History becomes unmentionable in historical K-Dramas
Central characters of last year’s K-Drama red sky (Hong Cheongi 홍천기) include a king who abdicates in favor of his son, a benevolent ruler; and his ambitious grandson with the desire to be future king at all costs.
From this, most Koreans would recognize the setting of the show as the Joseon dynasty in the early 15th century, so famous is the story of King Taejong who reigned from 1400 to 1418. He retired to allow one of his sons to succeed him as King Sejong (credited with developing the Korean Hangeul script). One of Sejong’s sons – the infamous Prince Suyang – in turn staged a coup in the palace and had his own nephew exiled (and later killed) so he himself could take over. throne.
Despite the similarities, the creators of red sky insist that their story is set against the backdrop of a fictional “Dan dynasty”. Ignore that its people dress in Joseon-style clothing and live in era-appropriate architecture. There is no Taejong here, but Yeongjong. Not Sejong but Seongjo. The power-mad prince’s name is Juhyang, not Suyang.
I wonder how many people are really fooled.
Recently red sky isn’t the only Korean TV show to claim it’s not based on the story despite plenty of evidence to the contrary. snowdrops, currently on air and available on Disney+, is another. Both feature this disclaimer: “Characters and background in this drama are fictitious creations.” And at least two different shows from the past two months feature Joseon but forgo naming the kings, calling them simply… “the king.”
The message is clear: historical dramas (sageuk 사극), by definition about history, are apparently not about history.
It took about a year for this strange situation to become the norm in Korea.
We can blame it in part on the controversies that engulfed two historical television series last year: Joseon Exorcist and Mr Queen. Both were written by writer Park Gye-ok, and both have been accused of devaluing Korean culture and history.
The former was criticized for, among other things, showing Chinese food, decoration and music on screen. The latter, adapted from a Chinese drama, allegedly insulted one of the last royal couples to rule Korea and their court. Korean netizens began digging up evidence of Park’s ties to China and started calling him a traitor to the nation. Joseon Exorcist has been canceled after two episodes, and Mr. Queen has disappeared from national streaming services, if only briefly.
red sky, based on a novel of the same title, has been would be keen to avoid the same fate. The book is set in early Joseon and identifies all historical figures with their real names. But the director of the television adaptation made the decision to “create a fantastic setting” and “change all the names of people and places in order to avoid any controversy over the distortion of the story”.
Certainly, this debate over what constitutes historical truth is not new. Ensuring that Korea’s history is portrayed “correctly” has long been the nation’s concern. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say just about every Korean period drama, no matter how popular, has been criticized by audiences for its accuracy.
The Immortal Yi Sun-sin (2005), about the legendary 16th century admiral whose statue stands in the center of Seoul; Queen Seondeok (2009), featuring the eponymous 7th-century monarch of the Kingdom of Silla; and The Deep-Rooted Tree (2011), chronicling the circumstances of Hangeul’s creation during Sejong’s reign, were all bona fide hits. They also took liberties with the story as dramas often do and caused some grumbling among academics, the media, and even some viewers.
Yet the attacks of the period never reached the climax commonly seen today, and audiences understood that period dramas aren’t necessarily based on truth and research, especially when ‘they are pyujeon sageuk 퓨전사극 – literally “fusion historical dramas”.
As the label suggests, these shows fuse history with plenty of invention. A jewel of the palace (2003-4)—Daejanggeum in Korean – centering on a female Joseon dynasty palace cook who became a royal physician, is a prime example of this, as nearly every aspect of the central character, except for her name and profession, is made up. It nevertheless remains one of the most successful and beloved Korean TV dramas of all time.
On the other hand, cultural producers have had to exercise caution when making a jeongtong sageuk 정통사극 – meaning an “authentic” or “genuine historical drama”. The 2005 program on Admiral Yi, for example, was considered as such, and it was should attempt to tell historical events as they really were, although the dramatic embellishment could be tolerated to some extent.
In fact, the very term pyujeon sageuk was popularized in the early 2000s precisely so filmmakers could adapt the story more freely without being tied to high expectations of accuracy.
But now, the entire Korean film and television industry has to tiptoe around historical themes, even when producing “fusion” works.
Given the appearance of zombies, few would have thought Joseon Exorcist “historical” or “true,” but that didn’t stop criticism of how it distorted the cultural milieu of early Joseon.
The main protagonist of Mr Queen is a 21st century chef whose soul is transported in the body of a 19th century Korean queen. The setup doesn’t exactly compel a suspension of disbelief, but still sparked complaints that the show was misrepresenting Joseon royalty and its courtiers.
Changes in the way Korean shows are streamed and consumed are one of the reasons dramas’ faithfulness to history is receiving greater attention from Korean audiences.
The internet and global streaming services have made audiences for Korean dramas and movies all over the world. As a result, domestic viewers have started to rate Korean shows based on how Korea and Koreans are portrayed in front of international viewers.
left-wing media Hankyoreh was one of those attack Joseon Exorcist for the potential that non-Koreans might think Korean culture is Chinese. He worried that “[Korean] works that have received Chinese investment or been made with the participation of Chinese production companies have increased in recent years” and blamed the backlash on “anti-Chinese sentiment caused by [China’s] various attempts to claim Korean culture as one’s own, including hanbok [Korean traditional clothing] and kimchi.”
China is not the only source of concern. Korean media objected to details such as the fact that the subtitles of shows on Netflix call the body of water between Korea and Japan the Sea of Japan and not the East Sea as the Koreans would prefer.
Of course, Korea is not the only place where the accuracy of historical dramas is debated in public. The American Series The Kennedys ten years ago landed in hot water over his vaunted portrayal of the titular political family. from Great Britain, The crown on Netflix has courted controversy for how the Windsors, including the still-living Queen Elizabeth II, met.
However, many Koreans believe that TV dramas are not just entertainment. they see it as a tool to mark and publicize their own country. In a letter to the editor which summarizes the national atmosphere, a reader of the national daily Donga Ilbo writes, “Only well-made real historical dramas should be part of the Korean Wave and widely promote our story to the world.”
This understanding of how popular Korean culture should function informs the tendency to turn history into pure fantasy. To prevent attacks, its creators often say that they are “inspired by history” or “use history as a motive”. Doing purely “story-based” drama just becomes too dangerous.
The irony of all this is that pressure on cultural producers to glorify the nation diminishes the very creative freedom that has made Korea such a cultural powerhouse.
Blanket: a scene from the drama Red Sky, which looks like Joseon Korea but isn’t meant to be (source: SBS)