Saturday, 11 October 2008

Dr Hyun-key Kim Hogarth: How to Be an Anthropologist of Your Own Culture

Known to her neighbours in Kent as Kim Hogarth, Hyun-key left Korea in 1968 and her CV says ‘Nationality: British’. But it’s her academic work on Korean shamanism that keeps her busy.

Dr Hyun-key Kim Hogarth, fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, arrives to tell me her story in a bright pink dress and knee-high black boots, very chic. She was born and brought up in central Seoul, a stone’s throw from the Secret Garden, one of five children of Hahn Moo-sook, the acclaimed literary author of Encounter and And So Flows History, which was made popular through TV serialisation.
Her father was the powerful president of a bank and later chairman of a merchant banking corporation. She attended Kyunggi Girls’ High School, which had high academic standards. In the end, four of the five siblings would have PhDs and one become a medical doctor. But it happened in a roundabout way for Hyun-key.
In her second year studying English Language and Literature at Ewha Woman’s University, she was invited to attend the Queen’s Birthday Party. She was ‘eighteen, very thin, I wanted to look like Audrey Hepburn with my hair up and long black gloves.’ The young British diplomat Robert Hogarth fell for this pretty young scholar who knew English literature and appreciated his sense of humour. He asked if he could meet her again. In those days, interracial marriage was virtually unknown in good families; you were introduced to a nice Korean boy in the company of a chaperone.
Her elder sister had paved the way somewhat by meeting a Frenchman while studying at the University of California at Berkeley, but he was a Frenchman with a PhD. The twenty-six year old Robert Hogarth didn’t have a degree, having done national service and then diplomatic exams, and their romance brought tension to the Kim household. Further study abroad was very expensive and it was hard to get a student visa because of travel restrictions, but Hyun-key attained excellent results in her undergraduate studies and was offered a place at Berkeley in 1968. Personal circumstances, however, made her decide to move to the UK with Robert.
The newlywed Hyun-key Kim Hogarth moved to Kent and, after too many mix-ups with her unusual name, became simply Kim Hogarth.She worked as a teacher until the Foreign and Commonwealth Office offered Robert a posting to Israel, followed by Botswana. It was in Botswana that she first became interested in tribal customs, the beginning of her passion for anthropology. During the years there and in Cameroon, while bringing up their two children, she read influential books like The Harmless People by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, one of the first westerners to live among the Kalahari Bushmen. They were posted to South Korea in 1987. Hyun-key had been away for twenty years and had never really travelled around her own country except on family holidays. Now she saw her own culture with the dual perspective of insider and outsider. Four years later when they returned to England, she applied to do an MA in social anthropology at the University of Kent at Canterbury – with a thesis on Korean shamanism.
The first evidence of shamanism is in Paleolithic rock carvings in Siberia; known sometimes as medicine men, mediums or oracles, shamans mediate between the spirit and human worlds in order to help the suffering. The healer often uses an altered state of consciousness to commune with the supernatural. Shamanism has pervaded everyday lives throughout Korea’s history, but already in the twelfth century was seen by intellectuals as laughable, primitive.
After the Korean War, South Korea’s authoritarian governments concentrated on modernising the country. In Korean Shamanism and Cultural Nationalism, Hyun-key writes that she remembered the kut or shamanistic rituals as ‘noisy, colourful, but strangely eerie events, which used to be held by women, mainly in the countryside’. When she left in 1968, they were rarely performed publicly in Seoul. President Park Chung-hee’s New Village Movement abolished such ‘superstitions’, so it only survived on the periphery of society. By the late eighties, South Korea had been transformed from an impoverished agricultural country to a newly industrialised nation, and globalisation fever swept through it. And yet, oddly, the shamanistic rituals were back, being performed outside City Hall.
What Hyun-key observed was that in a rapidly industrialising, modern, westernised Korea, shamanism was being revived as an expression of nationalism. ‘It’s a reaction against homogenisation,’ says Hyun-key. It fit with the world trend towards the revival of ethnicity. With globalisation, people are forced to exist side by side, buy the same and eat the same. There’s a need to belong to something. And perhaps we also crave something mystical. ‘With shamanism, the roots go very deep – Korea is an ancient culture – what better than your own exotica?’
Today’s shamans in South Korea are around 80 per cent women, usually with no opportunity for social advancement, sometimes psychologically disturbed, not part of the mainstream, compassionate but defiant. It’s a hard society to penetrate, and it took Hyun-key several months to be trusted. Shamanistic rituals cost thousands of pounds, and the fresh nationalistic support for their practices is a boon.
In 2006 she participated in the first international conference entirely sponsored by a shaman. She will give two papers this year in the UK and US on Shamanism and Christianity. She’s hardly shying away from controversy with the title ‘Jesus as a shaman’. She hopes to complete a new book next year. Tragically, Robert Hogarth died a few years ago. He worked at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, just around the corner from the new Korean Cultural Centre, where now you can read some of Hyun-key’s work. Fascinating for anyone with an interest in Korean culture, the books are also available from Jimoondang in Seoul.

Written by Jennifer Barclay (

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