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Back When Tigers Used to Smoke: The Origin of Korea

Posted By Gavin Conlon On May 12, 2019 @ 7:37 pm In Folk Beliefs,Folk speech,Narrative,Tales /märchen | Comments Disabled

Context:

The subject is a college freshman, born in South Korea before moving to the United States when they were 12 years old. I wanted to get to know more about any folklore they might have experienced growing up, so I conducted an interview with them to find out.

 

Piece:

Subject: You know how most fairy tales start with, like, “once upon a time”?

Interviewer: Mhm.

Subject: The, uh, Korean version is, “back when tigers used to smoke.” Like cigarettes. Back when tigers would smoke tobacco basically. I don’t know the exact origin, but there are old Korean paintings depicting a tiger with like a little ancient Asian-Korean pipe. Koreans love inserting that sh*t, like so, I guess no one knows where it actually came from, but a lot of stories begin, “Back when tigers used to smoke tobacco.” Assuming they don’t anymore.

Interviewer: That’s so interesting, that’s the literal translation?

Subject: Yup.

Interviewer: Is it something to do with like, the legend of how Korea started with a tiger and a, uh lion?

Subject: A bear.

Interviewer: A bear, yeah, is it something to do with that?

Subject: Tiger is like, America has an eagle, Korea has a tiger.

Interviewer: Makes sense.

Subject: Like Korean wild tigers have gone extinct after Japanese occupation, cuz they would hunt tigers as like sport. So I don’t think there’s any tigers left in wildlife Korea. But Koreans pride themselves, um North Korea claims they have tigers, I don’t know they totally could. But like, yeah tigers, the quintessential Korean animal. Do you know the fable of how Korea started?

Interviewer: Not really.

Subject: It’s super simple, God basically came down and found a tiger and a bear who both wanted to be humans. So God told them to like, “okay if you go live in a cave, only live off garlic and warm wood for 60 days or 100 days or something, then you will be a human.” The tiger left because it was impatient, but the bear survived, the bear became a woman and had the child of the God. So the human woman, who used to be a bear, got pregnant from God, and gave birth to an egg. Out of that egg was Korea’s first king, supposedly, like King Arthur type thing. That was like 50,000 years ago I guess.

 

Analysis:

As you can see, our conversation led to much of what this analysis section would talk about. The tiger is a very prevalent and defining symbol for Korea, and as they were once given human characteristics in old fables to explain the origins of their country, it makes sense why fairy tales would begin with a description of a time when tigers would be human-like. Maybe setting the story before the God came down, or during the first settling of humans in the country.

Specifically, the tigers in Korea are Siberian tigers. It brings luck, and embodies courage and absolute power.

 


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URL to article: http://folklore.usc.edu/?p=44801