USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Korean’
Tales /märchen

ShimChong: the blindman’s daughter

15) Shimchong: the blindman’s daughter

Long time ago, maybe during the end of the HongPung era, there was a poor blind man named Shim Hakkyu. Him and his wife finally had a kid, but the tiredness of childbearing was too much for his wife so she passed away. Shim Hakkyu raised his daughter alone with great hardship, but his daughter grew up to be beautiful and kind.

One day, when Shim Hakkyu was out and about begging for alms, he fell into a ditch. As he was wailing about his ill fate, a monk came and helped him out; he told Shim Hakkyu that if he offers 300 sacks of rice to the temple and the Buddha, then it will have his sight restored. Shim Hakkyu was overjoyed by this kind offer and said yes in a whim. However, he soon realized that he has no means to get 300 sacks of rice. Shim Hakkyu told ShimChong that he was really really worried because what if they end up offending the Buddha???

That night, in ShimChong’s dream, her mother came to her and told her that if she goes and find this merchant at the harbor, he will give their family 300 sacks of rice. So the next day, ShimChong sets out to go to the harbor. The merchant is looking for a fair and beautiful girl to sacrifice to the dragon king so that they can finally sail, and he was overjoyed to see ShimChong volunteer.

The temple was very pleased to receive the 300 sacks of rice, yet Shim Hakkyu did not ge his sights back. The monks of the temple told Shim Hakkyu that it will come to him in time. Because of  that, Shim Hakkyu has now yet to regain his eyesight, but also lost his only daughter. As ShimChong descended into the water, the sea became calm and all the sailors weeped for this beautiful and filial girl. ShimChong surprisingly found herself to be breathing under water. Two guards of the dragon king came to take her with them to the palace; there she lived happily, and her mother’s spirit rested there as well. However, she soon felt homesick, and unwilling to see this beautiful and filial girl sad, the Dragon King turned her into a beautiful white flower and brought her back to land.

ShimChong the flower was discovered by a fisherman, and then offered to the sad emperor that has just recently lost his spouse. When the emperor laid eyes on this flower, he was so wowed and happy that he took the flower in and kept it in the center of his palace. The king was completely obsessed with the flower and one night, he discovered the beautiful ShimChong that came outside of the flower at night. The emperor was so pleased with ShimChong that he decided to marry her. ShimChong was happy to marry the emperor and finally be back on land, but she was still sad that she could not find her father. She sent a request for the king to have a public wedding banquet and to invite all the blind beggars in this country. For three days, countless blind beggars feasted and joyed, but her father was nowhere to be seen. Just as ShimChong was about to give up, she hears the sound of a blind man who arrived late trying to argue his way in with the guards. She rushes towards the gate and discovers that that was her father! The two were overjoyed and to be reunited, and in that moment, Shim Hakkyu regains his sight so that he was able finally see his beautiful daughter.

My korean friend Justin presented this story to me. Justin could not remember a lot of the details so out of curiosity I looked them up. I really like this story in that it has many ups and downs. Justin knew this story just from reading in Elementary school. I feel like I see some common elements between asian folktales in that they seem to rarely end happily, and that family and being filial is absolutely one of the most important things. However, at the same time, I feel like this story really degrades women, making them objects that when in need are praised.


Gestation, birth, and infancy
Life cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays

100 Day Party for South Korean Babies

The informant, my friend, is a 20-year-old college student. All of the informant’s grandparents immigrated to the United States from South Korea, but both of her parents have lived in the United States their whole lives.

While we were in line to order at a local Chipotle restaurant, I asked the informant if any specific traditions or customs related to her South Korean heritage have stood out to her the most throughout her life. She hesitated for a moment, and at first failed to answer my question. A few minutes later, she began to describe a coming-of-age ceremony that was held for her as a baby.

“Traditionally in South Korea, when a baby makes it to 100 days it means that they’re going to live a long life. So at 100 days the baby’s family holds a ‘100 Day Party.’ The babies wear a traditional South Korean outfit and there is a whole feast for the family. During the ceremony there are a lot of different bowls, and each one contains something different like a dollar bill, different types of food, some thread, or a pencil. The baby is set in front of the bowls and whichever ones it puts its hands in are supposed to represent what type of life it will have. So if you choose the pencil you’re supposed to be intelligent, the dollar means you’ll be rich, and the thread means you’ll have a long life.”

This ceremony marks the point at which a South Korean family truly celebrates the life of their new child without hesitation or worries of health complications leading to a premature death. It seems to be a remnant of the lack of healthcare and prevalence of childhood mortality that existed across the globe several centuries ago, since in recent years child mortality rates in developed nations like South Korea and the United States have fallen drastically as a result of increasing knowledge in the health sciences as well as greater availability of medicine and healthcare services. I asked the informant if she remembered what was in the bowl that she picked on her 100 Day Party, but she did not. For the informant’s family, then, the party served more as a celebratory event than a true predictor of their child’s life trajectory, since her lack of knowledge with regards to the object that she picked had no bearing on the personal and career choices she has been allowed to make throughout her life. I also asked the informant if she plans to hold a 100 Day Party for her children, if she has any, and she responded that she does. It is realistic to say that this folk tradition will continue to exist for future generations, as it is a fun and exciting event that many would have no moral hesitation holding for their child.


Hot Weather, Hot Foods


“When the weather is hot outside, you’re supposed to eat something hot so it’ll cool you down. I don’t really know why, I think it’s like… what you’re consuming is hotter than the weather outside.”


When asked about the background of this custom, the informant didn’t really know when or where it originated from. He thinks that the reasoning behind the custom is that temperature is relative, so if the food is extremely hot, it’ll make the weather outside feel less hot. It doesn’t really hold much meaning to him, but it’s just something that he recalls always being told as a kid. He doesn’t really follow it any more either.


I collected this from a male Korean friend who had heard it from his mom. He said that it’s normally taught to kids at a young age. And he says that it’s “just a Korean thing.”

Personal Thoughts:

I think that this may show an inclination of Asians, Koreans in this case, to like being in control. They don’t like to be controlled by things in which they have no say, such as the weather.


Table Settings: Rice and Soup


“This is another custom… you’re supposed to have rice on the left side of you, and soup on the right side when you serve it. Don’t know the reason, but maybe because you eat with your right hand.”


The informant learned this from his mom. He doesn’t really know the meaning of it, but he doesn’t like it because he think it’s annoying.


This is a custom that is normally taught to kids at a young age regarding table manners.

Personal Thoughts:

I think this is part of table manners that are taught in Korean culture, similar to the ways that we have rules about where the bread plate, drinks, or utensils are placed on a table. This creates more organization on a table, and since rice and soups are a common part of Korean meals, they have rules about where they go within a table setting.


Korean Pajeon Sauce

Information about the Informant

My informant is from a Vietnamese family. She’s currently an undergraduate student at Indiana University Bloomington. In her spare time, she loves to knit and cook, primarily baked goods, but also some “Asian” recipes that she learned from her family. This is a recipe for a Korean sauce for “pajeons,” which is a type of pancake-like dish with green onions as a primary ingredient (for the pancakes, not the sauce).


“To make the sauce for the Korean Pa jeon, I do–let’s estimate it to 3 tablespoons of low-sodium soy sauce, 1 tablespoon of Worchestershire sauce, 1 teaspoon of chili garlic sauce, roasted sesame seeds, and 1 tablespoon of the–just the lemon ponzu sauce.”

Collector: “And you just mix it all together?”

“Yeah. And I think that’s it.”


One of the things my informant shares with her mother is their mutual love of cooking. This is a recipe passed down to the informant from her mother, and is interesting because it clearly not “authentically” Korean. There is the obvious “inauthenticity” of a Korean recipe being passed down through a family of non-Korean though East Asian extraction, but in a closer examination of the ingredients that my informant gave me, one in particular stands out as unusual. Worchestershire sauce is definitely not of Korean, let alone, Asian origin, an ingredient that is strongly associated with the European continent. There is also the ingredient chili garlic sauce, with chili being a plant that is native to the Americas and which only spread after Columbus’s voyage. This raises questions, as is often the case, of what is authentic cultural food? Is the use of the chili pepper acceptable as the plant spread in the 16th century, but Worchestershire sauce is not because it has stronger ties to a non-Asian culture? This is a recipe that my informant and her mother have been using for years, but it’s clear that some elements did not come from some grand chain of passing-down all the way from the ancient Koreans.


Scissor Lock

Scissor lock

The Informant:

My friend, was born in Los Angeles, CA. He is an only child and stayed in Southern California his whole life. He came over to my room one day and I randomly asked him if he had any good stories. I asked him specifically if he ever heard about the scissor lock and he told me:

The Story:

You’re asleep. You wake up in the middle of the night and you’re in your room. You see a figure in a corner – a grandma. She’s a Korean grandma wearing traditional clothing, not the nice kind of the type that commoners and poor people wear, with gray hair. She’s sitting on a chair, moaning and weeping. You want to get up and talk to her but you can’t. All you can do is move your eyes. You look to the right and it’s a blank wall. You look back at the grandma and she’s gone. Suddenly you feel a presence at the base of your head. You want to look up but you can’t – you’re petrified. You want to do something but you can’t because you’re stuck. You can’t move. Then I started saying prayers and singing praise songs and everything went away.  You wake up with your arms crossed and hands on your shoulders, like a scissor.

 This never happened to me, thankfully, but I know people who have experienced it.

The Analysis:

The scissor lock is an occurrence that I first came across two years ago. When I asked my friend to tell me this story, it was late at night around 11pm. The room was very bright and the story did not seem scary at the time. The scissor lock appears to be a common occurrence among Koreans, Korean Christians especially. This version included specifically seeing a grandma clothed in old, dirty clothes. It is not known whether this is a general case of a specific case for just my friend. The name scissor lock appears to come from the position in which one wakes up in, with your arms crossed diagonally across the body.

Folk Beliefs

Don’t shake your leg

“If you shake your leg when you’re sitting, you shake off all your good luck.”


My informant comes from a Korean family. She had no idea why she was taught this as a child, but recalled her mother being adamant about the dangers of shaking one’s leg (she demonstrated – the saying seems to apply to when one is sitting with one leg crossed over the other, jiggling the foot of the leg on top). There could be some sort of superstition involved in this belief; however, I think it’s likely that people simply wanted their children to stop fidgeting and made up a reason for them to refrain.


JangHwa HongRyeon

This story was told on a Sunday afternoon. She had just heard the story being told to one of her younger cousins, because it is very much the Korean version of Cinderella. It reminded her of the belief that children who showed much filial piety were granted good afterlives, and that evil is always repaid with evil. It is also meant to teach young men to keep watch for evil women and make sure that they were never sought for as wives. It also had the effect of teaching women what qualified as a wicked wife, and what was really meant by a caring mother. It follows very Confucian ideals, which is also an inherent part of Korean culture as well. The topic matter prior to this had been about dating, and this story was just something that came up as a result of that.

In the time of Great King Sejong, there was a man named Bae Mu Ryong who lived in Chul-San-Gun in the province of Pyong-An. He was born pretty well off because he did well enough with business, and his family was good so there was nothing for him to be jealous of. It was just that he had no children to pass on his name, so he was very, very, sad. One day, his wife, while dreaming, thought that a celestial being had come down and given her a flower. In giving her a flower, the wind blew and the flower slowly changed into a beautiful girl. The wife was so shocked by this that she woke up. She decided to tell this to her husband, who responded, “The heavens must have noticed that we have no children and are watching over us to provide that precious child for us.” Because he said that, the two became very happy. After this moment, the wife found out that she was pregnant with a child. They found that when she was born, she was so precious and particularly beautiful that they had to call her “JangHwa” (Rose-Flower) because she resembled precious jewels. When JangHwa was two, the mother gave birth to another child. Although the couple desperately wanted a son, they came to have another daughter. In their mind, because there was no other choice, gave her the name HongRyeon (Red-Lotus). The two sisters, as they grew older, became extremely beautiful and were extremely filially pious children. After raising such daughters, the couple found that they loved their daughters to an amount that nobody could compare with. However, there were no sons, so the couple was always worried about continuing the family line. But there was a time of sadness and the wife became very ill and was unable to move. The husband went and got medicine for her, but there was not even a single change in her condition. JangHwa looked up to the heavens to ask for the help of the gods in keeping her mother safe, but to no avail because the gods could not intervene in the event of illness. As a result, the mother died, leaving two daughters behind with the father all alone in the world.

“In the last life, she must have accumulated much bad sin in order to have left the world this early. Although it is not sad to die, it is sad that JangHwa and HongRyeon cannot close their eyes to the fact that they will have nobody to guide them throughout their lives. All I can do is wish for my wife to pass peacefully on, so that her weary soul can finally change and have rest and be reincarnated into another woman. Perhaps I will be able to meet her again and we will fall in love again and be reunited.” After lamenting so, the old man had no choice but to move on.

Despite having loved his former wife, the old man wished to preserve his family’s bloodline, so he remarried another woman. She was fertile, and was able to bear him three boys, much to his pleasure. She on the other hand, despised JangHwa and HongRyeon immensely. The two girls’ father had fallen in love with a shrew, with both a twisted heart and twisted body. She was clever, however, and was able to deceive the father into believing that she cared for the two girls as her own children. However, that only continued until she had borne three sons to her husband, which gave her much power in the family, as boys were valued more than girls because they could continue the bloodline. As soon as her position in the household became stable, she became extremely abusive to both JangHwa and HongRyeon, who did nothing but behave as filially pious daughters. Despite the constant stream of abuse that both of the girls faced, they did not say a single word to their father because they did not want to worry him or have him feel guilty about marrying the woman. Unfortunately, their younger brothers were no better. Having been raised and spoiled by their mother, they felt no love for their sisters and mistreated them with a terrible brutality. Sadly, even that went unnoticed by the father. As the boys grew up, they only became wicked along with their mother, who cared even less about the girls. But even in such an environment where they received no love and were treated so terribly by their stepmother and their younger brothers, the two girls continued to grow beautifully throughout their adolescence into adulthood. Eventually, the time came when the two girls could no longer truly be called girls, because they had truly matured into beautiful women who were ready to leave the home and start families of their own. Janghwa had actually gotten engaged with a man she loved very much, and was contemplating marriage. After a long period of time with much deliberation, she agreed to marry the man she was engaged to. The father, despite the sadness he felt at giving his daughter away to another family, was overjoyed at the fact that his beloved daughter was finally getting married.

The father told his wife, “Go and help prepare a wedding for JangHwa. She is old enough to move out of the home now, and she is exceedingly beautiful! Surely she will make a wonderful bride. Do this, and do it well.” However, the stepmother refused to do so. Having become very power hungry, she no longer thought of JangHwa and HongRyeon as even remotely part of her family. In her mind, they had become the extra mouths to feed and essentially slaves to the “main family” of the stepmother and her three sons. She didn’t want to spend any of her money, or any money that could be inherited by her sons on the ones in the family who weren’t even hers. And in her endless greed, she calculated, plotted, and finally came up with a plan. Having wanted to get rid of JangHwa for a long time, the stepmother was prepared to do anything. And so, one night, she carried out her plan.

One night, as JangHwa was sleeping peacefully in her bed, she quietly whispered to her son, “We must do this tonight. Go find a rat, and without anybody seeing you, go skin it. Slip it into her bed, and then leave. Let no one see you. Be silent, and be sneaky. With this, we shall finally be rid of that wench who thought she could use up our family’s money for her own selfish desires!”

Her son eagerly agreed, because he was the firstborn and would inherit the money after the death of his father. Per his mother’s commands, he went outside and caught a rat. Using his knife, he quickly skinned the rat. He sneaked into his sister’s room, and hid it under the sheets. The plan having been fulfilled, they all went to bed.

In the early hours of the morning, however, the nightmare was about to begin. Stepmother had “woken up” in a fright, waking up her husband as well. She frantically told her husband that she had been having nightmares regarding her older stepdaughter, and that surely meant something was amiss. Such omens, she had said, could have only meant that her stepdaughter had something evil about her. They went to her room, while JangHwa was still asleep, and pulled off the covers. There lied the skinned rat, which looked ultimately like a very bloody miscarriage. She screamed that she knew something was wrong about JangHwa the whole time, accusing her of being an unchaste girl who had had a child out of wedlock. JangHwa, who was shocked into silence because she was being accused of something she did not do to such an extreme degree, was utterly unable to defend herself. As a result, her father agreed with her stepmother and believed that she had slept with an unknown man and had become pregnant with his child, defiling herself and the name of the household. The shame of not being believed was too much for JangHwa. After all, this whole time, she had done absolutely nothing wrong, and had to deal with the abuse that her stepmother heaped upon her every chance she got and had said nothing to her father. She fled the house in tears to a pond in the nearby forest where she could cry without anybody seeing her.

Her stepmother, being both crafty and wicked sent her oldest son after JangHwa with the strict command: “If you see her near the pond, then drown her and make sure that she does not come back.” He eagerly complied, and followed JangHwa’s path into the forest. He pushed her into the pond, and watched as she drowned. However, he would not escape punishment for having taken someone’s life. A tiger suddenly appeared and viciously tore off one of his arms and legs. Needless to say, he was crippled by this, and was unable to do much. In addition, who would want to marry such a crippled and disfigured person? Although he was the oldest, the inheritance he would get would not help his condition in any way.

This enraged the stepmother beyond belief. She had gotten what she desired, which was getting rid of JangHwa. The cost of having done that, however, was much too high. She now had a crippled son who was essentially good for nothing. She was severely embittered by this fact and took it all out on Hongryeon. Having become sharper and more shrew-like with her bitterness and rage, she very quickly made life for Hongryeon beyond unbearable. All the poison and abuse became too much for her to handle by herself, especially since JangHwa was no longer there to console her and help her move on. Hongryeon left to the pond where JangHwa had died and committed suicide, drowning herself in the pond.

At this time, the mayor in the town changed. It was not such a big deal, as mayors changed from time to time as they were repositioned depending on what status they had acquired during the time they had served at a specific place. The new mayor died though, the night immediately after having moved into the village. This continued, as each mayor following the first mayor died the first night in office. Nobody knew why this was happening. A lot of rumors were spreading around town. Mayors were even afraid to come to the town because they thought they would die. Nobody ever found a culprit, and nobody was ever able to explain just what had happened to the mayors.

One day, a new mayor decided to come. He was young and he was strong; he was not afraid for his life. He knew what happened to the guys that had come before him in his position, but he was willing to go anyway. During the night, he was sitting in his room preparing to go to bed. Suddenly, a gust of wind blew out his candle and he heard various screams and moans fill the air. The air became very damp, and the smell of wet moss became very strong. His door opened by itself, but then he saw them. Two ghostly girls had opened the door, crying and weeping heavily. He had no patience for hysterics, but he felt that he needed to know. He asked them, “Why did you kill all the previous mayors? What sin have they committed that you felt the need to kill them?” The two wept and wept on as they explained their situation. They had not wanted to kill the mayors before him. What had happened was that they had appeared before each of the previous mayors. However, each mayor had been frightened to death because of what they saw, which was not the fault of the two girls. They told the newest mayor, “We only wanted to explain the injustice that has been done to us so that it can be fixed, clearing our names of the shame that they have been stained so deeply with.” JangHwa’s ghost had been unable to move on because she had died in anguish, knowing that everybody believed she was an unchaste girl. She wanted to undo that before she would be able to move on into the afterlife. She told the mayor that she had been framed by her stepmother, who had wanted to get rid of her. Her stepbrother had been an accomplice to this by murdering her in the end, drowning her in the pond she had run to. They asked the mayor if there was anything that he could do to clear JangHwa’s name.

His answer was simple. “Give me proof that they did this, and I will restore your honor as soon as I am able to do so.”

Her reply was just as simple. “Go check the supposed fetus that everybody said was mine. If you examine it, you will see that it is not mine, for I was a chaste girl while I was alive, and I committed no such act.”

The next morning, the new mayor did what the sisters’ ghosts had asked him to do. He summoned the family members who were involved, who were the father, stepmother, and the eldest son and examined the fetus. The stepmother had insisted that the “fetus” had come from Janghwa’s body as definitive proof that she was a wicked child who was unchaste. However, when the mayor asked to see the body, the stepmother tried to say that she no longer had it. She could not see why the mayor would know about the fetus at all, or why he would be concerned with it. Nobody knew what had happened except for her and her eldest son. She had no idea that JangHwa and HongRyeon were unable to move on to the afterlife. Under threat of punishment, however, the stepmother managed to produce the dead “fetus.” When he split it with a knife, the innards revealed that the supposed fetus was nothing more than a a common filthy rat. Stepmother and her eldest son were sentenced to death, and were excommunicated from the village. The father was free to go, however, because the mayor felt that he had known nothing about what was going on and was innocent of any wrongdoing. Plus, fulfilling his promise to the two ghostly sisters, he proved that JangHwa was an innocent girl who was the victim of a malicious plot to get rid of her. JangHwa’s honor was restored, and she was no longer thought of as a loose girl with no morals.

Years later, the girls’ father married once again, having fallen in love with another woman. On the night of his third wedding, he had a dream. He saw his two daughters in his dream, and they were more beautiful than ever. He wept because he believed that he had been unable to take care of them properly in life. They told him that nothing was his fault, and that since things were as they should be, they wanted to come back to him in life. Having died so young while having lived pure lives, they would have been reincarnated very quickly into human forms again. This promise was fulfilled, because his wife soon became pregnant. Nine months later, she delivered and found that she had given birth to twin girls. The father believed that his daughters had truly returned to him in the end. He named them “JangHwa” and “HongRyeon” and he loved them very much. His wife, too, loved them as she was also very kind woman. The twins grew healthy and in a loving environment, and the family lived a happy life in the end.

This legend is important in that it is a strong reminder of what not to be like. It teaches to be honest and virtuous rather than greedy and cunning. Goodness is rewarded with goodness, while nothing good comes from cruelty. It also teaches the virtue of being brave and not succumbing to fright because it will reveal truth. This is also important in that it is a story from my personal culture, and I understand the ideals that are behind it. Confucian ideals, filial piety, and even Buddhism with the idea of reincarnation are all part of the origins of Korean culture. This story affirms that.


Tales /märchen

The Sparrow Story

Interview Extract:

Informant: “Well, we have swallows in our house, like a nest on the side of our house, and the swallows come every year, for like four years now. And um, my dad told me this story about swallows, and basically, there were these two brothers, one very rich and the other very poor. The richer brother was annoyed by the poor brother ‘cause he was a um, he was a beggar and he’s always coming around asking for something and finally, like the rich brother, I think he was also the older brother, but the rich brother stopped giving him food and things.

Then um, the uh, poor brother noticed a swallows’ nest on his house, and saw a baby bird like, fall out and break its wing, so he took care of the bird. I think he just like, had nothing else to do.

Then like, all of a sudden, all these pumpkins start growing in his yard from a pumpkin seed, all this other good agriculture starts growing. And the poor brother was curious how he had all this food, but also he was very grateful. Then, uh, the sparrow got better, and it flew away. And then when the rich brother saw the good crops, he got jealous, so he tried to find a sparrow and break its wing or its leg so he could nurse it back to health so he could get good crops too. But of course, it didn’t work.

The sparrow only left a pumpkin seed on the poor brother’s garden because he was good and did not expect anything in return. So the moral of the story I guess, is when you just do good things, good things will happen to you.”

Me: “So is this a traditional Korean folktale?”

Informant: “Yeah, my dad told me about it just recently because we had birds next to our house, and we’re not supposed to kill nature, even though people would want to crush the nest because the birds can poop, you know, and make a mess, but apparently, it’s like special to have sparrows. They’re very symbolic in Korea I guess, so we keep the nest, and they just come back every year.”


Most of us would have heard stories similar to this one, where the younger or poorer sibling does a deed out of the kindness of their heart and is rewarded for it, while the jealous, richer, and usually older sibling will try to do the same but fail because of their avarice in some way. This theme, that the good-natured underprivileged character will prevail, is seen in Indian and European folktales as well and is extremely popular. People like to see the kind characters succeeding in the end and gaining the wealthy, happily-ever-after ending, especially when it doesn’t come true often in real life.

The sparrow was the equivalent of a fairy godmother in this story, and important to my informant because she saw the sparrows in her own house. They are also what spurred her father to tell her this story, a fact that she obviously valued since as a college senior, adults don’t usually relate fairy tales to her anymore. She clearly cherished the memory of her dad taking the time to tell the story, as well as the sweetness of the sparrows flying back to their house year after year.

My informant’s parents are from Korea, so they would have seen sparrows often, and it’s interesting that even though they moved thousands of miles, the same story is relevant because the same type of bird is found in California. My informant would not have heard the story if they lived in another state possibly, and neither would have I. This emphasizes how some folklore is spread throughout the world because of similar surroundings, and why some of is changed in order to adapt with any differences.

folk metaphor
Tales /märchen

When Tigers Used to Smoke

Interview Extract:

Informant: So I work in for a publishing company called Kaya Press, and it focuses on the Asian Diaspora, so it publishes Asian authors mostly. And well, it’s logo, you can find it online if you go to, and their logo is a tiger smoking a cigar, or smoking—I think originally it was supposed to be a pipe, but they updated it to be more modern. Although I think they should have kept it as a pipe because now it just looks like a joint.”

Me: “What does the tiger and whatever its smoking symbolize, or why is that the logo?”

Informant: “So we got the idea from the Korean mode of storytelling. Like instead of starting their folktales with ‘Once upon a time,’ like in the Western European tradition, they started ‘Back when tigers used to smoke.’

The tiger is just, I guess it some sort of culturally important image, and by invoking that image, it goes back to some mystical, legendary days. Yeah…I don’t know too much about it or about Kaya’s link to the tiger, but I suppose the idea behind the logo is that we celebrate literature and strive to pull from Asian culture, so it makes sense that we’d like, incorporate the beginning of folktales into our logo. And I think it does give it some legend-like quality or mysticism anyway, because you don’t like really see tigers smoking.”

Me: “Do animals typically smoke in Asian folklore?”

Informant: “I’m not really too sure. Like, I guess it was just limited to when they started their tales, but I don’t really know.”


“When tigers used to smoke” is quite the mystical beginning and would appropriately set the tone for any magical or supernatural folktale, as well as any that involved animals. It has an even more distant connotation than the Western “once upon a time,” because it personifies the tiger and allows him to do something very sophisticated. In a sense, there is a story within that opening itself, and it

Unfortunately, that Korean folklore may be lost to many people as they become more and more used to the typical “once upon a time.” The Kaya Press, which my informant mentioned, acknowledges this and helps to revive the smoking tiger with its logo and dedication to publishing Asian authors. This not only allows for increased globalization and spread of different cultures, but also allows the saying to remain intact, albeit through a visual form instead of a spoken or written one.

Also, Kaya Press is updating the phrase itself, by modernizing the tiger to be smoking a cigar instead of a pipe, as they had done so before. It’s documented proof of how a piece of folklore can transform throughout the years so it can reach a wider audience, although my informant did lament this fact. She claimed the tiger smoking a pipe would have been more impressive, although who knows, that may not have been what it was originally intended when the story opening was coined in the first place.