By Pauline Park
There once lived in Kyongsang Pukdo province a wealthy old man with three sons. Lee Hong Jin was the greatest landowner in the province and his house was the largest and the most splendid in all of Kyongsang Pukdo. The great square house enclosed a courtyard in the Chinese style, in the fashion of the day, and atop the house sat a roof of a thousand red tiles that dazzled in the light of noon. Lee was blessed with three sons, each more clever than his elder. Lee Jin Myong, Lee Jin Joong, and Lee Jin Su all grew to manhood with all the advantages that their father could afford, and he was anxious that each of his sons should make his mark in the world.
One day, Lee Hong Jin summoned his three sons to appear before him. “My sons, the time has come for me to retire from worldly affairs and to settle upon one of you the running of this great estate,” their father said. “Tradition holds that it is the first son who should inherit; however, I shall choose as my heir from among you the one who can most ably enhance the power and prestige of this family.”
To that question, the first-born son replied as follows: “Esteemed Father, I shall assign to our most loyal servants the task of managing this estate, should you entrust me with it. As for my intentions, I shall enhance our family’s reputation by competing in the state examinations so that I may win a place in the civil service and so bring honor to the family. And I shall beget a son so that I may perpetuate the family name and the family fortune.”
Lee Hong Jin was well pleased with his eldest son’s reply, saying, “You have spoken well, my eldest son. What says my second son? Can he equal his brother in filial respect?”
The second-born son, not wishing to be outdone by his elder brother, replied thusly: “Most esteemed Father, I shall enhance our family’s reputation by building our holdings so that in your old age, you will be celebrated as the greatest landowner in the kingdom. And when I marry, my wife and I shall live with you so that we may take care of you in the infirmity of your final years.”
Lee Hong Jin was delighted with his second son’s reply, saying, “You have spoken well, my son, for it has always been my ambition to extend the family estate beyond the borders of this province and to leave behind me a name that will be spoken of with respect by all. What says my youngest son?”
The youngest, not wishing to compete with his brothers for the affection and regard of their father, replied thusly: “Father, I cannot offer you plans more ambitious than those of my brothers, and I do not know what I can do to enhance the reputation of the family; frankly, I care not about such things. And if you really wish to leave behind the affairs of this world as you have said, then you should give all your worldly goods to the poor and join the Buddhist monastery in the hills above our lands so that you may live a life of quiet contemplation.”
Lee Hong Jin was shocked by his youngest son’s reply and appalled at his suggestion. Of all his three sons, Master Lee was fondest of the youngest, thinking ever on his mother, who died giving birth to him. It was for that reason that he felt a care for young Jin Su that he did not feel for his other sons, seeing in the youngest something of his mother. Lee Hong Jin had married the mother of his elder two sons in obedience to his father, who saw the match as a fortunate one for the family; but when she died, Lee had married Park Mi Hyang for love. A woman of great beauty and rare grace, she sang pansori to acclaim. But Mi Hyang was also high-spirited and even rebellious, disdainful of all authority. Lee sometimes wondered if his wife’s spirit had migrated to her son at the moment of her death, so like was he to her in all respects. But all the more disappointed was the father with his youngest son that he should fail to demonstrate the filial piety that his father had desired of him.
“I did not spend the last thirty years building this estate in order to die a penniless beggar in a monastery,” said the father sharply. “It is you, the child of my sorrow and the child of my joy, upon whom I had hoped to settle all my estate. But you give me no reason to do so. You have not told me what you intend to do with yourself.”
At that his youngest son replied, “If you wish to know what I want to do, Father, then I will tell you. I have long admired the players who tour the villages of our province, and I will join the namsadang and become an actor like them and seek my fortune on the stage.”
“The stage?,” his father asked, incredulous. “A scion of the landed gentry does not seek his fortune upon the stage. And a son who joins the namsadang will only bring ridicule and disrepute to his father and his family. What have you to offer either? That is what I wish to know.”
To that, his youngest son responded, “Father, I have nothing to offer you but the love of a son for his father and the reverence of an elder in his final years,” his youngest replied. “As for the family fortune, I suggest that you use your wits if you have not already begun to lose them and think again before you give to us the authority of this household and the possession of your means.”
At that, Lee Hong Jin exploded at his son. “You insolent young cad! You are no son of mine! I hereby disown you and declare you a trespasser on my land should you be found here after sunset!” With that, Lee Hong Jin dismissed his youngest son with a wave of his hand. That very night, Lee Jin Su fled his father’s house, weeping bitter tears for himself and for the father for whom he feared. With him, Lee Jin Su took also one remembrance of his mother, a medallion of jade set in gold that her husband had given her on their wedding day, and that he gave his youngest son upon his fourteenth birthday in memory of the mother he never knew. Carved in jade upon the medallion were the Chinese characters for fidelity in love.
After wandering many days, Lee Jin Su found a troupe of players, and after telling them his tale, they welcomed him into their company and made him one of their own. Now the namsadang have a tradition that boys play all the parts of women, with the male roles reserved to the older men, and so Lee Jin Su trained to play the roles of courtesans and queens. So skilled did he become that audiences did not believe that he was anything but a woman, and since the company was always on tour — for they made no money when they were not playing — Lee Jin Su was rarely out of costume. Taking the name of Park Min Hwa, she began to live as a woman. She was feted everywhere she went, and men would throw her purses full of silver and even coins of gold.
So good were the players of this troupe that they were invited to perform at the marriage feast of the richest man in Chungchong Pukdo, the province to the west of Kyongsang Pukdo. In attendance was a certain Kim Myong Bin, a scholar of renown in the service of the king. Handsome and cultured, Kim was a man of discernment and sophistication. So taken was he by Min that he immediately proposed marriage.
“But you know that I was not born female,” Min Hwa cautioned him.
“Yes, I do know that, though it is hard to believe, as you have all the naturally feminine grace and beauty of a woman,” he responded. “But in the village where I was born, there are men who take boys in marriage and they are welcomed by the villagers as married couples.”
“That I have heard to be true in my home province, too,” Min Hwa said, “though I do not know of any such couples myself.” The proposal of marriage from this handsome stranger was at once an enticing and a daunting prospect to Min Hwa, thinking at that moment as she was of the father who had disowned her. But in that very moment, she determined to win her father’s approval for the match, however difficult that might be. Apprehensive of her father’s reaction should she return in person, Min Hwa sent one of her colleagues as a messenger. However, when he reached the house and asked for Master Lee, it was Lee Jin Joong who answered rather than his father.
“I am now master of the house of Lee,” the second son declared. But Min Hwa was suspicious when she learned of her brother’s reply, as she had heard no report of the death of Lee Hong Jin. And when a colleague spoke with villagers in the village nearest the estate, they had heard nothing of the master’s death; they noted only that he had not appeared in public since the day his youngest son had left the house.
What the villagers had heard was only this: that Lee Sang Myong had gone to Seoul after placing very highly in the civil service examinations and that he had been sent as an emissary of the king on a mission to China. Rumors had it that the boat in which he sailed had sunk in the rough waters of the Yellow Sea, but no one could say for sure the fate of the eldest son of Lee Hong Jin.
Park Min Hwa was more than ever determined to find out the truth, and so she led the entire troupe of namsadang players to the estate where she grew up and offered to put on a performance for the lord of the manor. Her older brother did not recognize her in her feminine guise, radiant as she was in a brilliant red hanbok, and he was so charmed by her feminine grace that he tried to seduce her, though she fended off his advances with as much delicate resistance as she could muster. Meanwhile, she sent the youngest boy in the troupe to scour the estate for any signs of Master Lee, and in the servants’ hut he found the old man gagged and tied to a chair. His gag undone, Lee Hong Jin explained to the boy that his second son had taken over the running of the estate as soon as his eldest son had left for the capital to seek his fortune and had had him bound and gagged as soon as his older brother set sail for China. The master was now being held prisoner in his own home, and he feared that his second son might try to starve him to death or poison him.
When the young boy reported all of this to Min Hwa as her companions entertained her brother, she immediately set in motion a plan to rescue Lee Hong Jin. The actress had her colleagues ply the servants with wine laced with a sleeping potion and then set upon her older brother with her companions, tying him to a chair as he had done to his father. Min Hwa had her father freed and brought into the house. Neither father nor brother recognized the elegant young woman in her flame red hanbok as the youngest member of the family. Then she bid her husband come before them.
“I am Kim Myong Bin, a scholar in the service of the king and a patron of this troupe,” he declared. “I demand to know what this is all about. Tell me, Master, what has befallen you.”
The old man stood before them, looking older than Min Hwa could ever remember, old and frail and very alone. “I am Lee Hong Jin, and I am the victim of a plot — a plot by my very own son, Lee Jin Joong, to kidnap me and hold me in the servants’ hut, until such time as he found convenient to dispatch me to gain an inheritance he does not deserve.”
“Well then, we will hold him here until the authorities can apprehend him and try him,” said Kim. “Do not worry, for the king himself shall hear of this, and justice will be swift as it is fair. But is this your only son?”
“Alas, I have two others — or had — but one is lost and the other is disowned,” bewailed Lee. “The eldest — Lee Jin Myong — entered the service of the king and sailed to China on a mission to the emperor. But his ship was said to have been lost at sea, and we have heard nothing from him since.”
“And the other son?” Kim inquired, feigning ignorance.
“Ah, that is too bitterly sad a tale to tell,” replied the father. “Lee Jin Su— for that was his name — was the youngest and most fair of all my sons, more like his mother than his father, and the child of my sorrow and my joy. But he rebelled against me, choosing a life in the theater. For that I banished him from my lands, disowning him forever. What a fool I’ve been. If I could see him only once again before I die, I would beg forgiveness. For I think that he alone of all the three truly loved me in his heart and sought neither land nor anything of me.”
“Well then, your wish is granted,” said Min Hwa.
“And who are you?” asked Lee Jin Su.
“I am known now as Park Min Hwa,” she said.
“And a performer of renown she has become,” said Kim.
“By this emblem you should know me,” said Min Song, bringing out the jade medallion. “Though Park Min Hwa I have become, I am my mother’s daughter and my father’s son. It is as Lee Jin Su that you would know me, your third and youngest child.”
At that, the old man nearly burst from joy and deep regret. “I would welcome you back were you now a toad, a salamander, or a snake,” said Lee Hong Jin. But will you pardon me, this sad old fool that I’ve become?”
“No pardon is needed,” said Min Hwa. “You have suffered long enough, and at the hands of my wicked brother, who shall be held accountable.” At that, Min Song turned to her older brother and declared, “As my father once disowned and banished me, so now I disown and banish you. You are no longer my brother, Lee Jin Joong, and you will be tried and sentenced for your crimes.” At that, she had him taken away, and he was held in the servants’ hut, just as his father had been, until the authorities could come and apprehend him.
“And now, Father, meet my husband, Kim Myong Bin,” Min Hwa said, bringing them together.
“If this is your husband, then he will recompense the son I thought I’d lost, and you will be the daughter that I’ve never known,” said Lee Hong Jin. At that, the entire company cheered as the three embraced. And the three of them lived together until the end of his very long and happy life.
[copyright Pauline Park, 2018]