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[Kim Seong-kon] Korean men’s follies in folktales

If folktales are reflections of the society that produced them, then Korean folktales surely exhibit a plethora of Korean men’s chronic, incorrigible follies.

Reading Korean folktales, one may wonder how Korean women -- far smarter and wiser -- could put up with such hopelessly pathetic but obstinate Korean men. In fact, Korean women have always had to endure all sorts of ordeals due to the incredible stupidity and stubbornness of their embarrassingly infantile partners. Numerous foreign invasions, loss of sovereignty and the 1950-53 Korean War come to mind, among others, not to mention the still ongoing factional skirmishes.

Take “The Snail Bride,” for example. Only if she had met a patient man could she have lived happily ever after.

In the tale, a woman who materializes from a snail shell pleads with a farmer to wait for three days before they get married. She warns him that if he cannot wait, something terrible will happen to them. But the man is too impatient and insists they get married.

Just as the woman had predicted, a terrible misfortune befalls them. Hearing about the snail bride’s beauty, the magistrate forcibly takes her from him. Out of despair, the man dies, and so does the snail bride.

In another version, the man waits for three days and the story has a happy ending. Still, however, the man is incredibly incompetent and ignorant.

For example, he does not know how to play chess. Thus, when the magistrate offers to play a game of chess with him to decide who would get the snail bride, the man has to follow his bride’s instructions.

Indeed, in Korean folktales, women are far wiser than men. If you do not listen to your wife, you will be doomed. Yet, Korean men invariably turn a deaf ear to their wives and are inevitably ruined.

The “Story of Simcheong,” too, portrays a man who is miserably incompetent and irresponsible. Simcheong’s father is not only unable to take care of his daughter but also brings trouble to her. Although he is blind and as poor as a church mouse, Simcheong’s father pledges to donate a huge amount of rice to the temple of a Buddhist monk who assures him that the donation will open his eyes. Due to her irresponsible father, poor Simcheong has to sell herself to the sailors as a human sacrifice to calm the sea. Perhaps it is the common destiny of a woman who has a foolish, incompetent man for a father or husband.

In “The Heavenly Maiden and the Woodcutter,” the woodcutter, though warm-hearted, is too emotional and unreliable. Despite the deer’s warning, for example, he gets emotional and returns the heavenly dress to his wife when she has two children so she can fly back to heaven. He pleads with the deer to help him to reunite with his family in heaven. The deer helps him join his family in heaven. Alas! He is a mama’s boy, as many Korean men are, and stubbornly insists on visiting his mother on Earth. Embarrassingly attached to his mother, he returns to see his mother despite his wife’s repeated warning that he may not be able to return to heaven. Indeed, he cannot go back to his family and has to live with his mother until he dies. How can you rely on such a man as your husband?

In “Heungbu and Nolbu,” or “The Queen Swallow’s Gift,” we encounter two types of men who can be easily found in Korean society. One is the Heungbu type who are good-natured but hopelessly incompetent, and the other is the Nolbu type who may be competent but are mean and jealous. Of course, neither is desirable. The admirable men are those who are warm-hearted as well as competent. The problem is that you need to go far to find such a man.

In a classical Korean novel titled “The Story of Madam Park,” written by an anonymous author during the Joseon era, a Korean man named Lee Si-baek maltreats his bride simply because she is not pretty. When the Chinese troops invade in 1636, the ugly bride called Madam Park, along with other Korean women, courageously defeats the Chinese commanders and his army, using her magical powers. After that, she turns into a beautiful woman, saying she has been wearing an ugly mask all these years. The story mocks Korean men’s incompetence in times of crisis and shallowness in pursuing women’s physical beauty without being able to perceive and appreciate their inner beauty.

Where have all the competent and reliable Korean men gone? Regrettably, the English title of Bae Su-ah’s novel “Nowhere to be Found” may be the sad but correct answer. In the novel, Bae laments that decent, dependable men are hard to find these days. Watching numerous irresponsible, indecent Korean men being toppled recently by the “#MeToo” movement, one cannot but agree with Bae Su-ah. 

Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and distinguished visiting professor at George Washington University. He can be reached at –Ed.