Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Good Fortune, Welcome

The Five Fortunes or the Five Blessings

Thoughts of good fortune permeate all aspects of Korean society - with symbols and superstitions for exam taking (and passing) to negating jinxes and hexes to food and health to calendrical fortunes. The Korean concepts of seeking good fortune were borrowed from the Chinese in the centuries when China was the "Big Brother" to Korea, the "Little Brother" - a long period of cultural sharing. Many types of fortunes exist, but those fortunes most sought became known as the Five Fortunes or the Five Blessings, and they are: Good Luck, Prosperity, Longevity, Happiness and Wealth. These symbols are subtly evident by symbols in nature or in the more obvious written fortunes hung on bedroom walls and glued to the front door gates of traditional homes.

While walking this past weekend in the downtown area where there remain a small scattering of hanok (traditional tile-roofed, wooden homes with central courtyards) I noticed that on the front door gates of a few of the hanok fortune papers from the lunar New Year, celebrated at the end of January this year, were still glued. The fortune papers were on the doors so that when the doors were opened the good luck would also be swung inside with the visitor or household member as he or she entered into the outer courtyard; from there the fotune would freely flow on toward the house and its multiple compartments. In this particular picture, the left strip of fortune attached to the door is a welcome to fortune; the right strip is for wishing for good fortune as spring comes. Spring, the symbol of renewal and the beginning of a time where food could once again be produced, was much looked forward to. The agricultural society (the society that "we" think of as most traditional to Korea) had many celebrations and expressions for the coming of spring.

This second picture is another beautiful outside door that leads to the household courtyard. Although no paper is on it inviting luck and fortune, the fish hung at the top of the door symbolizes "abundance" which is poured down on the person entering. To get the concept of "abundance", one must have knowledge of the Korean language as this fish and the word for "abundance" share phonological sounds, the linguistic phenomenon known as a "rebus" or in this case can be known as a "visual pun". I have also seen these fish in some of the 식당, tiny mom-and-pop style eateries that are not to be confused with restaurants as Koreans typically think of a restaurant as having some class or some special ambience or food; the menu of a 식당 is limited to Korean food and that seems to be the tell-tale distinction.

In the same vicinity another paper, much larger and more complicated, was taped to a rich brown door (the wood was probably stained as the vast majority of these houses was made with a Korean pine, possibly the Korean red pine, that was grown at a higher altitude and thus grew more slowly and so is more durable as housing material than other trees available). I couldn't get a translation for this scripted fortune but it was likely purchased at a fortune tellers, a shaman's or near a temple. The very large and much celebrated Seon (Zen) temple, the Chogyesa, nearby runs a lucrative market around New Year's providing almanacs for reading fortunes and talisman papers to be hung around the home and elsewhere.

One other symbol, that of the tiger, is frequently placed on front gate doors. The tiger is said to chase away evil spirits - very important in a country fraught with spirits - and so was viewed as a powerful talisman for safety within the home. This year especially, 2010, as year of the very propitious white tiger, would have been a doubly beneficial year for putting the tiger symbol on the front gate doors.

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