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When Tigers Smoked
Korean Tales

When Tigers Smoked
  • Korean Folk Tales : Imps, Ghosts and Fai... (by )
  • Korean Tales : Being a Collection of Sto... (by )
  • Korean Sketches (by )
  • The Unmannerly Tiger, And Other Korean T... (by )
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Myth and folklore transfuse our histories into our life blood, and are one of the main defining traits of humans. From our old stories stem adages and epithets that, over the years, become ingrained into our cultural dialogue (and finally, worn down into clich├ęs). With just one line, we can recall or reference an entire body of stories.

In Korea, they have a saying, "back when tigers smoked," that is used as an equivalent to "once upon a time." (Asian diaspora publisher Kaya Press famously uses the logo of a smoking tiger.) The saying stems from the plethora of tiger myths that have been passed down since the second century.

One of the oldest tiger stories, found in The Unmannerly Tiger and Other Korean Tales, relates the birth of Korean culture. It begins with a bear and a tiger who lived on Old Whitehead Mountain. They were dissatisfied with the rude humans they encountered, and thought, if only they could themselves become human, they would do a much better job of it. So they asked Hananim, the great Korean god of heaven and earth, to change them into humans. Hananim granted their request, on the condition that they eat garlic and remain in a cave for 21 days. They did this, but on the eleventh day, the tiger left after becoming increasingly restless with nothing to hunt and nothing to eat besides garlic. The bear stayed in the cave, and, sure enough on the twenty-first day, he transformed into a woman.

Then the Great One in the Skies sent down his son, Whanung. He descended the mountain and came upon the woman, and was delighted with her. He breathed on her, and a baby was born and named Prince Sandalwood. The prince grew to tame the people at the foot of the mountain, telling them stories of the tiger and the bear and thus creating Korean civilization.

Stories of tigers who are often depicted as foolish, silly, fearsome, but also friendly, fill Korean folklore. The wide range of odd tiger personas no doubt led to the peculiar depictions of tigers in Korean paintings. For more Korean tales, check out Imps, Ghosts and Fairies by Im Pang and Korean Tales by Horace Newton Allen.

By Thad Higa



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