12 The Tale of Hong Gil-Dong (A Korean Novel)

Heo Gyun (1569-1618 C.E.) License: Public Domain 9 CC0 “No Rights Reserved”
The Tale of Hong Gil-Dong

First published in 1612 C.E. Korea

The Tale of Hong Gil-Dong (also spelled “Hong Kil Tong” and pronounced as such), one of the earliest novels in Korean, was written by Heo Gyun (also spelled “Hŏ Kyun” or “Huh Kyun”) during the Joseon Dyansty (1392-1897). Although the novel, first published in 1612, is set during the reign of King Sejong (1418- 1450), it is inspired by an actual robber named Hong Gil-Dong during the reign of King Yeonsan-gun (1494-1506) and is also seen as partially inspired by The Water Margin, a Chinese classic generally attributed to Shi Nai’an (ca. 1296–1372). Heo Gyun was an unorthodox thinker. Despite the Confucian state ideology of the Joseon Dynasty, he developed interests in Buddhism, Taoism, and possibly even Catholicism. He criticized social and governmental corruption and contradiction, and he argued for equal employment opportunities that would not discriminate against the children of concubines. This novel is noted for its social criticism.

Medical missionary and diplomat Horace Newton Allen’s (1858-1932 C.E.) translation of this story, published in 1889 by the Knickerbocker Press, has some typos and errors, but is historically significant in that it is the first Korean novel (not a “folktale,” although the translator seemed to consider it one) to be translated in English though the eyes of one of the earliest Westerners to reside in Korea.

Written by Kyounghye Kwon

As you take notes while you read, consider this question

  • What themes do you read about in this novel from Korea?


Hong Gil-Dong or The Adventures of an Abused Boy Heo Gyun,

Translated by H. N. Allen

Part 1

During the reign of the third king in Korea there lived a noble of high rank and noted family, by name Hong. His title was Ye Cho Pansa. He had two sons by his wife and one by one of his concubines. The latter son was very remarkable from his birth to his death, and he it is who forms the subject of this history.

When Hong Pansa was the father of but two sons, he dreamed by night on one occasion that he heard the noise of thunder, and looking up he saw a huge dragon entering his apartment, which seemed too small to contain the whole of his enormous body. The dream was so startling as to awaken the sleeper, who at once saw that it was a good omen, and a token to him of a blessing about to be conferred. He hoped the blessing might prove to be another son, and went to impart the good news to his wife. She would not see him, however, as she was offended by his taking a concubine from the class of “dancing girls.” The great man was sad, and went away. Within the year, however, a son of marvelous beauty was born to one concubine, much to the annoyance of his wife and to himself, for he would have been glad to have the beautiful boy a full son, and eligible to office. The child was named Gil-Dong, or Hong Gil-Dong. He grew fast, and became more and more beautiful. He learned rapidly, and surprised every one by his remarkable ability. As he grew up he rebelled at being placed with the slaves, and at not being allowed to call his parent, father. The other children laughed and jeered at him, and made life very miserable. He refused longer to study of the duties of children to their parents. He upset his table in school, and declared he was going to be a soldier. One bright moonlight night Hong Pansa saw his son in the courtyard practicing the arts of the soldier, and he asked him what it meant. Gil-Dong answered that he was fitting himself to become a man that people should respect and fear. He said he knew that heaven had made all things for the use of men, if they found themselves capable of using them, and that the laws of men were only made to assist a few that could not otherwise do as they would; but that he was not inclined to submit to any such tyranny, but would become a great man in spite of his evil surroundings. “This is a most remarkable boy,” mused Hong Pansa.

“What a pity that he is not my proper and legitimate son, that he might be an honor to my name. As it is, I fear he will cause me serious trouble.” He urged the boy to go to bed and sleep, but Gil-Dong said it was useless, that if he went to bed he would think of his troubles till the tears washed sleep away from his eyes, and caused him to get up.

The wife of Hong Pansa and his other concubine (the dancing girl), seeing how much their lord and master thought of Gil-Dong, grew to hate the latter intensely, and began to lay plans for ridding themselves of him. They called some mootang, or sorceresses, and explained to them that their happiness was disturbed by this son of a rival, and that peace could only be restored to their hearts by the death of this youth. The witches laughed and said: “Never mind. There is an old woman who lives by the east gate, tell her to come and prejudice the father. She can do it, and be will then look after his son.”

The old hag came as requested. Hong Pansa was then in the women’s apartments, telling them of the wonderful boy, much to their annoyance. A visitor was announced, and the old woman made a low7 bow outside. Hong Pansa asked her what her business was, and she stated that she had heard of his wonderful son, and came to see him, to foretell what his future was to be.

Gil-Dong came as called, and on seeing him the hag bowed and said: “Send out all of the people.” She then stated: “This will be a very great man; if not a king, he will be greater than the king, and will avenge his early wrongs by killing all his family.” At this the father called to her to stop, and enjoined strict secrecy upon her. He sent Gil-Dong at once to a strong room, and had him locked in for safe keeping.

The boy was very sad at this new state of affairs, but as his father let him have books, he got down to hard study, and learned the Chinese works on astronomy. He could not see his mother, and his unnatural father was too afraid to come near him. He made up his mind, however, that as soon as he could get out he would go to some far-off country, where he was not known, and make his true power felt.

Meanwhile, the unnatural father was kept in a state of continual excitement by his wicked concubine, who was bent on the destruction of the son of her rival, and kept constantly before her master the great dangers that would come to him from being the parent of such a man as Gil-Dong was destined to be, if allowed to live. She showed him that such power as the boy was destined to possess, would eventually result in his overthrow, and with him his father’s house would be in disgrace, and, doubtless, would be abolished. While if this did not happen, the son was sure to kill his family, so that, in either ease, it was the father’s clear duty to prevent any further trouble by putting the boy out of the way. Hong Pansa was finally persuaded that his concubine was right, and sent for the assassins to come and kill his son. But a spirit filled the father with disease, and he told the men to stay their work. Medicines failed to cure the disease, and the mootang women were called in by the concubine. They beat their drums and danced about the room, conjuring the spirit to leave, but it would not obey. At last they said, at the suggestion of the concubine, that Gil-Dong was the cause of the disorder, and that with his death the spirit would cease troubling the father.

Again, the assassins were sent for, and came with their swords, accompanied by the old hag from the east gate. While they were meditating on the death of Gil-Dong, he was musing on the unjust laws of men who allowed sons to be born of concubines, but denied them rights that were enjoyed by other men.

Part 2

While thus musing in the darkness of the night, he heard a crow caw three times and fly away. “This means something ill to me,” thought he; and Just then his window was thrown open, and in stepped the assassins. They made at the boy, but he was not there. In their rage they wounded each other, and killed the old woman who was their guide. To their amazement the room had disappeared, and they were surrounded by high mountains. A mighty storm arose, and rocks flew through the air. They could not escape, and, in their terror, were about to give up, when music was heard, and a boy came riding by on a donkey, playing a flute. He took away their weapons, and showed himself to be Gil-Dong. He promised not to kill them, as they begged for their lives, but only on condition that they should never try to kill another man. He told them that he would know if the promise was broken, and, in that event, he would instantly kill them.

Gil-Dong went by night to see his father, who thought him a spirit, and was very much afraid. He gave his father medicine, which instantly cured him; and sending for his mother, bade her good-by, and started for an unknown country.

His father was very glad that the boy had escaped, and lost his affection for his wicked concubine. But the latter, with her mistress, was very angry, and tried in vain to devise some means to accomplish their evil purposes.

Gil-Dong, free at last journeyed to the south. and began to ascend the lonely mountains. Tigers were abundant, but he feared them not, and they seemed to avoid molesting him. After many days, he found himself high up on a barren peat enveloped by the clouds and enjoyed the remoteness of the place, and the absence of men and obnoxious laws. He now felt himself a free man, and the equal of any, while he knew that heaven was smiling upon him and giving him powers not accorded to other men.

Through the clouds at some distance he thought he espied a huge stone door in the bare wall of rock. Going up to it, he found it to be indeed a movable door, and, opening it, he stepped inside, when, to his amazement, he found himself in an open plain, surrounded by high and inaccessible mountains. He saw before him over two hundred good houses, and many men, who, when they had somewhat recovered from their own surprise, came rushing upon him, apparently with evil intent. Laying hold upon him they asked him who he was, and why he came trespassing upon their ground. He said: “I am surprised to find myself in the presence of men. I am but the son of a concubine, and men, with their laws, are obnoxious to me. Therefore, I thought to get away from man entirely, and, for that reason, I wandered alone into these wild regions. But who are you, and why do you live in this lone spot? Perhaps we may have a kindred feeling.”

“We are called thieves,” was answered; “but we only despoil the hated official class of some of their ill-gotten gains. We are willing to help the poor unbeknown, but no man can enter our stronghold and depart alive, unless he has become one of us. To do so, however, he must prove himself to be strong in body and mind. If you can pass the examination and wish to join our party, well and good; otherwise you die.”

This suited Gil-Dong immensely, and he consented to the conditions. They gave him various trials of strength, but he chose his own. Going up to a huge rock on which several men were seated, he laid hold of it and hurled it to some distance, to the dismay of the men, who fell from their seat, and to the surprised delight of all. He was at once installed a member, and a feast was ordered. The contract was sealed by mingling blood from the lips of all the members with blood similarly supplied by Gil-Dong. He was then given a prominent seat and served to wine and food.

Gil-Dong soon became desirous of giving to his comrades some manifestation of his courage. An opportunity presently offered. He heard the men bemoaning their inability to despoil a large and strong Buddhist temple not far distant As was the rule, this temple in the mountains was well patronized by officials, who made it a place of retirement for pleasure and debauch, and in return the lazy, licentious priests were allowed to collect tribute from the poor people about, till they had become rich and powerful. The several attempts made by the robber band had proved unsuccessful, by virtue of the number and vigilance of the priests, together with the strength of their enclosure. Gil-Dong agreed to assist them to accomplish their design or perish in the attempt, and such was their faith in him that they readily agreed to his plans.

On a given day Gil-Dong, dressed in the red gown of a youth, just betrothed, covered himself with the dust of travel, and mounted on a donkey, with one robber disguised as a servant, made his way to the temple. He asked on arrival to be shown to the head priest, to whom he stated that he was the son of Hong Pansa, that his noble father having heard of the greatness of this temple, and the wisdom of its many priests, had decided to send him with a letter, which he produced, to be educated among their numbers. He also stated that a train of one hundred ponies loaded with rice had been sent as a present from his father to the priest, and he expected they would arrive before dark, as they did not wish to stop alone in the mountains, even though every pony was attended by a groom, who was armed for defense. The priests were delighted, and having read the letter, they never for a moment suspected that all was not right. A great feast was ordered in honor of their noble scholar, and all sat down before the tables, which were filled so high that one could hardly see his neighbor on the opposite side. They had scarcely seated themselves and indulged in the generous wine, when it was announced that the train of ponies laden with rice had arrived. Servants were sent to look after the tribute, and the eating and drinking went on. Suddenly Gil-Dong clapped his hand, over his cheek with a cry of pain, which drew the attention of all. When, to the great mortification of the priests, he produced from his month a pebble, previously introduced on the sly, and exclaimed: “Is it to feed on stones that my father sent me to this place? What do yon mean by setting such rice before a gentleman?”

Part 3

The priests were filled with mortification and dismay, and bowed their shaven heads to the floor in humiliation. When at a sign from Gil-Dong, a portion of the robbers, who had entered the court as grooms to the ponies, seized the bending priests and bound them as they were. The latter shouted for help, but the other robbers, who had been concealed in the bags, which were supposed to contain rice, seized the servants, while others were loading the ponies with jewels, rice, cash and whatever of value they could lay hands upon.

An old priest who was attending to the fires, seeing the uproar, made off quietly to the yamen near by and called for soldiers. The soldiers were sent after some delay, and Gil-Dong, disguised as a priest, called to them to follow him down a by-path after the robbers. While he conveyed the soldiers over this rough path, the robbers made good their escape by the main road, and were soon joined in their stronghold by their youthful leader, who had left the soldiers groping helplessly in the dark among the rocks and trees in a direction opposite that taken by the robbers.

The priests soon found out that they had lost almost all their riches, and were at no loss in determining how the skilful affair had been planned and carried out. Gil-Dong’s name was noised abroad, and it was soon known that he was heading a band of robbers, who, through his assistance, were able to do many marvelous things. The robber band was delighted at the success of his first undertaking, and made him their chief, with the consent of all. After sufficient time had elapsed for the full enjoyment of their last and greatest success, Gil-Dong planned a new raid.

The Governor of a neighboring province was noted for his overbearing ways and the heavy burdens that he laid upon his subjects. He was very rich, but universally hated, and Gil-Dong decided to avenge the people and humiliate the Governor, knowing that his work would be appreciated by the people, as were indeed his acts at the temple. He instructed his band to proceed singly to the Governor’s city—the local capital—at the time of a fair, when their coming would not cause comment. At a given time a portion of them were to set fire to a lot of straw-thatched huts outside the city gates, while the others repaired in a body to the Governor’s yamen. They did so. The Governor was borne in his chair to a place where he could witness the conflagration, which also drew away the most of the inhabitants. The robbers bound the remaining servants, and while some were securing money, jewels, and weapons, Gil-Dong wrote on the walls: “The wicked Governor that robs the people is relieved of his ill-gotten gains by GilDong—the people’s avenger.”

Again the thieves made good their escape, and Gil-Dong’s name became known everywhere.

The Governor offered a great reward for his capture, but no one seemed desirous of encountering a robber of such boldness. At last the King offered a reward after consulting with his officers. When one of them said he would capture the thief alone, the King was astonished at his boldness and courage, and bade him be off and make the attempt. The officer was called the Pochang; he had charge of the prisons, and was a man of great courage.

The Pochang started on his search, disguised as a traveler. He took a donkey and servant, and after travelling many days he put up at a little inn, at the same time that another man on a donkey rode up. The latter was Gil-Dong in disguise, and he soon entered into conversation with the man, whose mission was known to him.

“I goo” said Gil-Dong, as he sat down to eat, “this is a dangerous country. I have just been chased by the robber Gil-Dong till the life is about gone out of me.”

“Gil-Dong, did yon say?” remarked Pochang. “I wish he would chase me. I am anxious to see the man of whom we hear so much.”

“Well, if you see him once you will be satisfied,” replied Gil-Dong.

“Why?” asked the Pochang. “Is he such a fearful-looking man as to frighten one by his aspect alone?”

“No; on the contrary he looks much as do ordinary mortals. But we know he is different, you see.”

“Exactly,” said the Pochang. “That is just the trouble. You are afraid of him before you see him. Just let me get a glimpse of him, and matters will be different, I think.”

“Well,” said Gil-Dong, “you can be easily pleased, if that is all, for I dare say if you go back into the mountains here you will see him, and get acquainted with him too.”

“That is good. Will you show me the place?”

“Not I. I have seen enough of him to please me. I can tell you where to go, however, if you persist in your curiosity,” said the robber.

“Agreed!” exclaimed the officer. “Let us be off at once lest he escapes. And if you succeed in showing him to me, I will reward you for your work and protect you from the thief.”

After some objection by Gil-Dong, who appeared to be reluctant to go, and insisted on at least finishing his dinner, they started off, with their servants, into the mountains. Night overtook them, much to the apparent dismay Image 10.4: Hong Gil-Dong Jeon | The first pages of a Korean Hong Gil-Dong novel. Author: Heo Gyun Source: Wikimedia Commons License: Public Domain Compact Anthology of World Literature 12 of the guide, who pretended to be very anxious to give up the quest. At length, however, they came to the stone door, which was open. Having entered the robber’s stronghold, the door closed behind them, and the guide disappeared, leaving the dismayed officer surrounded by the thieves. His courage had now left him, and he regretted his rashness. The robbers bound him securely and led him past their miniature city into an enclosure surrounded by houses which, by their bright colors, seemed to be the abode of royalty. He was conveyed into a large audience-chamber occupying the most extensive building of the collection, and there, on a sort of throne, in royal style, sat his guide. The Pochang saw his mistake, and fell on his face, begging for mercy. Gil-Dong upbraided him for his impudence and arrogance and promised to let him off this time, Wine was brought, and all partook of it. That given to the officer was drugged, and he fell into a stupor soon after drinking it. While in this condition he was put into a bag and conveyed in a marvelous manner to a high mountain overlooking the capital. Here he found himself upon recovering from the effects of his potion; and not daring to face his sovereign with such a fabulous tale, he cast himself down from the high mountain, and was picked up dead, by passers-by, in the morning. Almost at the same time that His Majesty received word of the death of his officer, and was marveling at the audacity of the murderer in bringing the body almost to the palace doors, came simultaneous reports of great depredations in each of the eight provinces. The trouble was in each case attributed to Gil-Dong, and the fact that he was reported as being in eight far removed places at the same time caused great consternation.

Part 4

Official orders were issued to each of the eight governors to catch and bring to the city, at once, the robber Gil-Dong. These orders were so well obeyed that upon a certain day soon after, a guard came from each province bringing Gil-Dong, and there in a line stood eight men alike in every respect.

The King on inquiry found that Gil-Dong was the son of Hong Pansa, and the father was ordered into the royal presence. He came with his legitimate son, and bowed his head in shame to the ground. When asked what he meant by having a son who would cause such general misery and distress, he swooned away, and would have died had not one of the Gil-Dongs produced some medicine which cured him. The son, however, acted as spokesman, and informed the King that Gil-Dong was but the son of his father’s slave, that he was utterly incorrigible, and had fled from home when a mere boy. When asked to decide as to which was his true son, the father stated that his son had a scar on the left thigh. Instantly each of the eight men pulled up the baggy trousers and displayed a soar. The guard was commanded to remove the men and kill all of them: but when they attempted to do so the life had disappeared, and the men were found to be only figures in straw and wax.

Soon after this a letter was seen posted on the Palace gate, announcing that if the government would confer upon Gil-Dong the rank of Pansa, as held by his father, and thus remove from him the stigma attaching; to him as the son of a slave, he would stop his depredations. This proposition could not be entertained at first, but one of the counsel suggested that it might offer a solution of the vexed question, and they could yet be spared the disgrace of having an officer with such a record. For, as he proposed, men could be so stationed that when the newly-appointed officer came to make his bow before His Majesty, they could fall upon him and kill him before he arose. This plan was greeted with applause, and a decree was issued conferring the desired rank; proclamations to that effect being posted in public places, so that the news would reach Gil-Dong. It did reach him, and he soon appeared at the city gate. A great crowd attended him as he rode to the Palace gates; but knowing the plans laid for him, as he passed through the gates and came near enough to be seen of the King, he was caught up in a cloud and borne away amid strange music; wholly discomfiting his enemies.

Some time after this occurrence the King was walking with a few eunuchs and attendants in the royal gardens. It was evening time, but the full moon furnished ample light. The atmosphere was tempered just to suit; it was neither cold nor warm, while it lacked nothing of the bracing character of a Korean autumn. The leaves were blood-red on the maples; the heavy cloak of climbing vines that enshrouded the great wall near by was also beautifully colored. These effects could even be seen by the bright moonlight, and seated on a hill-side the royal party were enjoying the tranquility of the scene, when all were astonished by the sound of a flute played by some one up above them. Looking up among the tree-tops a man was seen descending toward them, seated upon the back of a gracefully moving stork. The King imagined it must be some heavenly being, and ordered the chief eunuch to make some proper salutation. But before this could be done, a voice was heard saying: “Fear not, O King. I am simply Hong Pansa (Gil-Dong’s new title). I have come to make my obeisance before your august presence and be confirmed in my rank.”

This he did, and no one attempted to molest him; seeing which, the King, feeling that it was useless longer to attempt to destroy a man who could read the unspoken thoughts of men, said:

“Why do you persist in troubling the country ? I have removed from you now the stigma attached to your birth. What more will you have?”

“I wish,” said Gil-Dong, with due humility, “to go to a distant laud, and settle down to the pursuit of peace and happiness. If I may be granted three thousand bags of rice I will gladly go and trouble you no longer.”

“But how will you transport such an enormous quantity of rice?” asked the King.

“That can be arranged,” said Gil-Dong. “If I may be but granted the order, I will remove the rice at daybreak.”

The order was given. Gil-Dong went away as he came, and in the early morning a fleet of junks appeared off the royal granaries, took on the rice, and made away before the people were well aware of their presence.

Gil-Dong now sailed for an island off the west coast. He found one uninhabited, and with his few followers he stored his riches, and brought many articles of value from his former hiding-places. His people be taught to till the soil, and all went well on the little island till the master made a trip to a neighboring island, which was famous for its deadly mineral poison—a thing much prized for tipping the arrows with. Gil-Dong wanted to get some of this poison, and made a visit to the island. While passing through the settled districts he casually noticed that many copies of a proclamation were posted up, offering a large reward to any one who would succeed In restoring to her father a young lady who had been stolen by a band of savage people who lived in the mountains.

Gil-Dong journeyed on all day, and at night he found himself high up in the wild mountain regions, where the poison was abundant. Gazing about in making some preparations for passing the night in this place, he saw a light, and following it, he came to a house built below him on a ledge of rocks, and in an almost inaccessible position. He could see the interior of a large hall, where were gathered many hairy, shaggy-looking men, eating, drinking, and smoking. One old fellow, who seemed to be chief, was tormenting a young lady by trying to tear away her veil and expose her to the gaze of the barbarians assembled. Gil-Dong could not stand this sight, and, taking a poisoned arrow, he sent it direct for the heart of the villain, but the distance was so great that he missed his mark sufficiently to only wound the arm. All one of them threw aside her veil and implored for mercy. Then it was that Gil-Dong recognized the maiden whom he had rescued the previous evening. She was marvelously beautiful, and already he was deeply smitten with her maidenly charms. Her voice seemed like that of an angel of peace sent to quiet the hearts of rough men. As she modestly begged for her life, she told the story of her capture by the robbers, and how she had been dragged away to their den, and was only saved from insult by the interposition of some heavenly being, who had in pity smote the arm of her tormentor.

Great was Gil-Dong’s joy at being able to explain his own part in the matter, and the maiden heart, already won by the manly beauty of her rescuer, now overflowed with gratitude and love. Remembering herself, however, she quickly veiled her face, but the mischief had been done; each had seen the other, and they could henceforth know no peace, except in each other’s presence.

The proclamations had made but little impression upon Gil-Dong, and it was not till the lady had told her story that he remembered reading them. He at once took steps to remove the beautiful girl and her companion in distress, and not knowing but that other of the savages might return, he did not dare to make search for a chair and bearers, but mounting donkeys the little party set out for the home of the distressed parents, which they reached safely in due time. The father’s delight knew no bounds. He was a subject of Korea’s King, yet he possessed this island and ruled its people in his own right. And calling his subjects, he explained to them publicly the wonderful works of the stranger, to whom he betrothed his daughter, and to whom he gave his official position.

The people indulged in all manner of gay festivities in honor of the return of the lost daughter of their chief; in respect to the bravery of Gil-Dong; and to celebrate his advent as their ruler.

In due season the marriage ceremonies were celebrated, and the impatient lovers were given to each other’s embrace. Their lives were full of happiness and prosperity. Other outlying islands were united under Gil-Dong’s rule, and no desire or ambition remained ungratified. Yet there came a time when the husband grew sad, and tears swelled the heart of the young wife as she tried in vain to comfort him. He explained at last that he had a presentiment that his father was either dead or dying, and that it was his duty to go and mourn at the grave. With anguish at the thought of parting, the wife urged him to go. Taking a junk laden with handsome marble slabs for the grave and statuary to surround it, and followed by junks bearing three thousand bags of rice, he set out for the capital. Arriving, be cut off his hair, and repaired to his old Louie, where a servant admitted him on the supposition that he was a priest. He found his father was no more; but the body yet remained, because a suitable place could not be found for the burial. Thinking him to be a priest, Gil-Dong was allowed to select the spot, and the burial took place with due ceremony. Then it was that the son revealed himself, and took his place with the mourners. The stone images and monuments were erected upon the nicely sodded grounds. Gil-Dong sent the rice he had brought, to the government granaries in return for the King’s loan to him, and regretted that mourning would prevent his paying his respects to his King; he set out for his home with his true mother and his father’s legal wife. The latter did not survive long after the death of her husband, but the poor slave-mother of the bright boy was spared many years to enjoy the peace and quiet of her son’s bright home, and to be ministered to by her dutiful, loving children and their numerous offspring.


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