Poo played a small, yet endearing part of my Korean childhood; adults would name made-up characters ‘Ddong Soonyi’/’똥순이’ (the western equivalent would be ‘poop-ella’) and children’s books featured anthropomorphous dung. I never felt confused, disgusted or even amused, and in fact I didn’t even bat an eye, I just blankly accepted the image as one of the thousand animated characters I see every day. It wasn’t until much later, at university, when my friend asked about something she had seen. I replied, “It’s a crying dog poo” (see above). I never considered Korean animated poop to be strange, until I said I those words out loud. She reeled back in horror, fascination and disbelief. The more I started explaining the background of the image and the story, her jaw dropped lower, eyes grew wider and eyebrows furrowed. At first it was shock, then disgust, then humour, then I am assuming, silent judgement.
The image was from an animated short film called ‘강아지 똥’/ ‘Doggy Poo’, by Kwon Oh Sung in 2004. It is a Claymation stop-motion film, lasting only 30 minutes (watch full here). It tells the story of a dog poo, who does not have any friends and feels that it has no purpose in life. The small dog poo meets numerous characters in its life, but it is the weed, who dreams of becoming a flower, who moves him the most. The dog poo buries itself under the weed, which fertilizes it, thus the weed grows into a dandelion. It is a sweet story of friendship, sacrifice and life purpose, which are deep themes considering the main character is a dog dropping. I saw this film being shown at an animation museum in the summer of 2011. A large audience of children, teens and adults were all watching the film sincerely, so clearly Koreans react to animated poo in a very different way, compared to England.
The animation company Ssamji /쌈지, which created Ddalki/딸기 (Strawberry), has also created a character Ddong Chimee/똥치미, which is the cutely named version of Ddong Chim/ 똥침. If you aren’t aware, Ddong Chim/ 똥침 literally means ‘poop needle’ which is a children’s game where fingers are poked in the butt. Unlike many other characters, this character appeals with strange and dirty humour rather than cuteness. This young boy Ddong Chimee is an innocent yet grubby boy, who loves poo and even goes as far as encasing it in glass (see above). This character is definitely unique and has an attention grabbing appearance, with snot running down his face, wearing a yellow jumpsuit (where his nipples are visible), a stupid dazed facial expression and a pile of poo on his head.
Ddong Chimee/똥치미 did not exist in my childhood, but a character that I am most familiar with is Bang-gwee Daejang Bboong Bbongi/ 방귀대장 뿡뿡이 (Farting King Bboong Bboongi). Although not technically poo, this character got its popularity from something very similar. This massive orange figure is the fart version of Barney the dinosaur, after all the name ‘Bboong Bboongi’ is from ‘bboong’, the onomatopoeia of farting. This plush character sings and dances on its own children’s TV show, where he transports around the world by farting. I am sure that this character would have been censored in the West because of its visible butt cheeks, but Korea not only created a hugely successful show, but also merchandise. This hugely popular character has books, CDs (all containing fart-centered songs) and dolls which make a fart noise when you push it.
My British friend said, “If a child grows up thinking that poo is cute, then it will probably pick up real poo, and play with it thinking that it is a friend”. The reason why I thought this was absurd, was because I never associated animated poo, with actual poo. It is evident that most other Koreans were brought up feeling this way as poo-style food and drink exist. Ddong Chimi/동치미 is the mascot for Dddong Bbang/똥빵 (poo bread), a red-bean paste filled bread in the shape of poo. Red-bean paste bread is a street food staple in Korea, which is originally shaped like a fish, hence the name BoongUh Bbang/ 붕어빵. The bread has a soft bun texture and the red-bean filling is sweet. Overall it tastes good, but the reason why people gravitate towards it is probably for the aesthetic and novelty factor, which is why Ddong Bbang/ 똥빵 chains can be found in trendy or touristy areas. Something that is not commonly known is the uniform of the people who work there. In comparison to normal formal uniforms the poo bread employees wear poo helmets. The whole process of buying poo shaped bread is ridiculous, but fun.
The swirl style that characterizes the animated poop is mimicked in Ddong Meckjoo/ 똥맥주 (poo beer). The beer is normal Korean branded beer, but the foam is thickened to create a creamy texture, and then styled on top of the beer to create a poop shape. Considering the huge competition in the Korean food industry, it is natural that people are using creative ways to attract customers. With the boom of social media and reliance on the internet as a source of information and publicity, the appearance of food is now as important as the flavour. There are several other edibles which are styled and shaped like poo, like sweets, ice-creams and snacks. While none of these items are actually made of poo, the shape and appearance is manipulated to create a swirl shape.
Although a lot of people (especially children) find poo humourous and even cute, it is still not mainstream in Korean culture. Many people are indifferent, and many others are just as disgusted as my British friends. Overall, it is evident that the subject of poo is not as taboo as in Western cultures, which can be seen as positive by some, because it is a part of nature. The word ‘Ddong’/’똥’ is used very casually in a fun context, and refers mainly to the swirl shape, which has become iconic from years of animated content. At the end of the day, rousing a smile with a vulgar yet harmless image is just one part of Korea’s eccentric modern culture.
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