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This page copyright © 2006 Silk Pagoda.
Translated by Setsu Higashi
The Story Bag, a captivating collection of Korean folk tales compiled by the emininent Korean storyteller, Ms. Kim So-un, is sure to delight the hearts of all “children” between the ages of eight and 80. Written with earthy wit and pathos, the tales unveil the inevitable foibles of people everywhere and expose the human-like qualities of animals and the animal-like qualities of humans. Pulsatin with the rhythm of life and the seasons, these 30 stories transport the reader to a wonderland, where a tiny mouse teaches filial piety to a spoiled child, a blind man can “see” evil spirits, and fleas drink rice wine.
It is somehow deeply reassuring to know that even in present-day politically-divided Korea, these same stories are still being told, just as they have been for generations.
The stories in this collection originally appeared in NEGI O UETA HITO, published in Japanese, 1953, by Iwanami Sboten, Tokyo
I am not yet of an age to be called an old man. But when I compare the world of today with that of my youth, the changes are so great that I can hardly believe they have actually taken place.
When Art Smith, an American, brought the first airplane to Korea, I went, as did other small Korean children, to see the wonderful machine that flew through the skies. With the others, I paid my fifteen sen for admission to the filled-in plot of land in Pusan. There, Art Smith, with his mother in the spare cockpit, put his small one-winged plane into the air, flew daring loops, and wrote his name in smoke across the sky.
Since then only thirty-odd years have passed. Today no Korean child, unless he lives in the most remote mountain fastness, is astonished at airplanes.
In fact, any young schoolboy of the cities can tell the type of plane in flight just by listening, from inside his house, to the sound of the engine. Today, with no trouble at all, one can fly in two or three days to either Europe or the United States. Just last year I myself flew on a 54-passenger SAS passenger air liner to Europe.
Just think—only thirty years ago I watched with beating heart and bated breath a small two-seater doing simple tricks in the air. How the world has changed!
It is not only airplanes that have changed. The way people think and the way they live have also changed. If people who lived even fifty or a hundred years ago were to come back to life, how amazed they would be!
Too frequently our lives undergo change. The world is ever progressing, with neither rest nor pause. Like river rapids, the life of mankind flows forward, day and night, at a dizzying speed, onward and ever onward. This is the ever-changing current of history. But this does not mean that all things change.' The beauty of the stars that twinkle in the night sky, the illusive scent of the wild chrysanthemum, the sorrow of parting, the joy of a lovers' reunion, and the nostalgic recollection of a distant journey—these things will remain unchanged forever.
No matter how man's knowledge and wisdom may progress, his inner heart will remain as it was hundreds of years ago. Even if the day should come when man can journey to the moon, as long as man remains man, he will not lose that soul which has been his heritage from time immemorial.
I have chosen and retold here a number of Korean folk tales that have been handed down by word of mouth from one generation to the next. There are stories that have been told by grandparents to their grandchildren, huddled on the heated floors of Korean homes in the dead of winter, with the cold snow-laden winds raging outside. There are stories repeated in the yards of Korean homes to children seated on straw mats in the cool of a summer evening, smoke from mosquito smudges whirling about their faces. These are short tales recounted in great mirth by farmer folk, as they rest from their work in the fields in the shade of a nearby tree. These are stories which the Korean children of countless generations have wept and laughed over in untiring repetition. In these stories tigers smoke tobacco, a tree fathers a child, fleas and lice drink rice-wine, and the spirits of old tales turn themselves into the wild berries of the fields or into a bubbling roadside spring. They reflect the serenity of the men and women nurtured by the ancient land of Korea.
Here may be found stories which echo those told in many other countries throughout the world. Here are also stories that are peculiar to Korea. But you will find here neither homily nor dialectic. I am certain that the reader will feel a kindred spirit with the hearts of the people of ancient Korea. I am certain that a responsive chord will sound in his own heart to their dreams, their laughter, their fantasies.
As seen in the title piece, stories do not like to be hoarded, but want to be told and told again, passing always from lip to lip. These stories were first heard in my childhood in Korean, then written down by me in Japanese, and finally translated into English by Mrs. Higashi. But I have reason to hope that, out of gratitude for the wider audience they can now find, they will use their magic powers to rise above all language barriers and speak directly to the hearts of people in other lands.
Tokyo, Japan November, 1954
THERE once lived a very rich family. They had only one child, a boy, who loved to have stories told to him. Whenever he met a new person, he would say: “Tell me another different story.” And, each time, he would store away the story he heard in a small bag he carried at his belt. So many stories did he hear that soon the bag was packed tight and he had to push hard to get each new story in. Then, to make sure that none of the stories escaped, he kept the bag tied tightly at the mouth.
The boy eventually grew into a handsome young man. The time came for him to take a wife. A bride was chosen for him, and the whole house was preparing to greet the young master's new wife. Everything was in an uproar.
Now, there happened to be in this rich home a faithful old servant who had been with the family ever since the time when the story-loving boy was still very young.'' As the household made ready for the young master's wedding, this servant was tending a fire on the kitchen hearth. Suddenly his ears caught faint whispering sounds coming from somewhere. He listened carefully and soon discovered that the voices were coming from a bag hanging on the wall. It was the bag of stories which the young master had kept in his childhood. Now it hung forgotten on an old nail on the kitchen wall. The old servant listened carefully.
“Listen, everyone,” said a voice, “the boy's wedding is to take place tomorrow. He has kept us this long while stuffed in this bag, packed so closely and uncomfortably together. We have suffered for a long time. We must make him pay for this some way or another.”
“Yes,” said another voice, “I have been thinking the same thing. Tomorrow the young man will leave by horse to bring home his bride. I shall change into bright red berries, ripening by the roadside. There I shall wait for him. I shall be poisonous but shall look so beautiful that he will want to eat me. If he does, I shall kill him.”
“And, if he doesn't die after eating the berries,” piped up a third voice, “I shall become a clear, bubbling spring by the roadside. I shall have a beautiful gourd dipper floating in me. When he sees me he will feel thirsty and will drink me. When I get inside of him, I shall make him suffer terribly.”
A fourth voice then broke in: “If you fail, then I shall become an iron skewer, heated red-hot, and I shall hide in the bag of chaff that will be placed by his horse for him to dismount on when he reaches his bride's home. And when he steps on me, I shall burn his feet badly.” Because, you see, according to the custom of the land in those days, a bag of chaff was always placed by the bridegroom's horse so that he would not have to step directly on the ground.
Then a fifth voice whispered: “If that fails too, I shall become those poisonous string-snakes, thin as threads. Then I shall hide in the bridal chamber. When the bride and the bridegroom have gone to sleep, I shall come out and bite them.”
The servant was filled with alarm by what he heard. “This is terrible,” he told himself. “I must not let any harm come to the young master. When he leaves the house tomorrow, I must take the bridle and lead the horse myself.”
Early next morning, the final preparations were completed, and the wedding procession was ready to set forth. The groom, dressed in his best, came out of the house and mounted his horse. Suddenly the faithful servant came running out and grabbed the horse's bridle. He then asked to be allowed to lead the horse.
The old master of the house said: “You have other work to do. You had better stay behind.”
“But I must lead the horse today,” the servant said. “I don't care what happens, but I insist that I take the bridle.”
He refused to listen to anyone and, finally, the master, surprised at the old man's obstinacy, allowed him to lead the horse to the bride's home.
As the procession wound along its way, the bridegroom came to an open field. There by the roadside many bright berries were growing. They looked temptingly delicious.
“Wait!” the bridegroom called out. “Stop the horse and pick me some of those berries.”
However, the servant would not stop. In fact, he purposely made the horse hurry on and said: “Oh, those berries. You can find them anywhere. Just be a little patient. I shall pick some for you later.” And he gave the horse a good crack of the whip.
After a while, they came to a bubbling spring. Its clear waters seemed cool and tempting. There was even a small gourd dipper floating on the water, as if to invite the passerby to have a drink.
“Bring me some of that water,” the bridegroom said to the servant. “I have been thirsty for some time.”
But, again, the servant prodded the horse and hurried by. “Once we get into the shade of those trees, your thirst will soon disappear,” he said, and he gave the horse another crack of the whip, a blow much harder than the first.
The bridegroom grumbled and mumbled from atop his horse. He was in a bad mood, but the servant took no notice. He only made the horse hurry the faster.
Soon they reached the bride's home. There, already gathered in the yard, was a large crowd of people. The servant led the horse into the compound and stopped it beside the waiting bag of chaff. As the bridegroom put down his foot to dismount, the servant pretended to stumble and shoved the bridegroom to keep him from stepping on the bag.
The bridegroom fell to the straw mats laid out on the ground. He blushed in shame at his clumsy fall. However, he could not scold the servant in front of all the people. So he kept silent and entered the bride's home.
There, the wedding ceremony was held without untoward incident, and the newly-married couple returned to the groom's home.
Soon night fell, and the bride and bridegroom retired to their room. The faithful servant armed himself with a sword and hid himself under the veranda outside the bridal chamber.
As soon as the bride and bridegroom turned out the lights and went to bed, the servant opened the door of the room and leapt inside.
The newly-wed couple were startled beyond description. “Who's there?” they both shouted, jumping out of bed.
“Young master,” the servant said, “I shall explain later. Right now, just hurry and get out of the way.”
The servant kicked the bedding aside and lifted the mattress. A terrible sight greeted their eyes. There hundreds of string-snakes coiled and writhed in a single ball. The servant slashed at the snakes with the sword in his hand. As he cut some into pieces, they opened their red mouths and darted their black forked tongues at him. Other snakes slithered here and there, trying to escape the servant's flashing sword. The servant whirled here and there like a madman and finally killed every one of the snakes in the room.
Then he let out a great sigh of relief and began: “Young master, this is the story...” And the old servant recounted the whispers that he had heard coming from the old bag on the kitchen wall.
That is why when stories are heard they must never be stored away to become mean and spiteful, but must always be shared with other people. In this way, they are passed from one person to another so that as many people as possible can enjoy them.
THIS story happened in an age before man ever ate onions. In those days people used to eat people. That was because everybody saw everybody else as cows, not as people at all. If you weren't careful, you'd mistake your own father and mother or your brothers and sisters for cows and eat them up. Surely there can be no sadder plight than this—for people not to be able to tell the difference between people and cows.
Once there was a man who made just such a mistake. He ate up his own brother! After a while he realized what he had done, but by then it was too late. There was nothing he could do to make amends. “Oh, this is terrible, terrible!” he cried. “I hate living in this place!”
So saying, the man left his home and started on a long journey in search of a place where people saw people as people and not as cows.
“Surely, in this wide, wide world there must be a country when men are men and cows are cows. I don't care how long it takes—I must find such a country.”
And so he wandered over the world. He traveled deep into the mountains. He journeyed over the sea. But, no matter where he went, he still found that people ate each other. However, the man refused to give up hope and continued his quest.
He saw many an autumn and many a winter.
The man was young when he started out on his travels. Now he was no longer young. He was an old man. He continued his search, growing older and older. At long last, he came to a country which he had never seen nor heard of before.
Although he didn't yet realize it, this was the country he had been looking for all these long, long years. The inhabitants were all living happily together. Cows were cows, and people were people. They were clearly distinguished.
The aged traveler met up with an old man of this country, who greeted him: “Hello! From where are you? And where are you going?”
“I have no definite place in mind,” answered the traveler. “I am only searching for a country where people do not eat each other. Do you think there is such a place in this wide world? I have been searching for such a country for many, many years.”
“Oh my, you must have had a hard time,” said the aged inhabitant. “We used to be like that here too. People used to look like cows to each other and very often brothers ate brothers and sons ate their parents. But that was all before we began eating onions.”
“Onions?” The old traveler was greatly surprised. “What is that again? Onions? What are onions?”
“Come over here and see for yourself. Those green shoots growing out of the ground there are what we call onions.”
The old inhabitant kindly led the aged traveler to a field of onions to show him the sprouting shoots. Not only did the inhabitant show the traveler what onions were, but he also taught the aged visitor in detail how onions were grown and how they were prepared for eating.
The old traveler was greatly pleased. He was given some onion seeds, and then he started on his return trip home.
“By just eating some onions, a person will be able to see his neighbors as human beings and not as cows,” he kept telling himself over and over again.
He wanted to get home as soon as he could to tell all his own people about his marvelous discovery. The journey home did not seem too long nor difficult.
At long last he reached his homeland. The first thing he did was to plow his garden and plant the precious onion seeds that had been given him. As soon as he finished planting the seeds, he was so happy that he hurried off to visit his old friends, whom he had not seen for many years.
But, no matter whom he met, he was mistaken for a cow. The people gathered about him and tried to catch him.
“No! No! You are wrong. Look at me well. I am your friend. Don't you remember me?” he cried in a loud voice.
But his friends would not listen to him. “My, what a noisy cow!” they said. “This one really is a cow, isn't he? Let's hurry and catch him.”
At last, the old traveler was caught and eaten up by his friends that very day.
Soon after this incident, the people began to notice some strange green shoots, the like of which they had never seen before, growing in a corner of the old man's vegetable garden. Someone plucked one of the green shoots and tasted it. It had a strange, but pleasing, smell.
This was the onion that the old traveler had planted. Of course, no one knew what it was. Nonetheless, all the people flocked to the garden to eat the strange shoots that had a queer but pleasant taste.
To everybody's surprise, after eating the green shoots, people no longer saw each other as cows. They saw each other as they were. No longer was it possible for people to mistake each other for cows. The people suddenly realized what the old traveler had done. But it was too late to thank him for his efforts. They had already eaten him up. Yet, to this very day, the old man's kindness lives on in the gratitude of the people whom he made happy with the onions he planted.
MANY, many years ago there lived in the country of Heaven a king and his beautiful daughter. One day this lovely princess lost her favorite ring. It was a beautiful ring, which she loved dearly. Her father, the king, ordered all his people to look for the ring throughout the country. But it was not to be found anywhere.
Meanwhile, the princess wept and wailed over her loss.
The king could not bear to see his daughter so unhappy. To quiet her sobbing, he told her: “We have searched everywhere in the country of Heaven, but the ring cannot be found. It must have dropped to earth. I will send one of my men to search for it there and to hurry and bring it back to you.”
So the king ordered one of his retainers to go down to earth, and there to search for the ring the princess had lost.
You must remember that this happened a long, long time ago, when the earth was still young. It was one great stretch of mud. The retainer did not know where to start his search for the ring. But he had to start somewhere. So he began digging into the mud with his hands. He dug here and there, scooping up the dirt into mounds. He ran his fingers over the ground, leaving deep marks in the surface of the earth.
It was not an easy task to find a small ring in all this mass of mud. But, at long last, he found the precious ring.
The princess was overjoyed and once again became her own happy self.
The deep holes which the retainer dug became oceans. The mounds of dirt he left behind became mountains. And the places where he ran his fingers through the earth became rivers.
That is why the earth now has mountains, rivers and seas.
THERE once lived in the same forest a pheasant, a dove, and a magpie. One year the crops failed, and there was nothing for the three of them to eat.
“What shall we do? How can we live through this cold winter? The three talked over their problems and finally decided to call on a mouse who also lived in the same forest. “Surely,” they said, “the mouse will have some rice and will share it with us.” They decided that the pheasant would go first to see the mouse.
The peasant was always a proud bird and till then had looked down on the lowly mouse. So, when he came to the home of the mouse, he spoke rudely out of habit.
“Hey there!” the pheasant said haughtily, “where are you? This is the great pheasant. Bring me some food.”
Mrs. Mouse was in the kitchen at the back of the house, feeding fuel to her kitchen stove. When she heard the disdainful words of the pheasant, she became very angry. She flew out of the kitchen, a red-hot poker in her hand, and began hitting the pheasant on both his cheeks.
“What's the idea of speaking in such a manner when you have come begging for food. Even if we had rice to throw away, we wouldn't give you any.”
Rubbing his red and swollen cheeks, the pheasant ran home in great shame. That is why, to this day, the pheasant's cheeks are red.
Next the dove went to the mouse's home. He, too, was a very proud bird and looked down on the mouse.
“Say, you rice thief! I've come for a bit of food,” he said in a rude and haughty manner.
Mrs. Mouse became angry again when she heard the dove speak so rudely. She ran out of her kitchen with a poker in her hand and hit the dove a good blow on the top of his head.
Ever since then, the top of a dove's head has always been blue. It is the bruise that was caused by Mrs. Mouse and her poker.
Lastly, the magpie went to get some food. The magpie knew too well what had happened to his two friends, the pheasant and the dove. He did not want to repeat their mistakes, so he decided to be very, very careful how he spoke.