Midori’s post about one-word resolutions a couple of years ago changed the way I approached new year’s resolutions. And as January rolls around again, I would like to take some inspiration from Korea, all because I came across this thesis by graduate student Sungmi Han about humor in Korean tradition, and was intrigued by it.
Asian culture is one steeped in history and tradition. We think emperors, dynasties, martial arts, silks and ceramics. The very idea of “Asian culture” seems serious, and exotic, and a tad highbrow. The last thing one would associate with it is humor.
Enter Korea. This country has taken influences from Japan, China and the Western world and put its own quirky spin on them. For all we know, fun and whimsy may be how Korea has weathered the storms of its history.
The country had a troubled past. There were conflicts to deal with, both external and internal. Geographically, it was stuck—sandwiched between China and Japan—and over the centuries it was bullied and battered incessantly one or other of these two neighbors. In the past 5 millennia, Korea was attacked and invaded a whopping 998 times! As if that wasn’t enough drama to grapple with, there were inner upheavals as well, which eventually broke and shattered the nation in two.
But laughter is cathartic. Throughout the centuries Koreans have used humor as a fortress to shelter their innate optimism, as an antidote to misery, and as a way to break free from what confines them.
A Korean king may have used a 14-faced die like this one to inject some comedy at work, probably in some version of truth-or-dare. Each side contained instructions for some kind of dare, like “make a funny face,” “dance silently” or “down three cups of liquor in one gulp.”
Take the mythical beasts that we would find standing on guard outside palaces. The ones in China look ferocious, kind of like the gargoyles in Medieval churches, with their glaring frowns. These figures are meant to inspire fright. But the Korean versions are actually quite… cute. They’ve got gentle eyes and goofy toothy smiles.
They’re so round and adorable that we’d actually want to hug them, despite the fact that they’re made of stone.
It’s is probably only in Korea that one would find a monument built for a King’s umbilical cord and placenta. It’s not so odd to find turtles in tomb markers (they’re as ubiquitous as crosses and angels in cemeteries in the west), but none have the gentle smile that the one here has.
In a garden in Changdeok palace, there are a lot of these stone planters, and in some of them, we’d see frogs coming in and out of a pot, probably in search of their princesses.
Common folk in Korea used to carve their own changsung or spirit posts to protect against bad spirits. It seems that scare tactics were replaced by bids to win over the evil by making them laugh with these funny faces.
With its history, Koreans could have become a belligerent, hardened, jaded, joyless, and un-spontaneous people, but no! They rallied and fought to keep their naïveté, optimism, and sense of humor. And as they evolved as a people, they acquired certain qualities which developed into an aesthetic that spoke profoundly of their culture’s resilience and grace. This, I think, makes Korea a worthy inspiration for a New Year’s Eve post.
All images via Sungmi Han except where indicated.