[VIEWPOINT]Let’s not monkey around in 2004At the beginning of each year, I always give thought to what the corresponding animal of the zodiac represents. Our Korean ancestors used to predict the year’s luck by putting together the animals’ physical and characteristic traits, strengths and weaknesses. They thought each animal would make their lives richer and happier.
The year 2004 is the Year of the Monkey, a primate. For over 70 million years, humans have been a part of the same order as the apes, but mankind set itself apart from the monkeys by evolving to walk with two legs in an upright position and by making and using tools 20 million years ago. The triumph of man is not a coincidence, but a hard-earned conquest after trial and error.
Monkeys have two opposable thumbs, which allow the monkey hold objects and climb trees. They have a pair of breasts and their eyes can make out three-dimensional images. From their hairless faces to their intelligence, we cannot deny our resemblance to the monkeys.
In 1953, a curious monkey named Ito in the island of Koujima in Japan’s Miyazaki prefecture discovered that washing a potato in seawater made it much tastier. Nine years later, three-quarters of the monkeys on the island used the same method.
In a test of separating barley grains from sand, monkeys threw the mixture into water and ate the floating grains. The zoologist O Chang-yeong says the intelligence of monkeys will someday catch up to that of humans.
In Korea, monkeys are given a semi-divine status as assistants to Buddhist monks and a symbol of motherly love. In Egypt, India and China, baboons are held sacred as a symbol of health, success and protection. But Africans and the natives of the Amazon believe the monkeys are messengers of the devil.
In Korean folk tradition, monkeys are sometimes considered unlucky, and the zodiac sign of monkey is often called “jannabi,” a roundabout way to refer to a monkey without naming it.
Monkeys are portrayed in ancient arts as mischievous, loving creatures. A clay icon from the Silla period shows one with exaggerated genitalia and another is portrayed embracing a baby monkey. Monkeys were found on tombstones, pagodas, sculptures, copper mirrors, murals, coffins, potteries, seals, ink containers, jars, chairs and decorations.
Joseon period painters depicted monkeys as protectors of peach trees that granted eternal youth, and paired them with deer and pine trees, which were also associated with longevity. Jeondeung Temple in Ganghwa Island off the west coast features a monkey under the roof of its main hall.
The story goes that the chief carpenter fell in love with a beautiful girl while building the temple and wasted all his money on her. But when the temptress finally left him, the carpenter carved in a monkey on the eaves to punish his lover by forcing her proxy to hold up the roof.
In another folk tale, a hunter found a baby monkey and took it home. The monkey became a part of the family. But when the hunter’s wife was doing the wash, the monkey tried to imitate the wife and poured hot water on the hunter’s baby. The baby was severely burned; the monkey realized his mistake and took the baby to a pond of miraculous water.
Even a monkey regrets his mistake and tries to correct it, but the elected representatives of the citizens seemed to have abandoned the interests of the nation and the welfare of the people. But in the Year of the Monkey, let’s stay away from the negative sayings.
Like the Monkey King who traveled to India with a monk to seek the Buddhist book of Sutra, the leaders of the nation need the magic staff of courage, wit, wisdom and virtues. We hope to see ambitious planning and detailed preparations from our leaders in 2004.
* The writer is the president of the Korean National University of Cultural Heritage. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Rhie Jong-Chul