The Good, the Bad, the Ugly – in Korean folk tales

Written by on May 22, 2012 in Arts

Brothers with polar opposite dispositions. A woodcutter with a chance encounter. Other woodcutters with another interesting encounter. A forbidden romance between lovers of different classes. A brother and sister who become immortal. A daughter who sacrifices herself in the sea for her blind father. An evil stepmother and selfish stepsister. These are just a few of the diverse characters you meet in Korean folk tales: the good, the bad, and the ugly. So who are they?

Nolbu, the selfish older brother and his younger brother Heungbu’s family

Folk tales are mostly about the good. Of course. Mainly allegorical, the theme of “reward the good, punish the bad” (권선징악) is prevalent in Korean folk tales, like most folk tales around the world. This theme is represented extremely well in “Heungbu & Nolbu”, the story about two brothers.
Nolbu is the bad one. He is extremely arrogant and selfish; he is the symbol of greed in Korean lexicon. After the death of their parents, despite generations of families living together in traditional Korea, Nolbu takes over the family’s fortune and throws his younger brother Heungbu’s very large family out of the family home. Heungbu thus lives in severe poverty but never loses his kind and generous nature.
One day a swallow with a broken leg falls into Heungbu’s yard. He tenderly nurses the swallow back to health and the swallow shows its gratitude by dropping a gourd seed onto his thatched cottage roof. The gourd grows into a massive size, which upon opening, showers Heungbu and his family with gold and riches.
Nolbu, who hears of his brother’s good fortune, seethes with envy and promptly goes out and breaks a leg of a swallow on purpose, only to hastily nurse it back. This swallow also drops a gourd seed, but unlike Heungbu’s, spews out dokkaebi (도깨비, Korean hobgoblins)  and awful, awful, things which determinedly punish Nolbu.

* The Good: Heungbu and family
* The Bad: Nolbu and family
* The Ugly: The dokkaebi who step out of Nolbu’s gourd
* The unexpected feature character: The swallow

Book covers for “Kongji & Patji”

When you hear the story of Kongji, you automatically think of Cinderella. Honestly, the stories are nearly identical that you start to think of their origin. (Or, mankind has gone through history so similar all around the world that the folk tales reflect that fact.)
Kongji is a good daughter. Her mother dies early, her father dies soon after, and her stepmother and stepsister Patji are resolute to make her life as miserable as possible. They are lazy and mean; Kongji is bound to serve them night and day, having to complete almost impossible chores.
Much like the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales being Disney-fied, there is the watered down version for children in which Kongji goes to a village party wearing clothes and shoes given to her from a fairy from the heavens. At the party she meets the county magistrate, later marries him, and happily lives forever after. (Verrrry familiar, is it not?)
In the original Joseon era story, jealous of Kongji’s happiness, Patzi and her mother murder Kongji by throwing her down a well. Patzi then takes Kongji’s place as the magistrate’s wife but is soon discovered and put to death as punishment. The magistrate then sends Patzi’s remains to her mother, upon which she dies from shock.

* The Good: Kongji
* The Bad: Patzi and stepmother
* The Ugly: Patzi’s remains (in the original version)
* The unexpected feature character: The fairy from the heavens

Simcheong throws herself in the sea; Bbaendeok Uhmum and Simcheong’s father

We already mentioned filial piety at the beginning of the month here on the Korea blog, and we also mentioned Simcheong, the icon of filial piety. The story of Simcheong is a highly popular pansori (판소리) from the Joseon era and has been told to children for centuries to teach the virtue of filial piety.
Simcheong loses her mother as a baby and takes care of her father who has become blind after the same sickness her mother had. She takes care of him with cheerful dutifulness every day. Her father is rather boisterous in character and one day, instead of patiently waiting for his daughter, goes out to seek her and falls into the river. A passing monk saves him and tells him that if he prays hard enough to Buddha with an offering of 300 sacks of rice, he would be able to get his sight back. Simcheong’s father recklessly promises the monk that he would do so.  Simcheong hears of this incident and in order to fulfill her father’s obligations and make her father happy, she decides to sell herself for 300 sacks of rice as a human sacrifice for fishermen who are looking for a maiden to sacrifice to the spirits of the sea.
Simcheong receives the rice and offers it to Buddha. She then says goodbye to her father, who thinks she is leaving in order to become a surrogate daughter of a rich family, and heads to the sea with the fishermen. As she leaps into the water, she prays for the return of her father’s sight.  Instead of drowning, Simcheong is then taken to the palace of the Emperor of the Sea. He is greatly impressed with her devotion and filial piety for her father, and lets her go back to the surface in a giant lotus flower. She is discovered by fishermen who decide to present the rare and beautiful flower to the king. When the flower is presented, Simcheong reveals herself and dazzles the king with her beauty and her story, and soon becomes the queen.
Simcheong, who deeply wants to find her father, decides to hold a party for the blind at the palace. In the meanwhile, Simcheong’s father, falls into despair after losing his daughter, despite now having a rather comfortable life because the fishermen who had taken Simcheong took pity on her and gave him additional sacks of rice. Bbaengdeok Uhmum, the neighborhood’s flamboyant gold-digging hussy, seeing the newly acquired wealth of Simcheong’s father, quickly marries him and almost as quickly spends all of his money. She hears of the party at the palace and urges him to go, saying she will accompany him. Kind neighbors manage to help with the expenses for the trip, which Bbaengdeok Uhmum swiftly steals as soon as they are on their way.
Despite all these obstacles, Simcheong’s father manages to get to the palace where he meets his daughter. As she reveals to him that she is the queen, he then opens his eyes in joy and gets his eyesight back. They then live happily ever after, with the people of the land praising Simcheong’s filial piety for generations and generations to come.

* The Good: Simcheong
* The Bad: Not really evil, but the monk really shouldn’t have encouraged Simcheong’s dad
* The Ugly: Bbaendeok Uhmum
* The unexpected feature character: The benevolent Emperor of the Sea

Chunghyang movie poster from 1961, Byeon Satto from TV drama

Chunhyang is another popular pansori story from the Joseon Dynasty. It’s the Korean “Romeo & Juliet”. Chunhyang is the beautiful young daughter of a gisaeng (기생, courtesan) who is determined not to make her daughter follow in her steps. As a result, although she is of the lowest class, Chunhyang is taught all the virtues of being a proper lady.
Mongryong is the 16 year old son of the village lord who spies Chunhyang riding a swing one day and is immediately smitten by her beauty. He approaches Chunghyang who tells him quite bluntly that she has no intention of becoming his concubine, despite her being of the lowest class, for she has been taught to respect certain values and virtues. This attracts Mongryong even more, and he promises to marry her once he passes the national state exams, ensuring him to return as an official to the village. Chunhyang, who has also been smitten by Mongryong, promises to wait for his return.
Mongryong heads off to Seoul to complete his studies and in his absence a new magistrate called Byeon Satto comes to town. Wanting to be entertained, he calls upon the gisaengs in the county, but hears that the most beautiful one of them all, Chunhyang is not on the register. Chunhyang refuses to serve him when she is summoned, despite her having lost contact with Mongryong, saying her heart is promised to another, but this enrages the magistrate Byeon, who throws her into jail.
After a while, Mongryong appears at the village as the undercover royal inspector and convicts the magistrate of his wrongdoings. He then takes Chunhyang to Seoul to meet the king and receives permission to marry her as his lawful wife. And they live happily ever after, unlike Romeo and Juliet.

* The Good: Chunhyang
* The Bad: Controversially, I’m going to say Mongryong, ‘cause you do not leave a girl hanging like that! Normal people would say Byeon Satto.
* The Ugly: Byeon Satto, of course.
* The unexpected feature character: Bangja, Mongryong’s servant, who acts as the go-between the young lovers.

The brother and sister who became the sun and moon

For once the main characters have a mother. There was a widow with 3 children. They lived in the mountains and were very poor. One day, as the mother was coming home after work and met a tiger, who immediately devoured her. He came down to their house and pretended to be the children’s mother, but the children were not fooled and did not open the door. However, the tiger managed to get into the house and swallowed the youngest. The two remaining siblings, a brother and sister, ran away as fast as they could and climbed a tree. The tiger tried climbing the tree several times but failed, but soon he was able to go up the tree, little by little. The brother and sister prayed to the Emperor of the Heavens to save them, and a long rope descended from the sky. The brother and sister grabbed the rope and started to ascend. The tiger, also cunningly prayed for a rope, and soon another rope fell from the sky. While the brother and sister went up higher and higher, the tiger’s rope was rotten and broke, so he went tumbling down.
The brother and sister went up so high in the sky that they became the sun and moon. The sister became the sun for she was afraid of the dark; and because she was shy, she made sure that no one would be able to stare at her directly for a long period of time. There is another version where the youngest doesn’t get eaten and becomes the stars as well.

* The Good: The brother and sister
* The Bad: The tiger
* The Ugly: The mother and youngest in the tiger’s belly
* The unexpected feature character: The ropes

The good woodcutter’s gratitude and the bad woodcutter’s expectations

“Silver Axe, Gold Axe” or “The Good Woodcutter” is a staple in textbooks for young children. The story and phrase itself is highly parodied and variations are commonly used in everyday life. The story is quite short and simple:
A poor woodcutter accidentally drops his axe into a pond in the mountains while hacking away at trees. He is very distraught and starts crying, when an old man, a god of the mountain, rises from the pond with a gold axe in his hands. “Is this yours?” The woodcutter tells him that it is not. The old man returns with a silver axe. “Is this yours?” The woodcutter once again tells him no, that his axe is an old and weathered iron one. The god of the mountain is moved by the woodcutter’s honesty and gives all three axes to him.
A greedy woodcutter who hears of this news heads up to the same place right away and deliberately drops his axe into the pond. Again, the god of the mountain appears. He is asked the same question, but not having heard the detailed circumstances, he immediately replies that yes, both the gold and silver axes are his. The god is very angry upon hearing this and disappears into the water, and the greedy woodcutter is left with no axe at all, not even his iron one.

* The Good: Honest woodcutter
* The Bad: Lying woodcutter
* The Ugly: Nobody/nothing really reeking of ugly here
* The unexpected feature character: God of the mountain who lives in a pond?

The woodcutter’s deviance and the flight of his wife and children

Woodcutters are popular in folk tales. This one is a bit more complex to judge, though. “The Woodcutter and Sunnyeo”. (선녀 are angelic women from the heavens, and is usually translated as “fairy from the heavens” although their image is not at all like the fantastical creatures in western mythology.)
One day in the mountains, a woodcutter sees a deer fleeing from a hunter and hides him. The deer shows its gratitude by telling the woodcutter the bathing place of the fairies from the heavens. The deer tells him he could take one of them as his wife if he hides her clothes, for she cannot fly back to the heavens without them. The woodcutter is also told not to show her the clothes until they have three children.
The woodcutter follows the deer’s advice and hides the clothes of a fairy. She is left behind when the others return to the sky and stays to marry the woodcutter. By and by, the woodcutter and fairy have children, but the woodcutter, having forgotten the deer’s advice, shows his wife her clothes after they have two. The fairy puts on her flying clothes and with one child in each arm, heads back to the heavens, leaving the woodcutter behind.
Short versions for children usually stop here. The longer version mentions the woodcutter being so miserable after this incident that the deer returns to tell him of the water pail the heavens send down to get water. The woodcutter rides the pail to the heavens and reconciles with his wife and children and live there happily for a while. He soon misses his old mother so decides to pay her a visit on a skyhorse, which his wife tells him not to disembark for any reason. The woodcutter’s mother is so happy to see her son, she makes him hot juk (Korean porridge) and accidentally drops some on the skyhorse. The skyhorse is startled and abruptly flies to the sky, dropping the woodcutter on the land. The woodcutter dies and becomes a rooster, who cries everyday looking up to the heavens.

* The Good: ? Maybe the sunnyeo but I’m not so sure. (Debatable.)
* The Bad: The woodcutter, no? What’s with stealing clothes to get yourself a wife? Saving the deer was pretty cool but hey. Really. (Also debatable.)
* The Ugly: Peeking at bathing beauties and stealing their clothes is not cool. Neither is advising someone to do so. Deer, what were you thinking?
* The unexpected feature character: The deer.

This is only a smidgen of Korean folk tales; I’ve only listed the most well known with some prominent characters. Some are quite clear in the good vs bad theme, whereas others (like the last one) can give much fuel to a heated debate. However, whatever story it is, you can be sure it will be intriguing and interesting, especially if you’re not reading the simplified versions. What’s fortunate is that there are many translations available of these stories; check them out at your next trip to the bookstore and come up with your own verdict of the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’ll be fun.

About the Author

Suzy Chung

Multilingual editor, writer, and translator. Coffee addict, bookworm, art junkie, foodie, oenophile, and a billion other things. I tend to talk a lot. @suzyinseoul