In the shamanic ceremonies that use the Shimchong narrative, the "patient" is supposed to be healed precisely at the climax of the story when Old Man Shim opens his eyes and sees his long–lost daughter. Shimchong is especially dear to Korean shamans because most are women, and they trace their own mythic lineage back to a folktale about a disowned princess named Pari who, like Shimchong, becomes her father's savior (the story of Princess Pari is a variant of one generally known in the west as "The Armless Maiden").
At first glance, "Shimchong" may seem to be critical of Buddhism, since Old Man Shim gets himself into trouble through his unwitting promise and because the promised healing doesn't seem to take place according to the Buddhist terms. But then, the monk never said exactly when Shim would regain his sight, and it is possible to attribute the healing to the Buddhist prayers at the end. By the same token, you could initially be critical of the Dragon King (a Taoist/Animist figure) because he requires Shimchong as a sacrifice, but then he is generous to the point of not only saving her life but sending her back to the world of mortals. Shimchong's departed mother (a Shamanic/Confucian motif), who comes to her in a dream in some versions, could be criticized for advising her daughter to offer up her life for her father's sake, but then we could argue that, being in the other world, she knew the ultimate outcome of that advice. Finally — though the tale is generally about the initial destruction and then subsequent reconstruction of the family unit — the behavior of the characters, even if they are in a non–Christian context, does, in fact, resonate with Christian ideals. After all, what the story rewards is self–sacrifice and love.
Many of the motifs in "Shimchong" will be oddly familiar. The sacrifice of a maiden for the safe passage of the merchant ship is reminiscent of the story of Agamemnon's daughter, Iphigenia, sacrificed to Artemis for safe passage of the Greek fleet to the Trojan War. The closing of the story at the wedding banquet is also reminiscent of "Salt and Water," a European tale that is one of the subtexts for Shakespeare's King Lear (although it is hardly as dark as the play).
My sister never did have to jump off a cliff to prove her virtue, although my mother did once tell her the story of "Butterfly Rock," a riverside cliff where a group of Korean maidens is said to have leapt to their deaths rather than lose their virtue to the evil Mongols. (Their colorful skirts fluttering in the wind are said to have looked like butterflies from a distance.) When we moved to the United States, my sister was quickly inundated with other role models, and as she grew older my mother's chastising comparisons to Shimchong lost their early rhetorical power.
But recently, with a three–year–old daughter of her own, my sister found herself watching the Disney version of "Beauty and the Beast." She already knew the story, of course, from the version by Madame de Villeneuve in Andrew Lang's Blue Fairy Book, but she told me that it wasn't until she saw the film that the parallels had struck her. Since I am one of the few American experts of Korean folktales, she asked me if her hunch was right — that "Beauty and the Beast" was somehow the same story as "Shimchong." My sister's hunch was probably triggered by the resonance of parallel motifs which, on a close reading of the two tales, reveal some remarkable similarities.
If you refer to the Lang text of "Beauty and the Beast," you will see that Beauty's father "suddenly lost every ship he had upon the sea, either by dint of pirates, shipwreck, or fire. . .and at last from great wealth he fell into the direst poverty." In "Shimchong," the father is not a merchant, but he is likewise a former man of means fallen upon hard times; the merchant who loses his ships is another character, but the story contains the same motifs, as if the father in "Beauty and the Beast" were split into two characters: Old Man Shim and the merchant. In a Confucian culture, this splitting would make perfect sense, because for Shimchong's father to be a merchant would be to demean her lineage (merchants are beneath farmers in the Confucian social hierarchy).
Likewise, in both tales we find that the father's unwitting transgression leads to the daughter's sacrifice. In "Shimchong," it is the spur–of–the–moment promise; in "Beauty," it is the father's plucking of the rose he wishes to bring her as a gift. In both cases, the daughter sacrifices herself willingly to what seems a terrible doom in order to save her father, and in both cases this sacrifice leads to an unanticipated positive outcome, namely a happy marriage.
In "Shimchong," the daughter is sacrificed to the Dragon King, a "beast." As in "Beauty," the "beast" allows her to go back to her home when she pines for her loved ones, despite her palatial accommodations. As with the merchant/poor man split, it is as if the beast as the future husband and the beast as the recipient of sacrifice were split in the Korean version.
In both tales, the daughter is visited by a maternal figure in a dream, and that figure provides valuable advice. Both end in marriage and reintegration of family, although the mother is prominently missing in both cases. In both tales the daughter is associated with a flower.
Metamorphosis is also featured in both tales, although in an inverted fashion: in "Beauty," the Prince is transformed into a beast as punishment (in the Lang text, the transgression is never made clear), while in "Shimchong," the future bride is transformed into a flower as a reward for her virtue. In both cases, the marriage occurs after the protagonist returns to his or her original form, and that metamorphosis back is due to love.
But despite the many parallels between the tales, the underlying messages of the "Beauty and the Beast" and "Shimchong" are markedly different because of what is emphasized in each cultural context. "Shimchong" is used explicitly to teach filial piety whereas the "moral" of "Beauty and the Beast" is often read as a message about learning how to look beyond superficial appearances. And yet, despite the Disney attempt to empower Beauty with its feminist Belle and the Korean women shamans' use of Shimchong in their healing rituals, the two tales also serve as models of behavior that suit the needs of patriarchal culture. The most significant difference is in the context of telling: in Korea "Shimchong," with its pseudo–historical truth claim, can serve as a "real" model of virtuous behavior while in the west, "Beauty" is clearly relegated to the realm of fairy tales whose role is to entertain and instruct without necessarily encroaching into the world of realism. Both, of course, accrue complex layers of meaning as the listener grows into an adult.
When my uncle told me stories, he always refused to offer an interpretation, claiming that if he could simply tell me the meaning, the story itself was unnecessary. But the truth is that we tend to make meanings out of stories — personal meanings that often do not conform to the stories' (or the storyteller's) rhetorical purpose. Great folktales like "Beauty" and "Shimchong" survive precisely because they can serve a multitude of rhetorical purposes and yet also have rich layers of meaning to offer. As my sister's daughter, Sarah, and my own daughter (ironically named Bella) hear these tales from us, I look forward to being surprised by their creation of their own meanings out of these tales.
Folk Tales from Korea, translated and edited by Zong In-sob
Tales of a Korean Grandmother, by Frances Carpenter
The Green Frogs: A Korean Folktale, retold and illustrated by Yumi Heo
The Sun Girl and the Moon Boy, by Yangsook Choi
The Korean Cinderella, by Shirley Climo, illustrated by Ruth Heller
The Mole's Daughter: An Adaptation of a Korean Folktale, illustrated by Julia Gukova
Older Brother and Younger Brother: A Korean Folktale, by Nina Jaffe, illustrated by Wenhai Ma
About the Author: Heinz Insu Fenkl is an author, editor, translator, folklorist, and professor of creative writing at the State University of New York, New Paltz. His fiction includes Memories of My Ghost Brother, an autobiographical novel about growing up in Korea as a biracial child in the 1960s. He was a Barnes and Noble "Great New Writer" in 1996 and Pen/Hemingway finalist in 1997. Currently, he is on the editorial board of AZALEA: Journal of Korean Literature & Culture, published by Harvard University's Korea Institute. His most recent book, Korean Folktales, was published by Bo-Leaf Books.
Copyright © 2001 by Heinz Insu Fenkl; updated 2007. This article appeared in Realms of Fantasy magazine, 2001. It may not be reproduced in any form without the author's permission.