Here are some brief stories about each:
#1 Gold rocks
This story takes place in the 14th-century Goryeo Dynasty. There are three important people in this story:
- Choi Young (the saying is attributed to him) – persuaded the King to send an army into Manchuria and reclaim some of the land of China for Korea. This meant mobilizing a large force, in the monsoon season, against the powerful Ming Dynasty, for the purposes of “northern expansion.”
- King Woo – agreed with Choi Young, and against the advice of many critics, sent the army.
- General Yi Sung-ke – the leader of the army (also the harshest critic against the advance). When he reached the northern border, he immediately turned back around, marched to the capital, and killed both Choi, and King Woo. He replaced the Goryeo Dynasty with the Yi Dynasty.
Some historians lament this moment as the birth of 사대 (sadae) “submission to foreign powers” – but others recognize it as a wise move for the smaller nation surrounded by more powerful enemies.
#2 Minister Hwang Hee
Minister Hwang (Yi Dynasty) was so incredibly honest that he never accepted bribes. Here are two stories:
- His family was so poor that his wife and daughters shared their only good skirt for outings (yet he never accepted bribes to better his financial status)
- He posted bribes he received at the gate of his house with the names of the donors to rot and serve as a warning against others who might try to bribe him:
- A roll of silk
- A dead chicken
#3 Anything is possible
Other expressions and examples:
- “You can even hire a ghost with money.”
- “With money, a dog can become a barking government official.” (get a job in government)
- “Your appetite returns just when you have run out of money.”
- “You sit when you lend money (easy), but you stand when you collect it (hard).”
- 양반 (yangban) treated money as dangerous and dirty, even making a show of wearing gloves or using chopsticks to touch it
#4 Closet skeletons
“We will find your dirty laundry.”
#5 Small token
Korea is an “envelope” culture. Cash money is passed everywhere with envelopes – at weddings, funerals, birthdays, etc. There has been a big problem with bribery in Korea because of this and recently a Law was passed to try to “stem the tide of” (reduce) it. Here are just a few examples of the “money envelope.”
- 떡값 = “rice cake expenses” – during holidays to help recipient cover vacation travel
- 사례비 = “appreciation money” – when a case is resolved
- 경려금 = “encouragement money” – a slap on the back of encouragement
- 전별금 = “farewell money” – when transferring to a new job
- 길마비 = “horse coach money” – when traveling overseas
- 접대 = “hosting / reception” – hostess bars where whiskey flows
- 입막이 = “gag money” – hush money to make someone be quiet
- 봉투 = “cash gift” – most common cash gift
- “007가방” = “James Bond bags” – bribing politicians and big businessmen with briefcases of money
- “축의금” = “congratulations money” – given at weddings
- “조의금” = “mourning money” – given at funerals
#6 Work like a dog
Even remedial work is worthwhile if you spend your money on a noble cause. Here are two stories:
- Yoo Yang-sun was a widow in the late 1990s who sold anchovy sauce at a small street cart. She lived a very meager life and donated almost all her money to 1000s of students to help pay their education tuition fees. When reporters visited her apartment, 1000s of “thank you” letters were found.
- Kim Young-ha became a “kisaeng” when she was a teenager, and later fell in love with a poet – but was then separated from him when he returned to his home in North Korea and the Korean War broke out. Before she died, in 1999, she created a literary award after her lost love and donated her establishment – worth $77 million to a Buddhist denomination to use for training purposes.
자린고비 is a folk-tale figure who was so miserly that he never ate meat nor fish. Instead, he dangled a dried fish from his ceiling and imagined himself savoring every bite.
#8 Digging for money
AKA “Money doesn’t grow on trees.”
To me, this may be one of the most impressive stories that shows the true “Korean spirit”. There are two historical cases of “gold drives” where the common folk gathered together their gold jewelry, rings, coins, etc, and collectively donated them to the government in order to pay off the national debts.
- In 1907, civilian leaders led the gold drive to pay off debts to Japan before Korea was colonized. The effort effectively failed because Japan (falsely) charged the leaders with embezzlement, and ended up annexing the country in 1910.
- In the IMF crisis from 1997-98, millions of citizens donated their gold to the nation in order to be melted down and exchanged for dollars to pay back the national debt to the IMF.