3,000 years of East Asian history in Korea, China, Japan, Mongolia, and Russia
A Long Way from Home


Long, long ago, when earth and the heavens were one, the five beasts stood at the four corners of the world;  the Blue Dragon in the East, the White Tiger in the West, the Red Phoenix in the South and the Tortoise (Black Warrior) and Snake in the North.

In that ancient time, when animals could speak like humans, a divine god spirit called Hwan-in, king of the eastern heavens, ruled that part of the world where the morning is born each day. The king sent his son, Hwan-ung, to earth in the eastern land and instructed him to build a new country there. Hwan-in's son possessed great power, honor and wisdom and was very much loved and trusted by his father. Hwan-in had great confidence in his son and foresaw that one day his son would make a great ruler for the eastern land.

Hwan-ung descended from heaven with three divine spirits:  the Teacher, who creates the clouds;  the General, who drives the winds;  and the Governor, who brings the rains. The souls of 3,000 other spirits, an entire race of people, accompanied them to earth. Hwan-ung gathered his followers near the shade of an ancient birch tree on the slope of Taebaek-san, a rugged 9,100 foot peak in northern Korea. There they began a new nation. Hwan-ung, son of the king of the eastern heaven, ruled his new nation from Shinshi, the "divine city," where he governed some 360 important matters including harvest, life, and punishment. Treated kindly and justly, Hwan-ung's people lived happily and prospered in their new land.

Not far from Shinshi, in a small cave near Taebaek-san, lived a bear and a great Siberian tiger, king of the beasts on the Korean peninsula. Lying together in the grass on the mountainside one morning, the bear and the tiger spoke enviously of the humans living so happily under Hwan-ung's benevolent rule.

"How I wish we could live like men," the bear sighed.

"Do you think there is any way we could become men?" the tiger responded. Leaving their mountain meadow, the two animals decided to walk down to Shinshi and speak with Hwan-ung himself about the matter.

"Hwan-ung, we both wish to become men. Could you help us?" asked the bear and the tiger.

"Yes, there is a way," said Hwan-ung, "but it is very difficult. Before you decide to go through with this, I must warn you. It will require great patience."

"We do not care how difficult it is," the bear and the tiger anxiously replied, "we believe that we possess the required patience and we are willing to try."

After some thought about the unusual request, Hwan-ung made the necessary preparations and gave them his blessing and their instructions. The instructions were simple enough:  they were to eat nothing but the 20 garlic cloves and bundle of mugwort he gave each of them for food, and they had to stay secluded in their cave for 100 days without sunlight.

"If you will do as I instruct and pray earnestly," said Hwan-ung, "then you will become men." The tiger and the bear agreed to the conditions and returned to their mountain cave to begin their ordeal.

Being wild animals accustomed to freely roaming the mountains, it was not long before the close confinement of the cave began to affect their desire. As time wore on it became harder for them to endure. After about 20 days had passed, the tiger's patience neared its limit.

"Try to concentrate on the goal and do not think of being hungry," said the bear, trying to encourage his friend. The bear's advice had little effect on the tiger's growing impatience.

"I have had almost all of this I can endure," grumbled the tiger. "I can wait no longer. I am getting out. I don't care about becoming a man after all. If I wait 80 more days, I shall have starved to death anyway." Failing his trial of patience, the weakened tiger limped out of the cave to find food. From that day, the tiger became a fierce creature who was treated as the greatest enemy of man.

Left alone in the cave, the bear reminded himself repeatedly of his desire to become human. "It cannot be that hard," he thought. "After all, I spend the long winter months in hibernation." The temptation to leave was great, but the bear began to pray all the more and endured his hardship. Then, sometime during the night on the one hundredth day, a wondrous transformation took place in the cave. As dawn broke the following morning, a lovely young woman emerged from the dark cave and stepped into the fresh air and sunshine where she appeared even more beautiful. The young woman looked toward heaven and offered thanks to the gods. She then went immediately to Shinshi to thank Hwan-ung for his blessing.

Hwan-ung was stunned by the sight of this beautiful young woman. Standing before him she said, "I am the one incarnate from the bear with your blessing. I wish there were some way I could repay your kindness," she told him. Hwan-ung gave her the name Ung-yo, which means, "the girl incarnated from a bear." Ung-yo grew more beautiful with each passing day. Her beauty so impressed Hwan-ung that he proposed to her and soon married her.

Not long after their marriage, Ung-yo gave birth to a son in the shade of a birch tree on the slopes of Taebaek-san. The boy was called Tangun, Lord of the Birch Trees, a name taken from the word tangul, or medicine man. "In the Kogum-ki it is written that Hwan-in is God (chon), Hwan-ung is the spirit (sin), and Tangun is the god-man (sin-in);  these three constitute divine trinity (sam-sin)."

After Hwan-ung's departure from Earth in the 25th year of the reign of Emperor Yao in China, 2333 BC, Tangun Wanggom, the first great ruler of Korea, united the scattered six tribes in the northern part of the peninsula and there set up the first acknowledged kingdom in Korea. Tangun called his land Choson, a name that means "Land of the Morning Calm," "Land of the Dawn," or "Land of the Morning Freshness," and he established his capital at Asadal (now P'yong'yang). From there, Tangun Wanggom, the father of Korea, taught his simple-hearted people their first lessons in government, marriage, agriculture, cooking, housing, the worship of god, and all matters of right-living. Tangun ruled Choson at the time when, on the other side of the earth, Cheops of the Fourth Dynasty at Memphis had just completed construction of his Great Pyramid in Egypt and Hammurabi lived in Babylon working out his legal code. It was an age of great masters, a period to be remembered for all time.

The rational, logical mind quickly dismisses such legends as meaningless mythology, an indication of Korean totem worship. Much of what Westerners find so irrational and inconsistent with legends such as this represents the whole foundation of the Korean culture and it is the key to understanding their history. The ancient people of Choson did not question the significance of the legend's underlying truth, that a deity had desired to become human of his own volition. Unlike Westerners, Koreans never considered the earth as a place of exile for the gods, or a place where sinners were sent to do penance. They believed their land and their nation comprised a wonderful dream, a dream so good that even the deities and animals wanted to live there. Koreans felt gratified to have chosen so beautiful a place for their home. It is said even the ancient Chinese expressed wonder at Korea's beauty, summing it up in the verse:  "Would rather live in Korea and see Kumgangsan (Diamond Mountains)." Koreans have always preferred life in the present, no matter how sordid, to life in some imagined, unknown heaven, and much of their literature reflects such thinking. One proverb declares a preference for "an earthly field of dung to the wonders of the afterworld."

Once known as the "Eastern Land of Courtesy," Korea seldom cultivated overseas interests, never invaded its neighbors, nor sought development outside given boundaries. The Korean's excessive adulation of their homeland and their aversion to coveting the territories of others eventually invited foreign invasion, subjugation, and a long period of colonial suffering. Koreans have preserved the Tangun legend and its psychological foundation through the centuries as a source of spiritual comfort in times of crisis. Koreans feel a solemn duty to pass on such beliefs and the pride of a people with a long history and ancient culture to succeeding generations.

Despite incomplete evidence to support it, many archaeologists and historians accept the Tangun legend's founding date of 2333 BC as correct. Even ancient Chinese records written twenty or thirty centuries before Christ, mention the name of Choson. Whether legend or fact, somewhere, sometime, the power and personality of a man called Tangun made a deep and lasting impression on the Korean people. Consider Kim Saeng, Korea's most famous calligrapher. Born in 711 AD, Kim Saeng earnestly prayed to God for his special gift. One day an angel appeared to him in a vision and said, "I am Tangun, and am come down to bless you according to the longings of your heart."

Solgo, another of Korea's greatest artists, also prayed for years that he might be divinely taught. One day an old man visited him and said,

"I am the god-man Tangun. Moved by your earnest prayers, I have come to give you the divinely pointed brush."

From that day, Solgo was a master artist. It has been said that he once painted a pine tree of such realistic beauty on a temple gateway that swallows beat their little breasts against the stone wall trying to alight in its branches. Solgo was so thankful for his gift that he painted the aged Tangun more than a thousand times. Icons picture Tangun as a kindly old Chinese-Korean man with white hair, usually smiling, sometimes accompanied by his wife, and usually attended by a pet tiger.

In the ninety-ninth and last year of Tangun's reign, an old and weary tiger wandered the slopes of Taebaek-san. There he met Tangun, the father of Korea. The two ancient figures sat together and spoke of the past.

"Before I leave this world, there is something I must ask you," said the old tiger. "It was my father who asked the blessing of Hwan-ung to become human, but because he could not wait, he remained a tiger. Must all tigers live forever in shame because of his impatience?"

Tangun replied that it need not be so and granted him an opportunity to redeem his fate. He explained to the old tiger the difficulty of the request, but if he agreed to the terms, Tangun would grant him one chance to redeem his family name.

"Before you agree," said Tangun, "you must understand that for you the price will be greater than I asked of your father. You will experience the joy and delight of being human;  you will know the elation of realizing a dream, and the satisfaction of achieved ambition;  you will bask in the beautiful sights, sounds and fragrances of this land;  you will savor the full measure of a good meal, the comfort of a warm fire, and the peaceful sleep of an infant;  you will experience the love and happiness of having a family.

"But realize this old one;  no dream comes without a price. You will also know the sorrows of being human;  you will feel the pain and hunger of the poor and suffer all the brutality and terror that man can impose on his own kind;  you will see ugliness, hear screams of pain and hopeless cries of desperation and come to know the smell of death;  you will feel the utter despair of dreams lost and the frustration of ambitions denied;  you will know the loneliness of an outcast and the solitude of a hermit. You my old friend, will live the long history of my people."

Speaking in a soft, low voice, Tangun said that a time was soon coming when men and animals would no longer be able to communicate with each other as they once did. Gently stroking the big cat's neck, Tangun gave the tiger the power to become human, but only for short periods of time. "You shall not grow older and you will not die," said Tangun. "You shall see and experience and remember all that your father will never know. If you accept this task, there will be no turning back. If you let impatience get control of you as it did your father, your kind will forever be cursed as untrustworthy and no man or animal shall think of you as a friend. The powers I give you shall be yours until Choson becomes a sovereign kingdom and its people become masters of their own destiny. When they achieve their goal my old friend, you shall achieve yours. I cannot tell you how long that will take, that is up to them. Spreading his arms outward toward the valleys below, he added, "All they need is here."

Tangun gave him his name, the Tiger of Shinshi  , and set forth the tasks he has been fulfilling for more than three-thousand years. Had the ancient tiger known what the future held for him and the Korean people, he might not have been so eager to accept the challenge. But accept it he did and he has kept his word to this day.

He is the Tiger of Shinshi, the Warden of Three Thousand Li, Defender of Choson, and Guardian of the Golden Thread. He is the strength and cunning the Korean people have used to defend their homeland. He protects and keeps alive the long and ancient history of Korea and his teachings pass this legacy to each new generation. He is the comforter who brings peace to the spirits of Korea's ancestors and who safeguards and protects the Golden Thread, that which ties and binds the Korean people together throughout time, a thread that must never be broken.

So begins the story of Korea in the Eye of the Tiger ....


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A Long Way from Home