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Exhibit brings favorite fairy tales to life : Stories play an important part in passing Korean culture to new generations

Aug 14,2017
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From left: Pages from the children’s magazine “Red Jeogori,” published in 1913; “Collection of Korean Fairy Tales” published in 1926; and “Aedeul-Boi,” published in 1913; a book whose title is roughly translated to Joseon Collection of Fairy Tales, published in 1940. [YONHAP]
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Visitors to “100 Years of Korean Fairy Tales in Hangeul” at the National Hangeul Museum in Seoul take a look at items on display. [YONHAP]
Children’s books reflect a nation’s identity and livelihood and they, in turn, play a crucial role in nurturing and consolidating the nature of the people, wrote Bang Jeong-hwan for a local magazine in 1922. Bang (1899-1931) was a children’s book writer and an activist who fought for children’s rights.

Keeping his beliefs in mind, the National Hangeul Museum opened a special exhibition “100 Years of Korean Fairy Tales in Hangeul” on the history of Korean children’s books in hangul, or the Korean alphabet, in light of their influence over the people’s collective mindset and spirit. The exhibition will stay open until Feb. 18.

The museum said this is the first-ever exhibition of this scale, with 207 pieces of historic books, documentation and audio books dating back as early as the 1910s.

The movement to document Korean traditional fairy tales in hangul started in earnest as Japan increasingly made shady attempts to use Korean stories to suppress the spirit of the Korean people, according to the museum.

When Japan started collecting Korean fairy tales, which had been largely passed down by word of mouth for generations, poet Choi Nam-sun (1890-1957) launched in 1913 his own campaign to gather old Korean stories. He feared that they might get lost for good amid Japan’s relentless suppression of Korean culture. Japan colonized Korea in 1910 and ruled it until 1945.

During that year, Choi published the first issue of children’s magazine “Red Jeogori.” Jeogori is a Korean traditional jacket. The magazine ran the story “Stupid Ondal,” which is believed to the oldest fairy tale written in hangul. The Japanese forced the magazine to close after only running for five months.

In September that year, Choi launched yet another children’s magazine “Aedeul-Boi,” which means “things to read for children.” In it, he ran an advertisement for children’s stories to be sent to the magazine, undaunted by Japan’s ruthless crackdown on Korean literature.’

“During the research for the exhibition, we learned that there existed more than 1,000 fairy tales. But many have been lost,” said Kim Mi-mi, the chief curator of the exhibition.

“Even though our nation’s roots and culture are deeply embedded in them, so many of them were discarded partly because they were children’s books,” she said. “We could understand how Choi Nam-sun must have felt when he decided to document Korean fairy tales.”

On display are, among other things, Korea’s first-ever collection of 66 fairy tales, compiled in 1926 by Sim Ui-rin, “Korean Fairy Tales” by William Elliot Griffis (1843-1928) and “Omjee the Wizard: Korean Folk Stories” by Homer B. Hulbert (1863-1949). There are also books on Korean fairy tales in Japanese published by the Japanese Governor-General of Korea which ran an extensive study on Korean literature to study Koreans, thereby more effectively controlling the people. Some of the older fairy tale books, published in the early- to mid-1990s, have been made into digital files so that visitors can read them easily.

The exhibit is designed to tell visitors that Korean fairy tales are not just part of children’s literature but they play an important role in transferring Korean culture to generations to come, the curator said. In accordance, the museum is hosting a video competition. It will collect videos depicting and analyzing Korean fairy tales, to give another level of meaning to the stories handed down over the centuries.

Also in time for Hangul Day on Oct. 9, the museum will hold a performance of fairy tale stories for two days beginning Oct. 8 on the lawn outside the museum.

“Many tangible and intangible assets we show through the exhibition will be the greatest resource to further develop stories known in Korea,” said the museum in a release.

BY YONHAP, LEE SUN-MIN
[summerlee@joongang.co.kr]