History Becomes Unmentionable in Historical K-Dramas

History Becomes Unmentionable in Historical K-Dramas

Rather than living up to lofty expectations for accuracy, Korean dramas portraying history would rather say they aren't historical.

Se-Woong Koo
Se-Woong Koo

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 a desire to be future king at any cost.

From that alone most Koreans would recognize the show's setting as the Joseon Dynasty at the beginning of the 15th century, so famous is the story of the King Taejong who reigned from 1400 to 1418. He retired to allow one of his sons to succeed him as the King Sejong (credited with developing the Korean Hangeul script). One of Sejong's sons—the infamous Prince Suyang—in turn went on to stage a palace coup and had his own nephew exiled (and later killed) so that he himself could take the throne.

The similarities notwithstanding, the creators of Red Sky insist that their story unfolds against the backdrop of a fictitious "Dan Dynasty". Ignore that its people dress in early Joseon-style clothing and live in period-appropriate architecture. There is no Taejong here, but Yeongjong. No Sejong but Seongjo. The power-mad prince is called Juhyang, not Suyang.

I wonder how many people are really fooled.

Trailer for Red Sky, a recent Korean historical drama that claims to be a story of a fictional "Dan Dynasty"

Lately Red Sky isn't the only Korean TV show to argue that it isn't based on history despite ample evidence to the contrary. Snowdrop, currently on air and available on Disney+, is another. Both of them feature this disclaimer: "The characters and background of this drama are fictional creations." And at least two different shows from the past couple of months feature Joseon but forego giving names to the kings, calling them simply..."the king".  

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The message is obvious: historical dramas (sageuk 사극), by definition about history, apparently don't concern history.

It's taken a year or so for this strange situation to become the norm in Korea.

One can blame it partly on the controversies that engulfed two historical TV series last year: Joseon Exorcist and Mr. Queen. Both were penned by the writer Park Gye-ok, and both were accused of belittling Korean culture and history.

The former came under fire for, among other things, showing Chinese food, decor and music on screen. The latter, adapted from a Chinese drama, was said to insult one of the last royal couples to rule Korea and their court. Korean netizens began digging up evidence of links between Park and China and started calling him a traitor to the nation. Joseon Exorcist was canceled after two episodes, and Mr. Queen disappeared from domestic streaming services, if only briefly.

Red Sky, based on a novel of the same title, was reportedly keen to avoid the same fate. The book is set in early Joseon and it identifies all the historical figures with their real names. But the director of the TV adaptation made the decision to "create a fantastical setting" and "change all names of people and places in order to avoid any controversy about distorting history."

Admittedly, this debate over what constitutes historical truth isn't new. Ensuring that Korean history is portrayed 'correctly' has long been the nation's preoccupation. It would be no exaggeration to say just about every Korean period drama, no matter how popular, has been met with some public criticism over accuracy.

The Immortal Yi Sun-sin (2005), about the legendary 16th-century admiral whose statue stands in central Seoul; Queen Seondeok (2009), featuring the eponymous monarch of the 7th-century Silla Kingdom; and the Deep-Rooted Tree (2011), chronicling the circumstance of Hangeul's creation during Sejong's reign, were all bona-fide hits. They also took liberties with history as dramas often do and caused grumbling among scholars, media and even some viewers.

A scene from The Immortal Yi Sun-sin, considered one of the 'better' Korean historical dramas (by Koreans) despite some questions about its historical accuracy

Still, the attacks back then never reached the fever pitch commonly seen today, and the 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 implies, such shows fuse history with a great deal of invention. A Jewel in the Palace (2003-4)—Daejanggeum in Korean—which centered on a Joseon-dynasty female palace cook-turned-royal physician, is a prime example, for almost every aspect of the central character except her name and occupation is made up. It remains nonetheless one of the all-time most successful and beloved Korean TV dramas.

A Jewel in the Palace was a 'fusion historical drama' but became one of the most successful Korean TV productions of all time.

On the other hand, cultural producers have had to tread carefully when making a jeongtong sageuk 정통사극—meaning an 'authentic' or 'true historical drama'. The 2005 show about admiral Yi for instance was considered as such, and it was expected to attempt retelling historical events as they really were, even if dramatic embellishment could be tolerated to a degree.

In fact, the very term pyujeon sageuk was popularized in the early 2000s precisely so that filmmakers could adapt history more freely without being bound to high expectations about accuracy.

But now, the whole Korean film and TV industry must tiptoe around historical themes, even when producing "fusion" works.

Critical reporting about "problematic scenes" in the canceled drama Joseon Exorcist

Considering the appearance of zombies, few would have thought Joseon Exorcist 'historical' or 'true' but that didn't stop the criticism about how it distorted the early Joseon cultural milieu.

The main protagonist of Mr. Queen is a 21st-century chef whose soul is transported into the body of a 19th-century Korean Queen. The setup doesn't exactly compel suspension of disbelief but still attracted complaints that the show misrepresented Joseon royalty and its courtiers.

The changes to how Korean shows are disseminated and consumed are one reason dramas' faithfulness to history receives much greater attention from the Korean public.

The internet and the global streaming services have made the entire world the audience for Korean dramas and films. Accordingly, domestic viewers have begun to evaluate Korean shows on the basis of how Korea and Koreans are being portrayed before international viewers.

The leftwing media Hankyoreh was among those attacking Joseon Exorcist for the potential that non-Koreans might think Korean culture is Chinese. It worried that "[Korean] works that received Chinese investment or were made with participation of Chinese production companies have increased over the past several years" and blamed the backlash on "anti-Chinese sentiment caused by [China's] various attempts to claim Korean culture as its own, not least hanbok [Korean traditional clothing] and kimchi."

China isn't the only cause for concern. Korean media have taken exception to details such as the fact that subtitles of shows on Netflix call the body of water between Korea and Japan the Sea of Japan and not the East Sea as Koreans would prefer it.

Certainly, Korea isn't the only place where the accuracy of historical dramas gets debated in public. The US series The Kennedys a decade ago landed in hot water over its portrayal of the vaunted titular political family. From Britain, The Crown on Netflix has courted controversy for how the Windsors—including the still-living Queen Elizabeth II—come across.

Many Koreans, though, believe that TV series aren't just entertainment; they see it as a tool for branding and publicizing their own country. In a letter to the editor that sums up the national mood, a reader of the national daily Donga Ilbo writes: "only well-made true historical dramas should be part of the Korean wave and promote our history widely around the world."

That understanding of how popular Korean culture should function informs the trend of turning history into pure fantasy. To preempt attacks, its makers often say they are "inspired by history" or "using history as a motif". Making a drama outright "based on history" is becoming simply too dangerous.

The irony of all this is that the pressure on cultural producers to glorify the nation is diminishing the very creative freedom that's turned Korea into such a cultural powerhouse.

Cover: a scene from drama Red Sky, which looks like Joseon Korea but isn't supposed to be (source: SBS)

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