Heungbu and Nolbu


J. is a 20-year-old Korean-American college student currently studying in Los Angeles, California. She grew up her whole life in Alexandria, a suburban city in northern Virginia near Washington DC. She attributes her connection to her Korean culture through her family and regular engagement with Korean media.

Context: This Korean folk tale (märchen) is often told by parents, teachers, and older siblings to young children in a storytelling setting where siblings and peers sit together all at once to collectively hear it. 

Main Piece:

“흥부와 놀부”

Translation: “Heungbu and Nolbu”

“There are two brothers, Heungbu and Nolbu. Nolbu is the selfish, greedy brother, and Heungbu is like the good-natured, super nice, and generous brother. One day, Nolbu takes all the father’s inheritance and kicks his brother out, but Heungbu is too nice and says ‘I understand’ so then he becomes super poor, while Nolbu becomes super rich. Time passes by and one day, a small bird, a swallow I think, breaks its leg and falls onto Heungbu’s poor house. Even though he had nothing, he cured the bird and fixed its leg, giving it food and shelter. And it was like ‘thank you so much’ and left. When it returned, it dropped him a seed and gifted it to him. So he planted the seed, and out of the seed—a gourd seed—came jewelry and luxurious things that made him super rich. His selfish brother Nolbu, hearing that story, found a random bird and broke its leg, and did the same thing, faked and cured the bird. The bird came and returned him also a seed. And he planted that seed, and out came goblins and all these evil things that like wrecked his house, so he became super poor. Now the positions are switched, but Heungbu seeing that his brother was struggling, said ‘let’s live together’ and it ended up with a happy family situation.”


This Korean folk tale (märchen) carries messages of morals intended to be imparted from older, wiser figures to younger, more naive listeners. J. recalls learning to be generous as opposed to greedy from repeatedly hearing this story as a child, in multiplicity and variation depending on the storyteller because of the typical oral performance without specific reference to an authored literature. While the values of selflessness and generosity embedded in this folk tale are common to many cultures, certain details in the story make it specific to Korean folklore and culture. One of note is the cultural belief that gourds can magically withhold unknown treasures or horrors inside. In other words, gourds, apart from being a common vegetable food item, in this tale represent both sides of the human experience, reflecting the actions and ethics of those who plant them. As with many tales from other cultures, children who listen to this story by their elders become aware of real world rewarded values through fantastical suspensions of belief. Additionally, some of Propp’s syntagmatic structuralism and 31 functions (narratemes) appear in this tale like “14. Acquisition: Hero gains magical item” and “19. Resolution: Initial misfortune or lack is resolved”.


For another version collected by a South Korean scholar, see 

Kim. (2019). Aspects and Meanings of Narratives in “Heungbu and Nolbu” (1967). The Studies of Korean Literature, 64, 145–174. https://doi.org/10.20864/skl.2019.10.64.145