I've read in a few sources that the Korean equivalent of the "once upon a time ..." which often begins English folk stories is something like "back when tigers smoked ..." or "when tigers used to smoke ..."

Why has this become a standard way to start Korean folk stories? What is the historical and cultural significance of tigers smoking, or what does this refer to?

  • 1
    I don't know if it helps, but most references to it that I've found have them smoking pipes, which makes sense since cigarettes didn't get introduced until the 20th century. Commented Jul 16, 2020 at 12:36
  • In the general sense, it just means "once upon a time, things were different and this story was possible." It has many variations all over -- " In olden times, when wishing still did some good, " About the tigers smoking -- you might get a better answer on the Mythology and Folklore SE
    – Mary
    Commented Jul 16, 2020 at 12:55
  • 4
    Anecdotally, Dutch uses "when animals still spoke". Unsure about Netherlands Dutch, but it is used in Flemish Dutch.
    – Flater
    Commented Jul 16, 2020 at 15:23
  • I put some comments under Sean Duggan's response. As much as I would like to give an answer from a Korean cultural perspective, it's still largely speculatory. Commented Jul 17, 2020 at 0:07
  • 2
    This question was posted as part of this month's reading challenge on Korean folklore.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Jul 17, 2020 at 7:43

3 Answers 3


That went a lot further down the rabbit-hole than I expected. There doesn't seem to be a lot of agreement on the origin of the phrase. It wouldn't seem like it would be a very old reference, since tobacco was introduced to Korea in the early 1600s. This Reddit post claims that it comes from an earlier phrase about eating the tobacco and might actually have originally been referencing catnip. Overall, I've found two main theories. First, it may have simply been an indication of a highly fictional story, since obviously tigers don't smoke normally. Secondly, some people tie it directly to a kind of democracy and liberty. When tobacco was initially introduced to Korea, practically everyone smoked, and it was considered medicinal, but during the Joseon period, it became a practice restricted to the aristocrats, smoked in absurdly long pipes that required servants to light the pipe from the other end. Invoking tigers (part of Korea's mythological tale of how the nation came to be) smoking invokes an idea of when everyone was equal, even humans and animals. For example, from the previously mention Reddit Post:

While it is often said "back when tiger used to smoke" to denote something that happened ages ago as in myths and legends. If you want to get real technical about it. Tabbacco didn't enter Korea until 1618. There are lot of articles mentioning it wasn't originally back when tigers 'smoked' but 'ate' as in ate catnip. A different article points out that the reason why back when tiger used to smoke is because according to "Hamel's Journal and a Description of the Kingdom of Korea, 1653-1666" everybody regardless age and gender would smoke in Korea. Until it started getting class restricted and lower class was no longer allowed to smoke infront of higher classes. So, according to this theory phrase is refering to back when equality still existed. Whatever the case, I think it's a cool phrase regardless.

Lastly, the saying has an additional layer of meaning now because wild tigers are extinct in South Korea (North Korea claims to still have them), killed off in the early 20th century by hunters and the occupying Japanese.

  • 3
    Tobacco isn't the only thing you can smoke. Maybe they were talking about something else? Just a guess, I don't know enough about Korean history to know what other smokeables there might've been back in the day... Commented Jul 16, 2020 at 18:14
  • 5
    I'm Korean, so coming from a cultural context, I'm not sure this makes sense. Tigers are typically seen as manifestations evil spirits in Korean folklore, so to say they were equal is odd. Also, I'm not sure tigers being extinct has anything to do with South Korea in 20th century has much to do with the saying, because (I assume by context of the stories) tigers were a threat during the time these stories were told. Commented Jul 16, 2020 at 23:58
  • 12
    The equality statement seems odd too. Confucianism was a dominant philosophy of Korea during this time (like China), and one of the central tenets of Confucianism was about hierarchy and order, so to say "back when equality existed" seems rather funny. That interpretation seems predominantly of Western origins, though I don't know for sure. Commented Jul 17, 2020 at 0:04
  • As an aside, by stating Confucianism was the dominant philosophy of Korea I do not mean it was the dominant religion of Korea, but rather the principles behind Confucianism largely influenced the culture of Korea. Commented Jul 17, 2020 at 0:05
  • 2
    @nick012000 I can’t find the exact Korean, but one Korean-American went as far as to translate it as “Back when tigers smoked tobacco....” to clear this exact confusion, I think. Commented Jul 18, 2020 at 17:07

As mentioned in the comments, a challenge was posted contesting the content of this answer. I answered the challenge with multiple real-world usages and the alleged origins of the expression. I'm linking it here as it serves as a further elaboration of this answer.

I want to add a counteranswer here, not because I think Sean's answer is wrong, but because it's a literary device used more broadly than just in Korean folklore.

To that end, there needn't be a reference to tigers smoking. Some cultural usages cannot be traced other than noting them coming into use. I cannot find any explicit reference on the origins of the Korean tiger-smoking phrase.

In (Flemish) Dutch, a similar turn of phrase is used, translating to "back when animals still spoke".

I don't quite agree that there should be a specific reference, or that facts about the introduction of tobacco are relevant to the literary device itself. The Dutch variant makes it clearer that the intention is not to point to a factually accurate period in the past, but rather to paint the picture of a completely different world which has no relation to the one we (the narrator and reader/listener) are in, so the reader/listener doesn't bother trying to find connections that aren't there.

Similarly, observe the well known Star Wars intro:

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...

This loosely translated to "The following story is entirely unrelated to our current world, don't bother looking for connections to it." It encapsulates the story in a world of its own and suggests to the viewer that it should be viewed as such.

One of the main reasons that Star Wars needed to do so is because there is a race of humans, but they are not the humans who once lived on Earth. There is no Earth, there is no reason to think that there is a backstory related to Earth or human origins, and it needs to be made clear to the viewer that this line of thinking is not relevant to follow the story.

In all mentioned cases (Korean, Dutch, Star Wars), the intention is to very quickly get the reader/listener to stop looking for real-world references and instead focus on the story at hand, since this world/time period is clearly not our own.

Comparatively, "once upon a time" is much less explicit about there being no real-world connections. It doesn't actually restrict the possibility that we're telling a story that is grounded in the real world, though it is generally inferred to introduce a story that isn't.

  • 1
    I don't think this really isn't a proper understanding of Korean history. The better translation according to your line of thought is "tigers you see now don't act this way". Korean folklore was (I believe) believed to be true to a certain degree, and heavily influenced by shamanism (or nature worship, if you will). It's not saying "This is a time period not related to ours", Koreans (to a certain degree) did believe at least the mythology behind it. I could be wrong, but generally taking Western ideas and correlating it to Eastern culture doesn't really make sense. Commented Jul 17, 2020 at 0:11
  • 3
    @NorthLæraðr: The point is to separate the story's context from the current context - that doesn't mean it has to be completely unrelated to the current world, but at the very least vastly different from how the world is now. Unless Koreans believe that either tigers still smoke or tigers smoked up until very recently, the point still stands.
    – Flater
    Commented Jul 17, 2020 at 0:29
  • I would like to point out that answers on Stack Exchange should actually attempt to provide an answer to the question being asked, instead of expounding on something similar. This answer does not exhibit a single shred of knowledge about Korean culture or folk lore. Instead it says, "I know something about Flemish culture, so I'll post that instead.". This is a rather crass example of cultural arrogance.
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Jul 19, 2020 at 17:13
  • 1
    I've deleted some comments about how common this phrase really is in Dutch/Flemish stories, as there's now a new question posted about that (as well as another question about the origin of this phrase).
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Jul 20, 2020 at 9:33
  • 1
    There's even an English equivalent, although it's rarer: "when giants walked the earth".
    – Peter Shor
    Commented May 3, 2023 at 10:59

When Koreans say "back when tigers smoked," this is kind of the equivalent of Americans saying "long ago, when dinosaurs used to roam the Earth" except that dinosaurs actually existed and we're not sure if tigers ever smoked. It just means to say that it was a very long ago.
A lot of Korean folktales have to do with tigers, if you have noticed. There are tales such as the grandmother and the tiger, the tiger and the persimmon, yin and yang, etc., because the tiger is representative of Korean identity and culture throughout history. It does not really have any deep meaning between a tiger and tobacco smoking.

  • 1
    ...we're not sure if tigers ever smoked - I think we can uncontroversially assume that they didn't. I doubt that even most Koreans would think that they did, other than children. Commented Jul 16, 2020 at 18:19
  • 4
    @DarrelHoffman At the risk of being boringly obvious, I think we can take "we're not sure if tigers ever smoked" as a bit of lighthearted understatement, not really in need of humorless fact-checking. In other words: That's the joke, son.
    – user14111
    Commented Jul 17, 2020 at 6:09

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.