Every culture has some superstitious beliefs and the Koreans are no exception. In my previous posts, I have mentioned some Korean superstitions about house-warming gifts, baby’s first birthday gifts, gift-giving for exam candidates; gift-giving relating to shoes, handkerchiefs, wallet and red colour; symbols appearing in dreams; and the Pepero biscuit sticks. In this post, let’s talk more about some popular interesting Korean superstitions which I often heard while studying in South Korea.
The unlucky number “4”
If you go into an elevator of a building in South Korea but cannot locate the button for the 4th floor, please try to see if there is a button with a “F” character. If so, that’s the button for the 4th floor. Some buildings may just skip the 4th floor and you can find the 5th floor immediately following the 3rd floor. Why do the Koreans avoid the number “4”? The reason is that the number “4” is pronounced as “sa” in Korean which is the same sound as the word “death”. So, to the Koreans, “4” is an unlucky number and so should be avoided. Of course, as South Korea becomes more westernized, you can find that nowadays a lot of buildings have the 4th floors and there are also buttons for the 4th floor in the elevators of the buildings.
“Fan death” myth
Many people may keep the electric fans on while sleeping to keep the room cool during the summer time. However, the Koreans believe that keeping the electric fan on while you are sleeping in an enclosed room (with closed doors and windows) can kill you. There were even reports of “fan death” in the newspapers. One explanation is that the spinning fan may suck out the oxygen in the enclosed room, thus suffocating the person sleeping in the room to death. However, there is still no concrete evidence supporting this myth. Notwithstanding this, this superstition has become so popular that the manufacturers of electric fans started to incorporate timers in electric fans so that the people may set the timers to turn off the electric fans while they are sleeping. The Koreans also prefer to keep the windows open when using the electric fans while they are sleeping.
Whistling at night
You may see in some western movies that people whistle when they are frightened to give themselves courage. However, if you are in South Korea, please don’t do it at night. It’s because the Koreans believe that whistling at night can bring evil spirits or ghosts. Another version is that whistling at night can attract snakes.
Although the path outside the stoned-wall of the Deoksugung Palace is beautiful and is a popular tourist spot, Korean couples may avoid walking down this path. It’s because the Koreans believe that a couple walking down the Deoksugung path will break up soon. In the past, married couples walked down this path to go to the Seoul family court for divorce. Nowadays, although the Seoul family court has already been relocated, this superstition still remains.
Myths about moving house
To the Koreans, when a person moves to a new house, the evil spirits will follow that person from the old house to the new one. However, it is believed that there are some days on which the evil spirits do not appear, and the Koreans like to choose these days for moving house. There is even a calendar showing the days without evil spirits (in Korean, “손 없는 날”), for example, for the month of October in 2016, these days are 9, 10, 19, 20, 29, and 30 October. If you can’t move house on the days without evil spirits, there is also another remedy – until you have completed the move from the old house to the new house, you should keep your old house messy and should not clean up completely so as to trick the evil spirits that you are still living there.
Shaking your legs
The Koreans believe that good fortune and wealth lie in the legs. So, shaking your legs means shaking away your good fortune and wealth. In any event, shaking your legs in front of the others, especially someone senior or older than you, is also considered impolite so should be avoided.
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Dominic Dinkins, “10 Korean superstitions you may not know about“, DramaFever, 2014-08-15
Ken Lee, “25 ways to be lucky and unlucky the Korea way“, Seoulistic, 2013-11-27
Eric Huh, “Unusual Korean superstitions that kill, blind and haunt“, Seoulistic, 2012-11-15
Kang Yoon-seung, “Summer death revives fan death myth“, The Korea Herald, 2011-07-04
이해영, 김은영, 신경선, 주은경, 이정란, 이현의, 《생활 속 한국 문화77》, 서울: 랭기지플러스<한글파크>, 2011, 84-85쪽