Since its creation, the nation of Korea has used folklore to illuminate the history of Korea. It blends the complex history of the nation, its strong connection with nature and high value of spirituality to form models of morality for its citizens to base their actions on. In fact, the very history of Korea is based on the myth that celestial beings and inhabitants of Earth were brought together to form an ideal kingdom that became Korea. Unfortunately the true history of this nation is not nearly that ideal.
Korea was first inhabited when tribes form Central and Northern Asia stumbled onto the peninsula around 2333 B.C. From this time on the inhabitants of this land have been under constant pressure of war from other lands. After years of constant invasion the tribes living on the peninsula finally banded together to found the kingdom of Korea in the first century of A.D.
During the reign of the Silla Kingdom, around 700 A.D., cultural strides were made by building great palaces, pagoda and pleasure gardens all over the countryside. These beautiful displays of culture were so admired by surrounding nations, such as Japan, that they greatly influenced the culture of other nations as well. Korea remained quite prosperous until the 13th century when the Mongols invaded Korea and reduced all they had built to ashes. After years of occupation, the Mongol Empire eventually collapsed and the Choson dynasty began.
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This peace was short lived though, and at the turn of the 16th century Japan and China had both invaded Korea. By the 17th century, the Chinese Mancho dynasty had completely taken over. After some time, Korea slowly began regaining its land and closed its self off completely to any outside influences until the early 20th century. Despite the best efforts of the Koreans, the Japanese managed to invade one more time, and continued causing trouble for Korea until the end of World War II. After the war the United States occupied the South of Korea while the USSR took over the North. Elections were held in the South of Korea to determine the fate of the country. The decision was that the South declared independence from the North, but this only lead to invasions from the North and constant battles between the two until 1953. By the end of these wars two million people were dead and the country was completely divided between the North and the South. The South bounced back and forth between a semi-democracy and a martial law until the 1980’s. The citizens disliked this constant upheaval, and began banning together in protest, causing the government to fear that a Civil War may begin. The people of South Korea demanded democratic elections, freedom of the press and the release of political prisoners. By there surprise, President Chun decided to give everything the people were asking for.
In 1998, Kim Dae-jung became the first non-conservative president in the 50-year history of South Korea’s independence. Dae-jung introduced economic and democratic reforms and also wanted to better South Koreans relations with the north. By keeping his promise in 2000, President Kim Dae-jung visited North Korea and shook the hand of the leader of the North, Kim Jong II. In October of the same year, Dae-jung was awarded the Nobel-Peace Prize.
After years of war and turmoil, Korea is finally able to focus on its rich culture and rebuild its strong agricultural lands that most Koreans depend on as a way of life. Korea’s mild climate and fertile soil makes their agriculture plentiful and has made rice their number one grain since the earliest history of the nation. Rice plays such an important role in Korean culture that it is often referenced in much for Korea’s folklore. For example, the classic tale of Two Brothers describes how two brothers attempt to better the other life by providing him with an extra bag of rice. Based on this tale, it is considered bad luck in Korea to throw out rice.
Farming is also a large part of Korean culture and has influenced many of its customs. The Koreans have kept their ritual of farming since the beginning of the empire by sowing the seeds in the Spring, taking care of the rice plants in the Summer, harvesting crops in the fall, and preserving cereals in the winter months. In most other cultures, farmers would plan their important agriculture dates around the sun’s orbit. In Korea, the position of the moon is much more important, for it marks the change of seasons and all important agriculture dates. The moon is not only used as a calendar for farming, but it is also used to illuminate the night skies.
The most festive day of the year in Korean culture is “Sol”, which is the Koreans New Years Day. What is different about this New Years celebration when compared to other cultures is that everyone becomes a year older on this day instead of one ones birthday. Korean’s would be so excited and full of anticipation the few day’s before sol that would stay awake all night to receive the New Year. This custom turned into a playful joke saying, “If you fall asleep, you will get your eyebrows turned white.”
On the morning of sol, all family members dress in their best clothes, which are called, “solbim (new clothes of sol)”, and gather at the eldest-son’s house for the ancestral ceremonies. This custom is so strong that if the eldest son lives in a far off rural area that a three day holiday if granted to allow Korean’s to reunite with there family and be able to spend time with them.
Rice cake soup called “Ttokkuk” is used for the ancestor worship ritual on New Years day. Before an altar, family members and all relatives pay homage to the deceased ancestors. After this ritual is over, they sit down and feast on the foods that were displayed during the ceremony.
Even though Sol only lasts for three days, festivals for the holiday last until “Taeborum”, which represents the first full moon of the New Year, since the moon plays such a large role in Korean belief system. Korean culture also uses the first full moon to foretell the years harvest outcome. During this period of festivities oral traditions have come about since folklore is often told during this time to depict the cultures love of nature and man and to teach important life lessons. This is also a time when custom plays a large role in the daily activities of Koreans. One of these customs is to crack nuts with your teeth, which is believed to make your teeth strong and healthy throughout the New Year. Folk games begin in the afternoon of the New Year, and go until Teaborum. Children fly kites, which is one of the most popular activities. In the last day of the celebrations, the string of the kite is cut and it disappears into the sky. The most thrilling game though is a tough-of-rope competition between all of the townspeople. This time of festivities is truly cherished by all Koreans and in 1985 Sol was considered a national legal holiday for all to celebrate their culture. Today in Korea, Sol is officially known as “Folklore Day”.
Another day that the Korean’s cherish culturally is Hansik. The word Hansik means “cold food” in Korean. This day falls on the 105th day after the solstice, which is the 5th of April. This time of the year is the beginning of spring, and the time when farmers start sowing their seeds and watering their rice patties. The custom of eating cold food on this day originated in China, but has long since become Korean culture. Today, Hansik is used to welcome the warm weather and prepare for the farming season. Like New Years, this day is also for worshiping the deceased ancestors of ones family. This happens in the morning of Hansik, and the family gathers together to visit and clean the tomb of there ancestors. This day is shared with Arbor Day, so public cemeteries are usually full and crowded with the family members planting trees and flowers around the tombs.
Another holiday that is almost as popular and perhaps more special than Sol is Ch’usok. Ch’usok means the harvest moon and it lands on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month. This day can be considered equivalent of America’s Thanksgiving. On this day, Koreans wake up early to perform their ancestral worship. The ritual starts with the family preparing food from the new crops, followed by visits to the tombs of their ancestors to again clean the tombs. The Koreans believe that the harvested crops are gifts and blessing from their ancestors, Ch’usok is the day they show their gratitude for these gifts. Many foods are prepared especially for Ch’usok. One custom that many Koreans have cherished since childhood is the making of Songp’yon with family members. Songp’yon is a crescent shaped rice cake made with many different spices for unique flavor. This holiday is usually blessed with mild weather, a bright full moon and lots of wonderful food made with the freshly harvested food with the new crops. As with cultural holidays, traditional games, music, and storytelling are combined to create a festive mood.
As you can see, while Korea has dealt with a long history of war an almost constant upheaval, it has also celebrated a rich history of enjoying life and celebrating ancestry and culture. Koreans, to this day, feel that it is necessary to relax and reflect on life and its many gifts in order to maintain sanity. Through folklore the people of Korea can be reminded of these values of reflection can apply them to life situations. All works of Korean folklore prove that there are no “accidents” in life, such as bad harvest, death of a loved one or even war. In the myths and tales weather characters survive the hardships they must endure or not is used to reflect how life is not merely accidental, but a series of lessons that can either be learned from, or that will lead to eventual lead to demise. Characters who do not remember to be appreciative of what their land and their ancestors have provided for them always find that their story ends with the ladder. By looking into the history and culture of Korea, with sad stories of war being overshadowed by widespread celebration of culture and history, it is plain to see that Koreans today still remember the lessons learned through folklore and have used them to from the rich culture they experience today.
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