Yi Mong-ryong and Sung Chun-hyang: Korea’s Love Story

Photos by Lorryn Smit

The nations collectively celebrate love on February 14. When thinking about love, Koreans admire the poetic saga of Yi Mong-ryong and Sung Chun-hyang, both on February 14 and eternally.

This love story originates in the form of pansori, a type of song-demonstrated and percussion-driven musical storytelling. This love story developed its prose roots during the reign of King Sukjong (1674-1720) and King Yeongjo (1724-1776).

Before sharing about Mong-ryong and Chun-hyang, an explanation of the story’s context is key for full understanding of how this love story overcame so many obstacles and still exists in the first place. What love Mong-ryong initially demonstrated towards Chun-hyang was unheard of and frowned upon during those times. When a higher social class member wanted to associate with a lower social class member to the point of marriage, the higher social class member became lower in status.

Korea’s Confucian class system established order so the country could prosper within boundaries. But love powerfully transcends social classes, demonstrating that traditional origins, while valuable, sometimes need to be modified. Do you agree that love should always win, not any system? Valentine’s Day enthusiasts would, and the same Korean enthusiasts do too, as evidenced by the fact that this story remains an integral part of Korean history. And while this love story currently has multiple adaptations as films, plays, and movies, the story’s premise remains loyal as the words that follow here.

A woman named Wolmae was dissatisfied with her lower-class status in Namwon, Jeollabuk-do. Aching to be more than just a gisaeng (Korean term for a female singer/entertainer), Wolmae sought after a civil minister, they fell in love with each other, and he took her as his second wife. It seems only fitting that this mother should bear the daughter, who was named Chun-hyang (Korean name meaning “scent of spring”), who became Korea’s love-story heroine.

▲ Gwanghallu Garden in Namwon, Jeollabuk-do is famous as the place where Chun-hyang and Mong-ryong first met.

Fast-forwarding 16 years, Mong-ryong, the son of a district magistrate, was leisurely walking when he spotted Chun-hyang on a swing. Mong-ryong became Korea’s love-story hero at first sight. However, unlike how a man typically approaches a woman to express his love nowadays, Mong-ryong arranged for Pang-ja, his male servant, to set-up a meeting with Chun-hyang. The pair met officially at the Gwanghallu Pavilion, even though Chun-hyang hesitated.

Mong-ryong demonstrated a chivalrous move by seeking Wolmae’s permission to marry Chun-hyang. Knowing that this move would provide Chun-hyang with even better opportunities than she herself had obtained, Wolmae approved. Unlike in the story of Jacob and Rachel in the Bible, where Jacob had to work fourteen years to marry his love, Mong-ryong obtained Chun-hyang’s hand in marriage just after he passed the civil service exam. It was during their courtship and Mong-ryong’s studying when Chun-hyang fell in love with Mong-ryong, and the pair lived happily and peacefully in close proximity, but only for a short time.

Mong-ryong’s father received a career position, requiring his entire family to relocate from Namwon to Seoul. Sadly, Mong-ryong’s father did not value his son’s choice of marrying a daughter of a female singer. The two lovers were forced to separate, but Mong-ryong promised that he would pass his exams, earn a respectable title, and return to marry Chun-hyang with dignity.

Unlike the Yi family, Byeon Hak-do, the new magistrate in Namwon, later demonstrated his selfish and devious ways by controlling the population. He even wanted the pleasure of having Chun-hyang for himself. Remaining loyal to Mong-ryong, Chun-hyang refused Hak-do’s unwanted advances, but Chun-hyang suffered when Hak-do allowed her to be both tortured and imprisoned for months.
Mong-ryong passed his test and returned as promised with a respectful title as a secret royal inspector. Naturally, Mong-ryong was not pleased to hear what was happening in his hometown, and justifiably, he was outraged to hear how his bride was being mistreated. Using his position to his benefit, Mong-ryong returned disguised as a homeless wanderer and approached Chun-hyang as she was near death in prison. She did not recognize his disguise or intentions, but as Mong-ryong approached and expressed his love to Chun-hyang, she remained loyal in saying that she had only one true love. In this moment, Mong-ryong discovered for himself how Chun-hyang had remained pure and faithful to him. He then revealed his true identity to her, and the two lovers embraced and rejoiced together.

Mong-ryong saved the day by ousting Hak-do from his position for his wrongdoings and freeing multiple political prisoners before Mong-ryong officially married Chun-hyang in Namwon and took her back to Seoul. Upon returning, the king provided Mong-ryong a promotion. In the end, Mong-ryong and Chun-hyang continued Korea’s love story uninterrupted in Seoul for the rest of their days together.

Korea is pleased to share its love story with the nations. Everyone can learn not only how Yi Mong-ryong and Sung Chun-hyang loved each other and won, but also be inspired by such a beautiful example where love conquered.

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