Learning to Live Together through Folktales: on Telling Tales from Southeast Asia and Korea - Papers & Essays



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Learning to Live Together through Folktales: on Telling Tales from Southeast Asia and Korea


Collected from primary education curriculum textbooks in Southeast Asia and Korea, the twenty-seven folktales in Telling Tales from Southeast Asia and Korea present values and wisdom necessary for living together, both in the local and the global community. Folktales have been passed down over generations epitomizing and evolving the values and wisdom that have best endured the test of human experience. This article briefly introduces tales from the 12 countries represented in the collection along the theme of EIU (Education for International Understanding) which is the mandate of the Asia-Pacific Centre of Education for International Understanding (APCEIU) that strives to build up the capacity of education for a peaceful and sustainable future in the Asia-Pacific region.

Keywords: folktale, tale, EIU, APCEIU, curriculum, community, Southeast Asia, Korea, YANG Hye-Ran

From Mouth to School Curriculum

One of the most frequently quoted verses by an English poet of vision is written as follows:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour. 1

Even if what the poet intended to emphasize was holding a vision to see the godly realm beyond the visible sphere, the same lines can be applied and introduced to explain why human beings have told stories to children since a time before they even remember, why some of the stories have been told for ages, and why some of the stories so passed-down have been shared in a wider community than the one of their origin. One simple answer to those questions may be found in a repetition of the above-quoted lines: with a handful of words, after being told for generations, stories shed the light for human minds to awaken to a fuller understanding of their identity in relation to the wider circles of beings in the universe beyond the visible world. 2

Education begins with our birth long before schooling begins. We learn how to maintain our status as human beings physically and socially from family and community. Education as such is conducted orally, mostly without a written text. When parents have critical messages, they encapsulate them in a story to make sure of their delivery to their children. When the messages pass to a wider audience than the family and the longer history than the present, the story goes on and evolves into various versions of folktales just as myths are told over and over in many ways across the regions and generations. Therefore we all agree, from experience, that the memory lasts longer when taught through stories since stories deliver messages more holistically. When stories are communicated effectively we learn how to make ourselves understood to others.

Some of the stories have been adopted into the national education curricula in different countries in the form of 'folktales' for the purpose of life skills learning and "increasing knowledge of one's own culture" 3. Folktales can be taught within the school curriculum as a guide for students to obtain a clearer understanding of themselves within their community and a supplier of the wisdom or creativity to assist with and overcome the daily human struggles of life. However, a no less meaningful reason for learning folktales is to provide an awakening to some interconnection across regions and cultural boundaries. Since all cultures, "like individuals, exist in relation to one another" and they "influence one another, (and) mutually define one another" 4 long-living stories, like folktales, store much to be communicated across generations and cultures for the sake of living in mutual understanding in pursuit of the common good for the larger community. Education for International Understanding (EIU) has pursued the same objective since 2000 when the Asia-Pacific Centre of Education for International Understanding (APCEIU) was established in Seoul under an agreement between UNESCO and the Republic of Korea.

Telling Folktales from EIU perspectives

For the purpose of widening common understandings for students from different cultures to play in, the folktales within the primary education curricula of 12 countries (11 ASEAN member countries and the Republic of Korea) were collected in one volume in 2010, entitled Telling Tales from Southeast Asia and Korea: Teachers' Guide. The collection was initiated by APCEIU, and produced in collaboration with the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization (SEAMEO) Secretariat, and two regional centers: the Regional Center for Archaeology and Fine Art (SPAFA) and the Regional Center for Educational Innovation and Technology (INNOTECH).

Twenty seven folktales from the 12 different nations were chosen as the material with which to weave mutual understandings and empathic communications. The folktales have been selected by teachers and scholars from the 12 countries with a view to cultivating cultural richness and value-shaping vision. Apart from the stories, two guiding articles are introduced at the beginning of the book for teachers' use: one on the pedagogical significance of folktales in education and the other on how to tell the stories in the classroom as an amateur teacher-storyteller. No less important, cultural tips are given at the end of each story in case of hindrances arising out of cultural barriers. The English language level is softened to the level of non-English mother tongue primary school students. So, they could be adopted either for reading or telling depending on the subjects and the level of fluency.

The stories in the collection are grouped into five batches: about animals, food, nature, people, and places, along with one at the opening and another at the closing. To taste a random selection of them, readers will be awakened by the opening story 5 from Thailand which teaches us that our tiny actions can be easily translated to others and influence one another for worse, especially when we are in positions of leadership. Arguments and fights caused by a drop of honey on the floor never come to the attention of the ruler who had dropped the honey through his own mistake. When things went beyond control, the careless ruler's eyes opened up to his fault and led him to declare that "the drop of honey was our problem."

If we agree that love is the prime value of humankind, the way of embodying that value is diverse from one people to another. In the story of Shim Cheong 6 from Korea, children serving their parents are the leading motif. The devoted daughter goes through the well-known cycle of suffering, death, and salvation in return for her sacrifice of herself to open her widowed father's eyes. Her devotion ends up doubling the blessings imparted to her by both opening her father's eyes and winning for her the social status as the queen of the country.

Another tale from Indonesia 7 is also woven around the child-parent relationship. Unlike Shim Cheong, Malin Kundang refuses to accept the squalidness of his poor mother and betrays the devoted care of his mother by turning away from her in public. The betrayal results in a fatal catastrophe for him: all his property, honor, and his life are swallowed up by a sea storm. A similar story has been presented from in Brunei too in this collection. 8

In addition to the value of family love, a few more common aspects are noticeable between these stories. In all the stories the natural environment is closely influenced by a transition in the state of the human community. The only child, Shim Cheong's sacrifice for her father's eyesight brings the sea back into calmness, benefits the people who live on fishing, and turns into the miraculous salvation of Shim Cheong by a lotus flower. Similarly, the "ungrateful" son Malin Kundang is punished by the ocean. Natural protection and disaster are presented not as isolated non-human monsters but as powers that somehow react to or intervene in human affairs for the sake of justice. Readers must be reminded by these tales to the concert between human and cosmic values which must be deepseated in learning about sustainable development.

Just as the suffering of marine fishing was able to be treated by human love, so was farming the earth enabled by heavenly sympathy with a human's wish to feed his human peers. In a tale from Indonesia 9 an agreement is reached between the goddess of rice "Dewi Sri" and the first human farmer who stole the forbidden seed of rice from the heavenly world. Unlike the Greek myth about Prometheus, 10 the crime was forgiven and agriculture was instructed to humans by the heavenly wisdom that emphasized observing the balance between nature and human needs. Godly prohibition was not for monopoly's sake but for the sake of managing the seed to keep all the beings on earth in balance. The mountain fairy, Mariang Makilig, in a Philippine story 11 is also highly praised for being the guard of the mountain managing the balance between humans and nature.

A tale from Timor Leste 12 opens with a feasible tension between a boy and a crocodile but concludes with a solid reconciliation and a sacrificial transformation into the birth of a crocodile-shaped island which would become the land of Timor Leste. A few more tales narrate about the origins of nations, as shown in tales from Cambodia 13, Singapore 14 and Vietnam. 15 These tales tell about now only a glorious birth of nations but also the hardships and hopes entailed in the process of settling in a new territory till harmony is achieved with people, society and the natural environment.

Wisdoms and humor in folktales also "keep us connected to our traditions and help shape our culture". 16 The wisdom of a mouse deer 17 in a tale from Malaysia teaches us about the true wisdom that stands by compassion in resolving conflicts. An old wise man in a story from Myanmar 18 plants mangos not for himself but for generations to come. As he's eaten mangos planted by his grandfather, so would his children's children be eating the mangos that the old man is planting now. If our sense of sharing is concerned only with this generation, then this story becomes a reminder of the bigger scope of resource sharing that our ancestors envisioned.

Learning Diversity by Heart through Folktales

'Learning to live together' in the Asia-Pacific region should be achieved through learning "knowledge, skills and values that contribute to a spirit of solidarity and co-operation among diverse individuals and groups in society" 19 as the Guidelines have affirmed. As an organization mandated to rekindle an EIU that is conducive to a peaceful and sustainable future, APCEIU's priority was given to the dual sided potential we encounter in our region: the risk and richness of diversity. When appreciated in a sustainable way through education, diversity will enrich the source of "understanding", "respect", and "dialogue," relieving the risk of discrimination or delusion.

APCEIU believes that the most assuring way of managing diversity in such a peaceful and sustainable dynamic is learning otherness through the folktales of others. Learning by heart the folktales that are commonly shared across the region will make young people grow with understanding and respect for themselves and others 20. And that should lead them to "see a World in a Grain of Sand and a Heaven in a Wild Flower."


1 William Blake, "Auguries of Innocence" in Songs of Innocence (1789).

2 APCEIU et al,. "Preface" in Telling Tales from Southeast Asia and Korea: Teachers' Guide (2010).

3 APCEIU et al., Telling Tales from Southeast Asia and Korea : A Situation Analysis (2010) p14.

4 UNESCO, Investing in Cultural Diversity and Intercultural Dialogue: UNESCO World Report (2010) p55.

5 "A Drop of Honey" in Telling Tales p11-13.

6 "Shim Cheong, the Devoted Daughter" in Telling Tales p71-75.

7 "Malin Kundang" in Telling Tales p65-68.

8 "Nakhoda Manis" in Telling Tales p61-63.

9 "The Goddess of Rice" in Telling Tales P35-39.

10 According to Greek myth, Prometheus, a Titan, stole fire from Zeus and gave it to mortals. Zeus then punished him for his crime by having him bound to a rock while a great eagle ate his liver every day only to have it grow back to be eaten again the next day.

11 "Mariang Makiling, the Fairy of the Mountain" in Telling Tales p51-53.

12 "Crocodile Island" in Telling Tales p127-130.

13 "The Mon Prince and the Naga Princess" in Telling Tales p107-109.

14 "Singapura, the Lion city" in Telling Tales p119-121.

15 "The Dragon and the Fairy" in Telling Tales p133-134.

16 "The Role of Folktales Today" in Telling Tales P2.

17 "A Clever Mouse Deer" in Telling Tales p21-23.

18 "The Old Wise Man" in Telling Tales p81-82.

19 UNESCO, UNESCO Guides on Intercultural Education (2006) p20.

20 "Human Age" in Telling Tales p137-141. This story, commonly told in Laos and Thailand, gives an answer to why the aged turn powerless, forgetful, and funny but are still worth listening to.