Chung Hyo Ye Tales of filial devotion, loyalty, respect and benevolence from the history and folklore of Korea Bi Chon Sang (image of a heavenly lady offering to the Buddha) on the Bell of King Songdok made in 771 ad

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Chung Hyo Ye
Tales of filial devotion, loyalty, respect and benevolence

from the history and folklore of Korea

Bi Chon Sang (image of a heavenly lady offering to the Buddha)

on the Bell of King Songdok made in 771 AD. (National Treasure No. 29)


Korea is a nation that has always loved peace and has done everything in its power to preserve it. Based on the teachings of Hongik Ingan which means one should “live and act for the benefit of all mankind”, reverence for the Heavens and respect for human life is deeply rooted in the spirit of the Korean people.

Traditionally, large family households consisting of more than three generations were very common in Korean society. Within these large families, elder family members looked after younger family members, and children learned to treat their elders with respect. They also learned to put the interests of others first and take care of their younger siblings. Such an upbringing serves as the basis for an attitude that places the good of one’s neighbor and society above one’s own. It also serves as a foundation for the willingness to sacrifice oneself for one’s country.

This book is a collection of stories about love and devotion, many of which are taken directly from historical records, and some classic folktales. They are stories about awareness of one’s roots, about love for parents based on the spirit that puts “us” before “me”, about love between siblings, and about love of one’s country and one’s people.

Chapter 1
Hyo: Filial Devotion
The Poor Scholar and the Minister’s Daughter

In Choson Korea, there was once a government minister who had a beautiful daughter. When she came of age, the minister began to look for an intelligent young man to be her husband. Shortly afterwards, a young scholar came to see the minister to seek his daughter’s hand in marriage. The minister, seeing his poor and shabby appearance, refused him immediately.

However, as it was just past midday, he asked the young man to stay for lunch, and had a table prepared for him, laden with sumptuous dishes and expensive wines.

The poor scholar’s eyes opened wide at the sight of delicacies, which he had never eaten or even seen before. However, he did not eat, but began to wrap up the food and put it in a bag he was carrying.

Greatly surprised, the minister asked the young scholar why he was storing the food away instead of eating it.

The young man replied, “I have never seen such fine dishes before, and so I am taking them home to give to my mother.”

The minister, deeply touched by the man’s devotion, instantly changed his mind and gave him permission to marry his daughter.

The young scholar was the famous Yi Wonik (1547~1634)1, and went on to become a government minister like his father-in-law.

Under the Burning Sun

A brush seller once arrived in a village, and went to the village school to sell his wares. When he got there, he found several young children reading books on the veranda of the schoolhouse. Most of the children were in the shade, but one child was sitting reading his book under the burning sun. The man thought this strange, and asked the boy,

“How old are you?”

“I am seven years old,” the boy replied.

“Why are you reading under the sun, while other students are on the cool floor?”

The boy, wiping the sweat from his forehead, answered,

“My family is poor, and my father works as a day laborer2 in order to pay my school fees. My books, brushes, and papers are all the result of my father’s hard work and sweat. I feel guilty reading on the cool floor while my father is working in a field in the summer heat. That is why I am reading this book under the burning sun.”

Deeply moved, the brush-seller praised the boy for his thoughtfulness towards his father, and gave him his best brushes as a reward.

A Visit to Seoul

Some hundreds of years ago, a young scholar who lived in a remote village married a woman from Kwachon. After the wedding ceremony, he went to live with the bride’s family. His father, worried about his son, said to him, “There is only one hill separating Kwachon and Seoul. When you arrive in Kwachon, you must take care never to visit Seoul.”

“Why not, father?” the young scholar asked.

“If you set eyes on a bustling, flourishing capital city, your mind will become unstable and you will be unable to concentrate on your studies. Please promise that you will remember this.”

The scholar was a devoted son, and he always did whatever his father asked of him. Therefore, he promised that he would follow his instructions, and left for his wife’s house.

After he had been living there for some time, however, it occurred to him that it would be a shame not to go and visit Seoul, since it was so close by. He felt that if he did not go and see Seoul then, he would be unlikely to have the chance to do so in the future. Therefore, in spite of his father’s advice, he climbed over the hill and made his way to Seoul.

Once on the other side, however, he felt so uncomfortable going against his father’s wishes that he turned back to Kwachon after reaching the South Gate.

When he returned to his wife’s house, however, he reasoned with himself that it would be acceptable for him to go Seoul provided that he could keep it a secret from his father. Again, on the next day, he made his way as far as the South Gate. However, he again remembered what his father had said to him, and being unable to pass further, went back to his wife’s house.

He repeated this several times, going to the South Gate in the morning and then returning to Kwachon. A soldier on guard at the gate thought the scholar’s actions suspicious and reported him to the authorities. He was arrested and interrogated by the head of the police.

“Why do you appear at the South Gate every day? What are you planning to do?”

The timid scholar replied in a faltering voice.

“I recently moved to Kwachon after getting married, and had never been so close to Seoul before. It was my father’s words that made me behave in this way.”

“Your father’s words? Explain what you mean.”

The scholar related the whole story, and begged the officer to pardon him.

“Since I could neither break my promise to my father nor abandon my wish to see Seoul, I walked back and forth in front of the South Gate every day.”

The officer saw that the scholar was a devoted son, and said, “Unless you yourself had told your father, nobody would have known about your coming to Seoul. But you kept your promise nevertheless, out of devotion to your parents. This is conduct worthy of a true son, and you deserve to be rewarded. Since you are already in Seoul, please take the opportunity to see the city, and then go back to your hometown.”

The young scholar was rewarded by the officer and taken on a tour of the city by a military escort, before returning home to his wife. He eventually told his father what had happened, and related all he had seen in detail. Later, he passed the state examination and rose to become prime minister.

My Mother’s Troubles

Once, in a village, there lived a lazy delinquent. Having lost his father at a young age, he had been raised by his widowed mother, and had started to go astray early on in life. He never listened to his mother’s words, and was always causing mischief and disturbing the lives of the villagers.

His mother was very worried for his future, and called him to her one day, saying,

“I cannot allow you to live like this anymore. Fortunately, I have heard that there is a scholar of some reputation who is now living in the village. You must go and study under him.”

The mother took her son to see the scholar. At first, the scholar tried to teach him to study books and the teachings of the sages. However, the boy showed no signs of progress.

One day, the scholar said to him,

“The weather today is very hot. On a day like this, the best thing for us to do is to find a stream where we can bathe our feet. Also, we can eat watermelon and gold melon, having cooled them in the stream. Let us go now.”

The excited student rushed to get ready. The teacher told the boy to take the fruit, giving him a large watermelon and ten gold melons to carry. Pleased to be going on a trip, the student held tightly on to them, and hurried on his way.

But before they had walked one majang (about 400m), the boy began to sweat in the summer heat. His steps became unsteady, and he was on the verge of falling over. Unable to endure the heat, he said to his teacher, “I cannot go any further. Let us rest here for a while, and then go back home.”

Hearing this, the teacher scolded the boy, “You are complaining about walking only this far, carrying a watermelon? Think how your mother carried you for ten months, how she worked all day weaving cloth and tending to the farm with a heavy baby in her womb.”

At that moment, the boy felt a sharp pain, as if something was piercing his chest. Still holding the watermelon, he looked up at the sky, and soon tears started to pour from his eyes. He knelt before his teacher and said,

“Teacher, I have been so foolish. I repent from the bottom of my heart.”

A Mother’s Love

There was once a wicked son who lived with his widowed mother. The older she became, the wearier he grew of taking care of her.

One day, the son said to his mother in a gentle voice,

“Mother, would you like to go to the river with me today?”

“Of course!” his mother replied, delighted.

“The fish in the river are really beautiful to see,” said the son, who was in fact planning to abandon his aged mother.

They made their way towards the river, and when he had brought her to the river’s edge, the son pointed to the deep water and said,

“Look beneath the surface. Can you see many fish?”

As soon as she stepped into the river and leaned over to peer at the fish, the son immediately let go of her hand. The mother, however, instinctively grabbed on to her son’s clothing. At that moment, a scholar who was passing by and had witnessed this came running over.

“Look here! What were you trying to do?” he shouted at the son, intending to hit him with his fist. At that moment, the mother stepped in between her son and the scholar and said to him indignantly,

“Leave him alone! What crime has my son committed that you should try to hit him?”

Confused, the scholar replied, “Wasn’t he about to push you into the river?”

The woman took her son’s hand and replied,

“You are mistaken. In fact, I was about to throw myself into the river, but my son rushed all the way from home to stop me.”

The son could only lower his head in shame, and the scholar could not say anything.

The True Practice of Hyo

Han Seokbong (1543~1605) was born in Kaesong during the Choson dynasty, in the reign of King Sonjo. His father had passed away when he was young, and he grew up in poverty with his widowed mother. Despite being very poor, his mother made a living by selling rice cakes, and was thus able to support her son in his studies.

As Seokbong grew older and began to study more seriously, his mother began to save even more, and used the money she saved to buy him ink and paper. Seokbong, as a dutiful son, devoted himself to his studies in order to repay his mother’s care. However, to ease the burden his mother had placed on herself, he did not use the paper and ink she had bought for him, but practiced brush writing with water on the surfaces of jars instead, or on stones and leaves.

One day, Seokbong realized that his mother was starving herself in order to save money for ink and paper. With an ache in his heart, he said to her, “Mother, there is still paper left. You do not have to buy any more.”

She replied, “If there is paper left, it shows that you have been lazy in your studies.”

After being scolded like this, Seokbong told her the truth. But his mother said to him in an even sterner voice, “You do not know the true meaning of devotion to your mother. My sincere hope for you is that you will concentrate on study and make yourself a better person. Since buying paper and ink for you is the only pleasure I have, what does it matter if I have to starve? Why do you not understand my intention?”

Seokbong, shocked and moved by her words, left for a temple in order to study calligraphy more seriously.3 His talents were soon recognized by his teachers, and his work was greatly admired.

After three years had passed, Seokbong was unable to stay at the temple any longer. Whenever he thought of his mother, who became a widow at a young age, and sacrificed everything to support her only son, his heart felt as though it was being torn apart. Moreover, he had become so accomplished at brush writing that there was no longer anyone in the temple from whom he could learn. He considered that his studies had progressed far enough, and so he left for home.

It was dark when he arrived, and his mother was cutting rice cakes in the house under a dim light. Seokbong was so full of joy that he opened the door wide and immediately entered the room. His mother, however, appeared less than pleased to see him there. Calmly, and somewhat coldly, she asked him,

“Have you completed your studies?”

“Yes mother, I have.”

“Let us see how well you have done.”

His mother placed paper and ink in front of Seokbong and some uncut rice cakes in front of herself.

“You will write characters and I will cut cakes, and we will see who is better.”

His mother then blew out the lamp and started to cut the cakes in the darkness. Seokbong also began to write in the dark.

Finally, when he had finished writing, his mother relit the lamp. Seokbong was speechless when he saw that his mother had cut the rice cakes into perfectly even slices, whereas his writing was crooked and irregular. She scolded him vehemently, “Is this all you have to show for three years of study? Go back to the temple and study harder.”

Seokbong wanted to stay with his mother for at least another day, but she would not allow it, and he was forced to leave home in the middle of night. He walked away with tears falling from his eyes, but he knew that his mother’s pain and sorrow were far greater than his own. After arriving at the temple, he kept his promise to his mother and studied even harder than before. Later, he became widely acknowledged as a calligrapher without equal, not only in Korea, but in China as well.

* * * * *

The behavior of Han Seokbong's mother may appear strange at first. There is a Korean proverb which says, “Give one more stroke of the lash to a child you love.” The meaning of the proverb is that if you really love a child and care about his future, you should be stern as well as kind, so that the child can correct his faults and become a better person. In the story, the mother's coldness was against her natural inclinations as a parent, but enabled her son to become more independent and devote himself more seriously to his studies. Another aspect of Eastern culture which can be seen from this story is the importance placed on education. A famous example is the story of the great Chinese scholar Mencius, whose mother is said to have moved house three times in order to find the best place for her son's education, finally choosing a house next door to a school.

Hong Chagi

In Chungju City of the Chungchong Province, there remains to this day a monument which Minister Yi Kahwan (1742~1801) built in memory of the dutiful son, Hong Chagi.

Chagi was born in Chungju in the 5th year of King Yongjo’s reign (1759). Several months before his birth, Chagi’s father had been falsely accused of murder and thrown into prison. Amidst these tragic circumstances, his mother Choi gave birth, and raised her son by herself.

When Chagi was ten years old, she told him the story of his father.

One day, after collecting firewood in the mountains, his father had stopped by at an inn for a drink, but left his axe behind. On the next day the innkeeper was found murdered with the same axe, and when Chagi’s father returned that night to look for it, he was accused of the innkeeper’s murder and arrested.

Chagi was astonished by his mother’s story, and quickly made his way to the local government buildings in order to see his father. Upon seeing him in prison, Chagi bowed before him, and then burst into tears. Seeing his son for the first time in ten years, his father pressed himself against the cell door and wept with him. At this piteous sight, the prison guards were soon also in tears.

The young Chagi said, “Father, no matter what I must do, I will free you from these false charges and clear your name.”

“Do not say that, child,” his father said. “You are barely ten years old – how could you free me from prison? The only thing I ask of you is to forgive your bad father and serve your mother well. If the Heavens are merciful, the day will come when the three of us will embrace each other again.”

On the following day, Chagi visited his senior relatives and asked them to put the unjust circumstances surrounding his father’s conviction into writing. He then went to Seoul, and each day before the Royal Palace, held on to officials as they went past and showed them the papers, pleading with them to free his father. After twelve days, Chagi’s story finally reached the ears of the King. The King therefore summoned the Minister of Justice, and having heard a full account, reduced the sentence on Chagi’s father, and had him freed from prison and exiled to Yongnam.

Chagi was disappointed that his father had not obtained a full pardon. He followed his father in his exile and attended to him with great care, going back to Seoul whenever occasion allowed in order to bow before the Palace and plead his father’s innocence.

Chagi’s story gradually came to be known more widely among the officials, and the number of people who wished to help him grew. In the end, the King ordered the case to be re-opened. Chagi’s father was found innocent in the investigation that followed, and released from exile.

In the meantime, Chagi, who had been running to and from Seoul day and night, collapsed from exhaustion. When he heard the news of his father’s release, he was overjoyed, and offered up a prayer of gratitude to the Heavens. Before he could see his father return home, he passed away. He was then fourteen years old.

An Exchange of Bows

One day in the late spring, a provincial governor wished to go out and see the people of his province working in the rice paddies. It was near midday when the governor and his attendants set out, and all the farmers were having lunch.

The governor spent some time inspecting the rice fields, and then sat down to rest under a tree. From where he was sitting, he could see a lone farmer in the distance. A moment later, he saw a woman appear with a basket on her head. The farmer jumped up immediately and made towards the woman as if to scold her. It seemed that he was angry because she was late in bringing him his food.

The governor continued to watch the couple quietly. The wife appeared to spend some time explaining herself, and after a while, her husband suddenly put his hand on her arm and lowered his head.

The governor stood up, and was about to leave, when something strange happened. The couple suddenly began to bow to each other, not once but several times, again and again. Seeing this, the governor said to his attendants,

“How strange. Why have they started bowing to each other in the middle of an argument?”

“We should go and ask them,” said one of his companions.

The governor and his attendants made their way to the farmer’s field. Noticing that the governor was coming towards them, the couple quickly stood up in surprise and lowered their heads. The governor looked at them each in turn.

“Why were you bowing to each other just now?” he asked.

The farmer, trying to hold back his laughter, scratched his head, and said,

“It was nothing.”

“Speak,” urged one of the attendants standing beside the governor.

Embarrassed, the farmer shuffled his feet and said,

“We rose at dawn to begin our work, and when lunchtime came, I sent my wife home to feed the baby and prepare some food for my aged mother. After that, I told her to bring some food for me. It was a long time before she brought me my lunch, and so I was full of anger when she arrived.”

“But why did you bow to each other?” asked the governor.

“When my wife went home,” the farmer explained, “she found my mother trying to catch a chicken because she wanted to eat chicken porridge, and saw that she had broken a jar of soy sauce by mistake. My wife quickly hid the broken jar so that my mother wouldn’t feel bad, and then caught the chicken and made her chicken porridge. I was sorry for being angry before I knew her reason for her lateness, and grateful because she had cared for my mother so affectionately. And so I bowed to her, and she bowed back. But because I wanted her to receive a bow from me, I bowed again, and she also bowed again. So we ended up exchanging several bows.”

After hearing this, the governor praised the couple for their filial devotion, and rewarded them.
The Boy Who Saved His Father’s Life

In the reign of King Injo of the Choson Dynasty, there lived a man called Jo Chonsang, who lived in the county of Chongwon. His filial devotion was known even to the Royal Court, and his name was often brought up in discussions about Hyo.

One day, when Chonsang was in his tenth year, bandits from the mountains came to pillage his house. His father, who was a scholar and a poor man, hastily told the family to hide underneath the floor, while he himself attempted to fight off the intruders with a sword. However, as he was a scholar and not a soldier, he was no match for the bandits, and was soon captured and bound up with ropes.

The bandits began to search the house, and when they realized there was nothing to take, they threatened Chonsang’s father, saying, “Where are the rest of your family? We don’t need your belongings, just tell us where they are, and we will let you live.”

The bandits were afraid that their faces would become known, and intended to kill them all.

“They have all gone to visit relatives. I am guarding the house by myself,” the father replied.

“Don’t lie! When we were coming here, we saw someone else with you. If you do not tell us the truth, we will set the house on fire.”

The family listened in great apprehension, for the entire household was within an inch of being slaughtered.

“It is enough to kill just me, so why waste your time? Kill me now!”

“Do you think we will go just like that? Tell us!”

“Even if I knew, I would never tell you.”

The bandits looked at one another. Venom flashed in their eyes, and among them a huge figure began to draw his sword. At the same time, the others prepared to depart. They had decided to kill Chonsang’s father and leave.

The chief bandit raised his sword, his arm swelling with tension. His blade shimmered in the moonlight as the other bandits left one by one through the brushwood gate. The huge figure cast a sidelong glance at them, and then made to strike Chonsang’s father with all his might.

In that very moment, a small figure ran beneath the sword. Startled, the bandit stepped back. Rolling on the ground with father in his arms was the young Jo Chonsang.

“Who are you?”

The bandit raised his sword once again.

“Don’t kill my father!” Chonsang shouted towards the bandit, shedding tears. “Do you not have a father too? Kill me instead!”

Seeing the young Chonsang, the bandit could not bring himself to strike. He looked at the father and son in turn, then lowered his sword and fled.

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