What is the Story of Chunhyang, a Korean literary classic?


This month we visited Namwon in North Jeolla province. Namwon’s claim to fame is that it is the hometown of Chunhyang, the heroine in the The Story of Chunhyang, a Korean literary classic. It is supposedly based on a true story which occurred during the reign of King Sukjong (r.1674-1720)

A young nobleman, Yi Mongnyong, the son of the magistrate of Namwon falls in love and marries Seong Chunhyang, the daughter of a servant class gisaeng. So they overcome strict social barriers to be together. The couple meet for the first time on May 5th in springtime and so Namwon Chunhyang Festival is held every year around that time (btw – Chunhyang’s name means ‘fragrance of spring’, chun = spring, hyang = fragrance)

Apparently there are over 100 versions of this story which was popular in Joseon times when the ideal qualities of a woman were virtuousness and faithfulness. See here for more examples of virtuous Joseon ladies.

And here’s the story in a nutshell:


(above) the story of Chunhyang in pictures on the walls at the Namwon Theme Park 


The young nobleman Mongnyong meets Chunhyang. They fall in love. But he has to move to the capital when his father gets promoted and he himself has to take the civil service exam. Still, he promises to come back for her. While he’s away (for ages) she waits faithfully. But she’s beautiful and the new (and corrupt) magistrate wants her to be his gisaeng. She refuses (again and again), so he beats her and puts her in prison. Eventually her man comes back as a royal undercover investigator. He reveals the dodgy dealings of the bad magistrate and gets rewarded by the king. Chunhyang is given the raised status of lady of royal virtue and so they can marry and (I guess) they live happily ever after. 



So in Namwon there are several tourists attractions related to the love story. The most important attraction is Gwanghalluwon, the Joseon garden where the lovers first meet.

Gwanghallu Pavilion (above – treasure no. 281) in the garden was built by a renowned scholar, Hwang Hui, in 1419 during King Sejong’s reign. But the pavilion became famous with the story of Chunhyang. The young nobleman hears about Chunhyang’s beauty and first sees her in the garden where she is relaxing on a swing on a warm spring day.

Lots of dramas and films have used the garden for filming including The Slave Hunters (2010 KBS), The Rooftop Prince (2012 SBS) and Jang Ok Jeong (2013 SBS)


Here in the garden, we can see the ojakgyo bridge (above) which represents the love of Seong Chunhyang and the nobleman Yi Mongnyong. The legend goes that if couples walk on the bridge their relationships will improve and their children will have a good future. (The name of the bridge – o-jak – means ‘crow and magpie’ and refers to the bridge built once a year by crows and magpies for the famous mythical lovers in the legend of Gyeonu and Jingnyeo )

So anyway, in the version of the story that I read, the young man falls for Chunhyang and goes to meet her mother, the gisaeng Wolmae. (Chunhyang’s father was a nobleman but has already died) Mongnyong admits that he can’t give Chunhyang a formal ceremony (because of the difference in their social status) but offers a ‘verbal promise’. But their romance is cut short when his father gets a high position in the government and his family moves to Hanyang, the capital. He promises to come back for her though.


In the garden there’s also a shrine for Chunhyang which was built in 1931 by local community leaders and female entertainers to bring attention to Chunhyang and commemorate her loyalty. Ancestral rites have been carried out since it was built.


And the legend goes that if you make a wish here, you will get married. So many people visit the shrine! The original portrait of Chunhyang in the shrine (below, top left) was destroyed during the Korean war but this one dates from 1961.



After visiting the garden, we have to head over to the theme park for the rest of the story. There’s an entrance fee of 3,000 won and a stairway with artwork leads up to the park. (or you can take the escalator). Here we can look at reconstructions of the magistrate’s government buildings and the prison amongst other things.


Back to the story. The new magistrate arrives in Namwon and hears all about Chunhyang’s beauty and wants to meet her. So he has a party and insists that all the gisaeng attend. But since Chunhyang is technically not a gisaeng, but the daughter of a gisaeng, she doesn’t come. The magistrate gets annoyed and sends his men to get her. Still she refuses saying that she is betrothed to a nobleman and it wouldn’t be proper. This makes the magistrate angry – he doesn’t believe that the nobleman will every come back for a low class girl like her.

Anyway, Chunhyang is dragged before the magistrate and STILL refuses to serve him. So he has her taken away and beaten – (bottom left) All the villagers feel sad because she is so beautiful and loyal…


Meanwhile, Yi Mongnyong has passed the civil service exam and is given the  job of undercover inspector for jeolla province. He is sent in disguise to check that the government workers are not doing anything dodgy. When he arrives he also discovers that his love has been beaten and thrown in prison!

Mongnyong manages to reveal all the bad things that the magistrate and his men have been up to and Chunhyang is released from prison. Mongnyong takes her and her mother to Hanyang where he receives various awards from the king for his good work. Chunhyang’s status is raised to a lady of royal virtue. And they get married.

So that’s the story. I read it in a bilingual book from the Korean Classical Literature Institute but I can’t recommend this version because although the English is understandable – most of the time – it isn’t very easy or enjoyable to read because of the grammatical mistakes amongst other problems.

But this is such a famous story that many books, films and dramas have been based on it. I see that there are some other versions of the story at Amazon and a film which came out in 2000, Chunhyang (above). I haven’t seen this film but the reviews are good. It’s a pansori film and has won several awards.



Around Namwon couples can do some romantic stuff. You can walk along the riverside under the cherry blossoms in springtime and look out at a large figure of Chunhyang. And then write a message on heart shaped paper and tie it to the bridge overlooking the river.

You can go for a ride in the swan boats. And if you’re really serious, you can stand on the ‘propose zone’ and well, propose I suppose. I don’t recommend doing that at the moment since there is quite a lot of construction work happening and the view from the propose zone is a building site. It might be nice in a few months though? if you like that sort of thing…



I have to mention food in Namwon since eating is always high on the agenda when we go anywhere. If the must-see sight is Gwanghalluwon Garden, then the must-eat dish is chuotang 추어탕 – hot and spicy crushed loach (mudfish) soup. Mr Kim isn’t keen on mudfish but you can’t go to Namwon and not try the local delicacy…

It’s like a slightly spicy soybean stew full of shiregi (radish leaves) and crushed fish. The meal comes with a bowl of rice, side dishes, kimchi and some deep fried loach on the side. Some people like to put the rice in the soup and eat it together.

I enjoyed it. Perilla powder thickens the soup and takes away the saltiness of the soybean paste and any fishiness. And it’s very healthy as well as reasonably priced 8,000 won for the standard soup and 10,000 won for the special. There is no shortage of chuotang restaurants in Namwon but it isn’t the sort of meal where you sit and linger and chat with a few drinks. And some of the popular restaurants shut early too- at 8pm. So I think it’s more of a nourishing lunch to have in between sightseeing.


3 thoughts on “What is the Story of Chunhyang, a Korean literary classic?

  • May 2, 2016 at 10:39 am

    My mom narrated Chunhyang’s story briefly to me before and I was really intrigued by it. It’s nice to hear a more detailed version of. I grinned at the propose zone because it looked way too public to be a nice place to propose… not to mention the unphotogenic construction going on behind it. 😀

    • May 5, 2016 at 6:00 pm

      Yes, whilst I think the idea of using the story of Chunhyang to promote Namwon as a city of romance isn’t a bad idea, I’d just be more embarrassed than anything else if I had to stand on the ‘propose zone’! 😕 There must be more ‘romantic’ ideas out there…

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