Regular customers, shamans, and ancient kings

Did you know that if you are a regular customer at some Korean establishment, you have a connection with Korea's native folk religion? And according to at least one scholar, you may also have a connection with the earliest kings of Ancient Joseon (고조선 古朝鮮).

Koreans call a shop, restaurant, or pub they patronize their dan-gol-jip (단골집, pronounced 단골찝), and the owners of the establishment call such patrons their dan-gol-sonnim (단골손님). In informal situations, people often use just the word dan-gol by itself: "Nan yeogi dan-goriya." (난 여기 단골이야 meaning 'This is one of my hangouts.') In fact, the word is so common that you probably hear it at least once a day if you live in a Korean-speaking environment. Yet many Koreans are surprised to learn that dan-gol originally refers to a mudang (무당), or Korean shaman.

A mudang

A mudang performing a shamanistic ritual, called a gut in Korean.

In the Honam (호남) region (the Jeolla provinces, that is 전라도, in the southwestern part of the peninsula), the role of shaman is usually hereditary and the local mudang's household is regularly in charge of conducting non-Confucian folk rituals for her area. In the regional dialect, such a shaman is variously referred to as a dan-gol, dangkkol (당꼴), dangkkolle (당꼴레), dangkkollemi (당꼴레미), or dan-gol-mudang (단골무당). So whenever a family or village needs someone to officiate at a gut (굿, that's the Korean word for such rituals), they call on the local mudang they always patronize: their dan-gol.

It's easy to see how such a term could readily be borrowed for use in other similar situations. The herbalist who regularly treats your family soon becomes your dan-gol doctor. You always get your hair cut at your dan-gol barbershop. And if you're that doctor or barber, it's only natural for you to start referring to your frequent patients and customers as your dan-gol, too.

But what about that possible royal connection?

You may be familiar with Korea's foundation myth, the story of how Hwanung (환웅 桓雄), the son of the Lord of Heaven, married Ungnyeo (웅녀 熊女), the bear who had been turned into a woman, and begat Dan-gun (단군 檀君), who established the kingdom of Ancient Joseon and ruled it till the ripe old age of 1,908. (Roll over, Methuselah!)

A statue of Dan-gun

A statue of Dan-gun in a shrine dedicated to him, located in Seoul’s Sajik Park.

Although most scholars seem to agree that Dan-gun was not really the name of just one person but was most likely the title used by all the kings of that earliest of Korean dynasties, a considerable amount of controversy about how the name was actually read and what exactly it meant remains unresolved. The problem here is that before Hangul was invented Koreans had to make do with Chinese characters for writing both classical Chinese and their own language. Reading old Korean texts written purely in classical Chinese is a pretty straightforward process, but figuring out texts written in idu (이두 吏讀 or 吏頭) involves a lot of deciphering and even guesswork.

When writing in idu, Korean scribes would sometimes use a character just for its sound, completely ignoring the meaning. Even the pronunciation of the character was often modified to fit Korean phonology: weird Chinese diphthongs were reduced to simple Korean vowels and final consonants were either dropped or turned into extra syllables. Sometimes a character was chosen purely for its meaning and would be read with the pronunciation of the corresponding native Korean word. This would be like an Englishman writing the Chinese character for middle but pronouncing it as "middle" instead of "zhong." (All of this may sound frighteningly familiar to those of you who have studied Japanese.) Sometimes a character was selected because it hinted at both the pronunciation and the meaning. Sometimes a meaning character would be followed by a sound character that was supposed to assist the reader in divining which reading to use. And to make matters worse, there was no standard for which characters to use for which word — a scribe could switch willy-nilly from one to another in the same passage.

What a headache! You can see why scholars disagree about the proper readings for many ancient texts and even for such names as Dan-gun. At least one scholar, Jeong Ho-wan (정호완), believes that the characters were chosen for their sound and that Dan-gun is a variant of the word dan-gol. He points out that in ancient times a king's role as an administrator was not separated from his role as an intermediary between the spirit world and the physical plane. Thus, the kings of Ancient Joseon were also shamans, which is reflected in their title, Dan-gun.

So when somebody calls you a dan-gol, let it remind you of your intimate connection with the spirits of nature. And even though the word's association with ancient royalty may not turn out to be a valid one, don't be disappointed. After all, a customer — especially a regular one — is always king.

An earlier version of this article first appeared in the Korea Herald on 16 November 1998.