[Inkstone] Goodbye and Hello, Chunhyang: A Brief Discussion on The Tale of Chunhyang in All Its Rich Variations

  • onJune 11, 2020
  • Vol.48 Summer 2020
  • byKwon Kyong-Mi

The Tale of Chunhyang is the most popular Korean folktale whose earliest extant record dates back to the seventeenth century. Since then, it has maintained its cultural status by adapting to different genres and media. The plot is simple: star-crossed lovers reunite after overcoming numerous obstacles. It is a fairy tale in that the actual union of an upper class yangban and a female courtesan gisaeng, who held the lowest status in Joseon society, is as likely as a wealthy businessman marrying a sex worker (remember Pretty Woman?). 

The Tale of Chunhyang, however, underwent a major transformation at the turn of the twentieth century when a famous writer took it upon himself to educate and “modernize” the masses. This writer, Yi Hae-jo, rewrote the story in hangeul under the new title “The Imprisoned Flower” (Okjunghwa) in 1912. His adaptation focuses less on the class conflict but more on the young and beautiful couple’s romance, albeit with an emphasis on Chunhyang’s chastity and virtue. He thus avoided the sexual innuendo and symbols rampant in many older variations. Yi never explicitly explained why he chose The Tale of Chunhyang, which he openly disapproved of despite its beloved status. Yi felt that people should be reading new novels and foreign literature to learn about the new modern world. To his dismay, however, his version immediately attracted a wide readership and became the prototype of further adaptations. Particularly from the 1920s, the folktale gained new momentum when it was adapted on screen as both the first silent film as well as the first talkie film of Korea. The Tale of Chunhyang was refashioned into a modern romance on screens and in theaters and even those who could not afford to buy tickets could now hear audio versions from their generous neighbors’ gramophones that were quickly becoming a must-have item. The film adaptations of the folktale that quickly became a guaranteed ticket seller thus served as “new modes of organizing vision and sensory perception” and catalyzed what Miriam Hansen calls “vernacular modernism.”1

Spurred on by its enduring popularity, “Chunhyang” in particular gained cultural significance when Korean and Japanese intellectuals engaged in many roundtable discussions about the translatability of the folktale. Korean intellectuals argued that Chunhyang’s indomitable spirit and her unsurpassed “single-hearted devotion” could not be translated into other languages. Her willingness to defy the evil magistrate and give up her life to hold true to her love resonated with many Koreans who resented the Japanese for occupying their nation and taking their freedom away from them. In this way Chunhyang became a national allegory and a paragon of virtuous femininity, maintaining its cultural status and visibility even in postwar Korea. 

Some writers, however, attempted to transform Chunhyang into a “new woman” or a “wild shrew” who was not so willing to let men have their own way with her. Kim Gyu-taek (1906‒1962), for example, published two comic adaptations in 1932 and 1941 (though he never completed the latter due to Japan’s total war mobilization effort that shut down many Korean publishing industries). In his comic adaptations, written in hangeul mixed with Chinese characters as well as with Romanized Japanese and English words, Kim envisions Chunhyang as a “modern girl” determined to hold on to her lover lest he cheat on her or desert her for a better life in the city. Aptly entitled, “The Tale of Modern Chunhyang” (Modeon Chunhyangjeon) and “The Tale of Willful Chunhyang” (Eokji Chunhyangjeon) respectively, Kim illustrates Korea caught between the old and new ways of life. Instead of the traditional Korean instrument gayageum, Chunhyang plucks guitar strings to sing for her beloved next to photos of iconic silent film stars Charlie Chaplin and Clara Bow. She eagerly waits for a mailman to deliver her love letters while her in-laws fret over the cost of a diamond ring they may have to purchase for their prospective daughter-in-law. Meanwhile, the lovers toast their union with beer instead of rice wine, and later the town welcomes the new magistrate with orchestral music and waltz dances. Yi Mongryong, Chunhyang’s lover also appears as a “modern boy,” packing whiskey and lighting a cigar as he drives the “donkey car” to Gwanghallu Pavilion. There, through his binoculars, he watches Chunhyang riding a swing to compete in a national contest. 

Instead of a meek Chunhyang tearfully sending her beloved away, Kim portrays her as an enraged vixen whose face blows up to the size of “White Tiger Z,” the first German airplane to ever fly over Korea in 1929. She throttles Mongryong so hard that his eyes bulge and his tongue hangs loosely from his drooling mouth. She soon releases him but tearfully warns him that she will kill herself so her angry spirit can gouge his eyes out if he ever looks at another woman. Or she will become an evil monster who will devour him alive if he dare sleeps around. Gone is the chaste and virtuous Chunhyang: she is a transformed woman capable of throwing a chair at the new magistrate when he tries to rape her. For her defiance, she is about to be punished by “waterboarding,” the most common torture method for political prisoners and independent fighters in colonial Korea. However, she takes matters into her own hands and removes her clothes to reveal a swimsuit underneath before nimbly climbing onto a hanging bar and swinging herself upside down “like a true Olympic gymnast.” Sure enough, just a few years prior to Kim’s publications, women began participating in the world gymnastic events for the first time in history. 

Finally, Chunhyang declares her “single-hearted devotion” to her husband Mongryong when she rejects the new magistrate’s order to serve him. This particular section of the comic book thus shows Mongryong’s face cheering her on from the top corner of the image frame, urging her to be steadfast and to prove her chastity to a world in which such virtue has long disappeared. The modern world as they know it and as showcased by Kim Gyu-taek is the one in which new or foreign goods flood the market: Gucci products, almond-papaya facial creams, high heels, and fashionable Western suits. Similarly, modern girls and boys freely roamed the streets of Korea, visualizing modernity vis-à-vis consumer culture (beer, guitars, gramophones, etc.) or new images (new woman, modern girl) and values (the freedom to date before marriage or the right to choose one’s spouse). 

Many more parodies followed even in postwar Korea: sometimes Chunhyang is a sex worker (yanggongju) who waits in futility for her lover, an American soldier, to return to Korea and save her from despair and poverty (“This Chunhyang,” 1958). She is a conniving scam artist determined to improve her lot by luring a rich man (“A Song from Prison,” 1990). In a Japanese cartoon, she is a sorceress who saves and protects innocent people from corrupt officials and evil monsters (“A New Tale of Chunhyang,” 1996). She even falls in love with a male servant in the most recent film adaptation (The Servant, 2010). Such parodies completely broke away from the canonized version of the folktale and served as a political or social satire of Korean society but could not attain the same cultural status of the virtuous Chunhyang. 

That is, not until a TV drama titled Delightful Girl Chunhyang aired in 2005. The folktale had resurfaced in the mainstream just when it seemed ready to recede into the background and exist merely as a concept or value from a bygone period. The main character in the drama is not afraid to pursue her man, but is ready to leave him for another should he fail to appreciate her love. She’s a capable woman in her own right and does not need a knight in shining armor as she is the one doing the rescuing. By shifting its focus to the young lovers’ growth from youth to adulthood, the drama portrayed them as individuals with flaws whose uncertainties resonated with contemporary audiences from Korea and abroad. Audiences now seem to crave for and desire a new prototype of femininity, or rather, a drastic transformation of the folktale but one that keeps its ideal romance intact. Or it might be that they are simply ready to say goodbye to the old Chunhyang and welcome a new one that is determined to pave her own path. Perhaps Chunhyang will undergo another metamorphosis and reclaim her cultural status befitting a new, twenty-first century Korea.


1 See the text of the UNESCO’s Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (2003), which emphasizes protection and preservation of cultural heritage.

Kwon Kyong-Mi
Ewha Womans University