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The tale of Heungbu and Nolbu

Two brothers learn about kindness and forgiveness


Published: 24 Jan 2022

Time taken : ~10mins

Written during South Korea's Joseon dynasty, Heungbu and Nolbu is a popular tale often told through children's books, animated videos and performing art forms such as pansori. Discover this touching story! Then learn more about one of Korea's traditional storytelling forms, and take our quiz.

Many years ago, there lived two brothers named Heungbu and Nolbu. They were as different as night and day: Heungbu was kind, polite and filial to his father, while Nolbu was rude, mean and disliked by many people. 

One day, the father of the two brothers fell ill and called his sons to his bedside. He told them that his last wish was for the brothers to help each other as siblings and remain loyal to one another. When he finally passed on, Heungbu cried a lot in grief, but his older brother was happy as he would inherit all of his father’s money, as well as the house they lived in.

Nolbu did whatever he wanted as the new owner of the house. He immediately told his younger brother to move out. Heungbu begged his brother to let them stay until they found a new home, but Nolbu ignored him. Heungbu and his family had no choice but to pack their belongings and move out, living on the streets for a few days before moving to the mountainside to build a small hut for themselves. The family worked on farms, but they did not earn enough and often had to skip meals.

Heungbu was heartbroken when he saw his children crying over for food. He went to his brother’s home to ask for help.

When he saw Heungbu outside his house, Nolbu immediately sneered at him and asked, “Why are you here?”

“My children are very hungry and have not stopped crying. Please give us some rice, please!” Heungbu begged.

“You should not have had so many children. I will not give you any rice, even if mine rots!” Nolbu yelled at his brother before storming off. As Heungbu was walking away, he saw his brother’s wife preparing dinner nearby. He asked her to spare some boiled rice, but she was as cruel as his brother. “Go away, you beggar! You will not get any rice from us,” she shouted fiercely as she hit him with a wooden spoon. The smack left some rice on his cheek and Heungbu asked his sister-in-law to hit him again. She frowned, wiping the spoon before hitting him again. And so, Heungbu returned home empty-handed. 

Some time passed and spring arrived in the town. A pair of swallows built their nest on Heungbu’s hut, which made the whole family happy. Soon, five baby swallows were hatched. They grew bigger and more active over time, and one day, one of the babies fell out of the nest and broke its legs on the hard ground. It started chirping non-stop, and Heungbu came out of his hut to help the injured swallow. He bandaged its legs and put it back into the nest. When winter came, the five swallows became adults and flew away to the south. 

Heungbu’s family struggled through this winter period but survived until spring returned. Another pair of swallows came to occupy the old bird’s nest left behind, which brought joy to the family once again. On the first day, one of the swallows dropped a gourd seed in front of Heungbu, who planted it and watered it every day with care. By the end of the summer, the vine had many gourds growing all over the hut. 

As the gourds kept growing and growing, Heungbu decided to pick a few of them to open. He decided to play a game with his children, asking them to make a wish before opening the gourd.

“I wish there was gold!” his daughter cried out.

“I wish there was rice,” his son said with hope.

Heungbu cut open the first gourd. To his surprise, silver and gold coins started pouring out. When he sawed open the second gourd, rice grains spilt onto the ground. Heungbu decided to open one more gourd but without making a wish.

Magically, the last gourd opened up to reveal a group of workers. “We’re here to help build you a house,” the men said cheerfully before quickly getting to work. Within a few days, a beautiful home was built. Now, with a spacious house, money and rice, Heungbu and his family had everything they needed to live happily. 

Word spread and Nolbu soon heard about his brother’s newfound fortune. He went over to Heungbu’s house, glaring at him accusingly, “You must have stolen all this money.” Heungbu shook his head vigorously, “All I did was to help some swallows.” Nolbu listened to his brother’s story and decided to try and do the same thing. He hurried home and found a pair of swallows on the roof of his home. He picked up one of the baby swallows and broke its legs before bandaging them up once again and placing it back into the nest.

As expected, the swallows flew off during winter and returned during the spring, dropping a gourd seed in front of Nolbu. He planted and watered it with great care, hoping to become as wealthy as his brother. Not long after, four gourds grew and ripened on the vine. Nolbu excitedly called his family and announced that he was going to cut open the gourds. He wished for gold and silver, his wife wished for rice and the children wished for a bigger house.

When Nolbu opened the first gourd smelly animal dung poured out. He opened the second one, and dozens of poisonous snakes crawled out. “Those two are rotten! The third one must be good,” said Nolbu. When he cut opened the third gourd, goblins flooded out and started to beat Nolbu up.

Nolbu refused to give up, hoping that the last gourd would give him what he wanted. He opened it up and a flood of water came gushing out. There was so much water that it destroyed his home and all of his family’s belongings. His greed caused Nolbu to lose everything. He was full of disbelief and regret, unsure of what he should do next.

With his head hung low, he walked over to his brother’s house with tears in his eyes.

“Heungbu, I am so sorry for how I treated you. Please forgive me,” he sobbed as he knelt on the ground.

Heungbu helped his older brother from the ground. He swept his arms open to welcome him, saying, “There is nothing to worry about, big brother. We have plenty of rooms and food for both our families.” Despite Nolbu's past actions, Heungbu still regarded him as family and was ready to help him. Touched by his younger brother’s kindness, Nolbu turned over a new leaf and let go of his greed. Both brothers and their families lived together happily for many years.

Illustrations by Farihath Samsul.

Learn more about pansori

In the traditional Korean storytelling art form of pansori, the story of Heungbu and Nolbu is told through Heungbu's perspective, and is known as Heungbu-ga (Song of Heungbu). Learn more about this storytelling genre and test your knowledge with our quiz below!