Tracing Korea’s great history through sageuk

by - 08 May

Values-driven, beautifully told, and a showcase of culture, these are just few characteristics that made saguek, or Korean historical period dramas and movies, popular today. As part of hallyu, it contributed huge to the Korean phenomenon’s global popularity and continues to influence other cultures along with K-pop music and the Korean cuisine.

My fondness for watching sageuk dramas gave me valuable knowledge about Korea. Since the adaptation of sageuk content in the Philippine entertainment scene, it sparked my interest and endless appreciation of everything Korea particularly its great history and diverse culture which is said to be one of the world’s most inviting and well-preserved.

But what is sageuk all about? Sageuk are mostly based on historical figures and important events in the Korean history wherein mostly are stories depicting the life of notable princes and kings in the grand era of Korea’s great dynasties. Although sageuk dramas and films nowadays are fictional in nature, they are still based on prominent figures who significantly contributed in the culture and history of the country.

Jumong, enthroned as King Dongmyeong, was the great founder of Goguryeo Kingdom as depicted in the sageuk ‘The Book of the Three Hans: The Chapter of Jumong.’

Historical records and annals have been the main reference of many sageuk dramas and movies so we are blessed that by watching such content we can have a glimpse of the old Korea. Travel through time, take a journey with me and let us trace Korea’s great history back from the ancient kingdoms to the medieval and early modern periods of Goryeo and Joseon.

Buyeo and Goguryeo Kingdom
Jumong, a prince of Buyeo and later was enthroned as King Dongmyeong of Goguryeo (r. 37 BCE-19 BCE), was depicted in the historical period drama series ‘The Book of the Three Hans: The Chapter of Jumong.’ The sageuk focuses on Jumong’s life as the great founder of Goguryeo (37 BCE-668 AD) which is one of the ‘Three Kingdoms of Korea’ together with Baekje and Silla. While much of the drama series is fictionalized as there were only few details recorded in history about the kingdom of Goguryeo and its ruler, it tells the story of the young prince Jumong and his growing rivalry with his half-brothers who had intention over the power of the Kingdom of Buyeo (2nd century BC-494 AD). The drama also chronicles how he built his own army that eventually succeeded in establishing the Kingdom of Goguryeo where he became the first king of the new nation.

Baekje Kingdom
Baekje Kingdom (18 BC-660 AD) was briefly cited in historical period dramaseries Jumong but the ancient kingdom is best depicted in the sageuk ‘The King of Legend,’ which was based on the story of King Geunchogo (r. 346 AD-375 AD) as the warrior king of Baekje. The story centers on the royal and political power of the kingdom that once ruled a part of the Chinese region and its control over the entire Korea. On the other hand, in the historical drama ‘King Gwanggaeto the Great,’ the Kingdom of Goguryeo was shown to be less powerful compared to Jumong’s noble leadership. Prior to Gwanggaeto's birth, King Geunchogo overcame the forces of Goguryeo in which he showed the prowess of the Kingdom of Baekje during his reign. As the plot progresses, Goguryeo ended up showing its great feat and restored its former glory during the reign of King Gwanggaeto (r. 391-413) as the 19th monarch of the kingdom.

Silla Kingdom
The highlight of important events in the history of the Kingdom of Silla (57 BC-935 AD), the last of the ancient Three Kingdoms of Korea, is portrayed in the drama series ‘Queen Seondeok.’ The story centers on the entire reign of the first female ruler of Silla and of the Korean history. Born as Princess Deokman, along with the help of her siblings, she succeeded her father King Jinheung's throne and proved herself worthy of the power of Silla despite that most of her people did not want her as the ruler of the state. In history, Queen Seondeok of Silla (r. 632-647) made reforms on tax and livelihood policies specifically for her constituents and the poor who later supported her will against male aristocracy.

‘Queen Seondeok’ of Silla is represented in the sageuk drama with the same title wherein the story chronicles her entire reign as the first female ruler of the Korean history. The illustration features General Kim Yu-sin and then Princess Deokman as depicted in the Korean television series.

The elite warrior group hwarang composed mainly of young men during the period of Silla is depicted in the sageuk ‘Hwarang: The Poet Warrior Youth.’ Although King Jinheung (r. 540-576), the 24th monarch of Silla, has been loosely portrayed in the drama series in which the story focuses on how Silla’s hwarang warriors was established to protect the power of the kingdom, a part of it is still based on Korean history especially the depiction of Queen Jiso as regent in replaced of her son Jinheung who inherited the Silla's throne from his maternal grandfather at the very young age. Hwarang was established during King Jinheung's reign which would later play a significant role in the unification of the three ancient kingdoms.

The ‘Three Kingdoms of Korea’ is historically recorded in the Samguk sagi (History of the Three Kingdoms, 1145) which was written in classical Chinese and was ordered to compilation by King Injong (r. 1122-1146), the 17th ruler of Goryeo. It is considered as Korea's oldest surviving historical record which also includes monographs and biographies of notable people of Korea’s ancient kingdoms. Besides the Samguk sagi, there is also its Buddhist counterpart Saguk yusa (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms, 1512) which is mostly based on traditional stories, folklores and legends.

King Taejong Muyeol was the 29th ruler of Silla who succeeded in the unification of the ‘Three Kingdoms of Korea’ as represented in the television drama series ‘Dream of the Emperor.’

Unified Silla Period Unified Silla is often referred to as the Later Silla (668-935) after it successfully brought together the central and southern regions of the Korean peninsula. Historically, Silla dominated Baekje and Goguryeo in the 7th century with a strong alliance with the Tang of China. Although there’s not much sageuk that depicts the prosperous kingdom of Unified Silla and the important events that unified the Three Kingdoms of Korea, one drama series that’s worth mentioning is the ‘Dream of the Emperor.’ The story chronicles how Kim Chun-chu, the grandson of King Jinji of Silla (r. 576-579), succeeded in becoming King Taejong Muyeol (r. 654-661), the 29th monarch of the kingdom who led the unification of the kingdoms of Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla. Before Kim Chun-chu became monarch, there were frequent conflicts that happened resulting all his blood line demoted in the bone rank sytem and were considered not fit to rule Silla. This was when his grandfather was dethroned due to his lack of actions from the attacks made by their counterpart Baekje. However, with the death of his aunt Queen Seondeok and the last seonggeol royalty of Silla Queen Jindeok (r. 647-654), Kim Chun-chu who was also born with the "sacred bone” ascended to the throne as King Taejong Muyeol.

Gaya Confederacy
Kim Yu-sin, one of the greatest generals in Korean history, was also portrayed in the sageuk Dream of the Emperor. He was one of the key figures who led the unification of the ancient kingdoms of Korea. Besides, he was the close friend of King Taejong Muyeol in which he became the commander in chief of the royal army during the reign of Queen Seondeok. Yu-sin was the great grandchild of King Guhyeong (r. 521-532), the last ruler of Geumgwan Gaya (43-532), which was the reason behind his high position in Silla Kingdom. Furthermore, King Munmu of Later Silla (r. 661-681) was also given life in the historical drama as the first ruler of Unified Silla and reign the kingdom for twenty years when it finally defeated Baekje and Goguryeo. In history, he was born as Prince Beomin, the son of King Taejong Muyeol and Queen Munmyeong, who was the younger sister of General Kim Yu-sin.

King Go’s life story as the first ruler of the multi-ethnic kingdom of Balhae is depicted in the television drama series ‘Dae Jo-yeong.’

Balhae Kingdom
Balhae (698-926) is represented in the sageuk ‘Dae Jo-yeong’ which tells about the life story of the kingdom’s great founder. Under the leadership of Dae Jo-yeong, also known as King Go (r. 698-719), he led the Goguryeo refugees in establishing the new and multi-ethnic kingdom of Goguryeo after its historic fall and which was later called Balhae. This was to carry out the order that he received from Goguryeo’s last ruler.

Later Three Kingdoms of Korea
In the 9th century, the power of Later Silla has weakened during the reign of Queen Jinseong (r. 887-897) as the nation was controlled by more powerful statesmen which has resulted in a series of civil wars. Gyeon Hwon (r. 892-935), a rebel during the period of civil war, revolted against Later Silla in the Jeolla region where he established the state of Later Baekje (892-936). On the other hand, the northern regions controlled by Later Silla were also captured with a rebellion led by Gung-ye (r. 901-918) in which the state of Taebong, or Later Goguryeo (901-918), was established. When Wang Geon, who was from the noble clan of Goguryeo, came to Taebong to follow his father to service, the newly formed state fell into his hands and killed the harsh ruler Gung-ye wherein he was crowned as the first ruler of Goryeo (918-1392).

Goryeo Dynasty
The historical period drama ‘Emperor Wang Geon’ and motion film ‘Wang Geon, the Great’ are two of the prominent sageuk content that highlights the life of the military commander, how he managed to unite the Later Three Kingdoms of Korea, and accomplished to become Taejo of Goryeo (r. 918-943). Besides the stories of Goryeo’s first ruler, his family was also illustrated in the drama series ‘Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo.’ Although the sageuk was based on a popular novel and centers mainly on the theme of love, it still shows the political structure of the early state of Goryeo, especially the rivalry and ambition of the princes for the throne. King Taejo's sons who later became rulers of the dynasty were also portrayed in the historical television series ‘The Dawn of the Empire’ specifically on Wang So (r. 949-975), or King Gwangjong's reign as the 4th king of the dynasty. Goryeo was reigned by 34 rulers which took over Korea for about 474 years after it conquered Later Silla and the Later Baekje surrendered its power.

While most of sageuk are based on the life of well-known rulers of old Korea, there are also some that tell the stories of prominent figures who contributed a lot to Korean history such as the life story of ‘Jeong Do-jeon’ (r. 1392-1398) in a Korean drama series with the same title. He was a remarkable scholar of the late Goryeo period who played a major role in the development of the political ideology and framework of the future nation of Joseon.

"Tracing Korea’s great history through sageuk," October 29, 2019 was first published on the Talk Talk Korea web portal. All photos used herein are property of Annyeong Korya which are protected under applicable copyrights.

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