The princess and the Idiot - Behind every good man is a great woman
in Category Culture
Written by Felix Im, Illustrated by Shim Soo-Keun
The article courtesy of Korea Culture and Information Service (KOREA People & Culture, Jan 2014)
The story of Ondal the Idiot and Princess Pyeonggang of Goguryeo may seem strange or even implausible at times. As a result, the tale is often viewed as a historical folktale about a man’s rise from destitution to greatness and the woman who had the wisdom to believe in his potential.
A Stubborn Princess
The tale begins in the royal palace of King Pyeongwon of Goguryeo, who ruled from 559 to 590. Among his children was Princess Pyeonggang, a chronic crybaby whose crying was so persistent and got on the king’s nerves so much that he often threatened to marry her off to Ondal the Idiot if she didn’t stop. Ondal was an infamous beggar who lived outside the palace gates and was reportedly as ugly as a donkey. He was often seen begging for food for himself and his blind mother. His ugliness, dirty clothes, and seemingly foolish behavior earned him the ridicule of everyone who knew him, as well as the nickname “The Idiot.”
When the princess turned 16, her father attempted to marry her off to a wealthy and powerful noble. His stubborn daughter, however, put up fierce resistance and insisted that the king keep his promise of marrying her off to Ondal. Bewildered and angry, King Pyeongwon said he had just teased her, that it was only a joke, but the princess refused to relent. Their argument ended with the princess leaving the palace to roam the streets in search of her future husband.
The Odd Couple
When she entered Ondal’s humble home, Princess Pyeonggang immediately explained to his weak mother that she wanted to marry her son, who was out fetching tree bark for food. His mother identified the princess as a person of noble upbringing by her perfume and soft skin. The mother explained that she and her son were very poor and that a woman of high birth had no place there.
The princess, however, showed no change in her determination. When Ondal arrived, the princess once again explained her reason for visiting. Ondal was instantly suspicious, however, and angrily sent her away. After the princess spent the night outside his house and offered to buy him a new house, food, land and a horse with the money she earned by selling her gold ring, Ondal was soon won over by her sincerity. The princess not only brought Ondal and his mother out of poverty, but also paid for his education and gave him professional training in the martial arts.
From Idiot to Hero
Ondal, who ended up extremely talented and far from being an idiot, quickly became an excellent soldier. He went on to excel in an annual martial arts competition, so much so that he caught the eye of King Pyeongwon, who asked him for his name. When Ondal gave his reply, the king was so taken aback and impressed that he made the former beggar an honorary general in the royal army. Ondal soon displayed his bravery and military prowess when armies from what the Northern Zhou Dynasty in China invaded Goguryeo lands. Legend has it that he singlehandedly slew more than 20 soldiers in an instant, a sight that inspired his entire army to victory. Ondal the Idiot had officially become a military hero and the recognized son-in-law of King Pyeongwon.
Death for a Country
When the king passed away, he was succeeded by his eldest son Yeongyang. One day, General Ondal asked his new king if he could lead an army to reclaim lands in the south that had been taken over by the Silla Kingdom. Convinced that Goguryeo needed to strengthen its southern presence, King Yeongyang consented to the request.
Unfortunately, the brave beggar-turned hero never returned from the campaign, for he was shot with an arrow and met his end near Mt. Achasan. Ondal has since been remembered in Korea as a rags-to-riches symbol.