Abolition of Goryeo Burial
This tale explains how the practice of goryeojang was abolished.
Goryeojang refers to the practice of carrying away the elderly when they reach a certain age and abandoning them in the mountains or plains and there are two folk narratives transmitted in relation to the abolition of this practice.
The first defines goryeojang as the ancient practice of abandoning those over sixty, leaving them to die. Once there was a man who carried his elderly father (or mother) on his back on a wooden carrier to a mountain to abandon him. He had taken along his son, and as he turned to leave, the son picked up the wooden carrier to take back home. When the father told the son he didn’t need to take back the carrier, the son insisted that he had to, since he would be needing it when it came his turn to carry his father and abandon him on the mountain. This made the father realize what a terrible deed he was committing and he brought his old father back home, which led to the abolition of the practice.
The second narrative defines goryeojang as a state-imposed practice in the kingdom of Goryeo of abandoning the elderly. There lived in Goryeo a high government official who soon had to carry away and abandon his aging mother, but he did not have the heart to desert his own mother and kept her hidden inside a closet and took care of her. In the meantime. China sent three difficult riddles to Goryeo to investigate the kingdom’s talent pool: how to distinguish between a mother horse and her offspring; how to distinguish between the top and bottom parts of a log; and how to measure the weight of an elephant. Nobody was able to come up with answers but the official mother inside the closet, who explained that the first of the two horses to eat when they were given feed was the offspring; that the top part of the log would rise to the water’s surface; and that an elephant’s weight could be measured by marking the water level on a boat before and after letting the elephant on it, then determine the weight by trying to get the boat to the same water level using rocks. When the riddles were solved, the king offered a reward to the official for preventing a national catastrophe, promising to grant any wish. The official confessed about his mother, seeking pardon for his disobedience, and requested the abolition of the practice of goryeojang. The king accepted his wish and put a stop to the practice.
Both narratives are of foreign origin, with the goryeojang motif added after they were introduced to Korea. The first tale is from the Chinese book Xiaozizhuan (Collection of Tales on Filial Piety). In its original version, the tale is a simple family anecdote about a child named Yuangu and featuring the wooden carriage yu. The second tale is similar to the narrative included in the chapter “Kingdom of Elderly Desertion” of the Chinese Buddhist scripture Zao Baozang Jing (Miscellaneous Treasures Sutra). The narrative was spread to many countries through the sutra, and in Korea, it was adapted with changes in detail including the name of the kingdom, the conflict between the Celestial God and the king to that between China and Goryeo, and the addition of the goryeojang motif.
The two separate narratives seemed to have been linked by chance due to the association with the goryeojang motif. It is believed that because the desertion of parents was deemed unacceptable in Korea’s Confucian culture, it was necessary to add the premise of the ancient practice in order to make the foreign tales more plausible for the readers.
Since the tales depict goryeojang as a practice that was actually observed in Goryeo, scholars have been examining the verity of the claim and have found that such practice never existed in Goryeo.
The narratives are, in other words, fictional tales that emphasize human dignity by highlighting the value of wisdom and spirit over physical capacity and power.
The stories also pose fundamental questions about the essence of filial piety by shedding light on the contradictory attitudes toward one’s elderly parents.
The longevity of the goryeojang narratives in the Korean oral tradition owed to the importance of filial piety in education within a predominantly Confucian society.