The tale of the two sisters, Janghwa and Hongryeon that turned into virgin ghosts, is a classic Korean ghost story that continues to inspire and scare those who hear it and are trying to look down upon the seemingly innocent and helpless. 

The Korean Folktale and ghost legend of Janghwa Hongryeon jeon is one of Korea’s most well known ghost stories. The story means The Story of Janghwa and Hongryeon (장화홍련전) and originate in the Joseon-era, a five century lasting kingdom from the 1300s all the way to 1897 in Korea. When and who wrote the tale is unknown. 

Read Also: Check out all of our ghost stories from Korea

The tale of Janghwa and Hongryeon is a classic tale of an evil stepmother like in fairy tales like Cinderella, Snow White etc. But this Korean ghost story does not ending in the two sisters becoming princesses in any way, but how they died and became ghosts. The story is also a story about wrongly accused looking to set things straight, and that karma always will get you in the end. 

A Tale of Two Sisters Movie Adaptation

A lot of the reason why the ghost story is well known today, at least on a global scale is the critically acclaimed movie A Tale of Two Sisters.

The tale of the two sisters, Janghwa and Hongryeon that turned into virgin ghosts, is a classic Korean ghost story that continues to inspire and scare those who hear it and are trying to look down upon the seemingly innocent and helpless. 
Famous Story Turned Critically Acclaimed Movie: Many adaptation of the Korean ghost story about Janghwa and Hongryeon has been made over the years, showing that the story is an enduring and timeless one. // Screenshot from the movie, ‘A Tale of Two Sisters’.

The legend of Janghwa and Hongryeon has been remade to both k-dramas and movies many times with a new movie adaptation of the legend coming out almost once a decade. The most famous adaptation of this Korean ghost story is perhaps ‘A Tale of Two Sisters’ from 2003 by Kim Jee-Woon.

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Although it is based on the legend of Janghwa Hongryeon jeon, it is a very different story and situation with a more psychological emphasis on the story than the haunting elements. This also got an American remake in 2009 by The Guard Brothers called ‘The Uninvited’. 

But let us now have a look at the origin story about the two sisters from the classical folktale dating back to the Joseon area.

The Legend of Janghwa Hongryeon jeon

The Story of Janghwa and Hongryeon starts with a classical once upon a time. There once was a man named Bae Mu Ryong that lived in Chul-San-Gun in the Pyong-An province. This province is found in today’s North Korea. Bae Mu Ryong was a man of means and his business was going well. The only thorn in his side was that there were no children to pass his name onto. 

Bae Mu Ryong wife, Jang, once had a dream where she was given a beautiful flower by some form of celestial being. The wind blew and the flower turned into a beautiful girl. That is why she named her first born daughter, Janghwa, meaning Rose flower. Two years later they had another daughter they named Hongryeon, meaning red Lotus. And although the parents desperately wanted a son, they loved their daughter all the same. 

Read More: Check out more ghost stories about siblings like in The Lost Castle of Hollerwiese and The Wizard of West Bow and His House of Horrors

The mother died, however, of an illness when Hongryeon was only five years old without giving birth to a son. Their father chose to remarry to continue the family line. According to most versions, the new stepmother was both ugly and extremely mean to the two girls. She hated them, but hid her feelings away and pretended in front of the father that she loved the girls like her own children. That was until she had given birth to three sons and now had the upper hand in the household. Having sons gave her a great deal of power and she started to torment and abuse the daughters.

The tale of the two sisters, Janghwa and Hongryeon that turned into virgin ghosts, is a classic Korean ghost story that continues to inspire and scare those who hear it and are trying to look down upon the seemingly innocent and helpless. 
Joseon Family: During the Josean period, the clan structure became stricter and bloodline was very important. Family life was regulated by law and the most important possession for a Korean family was the firstborn son, or jangja (장자). It had always been the case, but neo-Confucianism strengthened the idea even further. It was so important that no man could die without having a male heir. If they were unable to produce one, they had to adopt as daughters like Janghwa and Hongryeon couldn’t inherit. Most of the wealth and land of the family was inherited by the firstborn son, with the other sons getting small portions; girls were denied any such rights.// Here a family portrait of a Korean family from ca. 1910.

Janghwa and Hongryeon never told their father about the abuse because they didn’t want him to worry, and the years went by under this torture and they constantly being in the shadows of their brothers. And like their mother, the sons followed in her evil steps and treated Janghwa and Hongryeon horribly.

The Wedding Plans and the Evil Plan

The torture of Janghwa and Hongryeon continued until Janghwa came of age and she got engaged to be married. She was told to be a great beauty, inside and out. She had fallen in love in her betrothed and she was thinking of planning the wedding soon. The stepmother was instructed to help her plan the wedding ceremony, which was something she refused to go through with. She couldn’t bear the idea that the family money that she considered her son’s future to be spent on those girls as their dowry. 

That is why the stepmother made her eldest son and confidant put a skinned and bloody rat in Janghwas bed while she was asleep. The eldest son was eager to help as it was he who was to inherit the money and felt as his mother, that they were wasted on his sisters. And the less that went to his sister, the more for himself.

The tale of the two sisters, Janghwa and Hongryeon that turned into virgin ghosts, is a classic Korean ghost story that continues to inspire and scare those who hear it and are trying to look down upon the seemingly innocent and helpless. 
Strict Rules: The rights of women in the Joseon area were reduced compared to previously areas. Women had to conform to Confucian ideals of purity and obedience. They were obliged to listen to their fathers, husbands, fathers-in-law and firstborn sons and couldn’t inherit. The reason was that marrying daughters off required expensive dowry and daughters were called dodungnyeo (도둑녀), “thieves”.

The next morning the stepmother brought the father to Janghwas room and showed the bloody mess to him. Without knowing the truth, the sight could have seen like a bloody miscarriage and that Janghwa wasn’t as pure as she perhaps seemed. The stepmother accused Janghwa for becoming pregnant out of wedlock and leading a sinful life. The father believed this no matter how much Janghwa tried to explain and took the stepmothers side. 

The stepmother showed the so-called fetus to the whole village so they could see what kind of woman Janghwa truly was. Without knowing what to do after being confused and humiliated, Janghwa ran out of the house to a small pond in the woods to calm down. The eldest son followed per the stepmother’s orders to push her into the pond to drown her. But as the brother was watching his little sister drown, suddenly a tiger attacked him, taking both a leg and an arm in the attack. 

So the stepmother got what she wanted, the death of her stepdaughter, but at the cost of her son’s well being. So she was far from pleased and turned her anger to Hongryeon, and the abuse got worse than ever. The little sister couldn’t bear the torment, especially without her sister and drowned herself in the same pond to join her sister and escape her hell. 

The Ghosts of Janghwa and Hongryeon

Strange happenings started to befall on the village after the death of Janghwa and Hongryeon. Whenever a new mayor was appointed to Chul-San-Gun to uphold justice, he was found dead soon after. Often even the following day after his arrival.

The tale of the two sisters, Janghwa and Hongryeon that turned into virgin ghosts, is a classic Korean ghost story that continues to inspire and scare those who hear it and are trying to look down upon the seemingly innocent and helpless. 
The virgin ghosts: Poster from the 1972 movie adaptation of the Korean ghost story, Janghwa Hongryeon jeon of the two sisters Janghwa and Hongryeon

These strange and mysterious deaths kept happening and although no one knew for sure about what was happening to the mayors of the town. Rumours started to spread throughout the village and most of the rumours were about Janghwa and Hongryeon that drowned in the pond and they were sure the sisters were the cause of it all. 

But things were about to change when the young mayor came to the village of Chul-San-Gun. The young mayor was well aware of the deaths of Janghwa and Hongryeon that had occured, but had no fear for his own life.

Sitting in his room at night, the candle was suddenly blown out, even though there was no windows or doors open. Horrible noises and screams from nowhere filled the room and the door flung open. The air itself became damp and a smell of moss slithered in like he was in the bottom of the pond himself.  

First he couldn’t see anyone in the darkness, but then the mayor saw two girls as the ghosts they were in front of him. He thought Janghwa and Hongryeon looked just like living human beings at first, but realised soon it had to be them haunting the place.

When the mayor asked them why Janghwa and Hongryeon had killed his predecessors, they started weeping, sick of people spreading false rumours about them, even after their death.

Janghwa told about the lies the stepmother had told about her and that all she wanted was the truth to be known. She had not been an unchaste woman that committed suicide out of shame, but that she had in fact been killed. The mayor asked for evidence and Janghwa told him to examine the fetus of the supposed miscarriage. 

The Truth of Janghwa and Hongryeon comes out

The very next morning the new mayor did just this and followed Janghwa and Hongryeon’s advice. When examined more closely, it was revealed that the supposed human fetus was in fact a rat. Both the stepmother and the eldest son that had played a part in her evil plan was sentenced to death. The father on the other side was let go as they thought he had also been deceived. And the tale of Janghwa and Hongryeon ended with justice, even though they had to die before it happened.

Read Also: Another Korean ghost story about a woman trying to solve her murder in her after life is in The Legend of Arang

Many years later, the father of Janghwa and Hongryeon remarried again, still not giving up on family life. In a dream he had on his wedding night, he saw his two daughters and they told him that everything was alright and as it should be, that they missed him and wanted to come back to him very soon. The wife of the third wife delivered twin girls and the father named them Janghwa and Hongryeon, and according to legend of Janghwa Hongryeon jeon, they lived happily ever after. 

The Korean Virgin Ghost of Janghwa Hongryeon jeon

The Tale of the two sisters Janghwa and Hongryeon is one of the most well known tales of the quintessential virgin ghost in Korean folktales. It is when unmarried women die before their wedding and the remorse of it all makes them into a vengeful ghost. Read more about them here:

The Korean Virgin Ghost

The Korean virgin ghost may be based on the ideals that all a woman needs is a husband, but the anger of these spirits tells of a woman with another purpose. And that is mostly vengeance. 

The ghost itself has gone through many changes throughout the ages since Janghwa Hongryeon jeon, and if anything, become more violent and bloody than in this classical Korean ghost story.

But nonetheless, the tale of the two sisters in Janghwa Hongryeon jeon keep on lingering in the back of Korean culture as an undying story with the two sister as a reminder that the truth will come out no matter what.  

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