2024 Sejong Writing Competition

Winning Entries :: Essays :: Junior second place
TITLE: The Tiger and the Persimmon: Coincidence or Pure Wisdom?

Folktales hold significance in our cultures. Not only do they give us a peek into the life of our ancestors, but also teach morals for us to reflect on and use in life. Retold by Heinz Insu Fenkl, “The Tiger and the Persimmon” is a traditional Korean folktale that illustrates the importance of remaining calm and figuring out a plan when under dangerous circumstances.

The story is set in a small, isolated village, where a fearful tiger from the mountains comes down for food. One day, he passed by a house, starving, and spotted the perfect dinner ---- a crying baby. Just as he was going to leap into the room and tear the poor infant into pieces, the tiger heard the baby’s mother saying: “Look! A fox! Stop crying or he’ll hear you can come eat you up!” to the baby, and after it didn’t work, she said “Look! It’s a bear! He’s opening his huge jaws to eat you up!”. But her child wouldn’t even pause for a second, and the mother then cried: “Look! The big tiger from the mountain is here, right outside the window!” Still, it made no use. The tiger found this astonishing, as he had never seen anything not afraid of him. But he was so hungry that he decided to eat the baby anyways. Right when he was about to pounce, the baby’s mother finally cried, “Look! A persimmon!”, and he suddenly stopped throwing a tantrum. Mistaking the persimmon as a more terrifying beast than him, the tiger ran away in panic.

When I first read “The Tiger and the Persimmon”, it was funny to see the tiger getting scared by persimmons, as usually tigers are portrayed as powerful and almighty. This story presented a different side of these apex predators to the audience ---- they can be foolish too! However, after reading this folktale a few more times, I noticed something unusual: It doesn’t seem to teach us a lesson. If that’s true, what made the tale so special that it’s passed on from generation to generation?

This led to many hypotheses. For example, since the baby stopped crying with a treat, and not threats by his mother, could the story be teaching us to reason with others the right way? No, or else the tiger wouldn’t be a necessary character. Could it be telling us not to form preconceived ideas like the tiger, who assumed the baby wasn’t afraid of him (or foxes and bears), but the persimmon? Or maybe it encourages us to think more logically, which the tiger also didn’t do: he expected a persimmon to be around when there showed no signs of a fox or a bear? No, the tiger’s is antagonist of the story! Why would the creator of this tale want us to learn from how the bad guy could have succeeded and ate the baby?

After thinking about it for a long time, I finally landed on, in my opinion, the true but hidden message this folktale conveys, and realized how much depth this seemingly short story holds. I believe the baby’s mother knew the tiger was right outside their window. She either saw him from the beginning or after mentioning the fox and bear. It wasn’t a coincidence. She knew he was going to eat her or the baby.

If those things the mother said to her baby were a coincidence, the story would entirely be laughing at the tiger’s gullibility for tricking himself ---- there wouldn’t be any meaning. It was all part of her plan to scare the tiger away! When seeing such a menacing beast ready to attack at any moment, she remained collected and resolved the problem by using the “information gap” animals have about babies.

Her baby hasn’t made much sense of the world around him yet, thus knew nothing about foxes, bears, or tigers. Persimmons are common in Korea, so the baby probably tried it already and knew it was good. Thus, he didn’t stop crying when his mother mentioned the animals, but stopped when he heard “persimmon”. However, the tiger knew what foxes, bears, and tigers are, and would mistake the baby as brave because he never encountered one. He also didn’t know what a persimmon is, but would assume it’s an animal since the mother previously mentioned three animals. So, I believe the mother was very wise and psychologically manipulated the tiger to save her child.

Surprisingly, the character that I currently relate with the most is the tiger. This is because I’m scared of things unknown to me and assume they are terrible, which is what the tiger thought of dried persimmons. I also tend to run away from “danger” even though it’s bad for me, which the tiger did too as he ran back to the mountains with an empty stomach and will probably starve through the night. For example, fitting into a new extracurricular class or going to a musical festival when I just started playing an instrument can cause me great apprehension. I would keep thinking about all the possible bad outcomes, stressing over every single detail. Then, concluding that it’s too scary to participate in, I would stay at home and wait until the activity ends. This troubles me because I gave up great learning and practicing opportunities that can be helpful in the future. So after comprehending this folktale and reflecting on my own life, I strive to be more like the baby’s mother. When facing her danger, which is life-threatening and far scarier than mine, she didn’t run away. Instead, the mother carried out a plan, and it came out just as she wished: the tiger left, bringing peace and safety to the village. So… extracurriculars and music festivals might not be that bad after all.