Skip to Content

Search: {{$root.lsaSearchQuery.q}}, Page {{$}}

The Trickster as Transgressor in Traditional Korean Society

Charles La Shure (Hankuk University of Foreign Studies)

The trickster figure has long been a symbol of transgression in world literature. When trickster studies began with examinations of Native American tricksters in North America, scholars arrived at various explanations for the trickster's transgression. Radin saw the cycle of transgression and consequence as an evolutionary process by which the undifferentiated trickster became a socially conscious individual. Makarius saw the trickster as a mystical scape goat: society needed the power of the trickster's transgressive magic but could not accept the transgressor himself.

Since then, trickster figures have been identified in folk traditions around the world, and Korea is no exception. This paper will focus on three of those trickster figures: Bang Hakjung, Jeong Manseo, and Kim Seondal. These three characters hail from different socio-economic backgrounds and thus approach the contradictions of late Joseon-period society from different perspectives, but the methods they use are similar—sometimes so much so that tellers of the tales will substitute one character for another. While they share the same basic characteristics with tricksters around the world, unlike some they are almost always successful in their transgression of the boundaries of society, avoiding the consequences of their actions. Whether they are challenging the rigid class structure of Joseon's hierarchical society, flagrantly defying the Confucian ideal of the separation of the sexes, or simply laughing in the face of what everyone else considers the norm, their position as liminal figures allows them not only to transgress boundaries but to manipulate and use those boundaries against their victims. This paper will examine why these acts of transgression are almost always successful and discuss the significance of the relatively rare instances when they are not. It is hoped that doing so will provide a pre-modern foundation on which transgression in modern Korea may be understood.