Monday, November 16, 2009

Friday the 13th in Korea

Here's the question:

One of my co-workers was talking about Friday the 13th and how this year was very unlucky because there were 3 Friday the 13th’s in 2009. Yeah, yeah, yeah, blah, blah, blah, I get it. Koreans are superstitious, but I really do wonder why she believed in Friday the 13th? Isn’t there an Asian equivalent?
Friday the 13th is one of those superstitions that everybody knows about, yet the origins are still pretty unknown. You can snoop around Google if you really want to get a look at what some people think, but it doesn't really matter. Maybe I'm wrong, but the fact that I had to look-up the origins of the date suggests that I'm more aware of it only because of what happened at Camp Crystal Lake back in 1980 and since "Friday the 13th" is ranked in the top ten movie franchises of all time, there's no doubt that the slasher flick had some sort of effect on many Korean nationals from that generation as well. Simply put, eveybody in the globalized world is probably aware of the Jason's hockey mask (and Freddy's metal-clawed brown leather glove) as it has been referenced over and over again in pop culture.

As far as an Asian equivalent, I'm not sure. I don't know what all Asian people believe and I don't believe there's a Korean equal to such a day, but there are a few loosely related things that come to mind. I don't want to even begin to compile a list of Korean superstitions and myths myself, but maybe a few just get the conversation flowing.

The Number 4

While it's hard to say whether or not the number "4" is as universally feared or disliked in Korea as the number 13 is in some other nations, the fact that many elevators in Korea read 1...2...3...F...5... is at least an indication of its fearful roots. In the Chinese language, the word for "death" sounds just like the number "4" in the Korean language ("사")  and since many cultural and lingual traits of China have trickled into Korean culture, it's no suprise that this one stuck. I wonder though, does China also omit the number 4 from elevators? I've been there, but I think the massive amount of Tsingtao blurred my elevator experiences. Or maybe I didn't have any.

Fingernails

Don't throw your fingernail clippings on the street. Otherwise, a rat (or mouse) will eat them and therefore consume a part of your soul. If you do happen to accidentally do such a thing, don't worry. All you have to do is get a cat to eat the fingernail-eating rat and BAM! -you've got your soul back. Of course no really buys into that, yet it's not too uncommon to see Koreans wrapping their clippings in a paper towel or toilet paper before disposing of them.

The Morning Spider

Never, ever, ever kill a spider before noon. If you do, brace for bad luck. Why? No idea, kiddos. I've just heard this one too many times not to mention it.

The Red Name

Anyone who has taught kids here has heard that writing someone's name in red suggests that they are dead. And if they are still alive, then it's bad luck. I used to do it just to get a rise out of some of the naughty kids, but don't have the chance to do so anymore.

Who else had heard some interesting superstitions? Oh, and I please no kimchi/fan death comments.

22 comments:

S said...

I haven't heard any superstitions yet, but I brought up Friday the 13th to my grade 6 classes. One class had no idea what it was about, and the other had a couple boys who had vague ideas about ghosts - probably from the movies.

Gomushin Girl said...

I agree . . . Koreans in their twenties and thirties may have *heard* of the Friday the 13th franchise, and horror fans may have seen one or two of the films, but it's not a widely recognized part of cinema here. That kind of cinematic gap isn't so unusual - Koreans are also, for example, almost completely oblivious to the charms of Star Wars (and sci-fi in general). According to the lunar calendar, there are days and years that are luckier or unluckier than others, good or bad for certain activities (moving, marriage, etc.) but most Koreans aren't terribly attentive or aware of them. They may or may not get advice from a fortune teller about good and bad days for major undertakings (that's why Koreans generally have saju read before marriages - not only to asertain the match between people, but to find a mutually lucky day)
Incidentally, I always understood the toenail clipping superstition to be a prohibition against clipping them at night, because they were especially apt to transmorph into tokkebi (as all abandoned objects are likely to become . . . modern Seoul must be awash with demons!)
Koreans also have superstitions regarding exams and tests and food - you don't eat slippery foods like miyeokguk, lest the answers slide away. On the other hand, sticky foods like yeot (which they'll also stick to the gates of their preferred schools when taking enterance examps) are supposed to help the answers stick in your brain - hence giving gifts of yeot and sticky candy to students taking the 수능.
There's extensive lists of prohibitions on gifts, too . . . no shoes for lovers (they'll run away), no handkerchiefs (they'll make you cry) and no fans (their affection for you will cool). Of course, many of these are widely disregarded . . .

The Expat said...

Great list! I had heard about the test foods and shoes, but the rest are gold.

Thanks for the additions!

Mathew K said...

I heard that you shouldn't whistle after the sun goes down because it attracts ghosts.
This one seems to be fully recognized as an obsolete superstition with the modern generation (i.e. business bar girls giggle when it's brought up), yet the older generation still believes it (i.e. owner of a restaurant ran to our table and barked in Korean to stop immediately).

The Expat said...

...which begs the question: Are there any famed ghost stories in modern Korea?

the Korean said...

Ask any Ewha student about the ghost of Yoo Guan-soon.

Carson's Mom said...

I've always been told not to leave my spoon in my rice bowl because it's impolite/bad luck. I was told that because the Buddhist funeral ceremony involves setting an elaborate meal for the deceased, including a rice bowl with a spoon stuck in it, it's bad luck to stick your spoon in your rice bowl.

kushibo said...

The Expat wrote:
In the Chinese language, the word for "death" sounds just like the number "4" in the Korean language ("사") and since many cultural and lingual traits of China have trickled into Korean culture, it's no suprise that this one stuck.

I think you may have it slightly wrong on the fear of four. This is from a post I like to recycle every Friday the thirteenth:

In Korea and some other East Asian countries, the fear is not of the number thirteen, but the number four. This is because in Korean (and Japanese), the pronunciation of the Chinese character for four (四) is the same as that for death (死, I think).

That's why, in many buildings, especially high rises, the fourth floor is not designated as such in the elevator; rather, the elevator buttons are labeled as 1, 2, 3, F, 5, 6, 7, etc. (This is true in my apartment building as well). The 'F,' of course, is from the number four. Many students would disagree that the letter F is really any less unlucky (I wore a Flip-brand T-shirt with a big letter F on it during my American students' exam, and more than one commented on it bringing bad luck).

Apparently, though, the number 4 is not unlucky when included in building or apartment numbers, so the same F floor might be in Building 401동 and will likely have a 401호, 402호, 403호, etc. I guess the superstition only extends to elevators; no doubt it was concocted by Asian Luddites who also thought cameras will steal their soul.

I personally think this, too, is hogwash, though for real estate value purposes, I wouldn't want them to change the F to a 4. I live on the 5th floor, and from time to time I can hear what is going on in the apartment below. I can attest that someone there is occasionally getting lucky.

kushibo said...

The Expat wrote:
Are there any famed ghost stories in modern Korea?

The young woman who gets on a bus full of silent people and the bus driver won't let her get off at her stop until she makes a big commotion, and when she calls the bus company the next day to complain about the bus driver on route whatever, she's told that that bus route no longer exists because it was discontinued after one of the buses on that line crashed into the Han River, killing all aboard.

kushibo said...

Carson's Mom wrote:
I've always been told not to leave my spoon in my rice bowl because it's impolite/bad luck.

I'd heard that many times, but only about chopsticks in the rice, and because it looks like incense sticks.

Japanese have a similar superstition, I believe.

Mike said...

Kushibo is right about the #4 superstition. It's similar in Japan but not taken to the same degree as I've seen here in Korea.

Also, you aren't supposed to put chopsticks straight up in a rice bowl because they resemble incense sticks. If you lay them across the rim of the bowl its fine. Also, you aren't supposed to pass things from chopstick to chopstick because its how family members pass the bones of cremated relatives during funeral rites.

I've got tons of Japanese ghost stories.

The Expat said...

I'm just trying to clear this up:

So when Koreans pronounce the Chinese character "4", it sounds like the Chinese word for "death". Does that mean "death" sounds like "사"?

Or does it have nothing to do with Koreans and just when anybody pronounces the character for "4" it sounds the same as "death"

kushibo said...

As I understand it (please note the caveat), Korean apprehension of "4" has nothing to do with Chinese pronunciation of anything, and everything to do with Korean pronunciation of certain Chinese characters, which I shall now call hantcha (for Korea's Chinese characters) and kanji (for Japan's Chinese characters).

As I understand it, the prounciation of the hantcha for "4" is 사. And also the pronunciation of one of the hantcha for death is also 사.

These hantcha are and , respectively.

As I understand it, the same is true for the pronunciation in Japanese of the same characters when they're rendered as kanji: They are both pronounced し (shi). (See here and here.)

The Expat said...

Thanks for clearing it up.

Kush: Why are you such a proponent of McCune-Reischauer? Just what you're used to or do you have a clear preference?

Always been curious...

kushibo said...

The Expat wrote:
Why are you such a proponent of McCune-Reischauer? Just what you're used to or do you have a clear preference?

The "new" system teaches new learners of Korean how to pronounce things wrong, and it causes those unfamiliar with Korean to pronounce things wrong. A few of the reasons are listed here.

This is not mere anecdotal experience; I was actually paid to do a study on this and the results led one publisher of Korea-related materials to scrap the new system.

I've got a lengthy M-R advocacy post coming soon. I think the government may be ready to switch back.

The Expat said...

I look forward to the post.

squishibananas said...

I've been told that the further away from the base one holds their chopsticks, the less they love their family.

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daeguowl said...

"I've been told that the further away from the base one holds their chopsticks, the less they love their family."

I heard it relates to how far from your home town your true love resides...

Gomushin Girl said...

The pronunciation of the number four does in fact hold true in China as well - remember, the pronucniations for characters in Japanese and Korean stems from the Chinese pronunciation, generally speaking. The Chinese also observe taboos about the number four, many of which carried over into Korean and Japanese culture, such as not giving gifts in multiples of four (ex: don't bring your host four oranges - although double that for eight and you have a homophone for good luck in Chinese) So it does in fact trace directly back to Chinese traditions.
I was told that women who held their chopsticks relatively close to the non-tapered end would be married further from home. My guess is it was used as a threat to enforce more "proper" chopstick use for women during the Joseon dynasty, when trips to the natal home were rare for women, and more difficult if they married outside their locality.
In Confucian (and possibly Buddhist, I haven't witnessed any memorial ceremonies besides chanting) jesa and charye ceremonies, spoons are stuck vertically into bowls of rice, and sometimes chopsticks as well to allow the dead to symbolically eat the proffered feast. Sticking one's utensils in food this way turns the food into a symbolic offering to the dead, and thus an impolitic gesture in normal company (although, to be fair, the same food that gets offered to the dead is consumed later by the people making the offering). In Japan, where cremation in Buddhist ceremonies was the norm, the taboo extends further, and food should not be passed person to person directly via chopsticks, because this is how monks handle the bones of the cremated. Korea has generally preferred burial instead, and thus either lost or never developed such a taboo.
And while I mostly respect MCR as a system (althogh having learned the RR first, I find it perfectly servicable), you can't really think that hantcha is more helpful as a romanization than hanja for 한자?

kushibo said...

Komushin Kŏl wrote:
The Chinese also observe taboos about the number four, many of which carried over into Korean and Japanese culture, such as not giving gifts in multiples of four (ex: don't bring your host four oranges - although double that for eight and you have a homophone for good luck in Chinese) So it does in fact trace directly back to Chinese traditions. [Emphasis mine]

I'm going to nitpick a little here about a pet peeve of mine. The fact that something may exist in both Korea and China, or Japan and China, or all three, does not automatically indicate that it came from China.

Now, I really have no idea if this in fact did come from China, but it just seemed that you were making that assumption: fear-of-four exists in all three countries, so "in fact" it traces back to China.

How do we know that it didn't develop independently in all three, or in two and then spreading to the third. Anxiety over death is almost a universal and so homophonic association with death could easily become taboo independently.

If Korea and Japan inherited fear-of-four directly from China, why not fascination-with-eight? I'm not trying to start a discussion on that, just suggesting that it's not always prudent to assume such things. After all, if Korea's national dish's main ingredient can have its origins in Peru, stranger things have happened.

kushibo said...

Gomushin wrote:
And while I mostly respect MCR as a system (althogh having learned the RR first, I find it perfectly servicable), you can't really think that hantcha is more helpful as a romanization than hanja for 한자?

한자 is not pronounced 한+자 but as 한+짜. Hant•cha or hantcha represents that far better than hanja or hanjja, though the way I'm writing it is a variant of M-R that not everyone uses.