Last time I wrote about the Heungbujeon ― the story of Heungbu, also called the story of Heungbu and Nolbu. My point was that the story was written at a point when younger sons (like Heungbu) were being disinherited and the eldest son (like Nolbu) were taking control of all the property of the parents' generation. I presented my thesis that the story is really a form of protest literature, giving voice to the disenfranchised and pointing out that the newly emerging changes in inheritance practice were unfair to the sons who were not the eldest. This is one of the themes of my "frog outside the well" analysis of the greatly misunderstood Confucianization of Korea.
Today, I'd like to extend that discussion to other literature that I think is also protest literature. There are three great so-called pansori stories in Korean culture. The story of Heungbu is one; the other two are the story of Chunhyang and the story of Sim Cheong. Collectively, they are not only the best-known pre-modern stories, originating as pansori performances before they were committed to paper, but they are also the three great morality tales of Korean culture. They represent three of the Confucian relationships ― the samgang, oryun. These include 1. king to subject, 2. father to son, 3. husband to wife, 4. senior to junior, and 5. friend to friend. These stories, these morality tales, cover numbers 2, 3, and 4.
But we have a problem. The "father to son" could be written as "parent to child" but most often the male gender bias dictates the format, thus, father to son. But the story that teaches the morality of the faithful, obedient, filially pious child is the story of Sim Cheong ― a story of a father and a daughter! The best example of the exemplary child is not that of a son, but a daughter.
We have a problem with number 3 ― husband to wife; the wife is not a wife! The faithful "wife" who is loyal to her husband at great cost, in some versions, at the expense of her life, is a "concubine" or as some insist she be called a "secondary wife." Again, the best example, the hortatory example of the morality, is a little bit off of the ideal.
Which brings us to number 4 ― senior to junior, or as some say, older brother to younger brother, but the value is not limited to brothers. They are a symbol of all close relationships that are unequal because of age. Close relationships that are equal are number 5, friend to friend. Here the Heungbu story represents the Confucian value of senior to junior and the younger brother, in spite of being abused, beaten and ignored by the older brother, is kind and loyal and helpful in times of need. The Heungbu story is in a related way called a story encouraging brotherly love.
My literature professor at Harvard, Marshall Pihl, used to always say that premodern literature in Korea was didactic ― here the lessons taught are those of the core Confucian values. But there is something wrong. Every lesson taught is non-conforming. The son is a daughter, the wife is a mistress, and the older brother is a scoundrel.
Maybe these stories are not primarily morality lessons? Maybe the lesson is in the twist. Maybe the point is to protest the Confucian values that are being pushed on the people. Maybe daughters are protesting that daughters should not be ignored and pushed aside while focusing on the son. Maybe the secondary wives are protesting the way they are excluded from legitimate status and their children are discriminated against ― they can't sit for exams and cannot marry someone in the "yangban" class.
And maybe ― as I argued in last week's column ― the point of the story about the brothers is to protest the way the eldest son has taken over the whole inheritance that had once been shared equally between brothers.
I think we learn a lot more about Korean society when we look a little deeper. These morality tales certainly work at the "apparent level" ― the way they are usually presented. But when we consider the possibility that these stories are protesting on behalf of those excluded from the ideal norm ― the daughter, the wife of a lesser status and the younger brother who no longer gets the fair treatment he had once enjoyed.
Mark Peterson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is professor emeritus of Korean, Asian and Near Eastern languages at Brigham Young University in Utah.