Folk Tales – The Story of Choonhyang / Spring Fragrance (춘향전)

Kdramasanonymous is celebrating its 2nd birthday today! As a thank you for everyone who has read my blog and to my followers, I wanted to share something different. Many Korean dramas and movies are based on or have links to old Korean folk tales and to be able to fully enjoy them its useful to know the original story behind them.

Here is one of the most famous and remade stories of all – the story of the loyal Choonhyang. Enjoy!

Yi Doryung is the son of the town of Namwon’s magistrate. One day when he was out with his servant Bangja he saw a beautiful woman swinging. Her servant Hyangdan told the men that the girl is called Choonhyang (meaning spring fragrance). Choonhyang was a daughter of a retired kisaeng (a form of an entertainer) and known for her virtuous. Yi Doryung sent his servant to the girl and told her that his master wanted to meet her but she ran home. When Yi Doryung returned home he couldn’t forget the beautiful girl he met and decides to pursue her.

The next day Yi Doryung went to visit Choonhyang’s mother and asked for her hand. Her mother gladly agreed but said that because he is a nobleman’s son and the two can’t formally get married a pledge from Yi Doryung to not leave Choonhyang will be enough. Yi Doryung pledges his undying love for Choonhyang and the two spend the night together. Yi Doryung visits his mistress for many nights until his father is called to the capital along with his son. Choonhyang sees her lover of with a promise to wait for him, remain faithful to him until he comes back and takes her away with him. She gave her ring to Yi Doryung to remind him of her while he is away.

When the new magistrate arrived he demanded to see the beautiful woman Choonhyang he had heard so much of. Unable to refuse this order Choonhyang went to visit him. The new magistrate asked Choonhyang to come to him but she politely refuse reminding him that she is married to Yi Doryung. The magistrate got furies at being rejected and ordered for Choonhyang to be taken into prison.

Meanwhile Yi Doryung was studying in the capital and passed his examinations with highest marks. The king personally liked him and asked him what position he wanted. So Yi Doryung became a part of His Majesty’s Royal Envoy and he and his attendants travelled around the country disguised, assessing the administrations of local districts. When he returned to Namwon he heard of the plight of its people: the new magistrate was hardly leaving them anything to eat after their tributes. Interested what had become of his lover, he asked the people if Choonhyang had gotten married to the new magistrate and if they were living happily together. The peasants answered that Choonhyang had not gotten married to him and that the son of the former magistrate had cruelly left her behind. Many other peasants praised Choonhyang for her loyalty to her husband but they cried out that she had been ordered to be executed in two or three days.

In prison the loyal Choonhyang grew thin and weak. The magistrate ordered that on the day that he holds a feast Choonhyang will be executed. Yi Doryung, still in disguise, goes to Choonhyang’s house and meets her mother. After she recognizes him he tells her that even though he is now only a beggar he still loves Choonhyang. The two go see Choonhyang outside her window and she makes a wish to see Yi Doryung tomorrow before she dies.

The next morning Yi Doryung left early to find his attendants. They went to the magistrate’s feast and asked for food but he cruelly ordered his servants to kick them out. Yi Doryung climbs the over the magistrates wall and leaves him a poem where he mocks him and his cruelty towards his people. Other officials present at the feast leave scared, believing that someone who dares to speak like that must be more than a beggar. Yi Doryung’s attendants stopped them from leaving and its revealed that the beggar is in reality part of the King’s envoy. He then asks for Choonhyang.

Choonhyang was brought to the envoy who was sitting behind a screen. The envoy then asks Choonhyang whether he will come to him or if she would rather have her head cut off right then. Choonhyang weeps but stands her ground and refuses him too. The envoy then orders Choonhyang to raise her head and look at him. She refuses and says that she will rather have her body cut to pieces than to go to him. Hearing this the envoy, Yi Doryung, was delighted and gave the ring Choonhyang gave him when he left to a servant who showed it to her. Seeing her ring Choonhyang raised her head and recognized him. Yi Doryung ordered for her to be safely carried home and the people of Namwon shouted in joy that the two lovers had been reunited.

Yi Doryung then ordered the magistrate to be forfeit his office and to be taken to a distant island alone and without food in order for him to repent. Then he took Choonhyang away with him. In his report he told the story of Choonhyang and the loyalty of a low birth girl greatly touched the king. The king gave her the title of “Jungnyul booin” (duchess) and she officially met the parents of Yi Doryung. She became his lawful wife and they lived together for many years. The two had three sons and two daughters.

The king said that the fidelity of Choonhyang was greater than of the noble daughters and wished that her fidelity would be an example to all women.


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