[Inkstone] The Colorful World of Korean Folktales
- onDecember 13, 2018
- Vol.42 Winter 2018
- byCharles La Shure
Folktales provide a unique window into a culture, quite different from the view you might get from other forms of literature such as novels or poetry. They are not authored by a single individual but are instead told and retold by many, handed down from generation to generation, and so they offer insight into the things that a culture and its people find worthy of telling stories about. Korean folktales are no different. The world of the Korean folktale is populated by woodcutters and fairies, clever boys and girls, simpletons who somehow manage to win in the end, and animals like tigers, rabbits, and nine-tailed foxes. These characters have a lot to say if you’re ready to listen.
One popular character from Korean folktales, a figure who is still well known today, is a man called “Bongi” Kim Seondal. Bongi is a nickname that means “The Phoenix,” and he earned it after pulling a trick on an unscrupulous chicken seller. Kim Seondal was at the market, where he saw chickens for sale. Feigning ignorance, he loudly admired them, saying what fine phoenixes they were. The chicken seller thus took him for a country rube and sold him one of these “phoenixes” for ten times the normal price. Kim Seondal immediately began to parade his prize around the market, telling everyone about his new phoenix. When he was questioned by the local magistrate, the chicken seller’s deed came to light—but of course when the magistrate asked Kim Seondal how much he had paid, he inflated the figure by ten times. Thus, when the chicken seller was ordered to pay back the money, Kim Seondal ended up making a tidy profit.
Though this is the episode that gave Kim Seondal his nickname, it is not his most famous exploit. That would be the selling of the Taedong River in Kim Seondal’s hometown, Pyongyang. There are as many versions of a tale as there are tellers; the one that follows is mine, though it is based on the many versions I have read and heard.
News that a rich man had arrived in Pyongyang, looking to buy up whatever he could, spread like wildfire through the markets and city streets. Before long, this news reach “Bongi” Kim Seondal, and he quickly hatched a plan. He went to the part of town where the water sellers lived and gathered them around him.
“My friends,” he began, “I have a favor to ask of you. If I give each of you one of these coins, can you return them to me tomorrow morning when you go down to the river to draw water?”
“That’s all we have to do?” one of the water sellers asked. “Sure, we can do that.”
So, early the next morning, Kim Seondal went down to the river and set up a booth, making sure it would be visible from the streets where he knew the rich man would walk. Then he sat down on a stool and waited. The water sellers began to arrive at the river, and when they spotted Kim Seondal they immediately went over to him and gave him their coins. The pile of coins on the counter of his booth grew to an impressive size.
As Kim Seondal was counting the coins, he heard someone clear his throat behind him. He turned to find the rich man standing there, eyeing the pile of money.
“Excuse me, good sir,” he said, “But I couldn’t help noticing that you seem to have a business of sorts here. Do you mind if I ask what it is you are selling?”
“Why, the water, of course,” Kim Seondal replied.
The rich man raised his eyebrows. He was skeptical at first, but then a few water sellers walked by, and each gave Kim Seondal a coin. Kim Seondal explained to him that the rights to the river water had been in his family for generations.
“But it does get tiring,” he added with a sigh. “I have to come down to the river every day to collect the fees!”
The rich man’s eyes narrowed. Here was an opportunity. “And how much is the fee for a day?” he asked.
“Oh, it’s only a single don.”
The rich man made some quick calculations. One don per water seller . . . that would be one nyang for ten water sellers, and if there were a hundred that would be ten nyang a day . . . three hundred nyang a month, over three thousand a year! He had to act quickly.
“It must be tiring, indeed,” he said, keeping his voice level. “I could take the river off your hands for, say, ten thousand nyang.”
Kim Seondal hesitated—after all, the river had been in his family for generations—but finally he agreed. A contract was drawn up, the money changed hands, and Kim Seondal went on his way, leaving the rich man to collect the rest of the coins. But the next day, when the rich man went to the booth by the river, the water sellers passed him by without even a glance.
“Hey!” he shouted. “You’re forgetting the fee!”
One of the water sellers stopped, puzzled. “What fee?”
“The water fee, for drawing water from the river!”
Then the water sellers realized what Kim Seondal had done and began to laugh. “Don’t be ridiculous!” said the first water seller. “Nobody owns this river!”
The rich man was furious, and he went in search of the former owner of the river. Not surprisingly, though, Kim Seondal was nowhere to be found.
It should be obvious by now that Kim Seondal is a classic trickster. Today, he would be known as a con man. In fact, his name has become so synonymous with con men that it is used in Korea to describe particularly devious practitioners of the confidence game; “modern-day Bongi Kim Seondal” is a phrase that can still be read in newspaper headlines or heard on the evening news.
The only problem is that Kim Seondal wasn’t just a con man. His name is now used as a label for every grifter and scam artist who makes the news, but Kim Seondal was not a common criminal. He did indeed bilk the chicken seller out of a considerable amount of money, but had the chicken seller been an honest man in the first place he never would have been a victim. And, as in the selling of the Taedong River, the mark is always a rich man or an aristocrat—that is, someone who, in the Joseon period when the tales were set, would have made life difficult for the common folk. Kim Seondal, like any good trickster, challenges the status quo and shakes the pillars that uphold the social structure. He shows us a world in which the rich and the unscrupulous don’t always get away with things, a world that is maybe a little more hopeful than the one we all live in.
Kim Seondal is only one of many colorful characters to be found in the world of the Korean folktale, but he shows us that folktales are not merely stories from the past. They are a living, breathing part of the culture of Korea.
by Charles La Shure
Associate Professor of Korean Literature
Seoul National University