The Broken Pathway

“The Broken Pathway” is available in The Immersion Book of SF, edited by Carmelo Rafala and published by Immersion Press, which will be coming out at the end of September. (But you can preorder it on Amazon now!)

This is a story that’s especially fun because it’s set in the neighborhood where I live, featuring Wonmi-san (Wonmi Mountain) the small mountain where I have, several times in the last few years, gone hiking daily, and which was also the setting for a few stories by the inestimable Korean author Yang Kwi-Ja in her collection 원미동 사람들 (or, as the English translation by Kim So-Yong and Julie Pickering was titled, A Distant and Beautiful Place).

Of course, my story is set a little more than a hundred years before I ever arrived in Korea, during the Sino-Japanese War, when Japanese mapmakers really were tooling around the Korean countyside, doing land surveys and collecting data so they could have a tactical advantage over the Chinese if need be. The timing is crucial — only a year or two later, the train line linking Incheon to Seoul would begin operations and, I assume, the young monk sent to Seoul for help would have gotten there sooner–although who knows how things might have turned out in that case.

As for the primary supernatural element, well… I actually think of this story as SF in a way similar to how, say, Ted Chiang’s “Hell is the Absence of God” is: it takes a supernatural idea that, for a long time, was understood not as supernatural but as “scientific,” and runs with it, asking what follows if this “scientific” premise is true. (I don’t explore the question the way Chiang does his, but the starting principle is similar.) After all, even today a number of people take seriously notions of 풍수 (風水) — which sounds like “pung-su” and is the Korean derivation of Chinese feng shui.

Minsoo Kang’s article ,”Kyongbok Palace: History, Controvery, Geomancy” (1999; available online if you have access to Muse; if not, it is also available in his interesting book of (mostly) fiction, Of Tales and Enigmas) discusses the idea of the use of spikes as supernatural, geomantic weapons against Korea used by Japan during its colonial occupation of the country. Supposedly the spikes driven into the earth are understood (by believers in such things) as having an effect analogous to the needles inserted into one’s skin during the acupuncture treatment depicted in the story — to enable or block the flow of energy. So the spikes were believed to have been used as a means of sabotaging the Korean national “gi” (ie. “ch’i”, life energy, 氣, etc. Kang’s more recent thoughts on the subject appeared (via correspondence posted by a commenter) on The Marmot’s Hole, here.

Realistically, and no offense to Kang, but this sounds curiously like standard Korean revisionist historiography for a number of reasons, of course — one of which being that the Japanese occupied Korea in part as a place to send Japanese to live and work; why would they want to ruin geomantically the geographical resource (and source of many material resources, like rice and labour) that they’d just taken over? The division of “nation” (as a kind of spiritual essense) from the material content of a specific region — its agricultural capacity, its people, its viability as a landbase — seems a bit far-fetched, and I’m not so convinced that constructions of “nation” were even as abstracted then as they are now, or that the Japanese thought the Koreans had anything like a distinct “national spirit” to be broken — according to a number of writers, most recently B.R. Myers in his study of North Korean official culture, The Cleanest Race, but I think it’s also suggested by Gi Wook Shin (in this book) and Henry H. Em (in his essay in this anthology), that idea was primarily an import to Korea from Japan, in part from philosophical writing, but also, as Myers shows, in part as a component of Japanese propaganda in Korea). But it’s interesting to put aside those objections and ask the question… what if Japanese geomancers did think they could sabotage a potential colonial subject state using the “science” of geomancy? What then?

One more thing: while the Sanshin (mountain god) in my story — of whom, yes, you do get a glimpse — is male, plenty of mountain spirits were actually female; I’m told, actually, that originally they all were, and it was the influence of Chinese Taoism, Buddhism, and especially Confucianism that turned almost all of them into patriarchal figures.

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