Hello, everyone. Welcome to “Korean Folktales.” In this Monday corner, we introduce you to interesting Korean folk stories. I’m Jinny Na. Today, I’ll talk about a story from the Joseon Dynasty – how an uneducated glutton defeated an intelligent foreign envoy through sign language.
One day, the Joseon royal court received a letter from China. In the letter, China suggested that the most intelligent person from each nation meet on the river along the border to see who is the smartest. In Joseon, however, no one was willing to apply for the challenging job to pit their wits against an eminent scholar from China.
In a border town near the river, there lived a boatman who was very fond of rice cakes. Upon hearing about a wisdom competition, he decided to apply, as the simple-minded person imagined that it would be a great opportunity to receive a large amount of rice cakes as a reward if he somehow won the contest.
The man rowed out to the middle of the river to meet an envoy from China. The Chinese scholar was rather disappointed to see a mere boatman who appeared ignorant. Looking the man up and down in contempt, the Chinese envoy began to ask a question. Since the two did not speak each other’s language, they communicated in sign language. First, the envoy made a circle with his fingers, asking the boatman if he knew the sky is round. Seeing that, the boatman mistakenly thought that the envoy was asking if he had eaten round rice cakes. So he made a square with his fingers to answer that he had eaten square-shaped rice cakes. But the envoy understood this as the boatman not only knowing the sky is round but also that the earth is square, which was a common belief at the time. He was surprised at the boatman’s intelligence. Now he wanted to ask a more difficult question. He raised three fingers, wondering if the boatman knew the three fundamental principles of Confucianism. Again, the glutton misinterpreted this as, “Did you eat three rice cakes?” So he raised five fingers, saying he had eaten five. The envoy was even more surprised because he believed that the boatman was indicating that he also knew the five moral principles as well. Now the envoy thought that the guy was not an ordinary man. He began to feel uneasy because he might lose the contest. In a desperate move to overpower the man, the envoy stroked his beard. He was referring to an ancient Chinese emperor whose name had the same sound as the word “beard” in a Chinese character. So he was asking if the man knew the legendary Chinese emperor. Of course, the food lover didn’t have the slightest idea of what it meant, but interpreted everything as something related to rice cakes. In response, he rubbed his belly, meaning that he had enjoyed the rice cakes. The envoy’s face turned pale. He understood the man’s gesture as meaning that he also knew another ancient Chinese emperor whose name contained the same sound as the word “belly.”
Impressed and overwhelmed, the envoy came to the conclusion that if even a boatman from the Joseon kingdom was so wise, then he would not be able to compete with other people from the nation. He accepted defeat and returned to China. The glutton was given a large reward and lived happily ever after, eating as many rice cakes as he wanted.
This tale is recorded in a 17th century book called “Eouyadam” (어우야담), or “Eou’s Unofficial Historical Stories.” The archetypal story, which underlines the helplessness of the ruling class and a victory achieved by ordinary people, is found in many different countries in various other forms.
That’s it for today’s “Korean Folktales.” Thank you for listening. I’m Jinny Na. Goodbye, everyone.