Monday, February 23, 2009

Mongolian Spank Marks

Dear Korean,

A friend mentioned that many Korean children are born with a blue birthmark located at the base of the spine. He said it was from a genetic trait from Mongolian invaders centuries before. Is this true?


Dear Anonymous Coward,

No, it is a myth. In fact, it is a very good example of how two pieces of truth meld into a highly believable piece of falsehood.

Here is the piece of truth number 1: Korea did suffer extensively from Mongolian invasion in the 13th century -- so much so that much of Korean traditional culture as it survives today has a strong Mongolian influence. (For example, the red dots placed on the bride's cheeks in a traditional Korean wedding, like the picture.)

Piece of truth number 2: a little more than 80 percent of Korean babies have a blue birthmark right called "Mongolian Fleck". Usually it's a single dark blue dot in a size of a quarter on the buttcheek, but it could be larger. The birthmark usually fades away after a few years, and completely disappears by early teens.

But this is the part of confusion that created the myth -- the name "Mongolian". The name came about because it just so happened that the German biologist who first named the phenomenon simply decided to call it that way in 1885. This led to the false impression that Mongolian Fleck is something that only happens among Mongolians. Then the next step for a confused Korean mind is -- hey, didn't we get invaded by Mongolians long time ago? It must be the mark of that invasion!

Of course, that's not true. Mongolian Fleck frequently appears among Africans, Turks, Spaniards, and Native Americans as well. It has nothing to do with a specific people or a country. Korean babies had Mongolian Flecks before and after the Mongolian invasion.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. I will speak from experience, as a mother. There is a small area at the base of a baby's spine that has the appearance of a bruise. This was evident on my child, and in order for my day care provider to release any grip on the idea that this was the result of mistreatment, I brought it to their attention before they asked me about it, and offered research that noted it as an odd anomaly in the Asian population. I agree this has no connection with the Mongolian invasion, but would like to proffer my own theory, it is likely a result of a gazillion Asian parents who pounded discipline, respect and good measure into generations of Asian children by administering a well targeted spanking. Now I need to paddle all the children in the house. (Okay, that was a joke).

    Then I would like to recommend The Korean title his post, and not treat important jobs, such as blogging, with a deplorable lack of attention to detail. What would your mother say?!

  2. TFC,

    The mark of Genghis Khan? Dang, I wish I had one.


    From 'Unsigned' to 'Dear Anonymous Coward'? Ouch - someone needs a hug and a Kobe 3-pointer to win the game.

  3. CMcH,
    You are now in unchartered territories. I might be old enough to be your mother, oops, nah.

  4. Hey AAK,

    Some historical insight. The dot that goes on a Korean bride's cheeks didn't come from the Mongols. It came from Koguryo, one of the three Korean kingdoms. Mural tomb paintings have drawings of women sporting red dots on their cheeks.

    It is likely that the main group that consitutes today's Koreans came from Siberia and Manchuria about 20k years ago and have a distant common ancestory with Mongols and Asian Siberians such as the Yakuts and the Buryats. There are even some Eskimos and Native Americans who have the blue spot. I don't know if Native Americans originally came from Siberia, but the Eskimos sure did.

    Any ways, Korea was never "conquered" by the Mongols. It became a tributary state with minimal Mongol occupation forces. Mongols controlled Korea via intermarriage with Koryo kings and high ranking officials. The common people of Korea rarely ran into mongols so little, if any, of the traditions of the common people got affected.

    The exchange was both ways. Mongols sent princesses to Korea and Korea sent princesses to the Mongols. Most famous Mongol princess in Korea became Queen Noguk who was famous for her love story with King Gongmin. The most famous Korean woman in the Mongol Empire? Emperess Ki towards the end of the Yuan Dynasty (the one that Genghis Khan started) was full blooded Korean. Her son, the last Emperor of the Yuan dynasty, was half Korean.

    1. The Mongolian princess sent over to Korea at the time had the dots. Koreans today and in the past saw her as a very good queen as she was loyal to her husband and her husband's people (Koreans) even if it was disadvantages to the mongol dynasty. It makes sense that at least bridal influence would be taken from this example, as this particular queen did set an example among koreans regarding how a good bride should act.

      You are right about Korea never falling to the yuan dynasty, however they were at war for 30+ years straight, a very bloody war on both sides to the point where they decided to end the violence by becoming brother states (tributary). According to the Confucian way of life at the time, a tributary state was not under another state, rather it was an older brother younger brother relationship, where each has their own duties and obligations to the other. This is a very East Asian idea that most people without the cultural background does not understand.

  5. Edward,

    With respect to the red dots, the Korean's reference was his high school history textbook from Korea, so he has little reason to doubt that. Perhaps the fact that the dots were used in the context of a wedding was the Mongolian influence?

    Also, the Korean never said Mongols conquered Korea. But they did invade Korea extensively, and Korea (Goryeo at the time) was a vassal state to Yuan Dynasty for 80 years. As a vassal, the most significant change was that the Korean royal court adopted many of the Mongolian customs and organizational systems. 80 years is plenty of time for the mannerism of the royal court to seep into the regular population.

  6. When I read this question I thought it was the dumbest most ignorant question possible. Uh...until I found out that is was true. I asked all my Korean friends about this and they all knew about the "Mongolian fleck." Why did not know this?

  7. I have a quarter sized birthmark on my lower back near my spine... is this the "Mongolian Spank Mark"? Well, if it is or isn't, I didn't know that over 80% of Koreans get this bruise type looking birth mark. Funny. I do notice, on the other hand, that most of my Korean friends have some sort of faded tan/brown small dime sized (in different shapes) birth marks on their upper arm, thigh, or butt. One of my friends has one shaped as a duck, another as a bear. I also have this birth mark on the tricept part of my upper right arm, but I don't know what it's shaped like cause I can't see it :( I think I wrote too much. haha. Interesting post though! ^^

  8. As the story goes, my parents had social services called on them for repeatedly beating their child (me) over the course of a school year (kindergarten) by several teachers at my school.

    My mother, in her infinite wisdom, told them to check the file of documents she had given to the school at the time of my admittance (this was a private school) which happened to include a photocopied article documenting the so called 'Mongolian Fleck.'

    The school promptly rescinded their request to social services and gave me a free ride. This was 1990 or so.

  9. the mongol spot is found in all those other places because if you look into your history the mongols made it to all of those locations at one point in time. the mongol khans at one point controlled all of middle east, asia, india, north africa, and eastern europe. dont be naive, anywhere the spot is found the mongols or there ancestors have been.

  10. Is it true inbreeding is still practiced in Korea?

    1. It was illegal until recently to marry someone with the same last name (even though most people of the same last name are of different clans, aka not blood related at all). It would seem Korea practiced much less interbreeding than most other peoples of the world, as even far distant cousins would all know their clans and thus courtship would be illegal.

      Today you can only adopt children from your own clan, because it means they are your blood family anyways. and you may not marry within your own clan. although same last name from different clan is now legal, but still there is a stigma against it.

  11. Yes, it's true that the red dots on the bride's cheeks, as well as jokduri, are Mongolian in origin.

    1. the red dots are mongolian in origin, the princess sent to korea at the time was a loyal wife, even when she had to choose between the benefit of her husband's country and her father's. Koreans looked up to this kind of strong morals in a woman and thus use red dots to honor those actions. the jokduri is pre-chingis time, but it did change, since women's styles change often in history. the larger hair designs came from mongolian influence, but the small one used these days is more similar to much older and simpler designs. All of East and central asia use something similar since we were all one culture some 30 - 40 thousand years ago.


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