Korean Literature
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Korean Literature

The Korean Cinderella — Review of Rausch, Lee, and Lee’s ‘The Story of Changhwa and Hongnyon’

All good stories of a certain age start this way, with disappointment… and a sudden, swollen belly — a “warmhearted” husband, a barren wife, and the “pity” of “heaven”.

This is Korea, so things twist early with shamanistic intent. A single flower floats purposefully towards our wife, Mrs. Chang. As she catches it, a “whirlwind” kicks-up. From the dust and bluster a small fairy emerges, wiggles into Mrs. Chang’s “bosom”, and poof! Just like that, she’s pregnant.

It is possible in all of life to do too good of a job, and our fairy certainly seems guilty of this. The baby stays put in her mother’s womb for “10 months”, and when it is finally delivered has a glowing, “jade-like” appearance. Overdosed and over-treated for her infertility, Mrs. Chang’s luck swings too far in the opposite direction and soon enough there is a second pregnancy and a second child.

If you are thinking that Mrs. Chang and her husband (referred to only as the Overseer) might be happy with all of this magical good fortune, then guess again. Both children, Changhwa and Hongnyon, are girls, and hence obviously unacceptable! So much so that the Overseer spends his nights stressing about his wife’s karma: “This insignificant woman must have committed many crimes in her previous life and so cannot live long in this world.”

Sure enough she soon dies! But not before a deathbed request is asked of the Overseer: that his heart will not “gradually change” and that he will not “take another woman”.

But no sooner than Mrs. Chang is in the dirt of the “family plot”, her once faithful husband discovers that he is incredibly horny. So he quickly and appropriately marries “a woman named Ho”, and casually tells his two heavily grieving daughters that all is well, and not to worry, because he was unable to control his urges and so “he had no choice”.

And that brief sexual dry-spell really has lowered the Overseer’s standards. We are told that Mrs. Ho is, in all her animal detail, quite the nauseating picture: “her cheeks protruded, her eyes bulged out like a bug’s, her nose was like of someone who had suffered from smallpox, her lips were like those of a cat fish”… it goes on: “her voice was like that of a wolf”, and on, “her hair was like that of a pig…” A ridiculously long way around telling us that “she was difficult to even look at.”

Of course how she looks is a mirror of the person underneath, jealous, angry, manipulative and always plotting for “a way to harm Changhwa and Hongnyon.” So our story heats up with the one clichéd character that it was previously missing: the evil stepmother.

Mrs. Ho goes after the eldest daughter first and plants the idea in the Overseer’s mind that Changhwa is a nightwalking hussy. So to restore some family honour it is quickly agreed that she must be killed — but not before a final chat with a compassionate tiger: “Your mother plotted against an innocent child and killed her. Did you really think Heaven would be indifferent to such evil?”

The tiger promptly loses his composure and starts selectively eating ears, arms and legs. And feeling the heady atmosphere, Hongnyon decides that suicide is the only path forward, and drowns herself in the same lake in which her sister was previously murdered.

Suddenly we are dealing with ghosts and paranormal detective work by the newly arrived Chong Tongho, who by day works as a government magistrate. He soon strikes-up a conversation with the dead sisters, chats-them-up talking about how “pretty and talented” they are, and is then blackmailed by the ghost of Hongnyon: “think kindly of this girl’s pitiful soul and resolve my grudge by exonerating my older sister of this false charge [infidelity]. If you do that, this town will be safe and enjoy peace.”

It ends as any good Cinderella Story should: redemption, unnecessary violence, happily ever after, and all the rest! Except for the limp-wristed Overseer that is, who, remember, happily agreed to have his daughter butchered. For her trouble Mrs. Ho is “cut in pieces”, while her husband is somehow awarded “a special pardon”… he was deceived after all!

Again unable to keep it in his pants for very long, the Overseer takes this new opportunity and marries a third wife. Looking less like a pig, she is also much more acceptable to the eyes of heaven. Soon she gives birth to twin girls, and then, just like that, at this late hour in the story we are having reincarnation thrust down our throats.

This is what passed for a Choson-era fairy tale, and remarkably also as a sustaining moral lesson in modern day Korea… The Story of Changhwa and Hongnyon.

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