The worldwide success of Korean historical drama began in 2004, when Dae Jang Geum (대장금), “The Great Jang Geum”, or “Jewel in the Palace”—a Sageuk relating a compelling story about the life of the legendary first woman who became a supreme royal physician in 16th century Joseon—was aired in over 60 countries around the world. Since then, the number is much higher, not taking into consideration DVD sales, pirated DVDs, plus the millions who have seen the drama globally via the Internet.
In Iran, Dae Jang Geum was so popular that reports claim Iranians began organizing their mealtimes so as not to interfere with the show’s broadcast. In India, after seeing the series one prisoner wrote an open letter to the broadcast company in Korea saying, “This serial has been of great influence in my personal life, as well adding a lot to my positive approach towards life. I dare say it is not a motivation for only people like me, but for everyone.”[i]
In Zimbabwe, the audience protested to a TV station and requested the airing of Dae Jang Geum instead of the Olympic Games when the two timetables clashed.[ii]
To me, “Jewel in the Palace” is not just a very beautiful and inspirational piece of art. Seeing it from a personal angle, it is a great reminder of all that is wrong with our medical science, health care, and industrialized food production. How science needs to be as much cerebral as cordis. All the good that can come of turning our eyes and respect back to Mother Earth and all her sentient beings. The importance of not only quality food, but also the way the ingredients are grown, nurtured, collected and stored; the way food is prepared; the thoughts and feelings food is infused with, and how it affects not only the taste, but also the health of those who would consume it. The true holistic approach to health and well-being, as well as how titles and following institutional protocols, doesn’t secure quality of care. The natural curve in the onset and development of every disease, and how its abrupt interruption leads to dire consequences in the long run. The compassion and inner qualities of character a true healer should pursue and cultivate.
Korean historical drama offers layers of meaning and understanding. The viewers are not only gently guided to open their hearts and feel, but also to think. Stories are not only well told; internalization by the audience is encouraged. Thus, the experience becomes very personal, and a deep connection between the creators and the spectators is established.
Hwang Seongbin quotes a science and technology researcher who shared his opinion on Korean period drama when they met at an international conference reception: “I like Korean historical drama, because the story is told from the perspective of the people, rather than from that of those in power.”[iii]
The transnational issues we all face, such as greed, corruption, deceit, conspiracies, abuse, and war, are depicted in their cruelty as shared experiences. Through that and the exploration of universal themes like love, kindness, loss, yearning, overcoming adversities, following one’s passion, achieving one’s dream, and many more, our global communality is fortified.
Another trait worth noting is the depiction of traditionally oppressed women. It is a growing tendency in Sageuk to give center stage to heroines. Even when they are not the protagonist, they play significant roles supporting or guiding the protagonist’s efforts: creating nurturing environments, serving as examples of right action, and assisting the protagonist in his growth. There is a fascination, respect, honor, and affection that female leads are surrounded by or treated by the hero. Women in Korean historical drama are strong in a graceful way, using skill and genuine power as opposed to aggression and brutal force. They are persistent in their efforts and courageous in their actions. Despite being sidetracked by hindrances, they never lose focus on their goals. Ultimately, they are never deterred from accomplishing their dreams, transforming or inspiring everyone else in the process. In that regards, women in Sageuk serve as great initiators of change. They embody the most pliable element of all—water—nourishing, never stagnant, unstoppable, constantly adaptable, following its course through and around obstacles, cleansing, reshaping, and renewing.
In the words of Clair Webber: “Undoubtedly, there is something inexplicable about K-pop and K-dramas. Whether it is the courage of civil disobedience in North Korea, peace in the Middle East, or female empowerment in Pakistan—South Korean cultural imports have the uncanny ability to foster hope in some of the most seemingly hopeless situations.”[iv]
This is what “soft power”, a term coined in 1990 by Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye[v], truly is. “They fight with arms, but we—with our hearts,” states Empress Ki in the Sageuk with the same name. I’d love for humanity to hear this message and finally learn how to avoid or deal with conflicts.
I am not going to quote or start analyzing different dramas one-by-one. I will leave you to find your own point of view and preferences. Signing up for Mago Academy’s Korean Historical Drama course would be a good place to start. I hope you will consider joining and experiencing first-hand everything I mentioned above, and much more. Korean culture has a specific flavor that distinguishes it from other Asian cultures. It is humble, but resilient. It is charming, heart-centered, perceptive, thoughtful, and caring. It has a lot to offer. Give it a try. But I have to warn you, it might be addicting.
[i] Busis, Hillary, Korean Dramas: A Beginner’s Guide, Entertainment Weekly, (April 11, 2014)
[ii] Gowman, Philip, The Redemptive Power of Lee Young-ae, London Korean Links, (January 13, 2008)
[iii] Voluntary Agency Network of Korea blog, Hallyu Report III – Korean Drama, Friendly Korea, My Friend’s Country, (01/09/2013)
[iv] Weber, Clair, K-Pop, K-Dramas, Hallyu – South Korean Culture Around the Globe, About Education, (2015)
[v] Nye, Joseph S., Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, PublicAffairs, (2004)
Description of Korean Historical Dramas: This course offers a series of Korean Historical TV-dramas or Sageug (사극) and discusses the traits of female characters as well as general features of Korean history, culture, art, aesthetics, thought, customs, and people. What makes Korean drama so unique? What is the “secret recipe” that makes it so popular internationally? Why is it that, after a few episodes, one can‘t wait to see the next one or the next new drama? Those questions have made many wonder, from audiences to journalists and critics. Participants are invited to explore answers to these questions and more. Our emphasis is on woman’s place in history, as well as her role as creator, healer and leader; her strife to discover and reinvent herself, her inherent wisdom, her abilities to surrender, without giving up, and her potential to adapt, thrive, and ultimately transform the world she is in. Our selection of dramas qualifies high criteria in story content, character development, actor portrayal, multiplicity of ideas and values, and abilities to educate, while engaging and entertaining the viewer. Facilitators (Dr. Helen Hye-Sook Hwang and Ms. Anna Tzanova) will provide articles and audio-video materials concerning salient themes. (For more, see here)