Author Archives: Michael Lee

돌 잔치

In Korea, a child’s first birthday is called 돌 (Dol), and is celebrated extravagantly with many guests and festivities. From what I learned from my parents and upperclassmen, this celebration dates back to much older times. The reason that the first birthday is so celebrated is because during the time period, babies did not often live long enough to become one year old meaning that when they did survive, it was almost a miracle. This tradition continued on, celebrated by each family for each of their children. Back when I lived in Korea, I went to my younger cousin’s 1st birthday. Almost the entire family was there, along with friends, neighbors, and loved ones. My cousin was wearing traditional Korean clothes, which is known as a hanbok. The thing I remember most is actually one of the key traditions: the fortune-telling ritual. It is the most memorable part of the celebration, when many items including money, yarn of string, rice cake, books, noodles, etc are laid out in front of the child. The adults urged the child to pick up an object out of the many objects displayed before him. The reason for this was that when the child picks up an object, it is an indicator of what kind of person the child would be when he grew up. Indeed, each item was symbolic for a particular future. For instance, the yarn of string symbolizes longevity while the rice cakes symbolize good fortune and strength. Picking up a pen or book would indicate the child would become a scholar, while picking up money means that the child will become wealthy. Everybody eagerly waited for my baby cousin to choose and cheered when he finally picked something up. After this, the guests went up to play with the baby. They gave gifts to the parents to congratulate them and were very much jubilant and cheerful. The food, too, was very traditional. In front of the baby was set a mountain of rainbow colored rice cakes. This was meant to symbolize prosperity and good fortune for the baby. In addition, there were fruits and seaweed soup as well. Seaweed soup is actually a symbol for birthdays and is traditionally eaten every birthday starting with Dol. It was truly not a quiet, reserved party. Everybody was talking, enjoying themselves, and having fun with the baby or talking to the parents about how much they wished good fortune for the baby’s future. Shortly after, the guests began to leave after having blessed the family and given them gifts to commemorate the special day. This day was ultimately very important to me because in my eyes, these events were a time when many relatives, even very distant relatives, would come together. Regardless of where they were or how much had changed, they decided to come together to celebrate the healthy child and to have time to catch up on each others’ lives. If anything, it also was a symbol of how much the parents treasure their beloved child and the hopes that they have for the child they are raising.

The Kitchen God and Chuang Mu

This story was told during the daytime at a friend’s home. Sitting in front of the shrine her family keeps to honor the ancestors and the deities of Buddhism, it was told in order to explain the reasoning behind some of the rituals done on specific Buddhist holidays. She learned about these beliefs from her parents, who are strong Buddhists, and they are part of her self-identification. To her, they are fully real and are the reasons why luck and fortune come and go out of people’s lives. They are also why she believes that honoring the dead and the deities are so important and can never be neglected without severe consequences. Having lived this way her entire life, it also means her way of living to her as well.

The Kitchen God and Chuang Mu are said to keep you safe from evil spirits and misfortune. As deities of the house and home, they take care of the inhabitants if they are respected. As his name implies, the Kitchen God’s domain is the kitchen, but kitchen is very important in meaning to a house. Chuang Mu means the Mother of Beds, and she is the spirit that sits on beds and watches over you to make sure bad dreams and misfortune stays away. Their protection, however, is only bestowed if they are pleased with you and your family. If you anger them through disrespect or neglect, then they will withdraw their protection from your household. As a result, in order to show that you are respecting them and that you have not forgotten about them, you have to burn incense and give offering to the Kitchen God and Chuang Mu every few months.

This piece of folklore shows how much religion is a part of daily life, which is remarkable. It emphasizes respect for the dead and for the gods which is definitively part of Asian culture. It also shows how real religion can be to individuals and how deeply it can be associated with someone’s identity.


“Hungry Ghost Month”

This piece of folklore was gained unintentionally, when my friend reprimanded me for whistling at night so as to avoid being afraid of the dark. It was past midnight and was very dark. The moon was not out, so everything was dark and muffled. It was cold, but it was still manageable to be outside. People were preparing for festivities, but the environment seemed entirely surreal. It was out of legitimate concern, however, that my friend scolded me so quickly and harshly. For the sake of safety and good fortune, my friend believed that this was just not to be done. It also said much about my friend’s spirituality. She had learned this tradition from her parents, who are strong Buddhists. She believed strongly that ghosts and spirits still interacted with the world and could affect it depending on how they were treated; particularly if they were treated well or ignored.

In Taiwanese culture, spirits and ghosts are very accepted, and they are to be honored and respected. As a result, every August is known as “Hungry Ghost Month.” You are not supposed to go outside after dark because that is when the spirits come outside to mingle and visit. Also, you are also not supposed to whistle at night, because the ghosts will hear it and follow you home, bringing misfortune and spreading it to you and your household. Although generally you are not supposed to go outside at night, there are still festivals held during this month that individuals attend. During the festivals, everyone wears masks and celebrates together. The usage of the masks is ultimately very symbolic because during the month of ghosts and spirits, you cannot be sure if you are celebrating with other humans or if you are celebrating with ghosts; the masks are representative of the mingling that occurs during the festivals of this month.

As the collector, I felt very moved by the tradition. At night when no light was present, it seemed impossibly surreal and it felt like ghosts were out and about. Although later on, I felt more that it was a trick of the mind, at the moment, it was truly awe-inducing and frightening.

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.


Acupuncture and Herbal Medicine

This folklore was collected from my friend who practices acupuncture and uses herbal medicine instead of drugs. It has to do with her culture as a Taiwanese-American. She learned the practice from her father. The practice is important to her because not only is it a large part of her culture as an alternative medicine that originated from Asia, but it is also important because it is a way that she can help other people develop good health. To her, it is a way of embracing her individuality and her culture while being utilitarian. We were talking about the concept of balance within the body one day after learning about how the body balances its own changes to ensure that the body will be able to survive. She brought up how acupuncture uses another standard to determine the state of illness and uses less unnatural means of treating disease.

According to her, disease is not specifically caused by the diseases that people normally suffer from. Instead they suffer from an imbalance of qi in their body, which is wreaking havoc on the internal balance that is usually present. People are a balance of yin, yang, and the five traditional elements of fire, water, wood, metal, and earth. When there is a buildup of one that affects the body, the qi loses its effectiveness in flowing throughout the body. That then causes the illnesses which people identify through the symptoms of the patient and their pulse. When qi is stagnant and is not flowing readily through the body, which poses a serious risk. As a result, acupuncturists will use needles in order to stimulate the acupuncture points. Qi is said to flow in channels along the body with a large number of accompanying and interconnected acupuncture points. In stimulating specific acupuncture points, a specific area of the body will be affected and allow the qi to flow properly. The proper points must be stimulated, however. According to the speaker, by stimulating the wrong points at the same time, there could be much more massive harm done to the ill person. This is why during headaches, it is recommended to not rub the center of your forehead. There is a pressure point there, but that is along a meridian that is very influential on your health. Stimulating that specific pressure point by rubbing it or tapping on it will only make it worse. Stimulating the acupuncture points on the side of the head are usually more effective because they help to relieve the stagnating qi flow and balance out the elements within the body.

Acupuncture is not the only way to healing illnesses. Usually, more often than not, food can also help heal the illnesses without requiring acupuncture. Along with poor qi flow within the body, are also external factors such as temperature and humidity. For example, when the body is too hot, which is indicated through fever, redness, swelling, and other such symptoms, the body must be cooled with a food item that has the innate property of coldness such as peony. In counter balancing the elements that are in disharmony, the body will eventually recover and will no longer be ill. In this way, bodies that are suffering from cold must be warmed with something hot. Something that is chill will be cured with something warm. There must be great caution not to be excess, or the body will again be imbalanced and a new illness will erupt. Perhaps the most common herb is ginseng. It is widely acknowledged as a powerful medicine. It has wide effects, and is known as a warm herb. It will cause an increase in energy, blood flow, and is widely good for health. The meridian it stimulates helps regulate qi flow as well. However, in excess, its medicinal properties are too strong, and it will be dangerous for the health to continue taking it. In most cases, acupuncture and traditional medicine will go together to work in unison to help cure the problem. Acupuncture places a burden on an ill person especially since it involves regulating qi flow. If the qi flow changes very suddenly, then it can be dangerous to the person’s health. As a result, by using food along with less intensive acupuncture, the person will more naturally adapt to the change and be much healthier. Adding yin to excess yang and adding yang to excess yin is one of the fundamentals. Balancing fire, water, earth, wood, and metal with their respective counter elements is also an essential part of this. When the cycle continues naturally, then the person will be at optimal health.

These are holistic forms of medicine and curing disease. Although they are not “proven” because they use Eastern ideas instead of western, they still provide means of providing aid for people. By balancing out their internal state, they will find true harmony within themselves and be at peace. They will no longer be ill through this curing of the body’s ills.

I find the concept of acupuncture very interesting. I do find that it is effective, having undergone it myself. It is also important as an Asian cultural practice. It reveals another way of looking at medicine instead of being limited to one way in particular. In doing so, it opens up the possibilities that a better cure will be found for diseases that are known and present. While listening to her explanation, it seemed to make sense. In a sense, it is a cultural legacy that is passed on from generation to generation. The Asian people are indicated to be very in touch with nature through this particularly because the concepts of the body and the natural occurrences of illness are all linked to natural elements of the earth. In maintaining harmony within the body with the elements and outside of it, then everything has met its equilibrium point. It is an indicator that people are constantly searching for harmony in their lives. Without it, people find that they are ill and need to regain that inner balance.