Story of Heungbu and Nolbu – Korean Folktale

1. Text

When asked for a folktale, the informant shared the story below:

Title: The Story of Heungbu and Nolbu

Heungbu and Nolbu were two brothers whose father was very rich, and they grew up in a well-off home. Once their father died, they had to split the fortune up, but the honest Heungbu was tricked by his older brother and Heungbu had to go become a farmer to support his family. Heungbu suffered through with threadbare clothing and lack of food, but one day, his wife told him they had finally run out of food completely and asked him to go beg his older brother for anything to eat. For the sake of his children, he went to his brother and begged him for food, only to get cruelly cast out into the yard, where his brother’s wife was cooking rice. He begged her for some of the rice she was cooking, but she only struck him with the rice paddle and told him to get out. Noticing that the rice from the paddle would stick to his cheek, he carefully picked off the grains and tucked them away, then asked her to hit him again. However, she noticed this, and washed the paddle clean in water before striking him over and over on the other side.

The rice he had managed to bring back still was able to feed his family for that day, and they kept going, until one day Heungbu’s wife told him that they had once again ran out of food. He went to the brother again, and the brother taunted him and offered him rice if he would get hit.

He agreed, and was paddled until he hobbled, but the brother did not give him any food. As he walked home in shame, he noticed a swallow with a broken leg and rescued it from a snake that was trying to eat it. He slowly nursed this swallow back to health, and once it healed it flew away and came back with the seed for a gourd.

He planted this seed in his garden, and to his shock, the gourds grew overnight into huge gourds half-split open already. He split open the first gourd and found a wealth of riches, overflowing and enough to keep his family rich for the rest of their lives. Then, he split open the second gourd and found beautiful clothing and fabric. The final gourd contained magical servants, who vowed to do their master’s bidding and who were beautiful and kind.

Their quick change in fortune reached the ears of Nolbu, the jealous older brother, who quickly pretend to act nice to his younger brother to learn the secret of success. Heungbu told him the story without any hesitation, and Nolbu vowed to do the same. However, instead of saving a bird from a snake, he instead trapped a swallow and broke its leg himself, “healing” it until it got better from the wound he had inflicted.

After the bird flew away, it brought back a gourd seed for Nolbu as well. However, this gourd quickly grew into three rotten-looking and foul smelling gourds, but Nolbu split them open anyways. The first gourd contained demons that berated him and his family and beat them until they cried. The second gourd contained a mass of debtors that seized his expensive things, leaving him destitute. The final gourd contained a massive flood of sewage and disgusting water that destroyed even his house, leaving him with nothing. He had to go beg his brother, Heungbu, to take the family in, because he had nothing left. The generous Heungbu took his older brother in, and was rewarded with happiness and good fortune for the rest of his life.

2. Context

This is a children’s folk tale from Korea that the informant learned at a young age from his Korean American parents. It is less personal since it is a common story that is told to children to teach them morals. The informant interprets the tale as a story to teach morals.

3. Analysis

This tale of Heungbu and Nolbu tells a story where honesty and kindness is rewarded with happiness and fortune whereas selfishness, jealousy and greed is punished with disaster and unfortune. This seems to be a common theme in popular East Asian folktales for children since there are similar tales in Japan like the “Rolling Rice ball” tale which tells the story of an old farmer who falls and drops his rice ball into a hole where mice live. He tries to look into the hole but he ends up falling in. The mice in the hole welcome him and thank the farmer for the rice. They make him mochi (rice cake) out of the rice and give them to the farmer. When the farmer leaves, the mice offer him a box filled with riches and treasures. After getting back, the farmer’s neighbor is jealous of the farmer and hears of the story. The farmer goes to the home and drops rice in it. The mice welcome him and thank him for the food and prepare mochi for him. When the neighbor leaves, he demands the box of riches and threatens the mice. The mice are angered and attack the farmer and do not let him leave the hole. The parallels between these two stories represent the context of very agriculture based economies in earlier Japanese and Korean civilization. These motifs of slightly anthropomorphic animals that repay or punish the farmers suggest the idea that “nature” rewards kindness and punishes evil therefore revealing the belief of the natural order and distinction between good and bad and a higher power like nature enforcing it. These beliefs persuade people to abide by these rules that are understood to be the “natural law” to be kind and not greedy. The punishments in the magical gourds represent the biggest fears of Korean farmers such as violence, debt, and natural disaster. In addition, these tales tie to the idea of Karma, where good deeds are rewarded and bad deeds do not go unpunished. This helps comfort people who are hurt by “bad” people to know that they will be punished and convince them to be “good” since good will be rewarded.