Read Tales of a Korean Grandmother Online

Authors: Frances Carpenter

Tales of a Korean Grandmother

BOOK: Tales of a Korean Grandmother
11.71Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub




Tokyo • Rutland, Vermont • Singapore

Published by Tuttle Publishing, an imprint of Periplus Editions (HK) Ltd.,
with editorial offices at 364 Innovation Drive, North Clarendon, VT 05759 U.S.A.
and 61 Tai Seng Avenue, #02-12, Singapore 534167.

Copyright in Japan, 1973
by Charles E Tuttle Publishing Company, Inc.
All rights reserved.

Library of Congress Catalog Card No. 72077515
ISBN: 978-1-4629-0290-3

First edition published 1947
by Doubleday Company, Inc., Garden City N.Y.

First Tuttle edition, 1973
Printed in Singapore

Distributed by:

Tuttle Publishing
Yaekari Building, 3rd Floor
5-4-12 Osaki, Shnagawa-ku, Tokyo 141-0032
Tel: (81) 3 5437-0171: Fax: (81) 3 5437-0755
Email: [email protected]

North America, Latin America & Europe
Tuttle Publishing
364 Innovation Drive
North Clarendon, VT 05759-9436 U.S.A.
Tel: 1 (802) 773-8930; Fax: 1 (802) 773-6993
Email: [email protected]

Asia Pacific
Berkeley Books Pte. Ltd.
61 Tai Seng Avenue, #02-12, Singapore 534167
Tel: (65) 6280-1330; Fax: (65) 6280-6290
Email: [email protected]

09 10 11 12 21 20 19 18

TUTTLE PUBLISHING® is a registered trademark of Tuttle Publishing, a division of Periplus Editions (HK) Ltd,

To my favorite children


List of Illustrations
The House of Kim
Land of Morning Brightness
Ki Ja's Pottery Hats
Why the Dog and the Cat Are Not Friends
Sticks and Turnips! Sticks and Turnips!
The Tiger and the Puppy
The Bird of the Five Virtues
The Blind Man's Daughter
The Man Who Lived a Thousand Years
A Fortune from a Frog
The Great Fifteenth Day
A Korean Cinderella
The Rabbit That Rode on a Tortoise
Letters from Heaven
The Mourner Who Sang and the Nun Who Danced
The Ant That Laughed Too Much
Rice from a Cat's Fur
The Beggars' Friend
The Village of the Pure Queen
A Story for Sale
The Two Stone Giants
The Mole and the Miryek
The King's Seventh Daughter
The Woodcutter and the Old Men of the Mountain
The Good Brother's Reward
The Pansu and the Stableboy
The Sparrows and the Flies
Clever Sim Who Would "Squeeze"
The Tiger Hunter and the Mirror
The Rooster and the Centipede
The Rock of the Falling Flower

Epilogue—Many, Many Years Later, Ok Cha's Strangest Stories



The Master of the House rode out of the city, perched on a sturdy little Korean horse.



"Always, Yong Tu, there have been poets and scholars in our family," said Halmoni. "They were true masters of wisdom who won high office at court."


Yong Tu admired the tall hats, made of fine horsehair, which his father and uncles wore inside as well as outside the house.


Ancient Korean warriors swallowed medicines made of powdered tiger bones to give them more strength and courage.


Sim Chung's face was as smooth as a piece of ivory carving. Her brows had the curves of a butterfly's wings.


Yong Tu and his cousins were getting ready to take part in the New Year kite-flying contest.


The seesaw was in constant motion during the New Year holidays. The girls, standing upright upon it, were tossed higher and higher into the air


The girls were playing blindman's buff in the Garden of Green Gems.


The mourners they knew went about crying, "Ai-go! Ai-go!"—they did not look as though they would ever wish to sing again.


It was a splendid fair, with clowns and dancers who ran along straw ropes high up in the air.


The Emperor gave Yo a post at his court and the right to wear a peacock feather in his hat.


Ok Cha's mother threw over her head a long, bright green silken coat for her walks outside the bamboo gate.


Yong Tu missed his good games out in the courtyard. He was just learning to kick the shuttlecock with the side of his foot.


Ok Cha seldom had a turn now on the swing in the Inner Court.


The mare smelled the tiger's skin and galloped away.


Ok Cha's favorite war story was about Nonga, the singing girl, who danced the Japanese General into the deep river.



popular folk tales which have been adapted in this book have been collected from many sources. Among these special mention should be made of the early English-language periodicals,
The Korean Repository
The Korean Review,
and of the writings of the missionaries, teachers, and travelers in Korea during the last decades of the nineteenth century, as follows:
Corea, the Hermit Nation
by William Elliot Griffis;
Korean Tales
by Horace Newton Allen;
Life in Corea
by W. R. Carles;
Korea and Her Neighbors
by Isabella Bird Bishop; the works of James S. Gale; the articles and books of Homer B. Hulbert;
Korean Games
by Stewart Culin.

Much valuable material was found in the early writings of the author's father, Frank G. Carpenter, who visited Korea first in 1888, and with whom she herself traveled there in the days before that unhapy country was annexed by Japan.

The author also wishes to express gratitude to Pyo Wook Han, Korean scholar and critic, for assistance in checking the accuracy of her pictures of family life in Old Korea.


Korean grandmother sat comfortably on the soft tiger-skin rug, enjoying the autumn breeze that drifted in through the open door of her apartment. She puffed contentedly at her long pipe while she watched two of her granddaughters playing on the seesaw out in the walled courtyard. The girls were laughing and squealing as they stood upright, one on each end of a board laid across a firm sack of earth. Their long, bright-colored skirts flew like banners in the wind. Their jet-black braids, tied with little red bows, swung back and forth as they jumped up and down so as to toss each other high into the air.

But again and again the old woman's dark eyes were turned away from their play. They sought instead the gateway on the far side of the Inner Court, beside the long, low building which housed the men of the Kim family and which protected the women's quarters from the outer entrance court. Like the little girl who stood just outside her door on the narrow veranda, the woman seemed to be listening for some special sound.

"The men should be coming home, Halmoni," the child said, retying the red ribbons that fastened the short green jacket above her long, very full rose-colored skirt.

they should be returning, little Ok Cha," her grandmother replied. "The sun has dropped down behind our garden wall. The evening bell soon will be struck. The great gates of the city will swing together. If the Master of this House does not make haste, he and the others will spend the night on the highway."

It had seemed strange all day to Ok Cha, with her father and her uncles, her brothers and her boy cousins, all gone from the walled courts of the Kim household. It was the time of the autumn Feast of the Ancestors, when prayers and thanksgivings must be offered at the family grave mounds out on the hills that encircled their city of Seoul. And, of course, only menfolk were important enough to take part in such a ceremony.

That morning, at sunrise, a little procession had gone forth from the bamboo gate. Leading it was Kim Hong Chip, father of Ok Cha and oldest son of this Korean grandmother, whom everyone called "Halmoni." Ever since his father's death, Kim Hong Chip had borne the important title, Master of the House. In all family ceremonies he was the leader.

Kim Hong Chip was a fine-looking, dignified man. On this day he was clad as usual in a spotless white jacket and white baggy pantaloons tied neatly about his ankles above his thick-soled quilted shoes. Over all he had on his best long green coat that gleamed like silk in the sun. Through the meshes of his tall black hat of woven horsehair his trim topknot showed, standing straight up through the opening of his black gauze skullcap.

As befitted the master of a
or noble family such as the Kims, he rode out of the city, perched on a sturdy little Korean horse. A servant trotted along beside him, at hand to steady his portly, well-fed body over the rough places in the narrow country road. Another servant ran ahead, shouting loudly to the less important wayfarers, "Make way! Make way! A great man comes!"

Halmoni's younger sons and grandsons, dressed just like the Master, hurried to keep their places in the procession. By their topknots it was easy to tell which ones were married, for each boy and bachelor in Korea then wore his well-oiled black hair in one long braid down his back.

Last of all came the menservants, with brooms to tidy the grave site and with loads of wine, rice cakes, and puddings to please the ancestors' spirits. Later, when the prayers all had been said, these good things pleased also their descendants, who picnicked upon them in the family pavilion near by.

"It is good to be born a boy like Yong Tu," Ok Cha said wistfully, coming to sit down at her grandmother's side. The little girl envied her brother—not because he was the oldest son of their father and thus one day would become, like him, Master of the House, but just because Yong Tu was a boy. He could do so many things that were not permitted then to girls in Korea. He could walk on the street. He could picnic on the hills in the spring, or fly kites out there when the winter winds blew. He could even go with his father or the servants to buy toys in the markets and stores of the city.

Ok Cha, now that she was a full eight years old, would not be allowed to set foot outside the Inner Court. She would not see the city streets except through the curtains of the sedan chair in which she might go visiting with her mother. When she was married, she would only exchange the Inner Court of her father's house for that of her husband.

It was not that the little Korean girl was unhappy. These were the customs all over her land. Omoni, her busy mother, and Halmoni always found ways to occupy and amuse themselves in the Inner Court. Oh, it was pleasant there, and one could play also in the Garden of Green Gems behind the women's houses. Ok Cha knew the Inner Court was far safer for girls than the city streets with their crowds of rough men.

Ok Cha, Yong Tu, and their grandmother, as well as the other people in this story, lived many, many years ago. That was before western ideas and new ways of living came to this Asiatic land of Korea. Because it had long refused to let foreign traders or travelers land on its shores, Korea was nicknamed the "Hermit Kingdom." A hermit among the nations it was, shut off to itself like a frog in a well and knowing almost nothing of the great world beyond its seacoasts.

"Our 'Little Kingdom' is like a bone between two dogs," Halmoni used to explain. "Mighty China, to the north and west, and strong Japan, to the east, would like to swallow it up." She told her grandchildren that by sending thousands of bags of rice and boatloads of rich silk each year to China, their land bought its freedom to live in peace. Thus it bought also the help of China in keeping away its greedy neighbor, Japan. It was only when Japan became so much stronger than China that it was able to conquer Korea. Halmoni would have been sad indeed if the blind fortuneteller she so often consulted had foretold the long sad years when her land was to be under Japanese rule. These were to last until Korea was set free by World War II.

Some say Korea's ancient name of Chosun means "Land of Morning Calm." Others like better "Land of Morning Brightness." In a household like that of the Kims, there were, in those times, many bright days and many calm days, like this Day of the Ancestors.

But it was never really quiet in the Inner Court of the rich Kim household. There was the constant rat-a-tat-tat of the ironing sticks in the hands of the maidservants. In this land the women, as well as the men, wore chiefly garments of white grass linen—short white jackets and long white trousers or very full white skirts. The boys and the girls had similar clothes of gayer hues—pale blues, bright greens, and rosy pinks. There was always something to be washed clean and pounded smooth on the flat oblong ironing stones.

There were always sounds, too, coming out of the kitchen. Just now twigs and leaves were being stuffed into the fireplace there, to keep the rice water boiling and to make sure plenty of hot air would flow out from the stove under the floors of the houses. The travelers would be hungry and cold. When they dropped down to rest, they must feel the warmth of the stone floors through the smooth oiled-paper coverings.

"What is it that has only one mouth and yet has three necks?" This was a riddle about the kitchen fireplace which Ok Cha liked to ask. The firebox was the mouth, of course. The three necks were the flues which brought heat from the firebox out under the floors and thus warmed the houses.

The great city bell was booming its evening warning when the Master of the House was lifted down from his pony. Yong Tu and the other boys ran at once to the Inner Court to bring their mothers and Halmoni the flaming autumn leaves they had picked out on the hills, and to tell them of the day's doings.

But the women were busy making ready the evening meal for their husbands and sons. Large bowls were heaped high with steaming rice. Smaller bowls were being filled with bean sauce, fish, and the savory pickle called
All these bowls were arranged on tiny low tables, to be set down on the floor near each hungry man. For drinking, there were bowls of steaming rice water. In Korea, in those days, cows were raised for drawing plows or carrying loads, not for giving milk.

Only when the menfolk had been fed, and the women and girls had themselves eaten, did the family begin to move across the Inner Court to Halmoni's apartment. The Hall of Perfect Learning, the room where the Master received his men guests, was larger. The Hall of the Ancestors was finer. But Halmoni's room was the true center of the Kim household. From her place, here in the Inner Court, she directed the lives of all of her family. Because of her age, and because they loved her so much, she was the true head of the House of Kim.

As was the custom of those times, three of her sons had brought their brides to live in the Kim family courtyards. Here all their children were being brought up. There was ample room for them all, for the houses of the Kims were among the richest and most spacious in all the capital city of Seoul. Their curving tiled roofs stood out proudly in the sea of grass roofs of the more ordinary houses.

The plaster walls of the Kim houses were smoother, and their fine paper windows let in more light, than those of its neighbors. In few other homes in Seoul were there more handsome brassbound clothing chests, more elegantly embroidered screens, nor more scholarly wall writings. Halmoni specially treasured the thick tiger skins which had covered the official sedan chair of her dead husband.

In the Master's Hall of Perfect Learning, behind little panels in the walls, there were precious books and rolls of white paper upon which poems had been set down with the skillful brush strokes of scholars.

"Always, Yong Tu, there have been poets and scholars in our family," Halmoni sometimes said to her grandson. "Next it is you who must bring such honor to our house. Like your grandfather and your great-grandfather, you must learn to make the golden words flow off your rabbit-hair brush. You must become a
like them, a true 'master of wisdom.' To be a
is to mount the dragon of good luck, blessed boy. One day you, too, shall pass the Emperor's examinations. You, too, shall win high office, fortune, and fame."

Each day the old woman helped Yong Tu with his lessons. Halmoni knew how to read and write
the "people's language," whose words were formed with the letters of the Korean alphabet. But by helping her own sons and her grandsons, she had learned also many of the sayings of the old Chinese scholars. The stories Halmoni told the children often sounded as fine to them as the poems their father wrote in his Hall of Perfect Learning.

It was Halmoni who had chosen the poetic names of her grandchildren. Ok Cha loved her name which meant "Jade Child," for everyone knew that smooth gleaming jade is the most precious of stones. Yong Tu was proud to be called "Dragon Head," because a dragon is the most splendid of all the beasts and his name was sure to bring good luck.

Yong Tu was glad he did not have a name like that of his baby brother, whom Halmoni called "Little Pig." That name was only for his baby years, to be sure. It was chosen to fool the spirits into thinking he was not worthy of being carried away. Later it would be changed to a more honorable title, perhaps "Fierce Leopard" or "Great Mountain."

When the pipes were lighted and everyone was squatting at ease on mats on the warm floor, Kim Hong Chip began to tell Halmoni about the events of the Ancestors' Feast.

"Our grave mounds are well placed," he began. "The sun falls upon them from the south, and the hills lead to them like the waving back of a dragon. No 'spying peak' peers down upon them over the ridge. The hills opposite stand up straight and firm, like men set there to protect them. The Honorable Ancestors' spirits should be well pleased, and good luck should live with us."

Their duty to their ancestors was even more important to Koreans than the honor they paid their living parents. The Kims all believed that each person who "mounted the dragon to Heaven" took only one of his three souls with him. A second dwelt in the grave mound. A third rested in his little white wooden tablet in the ancestors' apartment in the family courts. On the appointed days of the year, the Master, with his oldest son at his side, knelt in this Tablet House. They bowed their heads to the floor, saying the family prayers. The need for sons to carry on these ceremonies for the ancestors was one reason why boys in Korea were thought to be so much more important than their sisters.

BOOK: Tales of a Korean Grandmother
11.71Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Taking Chances by S.J. Maylee
Blindsided by Katy Lee
By Love Enslaved by Phoebe Conn
Winterfall by Denise A. Agnew
The Red Dragon by Tianna Xander
People Die by Kevin Wignall
Dear Soldier Boy by Maxwell Tibor
The Arrow Keeper’s Song by Kerry Newcomb