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Sunday, July 21, 2024

How accurate are historical K-dramas? Separating fiction from history in 5 hit shows.

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From left, “Queen Seondeok,” “Under the Queen’s Umbrella,” “Love in the Moonlight,” “Mr. Sunshine” and “The Red Sleeve” [MBC, TVN, KBS]
From left, “Queen Seondeok,” “Under the Queen’s Umbrella,” “Love in the Moonlight,” “Mr. Sunshine” and “The Red Sleeve” [MBC, TVN, KBS]

Historical dramas, whether on the silver screen or television, maintain enduring popularity.

Enthusiasts of period pieces, both domestically and internationally, relish the opportunity to be transported to bygone eras and immerse themselves in the grand narratives that shaped our ancestors’ lives.

While some seek continuity with the past, others crave narratives of progress. For foreign Korea enthusiasts, such dramas may offer a crash course in Korean history, yet it’s important to recognize that all historical dramas take liberties — weaving in fictional characters, love stories and often conflated or invented events to sustain viewer engagement.

In our feature series, “Fiction vs. History,” which has been running since 2018, the Korea JoongAng Daily endeavors to untangle the web of fiction and fact within popular period dramas and films.

By shedding light on the discrepancies between reality and dramatized portrayals, the aim is to provide clarity and dispel any potential misunderstandings among audiences.

Here are how five historical K-dramas fared in terms of accuracy.

“Queen Seondeok” (2009): Adding drama to real queen’s life

Scenes from the drama “Queen Seondeok” (2009). At left is Deokman, the name of the young Queen Seondeok, portrayed by Lee Yo-won, in a desert in Mongolia, and at right is Mishil, portrayed by Ko Hyeon-jeong. [MBC]
Scenes from the drama “Queen Seondeok” (2009). At left is Deokman, the name of the young Queen Seondeok, portrayed by Lee Yo-won, in a desert in Mongolia, and at right is Mishil, portrayed by Ko Hyeon-jeong. [MBC]

In 2009, MBC captivated the nation with its hit TV drama “Queen Seondeok.” Starring Lee Yo-won as Queen Seondeok (and Deokman, her name when she was a princess), Go Hyeon-jeong as the antagonist Mishil, and Uhm Tae-woong as Kim Yu-shin, the series spanned 62 episodes and consistently dominated TV ratings.

Portraying the life of Queen Seondeok of Silla (57 B.C. to A.D. 935), the televised rendition embellished historical events to ensure an engaging narrative. Queen Seondeok’s reign from 632 to 647 saw Silla embroiled in conflicts with neighboring Baekje and Goguryeo kingdoms.

Mishil, the primary antagonist, captivated audiences from the outset, prompting some to jokingly dub the series “Mishil” rather than “Queen Seondeok.” However, Mishil’s character is largely fictionalized, with the only real historical references of her limited to the “Annals of the Hwarang” by Silla historian Kim Dae-mun. Fictional elements are prevalent throughout the series, beginning with Deokman’s birth as the younger twin daughter of King Jinpyeong and Queen Maya.

Left: Portrait of Queen Seondeok (unknown-647). Right: Cheomseongdae, an astronomical observatory in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang [YONHAP]
Left: Portrait of Queen Seondeok (unknown-647). Right: Cheomseongdae, an astronomical observatory in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang [YONHAP]

Indeed there was a Silla legend that warned of dire consequences if the queen gave birth to twins, and Deokman did have a sister, but historical records do not say they were twins. Deokman being raised secretly in Mongolia in the drama also contrasts starkly with historical accounts, which say she remained in the palace without disguising herself.

Romantic entanglements between Deokman and Kim Yu-shin, Silla’s most famous general, add depth to the storyline, yet these are purely fictional. Historians have criticized the series for prioritizing entertainment over historical accuracy, particularly regarding Queen Seondeok’s marital status and offspring.

While the drama briefly acknowledges her accomplishments, such as the construction of Cheomseongdae, an astronomical observatory, and the nine-story pagoda at Hwangnyong Temple, it also dramatizes the betrayal of her court aide, which incited Silla’s most significant rebellion.

Read our full Fiction vs. History article on “Queen Seondeok” here.

“Love in the Moonlight” (2016): Prince Hyomyeong’s life wasn’t nearly as magical

A scene from the drama “Love in the Moonlight” (2016), which revolves around Crown Prince Hyomyeong, right, played by Park Bo-gum, and fictional character Hong Ra-on, played by Kim Yoo-jung. [KBS, NATIONAL PALACE MUSEUM OF KOREA]
A scene from the drama “Love in the Moonlight” (2016), which revolves around Crown Prince Hyomyeong, right, played by Park Bo-gum, and fictional character Hong Ra-on, played by Kim Yoo-jung. [KBS, NATIONAL PALACE MUSEUM OF KOREA]

The 2016 Korean epic drama series “Love in the Moonlight” tells the story of Crown Prince Hyomyeong (1809-1930), one of the 27 kings of Korea’s Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910).

Heartthrob actor Park Bo-gum played the lead role as the crown prince. Even though the story revolves around real characters, it’s so focused on the romance between the prince and his political eunuch, who is really a young woman posing as a man (played by Kim Yoo-jung), many people recognized that the story is fiction and not based on a real story. Still, it’s difficult to say that the drama is entirely fiction as some parts do depict real historical figures and events.

The drama is set during the reign of the Yi clan’s King Sunjo. But in reality, his maternal relatives — from the Andong Kim clan — had all the political power and ruled the country. Therefore, the king was powerless and the government deteriorated, filled with disorder and corruption.

The girl with whom Crown Prince Hyomyeong inevitably falls in love in the show is Hong Ra-on, who disguises herself as a man and ends up working as the prince’s political eunuch in the palace. The drama describes her as the daughter of Hong Gyeong-nae, who started the 1811 revolt. But her character was made up.

Left: A historical text that details Crown Prince Hyomyeong’s coming-of-age ceremony in 1819. Right: Portrait of Crown Prince Hyomyeong when he was 17. Half of the painting was destroyed in a fire in 1954. [KBS, NATIONAL PALACE MUSEUM OF KOREA]
Left: A historical text that details Crown Prince Hyomyeong’s coming-of-age ceremony in 1819. Right: Portrait of Crown Prince Hyomyeong when he was 17. Half of the painting was destroyed in a fire in 1954. [KBS, NATIONAL PALACE MUSEUM OF KOREA]

The drama also portrays the prince as a great leader, respected by his servants and the people. However, the awkward relationship he has with his father in the drama seems to be largely fictionalized to dramatize the story, as there are no historical records that imply the father and son were not on good terms.

The drama features the real historical figure Dasan Jeong Yak-yong, one of the greatest thinkers of the Joseon Dynasty. In the drama, Prince Hyomyeong often visits him to seek advice. There are no historical records to prove this, but records do say Dasan was a close confidant of King Jeongjo, Hyomyeong’s grandfather. Despite his relationship, he was ousted from the royal court during the first year of King Sunjo’s reign. Toward the end of the drama, Hyomyeong is nearly poisoned to death and Dasan visits the palace to give him some medicine. According to historical records, Dasan did bring Crown Prince Hyomyeong medicine toward the end of his life.

Read our full Fiction vs. History article on “Love in the Moonlight” here.

“Mr. Sunshine” (2018): Historically rich, but some viewers left angry

Scenes from the blockbuster period drama “Mr. Sunshine,” which is set in Korea in the late 1800s and early 1900s, before the Japanese occupation. [SCREEN CAPTURE, TVN]
Scenes from the blockbuster period drama “Mr. Sunshine,” which is set in Korea in the late 1800s and early 1900s, before the Japanese occupation. [SCREEN CAPTURE, TVN]

After her parents are killed in Japan in an assassination plot gone sour, newborn — and fictional character — Ko Ae-shin is sent back to Korea to be raised by her grandfather.

In 1875, not long after her return to Korea, the Battle of Ganghwa takes place as a demonstration of Japan’s aggressive entry into Korea. She eventually becomes a sniper and joins Korea’s Righteous Army, resisting Japanese occupation.

In 2018’s “Mr. Sunshine,” some of the characters and stories are made up, and some are based on historical facts.

In the drama, Ko’s parents — members of the Righteous Army — went to Japan before the outbreak of the Battle of Ganghwa to promote the anti-Japanese movement in Japan. But in fact, Japan’s pillage of Joseon began after the Battle of Ganghwa, stimulating the uprising of patriotic groups such as the Righteous Army in Korea.

Koo Dong-mae, played by Yoo Yeon-seok, was initially described as a low-class butcher boy from Korea who grows up to be a member of the notorious Gen’yosha of Japan, an influential ultranationalist group.

From top: Beginning in the fifth episode, the producers tell viewers that they are watching a “work of fiction based on historical events”; Eugene Choi, played by veteran actor Lee Byung-hun; pro-Japan collaborator Lee Wan-ik, played by Kim Eui-seong[SCREEN CAPTURE, TVN]
From top: Beginning in the fifth episode, the producers tell viewers that they are watching a “work of fiction based on historical events”; Eugene Choi, played by veteran actor Lee Byung-hun; pro-Japan collaborator Lee Wan-ik, played by Kim Eui-seong[SCREEN CAPTURE, TVN]

He returns to his motherland by becoming the leader of the group’s branch, the Black Dragon Society, in the capital city of Joseon: Hanseong. Gen’yosha is indeed suspected of having launched a task force in Korea to plan a future invasion and was involved in the assassination of Empress Myeongseong.

However, the fact that Koo directed brutalities against Korea angered many Korean viewers. In the drama, he is portrayed as a poor Korean boy who was abandoned by his own country and had no choice but to quench his thirst for revenge.

Some people even took their complaints to the Blue House, submitting a petition on July 16 arguing that such historical distortions should be regulated. They claimed that the drama being aired on Netflix raises the risk that foreigners may misunderstand the history of Korea and the Japanese invasion.

In response, the drama’s production team issued an apology stating that they had no intention to “romanticize the pro-Japanese stance,” and that the team had decided to modify the entire character in later episodes.

Read our full Fiction vs. History article on “Mr. Sunshine” here.

“The Red Sleeve” (2021): Combines fact and fiction to leave some confused

Seong Deok-im, who later becomes the noble consort Uibin Seong, in ″The Red Sleeve,″ played by actor Lee Se-young. [MBC]
Seong Deok-im, who later becomes the noble consort Uibin Seong, in ″The Red Sleeve,″ played by actor Lee Se-young. [MBC]

MBC’s “The Red Sleeve” focuses on King Jeongjo (played by Lee Jun-ho of boy band 2PM) and his concubine Uibin Seong’s (played by actor Lee Se-young) highly romanticized personal relationship. The drama is based on historical records such as the fact that Uibin Seong, whose real name is Seong Deok-im, rejected Jeongjo’s proposal to make her his concubine — twice.

However, the drama is also heavily fictionalized in parts. It’s hard to believe that a court lady of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) could reject a courtship offer by a king or a crown prince. Would it even be possible for a king to accept such behavior?

The coincidental encounters between the two as depicted in “The Red Sleeve” and the two forming a romantic relationship after turning 18 are all fictional. The drama also hardly mentions Yi San’s first wife, Queen Hyoui, who married the crown prince in 1762 at age 9, when Yi San was 11.

The romantic tale does not have a “happily ever after” ending, in either the drama or in history. Deok-im agreed to be a concubine at the age of 30 and gave birth to Crown Prince Munhyo in 1782 — King Jeongjo’s first child — but he died of measles just 22 months later, in June 1786. Deok-im was in the early stages of another pregnancy at the time of Crown Prince Munhyo’s death, and she died also of a disease four months later. The unborn child also did not survive.

Deok-im, right, gives birth to King Jeongjo's first son, Crown Prince Munhyo, in 1782 and received the highest rank "bin" of the eight-rank gungnyeo system for women who waited on the king. The king gave her the hanja ui, meaning appropriate. [MBC]
Deok-im, right, gives birth to King Jeongjo’s first son, Crown Prince Munhyo, in 1782 and received the highest rank “bin” of the eight-rank gungnyeo system for women who waited on the king. The king gave her the hanja ui, meaning appropriate. [MBC]

The director of “The Red Sleeve” interpreted Deok-im’s refusal to become a concubine, or gungnyeo, as trying everything she could to at least have the right to choose how she lives within the boundaries of a royal palace. He also created a fictional group called Gwanghangung, a secret organization led by head court lady Jo, which attempts to kill King Jeongjo. In the drama, Jo often expresses how gungnyeo are the ones with real authority, as they feed, clothe, bathe — and even persuade kings and queens when there are important decisions to be made. There were rumors, according to historians, that gungnyeo were involved in the suspicious death of Crown Prince Hyojang (1719-1728), the first son of King Yeongjo, who died at age 10 due to unknown reasons.

However, historians insist that since Joseon was a country in which the king managed state affairs through discussions and deliberation with his subjects, it’s impossible that the court ladies would have been able to intervene, especially in such a Confucianism society that adhered to strict gender roles and hierarchy.

Elsewhere, was Hong Deok-ro, King Jeongjo’s close ally, really a heartthrob? As portrayed in the drama, the actual manuscript “Memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong” states that both King Yeongjo and Jeongjo favored Deok-ro, whose real name was Hong Guk-yeong. Lady Hyegyeong wrote that he was clever and charming and that many of the court ladies were infatuated with him. As a result, he was able to hear various information from the court ladies and relay it to King Jeongjo.

Read our full Fiction vs. History article on “The Red Sleeve” here.

“Under the Queen’s Umbrella” (2021): Faces questions about Chinese influences

This scene in ″Under the Queen’s Umbrella″ where 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 a hagwon, or private cram school, to study. [TVN]
This scene in ″Under the Queen’s Umbrella″ where 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 a hagwon, or private cram school, to study. [TVN]

Like most Korean historical drama series, “Under the Queen’s Umbrella,” featuring veteran actor Kim Hye-soo, is a fictional story set during the Joseon Dynasty.

It starts off with a notice 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.

Many 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 simply by the show’s teaser, which showed Kim, playing lead character Queen Hwa-ryeong, literally running after her trouble-making sons inside the palace grounds, which would have not been allowed in reality. Queens always had to walk slowly and elegantly.

Though the drama is clearly fictitious, the series still could not avoid the usual criticism 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 eventually come back to their owner.” It should have used hanja, the characters that were actually used during the Joseon Dynasty.

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]

Then, 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, the 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 Chinese characters for Taehwajeon, on the other hand, were used for the Chinese name of the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the largest hall within the Forbidden City in Beijing, China, which netizens argued “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 as 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.

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

Read our full Fiction vs. History article on “Under the Queen’s Umbrella” here.

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