While not as widely practiced and not as relevant to modern life as it was in the past, fortune telling is still a common practice in Korea – not only among the elderly, but also among young people.
At the beginning of the year especially, but all year long as well, one can find elderly Koreans sitting on the street with an open book (filled with Chinese characters) in front of them. Some of them also use special sticks to help them predict someone’s past, present or future misfortunes and successes. In the past, fortune telling was one of the few career options for the blind, and some still practice this profession today. Having one’s fortune told for the New Year is part of the traditions of that time of year.
Tools for fortune-telling vary greatly. One of the most common involves counting the brush strokes in a person's name (in the hanja, the Chinese characters). A fortune-teller might use long strips of paper and a leather blade dipped in multi-colored inks and then used as as brush to write the customer's name. The result was a strip with the name written in rainbow-like colors. While writing, s/he counted the strokes and predicted things like number of sons with which the customer would be blessed, etc.
Whatoo cards are another very common tool for fortune telling. One also used to see, albeit rarely, fortune-tellers who would use the old Chinese classics such as the I-Ching, the Book of Changes, for fortune-telling. Other tools include the birthdate and place information similar to the western horoscope readings.
Just as in other industrialized nations with a highly educated population, people maintain that they consult fortune tellers more as a form of entertainment than anything else. That said, during periods of unrest or instability, more and more people consult fortune tellers. In the late 1990’s, during the Asian economic crisis, people used to queue for a reading from a fortune teller with a reputation for accuracy. The cost of a reading was generally not high, usually less than W10,000.
Election season is often a busy time for Korea’s fortune tellers. Not only do candidates visit them in the hopes for a confirmation of their chances of winning, but reputable newspapers also report the predictions of renowned fortune tellers. One of the English dailies reported how a fortune teller by the name of Cho had predicted Lee Myung-bak’s win in Dec 2007 and some of the challenges he subsequently faced.
Mothers will often consult a fortune teller before an important event in their children’s lives – prior to the college entrance exam or a move to study or work abroad, for example. Marriage is also a reason for visiting a fortune teller. Parents, armed with their child and the prospective spouse’s birth information (date, time, place, etc) will ask if the couple are a compatible match and if the union will be a happy fruitful one. Marriage plans, even today, may be cancelled if the reading is unfavourable. An American Peace Corps volunteer from the 1970's tell how his my mother-in-law, a college professor, consulted a fortune teller with both that information and the name stroke count information before he and his wife married, both to judge if the marriage was propitious and to select a date. She also chose the Korean names for their children based on similar tools as well as family considerations (for instance, all cousins have one Chinese character in common).
Adapting to modern times, fortune tellers go by more ‘progressive’ designations, such as destiny philosophers working in philosophy institutes. It is possible to have your fortune told or to philosophise about your destiny in many locations in any Korean city, especially around markets, transportation centers, etc. In Seoul, there are many 'shops' in the Shinchon and Miari districts as well as near Seoul Station, Dongdaemun and Namdaemun markets, etc. Others have set up Internet sites used by hundreds of thousands of younger Koreans.
Expats wanting to share in the experience often need the help of a Korean friend who can translate for them. That said, there are a few destiny philosophers/fortune tellers, who can speak English. If you’re looking for one, ask the question on the Korea4Expats.com Forum and someone is sure to provide you with a name and directions/contact details.
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