In Days Gone By, Bats Were Hanging Around Everywhere

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In Days Gone By, Bats Were Hanging Around Everywhere

"He that is neither one thing nor the other has no friends," says the bat from Aesop's fable, "The Bat, the Birds and the Beasts." The line, cited by the bat at the end of the story, is the hard lesson it learned after pretending to be a bird sometimes and a beast at other times. The fable shows how people in the West, even in ancient times, held a negative image of the flying mammal. And let's not even mention vampires.

In Korea, there are also some negative expressions that come at the expense of bats. "Acting like a bat" (bakjwi gusil in Korean) refers to opportunistic or two-faced behavior. "A whoremongering bat" (bakjwi oip-jaeng-i) is a crude description for someone who is lazy during the day, and only goes out at night to party.

Despite such modern expressions, ancient Koreans in fact seem to have thought better of the bat. In the past, people often used bats as motifs for patterns applied on traditional furniture and embroidery.

Kim Hong-do, a highly skilled artist of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), even painted bats in his work "Gunseondo," along with a bunch of sinseon or immortal spirits. The bats flying among immortals in the painting suggests that those animals were considered special at the time.

One of the reasons for using bat patterns in traditional crafts and art in the old days was that the Chinese letter for bat had the same pronunciation as the letter for good fortune, bok. Thus, by using bat patterns in the craftworks, the designer helped give the work good luck. Engraving five bats on a chest, for instance, was to wish for the five good fortunes - longevity, wealth, health, upstanding morals and a peaceful death.

Another reason for the positive opinion on bats is that the winged animals were believed to be prolific. During the Joseon Dynasty, having many children, especially sons, was an important duty and virtue for every women.

The image of bats was used in many accessories for women, such as norigae, or pendent trinkets, to wish for the prosperity and continued propagation of the family tree. Such designs were also commonly found in cloth covers for spoons and chopsticks.

It is, however, notable that bat patterns were not found in embroidery or decorations on Korean garments. Why were bats all right for most things but not for people's clothes? The Chinese had no problems using bat designs on their clothing. But it seems that Koreans believed that a person wearing garments with bat patterns on them would mimic the bat's nocturnal habits.

There is also evidence in an old record that bats were believed to have some supernatural powers. "Gyuhap Chongseo," an encyclopedia on home economics published in the 19th century, described bats as mice that play with the immortals. The encyclopedia also mentions that bats turn from dark-colored to white when they become 500 years old, and that a person who eats a white bat would turn into an immortal spirit. Such beliefs can also be seen in Kim Hong-do's painting "Gunseondo."

Kim Jong-dae is the head of the relics preservation and administration division of the National Folk Museum of Korea.

by Kim Jong-dae

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