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A Perspective of Korean Studies
Universitätsprofessor im Ruhestand Dieter Eikemeier
My way of practising Korean studies is studying Korean culture, past and present, by doing research into ways of perception and knowledge, in order to learn how social facts in Korea acquire shape via the schemata applied to interpret them. Such investigations do without pitting “facts proper” against “improper interpretations,” but they cannot do without aligning findings from political history with, say, those from religion or literature.
Hyangyak, kye and the like, traditional unions devised as instruments to implement policies of local self-regulation and self-help, but also of local control on behalf of the authorities, played a major part in the research up to the early 1990s, and so did the so-called “popular performing arts,” mask-dance plays in particular. Since then, the emphasis has been on common religion, on rituals and oral traditions that transcend the confines of “-isms,” Buddhism, Confucianism, Shamanism, Taoism, and in fact make such divisions rather meaningless. Much as a view that brings common religion into focus neglects the religion of the educated classes of Korean society, it may, as it is hoped, better account for the instability and the dynamics of religious life, which so far have been causing much embarrassment among students of religions in Korea.
Considerations of the latter kind have found their way into a research project that has been on my mind for a number of years and will be for a few more, and it is hoped to soon involve more people and to do so in more formalized ways. The object in question is the shrine religion of Cheju Island, which is a facet of what use to be labelled “Shamanism.” The starting point of the enquiries was a conventional attempt to come to terms with the plurality of the divine on Cheju Island. The common perspective, assigning each deity or spirit from among the multitude to specific economic pursuits, has been rather well accepted and repeated unexamined, and this unquestioned acceptance was the very motif to take a closer look at the matter. In my researching and hypothesizing, the Cheju variant of polytheism shows primarily to be informed by political considerations and status distinctions among the humans, and economic pursuits matter only to the degree they matter in power relations.