[KS] KSR 2001-08: _Spirit of the Mountains_, by David A. Mason

Stephen Epstein Stephen.Epstein at vuw.ac.nz
Wed Jul 18 06:30:01 EDT 2001

_Spirit of the Mountains: Korea's San-Shin and Traditions of
Mountain-Worship_, by David A. Mason.  Seoul: Hollym International, 1999.
224 pages. ISBN: 1-56591-107-5. 30,000 won.

Reviewed by John Synott
Queensland University of Technology

A Reviewer's Encounter with San-Shin

Some years ago late in the afternoon of a grey, mild, autumn day in South
Korea I walked through the woods behind Pusan National University and up
the road to the fortress on the top of Mount Geumjeong. At the fortress I
rambled along the broken stone walls enjoying the high solitude, with the
city sprawled out far below. Mistiming the ultimate folding of the autumn
dark I turned to retrace my steps and the path was nowhere to be seen.
Night closed in eerily as I realised I had no choice other than to spend
the night on the mountain. An experienced bushwalker, I felt no dread at
spending a night in the open, and knew that it would be perilous to attempt
to stumble my way out - that could lead me off a ledge into oblivion. So,
rather uncomfortably as light rain set in, I formed a crude shelter from
some picnic tables and settled in for the night.

I had read nothing of the Korean spirits of the mountains- San-Shin - yet
my sense of the spiritual beings who are said to inhabit landscapes had
been well-conditioned over my lifetime of wandering across the landscapes
of Australia, where indigenous people tell us the spirits of the Dreaming
continue to dwell and the local communities perform the ancient ceremonies
that mark their relationships to the landscapes and the spiritual beings.
"The land is my mother" is a literal rather than figurative expression of
belief across Aboriginal Australia.  I, too, had known the spiritual sense
of awe and presence that seems to reside in remote places.

Resuming my story, during that night on Geumjeong-San at some deep dark
hour a local wind stirred up, and whipped around me with the presence of a
living creature whose habitat I had unwittingly invaded. It was not
threatening, but something was definitely *there* letting me know that I
was not alone, but not particularly wanted on the mountain peaks at night
either.  Certainly this spiritual meeting with the god of the mountain was
a projection of my subjectivity as I huddled wet and hungry among the
rocks, but it was vividly real to me at the time, and, ever the sceptic, I
was nevertheless fascinated at the palpable reality of this happening. At
first light I could not move on due to a heavy fog, but gradually it lifted
and I was able to descend without much difficulty. Later that day I wrote a
poem about my encounter with the god of the mountain. Sometime later I read
about San-Shin in Covell's Folk Art and Magic in Korea. Then along came
David Mason's book on the topic, Spirit of the Mountains (1999) which I
opened with undoubtedly personal as well as academic interest.

Some Defining Features of Mason's San-Shin

In this book Mason has pursued a systematic study of his topic and gathered
an impressive array of information from throughout South Korea regarding
San-Shin. He has combined this information and his discussion/analysis of
it with a most lovely set of photographs, largely taken from shrines and
mountain landscapes across South Korea and the result is undoubtedly the
most comprehensive book yet published in English on the subject of
San-Shin. Mason's work has been beautifully presented by Hollym in a glossy
coffee-table style format. The many photographs look good, though Mason
informs us they were taken with non-professional equipment, and he
apologises for 'these crude but authentic records' that were the results of
'one man's very long research-quest (p.24).'

Yet, it is the bringing together of these two key frameworks of the book-
the aesthetic and the scholarly research - that has produced its core
problems. On the one hand we have a glossy invitation to ramble amongst the
photographs and descriptions of San-Shin images and legends, while on the
other we are meant to follow and be convinced by Mason's exposition of his
scholarly research into the topic. The author tells us quite early on that
this book is a revised version of his Master's thesis at Yonsei University
- in which discipline he does not say - and it is in this attempt to
provide an apparently scientific and analytical basis to his exposition of
San-Shin within the counter-frame of a coffee-table browser that the work
fails to achieve cohesion, and instead provokes frustration.

The irritation I experienced  at this contradiction was exacerbated by a
further and quite idiosyncratic feature of Mason's book, a theoretical web
he weaves around his discussion of his topic, that leads in the end to
rather na•ve proposals regarding cultural and political issues of national
reunification of North Korea and South Korea.  Actually Mason employs two
theoretical constructs to make sense of his material.  The first is a
personalised categorisation that has no apparent relation to anything else
in ethnographic literature: 'Over the course of this book I have developed
my own theory dividing all manifestations of the Korean mountain spirit and
its worship into three vertical levels' (p. 28). This theory is actually a
typology. The second level of theory is an interpretive model on the
meaning of San-Shin, to which I shall return later in this review essay.
Mason has asked the book to carry these different levels of discussion and
he has worked assiduously to weave them together, but even the mighty topic
of San-shin and the strength of mountains cannot hold up such an edifice.
It is useful to deconstruct them, nevertheless, to try and identify the
particular strengths and weaknesses of the book, for it has a plethora of

Presenting San-Shin

In introducing San-Shin to an English-language readership, Mason picks up
from the earlier writings by Covell on the emergence of  San-Shin in Korean
religious/folk culture through discussion of the historical foundations of
the San-Shin belief.  This discussion is the lead in to the very long
Chapter Two "Iconography of San-Shin" which is surely the central chapter
of the book, containing the presentation and description of the various
beautifully coloured and presented photographs that make the book so
attractive to the eye. Initially Mason identifies the contexts of shamanist
and foundational roots and early historical references in the early
chronicle _Samguk Yusa_ to San-Shin.  This slight but useful orientation
leads into an interesting discussion of gender aspects of San-Shin, which
Mason concludes can be either 'ambiguously male and/or female'. While his
previous discussion had clearly identified the spirits manifesting
primarily as an  wise old man or beautiful young woman, Mason resolves his
authorial dilemna over gender forms by reverting to the neuter gender of
'it' to describe San-Shin. In fact, it is extremely difficult for Mason to
maintain this neutral nomemclature throughout the book, for he reminds us
often that the earlier shamanic tradition of depicting San-Shin as female
fell away to dominant patriarchal representations of San-Shin, so that the
mountain spirit figure is 'almost always depicted as a seated man' (p.55)
and Mason tends to use the male form in most instances. However, his
announcement that he is going to describe the San-Shin in gender neutral
terms is an important statement in the way he attempts to position the
subject in relation to the reader.  By removing his subject from the
anthropomorphic realm of human social and cultural construction (or
attempting to) the author has suggested here so early in the text  that
San-Shin is an objective  phenomenon that might be investigated somewhat
scientifically. His extended treatment of the subject then proceeds with a
systematic analysis of the phenomenon, through analysis of its various

At first, David Mason engages the reader with an interesting discussion of
generic features of San-Shin:  the media where images of San-Shin have been
produced, particularly paintings which date from around 1650.  This
discussion, as throughout the book, is illustrated by a range of charming
and informative photographs demonstrating the different styles of San-Shin
depictions.  However, by now Mason's determination to categorise every
example into his self-constructed evolutionary theory of Low, Middle and
High levels of San-Shin portraiture has begun to intrude into the book. His
categorisation is based on an unsupported aesthetic belief that the earlier
village-based  images of San-Shin are primitive while those to be found in,
particularly, temples are of a 'higher artistic step up' (p.45) and deserve
to be categorised into 'my Higher Level' (why the category should be
capitalised in this usage I fail to see).  One could well argue against
this social evolutionist position from a 'minjung' perspective, proposing
that the genuine cultural origins of San-Shin in rural farm culture were
appropriated by the ruling classes over centuries of feudal hegemony and
their stylised depictions represent not a more elaborated and sophisticated
understanding of San-Shin but a decadent privileging of upper-class culture
as opposed to the 'true' culture of the rural peasantry.  In this
perspective Mason's argument for an aesthetic priority of the more
elaborated works is challengeable.

Over subsequent sections Mason discusses features such as the basic
iconography of  San-Shin images, the locations where San-Shin reside, the
motifs of objects held by San-Shin, headgear images and symbols,
icon-companions such as tigers, humans, other animals, and plants.  The
descriptions of these features largely are enjoyable reading and Mason
demonstrates some keen observations of the paintings, guiding one's eye
back to the reproductions to identify a range of symbolic features. This
informative approach is undermined, however, by the quasi-scientific frame
that the author seeks to use to, presumably, convince us of his authority
on the topics under discussion. Time and again Mason tells us that a
particular icon crops up in such and such a percentage 'of my collection'
which, we were informed in Chapter One, is 550 photographs of San-Shin
images.  This constant invocation of the statistical occurrence of the
particular images in Mason's collection is both off-putting to the casual
reader and frustrating to the scholar, for 'my collection' is no verifiable
reference point on which valid conclusions or future scholarship can
develop. It is clearly the sample base of Mason's masters thesis  but does
not constitute  knowledge  that the academic readership collectively can
regard as 'standard'.  Quite obviously the author considers himself as
pioneering the field of San-Shin studies, but his efforts to establish some
quantitative base for San-Shin scholarship are not convincing.

The third, again long, chapter in this book is an historically-oriented
discussion of the continuities and themes of San-shin in the main religious
traditions of Korea over the centuries. From shamanism and the Dan-Gun
origin myth, through Daoism, Confucianism Buddhism and Christianity, Mason
traces the presence of San-Shin and the various responses to it. While the
accomodation of traditional religions to San-Shin themes has been fairly
seamless, there are clear conflicts between Christian belief and those
views of relationships between humans and nature evident in San-Shin
shrines and rituals. Yet Mason manages to find  Christian absorption of
San-Shin elements in such practices as, for example, charismatic prayer
meetings in remote mountain locations.  While it is difficult to
demonstrate San-Shin's universality in Korean Christian religious belief ,
which is clearly Mason's thesis, it is a much easier task to find many
instances of Buddhist accommodation to San-Shin beliefs and Mason's
discussion of the relationship between Buddhism and San-shin is nicely
contextualised in historical and philosophical discussion of Korean
Buddhism, again beautifully supported by photographs of paintings,
architecture and natural formations.  Suprisingly, this scholarly
discussion of the relationship between Buddhism and San-Shin takes a
discordant and unnecessarily personal tone in the final section on
'San-Shin as Bodhisattva', whereby Mason exposes the reader to an
experience that 'actually shocked me speechless' . The author's reaction is
to what he regards as a heretical trend towards incorporating San-Shin into
a Buddhist theography.

In the context of the book, the material is unimportant to the Western
reader but, unnecessarily, Mason has placed himself and his views as the
central subject of this last section of this chapter. His final comments on
this matter are worth quoting in the context in what is to come in Chapter
Four, for Mason concludes Chapter Three with these words: 'San-Shin is too
native Korean to become merely a deity within an imported religion. It
represents all Korea, not any one aspect, and it belongs to all Koreans,
not just the Buddhists' (p.188).  This emotive opinion may well seem out of
context in respect to the general discussion of the chapter which is
finishing, but it is a sharp warning of what is to follow in Chapter Four.

The final chapter of David Mason's book is titled 'Future Prospects for the
Mountain Spirit', and it is here that the author attempts to predict,
indeed shape, the future trends of Korean society through his mobilisation
of the San-Shin concept as the 'root-axial element' of traditional Korean
culture.  For all of the previous discussion that has argued the ubiquity
of San-Shin consciousness throughout Korean history, there has been no
argument or evidence for the essentialist position that Mason adopts in his
concluding chapter. Right back in the opening chapter he had told us of his
'own idea' regarding this foundational cultural concept of San-Shin. He
even offered the presumptuous proposition that his view may be what
'traditional Koreans may really have (unconsciously) meant when they
worshipped their San-Shin' (p.16).   Mason argues this  centrality of
San-Shin traditions to Korean culture while at the same time reminding us
that 'I have found extremely few Koreans who can tell me anything at all
about them' (p.199). It would appear that he stands alone as a solitary
bearer of the meaning of a cultural artefact that contemporary society has
abandoned.  However, Mason asserts that there are two contemporary
challenges that will ensure a revival and continuity for San-Shin. Firstly,
he claims, San-Shin is a 'green' icon in an increasingly polluted and
environmentally degraded world. Mason comes out as a champion of
environmental protection and claims that a revitalised San-Shin worship
would help defeat the environmental destruction of modernization and
industrial development in Korea.  While this proposal can be understood as
whimsical speculation on the part of the author, the next claim does tend
towards the ludicrous. Mason advances a final thesis that San-Shin will
play a 'central role' in national reunification of North and South Korea,
through the a revitalisation of this  common cultural heritage of
Dangun/San-Shin in North Korea and South Korea. Mason offers his vision
that the San-Shin tradition will provide a basis for cultural reunification
and concludes with a shamanist-style invocation: 'May it be So! May this
book assist it!'

Thus Mason concludes his treatise on San-Shin on a note far removed from
the tone of measured erudition and statistically-based scholarship that he
has used to set up his discussion in the earlier chapters. It is as if, in
the end, he too lost belief in the rigour of his scholarship and opted for
populist incantation.

In summary, _Spirit of the Mountains_ left me disappointed in many
respects. While I was able to enjoy the beautiful production by Hollym,
particularly the photographs, I found myself having to get past the author
in order to extract the information about San-Shin that was useful to me.
There is much interesting reading and information in the text but I found
the author's practice of introducing his opinions and his  self-centred
language as elements of the book that I had to filter out.  Similarly I was
not convinced of many aspects of his scholarship, particularly the
half-baked Batesonian theory and the meaningless statistical data that
seemed to be there to impress me with the illusion of academic rigour, yet
achieved the opposite. There is no doubt that the topic is worthy of a
book, and I don't doubt that Mason has developed his expertise on this
topic. However a strong editorial hand was needed here, to curb the rash
excesses and unwelcome intrusions of the author.  Since there is a plan to
release a paperback edition of the book, we can hope that the author will
respond positively to critical feedback that has been offered in this and
other reviews and take steps to let the most worthy subject be presented to
readers without having to contend with distracting authorial intrusions.

Synott, John 2001
Review of  _Spirit of the Mountains: Korea's San-Shin and Traditions of
Mountain-Worship_, by David A. Mason
et al.,(1999)
_Korean Studies Review_ 2001, no. 08
Electronic file: http://www.iic.edu/thelist/review/ksr01-08.htm

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