Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Princess and the Fool

I like to watch TV with my host family because it exposes me to Korean culture and language while giving me an easy way to hang out with them. My host brother is very into Running Man, Rule of the Jungle, and Gag Concert, so those are the three that I watch the most often.

Running Man is a really entertaining program. I don't watch a lot of TV so I don't know what kind of American game show or variety show I could compare it to. The gist is that a core group of contestants -- various actors, singers, and entertainers -- along with a few celebrity guest contests compete each week to complete a series of themed missions that move them through interesting landmarks in different locations. For example, I've seen episodes taking place in traditional villages, empty shopping malls, the entire city of Cheongju, and last week they were in Vietnam for some reason. It's part scavenger hunt, part relay race, and part silly game show; I guess it's kind of like The Amazing Race, but definitely a carefree iteration, nowhere near as high-stakes or dramatic.

General Ondal and Princess Pyeonggang (from Wikipedia)
Anyway, tonight's theme was a parody of an old Korean folktale about Princess Pyeonggang and the fool Ondal (평강공주와 바보온달). I was heartily confused at the costumes and the storyline bits of the show, but my host brother managed to explain what was going on.

Princess Pyeonggang used to cry all the time when she was little (either all the time or continuously on one New Year's Day), so her father the King threatened that if she continued to cry, he would make her marry the village idiot (바보/pabo), who was a commoner named Ondal.

When the princess grew up, she refused to marry the man her father arranged for her to marry, citing her father's threat-slash-promise of marrying Ondal. The King tried to explain to his daughter that his threat was just a joke, but when Princess Pyeonggang continued to resist her father's wishes, he grew angry and banished her from the kingdom. Princess Pyeonggang ran away and found Ondal living in the mountains. She then spent many years educating and training the fool in archery and horsemanship, and he ended up "like Napoleon", according to my host brother: in other words, he became a general. They went back to the palace after many years, impressed the King, and lived happily ever after (until Ondal was killed in battle against the Silla).

It's a cool story. I like how the princess stands up to her father's patriarchal expectations of her and does her own thing, also managing to help another outcast and marginalized person overcome the barriers that prevent him from living successfully and with respect. I wish this were the kind of story I saw played out again and again in Korean dramas today.

As it were, the story of Princess Pyeonggang and Pabo Ondal was introduced to me via parody on Running Man, where three female contestants played the role of the princess and had to find their respective Ondals, "educate" them (in a hilarious trivia game where every wrong answer resulted in a huge spray of water to the face of contestants balanced precariously on a small platform in a swimming pool), and eventually win the favor of the king.

Running Man looks like tons of fun. I don't think I'll ever be on a reality TV show or game show of any kind, but if I could just play silly games and light-heartedly mock American culture for months, be filmed, and be paid for it, I think I totally would.

Parody: 패러디 (Konglish)
King: 왕/wang
Princess: 공주/gongju
Fool, or stupid person: 바보/pabo (Incidentally, this was one of the first Korean words I ever learned, from a youth game where screwing up resulted in everyone calling you "pabo". It can refer to a low-class, mentally-challenged person, but today it's used more as a light insult, much like the English "idiot".)
General: 장군/janggun
Patriarchy: 가부장제/kabujangje
Outcast: 왕따/wangdda (Refers mostly to social pariahs in an institution such as a school, and comes up often in references to bullying, a growing problem in Korea. There are many other words for outcasts, including 낙오자 "loser", 이단자 "heretic/excommunicate", and the interesting 꾸어다 놓은 보릿자루 "borrowed barley bag", which is an idiom for feeling like a fish out of water. Full example: 그녀는 꾸어다 놓은 보릿자루처럼 앉아 있었다. "She was sitting like an outcast." My co-teacher explained the story behind this idiom to me: a person once mistook a random bag of barley sitting in a corner for an actual person and suspected it of being a spy keeping quiet. Awkward!)


  1. Hi Andrew, I happened into your blog trying to figure out the best way to tell this 'ondal the fool and princess pyeong gang story' to my foreign friends. But not only that, i got to read some very interesting posts about your experience here in Korea. The joy of finding some pleasant surprises by seeing how foreigners can perceive Korea from a completely different angle never fails to amaze me. It was a great pleasure to read through what you wrote here and thought i had to leave something to show my appreciation. keep up the good work! :D annyong!

    1. Thank you, Eugena! I appreciate your encouragement and readership. 안녕!

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