Today (16 August) is the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, known as Chilseok (칠석) in Korean. It's one of the traditional holidays that isn't as popular now as it once was, though it's still known well enough for Google to create doodles for the day. Chilseok is something I've written about before on my blog, so if you need a refresher about the holiday you can check out these entries from last year:
[ 01 ] Chilseok (칠석)
[ 02 ] Melons, the Milky Way, and a Korean Folktale
[ 03 ] Chilseok Comic
While doing a quick image search for Chilseok earlier tonight I came across this interesting post from blogger Jo Iryoung (조이령). In the entry she recounts the story and also mentions that a Goguryeo-era (37BCE - 668CE) tomb was found in the Deokheung district (덕흥동) of Nampo City (남포시) of modern-day North Korea that includes a tile mural of Jingnyeo and Gyeonu. If I understand Miss Jo's site correctly the tomb's occupant died at the age of 77 during the reign of King Gwanggaeto the Great (광개토대왕; r. 391-413) and I'll include the images below for anyone interested in seeing them.
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The blog entry also mentions the story's connection to China's Qixi Festival - actually, how much of East Asian folklore has similar roots - and that the location of the relevant stars (Vega and Altair) is noted in the Joseon Dynasty astronomy book Cheonmunyucho (천문유초).
Miss Jo suggests that Chilseok became an important event due to its position within the seasonal calender, as it typically falls within the mid-summer when armies of the time weren't enforcing conscription due to it being the busiest time of year within the farming cycle. This offered conscripts the opportunity to return home - or young men to put off conscription - for a brief period. During this time the conscripts would be able to reunite with their their loved one for at least a limited time. The separation of lovers Jingnyeo and Gyeonu thus became a metaphor for these conscripts and their loved one at home.
Two additional connections are presented in her entry, both with contemporary significance. The first is in connection with 'lonely geese fathers' (외기러기 in Korean) and how they are only rarely able to see their families due to working in another city or country. (For more on lonely geese fathers I would strongly recommend checking out The Grand Narrative's posts here and here.) The second concerns the older generation(s) of Korea and how inter-Korea tensions are such that families divided by the Korean War are unable to see their relatives more than once every few years -- if they're lucky. Parents who have had their children smuggled out of North Korea and into the south face a similar situation though with even less hope of seeing each other again.
As much as I enjoy reading about them, I do sometimes wonder about the relevance of older folktales to modern-day life. However, as illustrated in the examples above, it is certainly possible to draw parallels to events in the present.