Tag Archives: korean folklore

Be careful where you throw out your nails

Main Piece:

YS: Let’s go with this one first because I can tell it more accurately

YJ: So we’re skipping the first one?

YS: Yeah, I can’t remember enough to tell it properly. There’s this guy, it’s not like he’s poor they’re a bit well off, middle of the road. What happened is that the son clips his nails, gathers them all, and he threw them out into the street. His dad scolds him to not to throw them out into the street like that.

YJ: What time period is this again?

YS: Ancient Joseon times, medieval Korea. So a couple days later he went off in the street to hang out with his friends. He comes back home and he finds this exact same guy at his home talking to his father, a doppelganger, acting like nothing’s happened since he left the house earlier the day. He’s worried about his identity and he asks who the man is. The family is shocked at two identical people. He speaks the same, has the same habits, everything, even shared memories. The imposter turns out to be way more sociable and calmer, and he’s appealing to his family with rationality and the family is siding with him in the imposter’s accusation. The real son is about to get kicked out of his house by his father.

One thing I have to point out though, every Korean story is going to have a passer-by Korean Buddhist monk just walking around.

YJ: Why?

YS: It’s just how it is with how Confucianism discouraged individual names in stories.

YJ: Huh.

YS: Anyways, the monk arrives and said he sensed some foul deeds/energy here. Father says there’s a faker impersonating his son. The imposter son is being very calm about the situation. The monk sees this and says he knows what’s going on. He brings out a spell tag and the imposter start to shiver. The monk attaches the tag to the man and the imposter shrivels into a mouse. Monk asks the son what he did the day before. The son says he threw out his nails into the street. The nails you threw out was eaten by the mouse and inherited all your memories and transformed into you as he ate a part of you.

Background:

The informant, YS, is my brother who has heard many Korean folktales from our parents before I was born. As my brother mentioned, a wandering monk will always be the nameless benefactor that helps resolve a supernatural situation for the nameless protagonist of the story due to Confucianism and Buddhism’s influence on Korean culture and tradition before Christianity takes root in the country. My brother likes these types of folklore as he is an avid fan of mythologies and belief systems all over the world despite having been active debater against organized religion as well as having it be a fond memory of his country and family’s history before Christianity began phasing things out on the traditional spectrum of Korean culture.

Context:

My brother told me this story in a series of story-sharing sessions we had for the project and as for my own enrichment while he was forced to stay home with the family during the Covid pandemic. He is intimately more “Korean” than I am and has heard many of the stories my parents have heard from their parents before I was born. This was one of the stories he remembered with clarity among many he could not remember as accurately.

My Thoughts:

Hearing the story for the first time definitely had me guessing where in the world the story would go next between doppelgangers, wandering monks, and consuming nails to literally become another person. Once again, Korean folk elements are present within the Buddhist and Confucian elements to the story, seeing as though the rat was not killed for its actions. While individual names are still discouraged, an important lesson of self-respect and self-preservation in owning one’s own identity can be drawn from the tale. If I’m remembering correctly, my parents and my brother especially always told me to be extra careful when clipping nails as to not misplace any. While I’m sure this was mostly advised so as no one would step on them on accident, this particular story could still serve as foundation for not being careless with ones own body, even down to a smallest nail. Ironic that in trying to not make an archetype of heroic figures and characters, the restriction created a whole new set of archetypes based Confucian influences of the helpful monk.

Good deeds will always be repaid: The Grateful Magpie

Main Piece:

“A man travels to the royal palace to receive employment but lives in the middle of nowhere and crosses a mountain to get to the examination building. As he goes through the mountain, he sees two snakes going up a tree trying to eat a bird’s nest. The man sees the bird in danger, a particular breed that is synonymous with good fortune in Korea, and pulls out his bow and arrow and kills one of the snakes. The other snake runs off and the man mends the bird’s leg and puts it back into its nest. A couple days pass and he’s still crossing the mountain. Night falls and the man needs to find shelter on the mountain or else he fears that he might die if he spends the night in the mountain.

The man passes by an old house, sees a light, and it seems to be inhabited. The man hopes to stay the night and pay any amount to make it so. He knocks on the door and is met with a slithery and pale woman who comes out asking what he wants. The man explains his situation and asks to stay the night as he does not wish to risk dying out in the wilderness. The woman in raspy voice agrees, and guides him to an empty room. The man unloads his baggage and prepares to sleep but hears a knock on the door. The woman brings him some food and he thanks her for the hospitality. The woman lays down the tray of food and the woman leaves, but the man swears he heard some “ssss” noises from her. He passes it off as exhaustion and the man eats what he was offered, falls asleep, but in the middle of the night he hears footsteps and wonders whats going on. The door flings open and he notices it’s the woman again, whispering “murderer murderer”, and the woman transforms into a huge snake. The man wakes up, the snake woman screams that he killed her husband and they were a couple days away from becoming dragons. The woman swears to kill the man, binds him, and prepares to eat him but a far off gong noise scares the snake. “If that bell rings two more times and the sun rises, I cannot eat you anymore as I will ascend”. “But I still seek vengeance for my husband”. The snake becomes distracted and the man runs away. The snake chases him, another gong sounds and the snake begins to transform as the snake grows larger. The gong rings a second time and becomes a dragon and wails as she cannot seek vengeance and pleads for forgiveness from her husband.

The man survives the night and is relieved for whoever rang the bell on the mountaintop, which must mean there was a temple nearby. He seeks the temple out to thank the monks for saving his life. He finds the temple abandoned and the man tries to find the person who could have helped him. By the temple’s bell gongs, the man finds the dead bodies of a number of birds. The magpies had bashed themselves toward the bell to ring it and save the man from the snake and he recognizes the mended leg of the bird he had saved earlier among them.”

Background:

My informant is my brother who had recently returned home after many years away from the family due to the Covid pandemic keeping him longer than he planned for at home. He is more culturally more attuned to Korean stories compared to me and his own enthusiasm towards mythology and history rubbed off on me early. Most of his stories were told to him by our mother before I was born. The Korean Magpie is a symbol of good fortune in Korea as well as the national bird and the snakes in this story are a mythical kind known as “imugi”. Imugi are creatures who normally make homes near the water and they are considered imperfect dragons who must meet a certain requirement to fully become dragons. This story has the snake woman be distraught over the fact she will be unable to seek vengeance once she fully transforms as dragons are inherently forces of good in wider Asian mythology and cannot seek action in vengeance. My brother likes these types of folklore as he is an avid fan of mythologies and belief systems all over the world despite having been active debater against organized religion as well as having it be a fond memory of his country and family’s history before Christianity began phasing things out on the traditional spectrum of Korean culture.

Context:

Before my brother returned to work, I asked him if he could share any stories he remembers from his childhood that our parents told him. He picked out a couple stories while tabling a few others, not confident in being able to retell it as our mother did many years ago.

My Thoughts:

A story that relays the message “Good deeds are always returned in kind” promoting benevolence between all peoples. My father told me a similar story to this when I asked him for something to use for this project but his involved a different animal. The toad was the animal that helps out a human and the malevolent creature in question was an enormous centipede, yet another creature whose body symbolized a false dragon like snakes. It speaks highly to the benevolent light the Asian folk circles sees dragons as if they cannot commit acts of vengeance once they become one. As both of my parents originate from the Southern but different parts of South Korea, their stories seem to differ from each other in slight ways. Even in the most unlikeliest of expectations that animals would knowingly repay humans, it is a good mantra to live by to help and any and all living creature trying to survive out in the harsh realities of life. Even if Buddhist beliefs were starting to phase out individual names away from these types of stories, their message still carries a contextually Korean or humanistic element favoring a helpless bird over that of snakes as Buddhism usually speak against killing any living creature.

Brother Tiger

Main Piece:

YJ: I can keep writing as many as you can give me

YS: Alright hold on, let me take a sip. You ever heard about the one with the tiger?

YJ: Is it the one with a bear?

YS: No that’s a different one. So there’s this guy, in the old times, farmer and Lumberjack. Living with his widowed mother. Taking care of his mother and selling his lumber. Typical day of working and taking care of his work. One day a tiger appears by the mountain he lives. The man is scared and fears for his mother who will be left alone if he dies. The tiger starts prowling him ready to strike. The man has an idea and bows down to the tiger, and he exclaims to the tiger, calling him his brother. “It’s you, I’ve finally met you”. The tiger has lived a long life and asks what the hell guy is talking about.

“Do not try and trick me, you are doomed.” Says the tiger

The man laughs and says he has heard about his brother and how they were separated at birth and how he had a “king” written on his forehead. The tiger is confused and asks what he means. The two go to a nearby pond and shows him the tiger marks on his forehead and the tiger is convinced that they are brothers.

YJ: You’re going to need to explain that one to me

YS: Look up the word for tiger in Chinese in Google

YJ: Ohh so the character in the word looks like the pattern on its face

YS: So the man continues “Mom lost you in the mountains and the natural energies turned you into a tiger to protect this mountain and I’m glad to see you’re still alive”.

YS: The tiger is somehow “remembering” and buys into the story. The man is just relieved that he himself is alive. The man says just to come by the house from time to time. The tiger agrees and leaves. The man comes back home and tells the story and how he survived a tiger encounter. Tells him he lied about the lie about the king’s mark. The tigers are smart, warned the mother, I’m not sure how you will continue with this situation. The man says he won’t treat the tiger badly and won’t take advantage of his kindness. Time to time, the two receive dead game animals on their doorstep thanks to the tiger. The tiger’s occasional visits him during the lumberjack work and share drinks. The tiger begins to dress as a human and walks upright. The two share life stories and become good friends. The tiger says one day that he knows that there are some really valuable roots up the mountain, and the son becomes rich selling these roots. The tiger continues to help the two with food and the lumberjack begins to appreciate the tiger’s help. Time goes by, the man is rich but a lumberjack and has no title in society. The tiger happens to be friends with another rich man in town, a government official, and asks for a favor to introduce his brother to high society, the official says he knows a single lady and settles the marriage. Years later the mother gets really sick, the younger brother says he needs help and that mom is sick and comes to seek his help in genuine concern and dependence. The tiger wishes he could help but was scared to show himself in front of her as a tiger. He says that there’s a legendary root in another mountain and says he will find it. The tiger brings his own children, and they know how they’re related to the humans, to the next mountain. A giant centipede protects the root in the other mountain, the battle is unimportant, the tiger is powerful and brings the root back. The mother is still dying and as the tiger steps through the door and hears crying in the house as the mother had passed away. The tiger in grief runs into the mountain unable to save her and he yells out and dies in sorrow. The tiger’s corpse becomes a stone and the tiger’s children tells what happened to the younger brother and he holds the funeral for both his brother and mother. He says he lied about the tiger’s relationship and how he used them for his advantage and vows to take care of his children as in honor of him.

Background:

The informant is my brother who shared the stories he remembers the most from our parents to share with me when I asked him to assist me in this project. Tigers are a powerful symbol in Asian cultures and the key facet of this story relates to how the Chinese character for “king” is written as “王” and the tiger in the story has similar black patterns on its face. The Korean language is derived off of a simpler form of Chinese and the former has many roots in traditional Chinese writings. My brother likes these types of folklore as he is an avid fan of mythologies and belief systems all over the world despite having been active debater against organized religion as well as having it be a fond memory of his country and family’s history before Christianity began phasing things out on the traditional spectrum of Korean culture.

Context:

This is another story from a session between me and my brother sharing the stories he heard from the family before I was born.

My Thoughts:

I had a terrible feeling that this story would have some repercussions for lying being the source of someone’s good intentions. Thankfully the ending isn’t completely depressing and ends on a positive note that one’s wrongs can still be corrected and redeemed, particularly if a lie did not hurt either party. Tigers are a powerful symbol in Asian belief systems, at some points rivaling a dragon, and the story goes to show how tigers have this inner ability to communicate and live as humans after having lived so long. The Confucian virtue of honoring one’s parents, the ability for beasts to honor their parents, and honoring siblings are brought up and these notions have been ingrained in me pretty naturally. While I learned of actual Confucian principles later in life, the attitude towards respecting elders in particular is emphasized greatly in Korean society was and I never felt that it was an entirely bad thing to respect those who have experienced life longer than I have. I think the emphasis on family touches upon a rather important part of life and how indispensable is to maintain a good relationship between friends and family and see through one’s promises.

See E.B Landis’ collected works of Korean folklore pg.8 for another example of how tigers are portrayed in a noble light in Korean legends.

Landis, E. B. “Korean Folk-Tales.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 10, no. 39, 1897, pp. 282–292. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/533279. Accessed 3 May 2021.

The Story Bag

Main Piece:

This is a transcription of the story as told by the informant.

The Story Bag is about this guy who, every time he met someone new he would ask them to tell him a story and he would put that story in his bag. And then he got older and he was about to get married. And he hung it on the wall and one of his servants heard the voices on the wall. The stories had been packed together for so long that they hated this guy. The servant heard the stories talk about how they were going to turn into poison berries for the man to eat, poison water for the man to drink, and an iron skewer so that when he dismounted his horse he would step on it. They were also going to become snakes that were poisonous and hide in the man’s wedding chamber. The servant decided that he was going to stop it. So the next day when the man went to go get married he was about to eat the berries and the servant stopped him. He stopped him from looking into the water too which was poisonous. The servant pretended to fall and pushed him away from the skewer. In the bridal chamber, the servant ran in and cut up all the snakes. He told the master that he heard the stories on the wall and that he can’t keep the stories in a bag because stories are meant to be told.

Background:

This folktale was a story told to the informant by their Korean grandmother. The informant is Korean-American and was told many Korean folktales as a child. This story was told to them before they would go to bed. It reminds them of comfort and childhood.

Context:

This story was told from memory as I was discussing family traditions with the informant. The informant told me that their family would tell folktales all the time.

Thoughts:

This folktale can easily be interpreted as a fable. It is very straightforward and explains the need for stories to be told to other people. In many cultures, sharing stories is a way of staying connected to their history and ancestors. This story was able to captivate the audience of children and teach them a valuable lesson. This story helps perpetuate the tradition of telling folktales in Korean culture and passing stories down from one generation to the next.

Stomach Ache? Try a Needle in the Thumb

Piece:

Interviewer: “Do you know any folk medicine?”

R.B.: “…oh my god… actually yeah. My mom used to tell me if my stomach hurt to stick a needle in my thumb and the it will go away.”

Interviewer: “R.B, what that makes no sense… did it work?”

R.B.: “… I mean I guess. It lets out all the bad blood”

Informant:

The informant is  half-Korean, half- caucasian young adult female, who grew up in Seattle, Washington. Her mother is an immigrant from Korea and spoke to her frequently in Korean growing up, but was not surrounded often by her asian family as they lived in Korea. Her father is white American man of European descent who grew up in the Pacific Northwest. She spent a lot of time with her white side of her family growing up because they lived nearby.  

Context:

Informant R.B. and I were at dinner when I was interviewing her for the folklore collection project. When asked if she had any weird medicines, this is the folklore she remembered.

Interpretation:

Informant R.B. took this piece of folklore very seriously. And, when asked later if she would still use this method of treatment, she responded yes and that she would tell her friends to because it worked. R.B. received this piece of folklore from her mother her learned it from her own mother in Korea. For their family, this folklore represented more than a cure, but a lasting family tradition. I found this piece to be very interesting because it showcased how different cultures treat their illnesses.