Lunar New Year and the straw man

Jaewoong in the Smithsonian Institute. Annual Report of the Regents of the Smithsonian Institute (1891)

“Old sayings are generally shadows of skeletons of things that once had a being,” declared a newspaper article from the late 1880s. The article was about a Korean artifact that had been added to the Smithsonian Institution or museum and was on display. The artifact was, of course, a Jaewoong (재웅), a doll made from rice straw with some Korean coins (cash) placed within its stomach.The newspaper went on to explain that “a straw man” in modern English was “something worthless set up in the place of something valuable, or else [meant as] a ‘scape-goat.’” The Korean jaewoong was literally a perfect example – a straw man that served as a scape-goat.According to the newspaper article, during the French-Korean conflict:“In 1886 when the French invaded Corea, during the siege of Tong Chin the frightened Coreans made hundreds of straw men, dressed them in their own clothing, and stood them within range of the enemy’s artillery, doubtless expecting the images to suffer death in their stead and that they themselves would thus escape.”The obvious injustice of the characterization is somewhat softened by the newspaper’s glaring inaccuracies such as the date of the French-Korean conflict (1866), the origin of the coins inside the jaewoong, and how these jaewoong-making sorcerers could be found in almost any public place.In 1902, George Heber Jones, a missionary who was very informed about the supernatural in Korea, wrote:

“Each New Year the Koreans manufacture out of straw effigies which they use to carry away the bad luck of the house. You will find them all over the country thrown out in the fields or along the roads. Often you will find a piece of money tied to them. This is the bribe given to the effigy to carry away the ill-fortune. The effigy is also used at other times in connection with sickness, being clad in the garment of the sick person and bribed to carry away the disease.”At about the same time, Horace N. Allen, a missionary-turned-diplomat, also wrote about the jaewoong. According to him, whenever a man experienced a rash of bad luck or poor health, he would place Korean coins (cash) “where the eyes should be on the image and then lay it out on the roadside. Some poor outcast whose luck is so bad that it cannot well be made worse, will take up the image to get the coin for a drink of wine, and thus the bad luck is transferred to him.”In February 1903, The Korea Review, a magazine published in Seoul, provided an “authentic case” of the jaewoong’s power. There was a yangban (gentleman of the gentry class) in Seoul who suffered from an incurable disease. His wife was beside herself in worry and tried every folk remedy she could think of in an effort to save her husband’s life. Of course, she knew about the jaewoong’s power to transfer diseases and bad luck onto other people but had always assumed it only worked for people of the lower classes. However, out of desperation, she went to her neighbors and asked them if they thought it might work for members of the upper class. They were somewhat skeptical, but, as there were no cures for her husband’s inflictions, they urged her to give it a try.

“So, unknown to her husband, she made a straw figure of a man as large as life, dressed it in a complete suit of her husband’s clothes, with hat, shoes, headband and belt complete, and set it out in the street. But the beggars were all afraid to touch it, for the clothes were worth a large sum of money. A day passed and the anxious wife was in despair. No one had carried off the effigy. At last a poor fellow, on the verge of starvation, determined that as long as he must die anyway he might as well run the risk. So he seized the silk-clad manikin and put down the street as fast as his legs would carry him. He stripped off the gaudy garments and pawned them. Not for many a long month had he held so much money in his pouch.”That night the beggar died and the woman’s husband suddenly recovered from his disease. Later, in her dreams, she was visited by the hapless beggar. He told her that shortly after he had picked up the jaewoong, a goblin appeared and took his life. It was a legitimate deal between the wife, the beggar and the malevolent goblin.Unsurprisingly, the Korea Review’s editor wasn’t quite convinced of the accuracy of the story and opined the beggar, “in his half-starved condition … overate and caused his own death.”While the American missionaries in Korea may have scoffed at the jaewoong’s power, a Korean in the United States didn’t. When he viewed the jaewoong at the Smithsonian Institute he reportedly told his interpreter: “No good anymore.” What he meant by that comment is unclear.I wish I could relate some supernatural incident surrounding the jaewoong at the Smithsonian Institute but I can’t. Ensign John Baptiste Bernadou – who apparently sent the jaewoong to the institute – and Pierre Louis Jouy (who may have assisted) did not die until a decade or two after they left Korea.Many years ago, when I was in my early twenties, my Korean friends insisted it was imperative to spend any money found on the street – to do otherwise was to invite bad luck. Perhaps this belief traces back to the jaewoong, or, more likely, it was just a ploy to get me to spend the 5,000 won I found on beer for all of them – a 카지노사이트킹 500cc mug of draft beer at that time was 500 won.

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