Unlike in the West, where fortune tellers are often seen as phony characters out to scam those desperate to learn what the stars have in store for them, clairvoyants hold an everyday relevance in South Korea.
In fact, there are some 300,000 fortune tellers in the country, in addition to 150,000 mudang (or shamans), who provide clairvoyance by communicating with spirits in addition to performing traditional ceremonies such as exorcisms.
In a country where mental health issues are often unmentionable, and visiting a psychiatrist is still taboo, many feel that fortune telling readings help them to accept whatever unpleasant circumstances in which they find themselves. Rather than accepting these readings as fact, most often consider them an additional – and impartial – perspective on their situation.
According to a report by Trend Monitor, a Korean market research firm, more than two-thirds of those surveyed stated that they see a fortune teller at least once a year. Many of these Koreans visit between December and February, to see what awaits them in the new solar and lunar years.
Major crossroads in life are also a common time for a divinely steer. University students consult tarot readers at career fairs to determine potential employers. Businessmen might opt to have a reading to select an auspicious date to launch a new venture. Couples check their compatibility before marriage, and even politicians have controversially turned to clairvoyants for guidance.
There are a number of different types of Korean fortune telling services. Some are very similar to those which can be found in the West, whereas others are unique to the East Asia region.
Saju: An ancient form of divination, saju analyzes the cosmic energy at the hour, day, month, and year of a person’s birth, and is based on Chinese astrological records and texts. This practice holds the belief that one’s destiny cannot be changed, and is determined solely by the conditions surrounding one’s birth.
In addition to offering insights into one’s destiny, saju data is also used by couples to check their gunghap, or marital harmony, which was in the past a precondition of any talk of marriage. If a saju reader determines that a couple is not compatible, one or both of the individuals may be advised to change their first names to improve their matrimonial lot. In the past decade alone, approximately 1.5 million Koreans have taken a new legal name as a result of this.
Palm Reading: Palmistry is said to have originated in India and then spread throughout China, then on to Korea as well as just about every other corner of the world. Rather than be regarded as mere superstition, palm reading was for many years considered a science that, in addition to astrology, was studied by the ancients and has been used up until today. Followers of palmistry subscribe to the notion that the lines and features of the hands depict your life as well as your destiny.
Face Reading: Gwansang, also known as physiognomy or “face reading,” is the ancient art of determining a person’s personality or character through their facial features. In pre-industrial Korea, it was commonly believed that the face was a record of one’s life starting from the earliest moments in the womb, and subsequently a guide to their fate.
Face readers consider cues like posture, body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions in assessing an individual, much in the same way we commonly assess physical appearance to gauge someone’s emotional state. For example, many vertical lip lines, a birthmark under the eyes, and a narrow nose with large nostrils are all characteristics of someone who has difficulty maintaining deep relationships.
Many face readers today report that their jobs are getting more difficult as an increasing number of Koreans are turning to plastic surgery to alter their facial features, some at the suggestion of cosmetic surgeons who say that altered features can change one’s destiny.
Tarot: Although tarot cards have been used in divination since the 15th century in many parts of the world, they have only been utilized in Korea for a few decades.
During a tarot card reading, an individual can either ask a specific question, or request a more general reading. A card reader will then formulate an answer based on a set number of cards drawn from a deck, which each have a specific meaning. The cards reflect a number of aspects of one’s current and future circumstances.
Even in today’s hyper-modern culture, a walk around Seoul will demonstrate just how booming the fortune telling industry still is.
Marronnier Park in Hyehwa, Shopping Street in Hongdae, and Tapgol Park near Insadong are chock full of saju and tarot cafés and booths, and are often visited by young people and couples looking to have their fates outlined. Do note that many of the readers do not speak English, so if you are not able to communicate in Korean, it’s advisable to bring along a friend that can, or find a café with a sign on the door confirming that they speak English.
If you’re looking for a sure bet, you can pre-book a visit at Fun Saju Café in Hongdae. Here, interpretation services are offered alongside the fortune readings from fortune masters specializing in saju, face reading, and palm reading. Likewise, Eros Café near Ewha Womans University also offers readings in English. In operation for more than 20 years, Eros offers saju, palm reading, tarot, and face reading services. To ensure that an English-speaking interpreter is available on your day of choice, it’s better to call ahead to make a reservation.
Whether you’re a true believer in fortune telling or a complete skeptic, visiting a traditional soothsayer is certainly a great way to experience Korea’s rich culture. May the stars be in your favor!