The Words of the Kirkbride Family

Hungbu and Nolbu the story of two brothers a Korean folktale

Patrick and Cindy Kirkbride
June 29, 2010

The story of the two brothers Hungbu and Nolbu is one of the most typical and popular of all Korean folk tales.

The earliest known recorded versions of the tale occur in several traditional novella or kodae sosol and as the performance text for a Korean sung tale form called p'ansori. In handwritten and printed forms, the story of the two brothers is known by several different but similarly phrased titles, including Hungbo-jon ("The Story of Hungbo") and Pak Hungbo-jon ("The Story of Mr. Pak Hungbo").

Although we do not know the author or the recorder of these texts or the date for their composition or recording, it is thought that they are between two and three hundred years old (Han'guk minjok munhwa taebaekkwa sajon 1991, vol. 25, 755). At the end of the nineteenth century, the story had become such a widely known tale that Horace N. Allen (1858-1932), who compiled and translated the first Western-language collection of Korean folk tales, Korean Tales (1889), selected "The Story of Hungbu and Nolbu" as one of six typically Korean folk tales.

In the period since the end of the Korean War in the 1950s, this tale has become one of the most popular Korean stories, forming the basis of many stage and television dramas. Recognition of the tale's "typicality" is further indicated by its selection as an example of folk culture on a set of stamps published by North Korea in 1963 and as one of four representative Korean folktales in the series of folktale postage stamps printed by the Republic of Korea in 1969/1970.

The Story of Hungbu and Nolbu the story of two brothers

Long, long ago, there were two brothers. The older brother was called Nolbu, and the younger brother was called Hungbu. The older brother, despite being very rich, was an extremely greedy and vindictive man who constantly caused trouble for his neighbors. On the other hand, his brother was poor, but very kind-hearted. Hungbu was a very hard worker, but for some reason he didn't have much luck. His wife and children knew no days but hungry ones. They led a very pitiable life.

One day, just after Hungbu had returned from work, a snake appeared and began to attack a swallow's nest. The swallow and almost all her young were eaten alive. Only one young swallow escaped death. Even still, the young swallow had been injured. When it was fleeing, its leg had got caught in a bamboo blind and it had fallen to the ground. Seeing this, Hungbu quickly brought some ointment and rubbed it on the swallow's wounded leg. Then, he carefully wrapped some string around it to give it some support. Next, he carefully placed the young swallow back in the nest.

In due course, the day came for the swallows to fly south. The swallow at Hungbu's house, now fully recovered, flew off in fine spirits. In due course, winter passed, spring came, and it was the third day of the third lunar month. The swallow which Hungbu had helped also flew back chirping cheerfully. Hungbu was delighted. Then the swallow dropped a gourd seed on the ground. Thinking that this was strange, Hungbu picked up the seed and planted it in the garden.

After a few days, the seed began to sprout. The plant began to grow at a great rate. It pushed forth leaves and flowers, and eventually it bore five large gourds. Realizing that they were indeed wondrous gourds, Hungbu consulted with his wife about what they should do. "Those gourds are many times larger than normal ones. Maybe we should cut one open to see if there might be something inside." No sooner had they cut open the gourd when rice began to flow out of the gourd.

They filled five huge containers, but there was still lots remaining. They then took another gourd and cut it open. This time, it was gold which flowed out in large quantities. Hungbu and his wife danced with glee. Taking a third gourd, they cut it open. This time a beautiful nymph appeared. Looking at the two remaining gourds, she said, "Come out! Come out red and blue bottles! Come out!" With that, one of the gourds rolled over by itself and split in two.

A red bottle appeared from the center of the gourd and announced, "Here I am!" Then in the same fashion, the other gourd opened and a blue bottle appeared. Then the nymph said, "Now you must build a large mansion here." No sooner had she said this, when out of the blue bottle came a number of carpenters. Then from out of the red bottle came a large quantity of timber. In no time, the carpenters had built a splendid house. Then everyone returned to their places. The nymph disappeared in a puff of white smoke into the blue bottle.

After that, Hungbu became a man of wealth. He and his family lived happily and wanted for nothing. However, when his elder brother Nolbu heard the news, he came immediately to Hungbu's house. He demanded to be told how his younger brother had managed to become so rich in such a short span of time. "Hey, you! How on earth did you do it? It's a miracle. Tell me now how you did it." Hungbu told him all about the injured swallow and what had happened afterwards.

Hearing that story, Nolbu went home and decided that he too would gain great wealth. So, he immediately built a swallow's nest and waited for a swallow to come and make its home there. Then it happened that one unfortunate swallow did come and hatched some baby swallows there. In due course, 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 string, and placed the bird back in its nest. Winter passed and Nolbu's swallow returned in the spring. The bird dropped a gourd seed in front of the waiting Nolbu. Nolbu immediately planted the seed. Things continued to happen just as Hungbu had described. Then, when the gourds appeared, Nolbu immediately split open one gourd 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 gourds contained gold, Nolbu struggled and managed to open another gourd. 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 gourds, split open the third gourd. This time a flood of dirty, smelly water poured from the gourd and deluged the house.

Nolbu couldn't take it any more and ran to Hungbu's house for help. His compassionate brother took pity on him and welcomed him warmly. The greedy brother reflected on his deeds and was very sorry for everything that he had done that was wrong. From then on, he became a very humble person. Hungbu divided his fortune equally with his brother and both of them lived happily ever after!

Perhaps the foreshadowing of a Happy Ending after all! 

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