Shamans and magicians of many cultures have long used the power of words to heal, whether it be through song, story or spell. One of the best loved fairy tales in Korea started as a shamanic story, a story that was supposed to have the power to heal eye problems, and even perhaps restore sight to the blind.
As the popularity of the shamanic practices decreased, the story that was once part of a sacred ritual moved into everyday life as a cultural story, one that can be read to children at night, and one of the five remaining Pansori’s (story-telling songs) that are considered among the most culturally important Korean art forms. As the story evolved it lost its attached healing associations and was embraced instead as a moralistic tale of the virtues of paternal devotion; filial piety being one of the most revered pinnacles of Korean society.
In the story, Sim Cheong is born to elderly parents. The labor proves to be too much for her mother, and she dies soon after, so Sim Cheong is left with only her father to care for her. As the years pass, Sim Cheong’s father begins to lose his sight, and being unable to work, is forced onto the streets to beg.
One day as her father is out begging, he falls into a ditch and is struggling to get up when a monk passes by. The monk looks at the old man flailing in the ditch and calls out to him, telling him that if he pays 300 bags of rice to his temple, the monks will offer up prayers to Buddha, and his sight will be returned. Excited by the thought of having his sight restored and being able to work and provide once again for his daughter, the old man accepted the monks offer and promised to pay him the rice.
The old man returned home and told Sim Cheong all that has passed between himself and the monk, but upon the retelling fell glum when he realized that not only did he lack the money to buy the rice he had promised, but he would have to break his promise to the monk as well. Sim Cheong looked at the disappointment on her father’s face and it broke her heart, so she resolved to find a way to get the payment of rice.
The next day while she was at the markets, she overheard several sailors lamenting that the King of the Sea was displeased with them, blowing up storms and wreaking havoc with their fleets. They needed a maiden sacrifice to appease him, but none of the families were willing to part with their precious daughters, leaving the men unable to sail. Sim Cheong approached them, and quickly struck a bargain: her life, in sacrifice, for 300 bags of rice.
Sim Cheong hurried home and presented her father with the rice. She lied to him and told him a tale of a wonderful rich man she had met, one that she was off to marry and live with happily ever after. Her father, while sad to see his beloved daughter go, was overjoyed at her good fortune and wished her well, promising to come visit her once his eyesight was restored, and so Sim Cheong took her leave and headed to the docks to meet her fate.
The sailors rowed Sim Cheong out to the deepest parts of the water and pushed her overboard into the deep blue ocean. She felt the icy fingers of the waters close around her, and then, nothing… nothing, until she was suddenly awoken by the bright lights of a magnificent underwater palace, home of the Sea King. The palace was a bustling, happy place, and the Sea King was both gracious and kind. But Sim Cheong was homesick, and with each passing day she grew more and more melancholy.
Sim Cheong missed her father terribly. Back on land, her father fared no better. He had given the rice to the monks, and then cruelly learned the true fate of his daughter from the local gossip. This was a double blow, since despite the monks’ sincere prayers, his vision remained un-restored.
Seeing Sim Cheong grow sadder, the Sea King took pity upon her. After being moved by her story, he gently placed her inside a giant lotus blossom and sent her floating up towards the surface. The beautiful flower was plucked from the ocean by the very same sailors who had sent Sim Cheong to her watery fate. Unaware of its contents, they took it home with them as a gift to their King. As the glorious blossom was placed in front of the throne, the delicate petals began to unfurl, revealing Sim Cheong. The King was entranced by the miraculous flower girl and asked her to marry him.
Sim Cheong agreed and made the King promise that in celebration of their vows, they would host a public banquet where all the poor, disabled and blind beggars would be welcomed. The King agreed and on the night of their wedding opened the gates of his palace for the helpless and downtrodden. The new Queen waited behind a curtain, watching in hopes that her father would arrive. Finally, he appeared, and Sim Cheong called out to him, ‘Father, it is me’.
The old man looked up on hearing his beloved daughter. Somehow, in that magical moment, the Benevolent Buddhas smiled kindly on Sim Cheong’s elderly father, and for the first time in many, many long years, he opened his eyes.
For the first time, blinded for so long, he could see. He saw the beautiful palace; he saw the throngs of people around him, and most importantly, he saw Sim Cheong, the daughter who had selflessly given herself unto the Ocean in the hopes that one day, he would see the world anew.
Like a newborn, Sim Cheong’s father did see the world anew, through the virtue of his daughter’s faithful sacrifice.
Is this good medicine? Possibly…Shamanic at least.
Is this good folklore? Probably…at least it has a happy ending,
Is this a good metaphor?
I think it is.
But if you doubt that, that’s okay.
On the other hand, if you trust in it, maybe that’s better.
In the meantime, I remain grateful for everything I can see…
Especially when it basks,
In the radiance of love.
Good on you, Sim Cheong.
More recently, K-Pop star Hwa Sa has made her own reference to Shim Cheong, in her track Twit.
In this song, she berates a lover for putting her on a pedestal, making repeated references to “delicate Shim Cheong”.
So, Shim Cheong lives on, even in K-Pop…