Korean folktale 홍부과 놀부 (hongbu and nolbu)

My source is a middle-aged Korean immigrant born in Korea, but raised after age 10 in the United States. His first encounter with the story of hongbu and nolbu was during his childhood and hearing the story from his grandmother. He described the story as follows:

“Long, long ago, there were two brothers. The older was named Nolbu, and the younger was named Hongbu. The older brother was rich after taking all of his parents’ inheritance, and extremely greedy, leaving nothing to his younger brother. Hongbu, on the other hand, was poor, but very kind and generous, despite having very little.

One day, Hongbu was returning from a long day’s work and witness a snake attacking a swallow nest. Only one escaped from being eaten alive, but it had hurt its leg. Seeing this, Hongbu quickly brought some ointment to rub on its wound and a small splint to support it. He carefully placed the young swallow back in its nest, and returned every day to feed it and nurse it back to health. The swallow eventually recovered, and flew off one day in fine spirits. As winter passed and spring came, the swallow returned and dropped a pumpkin seed to the ground in front of Hongbu. Thinking it was strange, Hongbu planted the seed.

After a few days, the seed began to sprout and grow at an extreme pace. It pushed forth leaves and flowers and eventually several huge pumpkins sprouted. Because the pumpkins were several times larger than normal ones, Hongbu and his wife were curious what was inside them, and so they proceeded to cut them open. From the first pumpkin spilled an overflowing amount of rice and filled as much as they could in containers, but they still had some left. When they opened the second pumpkin, gold flowed out in large quantities, and Hongbu and his wife danced in joy. When the third pumpkin was opened, a nymph came out who summoned carpenters and wood, and commanded them to build a splendid house, after which she disappeared in a puff of smoke.

After this Hongbu became a man of wealth and he and his family lived without want. When his older brother Nolbu heard the news of Hongbu’s great luck, he demanded to hear how he came across such a fortune. Hongbu told him about the injured swallow and what had happened afterwards.

Nolbu, after hearing the story, decided he would do the same. He built a swallow’s nest and waited for a swallow to come and make its home there. It happened that one unfortunate swallow did come and hatched some baby swallows there. Nolbu threw one of the swallows out of the nest and broke its leg. Then he rubbed some ointment on the injured leg, wrapped it up with a splint, and placed the bird back in its nest. Winter passed and Nolbu's swallow returned in the spring. The bird dropped a pumpkin seed in front of Nolbu who immediately planted the seed. Things continued to happen just as Hongbu had described. Then, when the pumpkins appeared, Nolbu immediately split open one pumpkin to see what was inside. However, out of the gourd came many little imps wielding sticks. "We must punish you for your greed," they said and beat him mercilessly. Then the imps disappeared. Convinced that the other pumpkins contained gold, Nolbu struggled and managed to open another pumpkin. This time a number of debt collectors appeared. "Give us money. Repay your loans or else we will take everything from you." Eventually, they took everything and left. Nolbu, thinking that everything would be all right if he could just open up the other pumpkins, split open the third pumpkin. This time a flood of dirty, smelly water poured from the gourd and ruined the house. Nolbu couldn't take it anymore and ran to Hongbu's house for help. His compassionate brother took pity on him and welcomed him. The greedy brother reflected on what he had done and was very sorry for everything. From then on, he became a very humble person. Hongbu divided his fortune equally with his brother and both of them lived happily ever after.”


My source described the story as influential on him due to having an older brother who he always fought with at the time as well. This story is in many ways the story of greed versus generosity and kindness that can be found worldwide. The kind brother is rewarded with his good deeds, while his greedy brother is punished and is reformed. This story is particularly compelling, in my opinion, due to the message that is spread in Nolbu’s initial reluctance to quit at the first pumpkin punishment. It describes that greedy people will continue to be set in their ways until they literally have nothing.