Folktale from Korea: Silent Debate

Asian Tales and TellersCathy Spagnoli, writer and storyteller, has traveled far around the world in search of indigenous stories and music. Some destinations include Japan, Tibet, Nepal, Burma, China, to name a few. After gathering research for more than a decade, along with sharing stories with countless people, Cathy wrote book called Asian Tales and Tellers, a compilation of FOLKTALES.

One witty folktale involves a Chinese scholar and a Korean boatman. As you read this story, notice the vocabulary words used and the importance of learning how to COMMUNICATE.

boatman |

Boatman |

Silent Debate

Folktale from Korea by Cathy Spagnoli

Once a Chinese SCHOLAR heard of Korea’s learned people and went to test the wits of the great thinkers there. After a long, weary trip, he found himself in a boat being FERRIED toward a large and important Korean city.

As he watched the strong boatman row, he had an idea.

“It is always interesting to find out how clever the working people are in a land,” thought the scholar.” Let me test this boatman and see if he has a spark of INTELLIGENCE.” Since the Chinese scholar spoke little Korean, and the Korean boatman knew no Chinese, the scholar decided to CONVERSE in a kind of sign language.

Enso. The Universe

Enso. The Universe

Carefully he placed his fingers in the shape of a circle, the symbol of the universe. By this, he wanted to inquire if the boatman knew any of heaven’s secrets. Now this boatman SPARED not a thought about the universe, but instead spent all of his time thinking about the rice cakes which he loved to eat. So when he saw the circle sign, he thought the scholar was asking, “Do you like round rice cakes?”

Well, there was no doubt about that: he liked all rice cakes. But he was especially fond of the square kind of rice cake. So to answer, he held his fingers in a shape of a square, as if to say, “Of course I like round cakes, but I prefer the square variety.”

The scholar GASPED in amazement. For he saw the square as the sign of the earth, and imagined the boatman had replied, “Yes, I know all about the heavens. And I know as well about the earth and its secrets.”

Wondering if he had misunderstood, the scholar decided to try one more question. He held up three fingers, as if to say, “Do you know even three of the five important Confucian relationships?”

The boatman, still dreaming of his rice cakes, saw the three fingers and thought, “Ah, he’s asking me if I eat three rice cakes at a time.” Now this was a silly question, for if you adore rice cakes you never stop with just three. So the boatman quickly held up five fingers, meaning, “Only three? Never. I always eat five rice cakes at a time.”

The scholar almost fell into the water. For he understood the answer to be, “I know not just three; I understand all five of those important relationships.”

“Incredible,” whispered the scholar. “This boatman know so much. If a mere boatman has such learning, then the scholars will be impossible to DEBATE with. They must be truly brilliant. What a land of learning.”

Then the Chinese scholar had the boatman turn the boat around and he quickly returned to his own home. He told everyone there about the wondrous learning to be found in Korea. And never again did he try to visit that land of INTELLECTUAL giants, Korea.


  1. The moral of the story is the lesson or principle the author wishes to share. Think about what you learned from the story. What do you believe is the moral of this story?
  2. Think about the Chinese scholar and the Korean boatman. In what ways can people communicate if they don’t speak the same language?

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4 replies

  1. I liked it and I didn’t know that Chinese scholar had a boatman the boat. And also that around and he quickly retuned to his own home that why I liked the Silent Debate.

  2. 1) I think the moral of the story is that what ever language you speak you can try to communicate in sign language, braille, signals, and Morse code.

  3. 1) I think it’s about to learn more than just one language because if you only know one you won’t communicate with others as much as knowing several languages or several ways to communicate in different ways not just speech.

    2) Code, braille, signals, signs, hieroglyphics, and Morse Code.

    • Misha. Excellent thoughts on point one. I can see that you value communication. Also, I see the need for more people to use signs to communicate with others that are hard of hearing. Plus, it’s visual.