The Tale of Chunhyang
The Chunhyangjeon is one of Korea’s most iconic stories. Although its author and date of composition are
unknown, it most likely originated as a work of pansori, a form of musical storytelling involving song and percussion, and
was later adapted into prose during the reign of either King Sukjong (r. 1674–1720) or King Yeongjo (r. 1724–1776). The
classic love story has since been rendered into several films, plays and other dramatic forms. Multiple versions exist, but
they all adhere to the same basic plot.
* * * * *
There once was a gisaeng, or female musician/entertainer, named
Wolmae, who lived in Namwon, Jeollabuk-do. The gisaeng class, although
usually refined and cultured, were viewed with contempt by the noble and
upper classes. Wolmae, eager to escape her low status, worked her way
into the heart of a civil minister, who eventually took her as his second wife.
Wolmae then gave birth to a daughter whom she named Chunhyang,
meaning “scent of spring.”
Some 16 years later, Yi Mong-ryong,
the son of the district magistrate, was out for a
walk, taking in the spring beauty, when he
spotted a girl on a swing. She was the loveliest
sight he’d ever beheld. Desperate to meet the
lovely woman, Mong-ryong sent his servant to
arrange a meeting with her. Although reluctant
at first, Chunhyang agreed to meet her suitor
at Gwanghallu Pavilion, a popular leisure spot.
Although Chunhyang remained aloof, Mong-ryong was wholly smitten. He instantly
decided he wanted to marry her, and went to Wolmae to ask for permission. Aware that
marrying into a prestigious family could lead to a better life, Wolmae gave her full approval. Constricting traditions,
however, prevented Mong-ryong from wedding until he passed the civil service exam. Fortunately, however, Chunhyang
eventually saw the sincerity of Mong-ryong’s passion and fell in love with him. For a sweet, short while, the two lived a
happy, peaceful existence while Mong-ryong studied for his exam.
Then one day, Mong-ryong’s father brought misfortune to the loving couple by getting promoted to a position in
Seoul, requiring him and his family to relocate. Because Chunhyang was the daughter of a gisaeng, Mong-ryong’s father
made it very clear that they couldn’t risk their family honor by taking her with them. Soaked in tears, Mong-ryong and
Chunhyang embraced each other and said their goodbyes, promising to remain true until their reunion. Mong-ryong
vowed to pass his exams, earn a respectable title and come back to marry Chunhyang with honor.
Upon leaving, Mong-ryong’s father was soon replaced by a new magistrate, Byeon Hak-do, who was greedy and
licentious. He ignored his duties and exploited the local population to feed his private appetites. After witnessing
Chunhyang’s beauty, he demanded that she sleep with him, but she adamantly refused, declaring she had only one true
love. Infuriated, Hak-do tortured her and threw her in prison. After a few months, just as Chunhyang was on the verge of
death, Mong-ryong returned, with a respectful title as he had promised.
Before ousting Hak-do and freeing several political prisoners, he disguised himself as a homeless man and
approached Chunhyang to see how she’d treat him. She was polite and kind, but made it very clear that she had only one
true love. When Mongryong finally revealed himself, the two lovers kissed and embraced each other, rejoicing in their
reunion. After righting the wrongs of Hak-do, Mong-ryong made Chunhyang his official bride and took her with him to
Seoul, where the king rewarded Mong-ryong’s accomplishments with a promotion. They lived happily ever after.