Kim Heon-seon
Professor, Department of Korean Language and Literature at Kyonggi University

The upheaval and extinction faced by traditional culture is a core issue in today’s world.
It has brought us to the realization that we are living in an important transition period where the future of humanity will be determined. In particular, the advent of digital platforms has provided a communication channel to link people together; the importance of these platforms seems poised to become much greater. In this era, in which means of communication are facing remarkable qualitative changes, oral tradition is under considerable threat.
In past eras where humankind created languages and memories to resolve all kinds of issues and share information, speech was a way to achieve totality. Through speech, people delivered their thoughts and opinions, created new things, and embraced differences to become one.
As such, spoken language became an absolute means and solution to maximize the immense capacity of humankind. People discovered interests and meanings through conversations; they combined work and enjoyment by singing; they wore masks and gave movement-based performances accompanied by amusing anecdotes. By reciting and dedicating bonpuri, a ritual song to pray to deities and receive oracles, their creations became content passed down through oral culture.

In such times, the creator and audience in oral culture stood in close proximity to the extent that they shared a strong emotional sense of unity and belonging. In the era of oral culture, people existed chiefly within their own community (a clan or tribe); this gave them a small frame of history that was limited to oral culture. In primitive or ancient times, societies were formed in small areas and territories. In such societies, specific figures were revered through the totality of oral culture, and their own distinctive cultures developed with a worldview centering around the community leaders.

Following oral culture, text introduced yet another dimension. Text had originally been a complement to memory, but as it became an established part of ancient civilizations, written characters came to function as a subject that effectively controlled society and monopolized information, thereby adding further complexity to society. As written characters became used as an instrument to allow humans to control and coerce other humans, certain power groups exclusively dominated their usage, which resulted in the creation of written culture separate from oral culture. In this regard, oral culture and written culture interacted with each other and functioned as a mechanism of unifying the culture of humanity.

Written culture constituted a standard of civilization. Civilizations were founded upon universal or common written languages and tended to take on characteristics of the sacred texts of universal religions in the medieval era. The most universal written languages include Latin, Classical Arabic, Sanskrit, Chinese characters, ancient Greek, and Pali, which represented religions such as Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Confucianism, Mahayana Buddhism, and Hinayana Buddhism, thereby contributing to the establishment of the six great civilizations of the Middle Ages.

Of course, there had been cases in which written characters were created and established in ancient civilizations before the emergence of the medieval universal religions, but most failed to be handed down through successive generations and eventually sank into extinction. In this regard, medieval civilizations clearly were the first civilized empires based on written culture, in which overarching universality was a core aspect. There are three key elements of universality to consider here: linguistic universality, religious universality, and medieval imperial universality of the given civilization. In this context, it is without doubt that the influence of medieval civilizations was immense at one time.

Manshin Lee Ok-sun called Jangdeok mom, the heroine of in the traditional Hanyanggut Hymnal © Lee Soon-Yong

The rise and fall of medieval imperial civilizations led to the creation of nation-states, resulting in the emergence of ethnic languages and the convergence of oral and written languages. Oral culture survived and continued its original role, but it was forced to continuously compete with written culture.

Amid such developments, a new era arrived and caused enduring debates on the terminology necessary to characterize this era, which is strongly associated with the advent of specific cultural media. This was referred to using various terms such as culture of dissemination, electronic culture, cyberculture, or digital culture, and it has resulted in an unusual phenomenon of convergence into “digital platforms.” These platforms are also described using myriad other expressions, including such neologisms as “online platforms” or “cyber platforms.”

This paper defines this period as “the digital platform era” and analyzes its cultural characteristics. The emergence of this culture has had an enormous impact on society, which can be characterized by first-hand information sharing and cultural communication.

In particular, the annihilation of totality is another remarkable aspect, and the acceleration of universal access to information is an undeniable trend. These characteristics share similarities with electronic democracy. As the attitudes of Internet users exercise significant influence, there are notably no main agents or power elites in this domain. In the same vein, the digital platform era is accelerating the disappearance of intellectuals. Neither emperors of civilized countries nor presidents of modern nations can reclaim the cultural totality of the era as they used to in the past.

In this age of rapid proliferation, anybody is able to upload to digital platforms their own written text and the results of other creative activities. To create and upload one’s own content is a remarkable aspect of contemporary cyberculture. A case in point is YouTube, a platform for sharing creative content. Users are both author and audience, and this phenomenon of dynamic creation is continuing to accelerate. Meanwhile, the enjoyment of universal culture in the absence of totality sometimes generates clear and defined meanings.

The advent of the digital platform era raised two issues. Thefirst is about language. The language used in the digital context is not a singular lingua franca. As creators create in their own languages, verbal language is now emerging as a precondition for newly produced material. The language barrier is no longer an obstacle, but rather a facilitator. The second issue is commercial value. The subscription fee for a digital platform may appear to have no relationship with cultural creation, but there is in fact a real correlation in which readership determines commercial value and functions as the reward for cultural creation activities.

The universality that does not embrace totality in itself can transition into a possibility to facilitate activities of oral culture. At this cultural juncture, the issues of oral ulture and oral tradition can lead to a completely new epochal creation.
Traditional stories, songs, bonpuri, gut (a ritual officiated by a shaman), talchum (mask dance), and nongak (farmers’ music) are destined to endure through the new era. Through the rise of a new consumer base that seeks to fully understand the traditional aspects of oral culture, creations that are tasked with this role will be recognized and utilized in new ways.

Evidence for the Creativity of Oral Traditions in Megacities
and Jeju Island

Seoul is a megacity. It is rather peculiar that in the middle of this metropolis it is possible to witness the continued practice of oral tradition as a key aspect of various traditions and oral culture. In Guksadang Shrine of Inwangsan Mountain or the shamanic shrines in Seoul, it is possible to witness a female shaman (manshin) dressed in the Korean traditional clothing of hanbok and shamanic clothing of euidae, singing various songs and reciting bonpuri toward a recipient of the ritual called giju, who is dressed in a western-style suit. It is also possible to witness a shaman delivering an oracle while dancing to beautiful music in an unquestionably bizarre scene.

Gosasori of Pyeongtaek Nongak held at the door to wish for the well-being and peace of the family © Kim Heon-seon

This is only possible through the strenuous efforts of the practitioners to preserve their oral lore. Examining the most renowned manshin in Seoul may give a clear perspective of how the traditional shamanic rites of Hanyanggut, a gut named after the former moniker of Seoul, has been transmitted orally across generations. Lee Ok-Sun, known as “Jangdeok mom,” is perhaps the most apt example.
Manshin Lee Ok-Sun epitomizes the entirety of oral tradition.
Using her superb memory and intelligence, she compiled a hymnal solely based on her recollection of related documents.
The resulting publication was Traditional Hanyanggut Hymnal, Compiled by Lee Ok-Sun, a collection of material that includes all the oral lore related to Seoulgut and illustrates each practice and performance in minute detail. Systematically compiled by listening to and recalling knowledge orally transmitted by Hanyanggut practitioners, the book testifies to the power of oral tradition.

Hanyanggut is not the only Korean shamanic rite carried out in the megacity of Seoul. It is notable that mangmukgut, a ritual for appeasing the dead observed in Hamgyong Province of North Korea, is also practiced in the middle of Seoul. Despite the tragedy of Korea’s national division, Hamgyong
Province’s mangmukgut has been preserved in the same way that it was performed in the original region, along with various bonpuri, and passed down to the present day. This was made possible by the establishment of Abai Village in Cheongho-dong, Sokcho, Gangwon Province in South Korea, where people from
Hamgyeong Province settled.
The village elders had been practicing mangmukgut among themselves, until they encountered a young practitioner of the ritual and together brought it back to life in its new home.
This was only possible through the hybrid and diverse nature of the megacity.

However, it is not the case that the two rituals are significant simply because they are practiced in the megacity of Seoul. Rather, they hold value as they embody essential elements of the oral tradition and outstanding artistry and spirituality of the Korean people. Cultural transmission is achieved by the choices made by the originators as the basis for oral tradition. The special awareness of the Korean people to preserve tradition ultimately enabled such choices for cultural transmission. These oral traditions and practices appear set to continue as long as their foundation is not dismantled.

This is not only the case for the megacity. An oral tradition found on Jeju Island also contained all of these elements. There is an area of Jeju Island called Aewol-myeon. Due to high rainfall and the fine-grained soil in this area, barley and millet are the main cereal crops in the winter and summer, respectively. In an era when agriculture was almost the only means of making a living, the villagers of Aewol-myeon created a traditional labor organization called sunuleum and plowed their fields together, singing a folksong of sadaesori while toiling between the scorching sunlight and rising heat from the soil.

A sadaesori performance consists of about twenty laborers who squat down in a furrow between ridges on the field and make a long, melodic sound toward the front and back of the embankment. The field resonates with the strong, crisp sound that extends afar. As the sound lasts for segments of three or four breaths, it is called three-turn sadaesori or four-turn sadaesori. When a laborer reaches the end of the field, he springs to his feet and swiftly tells a story in a solo
performance while the others take a break. This is called chuchimsadae or gwollyeoksadae, and it provides insight into the wisdom and high spirits of the people of Jeju Island.

It is said that, as laborers on different fields performed the song competitively, it rang out magnificently across the mountains and streams. It bears close  resemblance to the practice of Chinese ethnic minorities exchanging sounds out loud from one field to another across a valley. These performances hold
great power as they turn the pain of labor into jollity. The practice of sadaesori still continues to this day, demonstrating the strong lineage of Jeju Island. The fact that oral traditions are commonly practiced not only in the megacity but also on Jeju Island suggests that the future of Korea is not so bleak or
pessimistic.

Outlook of Oral Tradition in the Digital Platform Era

Omudong Nori of Pyeongtaek Nongak in which saemi and mudong demonstrate a difficult acrobatic feat with a shamanistic origin © Kim Heon-seon

Around the end of the 20th century, an issue was raised that the fundamental problem of oral tradition stemmed from the death or disappearance of its language. The possibility still remains a threat, but today oral tradition seems to have discovered a path to survival. Fortunately, digital platforms, through which people are able to upload performances in video clips that vividly portray their facial and vocal expressions, have laid a foundation for oral tradition to continue. It is important to emphasize this fact that a new path has been paved for oral tradition.

Stories, songs, gut, pansori, and mask dances can be utilized and shared as useful content for all through such platforms, which also can serve as venues for communication. These platforms, which allow the highest degree of active participation in human history, have the potential to expand infinitely. In contrast to the overflowing excess of commercial products, collected oral lore can serve as a portal through which personal practices are introduced to the world.

Crises come with opportunities. It seems that the power of oral tradition will not perish. Tradition will change as it is passed down, and it will be passed down through changes. As language is an inherent facet of human beings, there is no need for any other means to replace it. Oral tradition will continue while changing in line with the times, as language naturally endures through the flow of time. On digital platforms, in which everything is connected like a neural network, anyone will be able to connect to the wondrous world of oral tradition by simply reaching out.