Welcome to this series in which fact and fiction collide! Each month, a cultural aspect of Korea will be covered through dramas and you’ll be asked to tell truth from fantasy. Are you up to the challenge?
This month, we take a walk back to the past. With our favourite Kdrama actors wearing hanboks and traditional headgear, Korean history has rarely been so fun. Let’s take a look at four period dramas and see if you can distinguish history from fantasy.
King Jinheung, Hwarang (화랑)
According to the popular serie, King Jinheung (aka Sam Maek Jong) was a king from the Three Kingdoms era. Played by Park Hyung-Sik, this monarch, whose identity was kept hidden for fear of his enemies, secretly joined the Hwarang group. So what do you think? Is Jinheung a real king or just another prince charming?
You are right. King Jinheung was one of Silla’s greatest rulers. However, unlike the drama suggests, he rose to the throne at the age of seven, under the regency of his mother. Although he was never part of the group, he established the Hwarang organization during his reign. Hwarang, or the “Flower Youth”, was an elite group of young men who promoted traditional values and camaraderie. Although scholars can’t agree about the group’s exact function, Hwarang is often acknowledged as the vital force behind Silla’s successful unification of the Korean Peninsula.
Empress Ki (기황후)
Now jumping to the Yuan Dynasty period with the Kdrama Empress Ki, starring Ha Ji-won and Ji Chang-wook as the Yuan emperor Toghon Temür. This drama tells the story of a brave Koryo girl who started as a slave and fought her way up to the Mongol throne. True story or pure fairy tale?
Although a lot of details are inaccurate in the MBC drama, Lady Ki did exist. Like in the series, Lady Ki was sent as a tribute woman to the Mongol capital in the 1320s. She gained the emperor’s affection and was named an imperial concubine in 1333 and eventually became primary imperial consort. It is said that she exercised a great authority over the court. But the real Lady Ki is no national hero, as she is remembered for her lavish lifestyle and for having troops invade her own land, Korea.
King Lee Gak, Rooftop Prince (옥탑방 왕세자)
From Joseon period this time, meet Lee Gak, a King who time travels to modern-day with his entourage, ending up on Park-ha’s rooftop. The result is a romantic comedy full of funny and touching moments, including an omurice (rice omelette) scene that I am, to this day, still obsessed about. Is King Lee Gak real or a pure invention?
Although it is not explicit in the drama, many viewers’ suggest important similarities between Lee Gak and King Gyeongjong, including Gyeongjong’s given name (Lee Yun) as well as some subtle references to his age or deceased wife. In case he doesn’t appear on your rooftop, you may still visit his tomb (Uireung) in Seoul.
Photo by Els Slots
Mok Damsari, Bridal Mask (각시탈)
Jump forward to the 1930s during the Japanese Colonial Era with one of my favourite series: Gaksital. I personally loved this drama, both for its epic bromance between Lee Kang-to and Kimura Shunji, and its account of life in Korea under the Japanese occupation. Based on Huh Young Man’s manhwa, Gaksital tells the story of a Korean officer employed by the Japanese colonists. Zealous policeman by day and a masked revolutionary by night, he is helped by Mok Damsari, the General of the Independence Army of Korea. Knowing that this period drama is based on many historical facts, could Damsari have anything to do with the Korean revolution?
There might be a city named Damsari in South Korea, but don’t be fooled: this rebel character is fictive. However, many scenes from the drama are based on true events, including the parade scene with Korean boxer Son Ki-chong.
What is your favourite Korean historical drama? Which period of Korean history would you return to?
Hwang, Kyung Moon. A History of Korea. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
“Jinheung of Silla.” New World Encyclopedia, . 2 Apr 2008, 09:55 UTC. 21 Apr 2017, 00:39 <http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/p/index.php?title=Jinheung_of_Silla&oldid=680691>.