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The Secret Formula Of the Korean Television Drama D’ Jang Geum

Popular Korean TV drama makes waves in China.

Dae Jang Geum

South Korean movie and television dramas have been popular in Asian countries like Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and China for the past decade. The globalization of Korean TV series and actors has spawned a pop culture called Korean Wave, also known as hallyu, which refers to Korean culture in general, including movies, music, and fashion.

Korean Wave continues to sweep Asian countries and had a massive impact in 2004 with the introduction of the historic television drama Dae Jang Geum (Jewel in the Palace). With its attention to the details of people’s everyday lives, its well-rounded characters, and rich cultural content, Dae Jang Geum has drawn millions of viewers. Fans say they feel as if they are participating in the experiences of the characters.

Korean Wave in Asia

Korean Wave is the national pride of Korea. It introduces the historical Korea to the world and is successfully breaking down historical grudges with neighboring nations. Korean television movies have also boosted South Korea’s economy in the areas of trade and tourism. In 2004, exports of South Korean programs, mostly dramas, totaled US$71.4 million, up 70 percent over 2003, according to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. The Korean National Tourism Organization, the state-run tourist association, claims the impact of the TV dramas has brought almost one billion dollars in tourist income to Korea.

Dae Jang Geum made a huge success in Asia after it was first aired in Korea in 2003. With a popular start in Taiwan, the series was enormously successful and received the highest ratings in Hong Kong’s TV history. When the drama aired next on America’s AZN Television, a network company targeting Asian-American viewers, it scored another huge success. Korean Wave, already a cultural phenomenon in Asia, is making its mark worldwide.

According to Asia Times, when the show’s finale played in the San Francisco Bay area, more than 100,000 fans tuned in, landing the show higher ratings in that time slot than ABC’s Extreme Makeover, Warner Brothers’ Starlet, or PBS’ Live from Lincoln Center. In Japan, Dae Jang Geum aired its first episode on October 8, 2005, on NHK.

Korean Wave in China

Since the beginning of Korean Wave (Han Liu) in China in 1993, Dae Jang Geum has pushed the wave to new heights in 2004. Hunan Satellite Television paid 10 million yuan (US$1.2 million) to buy the mainland distribution rights. It purportedly has already doubled its investment by simply reselling the rights to other regional stations. Xinhua News Agency reported on October 17 that the series averages a 3.15 percent rating in 31 medium and large cities, and the number is climbing.
Produced by Korean TV channel MBC in 2003, Dae Jang Geum focuses on the life of Jang Geum, the first female royal physician in the Joseon Dynasty during the reigns of Yeonsangun (1494-1506) and King Jungjong (1506-1544) in Korea. The main themes are Jang Geum’s perseverance and the traditional Korean culture, including Korean royal court cuisine and medicine. Jang Geum was a real person as documented in the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty and a medical document of the time. However, references to her were few and mostly short.

Chinese fans are glued to this slow-paced Korean show. Besides the appeal of the exquisite Korean court food and fashion, and the beauty of Lee Yong Ae, the actress who plays the title role, fans indicate that the success of Dae Jang Geum is attributed to the deep cultural content of the show.

Freelance writer Shan He has pointed out that the popularity of Dae Jang Geum is not simply about the story of Jang Geum’s suffering, endurance, and triumph over hardship, but rather her purity and her kind, feminine character, especially her compassionate way of resolving conflicts. The show highlights the true nature of humankind and reawakens in viewers the inherent longing for truth, compassion, and tolerance.

Feminine Beauty and Persistence

"It teaches me how to live," one fan wrote on an online Dae Jang Geum discussion forum. Many female fans are delighted to learn the proper demeanor of a woman worthy of admiration — elegance, gentleness, kindness, and respectfulness. They say that beauty shines through the characters in the show, and many female fans say they would like to have those qualities themselves. Fans write about the persistence Jang Geum demonstrates in the face of suffering and tribulations. Her persistence, compassion, righteousness, and dedication to justice, even at the risk of her own life, have great appeal.

In the story, after Jang Geum returned to the palace as a female doctor, she embraced the moral values of a doctor and gave up her hatred towards those who killed her mother and teacher. She insisted on preparing the right type of food to serve the ambassador from the Ming Dynasty who was suffering from diabetes, despite the risk of losing her life if her dishes failed to improve his condition.

As a royal cook, she was taught by her teacher, Lady Han, to always consider the guest’s health when preparing food. She eventually won high praise from the ambassador for her care and steadfastness. Resisting a barrage of conflicting opinions, she insisted on the proper treatment for the king even though she was denigrated as an inexperienced female doctor. When she was offered the chance to spy for the queen, she replied that she was willing to give up her life if necessary but would not do things that were against her principles.
Liu Yajuan, a student from Wuhan University, posted this message online: "Jang Geum is so admirable, but in the real world, people try all kinds of means to survive in society. We stab each other in the back. I truly hope that in our society, we can have as compassionate a heart as Jang Geum to tolerate those around us."

A Classic Love Story

Jang Geum’s love story is classic and subtle. The scenes of her love for Lord Min Jung Ho consist of infrequent eye contact, gentle greetings and smiles, occasional conversation, and a short walk. There are no sex scenes, not even a kiss. But the audience can feel the strong tie between the two. Their unconditional love for each other has elevated to trust, respect, and admiration. When King Jungjong falls in love with Jang Geum but finds out about her love for Lord Min, both Jang Geum and Lord Min demonstrate the courage to acknowledge their relationship. In the end, Jang Geum sacrifices the king’s affection and chooses to follow Lord Min to live a simple but meaningful life.

The love story of Jang Geum has brought the fans tears and laughter as well as the longing for a true and secure relationship in real life. "It is a classic and beautiful love story, one that is long gone in today’s materialistic society. I would like to have a love relationship just like this," one fan wrote.

Respect for Traditional Chinese Culture and Moral Values

Throughout the series, Dae Jang Geum has conveyed the richness of Chinese culture, including Chinese calligraphy, medicine, food, clothing, and ancient systems of governing. The show blends classic tales into the story line that are refreshing and reassuring to Chinese audiences. It also demonstrates the deep influence Chinese culture had on Korea during that time period.

Some fans say that the training Jang Geum received in cooking and medicine illustrates the ancient emphasis on the cultivation of the individual’s moral conduct. In ancient China, all the professions taught people to have a pure heart, high moral values, and an inner understanding or enlightenment.

In one scene, Jang Geum participates in a royal cooking competition. The cooks have to use the food discarded by the commoners in order to show how the country can survive in times of food shortages. Eager to succeed in the contest, Jang Geum adds milk to the beef bone soup for better taste but loses the contest because milk was considered a luxury food, hardly affordable to the common people.
Seeing that Jang Geum has developed complacency, her teacher, Lady Han, tells her, "I would have never guessed that your talent would also become your poison" and sends her out of the palace to think things over. Jang Geum finally learns that having sincerity and diligence is the secret to making delicious food.
When Jang Geum was studying to become a female medical doctor, she was criticized for lacking the basic values as a doctor even though she was the top student in the class. She was perplexed, but upon observation and reflection, she learned that she was thinking too highly of herself and lacked modesty, consideration, and concern for her patients. She also learned that her purpose in studying medicine was tainted as she was seeking a way to take revenge on her enemies. She realized that she lacked the compassion to save people. Fans praise Jang Geum for her high moral standards and express admiration for the high standards of those times.

Chinese Television Industry Confronts The Korean Cultural Invasion

Dae Jang Geum has been a runaway hit in China since it aired in September 2005. Its fans even include Chinese President Hu Jintao and Wu Bangguo, Chairman of the National People’s Congress. The Central News Agency reported on October 2 that since the show’s broadcast in the mainland, it has reached an 18 percent rating with close to 18 million people watching it. China Youth Daily indicated that Chinese people like to watch the show to form their dreams and search for the moral values that have been lost in society.

While Dae Jang Geum has been successful in China, it has also been the object of criticism from the Chinese television movie industry. Zhang Guoli, a famous television star and producer in China, told Sina News that after watching one episode of Dae Jang Geum, he was not touched at all and found the show disturbing. Zhang has produced many historical television dramas in China. He said there were too many loopholes in Jang Geum’s character and that the show was too long and slow. He complained that Chinese audiences are overcritical of Chinese dramas but generous toward Korean dramas. He also expressed concern about the cultural invasion from Korea and asked the media to give Chinese productions more coverage.

Responding to the negative feedback, Jiang Xun, a reporter with the BBC, wrote on October 17, "I personally have not watched any Korean television dramas, nor am I a fan of them. But the popularity of Korean dramas, books, and video games that have made their way into China indicates that they do have appeal and a market."

"Culture is a form of identity for a country," Jiang Xun wrote. "It is very common for a country to create such a cultural influence and phenomenon in neighboring countries, as was witnessed in history during the Tang Dynasty, when Chinese culture had its impact on Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia. When the content of the cultural influence is Chinese culture while the player in the center is Korea, some people feel uneasy and resentful. But Chinese people should think about catching up, becoming an exporter of culture, and regaining China’s reputation."
One fan of Dae Jang Geum said that even though Chinese television drama has matured over the years, with its grand historical scenes, complex story lines, top quality productions, elaborate costumes and stage settings, it still lacks the most important part— uplifting cultural content, which Dae Jang Geum amply provides. Examples abound in the show with such themes as the role of fate in one’s life, retribution for wrong-doing, a king who cares for his people and follows the will of heaven, and the importance of virtues such as truthfulness, kindness, and tolerance.

In China, ruled by an atheist regime, it is almost impossible for such cultural content to thrive because China’s ancient cultural heritage has been attacked and discarded as feudalistic garbage, particularly since the Great Cultural Revolution. Nonetheless, these values still reside in people’s hearts. Dae Jang Geum has simply revived them. This is the secret formula behind the series’ success.

Lukun Yu is a writer based in New York.