In the time of the ascension of King Seonjon the Great to the throne of Joseon, there lived a state minister in the city of Jangan whose family name was Hong and whose personal name was mo. His progenitors had attained lofty positions in the royal court and had maintained great wealth for generations, so they were renowned throughout the country for their illustrious nobility. He passed the civil service examinations at a young age and reached the position of high minister in the government, where his reputation for integrity and moral courage earned him the special favor of the king. He had a son named Inhyeon who also passed the examinations early and gained the rank of assistant section chief at the Ministry of Personnel. He too received the attention of his sovereign.
On a warm spring day, the minister was suddenly overcome by fatigue and fell into a dream. He found himself in a place where verdant mountains lay in multiple folds, fresh waters flowed gently, and willow branches were arrayed like so many canopies of green. In the midst of the fairest panorama, golden songbirds calling for their mates evoked the pleasures of spring. Awed by the grandeur of the scenery, the minister strolled through the land until the path he walked on ended at a rocky cliff that soared up to pierce the sky. A waterfall that fell from a height looked like a white dragon at play, and the mountain's stone wall of ten thousand jang was covered in many-colored clouds. Filled with joy at finding himself in such a marvelous world, the minister sat on a rock to fully appreciate the beauty all around him. Suddenly, deafening explosions of thunder shook heaven and earth, the waters rose up in tumultuous eruptions, and a fierce tempest blew through the land. A blue dragon appeared, shaking its beard, glaring with its frightful eyes, and opening wide its red mouth as it rushed at the minister to hunt him down. Taking great fright, he tried to flee from the creature but it quickly enveloped him. He woke up then and realized that it had all been a dream.
The minister felt a great happiness in his heart, and he immediately entered the inner chamber of his house, where his wife stood up to greet him. With a delighted expression on his face, he led her to the resting place of the room. There he took her exquisite hands and made apparent his intention to become one with her in a decorous manner.
But his wife's delicate features turned serious as she spoke to him. "Your Lordship is a person of high position in the world and no longer a young man of excessive vitality. So why are you acting like a licentious youth in broad daylight and in view of the maids who spy upon this chamber? For the sake of your dignity, I will not comply with your desire." She withdrew her hands, opened the chamber's door, and walked out.
The minister felt embarrassed by the situation and considered explaining his behavior by telling her of the dream. But he resisted the urge as he felt that it was wrong to divulge a secret vision heaven had granted him. Unable to allay his frustration, he went to the outer chamber with an upset expression as he lamented his wife's lack of understanding. It was then that a maid named Chunseom entered the room to serve him tea. After the minister took his drink, he saw that all was quiet in the household, so he took Chunseom's hand and led her into a side chamber where he lay with her. She was a girl of nineteen years at the time.
Although Chunseom was only a servant girl, she had a gentle nature and her demeanor and actions were always as proper as those of a respectable maiden. She may have been lowborn, but there was nothing lowly about her character. When the minister approached her so suddenly with an authoritative air and made apparent his ardent desire for her, she dared not resist his advance and allowed him the use of her body.
From that day on she never ventured outside the house and showed no interest in other men. The minister was so impressed by her loyalty that he made her a concubine.
Within a month, Chunseom began to show signs of being with child, which earned her the animosity of a senior concubine whose name was Chorang. The latter was a person of wicked character who became filled with jealousy when she learned of the pregnancy. She dared not reveal her feelings in words or looks, but she resented the minister for his actions and regarded Chunseom with hatred.
And so time passed, through ten lunar months, until a day came when a tempest blew, fierce rain poured down, and a fragrant air filled the house. Chunseom gave birth to a precious boy whose face was the color of snow and whose presence was as grand as the autumn moon. He was born with the appearance of a great hero. The minister was delighted and granted him the name of Gildong.
As the boy grew up, he exhibited magnificence in both the strength of his body and the brilliance of his intellect. He needed to hear only one thing to understand ten, and learning ten things allowed him to master a hundred. He never forgot a single thing he heard or saw just once.
But the minister had cause to lament his fate. "The will of Heaven can be so callous. How could it allow such a heroic personage to be born of a servant girl and not of a proper wife?" He often grieved over this.
When Gildong was five years old, the minister took his hand and complained to his wife. "You were disobedient to me once, so you must bear the responsibility for this situation."
His wife smiled and asked him to explain. The minister frowned and let out a deep sigh before answering her. "If you had heeded me in the past, this child would have been born of your body." It was only then that he told her of the dream.
His wife bewailed the lost fortune, but there was nothing they could do to change what fate had ordained.
Years went by and Gildong reached his eighth year, exhibiting ever greater talent and refinement of character. He was adored by his family, but the concubine Chorang continued to regard him with envy that pained her in the pit of her stomach night and day. The minister loved Gildong greatly, but because he was born of a mere servant girl he was punished with a switch to the legs if he dared to call him Father. The minister also frowned at Gildong if he addressed his older brother as Brother, and prohibited him from doing so. This became a source of great sorrow for Gildong, who constantly lamented that he could not properly acknowledge his own father and brother, and had to endure contemptuous treatment in the household, all because he was lowborn.
One night, in the middle of the ninth lunar month, the blue sky was illuminated by a full moon and a chilly wind of autumn blew—an atmosphere that enhances the joy of a happy person but exacerbates the melancholy of a troubled one. Gildong was studying in his room when he pushed aside his reading table and sighed out loud. "Born as a true man into this world, if I cannot follow the virtuous path of Gongja and Maengja, then I would go forth to become a general and rise up as a high minister. I would wear a moon-sized insignia of a commander on my waist and sit upon a high seat from which I would order a thousand men and ten thousand horses to conquer the east and subdue the west. In such a way I would do great service to the country and achieve glory. I would then be elevated to become the loftiest of men below the king. And as a high minister I would work for the country with utmost loyalty so that my name would become renowned for generations and my portrait memorialized in Girin House. That would be the fulfillment of a man's happiness. The ancients have said, 'Kings, lords, generals, and ministers are not made from a special blood.' But for whose benefit was such a thing said? I have been born into a situation in which I am barred from following my ambitions, and I cannot even address my father as Father and my older brother as Brother." Overcome with profound sorrow, he could not stop his tears from flowing.
He got up and wandered about the stone stairs of the courtyard, where he performed a sword dance beneath the moon's shadows. His father, the minister, loved the fragrance of the night air in autumn, so he opened his window to gaze at the moon's hue. When Gildong heard him, he threw away his sword and went before him.
The minister questioned him. "What are you doing prowling about in the middle of the night?"
Gildong answered him. "I came out to enjoy the moonlight."
The minister sighed and questioned him further. "What possessed you to be out there?"
Gildong replied in a humble manner. "Of all things created by Heaven, a human being is the most precious. So it is the most fortunate thing to be born a human in this world. And being born a human, it is the most fortunate thing to be born a man. And being born a man, it is the most fortunate thing to be born in the capital city. In addition to those three fortunes, I have inherited Your Lordship's abundant spirit and strength, and I have grown up to become a sturdy man. You have shown me nothing but deep and constant love, so I should have nothing to resent in the world. Yet all my life I have had to bear this sorrow inside me which prevents me from looking up at Heaven with pride." Two trails of tears wet Gildong's red cheeks as he spoke.
The minister felt great pity for him. As he considered the boy who was less than ten years old but who could already foresee the fortunes of his entire life, he feared that expressing sympathy for his plight would aggravate his discontent. So he admonished him loudly. "You are hardly the only lowborn child in a high minister's family. How can such a young boy harbor such a great resentment? If you ever speak of this matter again you will be severely punished."
Gildong could only shed more tears at the minister's words as he prostrated himself over a banister in grief. After a while, the minister ordered him away, so he went to his sleeping chamber, where he could hardly console himself.
• • •
Several months later, Gildong went to the west pavilion to ask the minister a question. "If I may be so bold as to inquire, I know that I am but a lowborn person, but why is it that I excel in writing yet I am not allowed to take the civil examinations in the hope of one day becoming a government minister? And why is it that I am proficient in archery yet I am not allowed to take the military examinations in the hope of one day becoming a general?"
The minister reprimanded him loudly. "I told you before not to utter such resentful words, so how dare you do so now?"
He dismissed him with this admonishment, so Gildong went to his mother to speak to her. "During my time on earth I would go forth to make a name for myself, to bring glory to my parents' names and to conduct proper rites for my ancestors. Yet because of the misfortune of my birth I am treated with low regard by relatives and neighbors alike. Only Heaven knows the depth of the sorrow I harbor in my heart. How can a true man resign himself to being considered an inferior by others all his life? All I want is the opportunity to advance myself in the proper way, to enter government service and eventually become a high general in the hope of one day receiving the royal insignia of the minister of war. But since I am prohibited from pursuing such an ambition, I fear that I may end up leaving home and perhaps committing some unrighteous act for which I will remain notorious even after my death. Mother, should I ever find myself in a situation that forces me to leave your side, please hide your love for me deep within you and wait patiently for my return."
Chunseom replied, "You are hardly the only lowborn child in a high minister's family. Why do you bear such resentment and think nothing of hurting your mother's feelings? You must try to accept your lot in life for my sake."
Gildong responded, "Even the household servants regard me with contempt and speak of me as so-and-so's lowborn child. Every time that happens, the pain of my condition affects me to the marrow of my bones. Long ago, Jang Chung's son Gilsan was born of a servant girl as well, but he took leave of his mother and went up Ungbong Mountain to practice the Way and became renowned for generations. I plan to follow his path one day. So I beg you to forget me for a time, until we are reunited in the future when I will try to repay you for all the love you have shown me in what paltry way I can. Also, I think Mother Goksan is taking advantage of His Lordship's favor to plot against you in some way, so I fear that something unseemly might soon occur."
Chunseom replied, "I understand the reason behind your words, but Mother Goksan is a good and kindly person. I cannot believe she would be capable of such a thing."
"The inner thought of another is not something that can be easily discerned. So I ask you to be vigilant in the coming days and take measures to protect yourself."
As Chunseom listened to Gildong's many troubles she felt great sadness, but there was nothing mother and son could do but console each other.
The minister's senior concubine, Chorang, was originally a courtesan from the town of Goksan. Because she was beloved by the minister above all, she enjoyed the greatest favors and wielded the greatest influence in the family. She was a fiendish person to start with and became ever more arrogant. Every time some trouble occurred in the household, she would always cause mischief by going to the minister and slandering those she did not like. She gained even more power that way. Whenever someone was brought down she rejoiced in her heart, but whenever someone was raised up she became jealous and considered that person an enemy. After the minister received the dragon dream and Gildong was born, Chorang saw that he loved the boy for his extraordinary qualities. Just when she began to hate Chunseom from the worry that the minister would now favor the younger concubine, he began to say to her with a smile—"You too should bring me happiness by giving me such a magnificent child."
But as much as Chorang wished to have a son of her own, she ended up with no children at all. And so she came to despise Gildong to the extent of plotting his murder every single day.
As Gildong continued to grow, his talents surpassed those of adults and his bearing came to resemble that of Yi Taebaek and Du Mok. People could not help but compliment Gildong on his qualities, so Chorang's jealousy grew. She gathered a great deal of money and consulted with diabolical and treacherous women like shamans and physiognomists on how to harm Gildong.
Chorang addressed them. "If you will bring me peace by getting rid of Gildong, I will reward you handsomely."
One shaman, out of sheer greed for the wealth Chorang offered, came up with a wicked stratagem. She explained her plan to Chorang. "His Lordship is a superior man of great loyalty to the country and personal piety, but he is so busy with the affairs of state that he is hardly aware of what is going on in his own household. You should take advantage of this. You should consult a first-class physiognomist I know who lives outside Sungrye Gate. She is reputed to possess the power to fathom all the fortunes and misfortunes of a person's past and future by looking at the face just once. You should hire her, inform her of your wish, and recommend her to His Lordship so that she will go before him to practice her craft. She could then pretend to read his fortune and tell him something that would impress him enough to get rid of that boy. If executed step-by-step at the right time, this plan is bound to succeed."
Chorang was pleased by the shaman's words. "That is the cleverest and most marvelous plan I have ever heard. Go and speak to that physiognomist," she said and immediately gave her fifty nyang in silver coins. The shaman took the money, went to the house of the physiognomist, and told her of Chorang's situation. She then offered her the silver coins, which the physiognomist accepted as she too was a greedy woman.
She looked at the money and thought to herself, "I am given this much to start off with. I will surely receive even greater favors when the plan is accomplished." So she readily followed the shaman to the house of Minister Hong without once considering the consequences of getting involved in such a matter. Chorang welcomed her by serving her spirits and delicacies before revealing her wish. After the physiognomist learned of the plot that was being hatched, she returned home.
The next day, the minister was sitting with his wife when he began to praise Gildong. "That boy possesses the grand features of an outstanding person. It is obvious that he was meant to lead a life of great destiny. It is a pity that he is lowborn."
His wife was about to reply honestly to the comment, when a woman suddenly appeared and prostrated herself before them.
"Who are you, and what business do you have here?" the minister asked her, noting the strangeness of her appearance.
The woman answered, "Once I lived outside Sungrye Gate, but due to an unfortunate fate I lost both my parents at the age of eight and became an orphan with no one to rely on. I wandered about in all directions without a home to go to, until I met a holy man who taught me the magical art of physiognomy, by which I can read the fortunes and misfortunes of any person. I happened upon the gates of Your Lordship's house, so I have come before you to offer my services."
The minister's wife wanted to see the woman practice her craft, so she magnanimously invited her to sit with them.
The minister smiled as he addressed the physiognomist. "If you are good at reading people's faces, then I will have the people of my household come before you one by one so you can tell their fortunes."
The physiognomist was pleased that her plan was coming to fruition as she proceeded to examine the facial features of all the members of the household, high and low, and made critical remarks on their characters and told their fortunes. Her assessments of their personalities were so accurate that she earned profuse praise from the minister and his wife, who complimented her wondrous skills.
They summoned Gildong and introduced him to her. "This child came to us rather late, and our love for him knows no limit. Look at him closely and tell us of his future."
The physiognomist examined him for some time before she bowed down and spoke. "When I look upon this noble youth, I see that he possesses the extraordinary features of a grand personage of unprecedented refinement as well as the luminous qualities of a veritable hero. Yet I also detect a misfortune in his lack of proper lineage, which makes it difficult for me to read his future properly. Was he born of your wife?"
The minister nodded in understanding and replied, "He was born of a servant girl, one I love for her simple and honest nature."
The physiognomist then looked upon Gildong's face again and pretended to be shocked by what she discerned.
The minister found her reaction strange so he questioned her. "What is it? Tell me everything you see."
The physiognomist deliberately hesitated before answering him. "I have visited countless households of both lofty and common people in the city of Jangan and examined so many precious and noble youths, but I have never seen a person of such phenomenal visage as his. But I fear that I would be punished if I were to tell Your Lordship all that I see."
The minister's wife spoke. "With your uncanny powers, how could you go wrong in your reading? Lay aside your worry and tell us the whole truth."
The physiognomist feigned concern that there were too many people around to listen and refused to answer. So the minister got up and took her inside a side chamber, where he bade her speak. "What is it? Tell me everything."
The physiognomist answered, "When I gazed briefly upon the noble youth's face, I saw not only the magnificent features of a grand personage without equal but also the spirit of rivers and mountains deep in his brow. So I dared not tell you of the truly remarkable nature that I discerned in your son. Joseon is a small country, so what use is it for him to possess the qualities of a king? If he should grow up to harbor a great ambition that leads him to engage in outright rebellion, that could cause the destruction of your entire family. Your Lordship should take measures to prevent such a thing from happening."
The minister was so shocked by those words that he could not speak for a while.
When he finally regained his voice he addressed the physiognomist. "If that is true, then it is a great misfortune indeed. But whatever fate may have in store for him, he could never enter the ranks of the nobility because he was born of a servant girl. Perhaps I could forestall calamity by forbidding him from ever leaving this house. And so he would grow old here without ever having the opportunity to cause mischief in the world."
She replied, "The ancients have said, 'Kings, lords, generals, and ministers are not made from a special blood,' so his destiny is not something that can be altered through mere human effort."
The minister let out a sigh and gave the physiognomist fifty nyang as he spoke to her. "I give you this for what you have told me, but do not divulge what you know to anyone. I will punish you if a word of what you have said becomes known."
The physiognomist expressed her gratitude and left.
From that day on, the minister treated Gildong with strictness and kept a close eye on everything he did. He was ordered to concentrate on his studies and was prohibited from venturing outside. He was also confined to a small cottage in the rear garden, which suppressed his natural spirit. This caused him to weep bitterly in frustration. He dedicated himself to studying military treatises, including the Six Teachings and the Three Summaries, and mastering astrology, geomancy, and the magical arts of invisibility and metamorphosis. He assimilated all this knowledge so thoroughly in his mind that there was no task that was impossible for him.
As the minister monitored the progress of his son's studies, he became concerned. "He is indeed a special person since his talents are not those of an ordinary man. If he should conceive a great ambition for himself, then surely misfortune would follow. Our family has served the country with utmost fidelity for generations, adhering to the principles of loyalty and filial piety. But all that could come to nothing overnight if he should commit an action that causes our downfall. What a terrible situation this is. To prevent such a thing from happening, I should have him killed."
The minister considered summoning his entire family to explain the situation and to order them to quietly get rid of Gildong. But he was moved by his moral sensibility and could not bring himself to do so.
Meanwhile, the alliance of Chorang, the shaman, and the physiognomist met daily to discuss plans to further subvert the relationship between the minister and his son, to continue to slander the latter and bring about his death.
The shaman addressed Chorang. "There is an assassin by the name of Teukjae who is said to possess great skills. You should summon him and consult him on this matter."
Chorang was pleased to hear this and asked her to bring this Teukjae to her. She gave the assassin many silver coins and told him of what the physiognomist discerned in Gildong's face. She also informed him that the minister considered getting rid of his son but could not do so because of moral qualms. "But I will order you to do the deed at some point in time, and you will go ahead and make it happen," she said and sent him on his way.
She then went to the minister to malign Gildong. "I have heard that the physiognomist discerned the spirit of a king in Gildong's face. I am afraid that our entire family will be destroyed because of that."
The minister was astonished by her words and addressed her. "That is a highly serious matter. How dare you speak of it openly and invite misfortune."
Chorang replied in a concerned manner. "As the saying goes, 'What is said in daytime is overheard by the bird, and what is said in nighttime is overheard by the rat.' I tremble at the thought of word reaching the government of what the physiognomist saw in Gildong. If that should happen, none of us would survive. It seems to me that the right thing to do is to have Gildong killed quickly to prevent future calamity."
The minister replied, "What you say may be right, but this is a matter for me to decide. Do not speak of it to anyone."
Chorang dared not go on, so she left.
From that day on, the minister treated Gildong with even greater strictness, continuing to confine him to the small cottage in the rear garden and prohibiting him from venturing outside. Gildong felt such sorrow and frustration deep in his bones that he could hardly sleep at night. He spent much of his time at his reading table and mastered the Juyeok until he gained the power to summon supernatural spirits and control the wind and the rain.
Even though the minister still loved Gildong for his noble qualities and his abundant talents, he periodically thought of the physiognomist's words and became concerned. He thought to himself, "This unfortunate son of mine could one day cause a disaster to fall upon me, bringing dishonor to our ancestors and destruction to three generations of the family. It would be wise to dispose of him to avoid this course, but I just cannot set aside my love for him as his father. So what must I do?" Plagued by such worries, he could neither taste his food nor sleep soundly at night, which made him look increasingly haggard from day to day. Finally, he fell ill. The minister's wife and their son, the assistant section chief, became deeply troubled and spoke to each other discreetly about the situation. They agreed that given the minister's condition, the best thing would be to allay his anxiety by getting rid of Gildong. But they could not bring themselves to do it, so they grieved over the situation.
At this time, Chorang, who continued to malign Gildong, conceived an evil plan and went before the minister's wife and the assistant section chief. "Every day His Lordship's condition grows worse because of Gildong. Keeping the boy alive will surely result in calamity, but His Lordship cannot bring himself to dispose of him because of his affection for him. So he is tormented by his indecision. In my opinion, you should have Gildong killed and then eventually reveal the deed to His Lordship under the right circumstances, so that he would have no choice but to accept the broken steamer. That would cause him grief, but it would also free him from his greatest anxiety. He would surely recover his health as a result. You should consider this matter carefully."
The minister's wife replied, "Even if what you say is right, how could we do it?"
Chorang, secretly pleased, answered her. "I have heard that there is an assassin by the name of Teukjae who lives in this neighborhood. He is reputed to be a man of great courage. You should give him a good deal of money to steal into Gildong's sleeping chamber at night and do the deed. That would be a good plan."
Both the assistant section chief and his mother broke into tears before the former spoke. "I dare not do such an inhuman thing. But then again, this is a matter of the welfare of the entire country as well as my parents. So how could I not do it?" He finally told Chorang to go ahead with the plan, which brought her joy.
She went to her chamber and sent a servant out to summon Teukjae. When he came, she presented him with an array of spirits and delicacies to enjoy. She explained everything that had happened and gave him instructions on what to do. "This order comes from His Lordship and his wife. Tonight, on the third or fourth watch, go to the rear garden and put an end to Gildong's life. If you succeed, I will reward you with a great deal of money." She then gave him silver coins worth a hundred nyang, which pleased Teukjae.
He addressed her. "This is not a difficult task for me. Set aside your worry." He then left to wait for the night.
After Chorang sent Teukjae away, she immediately returned to the inner chamber of the house and explained what she had set in motion.
The minister's wife heard her out before she let out a sigh. "I do this not because I have any animosity toward Gildong but because it was a necessary thing to do for the sake of the family. But how could I be honored by my descendants when I have committed such a heinous act?" And she wept without restraint.
The assistant section chief sighed and consoled her. "Mother, please do not be so sad. We did what was necessary, so there is no use regretting it. I will take good care of Gildong's body and dress it in the finest silk, and I will also treat his mother with generosity. After Father finds out what happened, he will eventually come to accept it and he will surely recover his health. So please do not grieve so much."
But the minister's wife could not sleep at all that night because her mind was full of regret and anxiety.
(This excerpt from The Story of Hong Gildong ends on page 15 of the paperback.)