Wonhyo and the Skull Water

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Korean
Age: 21
Occupation: Student
Residence: Seoul, Korea
Date of Performance/Collection: 3 April 2020
Primary Language: Korean
Other Language(s): English

Main Piece:

The following was transcribed from a conversation between the interviewer and the informant.

Informant: Korean culture is built on Confucianism and Buddhist teachings are very common. So a lot of proverbs, old sayings, and things like that nature are based on these concepts. A very famous story that’s even relevant today is Wonhyo. Wonhyo was an early Buddhist monk, a scholar, and a philosopher in Shinla dynasty, which is around like during the 600s. The story goes that he was on his way to China for essentially a study abroad. One night on his journey, he found a cave to take shelter in and decided to spend the night there. Inside the cave he found a bucket of water, and because he was thirsty he drank it all and it was delicious- tasted like water. Next morning, we woke up and realized that it was actually a human skull not a bucket, and the water was actually like some remnants from the brain basically. He learned from that incident that everything is up to your own beliefs, because like he believed the water to be good and his body in part made him to believe that, you know, so he decided not to pursue the study abroad and came back to Shinla (Korea).

Interviewer: Can you give me examples of how this story has become modernized? How do people nowadays use it?

Informant: It’s mostly like for comedic, or funny situations. Like for example, I saw this post on Twitter that basically this girl who works at Subway ran out of salt, so whenever a customer would ask for more salt she’d had to shake an empty salt shaker just to front. But apparently one customer complained that there was too much salt in their sandwich. In that situation, Koreans would describe it as the ‘skull salt shaker’, it’s like you add skull in front of the object in question, that makes the joke.

Interviewer: Why and how do you think a story that old stayed relevant even till this day?

Informant: I think with stories like these, the older the better, because they’re so distanced from any time specific things that it makes the story almost universal. And it’s just a relatable morale, everything depends on how you decided to look at it, that’s something that people can think about, no matter what year it is.

Background:

The informant is a student living in Seoul, Korea. She’s finished all her general education (from elementary to high school) in Korea, and now currently goes to a college in Seoul. She describes that the first time she read about the story of Wonhyo was through a history text book in 5th grade. Even though the informant isn’t a practicing Buddhist (she describes herself as atheist, like most Koreans), these beliefs and teachings are widely accepted and used disregard one’s religious beliefs.

Context:

The conversation took place over the phone, while the informant was alone in her college dorm, in a safe and comfortable environment.

My thoughts:

Upon doing some research, I learned that there are a few different versions of the story of Wonhyo. In the Japanese telling, Wonhyo went inside a cave only to learn next morning that it was actually a grave (so the water and skull is absent in this version). In another telling, it’s the combination of the two- he went inside a grave and drank the skull water. No matter which version of the story is the most faithful to what actually happened, the central morale of the tale remains the same.