Understanding the Korean People a Little Bit Through a Traditional Story: “Turnips and Sticks”

There are several things in my blogs that can help you understand the Korean people a little better.  I have told you about the church buildings on every corner.  In the history of Korea, everyone wore white.  That is, all the adults. It wasn’t that they didn’t have colored cloth because children wore colored hanboks (the Korean traditional clothing), but the adults all wore white.  Not in every society, but in many societies, white means purity, and it does in Korea too, and all the people wanted to be pure, so they wore white clothing.  Today, I found a traditional story that may also help you understand little better who the Korean people are. what the people do in this story tells you about average Korean people.  The name of the story is “Turnips and Sticks.”

To begin with, the story is about a farmer who had become lazy. In Korean, if he had become lazy, automatically, he is a bad guy.  Look back at Dangun’s laws, the first emperor of Korea they prize so much.  If someone should become lazy in old Korea, they were supposed to compel them to work by law.  When I was teaching at the university in Korea, my boss explained to me that Koreans live to work, not work to live like people of other countries.  In other countries, we put our eight hours in and then go home. If we are asked to stay late, we expect to be paid overtime, but not the Koreans.  They work, and then they work overtime, but they work overtime for free.  I had a student here in Korea who was working when the 2008 financial crisis came about, and his boss had financial troubles because of the financial crisis. If he were in America, he would have had to lay people off, but not so in Korea. My student was working for no salary because he wanted the company to stay open.  Koreans work for the sake of work and prize people who do it.  It is part of the culture. Our story is about a farmer they call “lazy,” so you know they don’t think he is good.

They began making money with holes in the middle of the coin so they could put stings through the hole and not lose the money.

This farmer had saved lots of money.  They story goes that his cash box was full of strings of cash.  “Strings of cash” is a strange way to put it for people from the west. We don’t quite understand putting cash on a string. However, have you seen money with a hole in the middle of it?  They don’t use that money in Korea anymore, but they did in the past. They still use it in Japan.  The Koreans used to put holes in the center of their money, and the way they didn’t lose it was by putting a string through the middle of it. I brought back some coins like that when I went to Japan, and I strung some of them together and gave them as gifts to children, but I still have at least one coin, so I took a picture of it to show you.

Okay, so this lazy farmer had saved lots of money.  He had strings of cash in his cash box, He wanted to become a government official so he wouldn’t have to work so hard. Everyone knew that the government officials didn’t have to work hard because when the people paid money to the government, the government officials were dishonest and skimmed money off the top. Koreans still don’t trust their government officials.  There is a “clean up politics” campaign going on even now in Korea.  The farmer went into Seoul. He brought lots of money with him.  He went to visit a government official everyday bringing a gift hoping to talk to the government official and ask him to make him into a government official.  However, the government official ignored him. He would take his money and then say, “Come back tomorrow.”  The farmer just kept coming everyday with a gift for the government official, and the government official kept ignoring him, taking his gift, and saying, “Come back tomorrow.”  The farmer was running out of money.  His field were lying fallow.  If he didn’t go home and tend to his fields, his house was going to have to be sold, and his family put out in the streets. He went to the government official and tried to explain the problem that had been created by the official always saying, “Come back tomorrow and just accepting the gift.”  However, the government official did it again,. He couldn’t get in to talk to the government official, so he had to go back home to work his fields.

On the way home, he stopped at the house of an older couple he didn’t know to sleep.  No American I know would just stay with someone they didn’t know, but I have talked to young Korean people who have traveled to other countries, and when they meet other Koreans, they stayed at their house.  They didn’t know them, but because they were Korean, they trusted them.  Koreans trust one another, and they stay at the house of strangers when they travel, as long as they are Koreans.  This farmer stayed at the old couple’s house, but he shouldn’t have trusted them.  He was given a spot on the floor to sleep because that is where Koreans have traditionally slept, on the floor.

Before he woke up the next morning, someone was gently tapping him with bamboo sticks. He was puzzled. The farmer began feeling itchy, and he realized that he had hair all over his body.  When he woke up and tried to stand up, he couldn’t stand on two legs. He was standing on four legs.  He had become an ox.  The old man was putting a ring in his nose, and the older couple was talking about taking him to the market to sell him, and they were on their way.  They had used some sort of magic to turn him into an ox.

Here are some Korean oxen.

He was a huge ox!  The older couple was delighted because they though he would bring a great price because he was so big.  They went to the market place and stayed all day, but no one was buying because they had made the price so high because of his size.  Finally, just before it was time to go for the day, a drunken butcher showed up and through his delirium of liquor didn’t understand the price was too high, and he bought him to take him home and kill him and sell him.  Unfortunately there are too many in Korea and Japan both who like to drink too much, and this butcher was one.  The farmer thought he was doomed.

I have never drunk any because I am not a drinker, but this a bottle of the traditional Korean soju. If someone is a drinker in Korea, it is a very popular drink,

On the way home, the butcher decided he wanted to stop at a tavern and get some more to drink.  He tied the ox up and went into the tavern to get more soju, the traditional Korean whiskey.  While the butcher was inside drinking his soju, the farmer/ox decided he was hungry.  He saw some turnips across the way.  He broke loose and went across the way to eat them. The story calls them turnips, but from what I understand, they were really those huge white radishes they eat in Korea and Japan. The Japanese call them daicon.

Some call them turnips. Some call them radishes.  Some call the daicon. They are all over the place in Korea.

The ox/farmer broke loose and began eating the turnips.  To his surprise, all of a sudden, he began itching again, and then found himself standing on two legs again. He had turned back into a man!  When the butcher came out, he was upset thinking someone had stolen his expensive ox, and the farmer was long gone.

The farmer walked down the road saying to himself, “Sticks and turnips! Sticks and turnips!”  He went back to Seoul. On his way, he stopped and got some bamboo and carved it into four sticks just like the old people had had.

closeup photo of brown and black wooden houses digital wallpaper
He went to the house of the government official.//Photo by Zhu Peng on Pexels.com

That evening, the weather was a bit warm, and the government official left his door open and laid on the floor next to the door to sleep to be cooler.  I have seen Koreans do this. I was surprised to walk by my neighbor’a apartment one day when he had the door wide open and he was laying on the floor by the door asleep.  Koreans can be very trusting of one another. The crime rate is low, and they know they are safe, but this government official wasn’t safe.  The farmer took the sticks and began gently tapping the government official all over like the old people had done to him.  However, he only used two of he four sticks he had. The government official began to wake up earlier than he was supposed to, and when he realized what was happening, he gave a huge bellow of an ox, and the farmer was scared and had to run!  The government official was only half ox.

The net day, the farmer went back to see the government official.  The government official was very upset with his condition.  The people around his were looking for a cure. They had called the doctor, and the doctor could do nothing.  They called a shaman who chanted and jumped around, but could do nothing.  They were at their wits end!  The farmer said he could help the government official.  He told them that he had seen it happen in his village, and he knew how to change him back.  He negotiated with them for a government position.  They agreed to give him a government position if he could help the government official.




adult and cub tiger on snowfield near bare trees
The great Korean tiger was hunted to extinction because their skins were the sign of riches, but many Koreans blame it on the Japanese because the Japanese hunted them too when they were under Japanese occupation.  According to the old Koreans, anything bad that happened in Korea was the fault of the Japanese.///Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The farmer left. He went and got some turnips.  He cooked them and dried them out. he ground them up into a fine powder so they would looked like medicine.  He took the powder back and gave it to the government official,  When the government official ate the turnip powder, he turned back into a man. He was so happy!.  He gave the farmer the position he wanted.  They brought embroidered silk robes of a  government official with a dragon on them and put them on the farmer.  The government official brought several strings of cash and gave them to the farmer as a reward for his savior.   They gave the farmer a great sedan chair that was carried by four men and had a tiger’s skin on the roof.  In old times, sedan chairs and tiger’s skins were signs of great wealth in Korea. They hunted the Korean tiger to extinction. And the farmer stood there thinking, “All of this through sticks and turnips!”




Leave a Reply