AKS Home | CEFIA Home |  Korean homepage

Essay Contest Result

Photo - Essay Contest

Finding the Elixir of Life with Choe Chi-weon:
A board game based on traditional Korean folktales and Shamanism

Today, cultural exchange between Korea and China continues to grow, and there are many phenomena related to the spread of Korean culture in China. As a Chinese person, I have come across many of these phenomena brought about by cultural exchange, and it has led me to consider the new features and problems which are behind these phenomena.

Photo - Korean drama “goblin” First, the cultural contents industry in Korea has grown by leaps and bounds in the 21st century. Korean popular culture, such as dramas, movies, and K-pop, have become incredibly popular in China, and many Chinese people have been exposed to the traditional culture featured in these dramas and movies. After the Korean drama “Dokkaebi” (goblin) came out last year, there was much heated debate in China about the true image of a dokkaebi.
Of course, the exposure of Korea’s “ghost culture” can be seen as a good thing, but it also exposes the fact that Chinese people still don’t know much about Korea’s traditional culture. In other words, it is impossible to ignore the fact that popular culture is much more well-known than traditional culture.

Even with the growth in cultural exchange between the two countries, cultural differences and problems arising from them remain. Inmyeonjo, a bird with a human’s face, has been a representation of long life and peace since ancient times. However, when inmyeonjo appeared in the opening ceremony for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, many Chinese people who are unfamiliar with traditional culture found it to be a frightening spectacle. Another example is Korea’s “Gangneung Dan-o Festival (端午祭)” and China’s “Dragon Boat Festival (端午節).” While the names are very similar, the characteristics and customs of each festival are very different. However, many Chinese people misunderstood the Korean application of Gangneung Dan-o Festival as a UNESCO World Intangible Heritage because they didn’t have knowledge of the festival ahead of time. When I encountered these phenomena, I came to know that even though there are similarities between Korean and Chinese traditional culture, there are still many instances of cultural differences and misunderstanding.

Photo - Inmyeonjo, appeared in the opening ceremony for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and Gangneung Danoje Festival
When looking at all of this, I believe that it is very important to spread the characteristics and beauty of Korean traditional culture and resolve the misunderstandings and stereotypes that Chinese people still have. This will help facilitate the spread of cultural exchange between the two countries. Even though it is not as grandiose as a topic as something like history, traditional culture such as shamanism will be very satisfying and interesting to modern young Chinese people who like fantasy and mystery. So when promoting Korean traditional culture to Chinese people, I began thinking about what it would be like to use shamanism in publicizing Korean traditional culture to Chinese people.

There are a lot of avenues to learn about Korean shamanism. Of course, there are many books and articles about Korean shamanism, but the majority of these are very technical and are difficult for common people to understand and find interest in. There are also movies and dramas. Although viewers can enjoy these easily and understand shamanistic culture, the scenes with shamanistic elements are typically short and are therefore inadequate at passing on cultural knowledge. Noteworthy, however, is the fact that board games have become popular amongst young Chinese people and have become a major form of entertainment.

A board game is a game with specific rules and is played using words or cards. There are many different genres of board games. The most popular type in China today is “strategy and reasoning games.” “Ultimate Werewolf” and “Avalon” are two strategy and reasoning games designed in Germany which are based on European culture. “Ultimate Werewolf” is based on the European folktale of werewolves, and “Avalon” is based on the legend of King Arthur, so it is natural that there are many aspects of European culture included. These games, which contain so much European culture, are easily accessible in China and are very popular amongst college students. The Chinese board game called “Legends of the Three Kingdoms” was developed in 2008. Thanks to the unique rule set and the fact that the game is based on “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” this game has been very popular amongst Chinese players. In fact, it is recognized as a worthy competitor for the games developed in Germany. When considering these facts, it is easy to see that boards games can become a vehicle for promoting the culture of a country and not just a method of entertainment. Therefore, I believe that a strategy and reasoning game using Korea’s folktales and shamanism would be a good way to promote Korean traditional culture.

Photo - Board game : “Ultimate Werewolf”, “Avalon”, “Legends of the Three Kingdoms”
Therefore, I am developing a board game called “Finding the Elixir of Life with Choe Chi-weon” to expand the cultural exchange between Korea and China and to spread knowledge about Korea’s shamanism to Chinese people. This project will provide academic clues to researchers about the history of cultural exchange between Korea and China and Korean traditional culture.

First, I set up the theme and background story for the game using the Xu Fu legend of China, the legend of Choe Chi-weon of Korea, and the legend of the Three Mountains which is shared by China and Korea.

First, many people played important roles in the history of cultural exchange between Korea and China. Two of these are Xu Fu from China and Choe Chi-weon from Korea. A story known well in Korea as well as China tells of Xu Fu. He was sent across the Korean Peninsula to the East Sea by Qin Shi Huang during the Chinese Qin Dynasty to find the elixir of life. Choe Chi-weon (857 - ?) studied in China’s Tang Dynasty during the Unified Silla period. He held a government position before returning to his homeland and devoted himself as a politician and scholar to the development of his nation.

Photo - Jiri Mountain Of course, these two people are similar in that they are symbols of intercultural exchange, but they also shared the same religion of Taoism. More specifically, both are said to have visited Jiri Mountain, one of the Three Mountains of Korea. Early on, Chinese legends tell of Three Mountains in China: Mount Penglai, Mount Fangzhang, and Mount Yingzhou. Stories of Taoist hermits living in these mountains and living long lives by drinking the elixir of life have been passed down. For this reason, it is said that Xu Fu set these Three Mountains as his destination.
Three mountains on the Korean peninsula were also known by the same name: Mount Penglai was Geumgang Mountain, Mount Fangzhang was Jiri Mountain, and Mount Yingzhou was Halla Mountain. Among these, Jiri Mountain is very important in Korean Taoism, and archaeological evidence about the Xu Fu legend have been found in various areas around Jiri Mountain. At the base of the north side of Jiri Mountain lies Ham-yang County (called Cheollyeong County at the time), and we have records that say Choe Chi-weon was governor of that county. Stories say that Choe Chi-weon disappeared from the world after quitting government service and becoming a hermit in the mountain.

The legend of Xu Fu and the story about Choe Chi-weon mentioned above along with the characteristics of Jiri Mountain are the background for setting up the stage and creating the story for the game. While it is still unclear whether Xu Fu actually went to Jiri Mountain to search for the elixir of life, the game begins with the assumption that Xu FU did in fact find the elixir of life in Jiri Mountain. Around 1,000 years later, Choe Chi-weon learns that Xu Fu had found the elixir in Jiri Mountain while living as a hermit. He decides to trace Xu Fu’s activities in order to find the elixir for himself in the mountain.

In the game, Choe Chi-weon interacts with various characters including Hwarang, shamans, spirits which have taken the form of humans, and ghosts which have possessed humans. He searches for the elixir of life by travelling through three areas: Ssanggyesa Temple, Se-i-am Grotto, and Cheonghak-dong Village. Ssanggyesa and Se-i-am are historical sites in Jiri Mountain known to be places that Choe Chi-weon wrote about. Cheonghak-dong is a place only found in legend, and it is the place where Choe Chi-weon was said to have become a spirit and rode to the skies on a heron.

Of course, the setting for the game is made of real places in the world, but this board game will come with a map with destinations and a course marked on it to help facilitate the simulation.

Photo - Ssanggye, Se-i-am Grotto, historical sites in Jiri Mountain
Second, Korea’s shamanistic culture has a complex and unique system which combines the Taoist ideology of China and Korea’s unique ideas regarding magic and ghosts. The characters of this game are based on Korea’s traditional shamanistic culture.

The mission of this game is to find the elixir of life, and 10 characters work together for this purpose. Choe Chi-weon is the head of the mission and leads other humans, spirits, and ghosts. The 10 characters are split into a group of good guys and a group of bad guys. The good guys are made of the humans and spirits, while the ghosts are the bad guys. All of the characters look like humans, but the non-human characters actually have a different form and each has a special power based on their cultural background that they can use to either help or hurt Choe Chi-weon.

The design and setup for the characters are as follows:

Team Status Character Ability Background
Good guys People Choe Chi-weon Conduct ritueals to find the spirit with the elixir plant (once only). Choe Chi-weon learned that he could find out what he wanted through rituals as he learned Taoism in the Tang Dynasty.
Hwarang Can protect one person each night from hurt. Hwarang was an organization of soldiers during the Silla Dynasty that protected the country.
Shaman A: Use magic to revive one character who has died (once only).
B: Drive out one spirit by performing a ritual (once only).
Shamans serve spirits and are professionals who perform rituals. They interact with the spirits through dance and help with communication between humans and spirits.
Spirits Grandma Mago Never dies and has the elixir of life. (Appears when Choe Chi-weon performs the ritual.) Grandma Mago is the spirit who created the world and lives in Jiri Mountain. She has the elixir of life and cannot die. She also gives it to worthy people.
Spirit of Death Can confirm whether a character is a ghost or not once each night. A very clever spirit of death. He carries a red ribbon and searches out ghosts that must go to the netherworld.
Goblin Can wear an invisibility hat to hide and can see the results of Choe Chi-weon’s ritual or avoid any harm that comes (once only). They want to be close to humans, but don’t know reason and enjoy playing pranks. They have a special tool called an invisibility hat.
Bad guys Ghosts Egg ghost Anyone who sees his face during the night dies (once only)
(If a spirit sees his face, the spirit doesn’t die.)
An egg ghost is a ghost with only the shape of a face and hair and doesn’t have eyes, nose, or mouth. It is said that people who see an egg ghost die.
Demon Can kill one character that isn’t a ghost.
(If the demon choses Grandma Mago, she does not die.)
Unlike goblins, demons are ferocious and violent monsters and are a symbol of evil. In legend, they are mysterious beings that crush people’s heads.
Dong Ti Appears with Grandma Mago when Choe Chi-weon performs the ritual. Dong Ti appear in locations where ancestral rights are performed. They are enraged when humans upset the ritual table or altar. Children are the most common victims.
Tree ghost Can force the group to stay at a location for one extra day (Ssanggyesa, Se-i-am, or Cheonghak-dong) (once only). It is said that evil ghosts cling to trees deep in the forest and on the roadside. Humans can be severely injured if they touch these trees.

The cards of the game are the most important tool because they show the character traits, but they also are important for sharing cultural knowledge. The cards include each character’s name, image, ability, and background story. They are a visible way to share Korean traditional shamanism.

Photo - A card showing the character's identity and information
Game rules must be considered along with the cultural background of each character when creating their functions. I propose to refer to the rules of “Ultimate Werewolf” for the base rules of this game.

A moderator is required. After 10 character players draw character cards, they each become the character on their card. The game play is a mix of temporal and spatial progression. The players arrive at one location each day, and the play is divided into day and night. During the night, the players have to close their eyes while the moderator instructs characters to open their eyes during their turn to complete their actions. During the day, one character has to be eliminated from the game, and this is done by the vote of the remaining characters.

In the last round, if Choe Chi-weon arrives safely at Cheonghak-dong and chooses Grandma Mag with the elixir correctly, the good guys have won the game. Conversely, if Choe Chi-weon dies before reaching Cheonghak-dong or cannot identify Mago Grandma, the bad guys win. The point of this game is hiding your identity from the other players using logical reasoning and convincing discussion, guessing the identities of other players, and giving hints to other characters on your side.

Third, to continue spreading traditional Korean shaman culture widely, this board game needs further development. Specifically, we can reach out to the public for input about additional characters and develop an online version of the game at the same time.

From the perspective of the game contents, some players might think that the original 10 characters are inadequate or somewhat monotonous. Therefore, the game designers will need to create additional characters to add to the game. This work will be the responsibility of the board game company, but I believe it would be good to use public opinion when deciding how and what characters to create. Board game enthusiasts will collect and research a lot of information related to Korean shamanistic culture in order to create characters that are acceptable to the production company. They will also directly design characters by deciding what characteristics and background stories to include. In this process, the players themselves will gain a better understanding of Korean traditional shamanistic culture.

In terms of gameplay, board games are typically played offline. However, with the wide availability of internet and smartphones today, online games are the trend of the time. Offline game playing can be effective in maintaining the human relations aspect of games, but online games are much more advantageous in order to secure the spread and popularity of a game. In other words, if this board game is developed into an online game as well as offline, the promotion of Korean shamanistic culture will be quicker and expanded. Today, more than 500 million Chinese people use the messenger app WeChat. This year, WeChat introduced a new module called “Mini-Programs,” which are secure and convenient platforms. Therefore, I believe that if the “Mini-Programs” platform is used for this game, the promotion of Korean culture will become much stronger like a “tiger that has obtained wings.”

Photo - WeChat “Mini-Programs”
Finally, I would like to mention the expected outcomes of the game. This game is based on Korean folktales and shamanism. Because it is full of this culture in the background story, characters, and gameplay rules, anyone who wants to play and win this game must be familiar with the cultural aspects included in this game. In this process, Chinese people will gain more interest and understanding of Korean traditional culture. As knowledge of Korean shamanistic culture is spread through China, it will contribute to the cultural exchange between the two countries. Of course, some people might find the ghost characters in this game somewhat scary, we Chinese people can understand the ghosts of our neighbor Korea just like we respect the ghosts in our own culture. I believe that this respect of other folk beliefs is a sort of respect to Korea as well.

I have introduced a new game based on Korean folktales and shamanistic culture called “Finding the Elixir of Life with Choe Chi-weon” in this article. I hope that this plan will help to spread Korean traditional culture to China and even around the globe. And as a Korean language student, I will continue to devote myself more to studying Korean studies and to deepen understanding of Korea’s great culture for myself and other Chinese people.

[Participation Prize]
Zheng Zexing

(Country of Activity : China)

Go to top