When I was growing up in Korea in the 60s, I had an uncle who was a terrible man, but a wonderful storyteller, and so I heard more than my share of instructive and cautionary folktales. He told most of these stories as personal anecdotes or claimed they were things that had happened to near or distant relatives. Growing up in a culture that remains, to this day, the most conservative of the Asian cultures influenced by the teachings of Confucius, I had to deal with plenty of idealized role models in those stories, mostly famous intellectual poets, monks, and generals (in that order). They set a high standard for proper behavior, even as their stories were told by a less than exemplary man. Sometimes even casual references and asides that went along with these tales had a lasting impact on me. Once, after my uncle had told me that it was undignified for a gentleman scholar to run, I got soaked on a dignified walk home during the monsoon. He laughed at me when I caught a cold. When he told me that a famous calligrapher practiced until he could form the characters perfectly in the dark, I spent hours perfecting my cursive in the film–loading booth of a U.S. Army photo lab.
My younger sister, who heard stories from female relatives, had a much harder time of it. For her, the role models were always young women who had sacrificed themselves for the good of their families or husbands. Whereas the stories I heard were usually about men who had succeeded, typically with the help of a clever wife or a devoted mother (giving advice, enduring awful privations), the women in the stories my sister heard were precisely those figures who endured all of the hardships themselves. When we lived in America, I sensed that the phrase "Would you jump off a cliff if he told you to?" was meant to be sarcastic and critical, but when my mother used to tell my younger sister, "He's your older brother. If he tells you to jump off a cliff, you obey him!" the sense I got was that this was some sort of law I could invoke at will, and that my sister should consider herself lucky that I was nice enough not to do so (though I was sorely tempted at times).
Korea, as they say, is "the shrimp caught between whales," the whales referring historically to China and Japan. For nearly all of its 5,000–year history, the shrimp–shaped peninsula has been the prize of domestic or international conflict. Excepting a brief golden age when the nation was unified under a sort of renaissance king named Sejong (credited, in the late 1400s, with developing the most elegant phonetic alphabet in the world), the peninsula was colonized repeatedly by China, the Mongols, and Japan. After liberation from the second Japanese occupation in 1945, the peninsula was split in half, overseen by the Soviet Union in the North and by the U.N. in the South. The Korean War of 1950–53 devastated an already depleted physical and cultural landscape. In the 60s, when I grew up there, the hills were still sparsely vegetated. Trees had not yet grown back to full height after all the artillery bombardments that followed the deforestation by the Japanese during World War II.
You can imagine the psychological consequences these conquests had on a male–dominated culture based on conservative Confucian doctrine that elevated the status of men and denigrated that of women. During the especially oppressive periods, the women of Korea carried much of the burden of maintaining the internal structure of households, seeing after the basic needs of families whose men were often conscripted, imprisoned, or killed by the colonizers.
It is no wonder, then, that Korean folklore is full of stories that praise and encourage virtue in women, especially young women. The most prominent of these female virtue stories directed at young girls is the story of Shimchong, the blind man's daughter. This pseudo–historical tale has the same prominence as the stories of Cinderella and Snow White in the west, and in the same way that those stories have been popularized as Disney books, the story of Shimchong has been one of the favorite subjects of Korean children’s books in recent years.
One thing that distinguishes the tale of Shimchong is that it also happens to be one of the most popular narratives used by Korean shamans; there are many renditions of the tale designed specifically to accompany rituals for the healing and prevention of blindness. In that sense, since it is invoked in both sacred and profane contexts, "Shimchong" is more like a biblical tale than a fairy tale. In fact, if you consider the spectrum of religious traditions in Korea — which includes Buddhism, Animism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Christianity, in addition to the shamanic tradition — the story of Shimchong has a truly unique appeal because it resonates with motifs from all of them in an unusually diplomatic way. The story succeeds in conveying its message of female virtue while simultaneously appealing to (or at least being acceptable to) each of the major religious traditions.
The following version of the tale is one I've compiled from regional variants in the same way the Brothers Grimm constructed "ideal" versions of stories based on several different tellings.
In the last years of the Hongpung era of Sung, in Tohwadong in Hwangju, there lived a poor blind yangban by the name of Shim Hakkyu. He and his devoted wife, Kwakssi, were childless for the longest time, and it was only after many years of faithful prayer to the spirits that Kwakssi bore a beautiful daughter whom they named Shimchong. But, alas, the ordeal of giving birth at such an advanced age was too much for Kwakssi, and she passed away. Shim did his best to raise his daughter alone and together the two of them endured great hardships.
Shimchong was an obedient and filial daughter who accompanied her father as soon as she could walk and begged alms with him the moment she could speak. It was not many years before she was a beautiful young girl. One day, Old Man Shim was out alone begging for alms and he stumbled into a deep irrigation ditch. As he was foundering in the water, trying vainly to climb out, bemoaning his bad fate and his handicap, he heard a voice speak to him from above. "Old man," it said, "I have heard you lamenting about your blindness. If you will give 300 bushels of rice to my temple as a tribute to the Lord Buddha, we will offer up our prayers to return your sight." Gentle but firm hands that seemed to reach down from the heavens themselves took hold of Old Man Shim's trembling arms and pulled him from the waters of the ditch. Shim was so thankful and so full of hope that he momentarily forgot his dire circumstances, and without thinking he blurted out, "Thank you kind monk. Thank you! I will give you those 300 bags of rice! I swear it!"
It wasn't until much later, when his elation had worn off, that Old Man Shim had the terrible realization that he did not have the means to offer three bowls of rice — let alone 300 bushels — to the temple.
"Shimchong–ah," he said to his daughter that evening, recounting his misfortune. "What shall I do? I was filled with gladness and the world seemed bright to me. Other men jostle me out of the way or steal my alms from out of my hands but the monk was kind. All I wanted was to return his kindness, and look what I have done. What terrible thing will befall us if I have offended the Buddha himself?"
It just so happened that the Dragon King of the East Sea was displeased with the merchant fleet and had sent foul weather and storms that had sunk ship after ship on its way to China. To appease the Dragon King, the merchants needed to sacrifice a beautiful maiden, but as of yet they had found no family willing to sell a maiden daughter. So when Shimchong appeared the next dawn and offered herself in exchange for the tribute for her father, the captain of the merchant fleet was more than happy to accept.
The sea was calm at the beginning of the voyage, but soon the sky grew gray and ominous. The water, at first, was only choppy, but then the sea boiled as if the Dragon King were thrashing his massive body beneath the waves. Lightning flashed from the dark clouds and the wind ripped at the sails. Oars and anchor chains snapped in the violent sea. The merchant captain brought Shimchong out of the hold, dressed up in bright–colored bridal finery. Although Shimchong told him that she would leap into the waves of her own will, he did not believe her, and he had her hands and feet securely bound. With the sailors all weeping copiously with their admiration for her bravery and her filial virtue, Shimchong said a quiet prayer and leapt overboard into the ocean. And just as she disappeared under the waves, the violent seas grew calm once again.
Shimchong descended into the cold water. As she sank deeper and deeper, the water around her was suddenly bright with light and she found that she could breath. She looked around her in wonder as the minions of the Dragon King approached her, released her from her bonds, and escorted her to the magnificent underwater palace.
And there she dwelled, happy, for it is said that the spirit of her mother also dwelt there. But after a time she was homesick for the world of the surface, and she longed to see her dear father again. Her cheerful demeanor grew sad, and it came to the notice of the Dragon King, who called her to him one day and said, "I cannot bear to see your unhappiness any longer, Shimchong. I have seen that your filial piety and your selfless devotion are far greater than that of any other mortal I have known. It touches my heart to see your concern for your poor father, so as a reward for your devotion, I will send you back up into the world above." And with this the Dragon King transformed Shimchong into a lotus flower.
So it happened that a giant white lotus blossom was found at the mouth of a river along the coast, and the local fisherman, awed by its beauty, decided to make it a gift for their King. The King was recently widowed, and known to be in a deeply mournful mood. They hoped the bright flower would lift his spirits.
When the King first beheld the flower, his eyes lit up in wonder. He rewarded the fishermen handsomely and had the lotus installed in its own special room where he would stand for hours each day in a melancholy mood, admiring its beauty. Each night Shimchong would emerge from the blossom, and at the crack of each dawn she would merge into it again. Time and seasons passed and the King's love for the flower did not wane.
One moonlit night the King was restless, and as he wandered the palace he found himself, by and by, at the chamber of the lotus flower. He stepped inside to gaze upon the lotus in the moonlight, but what he saw was far more wonderful — a woman so beautiful it took his breath away. "Who are you?" he said. "Are you a ghost come to bewitch me or are you real?"
"It is only I," said Shimchong. "It is I who live in the giant flower." Out of modesty, she tried to hide herself, but when she turned, she found the lotus flower had vanished.
And this is how Shimchong came to be the King's bride. There was a magnificent wedding, and they passed their days together in great happiness, but the King sensed a great sadness about his new Queen. One day he found her weeping in the garden. "My dear wife," he said, "I cannot bear to see your tears. Tell me your wish — any wish — and it shall be granted."
"There is only one thing I desire," Shimchong replied. "Let there be a great public banquet to celebrate our marriage, and let all the blind men of the Kingdom be invited to partake of the feast. That is what will make my heart glad."
The King honored his Queen's strange request, and so from far and wide, from all corners of the kingdom, the blind beggar men were invited to a banquet to celebrate the wedding. For three days they came to drink and to dine on the fine foods, and each day the new Queen watched from behind her gauzy silk curtains, hoping that the next blind man might be her father. But it was to no avail.
On the last day, as the gates were closing and the Queen had turned forlornly away, a loud racket was heard outside. The servants were turning away a blind beggar who had arrived too late. And just as the gates were closing, the Queen happened to glance backwards to see that under the dirt and dust of his long journey and under the tatters of his rags, the old man was none other than her father. "Father!" she cried. "Father! It is my dear father! Let him in!"
Old Man Shim staggered inside, nearly losing his balance from the shock of hearing the familiar voice. "Aigo! Shimchong–ah!" he called. "Is it a ghost or have the dead come to life? My daughter! Is that your voice I hear? Let's have a look at you, girl!"
Once again, in his enthusiasm, Old Man Shim forgot his circumstances. He opened his eyes wide, oblivious to his own blindness, and when he did so he found that he could suddenly see. Before him was his daughter, more beautiful than he could have imagined. Shim wept with joy and embraced her, and she, too, was tearful with joy. Soon there was a happy commotion throughout the palace, and it is said that every blind man there who wanted to have a look at Shimchong, the filial daughter, had his vision restored that day.