Tyll Eulenspiegel & Kim Seon–dal (Continued) 2

by Heinz Insu Fenkl


Lately, I have been doing Ezra Pound–like readings of Chinese characters as I finish my own collection of stories and poems called Cathay. Pound’s 1915 Cathay, "translations" of T’ang Dynasty poems by Li Po, are undisputedly the finest in the English language, though they are technically inaccurate. He had been working with the notes of the Japanologist, Ernest Fenollosa,who had developed an erroneous theory about the nature of the Chinese writing system. The idea that Chinese characters are ideograms that speak directly to the visual imagination has long been debunked by linguists, but for poets, and for scholars like me — who work with the layered associated meanings that come from interweaving visual and sound–based "reading" — it presents a more sophisticated theory of how consciousand unconscious features work together in oral and textual storytelling.

Korean happens to be a language that delights in visual and auditory wordplay. To be a literate Korean, one must not only learn the native phonetic alphabet (24 basic characters called han’gul), but also several thousand Chinese characters (called hanja) which are read with Korean pronunciations. In contemporary times, the trend has been to write the Chinese characters with their Korean phonetic counterparts, since it is hard, even for educated people, to remember so many hanja.(North Korea, to increase general literacy, uses no Chinese characters at all.)

Korean, which borrowed much of its vocabulary from Chinese in ancient times, is full of sound–alike words, or homophones. In Chinese, homophones are helpfully distinguished by different tones, but since Korean lost its tones long ago, it has many homophones that lend themselves to layered meanings. Written in Chinese, the words that sound like Cheon Ma might clearly say "1,000 Horses," but if one writes them in the Korean alphabet and takes them out of context,they might just as well be "Lowly Devil," "1,000 Yards of Cloth," or "Heavenly Horse," to name a few. This might seem highly problematic, but it is generally not, because the context of the words clarifies meaning in almost every case (otherwise, North Koreans would have terrible problems with written communication even if they have, according to demographic information, the highest literacy rate in the world).

The nature of homophones actually makes Korean a language especially suited for the layering of poetic meanings. And this is why I have begun to suspect that there is a Korean borrowing of Tyll Eulenspiegel. It is a speculation at the moment, so let me begin with a story which will provide obvious thematic parallels. The following is Ty Pak’s retelling of a traditional Kim Seon–dal story from his forthcoming book, A Korean Decameron.

Kim Seon–dal Extracts Confessions

Lacking inheritance or industry, Kim Seon–dal lived by his wits. Seldom was his rice container full, and he and his mother were often reduced to utter poverty.

But Seon–dal’s genius always contrived a way out, and to say that they did not starve is an understatement. As a matter of fact, they were quite well off. If there was nothing special to do, Seon–dal spent most of his time sleeping. He never worried about where his next meal was coming from.

A few days before the eighth day of the fourth moon, the birthday of the Shakyamuni Buddha, Seon–dal thought it was time he toured the Myohyang Mountains, the place where Tan’gun, the mythical founder of Korea, was believed to have descended from Heaven. It was believed that any person who wanted to have a good afterlife must visit the Myohyang Mountains. Seon–dal was, of course, not inspired by any religious motives.He simply thought that his claims to being a knowledgeable, wise man would be grossly unfounded if he had not seen the beautiful scenery of the place.

But Seon–dal had no idea where he was to get the money and supplies necessary for the trip. After considering his problem briefly, he had an idea. He repaired to the village, his house being a little way isolated from it. He went first to Kaettong’s* house and looked for the housewife.

"Hello, mother. You always wanted to go to the Myohyang Mountains. Here is a splendid chance," he said.

"When are you going?" asked Kaettong’s mother.

"The eighth of the month."

"Who is going?"

"I and several others."

Kaettong’s mother agreed to go also. Next, Seon–dal went to the father of the One–eyed Boy and asked if he would go to the mountains. This time Seon–dal was more specific and named a few who were going. The man agreed to go, too.

Seon–dal went from house to house, mostly those of wealthy people, telling in his shrewd way how essential it was to see the Myohyang Mountains. He succeeded in organizing an impressive group. Each of the participants was urged to bring rice, bedding, and money.

The eighth day came and the village buzzed with excitement. After numbering and lining up the group in military fashion, Seon–dal assumed its leadership. He was in extremely good humor, talking in friendly terms with everyone. But it was particularly noticeable that he was traveling light, carrying none of the items the others had been told to bring.

The group stopped at the foot of the mountains to spend the night. Early the next morning, they set out again and around noon arrived at the Temple of Universal Wisdom, situated at about the knee of the hills. After lunch they started out, this time guided by a trail guide who was obtained through Seon–dal’s contacts with the Temple.

They climbed and climbed and finally reached the toe of the Myohyang Mountains, a rocky cliff which was the most difficult of all climbs in the whole area. Everybody, man and woman, old and young, was so out of breath that some screamed and called for help.

Seon–dal was also feeling the effects of the rugged, uphill climb, but his nature was not one to permit him to admit weakness. On the contrary, his resourceful mind worked out a marvelous scheme and he immediately sought to put it into practice. He asked the guide to go up first, saying that he would lead the group up the cliff in good time. The guide went ahead, glad to be relieved of his responsibilities.

Seon–dal suddenly went down on his knees and began calling on the sacred name of the god of the mountains.

"Holy Lord, I sinned with a female dog when I was seven. I pried into the private parts of my aunt while she was visiting and taking a nap at my house when I was fourteen. I stole an ox from a neighbor, killed it, and ate the meat for six months. . . ." So went on the penitent Seon–dal, while his fellow travelers looked on, unable to figure out what their leader was doing.

At last Seon–dal’s confession came to an end, and calmly rising he rejoined the group. "I almost forgot," he said. "The Abbot of the Temple told me that a sinner cannot pass this rock without confessing all his sins to the god of the mountains. Many have died for omitting this ritual. I am sure none of you are sinners." Seon–dal paused, waiting for a response."But if any of you are, better come forward and do as I did."

Nobody stirred. "Well then, we will have no casualty, I suppose. Let’s go."

"Just a minute," said Kaettong’s mother. "I must confess."

Seon–dal motioned her close to the rock. The devout woman kneeled beside Seon–dal, away from the rest.

"God of the mountains, forgive and permit me to pass unharmed."

"But you must tell him your sins before asking for forgiveness," Seondal reminded her.

"I am coming round to that," retorted the woman, sharply. Then, correcting herself, she faced the rock and said, "Something came over me last spring and I sinned with Yang Sobang from a nearby village."

"But the god will not understand unless you tell him exactly how."

"First, it was in the mulberry field when I was picking the leaves. Three times after that at his guard lodge in the melon field."

"I think that’ll do. Go and join the rest." Seon–dal then addressed the group as a whole. "Is there nobody else?"

"Aye," volunteered the father of the One–eyed Boy. "I have done nothing too bad in my life, but once I stole a pile of rice sheaves from Chief Kim’s field, which is adjacent to mine."

Next came the daughter–in–law of Chief Kim, who was the wealthiest man in the village. "I deserve death. When I was fifteen, before I married, there was in my house a farmhand. One day, when there was nobody in the house, he took me to the granary and did that to me."

So the train of confessioners came forward in an unbroken chain and told the unsoliciting Seon–dal all their lifelong secrets. Seon–dal’s heart glowed with pleasure.

At last, the ceremonies came to an end and the group began hiking with confidence. They stayed a few days in the Myohyang Mountains viewing the scenery, and all came home safely. The tour was a great success.

Soon, Seon–dal’s grain–container again saw the bottom. His mother worried about the next meal

"Well, Mother, give me a big bag and Ill get you rice."

"But how?"

"Never mind. Just give me the bag."

Seon–dal went to Kaettong’s mother. "Give me two bushels of rice," he said.

"You already borrowed two pecks. I will not give you more until you pay your debt," she said.

"I have no rice. I cannot repay you."

"I don’t want to listen. No more rice." She turned her back on Seon–dal.

"If you really mean it," Seon–dal began, "where is Kaettong’s father? You will regret it."

"Regret it? Do you think he is more generous? Go to him and learn for yourself. He is down in the field."

"Thank you. I will have a chat or two with him about Mr. Yang from the next village," Seon–dal said as he slowly sauntered out.

The woman’s face changed instantly. She ran after him and caught his sleeve. "Now listen, I did not mean that. Come, I will give you a bushel–and–a–half."

Seon–dal reluctantly gave way.

After a few days, Seon–dal knew where to go next, and for more than a year he did not have to worry about his food.