Gift Giving in KoreaThere once was a man who had grown up with a Prince of the people. This man had been a childhood companion of the Prince for a mere 7 years.  Yet he thought that a strong bond had formed.  Over the years as their contact had become lessened, the man remembered fondly the words of mere boys… promising life-long loyalty.

The Prince had moved on with his life.  Meeting heads of state and entertaining as expected in festivals of the most lavish fashion.  He came to know many people and often appeared to do much for those in need.

In the very dead of a bitter winter the Prince’s childhood friend ventured a long walk seeking assistance. Not for himself, but for those in his poor village, some 80 kilometers away. The people were suffering from sickness and fallen hillsides had quickly fouled their diminishing food supply.

Though the two had not seen each other in many years, the friend wore his best clothes.  He took what little food he had for himself and passed on to others – knowing his friend the Prince would provide.

He had not expected to be intercepted by one of the household staff. His threadbare clothing, he realized, could provide no surety of this beggar’s tale.  In the presence of such finery in even this, the smallest of servant’s entrances, the man knew he would not be admitted.

When it became apparent that he would have to leave, an audience not permitted, the friend was left alone and discouraged. He thought about the fact that the two had not seen each other in many years.  The friend still kept abreast of the young Prince’s growth. It is for this reason, he had laboured all the more to make a small wood carving for his friend’s dear mother. The woman who chided them both countless times as they joined in adolescent mischief. For she was the eldest of the household. The most revered of their honoured ancestors. And had carefully wrapped another for the Prince’s young son.

Though he had no food for his belly, and no prospects for a night’s rest, the boy, now man, left his small presents behind. His leaving unseen by any, for he was a man of little consequence… on this day. In remembrance of those glorious days of youth, the man steeled himself and ventured out into the howling wind — braving the snow and chill, as if a warm summer day.

Sometime after the man had left, the Prince came looking in on his staff. Making sure all were well and in for the night. He seemed distracted as his small son begged and pestered him about something important, he felt, only to children. It was then he noticed three small packages, set beside the doorway.  The first contained a comb of intricately carved wood, finely inlaid with tortoise shell and mother of pearl – fit for a queen. The Prince knew it to be of grand quality and quite expensive for anyone to have lost. In the second, he found a familiar toy carving. As clarity came to his mind, and remembrance of what this token meant, he hurried through the household seeking knowledge to know where the giver of gifts had gone.

It was then he learned of the poor beggar who had come insisting on being some great friend of the Prince.  To his horror he learned the man had been turned away. He knew at once the bearer.  He knew also of the grave distance traversed. Portend of what such a journey could cost. If only the man had sold the hair decoration for better clothing and food. If only the child’s gifted toy had been seen for what it represented. If only… the Prince realized what he must do.  Alert all to find this dear man.

The Prince rushed about to gather warm clothing. His young son seeking to assist dismissed as much too small. Summoning his retinue, he charged all with finding and returning this man safely to the palace. He threw himself to the elements in search of this man as his attendants began to fear black magic or madness. The Prince called to the wind, sought out promises of allegiance to the gods. But the man was not to be found.

Weary and tired, his followers returned to the palace having failed in their quest. A gentle anguish showing on the Prince’s countenance as he bid them good night. Quietly walking down the hallway, he remembered a third gift. Knowing the man who had left it, the Prince did not want to contemplate what grand gift this might be. For the wealth of the first two gifts was great. Being informed of the state of his friend, the Prince had to know.

But the third gift was no longer where it had been left. Puzzled, the Prince began a slow search of the home within this grand palace. There seemed to be no place remaining…

The Prince remembered his young son and wondered if he could have taken the gift. As he looked into his son’s room, his small shape was wrapped gently around something lost in the darkness. His son was whispering that all would be well when his father returned. The shape was someone quite frail.  The head of an apparent stranger resting on the gift, still wrapped. As the Prince drew nearer, he realized it was his friend. It appeared he was weak, and cold, and shivering.

“Hyo!” the Prince shouted. The man’s shivering continued but he did not respond. A fever had taken him and too great was its hold. Jae-Sun, the Prince, called for the palace physicians as his son held to his father’s leg, afraid of all the commotion. It was many hours before the Prince would leave the bedside of his childhood friend. His son also stayed.

When the Prince saw that his son had fallen fast asleep, he carefully carried the boy to his bed and covered him. Before he returned to the friend’s bedside, the son stirred. “Father. I did not mean to hurt the man.  I did not know that he was blind. It was my sling that caused him to fall. I was too afraid to confess my crime.” Jae-Sun’s anguish increased as he bid his son to sleep, returning to his friend.

Hours passed without movement or a stir. Then as Jae-Sun had slept, he fingered the toy remembered from his youth. A Turtle-dragon. Carved from the finest of jade. Given by the Prince to this small blind boy who had nothing. A small royal favor given in youthful companionship… for a boy having taught a young prince… what it meant to see.


In Korea, there is a respect to giving gifts that need no explanation. A host may profusely refuse to accept even the most modest of gifts. Yet thanksgiving within this Great People’s heart will shine for millennia. Gifts given are not usually opened in front of their guests. They are personal, private, and cherished acknowledgements exchanged for both personal and business reasons. There is no need to send a thank you note as the giver and recipient know what thought is behind the giving.

Then what is in the third package left behind in our story? What of the plight of the people in the village left without a protector? What of the boy who took responsibility for his mistake? And, will the blind friend of this great Prince even live to “see” all made well?

The answers to these question, if you indeed ask yourself, will tell you what manner of person you may be. There are those who think of others, and those that think only of themselves.  There are those who will cross great distances in the name of friendship. Why then is this missive entitled “Gift Giving in Korea?”

I have written personal thoughts about those I have known of Korean descent here and abroad.  Perhaps it is for that reason I have written of the “Korean Heart.” There are those who cannot understand why I strive to learn and immerse myself in the language.  Why I take my students there to see the majesty of ages long since gone from the mind of a modern world. Or, even to sit quietly in the hills as an ancient tri-tone bell rings clear… bringing together thoughts of who we once were, and now are, as a people.

Perhaps the story itself is the gift I return for these great and gentle people. That you may tell its ending. For the name of the man who walked so far for others is “Hyo.” His name means; “familial duty” … and the Prince, “Jae Sun” means; “respect and goodness.”

In these two names that are not oft thought to interpret, there is honour, and duty, respect… and goodness. In the sacrifices made by some for the benefit of others. But, also, in realizing that nothing is so important that we neglect those less fortunate.

A man sent me a bottle of very fine Whiskey one year. I do not drink but gratefully enjoy its intent.  Another sent me money.  Which is thoughtfully given and received in this culture. Another, a touching letter of gratefulness for my teaching his son in America… My parents received a letter from still another. Perhaps that one I cherish most of all. A few handwritten pages. Reminding me that this honourable Korean lineage — is itself a gift.  A reminder that we sometimes forget to give thanks by accepting the role of “Hyo.”

I invite you to finish this story.  Answer the questions that remain.  Tell me what your heart would do.

세계 수 있습니다 당신에 게 친절 모든 일.  수 있습니다 당신은 알고 서비스를 통해 깨달음 그 필요에. 평화에 있을.