[Revisiting Dramas] Dae Jang Geum: Third time’s the charm
by Guest Beanie
As soon as I saw the post for this Theme of the Month, I went, “YES!” This summer has been the summer of rewatching for me. I’ve always had an on-and-off relationship with my interests. It’s been off for a while with dramas and I really wanted to switch it back on.
It was hard for me to start watching K-dramas again. I felt daunted by how much commitment and attention it required of me. The length of each episode is insane. In the very beginning, dramas burned me out. I would have to crawl to the finish line. I was determined to enter dramaland again this summer. I tried to reflect on what brought me back to dramaland last time, and it was Splish Splash Love, a short but sweet two-episode drama which was perfect for easing me into dramas again. I just rewatched it and loved it. There’s a scene in it where Dan-bi asks King Sejong where that Jang Geum palace maid is and the song “Onara” starts playing. That was the catalyst for my decision to rewatch Dae Jang Geum—all 54 episodes of it.
Dae Jang Geum was my first K-drama; I was ten years old the first time I watched it. I joined my parents crowded around a laptop to watch it in Korean with Chinese subtitles. I couldn’t understand the subtitles very much nor could I understand the dialogue. It still made me fall in love with Korean culture and history though. In the beginning, I gravitated towards sageuk when choosing dramas to watch because of this drama, although I don’t anymore.
A few years later, the summer before I started high school, I watched Dae Jang Geum with English subtitles, so I could understand it this time around. With the English subtitles, I didn’t feel the need to focus on the drama so much and missed huge chunks of it.
Now, the summer before I start college, I watched it for the third time. I love love love it. What changed in my opinion? Practically everything. It’s probably because I paid attention more. I was looking forward to watching the palace maid episodes, but I was dreading the doctor episodes. Turns out, it was the opposite. I was most drawn to her life after becoming a slave and the climb back to the palace as a female physician. Court Lady Han was her first teacher, but it felt too motherly for me to see her as such. Her second teacher, the renowned female physician of Jeju Island, Jang-deok, was a different story. I did not want to miss a second of her every time she was onscreen.
Her character also brought up the ultimate ethical dilemma of all medical practitioners: to do no harm. She practices medicine as a means to avenge her parents, which is why Jang Geum wants to practice medicine. The line that stood out the most to me from her was, “And when others were learning the needle points of healing, I was also learning both the needle points of healing and killing. When others were learning about life-saving medicine, I was learning about both life-saving medicine and poison.” Thankfully Jang-deok and Jang Geum never go against the oath. However, down the road when Jang Geum has become recognized by the royal family and the queen fully trusts Jang Geum, she asks Jang Geum to “take care of” the crown prince, the child of the previous queen who threatens her and her son’s position as the current queen. Jang Geum is so disturbed by the request that she asks her love interest, the scholar Min Jeong-ho, to take her away. (They’re caught and brought back to the palace.)
Speaking of her love interest, my first two times watching I didn’t care for the romance. This time, I adore the romance and its development. I just love how he falls in love with Jang Geum for her character; he supports her and sees past her gender. He says something along the lines of “Society discriminates, but books do not.”
Jang Geum has another teacher when she trains to be a female physician who teaches her to humble herself, but it’s a man this time. He was admirable. Her time as a female physician-in-training is the same as her time as an apprentice palace maid. She stands out because of her smarts and wows her teachers, but is shunned by her peers. As an apprentice palace maid, it was her lowly background as a peasant. As a female physician-in-training, it was her smarts that made her intimidating which isolated her. I identified so much with the latter. Jang Geum is a hard worker, but when asked to share in class, her intelligence comes off as natural and effortless. There is some innate talent in there, but it was nurtured with hard work and determination to be the very best.
What remains unchanged is my lack of interest in her adoptive parents and palace politics. I skipped ahead whenever they were onscreen. I don’t feel particularly strongly about the Choi female duo or their minion either. Geum-young was the most nuanced since we see her compromise her morals, but I still don’t care very much. Maybe it’s because I understood them the previous times I watched the drama and they were no surprise.
As I mentioned at the top, it’s been the summer of rewatching, but it’s also been the summer of realizing. I finally understood Koro-sensei’s lesson from the manga Assassination Classroom because it was prominent in this drama. He scolds the class for “not wielding a second blade.” Jang Geum wields two blades in this drama. Her first blade is cooking, her second blade is healing. And that made a big “if” in my plans change into a big “when.” At first it was, “If I decide to attend law school and practice law,” now it’s “When I decide to attend law school and practice law.” My first blade is teaching and I want my second blade to be lawyering. As mentioned earlier, my interests tend to vacillate. I am signed up for a major, but am thinking of minoring in something else, though I’m not sure what. But thanks to Dae Jang Geum, it swayed me to want to pick East Asian cultures as my minor. Who knows what will change my mind again? Hopefully something sticks, but for now, I know what to thank for the current candidate.
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How can you read my mind? Revisiting old dramas is exactly what I wanted to do.
I have rewatched Dae Jang Geum since watching Seven Day Queen (I’m a die-hard fan of this drama). When I saw its trailer about the love story of King Jungjong and Queen Dangyeong, I googled it and found that King Jungjong was portrayed in Dae Jang Geum too, which was my very first historical drama. I watched it when I was in elementary school and become my family’s favorite drama.
I was intrigued to rewatch Dae Jang Geum. I still feel the same excitement as twelve years ago while watching it. I’m still amazed by how great the kitchen ladies were portrayed, mesmerized by the royal food served in the palace, amazed by the attire worn by women in the palace, the hairstyles used by them, the variety of cooking skills, recipes, herbs, medical skills, and other knowledge, and also by the palace buildings that are still preserved until now.
I was just a kid who loved watching K-drama before. I wasn’t aware which king’s reign it was, whether it was in accordance with historical fact or not, or if there was any similar knowledge that I have about this drama. The character Jang Geum was the center of this drama back then, but the royal family members are my new points of view now. I’m curious about the historical facts behind it, how King Jungjong and Queen Dowager Jasun were. I have deeper knowledge about Joseon history than I did then, especially the historical facts behind Dae Jang Geum.
Dae Jang Geum portrays five kings’ reigns: Seonjong, Yeosangun, Jungjong, Injong and Myeongjong. But the main story focus is on the reign of Jungjong, the first Joseon king to be enthroned after a coup by government officials. He was a righteous man who never wanted to be king until he was backed by politicans to depose Yeonsangun and ascend the throne. In this drama, Jang Geum was used to persuade Jungjong to ascend the throne, but in fact, it was his beloved wife, Queen Dangyeong, who persuaded him.
He is said to have been a competent ruler but had a tough time trying to straighten out the court after Yeonsangun’s reign. He was not a particularly happy king. The drama shows him worrying about the hard life of his starving people, and it makes him live a frugal life, as shown when he demands simple dishes that ordinary people eat in a cooking competition. We see Jungjong is a lonely king who lost his love and has never really loved again. But in this drama, he starts to have feelings for Jang Geum when she becomes a young doctor.
The other thing I get now is the status and roles of women in Joseon palace. Queen Dowager Jasun is portrayed as the highest status and strongest influence of all women in the palace. She has the power to persuade the king to change his mind on decisions he makes whether through emotional blackmail or not. The queen who ruled in Dae Jang Geum is Queen Munjeong, King Jungjong’s third queen, and her position is politically fragile, as the crown prince is the son of the previous queen. Then after that are the concubines and court ladies. Jang Geum is not a court lady, but a royal physician.
What caught my attention recently is when Jang Geum lost her senses to free the charges against her adoptive father. She asks to have bee sting therapy performed on her tongue. It turns out this has really been applied from ancient times, and I didn’t give any attention when I first watched it.
Watching the drama is not only to have fun or releasing fatigue after a day’s activities, but it can be a means for us to learn something else. I’ve watched K-dramas for years, and they give me more knowledge about life, a chance for dreaming something out of the box, treasures of history, and exploring another country’s culture. Like Leonardo da Vinci said, “Nature is wise, you can learn everywhere and from everything.”
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