Tag Archives: korean folklore

Doljanchi Tradition

Text: “In Korea, we wish for health, wealth, and intelligence. That’s something that’s really big when someone turns one year old. There are different objects that you put in front of the baby, whatever they grab signifies something. For example, a string signifies longevity in your life. If the baby reaches for a ball, that symbolizes athleticism.”

Context: The informant is Korean-American. Her parents immigrated from Korea but the informant grew up in the United States and moved around different states as a child. The informant is 21 years old and she currently attends the University of Southern California. The informant has grown up with the Korean culture of wishing for good health and intelligence. The informant participated in the activity described as a baby, also known as Doljanchi. In this ceremony, many objects are placed in front of the baby such as books, a ball, string, a paintbrush, and money. She has also seen some of her younger cousins have a Doljanchi celebration. This celebration is commonly celebrated throughout Korea and among Korean Americans. 

Analysis: This information was very intriguing to me because I hadn’t learned much about it prior to interviewing my informant. I had briefly heard about it but didn’t know a lot of the details. The Dolijanchi is so interesting to me because it brings up the question of how developed are humans at one year old. If the baby can choose an item that determines how they’ll act as an adult, how psychologically developed are they? From what I understand, the parents must love to see the Dolijanchi and then compare the result of the ceremony to how the child acts growing up. 

The Ax Farmer – Tale

Context: R is a Korean American who was raised in Hawaii. She moved to Los Angeles to attend USC and is currently a freshman studying Computer Science. Her mom told her this story, and R herself has heard from multiple Koreans each with their own variation on what the tale sounds like. According to R, it’s a very popular folktale.


The story of the ax farmer begins with an axman who had a very poor quality ax. It was wooden and broken. He dropped in this lake one day, and there was a god living in the lake and the god appears with two axes in his hands, one gold and one wooden. The god asks the axman “Which one is your ax, the golden one or the wooden one?” The axman answers honestly with “the wooden one.” The god, impresses by the man’s honesty, gives him the golden ax.

However, there was another man listening to the ax man and god’s conversation. He then purposefully threw an ax into the lake and the god appeared. The god asks the man which ax is his and the man chooses the golden ax. The god knew he was lying, so he punished him. The punishment R never specifies, but she implies that the god severely punished the other man for lying.


Like any tale, the god and man interaction and the golden ax is clearly not real. There is no real lake that this story was at nor would there be a god living it who can give golden axes to passersby. But, due to the context in which these motifs are placed, the audience is able to learn a very real and applicable lesson about honesty and punishment. From Oring’s definition of a tale, the inherent falsehood of the narrative makes it easier to digest; the linear path the plot takes and the extreme contrast of the characters allow the logical and real-world solution to the story, the man’s punishment, to be impactful and relatable. From there, the two-dimensional and predictable story can be adapted into metaphor, and then motif and then life lesson. A god living in a lake and the existence of a golden ax are metaphors for a high power or authority in life and rewards. By pleasing the authority figures with honesty and good morals, rewards will be given. Lie to power or manipulate selfishly, the punishment will be severe and no such rewards will be yielded. Tales like these are usually told during childhood, so this tale gives a young and innocent audience a hard truth about living in society without it being overwhelming or stressful. The tale is blaring entertainment, yet perfectly subtle in the delivery of morality and ethics.

Story of Heungbu and Nolbu – Korean Folktale

1. Text

When asked for a folktale, the informant shared the story below:

Title: The Story of Heungbu and Nolbu

Heungbu and Nolbu were two brothers whose father was very rich, and they grew up in a well-off home. Once their father died, they had to split the fortune up, but the honest Heungbu was tricked by his older brother and Heungbu had to go become a farmer to support his family. Heungbu suffered through with threadbare clothing and lack of food, but one day, his wife told him they had finally run out of food completely and asked him to go beg his older brother for anything to eat. For the sake of his children, he went to his brother and begged him for food, only to get cruelly cast out into the yard, where his brother’s wife was cooking rice. He begged her for some of the rice she was cooking, but she only struck him with the rice paddle and told him to get out. Noticing that the rice from the paddle would stick to his cheek, he carefully picked off the grains and tucked them away, then asked her to hit him again. However, she noticed this, and washed the paddle clean in water before striking him over and over on the other side.

The rice he had managed to bring back still was able to feed his family for that day, and they kept going, until one day Heungbu’s wife told him that they had once again ran out of food. He went to the brother again, and the brother taunted him and offered him rice if he would get hit.

He agreed, and was paddled until he hobbled, but the brother did not give him any food. As he walked home in shame, he noticed a swallow with a broken leg and rescued it from a snake that was trying to eat it. He slowly nursed this swallow back to health, and once it healed it flew away and came back with the seed for a gourd.

He planted this seed in his garden, and to his shock, the gourds grew overnight into huge gourds half-split open already. He split open the first gourd and found a wealth of riches, overflowing and enough to keep his family rich for the rest of their lives. Then, he split open the second gourd and found beautiful clothing and fabric. The final gourd contained magical servants, who vowed to do their master’s bidding and who were beautiful and kind.

Their quick change in fortune reached the ears of Nolbu, the jealous older brother, who quickly pretend to act nice to his younger brother to learn the secret of success. Heungbu told him the story without any hesitation, and Nolbu vowed to do the same. However, instead of saving a bird from a snake, he instead trapped a swallow and broke its leg himself, “healing” it until it got better from the wound he had inflicted.

After the bird flew away, it brought back a gourd seed for Nolbu as well. However, this gourd quickly grew into three rotten-looking and foul smelling gourds, but Nolbu split them open anyways. The first gourd contained demons that berated him and his family and beat them until they cried. The second gourd contained a mass of debtors that seized his expensive things, leaving him destitute. The final gourd contained a massive flood of sewage and disgusting water that destroyed even his house, leaving him with nothing. He had to go beg his brother, Heungbu, to take the family in, because he had nothing left. The generous Heungbu took his older brother in, and was rewarded with happiness and good fortune for the rest of his life.

2. Context

This is a children’s folk tale from Korea that the informant learned at a young age from his Korean American parents. It is less personal since it is a common story that is told to children to teach them morals. The informant interprets the tale as a story to teach morals.

3. Analysis

This tale of Heungbu and Nolbu tells a story where honesty and kindness is rewarded with happiness and fortune whereas selfishness, jealousy and greed is punished with disaster and unfortune. This seems to be a common theme in popular East Asian folktales for children since there are similar tales in Japan like the “Rolling Rice ball” tale which tells the story of an old farmer who falls and drops his rice ball into a hole where mice live. He tries to look into the hole but he ends up falling in. The mice in the hole welcome him and thank the farmer for the rice. They make him mochi (rice cake) out of the rice and give them to the farmer. When the farmer leaves, the mice offer him a box filled with riches and treasures. After getting back, the farmer’s neighbor is jealous of the farmer and hears of the story. The farmer goes to the home and drops rice in it. The mice welcome him and thank him for the food and prepare mochi for him. When the neighbor leaves, he demands the box of riches and threatens the mice. The mice are angered and attack the farmer and do not let him leave the hole. The parallels between these two stories represent the context of very agriculture based economies in earlier Japanese and Korean civilization. These motifs of slightly anthropomorphic animals that repay or punish the farmers suggest the idea that “nature” rewards kindness and punishes evil therefore revealing the belief of the natural order and distinction between good and bad and a higher power like nature enforcing it. These beliefs persuade people to abide by these rules that are understood to be the “natural law” to be kind and not greedy. The punishments in the magical gourds represent the biggest fears of Korean farmers such as violence, debt, and natural disaster. In addition, these tales tie to the idea of Karma, where good deeds are rewarded and bad deeds do not go unpunished. This helps comfort people who are hurt by “bad” people to know that they will be punished and convince them to be “good” since good will be rewarded.

Tale of Two Brothers – Tale


G is a Korean American freshman studying Computer Science at USC. She has heard this story from her mother, who was born and raised in Korea but moved to Hawaii. That’s where G lived before she came to USC. According to G, her mom has told her this story countless times, and it is a very popular and well-known story.


There were two brothers, Heungbu and Nolbu, and they were both from a rich family. Nolbu is the older brother, he’s very greedy. The younger brother is Heungbu and he’s very kind. When their father died and it was time to split the fortune he left behind, the older brother takes everything. But, Heungbu is nice, so he doesn’t fight back or anything. He just accepts it.

There was a baby bird, a swallow. There was a snake trying to eat the swallow. Heungbu chased the snake away, saving the swallow. The baby bird had a broken leg, and Heungbu treated it for him. Three days later, the swallow got better, left, and came back with pumpkin seeds. So, Heungbu plants it in his backyard and when it was time to harvest, the pumpkin was full of treasure and gold.

The rumor spread that Heungbu became wealthy. His brother, the greedy one, asks him how he got so wealthy. Heungbu tells his brother. When Nolbu sees a swallow, he purposefully breaks the swallow’s leg and then heals it. The swallow comes back with pumpkin see, and when it was time to harvest, goblins came out of the pumpkin beating up his children and taking his fortune away.


This tale outlines two very stark characters in close contrast to showcase a logical sequence of events that follow their lives. Tales travel along the supernatural and realistically impossible, operating on events and logic that do not apply in the real world. There is no pumpkin seed in the world that can summon treasure and gold, or goblins (goblins do not exist or been questioned to exist like a yeti would be in a legend). There is no animal (real world entity) that is magical enough to differentiate magical pumpkin seeds, like that swallow. The objects of the folktale on which the plot occurs and the characters are propelled are illogical and extraordinary, an irrefutable kind of “not real” that occurs in a world that is not our own. However, though the events and plot devices themselves are not real or rational, what is logical is the actions of the characters caused by the devices. According to Oring, a “tale’s climax is the logical result of an episodic sequence.” Heungbu’s kindness and benevolence is met with Nolbu’s greed and malevolence, earning both of them respective consequences based on the caliber of morality their distinctive personalities the real world’s principles hold them in. These characters are unchanging and idle to exaggerate those social noems. It is accepted that kindness earns respect and good fortune, and as Korean culture is mostly dictated by Confucian values, Heungbu’s loyalty to his family in spite of his brother’s mistakes makes him a template of good character for Korean culture. Nolbu is the opposite; insensitive to family, uncooperative, and endlessly greedy, hence a moral villain for his Korean audience. This tale engineers Korean culture values into a supernatural order of events that follow a logical reasoning, so that the resolution is not only predictable for the audience but inevitable and therefore applicable in metaphor in real life.

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.


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.


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.