Dr Hyun-key Kim Hogarth: how to be an anthropologist of your own culture

Known to her neighbours in Kent as Kim Hogarth, Hyun-key left Korea in 1968 before she’d even learned to cook Korean food. Her CV says ‘Nationality: British’. But it’s her academic work on Korean shamanism that keeps her busy giving papers and publishing books. Jennifer Barclay met the social anthropologist in London to find out more.

I first met Dr Hyun-key Kim Hogarth, fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, at an Anglo-Korean Society gathering at the Korean Cultural Centre, and wanted to find out more about her work. So I was delighted when she agreed to come and have lunch with me at Asadal and tell me her story. She arrives in a bright pink dress and knee-high black boots, very chic, but I know it’s been a very difficult few years for her since her husband died. I ask her to start at the beginning, which she does as she enjoys a bibimbap.

Dr Hyun-key Kim Hogarth (left) and Jennifer Barclay
Kim Hogarth (left) with Jennifer Barclay

Hyun-key was born and brought up in central Seoul, a stone’s throw from the Secret Garden. She was one of five children of Hahn Moo-sook, the acclaimed literary author of Encounter and And So Flows History, which was ‘dumbed down’ and sexed up for TV serialization in the late 80s and early 90s. Her father was the powerful president of a bank and later chairman of a merchant banking corporation, and much was expected. She attended Kyunggi Girls’ High School, of course, which had high academic standards. In the end, four of the five siblings would have PhDs and one become a medical doctor.

But it happened in a roundabout way for Hyun-key. In her second year studying English Language and Literature at Ewha Woman’s University, she was invited to attend the Queen’s Birthday Party. This was her first time attending a party like that on her own – she’d had a sheltered upbringing – and she was ‘eighteen, very thin, I wanted to look like Audrey Hepburn with my hair up and long black gloves…’ The inevitable happened, and a young British diplomat named Robert Hogarth fell for this pretty young scholar who knew English literature and appreciated his sense of humour. He asked if he could meet her again.

In those days, interracial marriage was virtually unknown in good families; it was for American GIs and loose women. In families like Kim’s, you were introduced to a nice Korean boy in the company of a chaperone. Her elder sister had paved the way somewhat by meeting a Frenchman while studying at the University of California at Berkeley, but he was a Frenchman with a PhD. The twenty-six year old Robert Hogarth didn’t even have a degree, having done national service and then diplomatic exams, and although his family was a good middle-class one, their romance brought tension to the Kim household. Meanwhile, Hyun-key attained excellent results in her undergraduate studies and was offered a place at Berkeley in 1968.

I’d thought South Koreans were not allowed to travel during those years, but Hyun-key explains that they were allowed to travel for study. Study abroad was very expensive and only for the academically gifted, and it was hard to get a student visa because of complicated restrictions to thwart fraudulent claims. Hyun-key’s application encountered no problems and she went to Berkeley, but circumstances made her change her mind and decide to marry Robert.

They planned a wedding at a twelfth-century church at Cudham near Orpington where his parents were living at the time, and he met her in the US to escort her back on a cruise on the QE1. But they had to get married in the States, since Cunard would not allow unmarried couples to share the same cabin and he could not afford two single cabins. And so the newlywed Hyun-key Kim Hogarth from Seoul moved to Kent and, after too many mix-ups with her unusual name, became simply Kim Hogarth.

She worked as a teacher until the Foreign and Commonwealth Office offered Robert a posting to Israel, followed by Botswana. Alexander McCall-Smith’s Precious Ramotswe novels bring it all back vividly, she says, but it was also in Botswana that she first started to become interested in the Bushmen and tribal customs, the beginning of her passion for anthropology. During the years in Botswana and in Cameroon, while bringing up their two children, she observed and read influential books like The Harmless People by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, one of the first westerners to live among the Kalahari Bushmen.

And then her husband was posted to South Korea in 1987. Hyun-key had been away for twenty years and, having had a cloistered childhood in Seoul, she’d never really travelled around her own country except to resorts on family holidays. So now she saw her own culture with the dual perspective of insider and outsider. Four years later when they returned to England, she applied to do an MA in social anthropology at the University of Kent at Canterbury – with a thesis on Korean shamanism.

The first tangible evidence of shamanism is in Paleolithic rock carvings in Siberia, but it’s probably been around as long as people have, and it has pervaded everyday lives throughout Korea’s long history. Known in other cultures sometimes as medicine men, witch doctors, mediums or oracles, shamans mediate between the spirit world and human beings in order to help the suffering. The healer often uses an ecstatic or altered state of consciousness to commune with the supernatural. Even in twelfth-century Korea, shamanism was seen by intellectuals as nonsense, laughable, primitive.

After the Korean War, South Korea’s succession of authoritarian governments concentrated on modernising the country. In her book Korean Shamanism and Cultural Nationalism (1999, Jimoondang), Hyun-key writes that she remembered the kut or shamanistic rituals as ‘noisy, colourful, but strangely eerie events, which used to be held by women, mainly in the countryside’. When she left Korea in 1968, they were rarely performed publicly in Seoul. President Park Chung-hee’s New Village Movement abolished such ‘superstitions’ and destroyed shamanistic village shrines, so it only survived on the periphery of society.

Dr Hyun-key Kim HogarthIn the late eighties, when she returned, South Korea had gone through a complete metamorphosis from an impoverished agricultural country to a newly industrialised nation, and globalisation fever swept through it, culminating in the Olympics in 1988. The old city gate of Namdaemun, which once had been so prominent, was dwarfed by high-rise buildings. And yet, oddly, the shamanistic rituals were back, being performed right outside City Hall. What Hyun-key observed was that in a rapidly industrialising, modern, westernised Korea, shamanism was being revived as an expression of nationalism.

The time was right, she says. Anthropologist Maurice Block found that in Madagascar circumcision was once considered barbaric but later revived by the elite. When people no longer have to worry about food and shelter, they can revive their traditions. I wonder if it’s a bit like the revival of the Cornish language today.

‘It’s a reaction against homogenisation,’ says Hyun-key. It’s natural to crave something exotic, but only when the conditions are right. It fits with the world trend towards the revival of ethnicity. With globalisation, people are forced to exist side by side, buy the same and eat the same. There’s a need to belong to something. And, I suggest, perhaps we also crave something mystical, something that can’t be fully explained? Yes, says Hyun-key. ‘With shamanism, the roots go very deep – Korea is an ancient culture – what better than your own exotica?’

She’s been criticized for saying the rediscovery of Korean heritage is not something especially Korean but part of a global trend. But it makes a lot of sense to me. The author of four books and numerous articles on English literature, anthropology, Korean culture and society, Hyun-key Kim Hogarth gave two papers last year, and is going to give two more this year in the UK and US on her most recent area of study, Shamanism and Christianity. She’s hardly shying away from controversy with the title ‘Jesus as a shaman’. But she has no agenda, she simply follows her interests and observations. Her next project is a book on Korean Christianity, which she hopes to complete next year.

Today’s shamans in South Korea are around 80 per cent women, usually from families with no opportunity for social advancement, sometimes orphans, sometimes psychologically disturbed, not part of the mainstream. Accepting the spirits allows them to help other people with misfortunes. They are compassionate and defiant. It’s a hard society to penetrate, and it took Hyun-key several months to be allowed in, but once they trust you they’re very supportive. Shamanistic rituals cost thousands of pounds, and it’s certainly in the shamans’ best interests to encourage the fresh nationalistic support for their practices. In 2006 she participated in the first international conference entirely sponsored by a shaman.

In the meantime, for herself, she’s been working on a memoir of her beautiful, sad love story. Her late husband Robert Hogarth used to work at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, just around the corner from the new Korean Cultural Centre, where now you can read some of her work in the excellent reference library. Accessibly written and fascinating for anyone with an interest in Korean culture, the books are also available from Jimoondang in Seoul.


  • Kut: Happiness Through Reciprocity (1998, Budapest, Academiai Kiado)
  • Korean Shamanism and Cultural Nationalism (1999, Seoul, Jimoondang)
  • Syncretism of Buddhism and Shamanism in Korea (2002, Edison & Seoul, Jimoondang)
  • Tasks and Times: Memoirs of Lee Tong Won, Foreign Minister who Finalized the ROK-Japan Normalization Treaty (2004, Seoul, Jimoondang)

3 thoughts on “Dr Hyun-key Kim Hogarth: how to be an anthropologist of your own culture

  1. Robert Hogarth MBE MVO very tragically died of a heart attack in 2003.

  2. Dear Jennifer,
    I really appreciate your posts on LKL, and in particular, your recent coverage of the AKS evening at the cultural centre. Would you like to give us a quick synopsis of your upcoming book? Thank you.

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