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The Story of Chunhyang‘ is one of the five classic pansoris of Korean literature. Pansoris are classical stories which are performed by a storyteller accompanied by music. The origins of Chunhyang’s story are shrouded in mystery and its author is unknown.

Poster of the 1961 film adaptation of Chunhyang’s Story

Chunhyang is a beautiful teenage girl who lives with her mother in a small town. She was born when her mother was in her forties – after her mother went to different temples and prayed to different deities. So her mother regards her as a magical child. Chunhyang lives her carefree, happy life in her small town when one day a new governor is appointed to that place. The governor’s son sees Chunhyang playing in her swing, and he falls in love with her. He visits Chunhyang’s home and asks her mother for permission to marry Chunhyang. But the governor’s son is nobility while Chunhyang is from a regular family. The social gap is too wide to be bridged. This marriage will probably never work. What Chunhyang’s mother does and what happens after that forms the rest of the story.

As the story is a pansori, there are lots of songs and poems in the book. Even the prose is sometimes musical, set to a rhythm. We feel that our experience will be more rich if we watch it or listen to it being performed. It has many references to Chinese poetry and mythology, and it even talks about one of my favourites, ‘The Nine Cloud Dream’. Even the famous butterfly dream is mentioned. Many of the descriptions in the book evoke the imagery of Tang dynasty poetry. For example, this one –

“The dangling sprays of the willows were silhouetted against the candlelight like the strands of a beaded curtain; to the right a phoenix tree was dripping with clear dew, like a crane startled in a dream; to the left an umbrella pine was rustled by the clear breeze, like an old and dreaming dragon; on the big plantain by the window, the first tender leaves of the season were springing like phoenix’s tail-feathers. The new lotus-flowers, like jewels from the heart of the water, were barely above the surface of the pond, catching the drops of dew;”

One of my favourite descriptions is that of Chunhyang playing in the swing –

“‘I looked at what was before me, and suddenly it was behind me,’ say the Analects. She flew forward like a little swallow darting to seize a branch of peach-blossom; and then swung backward like a butterfly that has lost its mate, buffeted against a stone by a gust of wind. Like the fairy of Wu-shan riding on the cloud to arrive at Yang-t’ai, she had a spray of leaves in her lips and a flower stuck enchantingly in her hair.”

Another of my favourite descriptions is that of the governor’s son’s calligraphy –

“When he writes a dot, it’s like a stone dropped from a high peak; when he draws a straight line, it’s like a thousand-li cloud; he writes the top of a character as neatly as can be. His style is like waves and lightning. When he makes a slanting stroke, it is like an old pine bending from a cliff. He writes the character for ‘spear’ like a spreading wisteria vine, and he draws a hook like a taut bow. Even if some of the strokes lack strength, they all have perfect form.’”

The poetry and songs in the book are beautiful, but because of the wordplay, they probably bring more pleasure when read in Korean.

I enjoyed reading ‘The Story of Chunhyang‘. It is one of the great, classic love stories. I think it will work better as a pansori performance or as a play or as a movie. I hope to watch one of the movie adaptations sometime.

Have you read ‘The Story of Chunhyang‘? What do you think about it?

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