I thought I’d share one of the curious stories that I found in a book of Korean traditional stories for language learners by Julie Damron and Eunsun You. The book is written in Korean and English by a Korean language university professor and her graduate student assistant. Many of the stories highlight Shamanic beliefs or Confucian values. This quirky tale is based on Confucianism.
There are various versions of the story but it goes something like this:
THE MOUSE IN THE SHAPE OF A MAN
A man goes up to a mountain to study by himself. (Maybe he’s studying for the civil service exam).
Up in the mountain hut he’s all alone and studying hard. Then one day a mouse appears at his hut. So the man tries to feed the mouse, but it doesn’t take the food.
So the man offers the mouse some of his fingernail clippings!
The mouse eats the clippings.
After this, the mouse comes back day after day. And every day he eats more of the man’s fingernail clippings.
Then suddenly the mouse stops coming to the hut.
Later when the man has finished his studies he returns to his village only to find that his doppelgänger is living in his house!
Even his own family have accepted this imposter as part of the family. And they don’t believe him when he tells them who he is. In fact, they turn him away from his own home!
Shocked and confused, the man prays to his grandfather for help. He is told to take a cat to his house.
So he does as he is told. The cat bites the imposter who immediately turns back into a mouse and runs away.
So finally, the man can return to his home and live happily!
I find this such an unusual story and it really needs some context.
In the book Korean Stories for Language Learners there is a short cultural note explaining that in Confucianism we should cherish the body that we get from our parents. So discarding even fingernail clippings carelessly is a no-no!
So that is the moral of the story: Look after the body you inherited from your parents because this is another important duty of filial piety.
Consequently, this explains why everyone had long hair in the Joseon period! Nobody could cut their hair as this would be going against Confucian values. So in historical dramas we can see everyone with long hair including men wearing their hair in a topknot.
There are some well-known stories in the book including The Story of Gyeon-uh and Jik-nyeo, the two lovers who are separated and can only meet once a year on a bridge made by birds.
There’s a cute story about how a misunderstanding leads to a tiger bowing to a chestnut. The Farting Match caught my attention with its title! But the story is simply about a man and woman who fart well. (Spoiler: neither of them win in the end.)
KOREAN STORIES FOR LANGUAGE LEARNERS
The book includes a basic introduction to hangul, English translations of the stories, vocabulary lists, short notes on culture, as well as comprehension and discussion questions.
It’s a reading book for beginners. So the grammar is easy and the sentences are short. The first stories are just one paragraph long and the later ones build up to several pages.
Many of the stories are about animals such as foxes, tigers, cows, rats, grasshoppers, hedgehogs, snakes, frogs, toads, and snails. So the vocabulary is not the most useful to learn for communication in day-to-day life! But as an introduction to reading traditional stories, it’s a fun collection.
The Story of Chunhyang, a Korean literary classic romance from the reign of King Sukjong