Stubborn as mules

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Stubborn as mules

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To the Chinese, famous for their epicurean appetites, there is a saying: “There is dragon meat in heaven and donkey meat on land.” One cannot know whether the Chinese really tasted dragon, but donkey meat is still popular as a delicacy for its tender texture.

But the praise stops at the choicest cut. Live donkeys do not have such winning effect on the Chinese. When someone says something totally irrelevant, they often cite the old saying, “Donkey’s lips do not fit onto a horse’s mouth.” The animal is also associated with wickedness and treachery.

Donkeys do not appear positively in Korean folklore as well. The Korean proverb, “A wicked donkey looks down on a learned man,” mocks a person unaware of his or her own ignorance when patronizing others. Various references to the donkey in both Western and Eastern hemispheres all point out one thing: it may look like a horse in appearance, but it lacks the horse’s stature. When used to refer to a person, it suggests a lack of dignity.

In the Western world, the mule has a reputation for stubbornness. In a famous Aesop fable, a salt-bearing donkey accidentally loses its footing and falls into a stream, causing the salt to dissolve, which makes its load lighter. The next time it is being led with an even greater cargo, the donkey falls into the stream again, this time on purpose. Noticing this, on the next journey the merchant loads a big batch of porous sponges on the donkey’s back. When the donkey deliberately falls, the sponges grow heavy with water, and the donkey has to carry a burden that is twice as heavy. The merchant teaches his donkey a lesson.

From the donkey’s viewpoint, he may have felt the treatment unfair as he merely stumbled upon luck while doing his duty. But the faithful nature of donkeys and their offspring mules that have lived closely with humans in agrarian society was transformed to symbolize stubbornness and ignorance.

We can also see donkeys in today’s Korean political arena. Politicians who adhere to the same old practices of the past without paying heed to the public outrage are no different from donkeys. They remain ignorant of the currents of global crisis even as the perilous waves loom over the country’s economy. As politicians are so ignorant, would they wake up if we switched their load from salt to sponges?

The donkey is the symbol of the Democratic Party that recently regained power in the United States. But that donkey won the peoples’ hearts through its image as a faithful worker with a clear sense of direction. It is different from the donkeys populating our political stage.


The writer is deputy international news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.


By Yoo Kwang-jong [kjyoo@joongang.co.kr]
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