2010 Sejong Writing Competition

Winning Entries :: Essays :: Senior second place

Seyoung Lee

“Shimchong: the Blind Man’s Daughter” seems to be the ultimate folktale portraying traditional Confucian values of filial piety. Shimchong essentially represents the ideal female figure of traditional Korean society since the fifteenth century, when Confucianism was first introduced to Korea through cultural exchanges with China. However, this story, in the context of the modern day, can also be interpreted as a tale of female empowerment, with Shimchong acting as the heroine who not only revives her father’s lost sight, but also single-handedly ascends from the role of a beggar’s daughter to that of a queen.

Shimchong is a beautiful young girl who possesses the revered characteristics of servitude and sacrifice. She basically sells herself for three hundred bushels of rice for her blind, poverty-stricken father. As the Confucian saying goes, women have three men in their lives: Their father, husband, and eldest son. Before women marry, they must obey their fathers. After wedlock, they must obey their husbands. After they are widowed, they must obey their sons. Shimchong seemingly follows this mold of obedience flawlessly as the story progresses, going from begging for alms from the moment she could talk, to thrusting herself into the thrashing waves of the Dragon King.

The tale of Shimchong appears to have been created to train young daughters on the importance of self-sacrifice and obedience. For centuries, the themes of filial virtues have been romanticized through this story, with its ending subtly denoting the great rewards for personal sacrifice and obedience. However, as times change, interpretations of folktales evolve with societal and cultural transformations.

Growing up in a Korean household, my mother always read me Korean folktales, and I remember the story about Shimchong particularly well. Instead of interpreting the story as a lesson of filial piety, I focused on the heroism of Shimchong’s actions and the weakness of the men in the story.

I see Shimchong as the epitome of the ultimate heroine. Although she is born into a situation where she does not have anything at all, she overcomes “great hardships” and “dire consequences” from a very young age, choosing to take her life into her own hands to ultimately become queen. She lacks a parental figure to protect and nurture her, as her mother passed away during childbirth and her father is blind, but reaches unimaginable heights for a beggar’s daughter on her own.

Shimchong’s father is not only physically disabled, but he also lacks the authoritativeness of parental figure. He allows his daughter to beg for alms “from the moment she could speak” and accompany him to beg for scraps of food. Dependency is stressed in the male character, as he relies heavily on his daughter, not only for his lacking vision, but also to help put food on the table. The daughter takes the role of the caregiver, looking after her father and not the other way around.

Her father’s frailness is highlighted in his accident in the irrigation ditch when he stumbles and falls, bemoaning his handicap. The central male figure, the patriarch of the family, is extremely pitiful in this story. His inability to see is emphasized, as he is stuck “floundering…trying vainly to climb out,” drawing a portrait of the father as one who is pathetic, not even able to help himself, let alone his young daughter.

Further evidence of Shimchong’s father’s flaws are revealed when he promises the monk three hundred bushels of rice in return for his sight. Although he does not even have three bowls of rice, he offers the great sum because he covets sight. When he realizes his thoughtlessness, he runs to his daughter to solve his problems. Shimchong is forced into a situation where she has to choose whether to sell herself as a sacrifice or allow Buddha to be offended, as a price for her father’s greed.

Shimchong’s valor shines when she offers herself up to be sacrificed to the Dragon King because of her father’s blunder. When every other family refuses to sell their maiden daughters, the father, although upset, permits his only daughter to be thrust into the arms of danger. Instead of raising the money for the rice himself, he allows his daughter’s life to be endangered.

Shimchong shows readers that woman, too, can become the heroes in stories, regardless of the setting. Although she is essentially the victim in this story, sold as a sacrifice because of her father’s foolishness, she changes her position from a total victim to a victor. Although focus is put on Shimchong’s self sacrifice, her life after her jump into the waves is largely ignored. She independently wins the favor of the Dragon King, and later, the King of the country. Becoming a queen, she starts out at the very bottom of the social hierarchy and makes her way to the very top. Without the support of anyone besides herself, she makes her own life, truly an empowered woman at a time when females were regarded as inferior to men.

The most moving scene is her final encounter with her father after years of separation. Instead of resenting him for his mistakes and victimizing her, she embraces the filthy man, ultimately causing him to regain his sight. She embodies the power of the woman, fighting all obstacles and forgiving the inexcusable.

Although this story of sacrifice may have been created to spread Confucian ideals, I believe that every generation creates new understandings of the same story, emphasizing parts in stories that exemplify their ideology. Living in the twenty first century, I believe this story sends a message to girls in the modern day, showing that woman can take control over their lives, like Shimchong. They can rise from being oppressed and victimized by families and societal pressures to become whatever they want to be, even the inconceivable. Women do not have to sit back and let men run their lives. No one can deny Shimchong was a good daughter, but no one can say she was not a hero, either.