Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's Dictee,  Exorcisms from Demons

A Reunification with the Korean Spirit

By Wayne Stein, Ph. D.

in Korea and Regional Geopolitics, Walter Jung and Xiao-Bing Li (editors). New York: University Press of America, 



Can you read and write in English? Yes__ . No___.

Write down the following sentences in English as I dictate them.

                                    There is a dog in the road

                                    It is raining.


                                                            --Myung Mi Kim, "Into Such Assembly" [1] 


... a remembering of what our soul once saw as it made its journey

with a god, looking down upon what we now assert to be real and

gazing upwards at what is Reality itself.


                                                            --Plato,  Phaedrus 



"I am hungry. I want to go home."  On opening the book Dictee, a picture of Korean calligraphy (hangul) presents 
these words and introduces the overall theme of the book.  Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha is a Korean Odyssey, 
and the journey home is full of danger, confusion, and finally hope.  The heroes who find their way home are 
shamans, saints, and martyrs.  However, the main character is not the normal hero; instead, the main character is 
the Korean spirit, trapped, exiled and detained from returning home by various demons: the tyranny of Japanese 
colonialism, the desolation of the Korean War, the betrayal of political corruption, and the cultural gaps 
between a mother and a daughter.  Dictee is no ordinary book; instead, it can be viewed as an elaborate Korean 
ritual of exorcisms, a "kut." [3] Dictee as an elaborate kut is 
performed by various shamans, mystics, and martyrs.  These exorcisms unfold before the reader who experiences the 
liberation of the Korean spirit from these demons. 

To understand how Dictee functions as a kut, it becomes important to review how Korean shamans use exorcisms to 
free people from various physical, psychological, and spiritual limitations or ailments.  Basically, a kut is the 
most elaborate of the theatrical rituals that are used to exorcise the demons to leave the possessed.  
Ethnographer Laurel Kendall explains that fire songs, masks, and drum beats are all part of the ritual where the 
mansim (shaman) performs a drama of exorcism for an audience of either family members or neighbors. [4]   Thus, in one sense, the mansim is a performance artist, and this 
parallels Theresa Hak Kyung Cha?s own artistic achievements. She was a talented performance artist who combined 
elements of film, dance, sound and poetry together in her productions.  Dictee became another of Cha's 

A crucial element of Cha?s performance is its use of language, especially the nuances of learning language.  The 
title of Dictee means dictation in French. Dictation is one of the oldest methods for learning a language. One 
simply writes what one hears or thinks one hears, thus, trying to improve one's language abilities.  Sections of 
Dictee are like dictation exercises for learning French:

Ecivez en francais:

1.      If you like this better, tell me so at once.

2.      The general remained only a little while in this place.

3.      If you did not speak so quickly, they would understand you better.  

Only a skilled listener who has a good grasp of the language can do well in dictation. In a sense, the mansim, 
skilled in divine dictation, is a talented enough listener who understands the voice of the heavenly and 
translates it so that others can understand the message.  Competence in understanding the languages of the divine 
and earthly are important for the mansim.  The main message of the divine dictation concerns understanding 
Korea's changing role in modern history in times of high skepticism and dire mistrust.

Dictee, as L. Hyun Yi Kang states, is  "a site of resistance, where the readers are made to reevaluate our 
conceptions of language and of reading."  [6]   In an exorcism, the 
audience is always made to reevaluate many cultural conceptions and preconceptions with language being a catalyst 
for doing so.  In a performance of an exorcism, language is a vital source of empowerment for a mansim and her 
clients because a mansim understands the power of words.  Indeed, in an ancient context, language had a meaning 
and a power altogether lost today.  In an exorcism, one of the most ancient oral rhetorical traditions involving 
the use of language, a mansim talks to gods, demons and spirits and becomes an incarnate of these spiritual 
entities.  She is in touch with the deepest mysteries of life and can persuade demons to quit haunting or 
possessing a person.  Speaking is not only using sounds to communicate with; it is the act of being possessed by 
and of becoming, at least momentarily, transformed into the mystical other.  Thus, words have the power to 
initiate one into the mysteries. Dictee is an initiation exploring the powers of language while uncovering the 
lost spiritual powers Koreans once had.

In Dictee, the Korean language/voice is recorded as becoming, in a sense, meaningless while symbolizing rigidity:

Particles bits of sound and noise gathered picking up lint, dust.  They might scatter and become invisible. 
Speech morsels. Broken chips of stone. [7] 

In this excerpt, the sentence fragments reinforce the broken English used by an exiled Korean in America.  This 
comparison of words to solid matters parallels Cha?s own use of words in her films and performances.  Susan Wolf, 
who knew Cha, wrote in "Recalling Telling Retelling" an overview of her artistic accomplishments and specifically 
on how Cha valued words, "Words are treated as physical things in much of Cha?s work." [8] Throughout Cha's written kut, language is associated with the physical 
entity of stone.  Indeed in a sense, language becomes trapped in stone.  Being solidified, it imprisons, 
mummifies and crumbles like stone monuments.   This language of stone becomes a sign of the times, where 
language, voice and spirit are all of the same entity.  Thus, we are not impressed with the muted words of 
leaders and politicians, where truth is missing.  Even more importantly, language and the culture possessed 
within solidified matter seem to be dead.   However, a spirit haunts the stones and haunts us, asking for 
liberation.  Dictee as a kut is trying to exorcise this deadness away from us.  At one point in the kut, even 
time is dead.  Cha writes, "Dead time. Dead gods. Sediment. Turned stone."  
[9]   She explores a realm where time and space do not exist in the manner associated with normal 
existence.  According to Chung-Hei Yun,  "Cha's vision goes beyond the boundaries of historical time and space, 
blending her aesthetic and religious visions and placing the remembered tragic history of Korea in a mythic 
context."  [10]    A kut is an exploration going beyond human 
understanding where the rules that govern this reality, this time and space, do not apply.  Indeed, one goes to a 
shaman in acknowledgement that only someone understanding the supernatural can help restore balance.  Cha, the 
mansim, guides the readers to a realm beyond the trials and errors of this reality.

In Dictee, only language can free itself, and for women, language becomes the source of this potential liberating 
power.   In both ancient and modern Korea, the power of shamanism was and is held by the females. [11]   These female shamans, the mansims, are important to Korean culture.  
Furthermore, females in general hold an important role in Korean society, and this is usually overlooked in the 
Korean patriarchal order.  When a woman marries into a family, the new wife finds herself caring for the 
household gods and ancestors of her husband; thus, she becomes the keeper of the spirits of the house.  In  
Dictee, the words house and home are repeated throughout the text. At one point, the question is asked:

what nationality

or what kindred and relation

what blood relation

what blood ties of blood,

what ancestry

what race generation

what house clan tribe. . .  [12] 

If something went wrong within the house or to someone associated with the house, e.g., a job was lost or an 
illness occurred, a mansim might be called in to appease the restless ghosts and weary spirits.  If the problems 
were major enough, a mansim would perform a kut.  The current problems of the Korean spirit are grave enough for 
the powers of the shaman, the voice of a woman, to be called in to restore order. The patriarchal order failed 
drastically with the defeat of the Japanese forces, later with the conflict between North and South Korean, and 
still later with the corrupt South Korean politicians. Only a matriarchal language/voice can liberate the Korean 

            In many sections of the Cha's kut, the voice of a daughter is heard speaking about the memory of a 
mother.  In one scene in Dictee, the mother is ill and experiences a possession of "spells, words, noise. . .  
they seek you, inhabit you whole, suspend you airless, spaceless.  They force their speech upon you and direct 
your speech only to them."  [13] Then during this possession, the 
person is transformed into Christ who is tempted by Satan. Finally, the spell ends with the possessed person 
returning back to her mother and father. [14]   Her bout with the 
temptations parallels the bout the Korean national spirit had with the Japanese colonial spirit, when Korea had 
been occupied/possessed by this entity.  The possessed were forced to speak in the Japanese tongue. In Dictee, 
the narrator?s mother was a teacher in Manchuria and was forced to use Japanese, just as all Koreans were forced 
during the Japanese occupation.  Furthermore, this situation parallels Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's own experience 
when she came to America from Korea at the age of twelve, and similar to all such immigrants, she had to learn a 
new language, English.  Theresa, like her mother, was forced to learn a new language and to assimilate the 
culture that is possessed in that new language. Dictee, functioning as an elaborate kut, tries to direct the 
Korean spirit to be reunited with itself, the part that was pushed aside during the culture shock of becoming 
American while learning English or that was pushed aside during the Japanese occupation when Koreans were forced 
to speak in Japanese.

            As an integrated part of the intricate kut, Cha explores the relationship between mother and daughter 
by the retelling of the Eleusinian mysteries in which the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone is central. In 
that mythical tale, the mother Demeter searches for her abducted daughter Persephone. This tale parallels Cha's 
own search for her own mother.  Although Cha is not separated physically from her mother like Demeter was, Cha is 
culturally separated.  Having been raised in the American culture, Cha felt alienated from her mother and 
mother?s culture.  In the Greek myth, Demeter tried everything in her power to find her lost daughter.  Finally, 
as she withdrew into herself, the earth became colder while the greenness faded:

Let her call forth. Let her break open the spell cast upon time and upon time again and again.  With her voice, 
penetrate earth?s floor the walls of Tartaurus [hell] to circle and scratch the bowl?s surface.  [15] 


Here Cha gives her reader a re-experience of Demeter?s painful need to find her daughter.  Finally, Demeter was 
allowed to be reunited with her daughter though only temporarily and only once

a year in spring.  Thus, spring represents that reunion with its green colors returning and with its fields 
needing to be sown.  The Eleusinian mysteries were created to pay respect to that sacred relationship between 
mother and daughter, and through ritual acts, the truth of Demeter and Persephone's pain caused by their personal 
separation is then shared with all participants.  The balance of nature must be respected, and when that balance 
is not respected, nature will fall apart. The mysteries reunited its participants, emphasizing a connection to 
nature and to the mysteries of nature.  In the mysteries, some sort of secret initiation was involved.  
Participants were led into some sort of cavern underground where lights and shadows were used as part of the 
initiation into enlightenment.  In Dictee, Cha asks that Eleusis ?stand again? so that  we may once again 
appreciate nature in a way that has all but been forgotten.  [16]  


The separation between mother and daughter of the Greek myths does more than parallel Cha?s own separation with 
her own cultural ties; it symbolizes Korea?s own separation from its own spirit and its own mysteries. The torn 
Koreas are two humans, a mother and daughter, a family separated from each other, with the daughter being in Hell 
while the mother cries for their reunification.

            In various moments in Dictee's kut, there are some strange, seemingly incongruent acts, where various 
spiritual powers of the Western world are brought into the performances.  In a certain moment of one of Cha's 
performances, the voice of a French saint is heard.  St. Therese of Lisieux declares her ecstatic love for her 
future husband Jesus:

I am only a child, powerless and weak, and yet it is my weakness that gives me the boldness of offering myself as 
VICTIM of your love, O Jesus! In times past, victim, pure and spotless, were the only ones accepted by the strong 
and Powerful God.  [17] 

This is part of the passionate ritual that Carmelite nuns experience when uniting with God.  In a meaningful 
sense, Jesus, their great love/lover, is simply a representation of the most important man in their lives, and 
the wedding becomes an important symbolism of that union.  This wedding becomes a consequential part of the 
elaborate kut.  Sacrifice and offerings are always significant elements of any exorcism, and as the above lines 
express, having a spirit asking for the ultimate sacrifice fulfills perfectly the needs of Cha?s kut.

Another ritual of Catholicism, the Eucharist, becomes an important part of St. Therese's needs and Cha?s 
performance, the ritual of the Eucharist is a momentous symbol of the union of the finite with the infinite. In 
Dictee, St. Therese experiences this union between a human and the divine:

The Host Wafer (His Body. His Blood.) His. Dissolving in the mouth to the liquid tongue saliva (Wine to Blood. 
Bread to Flesh.) His.  [18] 

This drinking of the wine and bread, the blood and spirit of God, is a way for members of the church to relive 
the death and resurrection of God.   This performance of the wedding is important in Dictee, for it represents 
the religious union/possession needed for a spirit to be fulfilled.  Thus, in times of spiritual unrest, all 
political, social and personal problems are mere outward signs of the inner spiritual chaos.  The  Korean psyche 
and spirit could benefit from such a wedding with the spiritual. The lessons from this aspect of the kut called 
Dictee are performed before the audience of readers.

In another part of this elaborate kut, the colonization of Korea by Japan is revisited. Cha asks, "Why resurrect 
it all now. From the Past. History, the old wound.  The past emotions all over again.  To confess to relive the 
same folly.  To name it now so as not to repeat history in oblivion." 
[19]   The death of Yu Guan Soon, the Korean Joan of Ark, the "deliverer of nation," is 
relived. [20]   She helped organize the March 1, 1919, demonstrations 
where Koreans declared their own independence from the Japanese. That date was ?the largest outcry against the 
Japanese occupation of the Korean people who willingly gave their lives for independence." [21]   During the Japanese colonization of Korea, she sacrificed her life for 
the spirit of Korea and died so that Koreans could live. [22]   In one 
sense, this act becomes a reenactment of the death of Jesus in Israel.  Indeed, the death of a god sacrificing 
himself for the sins of mankind could be viewed as the ultimate kut where sacrificial offerings are made to 
appease a spiritual imbalance.  Sin can be defined as separation of the finite from the infinite as defined by 
Paul Tillich.  Before Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, humans lived by God's side; however, after the 
fall and the original sin of eating from the tree, humans were and are born in sin, being without God. This is 
St. Augustine's doctrine of original sin, accepted by both Protestants and Catholics. Thus, humans live in 
continuous separation from the divine. The occupation of Korea by the Japanese parallels the occupation of Israel 
by the Romans.  On one page of Dictee, there is a famous picture of three blindfolded Koreans tied to crosses 
being executed by Japanese soldiers during the occupation. [23]   Yu 
Guan Soon's blood is the blood of sacrifice, which satisfies the gods.  Furthermore, just as Israel has been 
restored as a country, Korea one day will also be restored to its former glory, and she will no longer be North 
separated from the South.

Toward the end of Dictee, the succession of exorcisms or performances finally gives way to a climax of the 
mansim's performance, where the audience of readers experiences the transformation of the stone/spirit of Korea.  
A "hue-less" stone is stained by, and turns colors to be as red "as a flame caught in air. . . .  Rise voices 
shifting upwards circling. . .  . In deep metal voice spiraling up wards . . . ."  
[24]    Finally, the cries of Demeter are heard as mother and daughter are reunited, when the 
daughter is resurrected from Hades, and spring is resurrected from winter.  During this transformation, the 
Korean earth is resurrected, and Korea is reborn. The kut is, in an important sense, over, and the demons of the 
past have been exorcised. Though Korea is still not unified and though it continues to have problems, the Korean 
spirit has the potential of being reborn.  Voices once inaudible rise up out of the stone.  One of the voices is 
the Korean spirit resounding and echoing in the readers' ears as the book nears the end.

            In Dictee, a significant liberator of the Korean spirit is language itself and a remembering of the 
past.  Though humans have forgotten their divinity, they once remembered their divine past, as Plato points out 
in Phaedrus.  The potential and power of remembering remain for all Koreans, Korean Americans, Americans, and all 
humans in general, to discover.  As Cha, in another work "Exilee Tempt Mort" states, humans have forgotten their 
lives in the "upper world" because they have drunk from the "waters of lethe."  
[25]   The shaman reminds us to remember that we are connected to the divine and to our past, and 
to go beyond our fears, and the demons that try to enslave us.  Furthermore, the voice of a Korean American, 
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, reminds us that we can be liberated because our own spirit is more powerful than reality.  
Spirit conquers reality. The elaborate kut, Dictee, awaken us to the power of the infinite in language, which is 
the power of going home to ourselves.       


Works Cited

Cha, Theresa Hak Kyung.  "Exilee  Temps Morts."  Hotel. New York: Tanam Press, 1980.

Cha, Theresa Hak Kyung. Dictee.  Berkeley: Third World Press, 1995.

Kendall, Laurel. The Life and Hard Times of a Korean Shaman. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1988.

Kendall, Laurel.  Shamans, Housewives, and Other Restless Spirits. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1985.

Kim, Elaine.  ?Poised on the In-between: A Korean American's Reflection's on Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's Dictee."   
Writing Self: Writing Nation. Eds. Elaine H. Kim and Norma Alarcon. Berkeley:  Third Woman Press, 1994.

Kim, Myung Mi. "Into Such Assembly." The Forbidden Stitch.  Eds. Shirley Geok-lin Lim, Mayumai Tsutakawa and 
Margarita Donnelly. Corvalis, Oregon: Calyx Books, 1989.

Plato.  Phaedrus. Trans. W.C. Helmbold and W.G. Rabinowitz. New York: Macmillan/Library of Arts, 1956.

Wolf, Susan. "Theresa Cha: Recalling Telling ReTelling." In Fire Over Water. Ed. Reese Williams. New York: Tanam 
Press, 1986.

Yang, L. Hyung Yi.  "The Liberatory Voice of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's Dictee." Writing Self: Writing Nation. Eds. 
Elaine H. Kim and Norma Alarcon. Berkeley: Third Woman Press,  1994.

Yun, Chung-Hei. "Beyond Clay Walls": Korean American Literature. Reading the Literature of Asian America.  Eds. 
Shirley Geok-lin Lim and Amy Ling. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992.


 [1] Myung Mi Kim. "Into Such Assembly."  The Forbidden Stitch.  Eds. 
Shirley Geok-lin Lim, Mayumai Tsutakawa and Margarita Donnelly. (Corvalis, Oregon: Calyx Books, 1989), 18.

 [2] Plato, Phaedrus. Trans. W.C.  Helmbold and W.G. Rabinowitz. (New 
York: Macmillan/Library of Arts, 1956), 249.

 [3] Dictee is not accessible to many readers. Indeed, it has turned 
some readers off.  The renowned scholar of Korean American literature, Elaine Kim, was initially "put off by the 
book" though later she saw its value.  ?Poised on the In-between: A Korean American?s Reflection?s on Theresa Hak 
Kyung Cha?s Dictee."  Writing Self: Writing Nation Eds. Elaine H. Kim and Norma Alarcon. (Berkeley:  Third Woman 
Press, 1994), 3.


 [4] Laurel Kendall. The Life and Hard Times of a Korean Shaman. 
(Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1988),  7.

 [5] Cha, 8.

 [6] L. Yung Yi Yang. "The 'Liberatory Voice' of Theresa Hak Kyung 
Cha's Dictee." In Writing Self: Writing Nation. Ed. by Elaine Kim and Norma Alarcon. (Berkeley: Third World 
Press, 1994), 97.

 [7] Cha, 56.

 [8] Susan Wolf. "Theresa Cha: Recalling Telling ReTelling." In Fire 
Over Water. Ed. Reese Williams. (New York: Tanam Press, 1986), 105.

 [9] Cha, 130.

 [10] Chung-Hei Yun, "Beyond 'Clay Walls': Korean American 
Literature." Reading the Literature of Asian America. Eds. Shirley Geok-lin Lim and Amy Ling. (Philadelphia: 
Temple University Press, 1992.), 90.

 [11] Laural Kendall.  Shamans, Housewives, and Other Restless 
Spirits. (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1985), 26. Kendall who did ethnographies in Korea on shamanism 
speculates on the reason for women being in charge.  She disagrees with the critics who contend that such rituals 
provide women with "a cathartic release from oppressive patriarchy.?  Instead, she insists that shamanism has a 
longer history than the powers of the patriarchy in Korea.  Before the sixteenth and seventeenth century, gentry 
daughters could inherent land and had some rights in society. However,  after the ?Confucanization" of Korea, the 
oldest son became the sole possessor of property unlike the Chinese system where the wealth was shared between 


 [12] Cha, 20.

 [14] Cha, 53.

 [15] Cha, 123.

 [16] Cha, 130.

 [17] Cha, 111.

 [18] Cha, 13.

 [19] Cha, 33.

 [20] Cha, 37.

 [21] Cha, 30.

 [22] Both Yu Guan Soon and St. Therese died at a young age as 
martyrs.  On page 93 is a picture of St. Therese dressed as Jeanne d'Arc holding a sword. On page 119, there is a 
picture from a silent move about Joan of Ark.  Cha  felt it was important to have a female martyr for her kut.  
Ironically, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha also died young. In a sense,  she herself becomes a sacrifice awakening the 
readers who are pulled into the noted history of the text and its writer.

 [23] Cha, 39.

 [24] Cha, 162.

 [25] Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. "Exile Temps Morts." Hotel. (New York: 
Tanam Press, 1980), 133.

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