2013 Sejong Writing Competition

Winning Entries :: Essays :: Junior first place
The Significance of the Rabbit's Liver

Though “The Rabbit’s Liver” may seem to be a childish tale at first glance, there is great knowledge to be gained from the traditional Korean folktale if readers are willing to prod beneath the surface. What appears to be a clever tale of a rabbit who manages to outwit his captors represents aspects of Korean culture and literature of which most readers are not familiar. Similar to the Western counterpart, Brer Rabbit, the hero of the story represents the idealistic commoner who compensates what little wealth he has with his abundance in wit.

I was introduced to this tale several years ago, when a local troupe had staged a traditional pansori performance of Sugungga, an adaptation of the folktale. Before beginning the show, one of the lead vocalists explained that the story was originally told among the common people of old Korea, who lived under a feudal system that granted them few rights. Similar to the slaves of early America, such stories as Sugungga were meant to be lighthearted tales in celebration of the triumph of wit over wealth. They were, in a way, the commoners’ way of speaking out against the injustice of their social system.

I was tickled with curiosity by this short prologue. When relating the anthropomorphic characters to their social counterparts, I discovered the rabbit to be one of the most complex members of the story. What the poor working class of Korea had lacked in wealth, they had abounded in their love for nonsense and intellectual creativity. The rabbit was representative of such ideals. When he was first offered a ride to the underwater kingdom of the Dragon King, the rabbit questioned his options. “‘I would love to visit,’ said the Rabbit. ‘But I can’t swim.’” Only after his inhibitions had been settled did he accept the turtle’s invitation to descend into the magnificent depths of the Southern Sea.

Nevertheless, upon his arrival, what majesties he had beheld dissipated into fright, for the rabbit was as quick to assess betrayal as he was to jump on an opportunity. In a swift move, he reversed the odds in his favor, insisting before the Dragon King’s full court that his liver had been left at home. He requested that the turtle “take back to the surface” so that he would “gladly return with liver.”

Up until this point, the turtle had been shown as a loyal and humble servant to the Dragon King, even willing to allow the rabbit a ride back to the surface to retrieve his liver. Upon their arrival, however, the rabbit stranded his companion in his path to safety, though not without a last ridicule. “Did you think I was really going to let your stupid Dragon King cut me open and take my liver?” he asked before escaping into the forest. It appeared as though the turtle was foolish for having entrusted the rabbit with such a degree of confidence.

Our humble subject was the sole of the king’s minions willing to risk his life to travel in search of the prized rabbit. Throughout the story, he remained honest and trusting of the rabbit, even offering to bring it back to the surface so that it could “return with liver.” At the conclusion, however, the turtle was mocked for the very virtues that had distinguished it from the other animals. Although it seems unfair that a character with such integrity should befall such dire consequences as to return to his master without his prize, the reader must remember that there is a fine line drawn between loyalty and naiveté. A loyal subject is one who is able to do as his master wishes albeit with enough common sense as to decide whether his own interests are in jeopardy. A naïve subject cannot tell the difference between something told in true earnest and one told in lies, and often loses to his gullibility. As much as commoners delighted over their rabbit’s triumphs, the story warns of the downfalls of complete obedience and the negative aspect on placing too much loyalty and trust on any one person.

During a time when there were few opportunities for the working class to rise above their social ranking, such folktales as “The Rabbit’s Liver” were threads that bound together people of different communities. Just as I had experienced when the performers of the pansori had sung the praises of the sharp rabbit, every individual—no matter how varied in their past—was intertwined with the flow of the words and the humor of the tale. Every member of the audience, from adult to child, cringed as they heard of the rabbit’s dilemma and cheered along as their hero hopped away to safety. Every person, young and old, contributed bouts of laughter at the snide comments the rabbit made towards the turtle.

Such is the ultimate significance of folktales. Although certainly a great form of entertainment, folktales inevitably bind together generations of readers and storytellers. Presented between layers of historical anecdotes—both amusing and insightful—they provide a means of communication that is capable of eternally thriving. It matters not whether the reader understands that rabbits are revered creatures in Eastern mythology—the message is as easily portrayed to an illiterate as it is to the scholar of Korean culture. The countless volumes of wisdom that can be gained from the single telling of "The Rabbit's Liver" are accessible whether or not the reader cares to gain the insight. Just as a sense of humor brings together an audience, a good folktale lingers in their minds long after the final applause has been made.