Open main menu

The International Folk-Lore Congress of the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, July, 1893/Korean Folk-Lore

< The International Folk-Lore Congress of the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, July, 1893

KOREAN FOLK-LORE.

BY HOMER B. HULBERT.

In order to give an intelligent idea of Korean folk-lore, it will be necessary for me to premise it with a rapid sketch of the most probable theory as to the origin of the Korean people. This will give us a background against which to group the more salient facts of Korean lore. How or when the ancestors of the Chinese race migrated from the Iranian plateau, and found their way across the vast mountain ranges into China, is the merest matter of conjecture. Sure it is, at least, that it occurred in "the very remotest antiquity, before the first idea of a true alphabet had been evolved. Subsequently, another race swept eastward until it reached the apex of the Himalayas and the Altaic ranges. These were the progenitors of the great Turanian family. This horde did not cross the mountains but split into two great streams; one of which flowed toward the south and peopled the peninsula of India, and the other swept northward toward Siberia, where, splitting again, one part went westward toward the Urals and beyond, while the other went eastward into Mongolia, Manchouria, and finally to the shores of the Pacific. It was by some branch of this family that northern Korea was thinly settled. But let us now turn to that other branch of the same family, which peopled India. In the course of time the Sanscrit-speaking people arose somewhere to the north and east of India, and moving eastward impinged upon the earlier settlers of that great peninsula. The result was inevitable. The superior civilization of the Sanscrit-speaking race rapidly drove out or subjugated the Turanian element. Then began a grand flight. The Turanian peoples fled eastward across the Bramapootra and Irrawady into Burmah or else southward into the Deccan, where some found refuge in the hill country, where they live to-day. Others went over into

HOMER B. HULBERT.

Ceylon, and from there across to the Malay peninsula and the adjacent islands.

But they did not stop there. They swarmed along the coast of what is now Siam and Annam, into the Philippine islands, into Formosa, into the island of Quelpaert, and finally to the shores of southern Korea.

It is not the province of this paper to go into the discussion of the merits of this theory. It has been my privilege to collect and translate the first rare Korean manuscript histories of Korea, and they show, as plainly as words can show, that Korea was colonized from the south. The northern settlers from Manchouria crept southward and the southern colonists crept northward, until the two met at the Han river.

This is the grand fact which divides Korean legendary lore into two distinct branches, the northern and the southern. But in the course of the centuries there has come a blending of the two, so that it is impossible at present to make a clear line of demarkation between them. It is the province of comparative folk-lore to decide which of them show a southern origin, and which show a northern origin.

In Korean folk-lore, there are thirteen principal types, and I desire to illustrate each of them by a characteristic tale; for it is only in this way that we can gain a bird's-eye view of the whole subject. The thirteen types deal with:

1. The miraculous origin of the ancient heroes.

2. Communications between the inhabitants of dry land and mermen.

3. Divine beings walking upon the earth.

4. The changing of men into beasts and of beasts into men.

5. Simple myths.

6. Omens of evil.

7. Aid given by the dead to the living.

8. Fabulous animals.

9. Virtue's reward.

10. Aid given by animals to men.

11. Prophecies fulfilled.

12. Stratagems.

13. Miscellaneous.

Korean tradition mentions three kinds of origin for the ancient heroes. The first is by Divine Incarnation as illustrated in the legend of the Tangun.

In primeval times, when Korea was a vast wilderness, a wonder was seen.

On the slopes of Pak Ton San, the hoary-headed, a bear and a tiger met and held a colloquy.

"Would that we might become men," they said.

Even as they spoke, they heard the voice of the Supreme Ruler, who said: "Here are twenty bunches of garlic for each of you. Eat them, and keep yourselves from the light of the sun for twenty days, and you shall become men."

They ate, and retired into the recesses of the cave to spend the allotted time in darkness; but the tiger, by reason of the fierceness of his nature, could not endure the long restraint and wandered forth too soon, whereby his nature was rendered fiercer than before.

The bear, with greater faith and patience, waited the allotted time and then stepped forth into the sunlight, a perfect woman.

Meanwhile, another wonder was seen in Heaven. The son of the Supreme Ruler, tiring of the delights of Heaven, asked his father to allow him to go to earth and become ruler of an earthly kingdom. Permission was given, and earthward he fared to seek an earthly form.

As the woman sat beside the stream under an ancient cedar, the only thought in her heart was that of maternity.

"Would that I had a son," she said.

At that moment there passed her on the wind, the spirit of the Supreme Ruler's son seeking earthly form. It beheld her there, lone—sitting by the stream. It circled round her, breathed upon her, won her, and her cry was answered. She cradled her babe in moss beneath that same ancient cedar, and when in after years the wild people found him sitting there in holy contemplation, they made him their king. He ruled two thousand years and then went back to his Father.

The second form of origin of ancient heroes is from the egg. This is by far the commonest and most characteristic mode, and is common to both the northern and southern branches of Korean lore.

This is well illustrated in the legend of the origin of the first king of Silla, the southern kingdom that arose about 200 B. C.

The chiefs of five of the scattered tribes of southern Korea met and decided to form a central government which should cement the tribes into a closer union. But the greatest obstacle was the fact that they could decide upon no one to put upon the throne. They were all too modest. As this question was being anxiously discussed, the attention of the company was drawn toward a neighboring mountain, on whose wooded slope was seen a gleaming object like a star. With one accord they drew near to the mountain, and beheld a white horse seated upon a round, gleaming object. As they approached, the horse with a loud cry, rose into the air and disappeared. There lay the gleaming egg, for egg it was. They reverently picked it up and carried it to the town. As it did not open of itself, they tried to break it with sledges, but it withstood their blows. They desisted, when suddenly of its own accord, the egg split open, disclosing a handsome child. A regency was proclaimed until he should come of age, when he ascended the throne as the first king of Silla.

The third form of hero origin is not so common, but it is one of the most cherished traditions of the people.

In the island of Chay Ju (the modern Quelpaert), when as yet it was only a tangled forest, the ground split open, revealing a fathomless abyss piercing to the very centre of the earth. From this abyss there arose, in slow succession, three sages of venerable appearance. Without a word they struck off through the forest, until they reached the slopes of the lofty Hal La San. Entering a grotto there, they beheld three stone chests. Each man approached his chest and lifted the heavy cover, and to the eyes of each were revealed, a colt, a calf, a kid, a dog, and a woman, besides sundry kinds of seed grain. Each sage took his colt, his calf, his kid, his dog, and his woman, and went forth and made a home for himself.

This tale not only gives the origin of the people of Quelpaert, but it is a commentary on the status of woman in early Korean times.


Ed. Note.—The following stories, read by Mr. Hulbert as illustrations of the other types of tales, have since been returned to him in Seoul, for publication in a book on Korean folk-lore:

A Submarine Romance.

Put Yourself in Her Place.

The Priest's Translation.

A Glimpse of Hell.

The Haroun Al Raschid of Korea.

How the Siege of Pyeng Yang was Raised.

The Wonderful Pear.