Pororo the Little Penguin is an animated cartoon series that is widely viewed in Korea. “It’s like the Sesame Street of Korea,” said Kyung Hyun Kim, a professor of East Asian languages at the University of California Irvine. “It is very popular among children.”
In the animation, Pororo plays with his six close friends, including Poby, a polar bear who lives near a glacier. Their stories, largely set in a snowy forest, offer children important lessons on life. The animation’s popularity is shown by the nickname the children in Korea have given Pororo— ‘Poresident’, or ‘Pororo president.’ Pororo’s image can be found on 1,500 different products, from chopsticks to children’s clothing.
Recently, a group of researchers conducted a study on the unprecedented success of Pororo the Little Penguin. Yeo-Jin Yoona and Han Chae are two of the leading authors on the paper published in the journal of Integrative Medicine Research. Their study focused on the biophysical features of seven of the animation’s characters.
An episode of Pororo the Little Penguin, dubbed in English here.
“Our intention was to select one of the most successful recent animations. How well animation characters are designed to reflect realistic physical appearances and personalities can explain its success,” Yoona told GlacierHub. “Animal characters can be good to study to understand children’s point of view.”
Moreover, Yoona described how animation characters were “created to embody distinctive personality and body image.” Yet, prior to the recent study, those features had not been analyzed with objective measures based on East-Asian theory. “The purpose of this study was to analyze the biopsychological features of seven animation characters in Pororo the Little Penguin with clinically validated and standardized measures of Sasang typology,” the paper explains.
Sasang typology is a classification scheme used in traditional Korean medicine that dates back to 1894, when western medicine had not yet been introduced in Korea. People tended to use “yin and yang” to explain everything in the world, including human beings themselves. Chae, a professor at the School of Korean Medicine at Pusan National University, elucidated the classification scheme further: “The Sasang typology divides people into four categories: Tae-Yang or ‘greater yang,’ Tae-Eum or ‘greater yin,’ So-Yang or ‘less yang,’ and So-Eum or ‘less yin.’” This typology then explains individual differences in susceptibility to a certain disease.
The typology was inherited by modern Korean medicine and applied to broader perspectives. It can be used to classify people’s personality, strengths, and weaknesses. For instance, in the animation, Poby, the polar bear that lives on a glacier, enjoys fishing, playing drums and photography. Although Poby is the largest character in the animation, he also has a gentle nature, talks slowly, and is kind to all of his friends. Because of his good temper, he takes responsibility when it comes to doing chores in the village, usually trying his best to keep everyone else safe and happy. It is no surprise that Poby is popular among kids, and even has his own webpage! There are also Poby figures available for purchase on Amazon.
Poby’s contrasting traits and personality are easily identifiable in the animation. The contrasts in his personality were indicated in the results of Yoona’s study. Interestingly, Korean medicine believes those with a larger body should have a Tae-Eum or “greater yin” type character. But Poby’s calm, gentle, and thoughtful demeanor identify him as a So-Eum or “less yin” type. In this way, he shows the complexity of a human being in the real world.
In a movie, there can be simple characters like Pororo and also more complicated characters like Poby. Poby’s unique personality brings a balance of Yin-Yang temperament to the seven main characters in Pororo the Little Penguin, according to Yoona et al. This balance might contribute to Poby’s great popularity in Korea and abroad. So popular is Poby that Korea has Pororo-themed children’s cafes, where children can play with Poby and other Pororo figures. A Spanish-speaking fan of Poby, malu loves kyungsoo, recently tweeted to show how much she loves Poby.
Chae is optimistic about the application of the typology, telling GlacierHub, “This interdisciplinary research methodology of Sasang typology suggested it would be a useful tool for educating healthcare professionals and the general public about Korean medicine. We proved that Sasang typology is successful for analyzing the biopsychosocial features of animation characters, as well as patients.”
Their analysis brings together the ancient cultural system of Korean medicine and the contemporary cultural form of animated cartoons. It is striking as well that glaciers–ancient natural entities–form part of the contemporary imagined world of Pororo.