The Korea Herald


From piggy banks to fake fish: The modern pursuit of good fortune

In a contemporary twist, some younger Koreans are keeping traditional superstitions alive to ensure good luck and ward off evil spirits

By Song Seung-hyun

Published : June 4, 2024 - 15:28

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Items sold online for Items sold online for "gosa" ceremonies (Yooncibang's website).

Red beans, rice grains, dried pollack, a pig's head and scissors -- this might seem like a random collection of items.

But many Koreans would see the connection between them. They are items used in traditional superstitious practices here, either to protect against bad luck or to invite good fortune.

The level to which people adhere to rituals involving these items or believe in the superstitions behind them varies greatly.

Often, even those who do maintain such superstitious practices say they do not take them seriously but do them simply to ward off bad luck or invite good luck. For instance, they might replace the pig's head with a piggy bank.

Sirutteok, or steamed red bean rice cake (Getty Images) Sirutteok, or steamed red bean rice cake (Getty Images)

Moving, getting a new car, attending funerals

Superstitions hold the greatest sway when embarking on something new and significant. For instance, when moving to a new house, traditionally Koreans will try to choose a day free of "son."

According to the Encyclopedia of Korean Folk Culture, "son" is thought to come from — "sonnim," the Korean word for "guest." In this context, however, it refers specifically to an unwanted guest -- a ghost. People believed they needed to avoid harmful or mischievous ghosts because they could interfere with human activities. Therefore, important tasks such as taking care of a grave, moving, or doing house repairs were all done on days when no ghosts were in action.

Today, the custom of avoiding unlucky days persists for occasions like moving, opening businesses and weddings.

Days considered free of “son” include those with 0 and 9 in them in the lunar calendar, specifically days 9, 10, 19, 20, 29 and 30 of every lunar month.

Since there is more demand to move on these days, moving costs are usually 10 to 20 percent higher.

Yoon Jae-sang, 36, failed to secure one of such days to move into his new house. His mother advised him to move his rice cooker in advance on a day free of “son.”

“My mom told me that placing one's rice cooker full of rice in one's new home can be considered 'moving,'” Yoon said.

“She also said you have to spread uncooked red beans or salt in advance at the house to keep away ghosts. On the actual moving day, I bought sirutteok (steamed red bean rice cake), because red beans are believed to chase away ghosts as well,” he said. “When I was young, we used to distribute sirutteok to our neighbors (after moving to a new area), but with all the old superstitions fading among young people, I didn’t do it this time.”

There is also a well-known superstition among local real estate agents: if one wants to move out but their home does not sell, hang scissors on the front door.

In a Naver online cafe for direct overseas purchases called Malltail, one user asked, “Those who tried the scissor superstition, how long did it take until the house was sold?”

The post had numerous reply comments such as, “I did the scissor thing and it was sold within a month,” and, “I did it and it was sold within a week.”

There is also a special practice done before driving a new car for the first time. A "gosa" ceremony is held to wish for safety in the future when driving the car.

Traditionally, this ritual was done annually to wish good luck to a household, but today, it may be done on various occasions when starting something new, and often not as seriously or formally as it was done in the past.

According to Samsung Fire & Marine Insurance, nearly 10 different food items could go on the table for this new car ritual. Preparing red beans, rice, pollack, silk thread, and rice wine is usually considered the bare minimum.

Here’s how it is done.

First, the person who will be driving the new car turns on the car's headlights, opens all the doors and places the food and other offerings on a table in front of the car. They bow to the car and wish for safety, then pour some rice wine near the wheels.

Next, they place an egg in front of the front wheel and move the car slightly to crack it.

Lastly, they wrap the dried pollack with silk thread and put it in the car.

“If you pour too much makgeolli on your car's brakes or discs, it can lead to corrosion,” an official of Samsung Fire & Marine Insurance said. He added that cracking an egg on one's car tire can be seen as a small act of sacrifice to avoid greater misfortune.

Many Korean superstitions are about bringing in good luck and chasing away bad luck or ghosts. This is why there are also superstitions related to funerals, where many ghosts are believed to linger.

“I always sprinkle salt all over myself before I come into the house after attending a funeral,” Kim Kyung-suk, 62, said.

Another superstition still practiced by some is visiting places like discount store chains or department stores, which are crowded with people, after attending a funeral.

“Koreans believe that there are many ghosts at funerals and they can stick to you when you are there. Salt is supposed to chase them away, and visiting places with a lot of people is meant to confuse the ghosts," Kim added.

Contemporary, convenient twist

"Gosa" kits sold on online shopping platform Coupang (Screenshot from Coupang)

Jeong Jae-seung, a professor in the bio and brain engineering department at KAIST, claimed that people believe in superstitions due to fear and anxiety about the future.

"In situations where control or prediction is impossible, people rely on superstitions, even if their origins are unclear, to soothe their anxiety," Jeong said.

However, some Koreans in their 20s and 30s say that it's less about believing in superstitions and more about maintaining traditions and pleasing older generations.

"My husband and I did a gosa before driving our new car because my mother-in-law told us we should. It's not like I believe in it, but I thought we had nothing to lose by doing it," said Kim Do-kyung, 33.

Those who hung scissors hoping their house would sell quickly also commented online, "It’s not difficult to do, and there seems to be nothing bad about following it, so why not?"

Younger people like Kim often add a modern twist to such superstitions, making them more convenient to practice.

"On online shopping malls, they sell a ‘gosa for new cars’ kit. I bought mine on Coupang, so I didn’t have to buy everything one by one," Kim said.

She also explained that young people these days often swap the pig's head for something more convenient.

"Instead of a smelly pig's head, we used a photo of a pig's head displayed on our tablet device," Kim said, adding that others may use a piggy bank instead.

As for dried pollack, many online sellers of gosa kits offer fake dried pollack made out of wood, noting that "it doesn’t smell and can be kept in your car longer."