Romance of the Blue Bird and Plum Blossoms

Sadaham's Gift in The Great Queen Seondeok

Blue birds symbolize uplifting sentiments such as happiness, faith and guardianship in folktales and modern narratives around the world. On the flip side, some storytellers have come to depict the birds, and the spiritual goods they promise, as elusive and even nowhere to be found in the material world, to the extent that people perpetually dissatisfied with their current lives are now characterized as suffering from a “blue bird syndrome” in some parts of the world. Back in 6th century Silla, one general fought his most uphill battle not against rival armies but in the conquest for his own blue bird.

The Korean kingdom of Silla was a mystical phenomenon in ancient history. Famed for its abundance of gold crafts and open to cosmopolitan influences, trade, art and culture flourished within its borders. Women enjoyed a relatively high status in Silla society, with matrilineal lines of inheritance recognized alongside patrilineal lines and females appointed to official governmental positions. On the male side, Hwarang (lit. flower boys), an elite group of fine-looking youths skilled in martial arts, was gathered for humanities studies and military campaigns. Among them was a valiant but modest 16-year-old named Sadaham, who led a troop of 5000 to conquer the Great Kaya.

According to the presently available version of historical document Hwarang segi (lit. Annals of Hwarang), which was probably authored by a 20th century librarian and thus may be treated as historical fiction, Sadaham was in love with a beautiful maiden called Mishil, who hailed from a long line of royal concubines. Mishil had been dismissed from her position as a palace lady after her liaison with Sejong, the queen dowager’s son from another marriage, angered the elder woman. Sadaham consoled the maiden, who reciprocated his love and promised her hand in marriage.

Their relationship, however, turned out to be yet another instance of fragile young love. Some time later, Sadaham went to war and Mishil sent him off with an emotional farewell. Meanwhile, the queen dowager grew anxious about Sejong, who had become lovesick for Mishil, and summoned her back to the palace. By the time Sadaham returned, Mishil was wedded to Sejong. Sorrowful about the turn of events, Sadaham composed the following song and passed away shortly afterwards (the precise cause of his demise was attributed to a resolution to follow a male friend in death in another historical record, but the two tragedies were not mutually exclusive):

靑鳥歌 청조가

靑鳥靑鳥 彼雲上之靑鳥
胡爲乎 止我豆之田
靑鳥靑鳥 乃我豆田靑鳥
胡爲乎 更飛入雲上去
旣來不須去 又去爲何來
空令人淚雨 腸爛瘦死盡
(吾)死爲何鬼 吾死爲神兵
飛入(殿)(主)(護) 〃(神)
朝〃暮〃 保護殿君夫妻
萬年千年 不長滅

Song of the Blue Bird

Blue bird, blue bird, the blue bird above the clouds
Why did you rest on my bean field?
Blue bird, blue bird, the blue bird on my bean field
Why did you fly back into the clouds?
Since you had come, why did you need to leave? If you were going to leave, why did you come?
Your visit only left me with tears raining down my cheeks, my heart in pain and my body thinning away, while a feeling of impending death washed over me
What kind of spirit will I be after I draw my last breath? I’ll be a divine warrior
flying into [your residence as its] guardian [angel]
protecting you and your lord day and night
so that the two of you may live for a thousand or a million years

(References for interpretation adopted above: 1 | 2 )

Two contrasting images of flight were presented in the poem: the author first painted a picture of a capricious blue bird that would not stay in one spot, to which he had Sadaham respond with that of a spiritual warrior who flies with definite direction into his beloved’s home and remains at his post for a millennium or more. This literary arrangement is striking for a few reasons. Most patently, it portrays the universally acclaimed ideal of unconditional love and the magnanimous decision of repaying evil with good. But Sadaham in the poem transcended these somewhat generic archetypes of romantic heroism. In binding the two images with the common motif of a flying angelic being, he was essentially declaring, in the true spirit of a legendary leader: if I cannot find a moral good in this universe, I will be that moral good.

Park Jae-jung as Sadaham in The Great Queen Seondeok

This reaction towards circumstantial moral deficit flies in the face of the broken windows theory. According to the theory, minor urban disorder (e.g. the eponymous broken windows of the theory) attracts anti-social behavior, which then generates greater disorder and thus more serious anti-social behavior (in the example, that would be more window breaking, housebreaking and even arson), resulting in the accumulation and aggravation of social problems like crimes. In fact, a Stanford University psychologist once conducted an experiment whereby he placed two cars with no license plates and their hoods up in a poor neighborhood and an affluent neighborhood respectively. The one in the poor neighborhood got broken into, vandalized and stripped of components of value in no time. The one in the affluent neighborhood remained intact for more than a week until the psychologist smashed part of it deliberately, and very soon, well-dressed adults joined him, upturning and destroying the vehicle within hours. One explanation for this kind of phenomenon is that a state of order or disorder, besides indicating the likelihood of sanctions against destructive behavior, signifies the prevailing norm in an area and people, under an evolutionarily derived innate drive to gain group acceptance and perform automatic learning, tend to adjust their behavior to fit social norms. It is a remarkable feat to break away from such evolutionary and psychological forces, and even more remarkable to be the harbinger of positive change. Change, meanwhile, is what gives wings to the dreams of society.

Uee as Young Mishil in The Great Queen Seondeok

This initiative need not be entirely unbeneficial to the agent of change either, even in the case of Sadaham. Historical drama The Great Queen Seondeok fancied that while Mishil lived on to become a mistress to numerous political figures in her quest to consolidate power, Sadaham was the only person she held in high regard and the man she loved most deeply for the rest of her life. “Sadaham’s plum blossoms,” astronomical calendars leveraged by her as political weapons and codenamed after him, brought tears even after decades to the poised woman, who averred that she would never waste remorse over any decision.

Another Blue Bird Song                  The Drama

Poetry Resources                             Drama Resources

3 thoughts on “Romance of the Blue Bird and Plum Blossoms

  1. theotheri says:

    Fascinating post. I had no idea that Zimbardo’s work has such an ancient history.

    As you know, the theory of broken windows has been a controlling policy of crime control in U.S. cities for the last 20 years or so. As recent events suggest, it seems to have been turned into racially-prejudicial policing instead of an effective means of social control.. I suspect Zimbardo would be appalled.

    • This may go to show that while academia strives to achieve its ideal of Veritas (truthfulness), truths can be abused by society in ugly ways—a topic that makes for an excellent addition to the large backlog of posts waiting to see the daylight on this website. Since there is an ongoing drama that happens to touch on this issue, the post will probably be made ready in two to three weeks’ time.

      Many thanks for the inspiration!

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