The Legend of the Blue Sea is a popular South Korean television series that aired in 2016-2017. It tells the story of a mermaid named Shim Cheong who falls in love with a con artist named Heo Joon-Jae in the modern day, and their past lives as a mermaid and a nobleman in the Joseon era.
The series is inspired by a classic Korean folktale about a fisherman who releases a mermaid he caught in his net. The folktale is one of the oldest recorded stories in Korean literature, dating back to the 15th century.
Mermaids in Korean Folklore
Mermaids are mythical creatures that have fascinated humans for centuries. In South Korean folklore, they are known as ineo (인어).
Ineo is depicted as a human-like creature that lives in the sea. In many of these stories, it is unclear whether they have legs or tails, although some descriptions of ineo suggest that they have legs.
On the other hand, mermaids are depicted with fishtails in other cultures, such as Europe, South East, and West Asia.
One of the popular folk tales from the Joseon era wherein a fisherman caught mermaids but later released them at a magistrate’s urging. It’s one of the inspirations for the Legend of the Blue Sea series.
Another folktale that features a Korean mermaid is the “Legend of Jangbong Island,” where a fisherman caught a beautiful ineo and decided to release her out of pity. He was apparently rewarded for his deed and was able to catch a lot of fish in the subsequent days.
The reward for a good deed is also the theme of the folktale “Myeong and the Ineo.” The protagonist, Myeong bought an ineo from fishermen to save her. After taking care of her for some time, he released her back into the sea. After some time, the ineo gave him a baby in return for his kindness. At this point, the protagonist was already middle-aged and unmarried, and it was important for their culture to have someone continue their lineage.
When Pop Culture Meets Folklore – The Legend of the Blue Sea
The Legend of the Blue Sea explores the folklore of mermaids in South Korean culture through its plot, themes, and characters.
The series narrates the enchanting love saga of Shim Cheong, an enchanting mermaid, and Heo Joon-jae, a clever scam artist.
Their remarkable journey is interwoven with the parallel tale of their past lives in the Joseon era, featuring the mermaid Se-hwa and the esteemed town leader, Kim Dam-ryeong.
“The Legend of the Blue Sea” draws upon various themes that resonate with traditional Korean folktales.
Love Transcending Time
A recurring theme in Korean folktales is the power of love that defies the constraints of time. Similarly, “The Legend of the Blue Sea” highlights the timeless nature of love, with the characters Shim Cheong and Heo Joon-jae connected across lifetimes. This theme emphasizes the belief that love can endure and triumph over the passage of time.
Reincarnation and Fate
Korean folktales often explore the concept of reincarnation and the interplay of destiny. In the series, the parallel storyline of Se-hwa and Kim Dam-ryeong reflects the cyclical nature of existence and the idea of destined encounters. Both the folktales and the series delve into the notion that certain individuals are destined to meet and fulfill their fates across different lifetimes.
Sacrifice and Selflessness
Many Korean folktales feature acts of sacrifice and selflessness as central themes. In “The Legend of the Blue Sea,” Shim Cheong’s sacrificial act of saving a human life represents this enduring motif. The series underscores the importance of compassion, selflessness, and the willingness to make personal sacrifices for the well-being of others—an intrinsic value found in Korean folklore.
Supernatural Beings and Their World
Korean folktales often revolve around encounters with supernatural beings, blurring the lines between the human and spiritual realms. Similarly, “The Legend of the Blue Sea” introduces mermaids as mythical creatures from the depths of the sea. This theme highlights the belief in a world beyond our own, where magical beings exist, and the interplay between the human and supernatural realms.
Moral Lessons and Virtues
Korean folktales frequently impart moral lessons and promote virtuous behavior. Similarly, “The Legend of the Blue Sea” explores themes of redemption, forgiveness, and the importance of personal growth. The folktales and the series emphasize the significance of ethical choices, personal transformation, and pursuing a virtuous life.
Though it is loosely based on the story from Eou Yadam, a Joseon-era folktale, The Legend of the Blue Sea also borrows from other stories.
The character Kim Dam-ryeong was inspired by the character of the same name in the aforementioned folktale from Eou Yadam. But, instead of saving four out of six young mermaids, Kim Dam-ryeong ordered the release of just one, Se-hwa, a childhood friend he has forgotten about.
The main character’s name in the present era was taken from Sim Cheong Jeon (The Story of Shim Cheong), a classic Korean tale. In the folktale, Sim Cheong is the daughter of a blind man who sold herself to sea merchants so that his father can afford 300 sacks of rice to offer to Buddha to regain his sight. Sim Cheong was saved by the Jade Emperor and was later sent back to land.
In “The Legend of the Blue Sea,” the protagonist is depicted with a fishtail, just like the mermaids from other cultures that most people are familiar with.
In the realm of South Korean folklore and popular culture, the captivating allure of mermaids continues to cast its spell, captivating audiences and igniting the imagination. Our exploration into the world of enchanting mermaids in South Korean folklore and their profound influence on popular culture has unveiled a rich tapestry of mythology, symbolism, and timeless themes.
Through the lens of the renowned series “The Legend of the Blue Sea,” we have witnessed the power of storytelling to revive and reimagine traditional folklore, breathing new life into age-old legends.
The love story of Shim Cheong, the mermaid, and Heo Joon-jae, the witty con artist, resonates with audiences worldwide, evoking emotions of longing, fate, and the complexities of unrequited love.
The Legend of the Blue Sea is a captivating, romantic series that blends fantasy and reality. It is a tribute to the rich and diverse folklore of South Korea and a celebration of the power of love.
Braham, P., Gaskins, N. R., Keith, S., Lee, S.-A., Milner, L., Shalaby, M., & Wang, P. (2018). Scaled for Success: The Internationalisation of the Mermaid (P. Hayward, Ed.). Indiana University Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv2tw094