The Three Questions*

translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl

Click play to listen to a narration of this story.
Narration provided by Stephen Kim



Long ago, there was a father who lived together with his three sons. They had a hard life. They had tried again and again to make their living by farming, but failed miserably with every crop, and now they were so poor the only way they could stay alive was by making sandals out of straw.

One day, the youngest son declared to his father, “I’m going to go to Heaven to ask the Jade Emperor why our lot in life must be so hard.”

“Don’t be a fool,” said his father. “A mere mortal cannot enter the Heavenly Kingdom. You will never find your way.”

“I will go anyway,” said the son. He made himself a staff or iron and resolved that he would walk until it was worn down to nothing. “Surely, by then I will have reached the Heavenly Kingdom,” he said, and he set off.

He walked in one direction until, by and by, late one evening, he found himself by the sea. He looked for someplace to eat and spend the night, and he found an elegant house. He called out for the owner, but he was met by the maid.

“I need a place to spend the night,” said the youth.

The maid welcomed him in and told him he could have the room by the gate. When she came to serve him his evening meal, he learned that she lived alone with the owner of the house, who was a young widow.

“She is curious to meet you,” said the maid. “We hardly ever have visitors out here by the sea.”

“I would be happy to meet her,” said the youth. After he had eaten, the young widow came to him. She was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. She asked him where he was from and where he was going.

“I am the youngest son of a poor family. We could not make a living as farmers, and we have been forced into the lowly profession of sandal-making. I am going to the Heavenly Kingdom for an audience with the Jade Emperor to ask him why we have such a harsh fate.”

“Could you also ask the Jade Emperor a question for me?” said the young widow.

“Tell me what it is, and I will ask,” said the youth.

“Every time I get married, my husband dies. Please ask why that must be so. Promise you will bring the answer back for me.”

The youth promised. When he set off the next day, he reached the coast. Since he could not walk any farther in that direction, he wandered up the shoreline until he found a small boat. The weather had turned ominous. When he climbed into the boat and raised the sail, a sudden gust of wind blew him far out into the ocean, where he saw an island jutting out of the waves like a mountain peak.

He landed on a small sandy beach and went ashore. Suddenly, a voice said, “Who dares to set foot on my island?”

The youth looked around in alarm. There was a strange creature whose hide had the rough texture of a straw mat. Its body was immensely long and turned back onto itself—it was a giant old serpent.

“I am on my way to the Heavenly Kingdom,” said the youth. “I have a question for the Jade Emperor.”

“Then I will help you,” said the serpent, “but you must also ask a question for me. Ask the Jade Emperor why I cannot ascend to Heaven as a dragon though my time for transformation has long passed.”

“I shall ask him,” said the youth.

The serpent opened his great mouth and exhaled a thick mist that spread like clouds into the air. Where the sun struck the mist, a dazzling rainbow appeared, arching from the island up into Heaven.

“Ride the rainbow bridge,” said the serpent, and when the youth stepped onto it, he was transported immediately to the Heavenly Kingdom, where he emerged in the throne room of the palace. He bowed before the awesome presence of the Jade Emperor.

“Who are you? And why are you here?” said the Jade Emperor.

“I am the son of a poor farmer,” said the youth. “I have come to ask you why my family’s lot in life is so harsh. Why must we fail at farming and stoop to making straw sandals to keep ourselves alive?”

“That is your fate,” the Jade Emperor replied. “Had I given you comfortable lives, you would all have died an early death.”

“But why would we have died early?” asked the youth.

“I can tell you no more. Even I do not control all the workings of fate.”

“If you will not tell me more about my lot, then I have two more questions for you,” said the youth. “Tell me why the woman who lives by the ocean must always be a widow. Why do her husbands keep dying?”

“She could live long and be happy if she only married a man who has a magic jewel,” said the Jade Emperor. “All other men who marry her will die.”

“And the old serpent who lives on the island—why can he not become a dragon and ascend to Heaven? He says his time had come long ago.”

“He is trapped by his own greed,” said the Jade Emperor. “A dragon may possess only one magic jewel, but that greedy fool insists on keeping two. That is forbidden by the Law of Heaven.”

The youth thanked the Jade Emperor. Though he had not received the answer he had come for, he had gotten the answers to the two others. He returned to earth on the rainbow bridge to find the serpent waiting for him.

“What did the Jade Emperor tell you?” the serpent asked.

The youth bowed respectfully and said, “Master dragon, the Jade Emperor told me that you must remain a snake as long as your greed makes you cling to the two magic jewels. It is forbidden by the Law of Heaven for a dragon to have more than one.”

“Well then, the solution is simple,” said the serpent. “Here, you take one.” And the moment he gave the jewel to the youth, there was a blaze of light. The old serpent transformed into a magnificent dragon and rode a rainbow bridge into Heaven.

The youth sailed back until he reached the shore from which he had departed, and he found his way back to the house of the young widow. She was overjoyed to see him again, and she ran to him to embrace him.

“What did he say?” she asked. “Why must I be a widow?”

“Your husbands died because they did not have a magic jewel,” he explained. “But you will enjoy a long and happy life if you marry a man who possesses one.”

“But where would I ever find such a man?” the widow asked.

The youth smiled and showed her the magic jewel the old serpent had given him. “Marry me,” he said.

The youth returned home with a beautiful wife, much to the amazement of his father and brothers, and all of them lived long and happy lives, having already suffered all the hardships Heaven had fated for them.

* In old Korea, people wore disposable straw sandals. Distances were often measured by how many pairs of sandals one wore out along the way. To make a living by weaving straw sandals would have been a sign of abject poverty.

reproduced courtesy of Dr. Dongwol Kim Roberson, Ed.D.

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