As we get into the heat of the Distinct Season of summer we can expect to start hearing stories of the uniquely Korean cause of death — the electric fan. Urban legend has it that sleeping in a sealed room with the fan going can kill – though all the detailed explanations of how death is actually caused are pretty feeble. The theories that fans cause a deadly vortex or reduce the body temperature to dangerous lows don’t really stack up. But whether in response to fears of Fan Death, or simply because you keep cooler with air conditioning, LG and Samsung report massive sales of their domestic aircon units.
But even if drafts can’t kill, they can still harm. I remember, when I was a kid, being told not to pull faces because if the wind changed my face would stay like that. Linked to this urban legend is, apparently, the more scientifically established condition of Bell’s Palsy, a facial paralysis sometimes brought on by a cold draft.
Sometime last year there was a conversation thread on the go at the Korean Studies forum which explored some interesting side issues around Fan Death and Bell’s Palsy. It’s not terribly easy to follow given that it’s really just an email chain with loads of people chipping in, but here are some of the highlights:
- Facial paralysis can also be caused by using a cold fulling-stone (tadu^mi-tol) as a pillow, as well as by air conditioning.
- Heinz Fenkl comments: “As martial arts practitioners know, it is not a good idea to practice Taiqi or Qigong with one’s feet in the water or in a strong wind. Both of these are drains on one’s qi.” And more prosaically “In the post war years, it would have been pragmatic for the government to reduce electrical consumption by encouraging this myth.”
- David Kosofsky provides an in-depth contribution to the debate, ranging from the aetiological observation that the Chinese for Bell’s Palsy, Zhong Feng (Korean, Chung P’ung) translates as Wind Attack, via the view that cold drafts can also cause strokes, to the real life example of a trucker who got Bell’s Palsy — his driver’s side window was always open.
- The structuralist argument that if winter deaths can be caused by yeontan briquettes (right) which power ondol heating systems (carbon monoxide poisoning) then Fan Death is the summer “inverse parallel”.
- And finally, air conditioning units with a kimchi filter can protect you against bird flu, according to BoingBoing.net (“A directory of wonderful things”)1
Whatever happens, sleep safely.
- All you ever wanted to know about Fan Death: Fandeath.net
- Wikipedia on Fan Death
- Andrei Lankov on yeontan briquettes in Korea Times
- Will sleeping in a closed room with an electric fan cause death? The Straight Dope, 12 Sept 1997
- Read all Gypsy’s Scholar’s posts on fan death – a true believer
- Update 18 July: Sadly this post turned out to be prophetic: Fan Death Claims Another Victim, Marmot’s Hole, 18 July 2007
- Update 31 July from Ken Kaliher via the Korean Studies list:
R.I.P. Fan Death
Fellow followers of the alleged phenomenon of “fan death” (stubborn assertions of which are perhaps Korea’s best known contribution to urban folklore) may be interested to know that KBS-TV Monday evening broadcast news of a scientific experiment which purported to put the kibosh on the fan death theory once and for all. Korean researchers compared body temperature and other measurements for subjects sleeping in rooms with fans, air conditioners, and neither, and found absolutely no evidence to support fears of fatal fan exposure.
Not to worry, though. The famous fan phobia has survived numerous medical and scientific rebuttals over the years, and will probably outlive us all. Especially those of us who sleep with a fan on in a closed room….
- Not being familiar with this site, I can’t tell whether this is a spoof or not. At least the story isn’t dated April 1, and it claims to be sourced from the Korea Times, but since the KT changed its English URI the link doesn’t work any more, and the KT’s inadequate search engine isn’t any help at all.