When I first came to Korea, an American friend of mine who had been in Korea for several years at that point, but hadn’t learned to speak Korean said to me about the statue of King Sejeong in Gangwamun, “They have had trouble finding heroes in Korea, so they chose him because he invented their alphabet.” I have been in Korea now twice as long as that guy was here and speak Korean. I do a lot of reading, and he was wrong. They don’t have trouble finding heroes. I have been reading ancient stories that have lots of heroes.
These stories are so ancient they are poetic. In these stories, Korea is called “a dragon backed land,” and I thought and thought trying to figure out why, and finally realized it as called “a dragon backed land” because it is the most mountainous country in the world, and dragons have lots of spiky things on their backs. China is called “the land beyond the duck green river and the ever white mountains.” Snowy mountains separate North Korea and China. Those are the “ever white mountains.” Chinese civilization grew up around the Yellow River. The “duck green river” is the Yellow River. The stories call God, besides the Korean word for God, Hananim, “the Jade emperor of Heaven.” They recognized that God was precious, so they gave him the name of a precious stone and knew he lived somewhere beyond earth, and he was the emperor of everything, so they called him the “emperor of Heaven.”
I have told you the story about Dangun, the first king of Korea, whose father came to Korea from the Tower of Babel and mother was a bear who became human. The stories call Dangun’s father a “son of God.” He brought the knowledge of God to the Koreans when he left the Tower of Babel. Probably Dangun’s mother was one of the original inhabitants of Korea, a cave woman that the man from the Tower of Babel tamed because he taught her to eat human food, and she lived in a cave. Dangun became the emperor because he taught the people how to farm, how to weave cloth to make clothing, how to cut down trees and built houses, how to heat their houses (he brought them fire), how to comb their hair and braid it and put it into buns, He brought civilization to the Korean Peninsula, and the people have praised him for it. He was truly a hero, and the Korean people remember him that way. There is supposed to be an altar somewhere in the north that Dangun built to honor God.
There is another hero they call “the Father of Korea.” These stories are from ancient, ancient times, from times before the rest of the world began writing down their history. The story of Ki Ja was supposed to take place more than three thousand years ago. They have heroes that are much older than the rest of us that have been their heroes for thousands and thousands of years. This “Father of Korea” was named Ki Ja. When I mentioned him to my Korean son in law, he knew exactly who I was talking about. Every school child in Korea learns about him. In the story about him, the emperor of China sat on “a dragon throne.” Since Korea is “the Dragon backed land,” and I figured out that it was because of all the mountains, you have to figure out why the throne of China was called “a dragon throne.” Perhaps it was hard to be the emperor of China. Or, perhaps, they had stories of fire breathing dragons, and they felt what came out of the the mouth of the emperor of China was bad, and this one is what is probably true because of the story of Ki Ja. If this is true, then perhaps “Dragon backed land” could also refer to hardships that Korea had to endure.
Ki Ja was Chinese, and he was very unhappy because the emperor of China was an evil man and an evil emperor. Ki Ja was an important official in China. Ki Ja decided to leave China because he was unhappy with the kind of man the emperor was. He decided to found his own country where the people could live in peace and safety.
I have watched the silk worms spin silk threads over at the cultural village in Suwon. It is fascinating!
Five thousand Chinese left China with Ki Ja. There were doctors, scholars, mechanics, carpenters, builders, fortune tellers, and magicians. The took with them books, paintings, musical instruments, and silk worms to spin silk. Ki Ja gave these people five laws that taught them duty to themselves and to their fellow man. These laws were written into the school books of every child for generations in Korea.
They came to Korea and mixed with the Korean people, and Ki Ja became the emperor of Korea. He lived in Peong Yang which is today in North Korea. Peong Yang had been established as the capital of Korea by Dangun. There is supposed to be a well outside of Pyeong Yang that is called Ki Ja’s well. It was forbidden to build wells inside of Pyeong Yang because it was built in the shape of a boat, and they thought that you never put a hole in a boat because it would sink.
Dangun had begun a civilization and brought the people out of the caves and given them fire, but about a thousand year later, Ki Ja took them further. He brought more civilization, and it made him a hero too. The people he brought from China taught the Koreans about Chinese house building, about machines, about medicine, how to read, how to make furniture, how to make silk, etc. They also brought with them animistic gods. They brought the shaman who new how to control evil spirits to protect the people. They may have gone a step back with the animistic gods and the shaman, but they made great gains in other ways. Ki Ja’s dream of establishing a kingdom of safety and peace came true. People didn’t have to lock their doors. They could roam freely in the streets without fear that the other people would harm them. The people were polite and kind to one another. Gates could be left open at night. The Koreans call that time the “Golden Age” of Korea.
When I put the word “hero” into my search engine, I got images like these, but Korean heroes are different from these.
My friend was wrong. There is no shortage of heroes in Korea. They just aren’t known to the rest of the world. They Koreans know them. The Koreans praise kings of the past who brought civilization, and King Seojeong was one of those kings because he invented the Korean alphabet. There are more of these heroes, and I will tell some of their stories in other blogs. Every country has different kinds of heroes. President Washington, the father of America, was a great Indian fighter and out first president. President Lincoln of America is known as a kind of hero because he freed the slaves. King Arthur of England is praised because he thought of the round table, a place where all the knights could sit and discuss problems and take care of Camelot. King Arthur and those knights were also heroes because they rode out on horseback and freed the maidens from tyranny and rescued them from dragons. Japan’s heroes are great samurai like Kintaro, the boy who grew up in the woods with the animals and became a great samurai. They make Kintaro dolls in Japan put them in boy’s rooms encouraging the boys to be brave and strong like Kintaro. King David of the Jews was a great military man who loved God. Moses, though, should also be called a hero because he brought them the ten commandments, but he is known as a prophet. Odysseus was a Grecian hero who went to battle and made an enormously long trip encountering monsters at every turn because he had offended a god, but eventually made it home. Many of the heroes in the west and other places are great military men, but Korea has a different concept of a hero. Korea calls the people who brought peace and civilization to Korea their heroes. These men brought progress to Korea, so they are called heroes. There are different concepts of heroes. In Romania, their heroes are poets and scholars. Their politicians are university professors. Great learning is very prized in Romania. Each country has its different kind of hero. In America, we also have people like Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone who could make it in the wilderness alone and fight off the Indians. We also have great military generals and Indian chiefs in America. In many countries, the heroes are the men who fight for the good of all, but Korea is a bit different. Korea prizes men who brought peace to their people, who brought civilization and progress to their people, not particularly men who fought, but they could be. Their are statues of great American military leaders in South Korea because they helped them get rid of Japan and stopped Communism from coming into their country. My Korean friend said to me that America is S. Korea’s father nation because they helped them so much.