Culture Superstitions & Myths

Saju & Gunghap: Your life is predetermined. Is your significant other a good match?

Forgot your crystal ball? Don’t worry! Visit a Korean fortuneteller.


Forgot your crystal ball? Don't worry! Visit a Korean fortuneteller.  SAJU PALJA 사주팔자 - Koreans believe their future is predetermined, including how good of a match you are with your significant other.

“Should I quit my job?” “Am I going to meet someone new?” (RELATED : How do Koreans find their better half?) “Is this business plan going to make me rich?” Or, to be more culture-specific, “Will this double-eyelid surgery bring me good luck?” Regardless of culture, we have always been curious about what the future has in store for us, but alas, even in the age of smartphones and quantum physics, we still don’t have the future-seeing crystal ball. So what do we do? We turn to the people like oracles, messiahs, and shamans who we believe possess the ability or the knowledge of predicting the future and also practice various divination methods ranging from bibliomancy (the practice of the ancient Greeks and Romans by asking a question, then opening a book at random to find the first passage you see as the answer) to oinomancy, the practice of examining the colors and patterns in wine to predict the future. Meanwhile, in Korea, people have been using a quite sophisticated method of predicting one’s fate and destiny!

On the New Year’s Day in Korea (Why are there two New New Year’s Days in Korea?) , you can find people flock to a saju 사주 shop, with a list of questions prepared beforehand. Thought to have originated from the old philosophy of China, the literal meaning of saju is “the four pillars of destiny” that are associated with your birth moment – year, month, day, and hour. Each “pillar” is represented by two characters – one from one of the 12 “Earthly Branches” and one from one of the 10 “Heavenly Stems,” forming a combination of eight characters – the reason it’s also called saju palja 사주 팔자 (four pillars and eight characters). Then the “eight characters” are drawn from a pool of 60 characters, and each character has a yin or yang energy. They are further broken down into five primary elements, or ohaeng 오행 – wood, earth, fire, metal, and water.

Decoding sajupalja
Janet Shin @ http://www.koreatimes.co.kr
Fundamentals of saju & gunghap
Parnassus, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Because the characteristics of each element affect the personality of the person by either weakening or reinforcing a certain disposition, it takes a skilled “saju reader” to accurately interpret and explain the person’s fate and destiny. A saju reader would then lay out the interpreted meaning of your saju on a piece of paper, and you can ask questions about your life by category (e.g., marriage, career, health, and etc.), as well as by different time frames (e.g., 1-year prediction, 10-year prediction, after the 50’s, and etc.). So next time you visit Korea, stop by a saju shop and have your saju interpreted, but don’t get too excited if yours is an exact duplicate of Bill Gates’, because having the same saju doesn’t mean they will live the same life, as they are affected by many other factors such as the relationship with their parent’s saju and other circumstantial and environmental factors (and because saju readers also need to have a way out, just in case). Oh, but don’t get the impression that Koreans blindly trust the idea (but of course, there are people who swear by it). In general, people would take it more for entertainment purposes or to receive some helpful life advice from the wise people who came before us. Nowadays, many would rather turn to Google (or Naver, for that matter) to find an answer to their concerns about the future or how to remove Kimchi stains from their favorite shirt.

韓国四柱 | Korea Fortune Culture| 맵다서울 사주팔자 (EN/JP SUB)


Gunghap 궁합 “(marital compatibility)” is the analysis and the interpretation of the complex interaction between the 2 sajus of a couple, and an attempt to take a peek at what their future would look like. Korean couples, new and old alike, also love visiting a saju shop to have their gunghap assessed and foreshadow anything to come in the relationship – both good and bad. A saju reader’s role is to provide an accurate measure of how well each side complements or conflicts with one another. Quite often, some traditional Korean families give it the utmost importance as a deciding factor of marriage, and it’s not rare to hear breakup stories because of their incompatibility. For this reason, some would go as far as fabricating their birth certificates or even buy off a saju reader beforehand to have their story tailor-made to make it look like a perfect match. Such situations are frequently portrayed in Korean dramas. On the contrary, chaltteok gunghap 찰떡 궁합 means “a match made in heaven” because chaltteok means “glutinous rice cake,” and their stickiness represents perfect compatibility and harmony. Whether you believe it or not is entirely up to you, but it’s a fascinating piece of Korean culture that represents the Korean people’s attempt at unlocking the mysterious codes of our fate and destiny.

Don’t have a chaltteok gunghap yet? You can buy some chaltteok instead.

Royal Family Japanese Rice Cake Mochi Daifuku (Red Bean), 7.4 Ounce [Amazon]


There’s one place in Seoul which you should avoid visiting with your significant other – it’s the Deoksugung Doldamgil 덕수궁 돌담길 (“stonewall path”). On the outside, it’s a lovely trail along the stone wall surrounding the Deoksugung Royal Palace, but there’s an urban legend/myth that says walking down along the stone wall trail will make couples break up. Although the origin of this belief is unclear, the trail meanders to the Seoul Family Court right nearby, so a lot of couples that decide to part their ways would have to walk down the trail to get there, hence the myth.


Korean couples have a strong aversion to gifting shoes to each other because they believe it will make them run away (based on the superstition that new shoes will lead them to a better place and find someone better)! Another related expression is “putting on rubber shoes the other way around,”  an idiomatic expression used to describe how a girl dumps her boyfriend or cheats on him while he’s serving in the military. Rubber shoes were the most popular type of shoe girls used to wear back in the old days, and wearing them the other way around symbolizes the change of heart. So… if your significant other is trying to talk you into buying those fancy Gucci shoes for him/her, you can bring up this story and get out of the dangerous situation safely. You’re welcome! 😉


“Freeze! You’re under arrest for a crime you are predicted to commit in the next 36 hours!” Sounds like what Tom Cruise would say in the cyberpunk movie Minority Report (2002), doesn’t it? Set in the year 2054, the movie attempts to predict what our future society might look like – the Washington D.C. Police Department comes up with an amazing new technology called PreCrime, which assesses the likelihood of an individual committing a crime and apprehends them in advance. Kudos to us, we’ve curtailed the expected time to make sci-fi technology a reality by a whopping 30 years. In China, real-time facial-recognition technology capable of tracking down a suspect is already in use. Armed with the information obtained from “big data,” stopping the bad guys beforehand is becoming a reality. Centuries before the emergence of computer technology, Korean people had their own facial-recognition system set in place. In the movie Gwansang 관상 (The Face Reader, 2013), gwansang (physiognomy) expert Nae-gyeong is a famed face reader known for his ability to assess a person’s personality, mental state, good luck, and misfortunes one’s born with in order to predict their destiny. He finds himself in the middle of a Royal Court murder investigation where he’s asked to use his skills to identify the murderer. After that, he assists the king (who, ironically, asked him if he had the “face of a king” before he ascended to the throne) to weed out the potential rebels and nip them in the bud. Not as high-tech as computers, gwansang, believed to have originated in ancient China, is the essence of East Asian philosophy (From bowing to receiving stuff with two hands. Why do Koreans do what they do? YUGYO 유교- The ideology of the Korean people).

The Face Reader Trailer with English Subtitle

The central idea of gwansang is that our face is a small universe with yin and yang balance, which is divided into three parts with each part foretelling the fortune for given periods of our life – the forehead sangjeong 상정 (up until the age of 30), the area between the eyebrows to cheekbones jungjeong 중정 (up until the age of 40), and from the philtrum to the chin hajeong 하정 (age 50 and beyond). And the characteristics of the facial features, such as the form and the shape, have different meanings and their relationships determine one’s overall fortune. Some of the major reading points are:

Forehead: Reputation, Parents

Eyebrows: Interpersonal Skills, Siblings

Eyes: Love, Children Cheekbones: Ambition, Power 

Nose: Wealth, Liquid Assets 

Mouth: Aspiration, Talents 

Chin: Realty Assets, Employees

Like saju, the gwansang reader’s role is to analyze and interpret the complexities of one’s facial features to predict one’s future. While it’s nothing scientific, it’s a common practice in Korea enjoyed by people of all ages, like tarot card reading and palm reading. But again, some swear by it, and some big companies even hire face-readers when interviewing new candidates! And according to the face-reading experts, plastic surgeries won’t alter destiny, and race, culture, and ethnicity are irrelevant in the face-reading technique. So ditch your crystal ball and look yourself in the mirror, as your future is already written on your face.


Across many cultures around the world, pigs are a symbol of prosperity, abundance, and fertility, but Korean people unarguably have the strongest faith in this chubby animal; if they see a pig in their dream, 10 out of 10 will jump right out of bed and make a beeline for a lottery store. This belief is further strengthened by the countless incidents where the lottery winners claim the reason they bought a ticket was because of the pig dream! Still not buying it? Well, in Korean the Chinese character 豚 (pig) is pronounced don , which is the Korean word for “money.” So pig = money! And for that reason, people sometimes “buy” someone else’s dream in exchange for money, believing that the ownership of the auspicious dream and the associated good omen are transferred to the purchaser.

RELATED : Writing someone’s name in red / clipping nails at night are a no-no! And why is there no 4th floor?


TOILET PAPER – “MAY YOUR FUTURE BE WITHOUT ANY ISSUES” because Korean word pulida 풀리다 means “to unfold (a roll of toilet paper),” but also means “to resolve (an issue).”


But Bae Young-dong, Professor of Folklore at Andong University has a different interpretation. “It was necessary to purify the house, whether it was a new house or an old house, and toilet paper or detergent took over the role.”

RELATED : Spooky Korean superstitions & beliefs – pungsujiri 풍수지리 / mudang 무당 / boiled pig head…? Writing someone’s name in red / clipping nails at night are a no-no! And why is there no 4th floor?

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