Monday, December 04, 2006

Heungbu and Nolbu

In Korean class last week we discussed "Heungbu & Nolbu". It's probably the single most well-known Korean folk story - every Korean knows the story, and it's part of basic cultural literacy here.

Heungbu and Nolbu were brothers. Older brother Nolbu was greedy and cruel. Younger brother Heungbu was kind and good-hearted. They both found wives with personalities to match their own. They inherited a fortune from their father, but Nolbu had Heungbu and his family kicked off the family estate.

Heungbu, his wife, and their many children settled some distance away and began a marginal existence. Heungbu could not grow enough food for his family, and when he came to his brother's house to beg for food, Nolbu's wife chased him away. Even as his children neared starvation, Heungbu stayed peaceful and law-abiding.

One day a huge snake attacked a family of swallows that had made their nest in the eaves of Heungbu's house. Heungbu chased the snake away, but not before a baby swallow fell from the nest and broke its leg. Heungbu carefully set the bird's leg and bandaged it with cloth, and the bird rejoined its family.

The swallows flew south that fall. When they returned the following spring, a swallow approached Heungbu and gave him a seed. Heungbu planted the seed near his home, and throughout the summer he and his family watched as a tree grew and sprouted giant melons. When fall came and the melons were fully ripe, Heungbu and his wife cut one open, only to have precious jewels and gold coins spill out. Another melon yielded magical builders, who built Heungbu and his family a grand palace.

Word of Heungbu's wealth spread around, and eventually Nolbu heard of it. He summoned his brother and demanded to know how he had become rich. Heungbu - who apparently held no hard feelings for his older brother - told Nolbu the whole story. Nolbu listened, at first with disbelief, and then with growing excitement.

The next spring, the swallows returned, and one family made their nest in the eaves of Nolbu's house. Nolbu impatiently waited for a snake to come along and attack them; when no snake appeared, he deliberately broke a baby sparrow's leg, then mended it and let it rejoin its family. The swallows flew south that winter, and Nolbu confidently waited for them to return with his fortune.

The next spring the swallows returned, and one of them presented Nolbu with a seed. Nolbu planted the seed, and he and his wife impatiently waited for the magic melons to ripen. When they judged the melons to be ripe enough, Nolbu and his wife split one open with a saw. Immediately a gang of bandits emerged from the melon; they stole all of Nolbu's belongings and torched his house.

Suddenly broke, Nolbu and his wife came to Heungbu's house and begged for his forgiveness. Heungbu happily let them stay in his house, where they lived peacefully ever after.


Obviously, fairy-tale justice is meted out at the end of this story. Heungbu is rich and powerful, and Nolbu is at his mercy. As the Yonsei University Korean textbook points out though, Heungbu is basically passive. At no point does it even enter his mind to protest Nolbu's treatment, and he never takes any action against his older brother. He lives a completely subservient life, and is rewarded for it.

Of course, Heungbu is the hero and we are supposed to cheer for him. But there's a reason why there's a chain restaurant with locations across Korea called Nolbu's. Nobody would expect Heungbu's poverty-stricken household to give guests much to eat, but you can always count on Nolbu for a good meal.

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