Picture 1 and 2 is about the Korean folk beliefs. Also, 3 and 4 are about the common folk beliefs of Asian countries. 1. It is about the Korean traditional theory of DBT. 2. We should be aware of the year of the age that ends in nine. 3. The picture explains that Asians tend to avoid to write their name in red. 4. It is related to one of the traditional tales.
/Illustrated by Cho Moon-kyung
“Do not blow whistle at night! Here comes a snake." "Something bad will happen if you shake your leg.” These phrases can often be heard among Koreans. They can affect people’s behavior and mood. Some people regard folk beliefs negatively because they think those have inaccurate origins. However, folk beliefs contain the wisdom of each country’s tradition and ancestors. They also convey valuable information about their origins, too.
What are folk beliefs?
You might not be familiar with the term “folk belief.” A folk belief is a practice of faith with traditional religious characteristics. In addition, it leads to cultural taboos. Sometimes it is also a guide to people’s behavior and causes them to act in a certain way. People use the word “superstition” more than the word “folk belief” in general. However, superstition is an undesirable expression. It is a misguided word made by the Japanese to eliminate Korea’s national faith and culture during the Japanese Colonial era. Thus, “folk belief” is the right term to express Korean national beliefs.
Various Korean folk beliefs that people hear a lot
“Do not step on the threshold”
This means when you step on a threshold, you will be unlucky. There are two reasons for this folk belief. First, there is a physical cause. In the past, the threshold in traditional Korean houses worn out gradually because people kept stepping on it. Then, through the worn-out gap, the wind could easily come into the room and make the house cold. Korean ancestors thought that feeling cold was a kind of bad luck since it is not good for our health. That is why this folk belief has come down to Koreans.
Second, it has a folk spiritual meaning. Korean ancestors thought of the threshold as the boundary to the afterlife. Therefore they tried to stop people from stepping on the threshold. In the traditional funeral process, the dead was taken to the largest room in the house. After that, they lay the body in a coffin and moved it to the yard. In this process, the custom of carrying a coffin to the yard was to lay a sack on the threshold and break it with a coffin. It was a ritual to sever the connection between the dead and the alive.
Bae Young-dong, a professor of the Department of the Folklore of Andong National University, said “Traditionally in Korea, the threshold is a borderline, a point where disparate spaces are held together. It is recognized that there are risks or disturbing elements between different spaces, so people hesitate to move to unfamiliar places.” He added, “That is what happens when you go into an unfamiliar place and you feel a little bit scared or burdened in front of it. After all, not stepping on the threshold is equivalent to a rite of spatial passage, meaning to be careful when entering a heterogeneous space.”
“It is not good to have the bed facing north”
This folk belief means that you should not put your head to the north when you sleep. Where did this belief originate?
Due to the Korean traditional theory, Divination Based on Topography (DBT), sleeping with one’s head facing north reduces life span. The theory indicates that the location of natural features such as mountains, rivers, and land are connected to human fortune. Generally, directions that bring good health and luck in DBT are East and South, not North. The reason that the people avoid the north is that it has stronger cold energy than the South. Moreover, according to modern medical science, putting the head in a cold place should be avoided as this can cause strokes and blood circulation problems. Korea is located in the northern hemisphere and the north is at a higher altitude. Therefore, it can be regarded as a folk belief that reflects the wisdom of Korean ancestors before the development of science.
“Beware of the years at which the age ends in nine”
If you are a Korean, you may have heard “You should not get married at the age of 29. Do not have a birthday party at the age of 59 before which is right before the age of 60.” Do you know why Koreans see the age including number nine so negatively?
The origin can be found in the history of Korea. Our ancestors believed ten is a perfect unit, so they were reluctant to make a change right before the number ten, which is nine. It is a kind of psychological phenomenon that Koreans pursue peace historically. Koreans have constantly fought wars due to the geographical nature of the peninsula. Therefore, “Careful and Tense” became Korean sentiment. In other words, when preparing for new changes such as facing another decades Korean people are inclined to feel fear. They worried that things may go wrong just before they achieve something because of their history of wars.
There are also common folk beliefs of Asian countries
“If you write your name with a red pen, you may die”
Asians might have heard about this folk belief that we should not write our name in red. This folk belief is thought to have originated in China. In the past, the emperor of China used red to write his name because the Chinese regarded red as a lucky color. Also, this color used to refer to a person who was precious and high class or noble. There was a custom that when a person of a lower class used red, he was sentenced to death at that time, considering as theft of fame. The belief spread to Korea and Japan through trade among the three countries.
“Number four is ominous”
You can see people who feel anxious when they become the fourth in line or when they see the number four in their daily lives like 4:44 A.M. Countries in the Eastern world which have been exposed to Chinese characters consider the number four ominous. The reason is that the Chinese Character sounds same as four and is reminiscent of “death” in Chinese Character. Thus, some places mark the fourth floor as F. There are also buildings that have completely removed the fourth floor.
This is the Chinese Chracter that means death. It sounds the same as four in Korean
/Illustrated by Cho Moon-kyung
“Bad things happen when you cut your fingernails at night”
This folk belief means that fingernails should be cut in the morning or during the day, not at night. This belief originated from a traditional tale. In this tale, if you cut your fingernails at night, a mouse will eat them and reborn as the owner of the fingernails. The mouse will then pretend to be the owner of the fingernails, and the person will be kicked out of ones house. In fact, before the development of electricity, rooms were only lit with candles at night. On that account, if you cut your nails at night, you are likely to hurt your hands. It is a folk belief containing the wisdom of Korean ancestors to prevent injury.
Foreign students’ thoughts on the folk beliefs
Considering all of these, Yao Ran-xin, a Chinese international student of the Department of the Media communication, said “The folk belief is caused by reason and purpose. For example, of course they do not really die just because they wrote the names in red, but it is rude to write someone else’s name in red in real life.” She added, “Also, especially in the case of number four in hospitals, I think the existence of the fourth floor creates an atmosphere in which people are scared from inside of the mind.”
She told about her thoughts of the folk beliefs, saying “As Asian countries respect traditional culture, I think we should maintain and pass on Asian culture from generation to generation. However, you should be careful because if you trust them so much, it can be a pressure or bondage on you.”
Meanwhile, Mika Tsurumi, the Japanese student, said, “I heard about the folk beliefs related to all three. Especially, I think there is a connection between number four and the sound of four in Japanese.” She added, “In Japan, if we cut fingernails at night, we will not be able to attend parent’s funeral.”
Furthermore, for the questions about her thought of these beliefs, she answered “The folk beliefs seem unreliable and I do not believe at all. Even if people connect number four with death, I think it is just a sound and nothing bad has happened concerning the number four. I do cut fingernails at night but nothing terrible has happened with my parents. It is more reliable that ancestors overemphasized the consequence of cutting fingernails just to prevent from hurting at dark places.”
As such, we live in regular contact with folk beliefs, but some people see them negatively, calling them unscientific. However, understanding the background of such beliefs and traditional customs will help us better realize the value of our traditional faith. Professor Bae said, “The folk beliefs were meant by the culture of the time when they were made. In modern times, it is difficult to understand the original meaning of the folk belief, since it does not share a culture and background with the time that a certain spirit was created.” Also, he emphasized that “It is easy to think of the folk belief as unscientific today, but the meaning of it should be interpreted in the social and cultural context of that time.”
Cho Moon-kyung email@example.com
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