Folktale – Korea Town, California

“The Woodcutter”
“There was this woodcutter who was very kind and generous and always happy even though he was very poor. One day, he was cutting trees in the forest with his old axe when his hand slipped and the axe flew into a pond. He was very sad because that was his one and only axe, which he needed to feed his mother and himself. Then, suddenly, a figure rose from the pond. I think it was a mountain spirit who was an old man with a long white beard. He saw the woodcutter and asked him why he looked so sad. The woodcutter told the old man that he dropped his axe into the pond. The mountain spirit pulled out a golden axe and asked if it belonged to him. The woodcutter said it wasn’t his and that his axe was very old and worn. The spirit disappeared and returned with the woodcutter’s old axe. The woodcutter was overjoyed and said that that was his axe. The spirit was touched that the young man was so honest and seemed to have a good heart. He said because of that, he would give the woodcutter three axes made of gold and silver. The woodcutter was very grateful and he took the three axes and returned to his village.

“He sold the axes and got enough money to live comfortably with his mother. But there was a greedy, mean man in town who was jealous when he saw that the woodcutter was very wealthy now. He went to the woodcutter one day and asked him how he had become so rich. The woodcutter didn’t suspect anything and told the greedy man his story. The greedy man immediately went to the forest with an axe. He found the pond and pretended to cut down some trees. Then he threw his axe into the pond. The spirit appeared again and the rich man pretended to cry. The spirit asked him why he was crying and the man said that he lost his ax in the pond. The spirit disappeared and came back with a golden axe and asked if this was his axe. The rich man exclaimed that it was. The spirit became very angry and he told the greedy man to disappear. The man was so scared that he turned and ran for his life. And the kind woodcutter lived happily ever after but the greedy man lived the rest of his in poverty.”

Erin said that she first learned this story when she was in grade school from a Korean school teacher in Korea Town, CA. She said the teacher told the class this story to teach a moral lesson. Erin also explained that it was common to hear Korean folktales at Korean school as a way to spread traditional folklore tied into the culture. She described how the teacher told this story in front of the class who paid close attention to the tale and how it was told.

She said that the significance of this story was to better explain why it was advantageous to be honest and generous in a way that children could follow and understand. She noted that the woodcutter is rewarded for answering the mountain spirit truthfully when asked about his axe. This signals to children that telling the truth pays off. To directly contrast the woodcutter’s good fortune, the figure of the greedy man represents what dishonesty and deception will bring you. The mountain spirit did not appreciate the greedy man’s lies and so he did not receive a reward and was punished with living the rest of his life in poverty. This story, Erin believes, was a way to instill honest values in the children at Korean school.

This same tale told in Korea has a different title there but shares the same title in China, according to Grayson’s article. Grayson explains how the moral point, which Erin was able to point out, is presented in a “double contrasted narrative structure,” (15). This type of tale is common in Korean folklore and presents a conflict between neighbors who differ in their dealings with others. The woodcutter and the greedy man have contrasting views on the virtue of honesty, causing a double outcome of the narrative for each character. This thematic element of Korean narrative is distinct because the conflict is between two typical people, unlike those tales of Confucian subtext which deal with filial piety. This is also representative of the distinct didactic and moral tone to Korean tales. Erin’s analysis is confirmed in that the story stresses how blessings come from honesty while those who deceive to gain material wealth are punished (“The H?ngbu and…”).

In addition to rewarding honesty with treasures, this tale also illustrates the importance of hard work and selflessness. The woodcutter works very hard to provide for his mother so that they are able to have food on the table. The woodcutter is a loyal and honest worker who does not try to cheat or lie in order to get ahead. He works so that he and his mother can get by, and lives a happy enough life. He is not tied down with competition or envy in being the best or the wealthiest. In the end, it is his honesty and strong work ethic that lead him to live a more comfortable life for his mother and himself.

Annotation: Grayson, James Huntley. “The H?ngbu and N?lbu Tale Type: A Korean Double Contrastive Narrative Structure.” Folklore. 113.1 (2001): 51-69. Apr. 30 2008. <>.