Dear Readers, I must acquaint you all with something with which I was obsessed over the Christmas holidays.
What do you get when you have a witty, intelligent, cross-dressing heroine, a stodgy, principled (but adorable) nerd, a rebel with a heart of gold, and a weaselly, manipulative, and ambiguously gay mischief-maker? ONLY JJ’S NEWEST KOREAN DRAMA CRACK.
I’m not very well acquainted with Korean pop culture (but I’m not so well-acquainted with American pop culture either), but every once in a while, things filter through my bookish haze to tickle my fancy. I watch the occasional Korean drama, usually ones my mother recommends or ones containing my favourite actors and/or actresses. For weeks my mother had been at me to start watching 성균관 스캔들, or Sungkyunkwan Scandal, but I had been slow to start. I was initially skeptical about it, and I was skeptical for a few reasons.
- Sungkyunkwan Scandal is a sageuk, or historical drama. I know next to nothing about Korean history (except for very broad strokes) and the trials and tribulations of the kings, palace officials, and nobility of a country I know nothing about is boring.*
- The romantic male lead is played by Micky Yoochun, a Korean boyband singer** with whom my mother has been obsessed. OBSESSED.
*A slightly more humiliating reason I don’t enjoy historical dramas is they often use a more archaic form of Korean (the equivalent to Shakespearean English, I suppose) which I find difficult to understand.
**Formerly of 동방신기 (Dong Bang Shin Ki), presently with JYJ.
But! After practically forcing me to sit down and watch the episodes, I was completely won over by this drama, although how could I not, when it contains all the tropes I adore and it’s totally charming to boot?
An impoverished young woman makes a living as a scribe in order to earn money for medicine to treat her sick younger brother. However, she must cross-dress as a man so as to escape punishment and suspicion, as the only learned and literate women of this time were courtesans. But Yoon-hee dreams of a new society, one in which women are allowed to live out their academic dreams without fear. Through a series of events, she accidentally becomes enrolled as a male scholar at the prestigious Sungkyunkwan University, where she meets three other likeminded students who dream of a better Joseon.
But complications arise, as she finds herself falling for a fellow student, not to mention if her true identity were to be discovered, she will face death by beheading…
First we have our intrepid heroine, Kim Yoon-hee, affectionately referred to by her Sungkyunkwan friends as Daemul, or Big Shot.*** She is the yangban daughter of an intellectual and idealistic father, who educated her in Confucian classics (but on the sly, to the point where Yoon-hee wasn’t even aware of what he was doing). Alas for Yoon-hee, her father was murdered before our story opens, leaving the family with an ailing son and no means of producing income. The complications of being a woman and breadwinner in her family is what causes Yoon-hee to end up at Sungkyunkwan.
She attends Sungkyunkwan as Kim Yoon-shik, using her brother’s name and identification tag to pass as a man. I will admit it takes a bit of suspension of disbelief to believe that this beautiful young woman could ever pass as a man, but hey, whatever. I love her: she’s ridiculously smart, somewhat jaded and cynical, and determined to “live life as a person”, as someone whose talents are appreciated instead of dismissed.
***See note regarding Education in Joseon Korea below.
Next we have Lee Sun-joon, nicknamed Garang by his friends. (Although the nickname is never used much. It means “Perfect Husband” and it wasn’t exactly given with the kindest of intentions.) He is the stodgiest stodgy nerd who ever stodged AND I LOVE HIM. He is so square, it’s hilarious. The privileged son of a prominent government official, he is scrupulously principled, but also kind-hearted and clear-sighted. He is the main romantic interest.
There are many reasons I love Sun-joon, but I love that he’s someone who sticks to his guns and beliefs. I also love that he challenges Yoon-hee intellectually, not to provoke her but just by virtue of who he is and how he sees the world. His interactions with Yoon-hee change him as well; he sticks to his guns, but he’s not inflexible. Like the bamboo reed, he bends but does not break, to the point where he believes himself to be in love with a man. (Ah, Sun-joon, so intelligent yet so dumb.)
Third we have Moon Jae-shin, called Guh-ro or Crazy Horse. Guh-ro is Sungkyunkwan’s resident bad boy and the secondary love interest. By day, he’s a lazy student who’s failed three times, but by night he’s the Red Messenger, racing across rooftops and shooting arrows wrapped with propaganda against the oppressive ruling faction. He’s an idealist and an iconoclast and quietly devoted to Yoon-hee.
Guh-ro has this endearing habit of hiccuping around the ladies, which alerts him to Yoon-hee’s true identity. Upon finding out, he becomes her silent protector, eventually coming to love her from afar. I will admit to being slow to like Guh-ro; I dislike overly angsty characters and I was afraid he would be consumed by his Pain. But! The show is better than this, and I came to love Guh-ro wholeheartedly in my own way. Besides, Guh-ro has a sense of humor, which…instant points. (But Yoon-hee/Sun-joon forever!)
And last, but certainly not least, we come to my absolute favourite character, and the one closest to my heart, Gu Yong-ha, also known as Yeoh-rim or Forest of Women. (Or at least, I think that’s what it means. The implication is that his nickname is really vulgar.) He’s worldly, flamboyant, and fabulous. He’s also a slippery fellow, seeming morally ambiguous at first because he tends to manipulative people and situations for his own amusement. (Can you see why I adore him?)
But this little weasel isn’t without his weaknesses, and Yong-ha’s is Guh-ro. Certainly he’s utterly faithful to his best friend Guh-ro, but sometimes I wondered if he wasn’t a little in love with him. Yong-ha admits wanting to “be close to and touch” Guh-ro, enough to question his sexuality, when Sun-joon comes to him with his romantic crisis.
The show leaves Yong-ha’s sexual identity ambiguous. Of course, the issue of homosexuality was entirely different in Joseon Korea than it is today. Margaret Cho used to joke that “Everybody a little bit gay…but NOT IN KOREA!” (It’s kind of true.) But unlike homosexuality in Western culture, being gay wasn’t a reflection of one’s masculinity; it was considered social deviance. Confucian order is very rigid and very conservative, with the family being the highest ideal. A homosexual does not contribute to the highest ideal; hence, social deviance. But, as Yong-ha says, “It’s a sin to hate, but how can it be a sin to love? No matter who it is.”
Still, Yong-ha is coded as queer to me, and it has nothing to do with his affection for Guh-ro. He fills the role of a Wildean dandy: well-dressed and extremely fashionable, popular with the ladies, and a little affected. (Although he has a good reason for his affectations.) I love Yong-ha because he is the glue who holds this foursome together.
The strength of this show lies in the relationships these characters have with each other. Unlike other Korean dramas I’ve watched, which can often fall into cliches and tired romantic tropes to generate melodrama, Sungkyunkwan Scandal relied on the appeal of these four idealistic youths with the vision and desire to change their world for the better. Also! The love triangle didn’t make me want to vomit! Yoon-hee doesn’t have to “choose” between one or the other! Sun-joon and Guh-ro are ACTUAL friends, as in, they would literally die for each other! See? It’s is possible to make me interested in a love triangle!
Anyway, if you’ve managed to make it through my ridiculously long post about this, you deserve some sort of medal. Also, if I’ve managed to interest you in watching this, go to Dramafever.com and you can watch it streaming for free! It’s even subtitled!
The Historical Context
If you’re interested, let me provide you with a little context or nuance that subtitles can’t properly explain. Even though I may not know the name of every king or every battle, I do have a very broad, very sketchy impression of Korean history, not to mention a sort of instinctual understanding of a general “Korean spirit” that I must have absorbed like osmosis from my mother and grandmother.
The Setting: The Joseon Dynasty under the rule of King Jeong-jo in the 18th century
Right, so I know next to nothing about the king (who is pretty well-known, I guess, sort of like George III of England in the equivalent time period but less of the madness and more of the reformative vision), but I do know a little about the Joseon Dynasty.
The Joseon Dynasty lasted approximately 500 years and is, in many ways, the “defining” period of pre-modern Korea. Traditional Korean dress, hanbok, comes from the Joseon Dynasty, as well as many other aspects of “traditional” Korean culture. It’s a period of absolute unification of the Korean peninsula, not only politically, but ideologically. It established Confucianism as the prevailing philosophy, when previous kingdoms had been predominantly Buddhist. It was also a time of tremendous scientific and literary achievements, so there’s a sense of romanticism about it, in much the same way the English Renaissance is romanticized. (I apparently have a better sense of English history than I do American history.)
Class and Gender in Korean Confucian Society
Korean society had more or less two defined classes: the yangban, or the scholarly class, and the cheonmin, or the peasants, slaves, and other undesirable members of society. On top there was royalty and in-between was a sort of burgeoning merchant class. Yangban and cheonmin status was inherited.
Education was not only the privilege of the elite, it was also the only way to advance in society. Only yangban could attain positions as officials in the government, own land, etc. The brightest, most intelligent would get the top positions and get paid the best. Women, as you might assume, were non-entities for the most part, with a few exceptions here and there. Yangban women were educated, but not to the same extent as men, but the most educated women of that time were cheonmin; that is, they were kisaengs, or courtesans. Highly educated and prized for their intelligence, wit, and beauty, they were also society’s dregs with no status or “honor”.
Education in Joseon Korea
Okay, I admit I don’t understand this as much either, as much of the examinations seem to be based on the ability to understand Confucian precepts (regurgitation is not the same as true understanding), as well as the ability to write excellent poetry. It all comes down to how the Korean language is constructed.
Here’s the real gist of it: educated people read Hanja, which are Chinese characters. The common man reads Hangeul, which is the Korean alphabet. There are two “words” for EVERYTHING in the Korean language, one in Chinese and one in Korean. A very simple example would be the word “big”.
大 = Chinese character for “big”. Pronounced “dae” in Korean.
큰 = native Korean word for “big”. Pronounced “keun”.
Now, 大 is mostly used in the construction of words, concepts, or ideas. For instance, a hurricane is 大風, or 대풍 (pronounced daepung), the idea constructed from the Chinese characters for “great” and “wind”. (Incidentally, it’s from where we get the word “typhoon” in English. I think it’s pronounced dai fung in Chinese, but I could be totally wrong.)***
However, you cannot construct concepts from native Korean words in the same way. 큰 is most usually an adjective of some sort, describing the quality of something else. 큰사람 (keun saram) means “large person”. It does not connote greatness, or largeheartedness, or anything that can be attributed to the character 大. 大人 (dae-in–which I totally just made up, by the way) is constructed of the characters for “big” and “person”, but would mean something closer to “great man”.
***This is why Yoon-hee’s nickname is hilarious. Dae + mul together means “large thing”, that is “big penis”.
ANYWAY! This very long digression goes to the fact that scholars (and poets) in the Joseon era were judged for their inventiveness, their clever, witty, intelligent, and lyrical abilities to phrase lines in the form of insightful poetry that furthers understanding of concepts like Poverty or Honor or Humility.
That’s it. Wow, I never intended to write anything this long about a Korean drama, but hey, I do love this thing to bits.