The origins of the Korean phrase ‘Hamhung Messenger’ (함흥차사)
It has been said, ‘Don’t shoot the messenger’. In 14th-century Korea, the retired king Ri Song Kye did exactly just that — and on more than a few occasions.
Ri Song Kye, having overthrown the Koryo Dynasty in 1392, soon found his own sons overly eager to fight and kill each other for the right to succeed their father. After only six years on the throne, the first king of the new Ri Dynasty abdicated to his second son, alarmed by the growing violence amongst his own family (presumably violence towards those outside the family did not bother him). Two years later the second son, outmaneuvered at court by one of his siblings, abdicated to his fifth son. Tired of it all, Ri Song Kye retired to Hamhung, where he had spent his youth, to be amongst his own people — hearty northerners — and indulge in the pleasures of the carnal world far from intrigue of the new capital Seoul.
In Hamhung far to the northeast, Ri Song Kye had built for himself an elevated pavilion above a peaceful garden. There he could pass his days, drinking and talking with loyal companions in the company of kisaeng— female entertainers in traditional Korea. This pavilion had steeper-than-normal stairs, it is said, so that any woman climbing to the second level would need to lift up her dress in such as fashion that Ri Song Kye could gaze at what lay beneath. Dirty old king…
We can perhaps imagine Ri Song Kye’s annoyance when from time to time royal envoys would come down from Seoul — in Korea one always travels down from the capital — and arrive at Hamhung with messages from his fifth son, now king, imploring him to return from self-imposed exile. Ri Song Kye’s solution to this nuisance was to string up his bow and shoot the messenger down on the spot, presumably before going back to his daily debauchery.
Soon it became well known in the capital that those envoys sent to Hamhung in the northeast did not return. And so when the king asked if someone would rid him of his father’s meddlesome disobedience – a king should not have to ask twice – he was met with silence by his many officials. Finally one military commander, Pak Sun, stepped forward. He would convince the former king to return to Seoul. Park Sun had served Ri Song Kye during his revolt against Koryo and was confidence he could convince his old comrade at arms.
Pak set out from the capital on a mother horse with a young colt in tow. It was a curious sight for this man riding to certain death. What possibly could he say to sooth the wrath of Ri Song Kye? Would he even have the chance to open his mouth or would he be shot down before even reaching Ri Song Kye’s front door?
After a long journey, colt in tow, Pak eventually reached Ri Song Kye’s pleasure dome south of Hamhung. The site still exists today, just across from Hamhung’s Vinalon Complex.
Now in traditional Korea, each temple or royal building had a small marker on its approaches imploring all peoples, bit and small (that is, high or low born), to dismount their horses. Essentially, get off your high horse! (See our Hitchhiker’s Guide to North Korea No.3). It was here that Pak tied up the colt and proceeded towards Ri Song Kye’s complex on foot with the mother horse pulling the colt behind him. As the mother was pulled away, the colt began to cry out terribly, alerting Ri Song Kye to Pak’s arrival.
Rather than stringing up his bow, Ri Song Kye called out to his unwanted guest, ‘What is that sad cry I hear?’
‘It is the cry of a child separated from its parent, my lord’ Park said.
Ri Song Kye felt a great sadness come over him, for he too had left his children.
Pak continued, ‘If such feeling is known between animals, what of the love between a human?’
What is that sad cry I hear?
At this, Ri Song Kye was moved to tears and agreed to fulfill his son’s request to return to Seoul, allowing Park to start his journey back up to the capital alive. Perhaps a bout of melancholy engulfed the former king, for it was not till the next day that Ri Song Kye advisors strongly urged him to dispatch soldiers to catch Pak and kill him. Ri Song Kye, thinking that his old friend was well on his way said to them:
‘If he has already crossed the Ryong Hung River, pursue him no further. If he has yet to cross, then kill him.’
The troops quickly set off towards the river, and there they found Pak Sun resting in an inn. He had fallen ill following his daring gamble, and had yet to cross the river. The soldiers killed him on the spot.
To this day this story is immortalized as a Korean idiom ‘Hamhung Lost Messenger’ (함흥차사) which has come to mean someone who leaves and does not return or someone who has been out of contact.