[KS] Rags-to-riches in Korean literature?

Brother Anthony ansonjae at sogang.ac.kr
Wed Dec 21 21:03:16 EST 2005

Well, I hope that widely-read experts will be able to provide many examples. I suppose that one obvious 
tale is that of virtuous Heung-bo whose 'qualifying exam' is an act of kindness to a wounded swallow which 
is rewarded by a seed that yields a number of giant gourds full of treasure which certainly provide him 
with instant social mobility, and in some versions it is said that he gladly shares his wealth with his 
mean and nasty brother Nol-bo after he has been severely punished, but I could not say if that last part is 
traditional. Sim-cheong also experiences social mobility, from blind man's daughter to Empress, and her 
father is the main beneficiary, together with all blind sentient beings restored to sight. Apart from this, 
the thought that strikes me is how many Korean stories go in the opposite direction to the kind of 
wish-fulfilling fairy-tale that the question proposes. In literary terms, I would think that tales centered 
on the loss of good fortune are universally considered more interesting, at least since Boccaccio, Chaucer 
and Shakespeare etc in Europe wrote about the "Fall of Princes" looking back to Boethius' 'Consolation of 

In Korea, one novel I know well that deals with this theme, but not in the simplistic, boring "happy-end" 
way suggested, is Yi Mun-yol's 'The Poet' (Si-in) that relates the true life-story of Kim Sakkat, whose 
initial quest to recover lost social status is transformed into a kind of poetico-Taoist ascent toward 
union with the cosmic order completely isolated from human society. I would think that among all the 
fiction of modern Korea, where there is a lot about the way people born into high-class families end up 
penniless, and many from poor farming families set off for the city to make their fortune and fail 
miserably, there might also perhaps be some success stories. But the high esteem given to tales about Han 
would suggest that the fall from fortune and survival in penniless, dignified misery might be the preferred 
direction of literary mobility. I seem to recall that O Chong-Hui's 'The Old Well' might be of interest 
here? The once wealthy grandfather of the little girl in 'Sonagi' is also on the way down, I believe?

An interesting question would be whether, given the cheating associated with the Gwageo exam, and the fact 
that it was only open to those of Yangban birth, anyone ever saw it as opening the way to social mobility?

A happy Christmas, anyway

Brother Anthony
Sogang University, Seoul

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