Worried about a Disaster, Old Woman Offers (Her Granddaughter) as Concubine

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Primary Source Text

English Classical Chinese
Long ago, there lived a prime minister. He and his lady had grown old together, and [they] had a young slave-girl who was 7 or 8 years old. Her face was pretty, and her disposition was also gentle. The prime minister’s lady was especially fond of her.

The prime minister frequently tried to court the slave-girl’s favors, [but] she did not accept or obey [him. Instead, she] cried [in front of his] lady and said:

“I am going to die. My lord has repeatedly wanted me to sleep with him. If I do not follow his order, I will ultimately die under the lord’s punishing club. [But] if I follow his order, I will betray the grace your lady has shown in raising me. How can I become a thorn on your side? Besides dying, there is nothing left for me to do; I now wish to go throw myself into the river and die.”

The lady sympathized with the girl’s thought, brought out some silver ingots, bronze hairpins and earrings along with some of her own clothes and, wrapping everything in a quilt, gave them to the girl, saying:

“[You] cannot live here anymore. Why should a human life die for naught? Take these things. I will let you go seek shelter at a place of your choice. Live with these assets.”

[The lady] waited for the dawn-bell to lift the curfew, and then surreptitiously opened the gates and sent [the slave-girl] away. Because the slave-girl was raised in the inner quarters of the prime minister’s house, she had never tried to go beyond the gates and walk down the road before.

She held her bundle close; not knowing where to go, she just followed the main road down to the south gates [of the city] and slowly drew near the wharf.

As the dawn broke, she heard the sound of horse-bells approaching from behind. She looked, and there was a rider who approached her and asked: “Whose household are you a daughter of? Where are you going by yourself at such an early hour?”

The girl said, “I find myself in a most lamentable situation; I am going to throw myself into the river and die.”

The man said, “rather than dying in vain, why don’t you come and live with me? I don’t have a wife yet.”

The girl accepted [his offer,] and hoisted herself on horseback and rode off [with him.]

Some years later, the prime minister and his wife had passed away, their son had also died, and their grandson had reached adulthood. But their house had become poor, and, left without a livelihood, the grandson suddenly thought, ‘my forefathers owned many slaves in various places. If I were to track them down, then I could take hold of this wealth.’ So he set out [to find them] on his own.

He first went to a place and gathered all the local toughs. Showing them the household register, he said: “You are all slaves of my forefathers. I have come today to collect your dues. You all must pay, according to the number of men and women in your families.” With their words they agreed, but in their hearts they harbored resentment. They gave him a room for him to stay and served him dinner, [all the while] conspiring to kill him that night.

Oblivious, the yangban fell asleep. But he suddenly awoke in the middle of the night, because he heard voices and footsteps of many people outside the window. Suspicious, he listened and heard them discussing who would enter [his room] first. Realizing what was afoot, he was greatly alarmed. He arose quietly, kicked down the north wall, and got out. Some of the men entered through the room and some came through the kitchen, some bearing knives and some clubs. Having nowhere to run, the yangban clambered out over the fence. Suddenly a tiger appeared before him. It grabbed him and left. Seeing him taken by a tiger, the men looked at each other in glee, proclaiming, “He will be devoured by a tiger and we haven’t had to lift a finger. How can this not be the will of Heaven? We will never have trouble again.”

Although the tiger caught the man and carried him off, it had only nabbed him by the collar of his robe, after which it flung him unto its back. They travelled for the better part of the night, covering an unknown distance, before he was thrown off at a certain place. He had sustained no injury to his body, but his mind was in a perturbed daze. He soon came to his senses with a start. Opening his eyes and looking around, [he found himself] by the well in a large village, just outside the front gate of a dwelling house. As morning broke, the tiger was still crouched by his side.

When the residents came out to draw water from the well, they unexpectedly came across this man lying motionless on the ground and the great tiger guarding by his side. Startled, they ran off, yelling “There’s a tiger!” The residents, young and old all together, came out armed with clubs. Finally, when the tiger saw the gathering crowd, she rose with a yawn and slowly sauntered off.

The residents began to ask the man lying on the ground, “What kind of a person are you? Why did you come here? Also, why did the striped tiger stay by your side and not leave?” When the man gave a full account of his story, people all gasped and thought it strange.

The old matriarch of the family also came out and met him. Recognizing his face, she invited him into the inner quarters and told him, “Aren’t you the son of someone called so-and-so?” The man was greatly surprised and said, “Yes, I am. How did you know?”

The old woman thereupon described in detail: “When I was little, I served a certain household as a slave-girl, and benefitted from the grace of the lady of the house. My well-being today could not have been possible without her benevolence. I am now 70 years old, but how could I ever forget that? But the capital is remote and news from afar is hard to come by. Now that you have arrived unexpectedly, this is heaven’s message that I repay an old debt.”

Thereupon, she summoned all her sons and grandsons and said, “This man is my master, and each and one of you should show yourselves [and greet him].” She then opened the window to the north, and called forth all her daughters-in-law to greet him. She then prepared a banquet and served him; she made new clothes and dressed him. Then she asked him to stay for several days.

Sons of the old woman were all healthy, strong, tough and fierce; they had power, with which they cast influence over the entire village. Now, all of a sudden, their mother called this homeless beggar her master – making all of them slaves – for which rage filled their hearts. They also thought this brought shame to their village. Their mother’s disposition, however, was straight as an arrow, so all her sons didn’t dare oppose her will; they couldn’t but assiduously follow her command.

The yangban said to the old woman, “I’ve been away from home too long already, and it’s about time I hurry back. You must let me return quickly.” The old woman said, “What harm is there in staying a few more days?” She then waited for the deep of the night, saw that her sons had long fallen asleep, [went] and whispered into the yangban’s ear, “Have you not seen the signs written on all my sons’ faces? They, due to my command, may be obediently following orders on the outside, but nobody knows what goes on in their heads."

If you go back alone, you will be met with a disaster on the road. I have a plan; will you follow it or not?” The yangban said, “What is the plan?” The old woman said, “I have a granddaughter, who is almost sixteen years old. She is quite good looking and a husband has not be determined [for her] yet. I am willing to offer this slave-girl to you; how about it  will you not agree to the offer?” Upon hearing this out of the blue, the yangban was surprised and could not answer. The old woman said, “If you follow my words, then you can return [home] alive. If not, then surely you will face disaster. I cannot forget the benevolence of my old lady; therefore, I came up with this plan. Will you not agree to it?” The yangban consented to it.

The next day, the old woman called all her children and said, “I present my granddaughter to my master in marriage. Tonight, you should arrange and prepare the utensils for a wedding; do not dare disobey [my order].” The sons did not make a sound other than “yes, ma’am,” and withdrew from her.” That night, they decorated a room as the bridal chamber and let the yangban go in. Then a properly adorned granddaughter was sent into [the chamber]. The marriage was finally consummated.

The next morning, the old woman visited the couple and exchanged civilities [with them]. And then she summoned all her children again and said, “My master will return to his home tomorrow, and my granddaughter will indeed follow him as well. You should prepare a riding horse, a carriage horse, and several pack-horses. You will accompany him to the capital, receive a letter from the master, and send a message to me that the journey was completed peacefully.

All her children scurried about, carrying out her orders, getting everything ready, taking care of their departure for the capital. They loaded bedsheets and pillows, dresses and garments, and a small amount of money on a horse. Nothing happened on the road, and they arrived in peace. The yangban drafted the document and dispatched it with the returning party. Afterwards, messengers were sent every year until the old woman died.












其後幾年,宰相內外俱沒,其子亦已死,其孫已 矣。家計剝落,無以資活,忽思先世「奴婢散在各處者多。若作推奴之行,則可得要賴之資。」遂單身發行。


其班不知而困眠矣,忽於夜半,聞窓外有多人聲跡。心切疑之 [1],潛聽之,則而開戶先入互相推諉。始乃覺之,大生驚怯,潛身起來,蹴倒北壁而出。厥漢輩,或持刀劒,或持椎杖,或從房中,或從廚後,而逐來。其班無計逃生[2] ,遂超越短籬,忽有一虎突前,捉去。厥漢輩,見其人爲虎所捉去,相顧大喜曰:「不勞吾輩之犯手,自爲虎狼所噉,豈非天哉?永無患矣。」













Discussion Questions

  1. How can tales such as this be used to learn about life in pre-modern society? As a literary work, to what extent can it be taken as an illustration of social reality?
  2. Is this story about upholding or destabilizing existing social structures and the status quo? Does the fact that the old woman’s sons tried to kill the yangban mean that social hierarchy has collapsed?
  3. What can this story tell us about the importance of wealth and its relation to social status in this late phase of Chosŏn society?
  4. In what way does the marriage between the nobi girl’s granddaughter and the yangban protect the latter from harm?
  5. What does the story convey about the relationship between yangban, slaves, and people of wealth without titles? Does the balance of power between yangban and slaves change throughout the narrative? How?
  6. What would be the legal status of the girl (the granddaughter of the old woman) be after marrying the yangban? Would a child of this type of marriage be considered a slave? Can we discuss about “social mobility” of the period?
  7. What does the tiger represent? Can we discuss it in terms of censorship of the day?

Further Readings


  1. 국도본 · 고대본 · 가람본:“心竊疑之”
  2. 고대본 · 가람본:“圖生”