P'ungsu

A Study of Geomancy in Korea

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Hong-Key Yoon
  • Albany, NY: 
    State University of New York Press
    , January
     2018.
     444 pages.
     $95.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781438468693.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

P’ungsu: A study of Geomancy in Korea is a rare attempt by an English publication at an in-depth, academic approach to Korean geomancy, or earth divination. In other words, the volume is not intended to be a general introduction to geomancy, nor is it a book written by professional geomancers for the purpose of advocating or prompting the practice of geomancy. With selections from nine contributors—representing a wide range of scholarly backgrounds—this book is designed as an academic anthology with a variety of perspectives including cultural geography, historical geography, environmental science, architecture, landscaping architecture, analytical psychology, and religious studies.

P'ungsu” is the Korean term for traditional geomancy in East Asia, which corresponds with the widely used Chinese word, Fengshui. Editor Hong-Key Yoon argues that geomancy in Korea cannot be classified into one of the Western categories—such as superstition, religion, or science—as it contains complex and sophisticated ideas, and knowledge that encompass ecological wisdom from pre-modern Korea. According to Yoon, geomancy is “a unique and comprehensive system of conceptualizing the physical environment that regulates human ecology by influencing humans to select auspicious environment and build harmonious structures such a graves, houses, and cities on them” (373).

Consisting of two major parts, P’ungsu introduces the historical context of the eras when geomancy was influential, and describes the role of geomancy in Korean traditional culture. In the first part, Yoon provides a historical overview of Korean geomancy. The first six chapters—all authored by Yoon—presents the historical development of Korean geomancy through eight epochs spanning more than two thousand years, from the ancient era to modern times (pre-37 BCE to the present). Also, geomancy in Korea is illustrated through four different themes: major social upheavals, government affairs, environmental managements relating to geomancy, and principal characteristics of Korean geomancy. In the second part of the book, a selection of ten articles, written by nine contributors, cover outstanding topics in Korean geomancy. By dealing with materials from different eras, as well as from different perspectives, the authors discuss what geomancy has meant to Koreans throughout their history, as well as how the ideas and practices of geomancy influenced traditional Korean culture.

In the volume’s seventeen chapters, the authors illustrates how significant geomancy has been as a source of various practices, discourses, negotiations, and conflicts throughout Korea’s history. Chapters 7 through 12 describe the impact of geomancy on the acquisition and management of water resources, folk narratives on grove composition, traditional architecture, garden aesthetics, landscape composition, and topography modification. An interesting, and rather unusual, approach is found in chapter 13. Written by psychiatrist Cheol Joong Kang, the chapter attempts a psychological commentary on geomancy, especially the effects of the idea of auspicious places on human consciousness and unconsciousness, from the perspective of analytical psychology. Chapters 14 and 15 show that geomancy has been associated and interacted with Buddhism and Confucianism, two dominant religions in Korean history. Finally, chapter 16 describes changes in the cultural perception of geomancy by analyzing a study of human geography published at the end of the Chosŏn dynasty.

A notable achievement of P’ungsu: A Study of Geomancy in Korea is the bringing together of various scholars, from different fields of study, who describe and analyze Korean geomancy from their own perspectives. However, even though the editor’s articles guide the reader by providing core ideas, it seems that a unifying theme penetrating the entire volume is not readily identifiable. This is due to the general nature of the anthology genre, which involves various authors. Nevertheless, readers with an interest in and level of familiarity with the history of religions in Korea will find this book of great interest. The book aptly describes how strongly and persistently geomancy has influenced Korean culture, even though it was never a central, superior ideology or an officially approved custom in pre-modern Korea, which was long dominated by Buddhism, and followed by Confucianism.

In P’ungsu: A Study of Geomancy in Korea, Yoon and other contributors manage to successfully exemplify various academic approaches to Korean geomancy. One possible improvement would be the addition of an explanation of the causal factors that allowed geomancy to become widespread and culturally successful in Korean traditional culture. Based on the possibilities and challenges this book presents, I hope future research will proceed, not only to describe and interpret Korean geomancy, but also to explain the causes of its cultural success and persistency.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Hyung Chan Koo is Lecturer in Religious Studies and Anthropology at Seoul National University.

Date of Review: 
April 22, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Hong-key Yoon is Associate Professor of Cultural Geography at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, and the author of The Culture of Fengshui in Korea: An Exploration of East Asian Geomancy.

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