[Some think that love, strong, true, and self-sacrificing, is not to be found in the Orient; but the story of Charan, which comes down four hundred years and more, proves the contrary, for it still has the fresh, sweet flavour of a romance of yesterday; albeit the setting of the East provides an odd and interesting background.]
In the days of King Sung-jong (a.d. 1488-1495) one of Korea's noted men became governor of Pyong-an Province. Now Pyong-an stands first of all the eight provinces in the attainments of erudition and polite society. Many of her literati are good musicians, and show ability in the affairs of State.
At the time of this story there was a famous dancing-girl in Pyong-an whose name was Charan. She was very beautiful, and sang and danced to the delight of all beholders. Her ability, too, was specially marked, for she understood the classics and was acquainted with history. The brightest of all the geisha was she, famous and far-renowned.
The Governor's family consisted of a son, whose age was sixteen, and whose face was comely as a picture. Though so young, he was thoroughly grounded in Chinese, and was a gifted scholar. His judgment was excellent, and he had a fine appreciation of literary form, so that the moment he lifted his pen the written line took on admirable expression. His name became known as Keydong (The Gifted Lad). The Governor had no other children, neither son nor daughter, so his heart was wrapped up in this boy. On his birthday he had all the officials invited and other special guests, who came to drink his health. There were present also a company of dancing-girls and a large band of musicians. The Governor, during a lull in the banquet, called his son to him, and ordered the chief of the dancing-girls to choose one of the prettiest of their number, that he and she might dance together and delight the assembled guests. On hearing this, the company, with one accord, called for Charan, as the one suited by her talents, attainments and age to be a fitting partner for his son. They came out and danced like fairies, graceful as the wavings of the willow, light and airy as the swallow. All who saw them were charmed. The Governor, too, greatly pleased, called Charan to him, had her sit on the dais, treated her to a share in the banquet, gave her a present of silk, and commanded that from that day forth she be the special dancing maiden to attend upon his son.
From this birthday forth they became fast friends together. They thought the world of each other. More than all the delightful stories of history was their love - such as had never been seen.
The Governor's term of office was extended for six years more, and so they remained in the north country. Finally, at the time of return, he and his wife were in great anxiety over their son being separated from Charan. If they were to force them to separate, they feared he would die of a broken heart. If they took her with them, she not being his wife, they feared for his reputation. They could not possibly decide, so they concluded to refer the matter to the son himself. They called him and said, "Even parents cannot decide as to the love of their son for a maiden. What ought we to do? You love Charan so that it will be very hard for you to part, and yet to have a dancing-girl before you are married is not good form, and will interfere with your marriage prospects and promotion. However, the having of a second wife is a common custom in Korea, and one that the world recognizes. Do as you think best in the matter." The son replied, "There is no difficulty; when she is before my eyes, of course she is everything, but when the time comes for me to start for home she will be like a pair of worn shoes, set aside; so please do not be anxious."
The Governor and his wife were greatly delighted, and said he was a "superior man" indeed.
When the time came to part Charan cried bitterly, so that those standing by could not bear to look at her; but the son showed not the slightest sign of emotion. Those looking on were filled with wonder at his fortitude. Although he had already loved Charan for six years, he had never been separated from her for a single day, so he knew not what it meant to say Good-bye, nor did he know how it felt to be parted.
The Governor returned to Seoul to fill the office of Chief Justice, and the son came also. After this return thoughts of love for Charan possessed Keydong, though he never expressed them in word or manner. It was almost the time of the Kam-see Examination. The father, therefore, ordered his son to go with some of his friends to a neighbouring monastery to study and prepare. They went, and one night, after the day's work was over and all were asleep, the young man stole out into the courtyard. It was winter, with frost and snow and a cold, clear moon. The mountains were deep and the world was quiet, so that the slightest sound could be heard. The young man looked up at the moon and his thoughts were full of sorrow. He so wished to see Charan that he could no longer control himself, and fearing that he would lose his reason, he decided that very night to set out for far-distant Pyong-an. He had on a fur head-dress, a thick coat, a leather belt and a heavy pair of shoes. When he had gone less than ten lee, however, his feet were blistered, and he had to go into a neighbouring village and change his leather shoes for straw sandals, and his expensive head-cover for an ordinary servant's hat. He went thus on his way, begging as he went. He was often very hungry, and when night came, was very, very cold. He was a rich man's son and had always dressed in silk and eaten dainty fare, and had never in his life walked more than a few feet from his father's door. Now there lay before him a journey of hundreds of miles. He went stumbling along through the snow, making but poor progress. Hungry, and frozen nearly to death, he had never known such suffering before. His clothes were torn and his face became worn down and blackened till he looked like a goblin. Still on he went, little by little, day after day, till at last, when a whole month had gone by, he reached Pyong-an.