Saturday, August 25, 2012

Tall Tales: an account from Robert Neff (The Korea Times)

Tall Tales: 

One of the most remarkable tomes of Korean history is the “Samguk Yusa.” It is filled with many remarkable accounts that interweave exaggerations with facts leaving us with a historical record made up of legends and tall tales.

One such story concerns King Hyegong, the 36th monarch of the Silla Kingdom (57 B.C.-A.D. 935). Hyegong’s father, King Gyeongdeok, was truly a man amongst men for he was said to have a penis nearly 2.4 meters long. Despite being (or perhaps because he was) so well-endowed, he was unable to have a son with his first wife so he took another queen and sought heavenly aid. A priest informed the king that he would be blessed with the birth of a daughter but the monarch was not pleased and insisted on having a son. On behalf of his monarch, the priest again beseech-ed heaven and was subsequently chastised for bothering heaven with the concerns of mortals. He was further warned that if a son were born to the king that it would bring danger to the kingdom. Gyeongdeok ignored the warning and in 756 Hyegong was born.

Gods will not be ignored nor disobeyed without consequences. As a child, Hyegong enjoyed carrying a small silk purse and dressing up or playing like a little girl. When his father died in 765, he ascended the throne. His rule was one plagued with unrest and evil omens including the fall of several meteors, the appearance of a tiger in the palace and the appearance of ghosts. Whether it was due to his rule or his femininity, Hyegong’s reign was short-lived and he died at a young age. In 780, he and his queen were murdered during an insurrection.

But there are other tall tales in Korea’s past — these seem more credible than the previous one. In the late 1890s, the Independent — an English language newspaper published in Seoul — reported that a giant man, standing taller than the street cars, had appeared in the city. For the next couple of days he was viewed with not only curiosity by the city’s denizens but also suspicion by the government and was promptly arrested for being a member of the Tong-hak movement — a group of dissatisfied peasants seeking to overthrow the Korean government. What became of the giant is unclear.

But men weren’t the only giants in Joseon Korea. The failed Kapsin Revolt (December 1884) owes some of its early success to a female giant. One of Queen Min’s bodyguards was a 42-year-old woman was said to be about 210 centimeters tall and possessing incredible strength. She was nicknamed Ko Tae-su or “a giant girl who needs to be taken care of.” Because she was different, she was ignored by her peers save the taunts and ridicule that they heaped upon her. It would be charitable to say that loneliness forced her into the arms of the Korean progressives — the rebels — who were planning to overthrow the government but more than likely it was the desire for revenge.

In the beginning, Ko provided the rebels with confidential information about the palace and most likely her ward — the queen — and the royal family. During the initial attack at the post office inauguration dinner, Ko aided the rebels by setting off dynamite in different parts of the palace grounds further confusing and demoralizing the troops loyal to the government.

The rebels were briefly victorious but after only a couple of days were forced to flee for their lives. Some, such as Kim Ok-kyun and So Jae-pil (Philip Jaisohn), escaped to Japan and made names for themselves in the contemporary newspapers and even now they are largely remembered in modern Korean history. But many rebels were quickly captured and lost their lives — their names, such as Ko’s, appearing as short footnotes in the annals of Korea’s past.

Source: The Korea Times

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