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Thursday, February 2, 2023

[FICTION VS. HISTORY] ‘Under the Queen’s Umbrella’ faces questions about Chinese influences

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In film and television, historical dramas have never gone out of style. Fans of period dramas, both in Korea and abroad, like to be transported to a different time and learn about the stories that swept up — or were put in motion by — our ancestors. Some watch to see how the present compares with the past. Others watch to see progress. Foreign Korea-philes can get a crash course in Korean history while watching historical films. But all historical dramas create characters, add romantic plots and conflate or invent events to make sure viewers don’t lose interest. With Fiction vs. History, the Korea JoongAng Daily attempts to distinguish fact from fiction in popular period dramas and films for clarification and to dispel misunderstandings. 

The scene in which the 13 princes gather to study in Jonghak, a royal educational institution, is similar to a scene from JTBC’s “SKY Castle” (2018-19) where students hole up in hagwon, or private cram school to study. [TVN]
The scene in which the 13 princes gather to study in Jonghak, a royal educational institution, is similar to a scene from JTBC’s “SKY Castle” (2018-19) where students hole up in hagwon, or private cram school to study. [TVN]

“Under the Queen’s Umbrella,” featuring veteran actor Kim Hye-soo, recently wrapped 16 episodes on tvN with a high viewership rating of 16.9 percent. It was also streamed on Netflix where it remained on the streaming platform’s Global Top 10 chart in the non-English TV category until it came to an end early this month.

Like most Korean historical drama series, “Under the Queen’s Umbrella” which is set in some fictional period within Korea’s Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), starts off with a notification that reads, “All characters, locations, organizations, and events in this drama are historically irrelevant and fictitious.” Other than the setting — the Joseon Dynasty — the story is almost entirely fictitious as none of the characters are based on real figures that existed in Korean history.

Most Korean viewers familiar with the rules and regulations of Joseon’s royal palace would’ve also assumed that the drama would have more fiction than fact as its teaser showed Kim, playing lead character Queen Hwa-ryeong, literally running after her trouble-making sons inside the palace grounds, which would’ve been impossible in reality. A queen would always have to walk slowly and elegantly.

Actor Kim Hye-soo, right, plays Queen Hwa-ryeong in the drama. She does everything she can to make one of her sons become the next king after losing her eldest son who was the crown prince. [TVN]
Actor Kim Hye-soo, right, plays Queen Hwa-ryeong in the drama. She does everything she can to make one of her sons become the next king after losing her eldest son who was the crown prince. [TVN]

Queen Dowager, portrayed by Kim Hae-sook, has different viewpoints about who the next crown prince should be with Queen Hwa-ryeong. [TVN]
Queen Dowager, portrayed by Kim Hae-sook, has different viewpoints about who the next crown prince should be with Queen Hwa-ryeong. [TVN]

The drama has a unique and satirical story that revolves around Kim, who rolls up her hanbok (traditional Korean dress) sleeves and chases around the palace grounds for the sake of her sons — a portrayal of a Joseon queen that has not been seen in other historical drama series. Such storytelling has been pointed out as one of the contributors to its high viewership rating. The confrontation between Kim Hye-soo, the queen, and Kim Hye-sook, who plays her mother-in-law Queen Dowager, won sympathy from many female viewers. The fiercely competitive concubines, who were willing to do whatever it took to ensure their sons became the next heir, like secretly hiring private tutors, satirizes Korean society’s educational fervor and tiger moms.

 

Princes compete for the Crown Prince position through a series of tests in the drama "Queen Under the Umbrella." [TVN]
Princes compete for the Crown Prince position through a series of tests in the drama “Queen Under the Umbrella.” [TVN]

Though it was clear the drama is fictitious, the series still could not avoid criticisms regarding factual inaccuracies that most historical dramas or films face. The criticism began right after episode 2 when simplified Chinese characters showed up in the subtitles to explain the phrase “mul gwi won ju,” which roughly translates to “missing or stolen objects gradually come back to their owner.” It should’ve used hanja, which was what the characters were actually used during the Joseon Dynasty.

Viewers quickly took their anger to online communities and demanded tvN issue an explanation. The producers of the series quickly apologized and corrected the subtitles saying it was a mistake. However, some historians insisted that the expression “mul gwi won ju” itself is Chinese and that it would have never been used during Joseon. Making matters worse, an incorrect signboard referring to a Joseon king’s bedroom chamber appeared in the drama’s fifth episode, leaving viewers questioning the true intention behind the creation of the drama series, and whether or not there was any Chinese influence.

In episode 5, Kim Hye-soo visits the king in his bedroom chamber. In the scene, a signboard appears on the building of the bedroom chamber that reads “Taehwajeon” in Chinese characters. However, bedroom chambers for the kings of the Joseon Dynasty were either Gangnyeongjeon in Gyeongbok Palace, Daejojeon in Changdeok Palace, Suryeongjeon in Changdeok Palace or Hamnyeongjeon in Deoksu Palace.

The Hall of Supreme Harmony, the largest hall within the Forbidden City in Beijing, China, is called Taehwajeon in Chinese. [JOONGANG ILBO]
The Hall of Supreme Harmony, the largest hall within the Forbidden City in Beijing, China, is called Taehwajeon in Chinese. [JOONGANG ILBO]

The Chinese character Taehwajeon, on the other hand, are used for the Chinese name of the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the largest hall within the Forbidden City in Beijing, China. It was where the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties of China hosted their enthronements and wedding ceremonies. The filming location of the “Queen Under the Umbrella” was a site in Mungyeong City in North Gyeongsang, which is frequently used as the backdrop for many of Korea’s historical dramas. Netizens pointed out that the original signboard at the filming site for the bedroom chamber reads Gangnyeongjeon, and argued that the fact “Under the Queen’s Umbrella” producers changed the signboard “clearly shows there’s Chinese influence.”

More trouble stemmed from the same episode when Kim calls herself “bongung” in front of the Chief State Councilor while she yells at him to be quiet. According to Korean historians, a royal queen of Joseon never referred herself as “bongung” but as “socheop” or “shincheop.” Bongung is a word frequently heard in Chinese historical dramas and is one of the words used by a queen when she refers to herself.

Some historians pointed out that the entire concept was unrealistic as princes would never compete for the throne in Joseon as it was a society that was strictly based on direct blood heritage. Korean historian Jeon Woo-yong says that while princes of the Joseon Dynasty never competed for the throne as depicted in the series, it did happen in Chinese history where eight princes fought for the throne at the beginning of the Qing Dynasty.

Culture critic Jeong Deok-hyun says that it is difficult to criticize the drama for “history distortion” as it is indeed a “fantasy” and a “fictional drama.”

Prince Gyeseong secretly puts on makeup and dresses in women’s clothes in the drama. His mother, Kim, understands her son's sexual identity. [TVN]
Prince Gyeseong secretly puts on makeup and dresses in women’s clothes in the drama. His mother, Kim, understands her son’s sexual identity. [TVN]

“But since it uses Joseon as its setting, it should’ve gone through a thorough historical research,” said Jeong, adding that Korean viewers are bound to be particularly sensitive to such Chinese influences in Korean content, especially at a time when anti-Chinese sentiment among Koreans is so high following China’s persistent claims over some of Korea’s cultural heritage like hanbok and kimchi.

“Even though it’s fiction that has nothing to do with actual history, if the historical drama uses the time and space of Joseon, at least its lifestyle, social status system, customs and culture should be correctly portrayed as that of Joseon,” said Jeong. “If it’s done loosely, it becomes subject to criticism. If it reminds the viewers of Chinese culture, the criticism will become full-blown.”

The Joseon Dynasty setting plays a big part in the narrative of the series. The conflict between the king and his servants, the queen and other concubines, and the crown prince and the rest of the princes, only make sense with Joseon’s hierarchy system. The drama includes several methods that were really used by the palace for the crown prince to help him study better, such as dipping his face under salt water for more than 150 seconds at dawn for better concentration or making him drink water that has been boiled over 100 times so he would live longer.

Some of the tactics introduced in the drama to heighten the princes' concentration were really used for the crown princes during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), such as taking a bath inside an otchil (lacqure-coated) bathtub at dawn. [TVN]
Some of the tactics introduced in the drama to heighten the princes’ concentration were really used for the crown princes during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), such as taking a bath inside an otchil (lacqure-coated) bathtub at dawn. [TVN]

“Historical dramas will always be at the crossroads — whether to follow the history strictly or to be entirely fictitious and set in a fictional time and space. That is the only way to avoid unnecessary criticism,” said Jeong.

Park Ba-ra, the writer and creator of the series responded to the backlash after the drama came to an end on Dec. 9. She posted on the series website saying that she’s looked through “countless journals, historical documents and books to write one line after another” and that she was especially careful to portray hanbok, binyeo (a Korean traditional hairpin) and Korean food and dishes of Joseon properly.

Park also added that she and the producers “consulted with an expert from the early stages of script writing on all the names and expressions used in the drama,” explaining that they didn’t expect to be embroiled in such criticism.

However, Park said it is also difficult for a writer to work on something creative and be imaginative if the writer is “under strict historical standards” as it might “limit creativity.”

“I will try my best to create an environment where more writers can take a stab at the fusion period genre and create such series,” she added.

BY YIM SEUNG-HYE [yim.seunghye@joongang.co.kr]

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