Read Tales of a Korean Grandmother Online

Authors: Frances Carpenter

Tales of a Korean Grandmother (5 page)


day late in the autumn a farmer caught a wild goose," Halmoni said to her grandson Yong Tu. "I tell you about that goose, blessed boy, because it will help you remember your lesson."

The boy was sitting with his feet tucked under him on the warm floor of his grandmother's apartment. In his hands was a book whose Korean name meant "A Primer for the Young." Over and over, half aloud, he had been repeating the words "
As he said them, they were all run together like one very long word. But they meant five different things: love, right behavior, good form, wisdom, and faith. These were the five virtues which every Korean child was taught to remember.

At his grandmother's words Yong Tu put his primer aside. Her story would be far more interesting, he knew, than the lessons in his book.

"Well, this farmer caught the wild goose. He clipped off its wings so that it could not fly away with the other birds, to the south. Thinking to gain favor, he made a present of that wild goose to the Governor of his province. The Governor was indeed pleased. He put the goose in his garden, and his servants fed it good grain.

"One day as the Governor walked in his garden, a servant addressed him. 'Honorable Sir,' he said, bowing low, 'that fat wild goose would make a very fine feast. Its flesh is sweet and tender. Its flavor is fine. I pray you, kill it and eat it.'

"'Kill a wild goose and eat it?' the good Governor replied. That I will not. The wild goose is the bird of all the Five Virtues,

"'How could that be, Honorable Scholar?' the servant asked. 'How could a bird know about the Five Virtues?'

"'Think, Man!' the Governor said. 'First, the wild goose is an example of love. It does not fight like the eagle nor hunt like the falcon. It lives in peace and friendship with its fellows. Second, the wild goose is a bird of excellent behavior. When it takes a mate, it observes all the rules of right living. And when its mate dies, the goose mourns her loss like a true wife. She comes back again and again to her former nesting place, alone and a widow. What wedding in our land is complete without the wild goose as a symbol of wifely devotion?

"'No, my good man, I should not wish to kill a bird with such a fine character. Watch the wild geese, how they fly. In order, and with ceremony, they make their procession across the blue sky. And what wisdom they show, seeking the warmth of the south in the cold winter and the cool air of the north when the hot summer comes!

"'You have seen for yourself, how they come back to our north country every year at the same time. Thus they keep the faith.
the wild goose lives by the Five Virtues. Who would destroy so noble a bird?'

"Read the Five Laws to me from your primer, my young schoolman," the Korean Grandmother said when her little story of the wild goose came to its end.

"Amid heaven and earth," Yong Tu repeated in the singsong voice he always used in studying his lessons, "man is the noblest being. And man is noble chiefly because he follows the Five Laws. As the wise Mencius said,

"'There should be between father and son proper relationship, with love from the father and duty from the son;

"'Between king and his courtiers there should be right dealing, the king being correct and the courtier being loyal;

"'Between husband and wife, there should be kindness and obedience;

"'Between old and young there should be consideration and respect; and

"'Between friend and friend, there should be faith that is kept.'"

The boy drew a long breath. He had learned his lesson well, and he did not forget to add, "If man does not follow these laws, he is no better than the beasts."


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

words are as precious as clearest green jade, Yong Tu," Halmoni declared when her grandson had ceased reciting the Five Laws of Behavior. "But most precious of all are those that tell of the duty of a child to his parents. Obedience in all things, respect for the aged—those are the most important, and the ones which bring great rewards. Have I ever told you the story of Chung, the dutiful daughter of Sim, the blind beggar?

"Well, it happened five hundred years ago, perhaps even more. In a certain village there lived this good girl whose name was Sim Chung. Her mother was dead, and her father was growing blind. Chung was the one treasure of that poor man. Her face was smooth and white, like a piece of ivory carving. Her brows had the curves of a butterfly's wings, and her hair shone like the lacquer on the shining black table in Ancestors' House. In all her life no illness had ever befallen Chung. Not even the Great Spirit of Smallpox had been able to harm her.

"Chung was as good and kind as she was fair and wise. She wasted no grain of rice nor drop of
She guided her father's faltering steps, but with his blindness the poor man no longer could work. Their possessions had to be sold, one after another, to keep them alive.

"When the girl was grown up, it was no longer proper that she go out on the street with her old father. The blind man crept off alone to beg for a few pieces of cash from the kind passers-by.

"One day he stumbled into a ditch. While he was trying to climb out of it, a firm hand lifted him up, and a voice spoke to him, 'Give me three hundred bags of rice for the temple, Old Alan, and in time you shall have your eyes once again.'

"Sim marveled at these words. When he found that the speaker was a priest from the temple on the mountain near by, he believed the man's promise and hope filled his heart. But when he repeated it to his daughter, sadness swallowed his hope.

"'Ai-go! Ai-go!'
he wailed. 'There is no way for beggars like us to obtain so much rice.'

"But in a dream that night the dead mother of Chung told the girl of a way by which she might get the rice to give her father his sight again. The next morning the good daughter disguised herself in the big hat and the long coarse gray gown of a person in mourning for the dead. She covered her nose and her mouth with the thin white-cloth shield a mourner always carries before his face. So hidden, she made her way to the courtyard of a certain rich merchant.

"This man owned many boats which carried cargoes of rice to faraway China, but of late the River Dragon had barred his way by throwing the water up in dangerous waves. The toll for safe passage which the Dragon demanded was a beautiful girl. The merchant had offered no less than three hundred bags of rice to that one who would offer herself for the sacrifice.

"The merchant was sorrowful when he heard Chung's sad story. 'So dutiful a daughter,' he said, 'does not deserve to die.' But there was no other way for her to get the rice, so the bargain was made.

"Chung's heart was glad when she watched the long line of horses, carrying the bags of rice to the priest's temple up in the hills. But her heart was sad when the priest told her it might take many years for her father to see again.

"The girl bowed before the tomb of her mother and prayed her to send heavenly spirits to care for the old man until he should be cured. She also gave the blind man over into the care of her good neighbors. Then she set forth to keep her part of the bargain she had made with the merchant.

"When she was dressed for her journey to the Dragon's watery realm, Chung shone brighter than the sun in the eastern heavens. Clad in a bride's gown of green, and with jewels and bright ribbons in her wedding headdress, she rode at the head of the merchant's procession of rice boats.

"Soon they came to the place in the river where the Dragon barred the way with the lashings of his great tail. To save this poor girl, the merchant offered to give many bags of his rice to the river spirit. All on the boats wept for their hearts were touched at her great love for her old blind father. They, too, made prayers, but the River Dragon would not be satisfied by any substitute for Chung.

"So the girl bowed to Heaven and jumped off the side of the boat. Straightway, my son, the angry waters grew as calm as those of our garden pool. The boats passed safely across them and went on their way to the Flowery Kingdom of China.

"Whether many fish drew her in a shell, or whether she was carried along by the dragon servants of the Sea King, Chung never knew. She found herself floating between waving undersea plants, amid bright-colored fish. She caught glimpses of pearls as big as your fist and of walls of black marble. Then she was led into the palace of the Sea King himself.

"The bewildered girl bowed before this Jade River Dragon, and said, 'Honorable sir, I am only the daughter of the blind beggar, Sim. I am not worthy to come before one so exalted as you.'

"But the Sea King replied, 'The light of the stars finds its way down to our undersea kingdom, and a message about you has come to us from Hananim, the Emperor of Heaven and Earth. You will be well rewarded for your goodness to your blind father.'

"Sea maidens dressed Chung in fine robes. They spread out before her soft sleeping mats, and they gave her rich food. In this life of comfort and ease the girl grew more beautiful than ever before.

"One day her attendants led Chung to a giant lotus blossom that lay on the river bottom. It was so large that they could hide her away within its fragrant heart. The Sea King bade her farewell, and the girl felt herself rising up through the water. Soon, to her amazement, she saw the lotus flower was floating upon the river, close to the boat of her friend, the rice merchant.

"'Never in Heaven or on earth was there such a lotus flower as this,' the boatmen said to the merchant. 'It must go to the King.' They were richly paid for it, and the King treasured none of his princely possessions so much as this rare, giant blossom. He went daily to see it in the special garden pool on which he set it to float.

"Only at night did Chung come out of her hiding place in the giant flower. Somehow its perfume served her as food, and the dew on its petals quenched her thirst.

"In the moonlight one evening the King came upon the girl as she walked on the bank of the crystal pool.

"Modestly she turned to hide herself from his sight, but her lotus-blossom shelter had vanished. The King was afraid at first she might be a spirit, but her beauty delighted him. The wise men who studied the heavens declared that on the day the lotus flower was brought to him by the boatmen, a bright new star had appeared overhead in the sky. With this good omen to reassure him, the King made Chung his wife."

"What became of the blind beggar, her father?" asked Ok Cha, who had come quietly into the room.

"That is the very best part of the tale, blessed girl," the Korean grandmother answered. "Now Chung was happy, as who would not be if she were a queen. But there were times when her heart also was sad. She thought often of her poor father, whose eyes were no doubt still closed to the world about him. One day her husband, the King, came upon her weeping as she sat in the garden.

great and excellent one,' Chung said to the King when he asked why she wept. 'It is a dream I have had about a blind man. His plight touches my heart. I should like to do something for all the blind in your kingdom. I should like to give them a fine feast.'

"One day, two days, and three days, the blind beggars of the land came to eat rice and
in the King's courtyard. Peering at them through curtains, Queen Chung had hoped each one might prove to be her father. But the end of the feast came without Sim's appearing. The servants were just turning away a latecomer when the Queen recognized him through his tatters. She gave a loud cry. 'Abuji! Abuji! It is my dear father.' And she ordered the servants to be paddled for handling him so roughly.

"They dressed Sim, the blind beggar, in new clothing and brought him into the Queen's chamber.

"'What wonder is this?' said the blind man when he heard his dear daughter's voice. 'Do apricots bloom in the snow? Do horses have horns? Do the dead come to life? How can I be sure you are truly Chung unless I can see?' The old man rubbed his dim eyes, and suddenly, as the temple priest had foretold, his sight returned.

"When the King heard the tale, he heaped honors upon the father of his beloved Queen. He gave him a fine house. He appointed him to a high position at court. He even found him a wife to look after his food and his clothes in his old age.

"Then was Queen Chung happy all the day long. Then, indeed, was fulfilled the Sea King's promise of a heavenly reward to this dutiful daughter of the blind beggar, Sim."

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