Korean Folklore: The Tiger and the Persimmon
Folklore, myths, and stories all contribute to a nation’s culture, history, and identity as much as its language, food, and population. The depiction of tigers has long been a symbolic figure in Eastern mythology ranging from Turkey, across Siberia, into China, and as far as Japan. It reaches deep into India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Indonesia to create an expansive canvas of fairytale narratives. Korea is no exception as the country’s identity is based off the tiger. Alongside the tiger, however, appears an interesting character just as valuable and historical as its powerful counterpart: the persimmon.
Importance of the Tiger
Once upon a time, or should I say 호랑이 담배 피우던 시절 (Korean fairy tales oftentimes start off with “the time when tigers smoked”), Korea’s founding story was told about the son of the Lord of the Heavens named Hwanung who came to Earth to live among humans. One day, a 호랑이 (horangi - tiger) and a 곰 (gom - bear) pleaded with Hwanung to become human and thus had to endure a test. While the tiger gave up, the bear persisted and was then transformed into a woman named Ungnyeo. Ungnyeo then married Hwanung and together they had a son, Dangun, who is fabled to have established the first Kingdom of Korea dating back to 2333 B.C. (check out Dangun, Korea’s Foundation Myth for more on the myth).
Regardless of the story, tigers are revered as guardians and divine spirits and symbolize courage and power. The rarest of them all is the white tiger, which turns white once it has overcome many tests and would only become angry when rulers go rogue and do harm to their people and country. The unrelenting spirit of the white tiger is what has united the common people when times have been tough and thin. This has led to the plethora of tiger imagery in pieces of art, as it is said the animal can ward off evil. Some people even hang up paintings called Jakhodo, which depict a tiger and magpie in their home during the Lunar New Year.
Lastly, the most recent depiction of tigers in Korea has been during the 2018 Winter Olympics in Seoul. Looking back in history, the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul also had an orange Amur tiger named 호돌이 (Hodori) to represent Korea. As Korea was hosting the Olympics in 2018, no better mascot could have been chosen than 수호랑 (Soohorang), a white tiger. The name Soohorang is a play on words “sooho” meaning “protection” and “horangi” meaning “tiger,” much like how our Kraze mascot is named Horangi! Carrying on with the theme, the 2018 Winter Paralympics also chose to have a Asiatic black bear named 반다비 (Bandabi) to tie together the Tale of Dangun.
Importance of the Persimmon
Just like the tiger’s long history in Korea, persimmons, known as 감 (gam), are deeply rooted in Korea’s mythology. Aside from being a Buddhist symbol of transformation (where green bitter fruits transform into bright orange and produce sweet nectar), persimmons are an important ritual fruit in Korea according to the food culture of the Jongga ancestral rituals (tracing back the origins of a familial line). Additionally, wood from a persimmon tree has been used for furniture and trays and even paired with carvings such as tiger feet on tables. Scriptures state that if you plant a persimmon tree from a seed, it will result in small fruit whereas grafting a branch from another persimmon tree will produce a more superior fruiting tree. Like many things observed in nature, scholars have used this as a metaphor to emphasize the importance of education and civic engagement.
Aside from being a large horticultural produce grown in Korea (learn more about seasonal fruits by reading Korean Autumn Produce to Fall in Love With), persimmons hold strong meaning in folklore. While a white tiger may symbolize courage and protection from evil and pose no harm to man, a normal tiger is seen as a keen and fearless predator, capable of great mischief and feared by all. However, according to folklore, persimmons are said to protect from these impish tigers.
In the tale of the Tiger and the Persimmon, a tiger creeps into a village in hopes of stealing a cow from the villagers while a burglar attempts to do the same. Throughout this, a child is overheard crying. No matter what he is threatened with, the child does not stop crying, even when threatened by the big, scary tiger. Suddenly, the tiger hears someone say, “Here’s a dried persimmon,” and the child stops crying. This halts the tiger in his tracks and has him thinking what a fearsome thing a dried persimmon would have to be to stop a child from crying if even a tiger couldn’t scare the child. At the same time, the burglar who mistook the tiger for a cow, jumps on the tiger’s back. Out of fear, the tiger bolts out of the village with the burglar on his back thinking it is the fearsome dried persimmon.
While there are many other variations of the story, the tale incorporates two strong motifs that have persisted in Korean history and folklore. The moral of the tale depicts that mischief (tiger) and corruption (burglar) will not prevail should benevolence be planted deep, like the persimmon tree, in the hearts of the people’s culture. While just a children’s tale at first glance, symbols of tigers and persimmons prove to be teaching tools to ensure generations of righteous citizens to come.