The Tale Of Chunhyang
By Kim Mee Sook / All rights reserved.
|The Song of Chunhyang, or 'Chunhyang ka' in Korean,
is one of
Korea's favorite folk tales. Koreans of all ages and professions will
instantly recognize it, as a beautiful love story about a wife's constancy
to her husband, and her characters as Korea's Romeo and Juliet.
The oldest version of the tale was written in Chinese by Yu Chin Hahn in 1754, but it was told
much earlier by bards, called 'kwangdae', roaming the Korean countryside, in a rhythmic
chanted narrative which later became known as Pansori.
Chunhyang is the daughter of a Kisaeng and an aristocrat (who in some versions has split for
Seoul and in others he has died). This places her in a very precarious position. On the one
hand, as a Kisaeng, she is the lowest of the low as far as Confucian thought goes, on the other
hand her mother raised her as if she was an aristocrat's daughter. She taught her to observe the
many virtues of a proper woman.
On the first day of Spring, Tano day, Chunhyang goes out to play escorted by her valet. In the
distance, Mongnyong sees her and instantly falls in love. He knows he must have her.
Chunhyang and Mongnyong are both the tender age of 15, the same age as Romeo and Juliet.
Mongnyong tried to court Chunhyang, though she obstinately rejects him, saying 'you are
mistaken if you think I will just obey you. Although I am a kisaeng, I am also a proper woman!'
Mongnyong changes his strategy. "I'll exchange poetry with her," he thinks. And so they begin
to write each other.
Soon Mongnyong goes to see Chunhyang's mother to ask for her hand in marriage.
Chunhyang's mother comments that her daughter is a proper woman, and that she constantly
writes poetry suggesting her determination to remain faithful to her husband. But Mongnyong is
persistent in professing his pure and innocent love. Soon her mother gives the O.K., and they
are married, in secret of course.
Soon after, Mongnyong's father receives a promotion to an office in Seoul, and the entire family
must move. Mongnyong and Chunhyang tearfully say their good-bye's and promise to be
faithful to each other, and with that they part. The next mayor to come to the town was a
righteous man and soon he too receives a promotion to Seoul. At that point, a corrupt official
named Pyon takes office. He typifies the evil and corrupt officials who torture and exploit the
He calls all the village kisaeng, yet none of them please him. He finally finds out that there is one
beautiful kisaeng named Chunhyang. The magistrate advises against that, as she is already
married to the former mayor's son. "No matter," says Pyon, "a kisaeng after all is a kisaeng!"
With that he summons her.
Chunhyang refuses all Pyon's attempt to seduce her and adamantly repeats the Confucian
maxim for womanly virtue, "A servant cannot serve two masters, a wife cannot serve two
husbands!" Enraged, Pyon has her beaten and thrown into prison.
Meanwhile, Mongnyong has finished his studies and passes the Confucian Examination with the
highest accolade. He is given his choice of any job. Mongnyong chooses to become the Secret
Royal Inspector who must travel the countryside incognito and expose corrupt governors and
officials. In the disguise of a beggar, he makes it back to his hometown. His mother in law sees
Mongnyong in tattered rags and looks at him with disdain, as if to say "How dare you show up
like that!" She escorts him to Chunhyang's cell where they are reunited. She is scheduled to be
executed the following morning.
Although happy at being reunited, Chunhyang is also saddened by Mongnyong's appearance.
Selflessly, Chunhyang says to her mother, 'when I die, sell all my clothes and possessions. Buy
my husband the finest clothes to wear and a ring to put on his finger.' They part once more, and
Mongnyong goes off into the night.
The next morning Pyon holds a great feast in honor of his birthday. Chunhyang is brought out
and is asked if she will become his concubine. She refuses and is sentenced to death. Just
before she is killed a beggar appears and says, 'stop.' He then takes off his costume and shows
his royal inspector's seal. He saves Chunhyang and punishes Pyon. They live happily ever after.