This story was told on a Sunday afternoon. She had just heard the story being told to one of her younger cousins, because it is very much the Korean version of Cinderella. It reminded her of the belief that children who showed much filial piety were granted good afterlives, and that evil is always repaid with evil. It is also meant to teach young men to keep watch for evil women and make sure that they were never sought for as wives. It also had the effect of teaching women what qualified as a wicked wife, and what was really meant by a caring mother. It follows very Confucian ideals, which is also an inherent part of Korean culture as well. The topic matter prior to this had been about dating, and this story was just something that came up as a result of that.
In the time of Great King Sejong, there was a man named Bae Mu Ryong who lived in Chul-San-Gun in the province of Pyong-An. He was born pretty well off because he did well enough with business, and his family was good so there was nothing for him to be jealous of. It was just that he had no children to pass on his name, so he was very, very, sad. One day, his wife, while dreaming, thought that a celestial being had come down and given her a flower. In giving her a flower, the wind blew and the flower slowly changed into a beautiful girl. The wife was so shocked by this that she woke up. She decided to tell this to her husband, who responded, “The heavens must have noticed that we have no children and are watching over us to provide that precious child for us.” Because he said that, the two became very happy. After this moment, the wife found out that she was pregnant with a child. They found that when she was born, she was so precious and particularly beautiful that they had to call her “JangHwa” (Rose-Flower) because she resembled precious jewels. When JangHwa was two, the mother gave birth to another child. Although the couple desperately wanted a son, they came to have another daughter. In their mind, because there was no other choice, gave her the name HongRyeon (Red-Lotus). The two sisters, as they grew older, became extremely beautiful and were extremely filially pious children. After raising such daughters, the couple found that they loved their daughters to an amount that nobody could compare with. However, there were no sons, so the couple was always worried about continuing the family line. But there was a time of sadness and the wife became very ill and was unable to move. The husband went and got medicine for her, but there was not even a single change in her condition. JangHwa looked up to the heavens to ask for the help of the gods in keeping her mother safe, but to no avail because the gods could not intervene in the event of illness. As a result, the mother died, leaving two daughters behind with the father all alone in the world.
“In the last life, she must have accumulated much bad sin in order to have left the world this early. Although it is not sad to die, it is sad that JangHwa and HongRyeon cannot close their eyes to the fact that they will have nobody to guide them throughout their lives. All I can do is wish for my wife to pass peacefully on, so that her weary soul can finally change and have rest and be reincarnated into another woman. Perhaps I will be able to meet her again and we will fall in love again and be reunited.” After lamenting so, the old man had no choice but to move on.
Despite having loved his former wife, the old man wished to preserve his family’s bloodline, so he remarried another woman. She was fertile, and was able to bear him three boys, much to his pleasure. She on the other hand, despised JangHwa and HongRyeon immensely. The two girls’ father had fallen in love with a shrew, with both a twisted heart and twisted body. She was clever, however, and was able to deceive the father into believing that she cared for the two girls as her own children. However, that only continued until she had borne three sons to her husband, which gave her much power in the family, as boys were valued more than girls because they could continue the bloodline. As soon as her position in the household became stable, she became extremely abusive to both JangHwa and HongRyeon, who did nothing but behave as filially pious daughters. Despite the constant stream of abuse that both of the girls faced, they did not say a single word to their father because they did not want to worry him or have him feel guilty about marrying the woman. Unfortunately, their younger brothers were no better. Having been raised and spoiled by their mother, they felt no love for their sisters and mistreated them with a terrible brutality. Sadly, even that went unnoticed by the father. As the boys grew up, they only became wicked along with their mother, who cared even less about the girls. But even in such an environment where they received no love and were treated so terribly by their stepmother and their younger brothers, the two girls continued to grow beautifully throughout their adolescence into adulthood. Eventually, the time came when the two girls could no longer truly be called girls, because they had truly matured into beautiful women who were ready to leave the home and start families of their own. Janghwa had actually gotten engaged with a man she loved very much, and was contemplating marriage. After a long period of time with much deliberation, she agreed to marry the man she was engaged to. The father, despite the sadness he felt at giving his daughter away to another family, was overjoyed at the fact that his beloved daughter was finally getting married.
The father told his wife, “Go and help prepare a wedding for JangHwa. She is old enough to move out of the home now, and she is exceedingly beautiful! Surely she will make a wonderful bride. Do this, and do it well.” However, the stepmother refused to do so. Having become very power hungry, she no longer thought of JangHwa and HongRyeon as even remotely part of her family. In her mind, they had become the extra mouths to feed and essentially slaves to the “main family” of the stepmother and her three sons. She didn’t want to spend any of her money, or any money that could be inherited by her sons on the ones in the family who weren’t even hers. And in her endless greed, she calculated, plotted, and finally came up with a plan. Having wanted to get rid of JangHwa for a long time, the stepmother was prepared to do anything. And so, one night, she carried out her plan.
One night, as JangHwa was sleeping peacefully in her bed, she quietly whispered to her son, “We must do this tonight. Go find a rat, and without anybody seeing you, go skin it. Slip it into her bed, and then leave. Let no one see you. Be silent, and be sneaky. With this, we shall finally be rid of that wench who thought she could use up our family’s money for her own selfish desires!”
Her son eagerly agreed, because he was the firstborn and would inherit the money after the death of his father. Per his mother’s commands, he went outside and caught a rat. Using his knife, he quickly skinned the rat. He sneaked into his sister’s room, and hid it under the sheets. The plan having been fulfilled, they all went to bed.
In the early hours of the morning, however, the nightmare was about to begin. Stepmother had “woken up” in a fright, waking up her husband as well. She frantically told her husband that she had been having nightmares regarding her older stepdaughter, and that surely meant something was amiss. Such omens, she had said, could have only meant that her stepdaughter had something evil about her. They went to her room, while JangHwa was still asleep, and pulled off the covers. There lied the skinned rat, which looked ultimately like a very bloody miscarriage. She screamed that she knew something was wrong about JangHwa the whole time, accusing her of being an unchaste girl who had had a child out of wedlock. JangHwa, who was shocked into silence because she was being accused of something she did not do to such an extreme degree, was utterly unable to defend herself. As a result, her father agreed with her stepmother and believed that she had slept with an unknown man and had become pregnant with his child, defiling herself and the name of the household. The shame of not being believed was too much for JangHwa. After all, this whole time, she had done absolutely nothing wrong, and had to deal with the abuse that her stepmother heaped upon her every chance she got and had said nothing to her father. She fled the house in tears to a pond in the nearby forest where she could cry without anybody seeing her.
Her stepmother, being both crafty and wicked sent her oldest son after JangHwa with the strict command: “If you see her near the pond, then drown her and make sure that she does not come back.” He eagerly complied, and followed JangHwa’s path into the forest. He pushed her into the pond, and watched as she drowned. However, he would not escape punishment for having taken someone’s life. A tiger suddenly appeared and viciously tore off one of his arms and legs. Needless to say, he was crippled by this, and was unable to do much. In addition, who would want to marry such a crippled and disfigured person? Although he was the oldest, the inheritance he would get would not help his condition in any way.
This enraged the stepmother beyond belief. She had gotten what she desired, which was getting rid of JangHwa. The cost of having done that, however, was much too high. She now had a crippled son who was essentially good for nothing. She was severely embittered by this fact and took it all out on Hongryeon. Having become sharper and more shrew-like with her bitterness and rage, she very quickly made life for Hongryeon beyond unbearable. All the poison and abuse became too much for her to handle by herself, especially since JangHwa was no longer there to console her and help her move on. Hongryeon left to the pond where JangHwa had died and committed suicide, drowning herself in the pond.
At this time, the mayor in the town changed. It was not such a big deal, as mayors changed from time to time as they were repositioned depending on what status they had acquired during the time they had served at a specific place. The new mayor died though, the night immediately after having moved into the village. This continued, as each mayor following the first mayor died the first night in office. Nobody knew why this was happening. A lot of rumors were spreading around town. Mayors were even afraid to come to the town because they thought they would die. Nobody ever found a culprit, and nobody was ever able to explain just what had happened to the mayors.
One day, a new mayor decided to come. He was young and he was strong; he was not afraid for his life. He knew what happened to the guys that had come before him in his position, but he was willing to go anyway. During the night, he was sitting in his room preparing to go to bed. Suddenly, a gust of wind blew out his candle and he heard various screams and moans fill the air. The air became very damp, and the smell of wet moss became very strong. His door opened by itself, but then he saw them. Two ghostly girls had opened the door, crying and weeping heavily. He had no patience for hysterics, but he felt that he needed to know. He asked them, “Why did you kill all the previous mayors? What sin have they committed that you felt the need to kill them?” The two wept and wept on as they explained their situation. They had not wanted to kill the mayors before him. What had happened was that they had appeared before each of the previous mayors. However, each mayor had been frightened to death because of what they saw, which was not the fault of the two girls. They told the newest mayor, “We only wanted to explain the injustice that has been done to us so that it can be fixed, clearing our names of the shame that they have been stained so deeply with.” JangHwa’s ghost had been unable to move on because she had died in anguish, knowing that everybody believed she was an unchaste girl. She wanted to undo that before she would be able to move on into the afterlife. She told the mayor that she had been framed by her stepmother, who had wanted to get rid of her. Her stepbrother had been an accomplice to this by murdering her in the end, drowning her in the pond she had run to. They asked the mayor if there was anything that he could do to clear JangHwa’s name.
His answer was simple. “Give me proof that they did this, and I will restore your honor as soon as I am able to do so.”
Her reply was just as simple. “Go check the supposed fetus that everybody said was mine. If you examine it, you will see that it is not mine, for I was a chaste girl while I was alive, and I committed no such act.”
The next morning, the new mayor did what the sisters’ ghosts had asked him to do. He summoned the family members who were involved, who were the father, stepmother, and the eldest son and examined the fetus. The stepmother had insisted that the “fetus” had come from Janghwa’s body as definitive proof that she was a wicked child who was unchaste. However, when the mayor asked to see the body, the stepmother tried to say that she no longer had it. She could not see why the mayor would know about the fetus at all, or why he would be concerned with it. Nobody knew what had happened except for her and her eldest son. She had no idea that JangHwa and HongRyeon were unable to move on to the afterlife. Under threat of punishment, however, the stepmother managed to produce the dead “fetus.” When he split it with a knife, the innards revealed that the supposed fetus was nothing more than a a common filthy rat. Stepmother and her eldest son were sentenced to death, and were excommunicated from the village. The father was free to go, however, because the mayor felt that he had known nothing about what was going on and was innocent of any wrongdoing. Plus, fulfilling his promise to the two ghostly sisters, he proved that JangHwa was an innocent girl who was the victim of a malicious plot to get rid of her. JangHwa’s honor was restored, and she was no longer thought of as a loose girl with no morals.
Years later, the girls’ father married once again, having fallen in love with another woman. On the night of his third wedding, he had a dream. He saw his two daughters in his dream, and they were more beautiful than ever. He wept because he believed that he had been unable to take care of them properly in life. They told him that nothing was his fault, and that since things were as they should be, they wanted to come back to him in life. Having died so young while having lived pure lives, they would have been reincarnated very quickly into human forms again. This promise was fulfilled, because his wife soon became pregnant. Nine months later, she delivered and found that she had given birth to twin girls. The father believed that his daughters had truly returned to him in the end. He named them “JangHwa” and “HongRyeon” and he loved them very much. His wife, too, loved them as she was also very kind woman. The twins grew healthy and in a loving environment, and the family lived a happy life in the end.
This legend is important in that it is a strong reminder of what not to be like. It teaches to be honest and virtuous rather than greedy and cunning. Goodness is rewarded with goodness, while nothing good comes from cruelty. It also teaches the virtue of being brave and not succumbing to fright because it will reveal truth. This is also important in that it is a story from my personal culture, and I understand the ideals that are behind it. Confucian ideals, filial piety, and even Buddhism with the idea of reincarnation are all part of the origins of Korean culture. This story affirms that.