A scene from an MBC epic drama, “Lee San, Wind of the Palace,” which covers the life of King Jeongjo.
Political Season Stirs Up Interest in Kings, Epic Dramas
By Chung Ah-young
“History is an unending dialogue between the present and the past,” historian E.H. Carr once noted.
People living in the modern times seek wise answers by looking to the past, especially when the present is sometimes thrown into a critical state.
The huge popularity of epic dramas is an example of this, although the times are different, the issues are closely related to the present.
Among other historical subjects, King Jeongjo (1776-1800) is receiving attention in major dramas and even books nowadays.
“Lee San, Wind of the Palace,” now being aired on MBC, is gaining popularity since it opened on Sept. 17. The drama consists of 60 episodes covering the whole life of King Jeongjo who brought the Joseon Kingdom into “the era of renaissance.”
Also, a 10-episode drama, titled “Eight Days,” which will be broadcast on the cable movie channel CGV on Nov. 17, portrays mysterious events that take place during the king’s visit to his father’s tomb in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi Province.
Prior to the two dramas, “Conspiracy in the Court” was broadcast on KBS in July, shedding light on the later years of King Jeongjo’s reign.
But the popularity of the king as a dramatic motif began in 1993 with “Eternal Empire,” a history-based novel that revolved around the story of the poisoning of the king. It is still a steady seller. The book was also made into a film of the same name in 1995.
Then, why is Jeongjo being reborn in various fields?
Park Kwang-yong, professor of the Korean history department at the Catholic University, explained that the trend reflects people’s anticipation for a new leader ahead of the presidential election slated for Dec. 19.
“People tend to rediscover the model eras marked by good leadership and sometimes the successful reformation in the past because they have to decide the fate of the nation,” Park said in an interview with The Korea Times.
“Maybe, during the era of King Jeongjo, there was much cultural and social progress compared with any other pre-modern society eras, along with the era of King Sejong,” he said.
Park is also a writer of “The Nation of King Yeongjo and Jeongjo,” the drama “Lee San” is based on.
Preceded by his grandfather King Yeongjo (1724-1776), King Jeongjo was the 22nd ruler of the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910) and is thought of as a reformer. He is regarded as one of the most successful and visionary rulers of Joseon, equivalent to King Sejong.
Park said that the king had a modern mindset in foreign policy, to establish equal relations with the Qing Dynasty, which draws sympathy from modern viewers.
The king also established Gyujanggak, an imperial library, which was part of his reform efforts to improve the cultural and political stance of Joseon and to recruit gifted officers to run the nation.
Also, the library was created to lessen the power of various wealthy aristocrats and relatives of the queen, who had frequently plagued the Joseon era.
“The king was one of the few modern and open-minded leaders. Such a boom spotlighting Jeongjo is the response of people who are longing for political change, which the king tried to achieve,” said Park.
But the king-based dramas offer different point of views. “Lee San” focuses on the human side of the king, such as the internal struggles to fight his political enemies as the title suggests, which is also the main focus of the book written by Park.
Park said that the book shows how the 18th century people lived and particularly the human side of the king and how he developed Joseon society.
Meanwhile, “Eight Days” adopts a mystery genre depicting the king’s eight-day trip to Hwaseong where his father’s grave was located.
Park Jong-won, director of the cable drama, said that the king had many tragic family issues. “King Jeongjo was the eldest son of Crown Prince Sado who was locked in a chest and killed by King Yeongjo, during factional struggles. And his grandfather, Yeongjo was born of a court maid. Such an unfortunate background made him hold a grudge, which haunted him for his entire life,” the director said.
Jeongjo spent much of his reign trying to clear his mentally-ill father’s name. He also moved the court to the city of Suwon, Gyeonggi Province, to be closer to his father’s grave. He built Hwaseong Fortress to guard the tomb, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
“Conspiracy in the Court” dealt with the king’s strong reform drive, facing obstacles from many sides in his later years, which reflects the current political situation.
“But what people want to seek is a heroic leader from the past such as Jeongjo who embraced even his enemies for a better nation,” the professor said.
King Jeongjo implemented “tangpyeongchaek,” an engagement policy toward rival factions, which was intended to give people equal footing in politics, even though the king suffered continuous threats of assassination from opposing factions.
Also, some filmmakers are moving to bring several Jeongjo-themed novels to the screen. Director Kim Tae-gyun is making a well-known mystery novel by Kim Tak-hwan into the film “Banggakbon” starring actor Kim Ju-hyuk.