Academic journal article Folklore

The Hungbu and Nolbu Tale Type: A Korean Double Contrastive Narrative Structure. (Research Article)

Academic journal article Folklore

The Hungbu and Nolbu Tale Type: A Korean Double Contrastive Narrative Structure. (Research Article)

Article excerpt


There is a large class of Korean folk tales composed of parallel sets of contrasting narratives showing how good actions are rewarded and evil actions punished. This type of narrative structure, which I have termed double contrastive narrative structure, can be found throughout East Asia and the world. "The Story of Hungbu and Nolbu," the best-known Korean example of this tale about a good younger brother and evil elder brother, is distinguished from similar tales in China and Japan by the Confucian "subtext" of its narrative which emphasises the moral power of the younger brother to influence his elder brother to reform his behaviour. The Korean tale is thus an illustration of the Confucian concept of moral suasion and not simply about rewards and punishments.


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.

What is most striking about this story is the structure of its narrative. It is composed of two equal narrative sections or acts, each consisting of two scenes which balance each other with parallel narrative content but come to a different conclusion, or denouement. The first act makes a didactic moral point by emphasising the blessings which are the result of good motives, whilst the second act contrasts the narrative content of the previous act with an emphasis on the punishment which arises from bad motives. In the following section, I provide a translation into English of a recent recording of this story. The story will then be analysed and compared with similar tales from Korea as well as from China and Japan. All East Asian names given in the text of the stories or in the body of the article are given in East Asian order; that is, the surname precedes the personal name. The McCune-Reischauer system has been used to Romanise Korean terms, the Wade-Giles system for Chinese terms, and the modified Hepburn system for Japanese terms.

The Story of Hungbu and Nolbu

   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 neighbours. 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. … 
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