Legend – Korea

There was a boy who went to get an acupuncture treatment on the back of his neck. When it was over, the boy ended up with paralyzed legs. Apparently his doctor made a small mistake, and accidentally severed some very important nerves.

When I first heard this story, it was told as a true story—by a friend in Korea who claimed it happened to a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend…. However, after hearing several similar stories, I began to suspect it was a legend. It was the late 90’s and early 2000’s when I heard these stories in Korea. These stories were always told to me by my young peers—usually middle school and high school students. I never heard any mention of them on the news or by adults. These stories all involved acupuncture that went wrong—resulting in grave physical consequences, usually from damaged nerves. My cousin had told me a particularly gruesome version that she heard:

A girl was having acupuncture on her ear. When the needles were withdrawn, she noticed a tiny piece of thread poking out of one of the holes. Curious she pulled on it, when it snapped. She lost her vision.

Based on true stories or not, I think that these legends all express a certain uneasiness that Korean youths felt toward acupuncture—more broadly, an uneasiness with traditional medicine. I believe these legends show a conflict between western modes of thought and traditional Korean medicinal practices—especially the scary ones.

The performers of this legend were almost always in their teens—these were kids who grew up with a modern education, and taught westernized science; they were old enough to have a rudimentary understanding of the nervous system, and they were old enough to be able to begin questioning their parents’ beliefs. They were teenagers in a contradictory world; Korea is still so steeped in traditional beliefs and practices, yet in its race for economic competence, it has also modernized itself with ruthless speed. Outwardly, Western lifestyle and practices were so very quickly adopted, before the more intimate beliefs of the older generations were able to change, and it seems that this may have caused uneasiness among the young teenagers who were troubled by the incompatibility of western medicine and acupuncture. Therefore in their stories, a young person goes to have acupuncture to heal an ailment according to Eastern medicine. However, because of the mechanics of the nervous system as dictated by Western science, the unfortunate young victim suffers the loss of his legs of her eyes.

These stories were very scary, and while simple enough to often be taken as true. I must say that I have never allowed my mother to try her acupuncture kit on me. I never exactly feared for the loss of my limbs, yet I have never believed much good could come from piercing my body with needles.