Drama Casting & News
Historical inaccuracy, or dramatization?
by | March 11, 2008 | 37 Comments

The following is interesting to me because I don’t know much of the Chosun background during which Hong Gil Dong takes place, and because I had this exact conversation with my parents in discussing the drama’s historical accuracy. On a separate level, there’s also the question of how many liberties one can take when dramatizing factual events, which is probably something that’ll never be answered to satisfaction.

Personally, I vacillate on how much I care about historical purity in terms of a fictionalized bit of entertainment. On one hand, I’m perfectly fine with new takes on history I’m familiar with (i.e., Western history) because I know enough of the factual version to be able to distinguish the differences in the fictionalized version. On the other hand, I’m a little leery when concerning histories I’m less versed in, because I have little way of knowing how much is poetic license and therefore a contradiction of verified fact.

In any case, my parents (who’ve only seen a few scenes here and there of Hong Gil Dong) voiced the same issues with the series’ departure from history, and in particular the portrayal of Kwang Whe, who’s based on the king Kwanghaegun (1574-1641). My mother’s more forgiving, although she had issues with the disparity between truth and drama, while my father haaaates it, citing Kwanghaegun’s widely recognized brilliance and political pragmatism. The Crazy Kwang Whe routine has gotten old for me too, and I don’t even have the same kind of knowledge base to offend; I can only imagine how grating it would be for those who disagree with the portrayal.

I hope I’ve managed the translation decently; I did a lot of researching and cross-checking to make sure the facts and names aligned. As always, corrections for mistakes are welcome.

Hong Gil Dong criticized for distorting Kwanghaegun’s history

KBS2 Television’s Wednesday-Thursday fusion sageuk drama Hong Gil Dong, which has risen to the #1 rating position, is gathering criticism for distorting history. …


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While parodying many examples from classic literature and casting an ironic twist on issues of contemporary society, the buzz around Hong Gil Dong is steadily growing. But by the same token, a certain faction of viewers is also growing: those who react to the depiction in the drama of King Kwanghaegun as a tyrant.

Hong Gil Dong has modeled Kwanghaegun into a despot. Even Yeonsan-gun [the king depicted in Dae Jang Geum and The King and the Clown, in a generally negative light] would be astonished to see the way he indulges in his sex- and alcohol-fueled reign of terror. Furthermore, the king is shown as ruling in madness born of a guilty conscience after killing his younger and older brothers.

On one hand, some viewers are heaping praise on the actor portraying this version of Kwanghaegun, Jo Hee Bong, but on the other, the character’s suspicious nature never relents. Some netizens offer strong words of reproof, saying, “Hong Gil Dong is distorting history and [the image of] Kwanghaegun.”

Others say, “I can let go of the negative portrayal of Kwanghaegun killing his brothers and incarcerating the dowager queen, but he [the real king] has been recognized for opening diplomatic relations, for implementing the Uniform Land Tax Law, and is well-regarded as being a king of reform.” Also, “The drama version of Kwanghaegun is different from the historical figure. Entertainment is fine, but they’re twisting his image.”



At the time of the Japanese invasion [1592], Kwanghaegun was made the crown prince, and was lauded by the populace. In addition, his diplomatic policy with Ming China and Japan was considered one of his highest achievements. He set in motion efforts to reclaim farmland that had been impoverished by war, and exerted much energy into enforcing a Uniform Land Tax Law in order to bring his subjects out of poverty. In addition, the Oriental medical reference book [written by famous doctor of Eastern medicine Heo Jun] “Donguibogam” was also published with Kwanghaegun’s full backing.

In contrast to these, there were also flaws in Kwanghaegun’s character. In order to protect his royal authority, he killed his older brother Prince Imhae and younger brother Prince Yeongchang. His banishment of his stepmother the dowager Queen Inmok to the Seogung palace, and a scandal with court lady Kim Kae Shi [who, via their amorous relationship, upset the politics of the court with her interference], were big reasons for his expulsion from the throne, but his renovation of the Kyungbuk palace also met with strong opposition.


Via Newsen


37 Comments from the Beanut Gallery
  1. ash

    Even if it’s not 100% accurate, it’s a TV Drama and they are not advertising it as a Historical/Documentary type re-telling of the truth… it’s a drama… so it has been dramatized… I’m hoping everyone knows to watch it with that in mind… that while the skeleton/framework may be true to how it was, that the flesh/picture has been added with some liberties. It’s meant to be entertaining so I think those critics should back off a bit.

  2. Leebbeunee

    Thanks Javabeans, that was a very interesting article. But one thing bugs me : how do korean people consider the Hong Kil Dong Jeon ? Myth or reality ? Because to me, Kwang Whe isn’t that much based on real historical facts but on the novel character, which is claimed as the first korean/hangul written fiction by my korean litterature teacher (who is a european specialist and translator, by the way, and who completed his studies in a korean university, so I do think he is legitimate :p)

    To my mind Hong Kil Dong -the drama- is only a TV version of the “truth behind the story”; there is even a reference to the author in the writer name of Grandpa Heo who is just eavesdropping the populace sayings about the real facts. (It’s one of the most interesting points of the drama for me : after reading the novel, watching the possible reasonable truth behind the fantastic elements described in the book). Is there some people thinking like me ? The article seems that there isn’t… or that Korean people considers the Hong Kil Dong Jeon as part of official History….

  3. cj

    well i think it IS entertainment, but there should be some kind of respect for history so i understand the criticism. like, if a new TV show came out showing abraham lincoln as a racist wife-beater, lots of americans sure wouldn’t like it even if you argue, “well it’s just entertainment so critics should back off,” you know?

  4. Illdielaughing

    I have only watched up to episode 8, but considering that Hong Gil Dong is based on the fictional character Hong Gil Dong, I don’t think that too much criticism should come down on the show. I have never once though that anything that was going on was historically accurate (the belly dancing, break dancing, glasses, speech etc.) so thinking that the characters and actions of the characters was derived from truth has never occurred to me either.
    This king in Hong Gil Dong is a character and if the Hong sisters need a certain type of character they will make him into what they need him to be to fulfill their artistic and dramatic needs.
    I understand why people are upset though, I was disappointed to see the historical inaccuracy of the characters in “The Other Boleyn Girl” but I still liked the movie. I dunno it really is a touchy subject but I have to give the artist the benefit of the doubt. I don’t think the Hong sisters ever intended to deceive anyone about the character of the King.

  5. linh132

    people should calm down i think…it is just a drama…you don’t see people freaking out about a simple movie during WWII that is not right or how about those other movies that have been inspired by true stories?? they have been inspired by it but not based on it, so those movies just goes from the story’s start and then they progress it the way they want to…people should just loosen up and enjoy the drama’s quirkiness(is this a word? or did i just spell it wrong?)….hehehe 🙂

  6. tealeaf

    Cinematic portrayal of historical facts are often taken with a grain of salt. Dramas are not documentaries, nor do they wish to be. If the intention is stated clearly that the portrayal is fictionalized (i.e.: fusion sageuk), the inaccuracy or liberalization shouldn’t be a big issue. The criticisms are just but then on the other hand, this is purely entertainment. Still, I can understand the frustration among historical buffs. The real danger lies in having uneducated viewers internalizing these dramatization as facts. Hence, the pitfalls of Cliff-Noting.

    I do wish that HGD’s writers had incorporate some of these facts into their characterization of Kwang Whe. It would have added more depth and poignancy to the king/minister Hong or Chang Whe/Kwang Whe’ s story. We might have a better understand of the reason for Minister Hong’s loyalty – if it was one pledged long ago to a king who was once great and visionary, but now no longer same. The B-rated one-dimensional evil character is so not on par with the characterization of Gil Dong/ Chang Whe/Enok. The struggle for power does not have to be black and white. It still would be as convincing and epic if is dealt differently.

    P.S. : I love the above picture of Eun Hye. Lovely composition.

    @ illdielaughing: “The Other Boleyn Girl” was not a disaster? Hmm, maybe i’ll check out the DVD when it’s available.

  7. jolee

    I agree with tealeaf that it really would have enhanced the story if they incorporated some of the interesting historical facts about Kwang Whe into the story. I think it would have been a little more interesting if they made his character sort of like a mad scientist. Genius in governing but at times a little insane and beyond reason. It would have made understanding Minister Hong much better (I mean, he is an intelligent man, not to mention he betrayed everyone for KW so there has so be some reason to it).

    However, I do agree people need to take entertainment with a grain of salt. But I think in HGD’s case, it seems blatant enough that it is no where near a real historical documentation of what really happened. For someone who has NO knowledge of Korean history, I thought Kwang Whe was a made up character since he seems like such a caricature.

  8. gregorsamsa66

    What? so the people in HGD are the same as in “Kings Women” the 2003 SBS drama now playing on Arirang? That’s going to make one of them harder to watch.

  9. dae

    i agree with ash …. anything put up on tv mostly are for entertainment however factual its basis will be… though my take is… it’s always good to have a disclaimer at the begginning of a show wether an adaptation of a historical plot or based on facts – to advise the viewers that whatever’s foregoing were product of the writer’s imagination and if somehow will resemble any real characters the show would be given acknowledgement for its creative intention.

  10. 10 Di

    Well, at least now we do know more about the actual history.
    But personally, I don’t feel like the historical inaccuracies in Hong Gil Dong take away from its awesomeness because I’m just watching it as a folk legend and not a historical drama of any kind.
    Maybe it would make people feel better if they put a disclaimer up before every episode stating the artistic liberties that were taken. :p

  11. 11 Jane

    I guess it’s out of respect for King Kwang Whe and his legacy that people are uncomfortable with for the distortion of history for the sake of entertainment especially when it is negative in nature.

  12. 12 jiwonee

    Since when do korean dramas “distort history”? if they did, i guess korea would be corrupted with overdramatized people in love triangles all the time -_-” its a drama that’s pure fiction, and shouldn’t have anything to do with complicating the actual history…

  13. 13 stargazer377

    critics of HGD should calm down. as long as people don’t take artistic liberties as the truth, there shouldn’t be a problem. and if it sparks interest in the viewers to find out the truth about these historical characters for themselves, that’s even better!

  14. 14 cj

    “its a drama that’s pure fiction, and shouldn’t have anything to do with complicating the actual history…”

    but the point is that it’s NOT pure fiction, it’s based on stuff that’s got historical basis even if most of the story isn’t exactly like real history. a drama with love triangles or terminal cancer isn’t using factual events as a background. but historical dramas do so there’s more gray areas

  15. 15 Nonbirira

    Sorry, but I’m laughing here… A drama where the lead wears groovy tinted glasses, people fly over buildings, hermits heat soup bowls with their hands, the brothel resembles a nightclub (I could go on – but you get the point) and there are complaints about historical accuracy?! Hello, people! This is entertainment! I really don’t have any problem with it at all. From the very first scene this drama set itself up as being a very creative and funky re-interpretation of a Korean legend. Why would anyone be surprised when it plays loose with the facts? I don’t get it…

  16. 16 jayjay

    Who cares?! It’s #1 and I still LUUUUUV it!!!!

  17. 17 lovewls

    Well I admit I was a little confused about Kwanghae. I’m watching another drama – on and off- arirang TV called King’s Woman, starring Ji Sung and Park Sun Young. If I’m not mistaken, it seems that in this drama, Ji Sung played Kwanghae and he was portrayed favorably in the drama. I’m just wondering whether it’s the same Kwanghae both Ji Sung and Jo Hee Bong portrayed. If it is, what a difference!

  18. 18 Sue

    If Kwang Hwe were depicted more accurately, who’d be the bad guy?
    If the drama depicted him as an almost-okay guy, it’d be hard to justify Chang Hwe’s actions…

  19. 19 Illdielaughing

    @tealeaf, well… the acting redeemed it, maybe you should spend the ten dollars on the movie theater and not the 20 on a dvd lol, you may not want “The Other Boleyn Girl” for keeps lol

    And just to keep on with the thread i do think that people have the right to be upset and uncomfortable but I really don’t think that the image of this King will suffer because the Hong sisters never once even remotely try to convince us that any of this isn’t drama.

  20. 20 Remoneko

    I’d have to disagree with the commenters who think that the netizens are overreacting and need to calm down; for someone who really knows the history or the story, it makes you want to stab your eyeballs out when you see it completely twisted around. On one hand you’re trying to remind yourself that “it’s just a drama, it’s just for entertainment” subconsciously, but even with that in mind, it’s still annoying.

    When I watched the Troy movie (starring Brad Pitt, Eric Bana and Orlando Bloom), I felt like throwing the remote at the television at the way they changed the story XD Achilles doesn’t die of being shot at the heel but in the chest to save the slave girl he loved (which defeats the point of the saying “Achilles’ heel”), Paris doesn’t die, etc. I know it’s artistic license, but at a certain point of departure it starts annoying me 😛 I wouldn’t mind when I’m watching Hong Gil Dong, but that’s because I’m not familiar with the history. Difference in portrayals will always happen, but when it’s THAT far off the mark…

  21. 21 Jacqueline Tan

    I guess it is loosely based on historical character. Just like his Western counterpart Robin Hood, why was Prince John overtaxing the people so much? It is because the funding the Crusade which King Richard I spearheaded was draining England financially. Did anyone think about that?

    It is quite common that the history are written by those who are victors.

  22. 22 bajing

    I think in their press-conference they did forewarned the audience. One of the cast (can’t remember who) said that the story is basically pondering over a “what if” scenario. e.g from the novel, CH suppose to die early on in the story, but for this drama they make him alive for the whole eps (at least until now). This crazy Kwang Whee might also just another twist of “what if”. “What if king Kwang Whee crazy?”. See what I meant?

    Watching HGD, not even once I think that it’s a representation of an accurate history of the time. The show does make sure you won’t think that (hence the glasses, the discos, etc etc). In fact, the show sparks my interest to learn more about true Korean history ( I searched it in wikipedia and google). I guess let’s take the historical accuracies with a grain of salt, and just enjoy the fun ride of Kdrama land (in this case HGD). If you want historical accuracy, you can always watch history/national geographic/discovery channel, rite?

  23. 23 Rong

    HGD is #1 now? really?

  24. 24 ally

    HGD is really all about Fiction. Better still, it’s fiction of a fiction, twice removed from the actual myth of Hong Gil Dong, since it distorts the actual story. Think about it, the fusion elements, techno-electro music (which really is a recent invention), the slangs used in their conversations, plus the idea of Chang Whe being alive (which departs from the actual HGD story), etc.

    Before we criticise HGD for historical inaccuracies, we might want to consider how HGD is actually a parody. You know what they say about parodies – it’s a distorted lens which takes someone at a distance, enabling the person to evaluate his/her all-so-familiar world more critically through a twisted comic portrayal of actual reality.

    I feel that the Hong sisters are merely flirting with this idea of parody and fiction. True, it’s a distortion of history. But how much better can you appreciate history unless you meet an alternative angle to history face-to-face? In a nutshell, how can you appreciate the idea of Kwang Whe as a good king in actual history unless you meet his alter-ego, a Kwang Whe who could have been an insane, womanizing, drunken king?

    Having said that, it doesn’t mean that the alternative angle to history is factual or have to be factual. It just gives one an idea of how history would have been different if Kwang Whe was a bad king.

    Conclusion: HGD is not a series that you can take at point blank. In fact, it’s obvious that the Hong sisters have established (esp from ep 1 when the dancers started) that this is in fact a “history” different from History itself.

  25. 25 >gil dong

    according to kbs world advertisement on hong gil dong:
    “it is a new kind of drama, a completely ORIGINAL PLOT.”

    >>it wouldn’t really matter now since IT IS AN ORIGINAL STORY..just inspired from a fictional korean character and a king. nothing more nothing less. besides, it is so modernized. that’s the thing about the “new kind of drama”, you tend to go away from old kinds. duh.

  26. 26 javabeans

    I’m generally inclined to cut the drama a break, BUT I recognize that it’s not my history that’s being messed with (inasmuch as I consider American history much more “my own,” having learned it in school and being raised with it). So I have to also step back a little and let the offended parties own their opinions too, because i think it’s a lot different when you’re acutely familiar with the historical figure and have reason to chafe at a blatantly different and negative image that’s being put forth.

  27. 27 >gil dong

    have to agree with javabeans.
    >it’s really not my history though. now i wanna imagine my history being “messed” up and turned to a local drama..

  28. 28 charlesriver

    Since IT IS AN ORIGINAL STORY then the writers have the excuses to
    disregard histories that can be sensitive to some viewers?!

    I for one am very offended by the plot in episode 16 showing Chinese official
    as an opium pusher trying to poison Korean people. That was a slap in the
    face to those with Chinese heritage and do know the real history!

  29. 29 Miki

    I can’t criticize too much. I’m not even Korean, so I can’t say if they pushed poetic license…BUT…

    I did feel the Hong sisters went too far with the opium and Merchant guy. It was a little bit too much. But then again, think of the parody thing. Probably people at that time and such with their stereotyping thought that was how the Chinese acted? (I don’t know. I don’t know the history so I could be wrong.)

    Still, it’s a parody, and it’s very much fiction. Please keep that in mind. Also, like people have pointed out, it gives a twist in things. Think…What IF this guy had been a tyrant? What IF Chang Whe existed? How would history be altered? It’s not even taking a skeleton and adding flesh. Instead, it’s taking a skeleton, twisting it than adding flesh. It’s a totally new story altogether, and anyone seeing the show would know it’s a parody. It’s NOT a history drama. NOT IN ANY SENSE! But I think when watching something that’s CLEARLY not might to be historically accurate you might just want to enjoy the show. As long as the pieces shown fits the image of the drama and the characters seen so far (like characters don’t do off the wall stuff or too many coincidences as in melodramas) then I’m fine.

    But I think it’s also to do with personal taste. I for one will always hate melodramas. Some people will always want to stay as close to the original thing as possible. And it depends on how much you care….Stupid example, but I’m a HUGE Harry Potter fan. I got all twisted whenever they left tiny little details out. I think I’m better at enjoying the final product now. Take it as the Hong sis being INSPIRED by their history, but played with all the possibilities in their mind.

  30. 30 YM

    i think korean ppl are very sensitive with anything that concerning with their countries legacy..They have to understand that drama’s are moslty will protray a lot of reinveted story and korean ppl should apreaciate the talented writers that came out with the stories…
    Anyways i still think that Hong gil Dong is an excellent drama and i enjoyed watching it and i really cannot believe that it is ending soon…

  31. 31 Anonymous

    I do think Hong sisters have taken the liberty on HGD legend too far. The original novel book HGD wrote by Heo writer in 16 century showed that the current King was really smart and capable too. The King was Not soo stupid, lunatic, disgusting and chicken whimpy head like the current King in the drama. The original book just showed that HGD with great marital art skills always escaping the traps from the King, but the King finally thought that HGD was talented, so even the king felt a little bit insulted to appoint HGD, the slave guy, to the general of War, but the King still did give HGD that high offical postion: at this point , you cannot deny that the current King was smart and knew how to use people for the greater good.
    Anyone has watched the American movie “Catch me if you can” you know what I mean: great use of the skillful criminal guy for the greater good.
    And one more thing: this drama is still offically classified as HISTORICAL comedy romantic drama.
    So, I think the some Korean people have their right to critize the Drama for making the King looked bad.

  32. 32 sy


    I understand both sides. However, one must take into consideration the fact that Korean historical drama’s are usually based off of true historical facts. Therefore, to have this “new type” of drama must get under people’s skin. History is something that Koreans pride themselves on, hence, their many historical drama’s.. So I don’t find it all that surprising that some would be ubber critical and disappointed in the way the King is being portrayed.

    Entertainment is entertainment, but when dealing with a historical figure, it can become insulting to some. It’s a sensitive issue–regardless of nationality.

  33. 33 Anonymous

    well of course its not accurate, its a fusion drama!
    i mean, they have strobe lights and breakdancing in it. how accurate can it be?

  34. 34 kiTy

    agree with Miki, the #31 comment, and Sy…
    it depends on what style are you in.. basically i am along with those people who want to stay as close to the original thing as possible.. ((Miki, i understand your Harry Potter example, i’ll get fussy if the movie left tiny details out as well, hehe)) but i know Kwaedo HGD is a fusion sageuk drama so i have no problem with the disco and hip hop things… however i think the KangHwi issue is a different case.. if it’s based on a true character, then the writer shouldn’t go too far with the creativity of making another version of the king.. it’s very sensitive issue…
    i’m not familiar with Korean history, but i do understand why people who know the true history is so fussy on this KwangHwi issue..

    i agree with Tealeaf and Jolee, it’ll be much better if the writers had incorporate some of the facts into their characterization of Kwang Whe…

  35. 35 nirajan

    can u play that tv show once more in arirang

  36. 36 Rovi

    Hi. (feel like my 2 year-gap-post too old XP)

    Actually, if you see it REALLY carefully, Kwang-whe can be Prince Gwanghae…

    …under the shell of PRINCE YEONSAN (aka Yeonsangun).

    See, the original story (Hong Gil-dong Jeon)’s timeline is under Yeonsangun…
    …and if you see all the depictions of Kwang-Whe in the story, you can see also the trad. depictions of Yeonsangun:
    -mentally unstable
    -has many women (without even any mention of either Jang Nok-su or Kim Gae-si); Kwang-Whe had a palace “brothel”, right?
    -killed off “opposition” (as the scene where he sees the ghosts of those he killed)

    those are all I can remember, since I could not make heads nor tales at the other depictions (which are either more confusing, or is related to Gwanghaegun).

  37. 37 crazyblacklab

    well tarantino effectively rewrote history with his inglorious basterds but it was still a fantastic film so i guess liberty with history is not a big issue in fiction..
    as long as the drama is advertised as pure fiction and not a historical one they can interpret characters and situations any way they want to..

    (in any case since when did history become such an absolute truth closed to interpretation?? history is written by the victor u know its as biased as any fiction.. :P)

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