Professor records ‘lost’ folk tales

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Professor records ‘lost’ folk tales

A local professor has recorded numerous forgotten folk tales in Gangwon province after traveling through the area for two years.
Choi Ung, 56, a Korean literature professor at Kangwon National University, said he has written down more than 2,400 tales only passed along orally since ancient times by traveling through 11 cities in Gangwon province with his students since 2003. The stories were recently published in two volumes sponsored by Gangwon city.
“Unlike tales from other areas, stories in Gangwon are more humanistic and realistic,” Mr. Choi said.
“For instance, among many legends about a widow who kept her fidelity to her dead husband, Gangwon’s tale is more focused on her human side,” Mr. Choi said. “In the story, the widow is hot-blooded and agonizes over temptation. It is different from other tales, which just depict a cold, dry, perfect woman who stays faithful naturally.”
In another story of a virtuous child who cures an ill parent ― a common folk tale in Korea ― usually the medicine is something you can’t find such as mythic animals or plants. But in the Gangwon area, the story features fish in a nearby lake as the cure, Mr. Choi said.
The way Mr. Choi found those tales was not easy, but interesting.
“I visited each house in the town and begged old people to tell me a tale they knew of,” Mr. Choi said. “It wasn’t easy because some of these old people struggle to remember, and some had poor pronunciation.”
But, when Mr. Choi met someone who could clearly tell him 20 different tales, it made his day.
Mr. Choi became interested in exploring the area’s folk tales back in 1983 when he was guiding his students’ research on ancient Korean tales. In 1995, he had a chance to research stories from the northern Gangwon area, which borders North Korean territory.
In 2002, Mr. Choi undertook an academic project, which discovered 2,200 tales in Gangwon, at the request of the Korea Research Foundation, an organization that promotes academic activities and research in the country.
That is not all. By the end of this year, the professor is going to visit seven more cities to collect about 1,000 more stories.
“Including the tales that are published, the total number of stories I have recorded is around 6,000. I’m going to number each story and make a database to study them more systematically,” said Mr. Choi. “The ancient tales will represent Gangwon province.”
Mr. Choi said that he wants to expand his study to folk tales from other parts of the Gangwon area in North Korea. The province is bisected by the Demilitarized Zone.
“If I can’t do the research by myself, I would like to ask experts in the North to do the study instead,” he said.

by Lee Chan-ho
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