our equipment and burn it. I don't know how many times they dragged me away. ... Some people understood but others would report us to the police. (Quoted in S-N. Yi, 1992: 52-53)


The story of how her second marriage ended exemplifies particularly well the stigma imposed on her as a shaman in Korean society. At the age of 25, she came to know a man living nearby. He used to be a law-school student, but, when she met him, he was unemployed and terribly poor. He looked so miserable that she gave him some money and food. At that time, she worked as a shaman and earned money.

A few months later he proposed marriage to her. But she said that she could not accept his proposal because she was a shaman. However, he kept trying to persuade her.  Kim hesitated for a long time, until he finally wrote a letter, saying that he would never betray her. His determination moved her, and she eventually married him.
Kim did everything for him. However, as time went by, he began to stay away from home overnight, complaining that he could not live with a shaman any more. His friends often ridiculed him for being married to a shaman.  By this time she had a baby.  Over time, the marriage totally broke down and he stayed away from home most nights drinking.  Eventually, he said, 'When I proposed to you, I had little idea of what the way of shaman is really like. I am very sorry, but I cannot stand any more.' Ten years after their marriage, her husband left her. She described this unhappy story in many interviews. One interviewer added his comments to her story:

Like most shamans' lives, her life was paved by suffering and alienation. It must have been an especially painful time for her when her husband asked to divorce simply because she was a shaman. (C-H.Park, nd: 149)

Kim never remarried after her divorce. In fact, shamans are so heavily stigmatized that most of them have difficulties with marriage, including remarriage.

Performing arts


In the 1960s, Kim also began to build up a career as a 'performer of traditional arts' (chontong gongyeon yesulin). One day in 1966, a performer of Korean traditional masked dance suggested that Kim should enter a traditional arts competition, the 'National Folk Arts Contest' (jeonguk minsok yesul geongyeondahoe).  At this time there was some resistance to having shamanic dance treated as an art form, but when the p'ungoche (a Korean shamanic ritual for fishermen) was entered in 1966, things did begin to change. It was the first time the kut was recognized as an art form.

Further changes took place when anthropologists started to take an interest in Korean shamanism.  Hee-Ah Ch'ae had graduated from Seoul National University and was studying the anthropology of shamanic dance and music at the University of California, Los Angeles.  She had seen a film at the Korean Foundation of Arts and the Humanities of one of Kim's performances and she contacted Kim, wanting to learn more. In 1981 Kim 'officiated at an extravagant "authentic" initiation ritual for Ch'ae in front of an exclusive audience of foreign and domestic scholars and media personnel' (C. Choi, l99l: 52). The initiation ritual took place in Kim’s house and at a shamanic shrine, attended by 30 or so scholars with video cameras.  The case of Ch'ae, the novice shaman, became a sensation.  Interviews and magazine articles followed and anthropological scholars appeared on TV explaining why they were interested in shamanism.

And from this early beginning the news spread.  A major shift took place when a curator of the Smithsonian Institution invited her to perform Korean shamanic rituals in the USA, as part of the programme for the hundredth anniversary of Korean-American diplomatic relations.   There was resistance from Korean government officials, and she had to ask the American scholars, including the Smithsonian curator and her ‘spiritual daughter’ Ch'ae, to help.  In the end she was allowed to go, but the title of her performance was changed

Originally, the Smithsonian Institution invited Korea to send a kut performer, but there were a lot of complaints here in Korea. People thought it would disgrace the nation. The Korean Organizing Committee withdrew the kut from the centennial program, but the Smithsonian insisted it be included. So we simply changed the name from mudang kut (shaman's ritual) to the Chomul Dance. (S-N. Yi, 1992: 54)


National Living Treasure

On 1st February 1985, Kim received the highest government recognition for her traditional arts performance from the Minister for Culture and Communications. The boat ritual of her hometown was designated as an Intangible Cultural Property (muhyeong munhwajae) and Kim as the official carrier who would preserve the original form of the disappearing traditional art:

I'll never forget how l felt that day in February 1985 when the p'ungoche was designated an Intangible National Cultural Property and I was named the official demonstrator of the kut. Masked dance and traditional vocal music had been recognized long before, so I had always been frustrated by the neglect of shamanistic art forms. (Quoted in S-N Yi, 1992:53)

Kim's decision to build her career as a performer has turned out to be the right one for her, and she has been very successful as a traditional arts performer. By 2000, she was appearing on TV and radio, and she frequently performed in theatres. She was even invited to lecture in universities. According to Kim's own record, she lectured at Sungshin Women's University, Yonsei University, Chunju University and Ewha Women's University in 1990-91. Even from international audiences, she has gained remarkable fame as a performer of Korean traditional performing arts.

But was this good for shamanism? 

pretty, colourful and entertaining, but not shamanism

There is still debate on this issue, as many now think of shamanism as a performing art separate from the spiritual intentions it actually encompasses.  By explaining and demonstrating the beauty of the rituals, there was always the danger that the seriousness of the task, the meaning, the symbols and the intentions, as well as the commitment needed to be a shaman, was lost amidst the froth of the performance.

We believe that Kim was right to bring shamanic ritual to the performing arts.  She has a rarity value. Her National Living Treasure' title symbolizes this very well. The title has been given to her because she is one of the very rare shamans who can perform an authentic form of disappearing cultural property. Furthermore, her performance originated from Hwanghae Province, which is not accessible to South Koreans because it is situated in North Korea.

And it should help to remove the stigma from shamanism prevalent in Korean society and may even attract those who are ‘called’ to the profession to go ahead and learn from genuine mudang before the skills are entirely lost. 

But oh the dangers of money and the commercial entertainer loom like a giant shadow over this.  Korea needs to take care that by supporting the dances as part of the Korean government's cultural conservation policy, all meaning of the ceremonies and value of the rituals is lost.  Korea will lose an invaluable branch of healing.

Covell, A [1986] – Folk Art and Magic:  Shamanism in Korea

Ecstatic dances are more dramatic than the lengthy chants or songs of southern mudang when one is unfamiliar with the words. Northern Shamanism seems to involve more brilliant colours in its costumes and a more insistent beat in its music. The dancing is vigorous to the point of being feverish and the plot or cast of characters appears to be more involved in the present than dependent on historical references in an archaic language, difficult for any except a few folklore scholars. ... For those who do not believe in the world of spirits, it is good theater!


And there the danger lies.



  •  Kim Kum Hwa Mugajip [Kum-Hwa Kim's Shamanic Songs] (K-H. Kim, 1995a) - transcripts of her shamanic songs and incantations, together with a preface written by a Korean scholar. This book was the result of her frustration with many scholars who had made recordings of her shamanic songs, but published them with ‘many mistakes in their books’. Kim employed an assistant to transcribe her songs and had them published herself.
  • Boguen Nanugo Hwaneun Pusige [Sharing Good Fortune and Removing Resentment) (K- H. Kim, 1995b).  - a miscellany, including her interpretation of Korean shamanism and accounts of her life experiences.
  • 만신 김금화 나라굿의 춤판 Kumhwa Kim's shaman dance for jeju - a youtube video

Korean Shamanism – The Cultural Paradox – Dr Chongho Kim

Here, let me ask a question. In what field is Kim making a success? Is it the field of misfortune (or the field of ritual healing)?
It is 'the field of traditional performing arts' (jeontong gongyeon yesul bunya), which has been newly established in contemporary Korea. Her principal work as a superstar shaman has not been healing, but the performance of Korean traditional shamanic dance and music in theatres or TV studios. She might never have been able to become a superstar if she had tried to build her career as a healer.
Her title of National Living Treasure (or Human Cultural Treasure) is not in recognition of her excellence as a healer; it acknowledges her ability to perform a disappearing traditional performing art for the purpose of its conservation.



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