Universiteit Leiden

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PhD project

Engaging GiCheon as a Technology of Self in Contemporary Korea

This project embarks on empirical analysis of popular psycho-physical practices in contemporary Korea.

Through the utilization of an analytical frame based on Michel Foucault’s technologies of self conceptualization I attempt to extend and develop existing scholarship by bringing to the fore the physical body as the terrain and space for self-construction and self-building.

My study will aim its analysis of self-creation and modification at psycho-social practice known as GiCheon (氣天 kich‘ŏn), one of the oldest and most influential of 20th century Korean mind-body practices. GiCheon arose in the early 1970s, when its originator, teacher Taeyang Jinin and his “brother” Sŏ In-hyŏk, the leader of Kuksul (국술) trained and taught together. Four of the seven founding members of Dahn World, originally called tanhaksŏnwŏn (단학선원) were GiCheon practitioners, and instructors of tanhaksŏnwŏn used to attend GiCheon practice in the 1980s. Also in the 1980s, Kim Chŏng-ho and Na Han-il, two students of Taeyang Jinin created Haidong Gumdo (海東劒道 haedongkŏmdo) on the basis of GiCheon sword art.

Adherents and practitioners of GiCheon are drawn from a wide variety of social classes and do not limit themselves to a singular religious persuasion. Equally in contemporary Korea individuals often engage in more than one kind of psycho-physical practice, and Christians and Buddhists often join in ki-related training. Some Christians believe that ki disciplines transform them into “better Christians”: after starting GiCheon they apparently pray more, listen to the priest with greater attention, and visit church more frequently. Some Christians also pray to God during the training, ask for forgiveness and express gratitude. Buddhist practitioners state that ki exercises in the studio improve their concentration in Buddhist meditation.

Building on Foucault’s conception of technologies of self and the notion of psycho-physical culture introduced by Russian sinologist Abayev, I connect them to Marcel Mauss’ -“techniques of the body” formulation, and Bourdieu’s habitus. Following the work of Merleau-Ponty I site my analysis within the body, where the life, perception and consciousness originate. I also deploy the Confucian schematic sŏngŭi jŏngsim susin ch’ega ch’iguk p’yŏngch’ŏnha (誠意正心修身齊家治國平天下 ‘authenticize the intention, rectify the mind-heart, cultivate the body, love the family, govern the country, bring peace to the world’), a diagrammatic strategy repeatedly invoked by GiCheon practitioners themselves when describing their experiences. In my application of this schema the self might be portrayed as a living, busy, active movement. Like a ray of light, it bursts from the inside towards the outside, towards the world. Following Confucian terminology we could recount its progress as starting from intentionality and progressing towards emotion and cognition, being further coming into actualization on personal, familial, social and cosmic planes. This is how the self unfolds, and how it both achieves realization and finds expression as an intentional, emotional, cognitive, bodily, personal, familial, social and cosmic self. We can schematically portray this as following:



This schema, and the self-transformational process described will be investigated through the empirical analysis of a set of semi-structured interviews held with some 60 GiCheon participants and trainers between September 2010 and April 2011. I also draw upon my own 13 years GiCheon practice and instruction experience adopting the position of a scholar practitioner.

Through all of this I hope to observe the operation of self-construction in connection with these technologies and practices, examining surfacing images of self and the qualities that participants seek to acquire through their training. As such these images demonstrate the formation of a contemporary subject thus correlating to Foucault’s continuing history of subjectivity.

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