Teaching Traditional Values through Folk Literature in Korea

Article excerpt


Although Korea is a modernized nation, the underlying beliefs and daily practices of its people are grounded in traditional values. Many of the important values that Korean parents try to instill in their children have their foundation in Confucianism. Since the Choson Dynasty in 1392, Confucianism has been the dominant force shaping Korean cultural values and social structures (Park & Cho, 1995), and it continues to have a profound effect on Koreans' daily lives. These values are taught in large part using folk literature, a collection of tales passed down through generations by word of mouth and, more recently, through printed and digital materials. Korean parents and educators believe that folk literature is an effective way to teach traditional values because it reflects the thoughts and values that have guided the lives of ordinary people for hundreds of years. Folk literature contains unique lessons about being righteous and ideal humans, capable of making sound moral judgments. This is a goal that remains very important, even in modern-day Korea. The fundamental values that permeate Korean L folk literature are filial piety, honesty, good deeds, and wisdom (Louie, 2005; Yoon, 2005).

Through such folk literature, children learn that individual merit and worth are determined by a person's actions and ability to display them. Folktales usually conclude with rewards for virtuous characters who exhibited traditional values. These ideal human values are considered important to possess, more so than ever now that Korea has become a fast-developing, highly technical and capitalistic country, In fact, as the world becomes more of a global community, the positive values and sound moral judgments portrayed in Korean folk literature are pertinent to children all over the world. This article describes the trends of Korean folk literature, values taught through Korean folk literature, and critical thinking activities to use with folk literature.


Folktales are one of the world's oldest teaching tools and can be found in all societies (Spagnoli, 1995). Before Korea developed its own written language, folktales, told orally and created by the common people, were used to awaken children's minds and teach the importance of good deeds and moral judgment. They were passed down orally from generation to generation, and spread by migrating peoples, travelers, and even captives. Storytellers often altered tales, depending on their own recollections and the particular audience or locale. In the 15th century, Korea's unique alphabet, "Hangul," regarded as the world's most scientific and easy-to-learn writing system (Louie, 2005), was developed, enabling preservation of these folktales in written form.

Educators' interest in Korean children's books began in the 1920s as part of a national movement to protect children's rights. After Korea designated the fifth of May as Children's Day in 1922, educators became interested in writing literature specifically for children (Kwon, 2003). However, speaking and writing in Korean were condemned by Japan during the colonial period from 1910 to 1945. Once Korea gained its independence in 1945, authors began publishing the traditional folk literature in Korean. You (2003) found that the use of folk literature to convey moral messages became more common in the late 1960s. The three types of folktales that flourished from 1970s into the 1990s were fairy tales, fables, and pourquoi tales (tales that explained natural phenomena).

Today, folk literature is widely available throughout Korea and provides children access to the country's rich culture that reflects its 5,000-year history of cherishing family, honor, trust between friends, and hard work. It portrays values and beliefs that have guided ordinary people's lives for many centuries (Kim, 2004). These include beliefs about nature; the relationship between man and nature; this world and the hereafter; and human relationships within family, a clan, a close-knit community, and a rigidly hierarchical society as a whole (Grayson, 2006; Oh & Kim, 2007). …