Dokebi Bride is a fascinating manhwa work that deals with the rift between traditional Korean spirituality and modern Korean society. It tells the story of a girl, Sunbi Shin, who is the youngest daughter of a line of shamans (a female role in Korean society). Her mother died from being possessed by an evil spirit and being treated by modern medicine rather than by a shaman or priest. (Although how effective spiritual attempts at healing her is called into question by Sunbi later in the series.) She was then raised by her grandmother, the retired shaman of a small fishing village. After her grandmother’s death she is sent to live with her father and his new family in the capital, Seoul.
Growing up, Sunbi’s grandmother both teaches her to live in tandem with the spirits, and teaches her to keep her knowledge of the spiritual realm a secret from those around her. While experiencing the wonders of the spiritual world, Sunbi grows up estranged from her peers, who all believe her to be cursed because of her family’s connection to shamans. The scene of Sunbi’s grandmother’s death is particularly poignant because even as the great gods and spirits of the village gather to bid her spirit farewell, they had to fight with the villagers to allow her body to be buried in the village and only one villager stood up for Sunbi’s grandmother. Despite having dedicated her life to praying for the villagers and the village, only the one villager stood up for her in the end and attended her village.
Sunbi is shown as a complete outcast from society. This estrangement in multifaceted, and is the result of three main factors. First are the preconceptions held about her as being strange and cursed that are passed from the parents in the village to their children. Second is Sunbi’s own dislike of others, and lack of effort to become friends with the other students after this initial estrangement. Finally, we have the estrangement of Sunbi’s world from the world of the students around her. Sunbi sees the world as composed of both the physical and the spiritual, yet those around her see only the physical. Her constant encounters and battles with the spirits around her are seen only as signs that she is crazy and strange, and further widen the barrier between her and those around her.
Sunbi’s own relationship with the spiritual world is complicated. It is her connection with her grandmother, what killed her mother and tore apart her family, it is something she holds dear and sees as an integral part of her life, it is the reason she cannot connect with her classmates, it is something of wonder and beauty, and it is something that plagues her constantly. Primarily we see the spirit realm as being negative: evil spirits constantly follow, torture, and try to possess her, while her encounters with the spirit realm that others cannot see end up further separating her from those around her.
Despite this overwhelming negative tone regarding the spirit realm within the action of the story, Sunbi herself places a great deal of value on her relationship with the spirit realm. The author also does this through introductions to each volume that focus on the place of spirituality within our modern conception of the world. In this she argues for an understanding of the world that accepts the spiritual and physical realms as being intertwined, with this connection being integral to the workings of the world. Shamans are to be revered for their ability to understand and act as a diplomat between both realms.
Despite the author’s emphasis on the need to understand the spiritual and physical world as one in her introductions, though, the text itself represents a world divided. The moment when Sunbi’s elementary school teacher stands up for her in front of the other students, and tells Sunbi that all will be saved by Christ and taken as his children when they repent is particularly indicative of this divide. In response to her teacher’s comment, Sunbi throws up from the amount of hatred she feels ebbing out from the teacher. The hatred Sunbi faces for her shamanistic understanding of the world is therefore coming both from those who do not understand the spiritual realm at all, as well as from those who have religious beliefs that are different from those are Sunbi.
Therefore, while this series proclaims to speak to the need for acceptance and reconciliation between the spiritual and physical worlds, in reality it presents a world highly divided and extremely hateful. In the midst of this Sunbi becomes hostile towards both realms, isolating herself in a cloud of negative energy where only evil spirits come to visit. So far I am only 4 books into the series, so I am sure that these relationships will most likely shift between now and the end of the series. At the same time, the extent to which the series focuses on anger so far surprises me, particularly for a work that claims to be working towards peace.