Some Factors About Dae Jang Geum


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Dae Jang Geum is a fusion sageuk — its storyline is completely fictional with a historical backdrop. Dae Jang Geum was the first female Royal Physician in Joseon history and was recorded in the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty, annual historical records of imperial Korea. However, the drama does not follow Jang Geum’s trials in the records. The drama is set in the rigid and patriarchal 16th century Joseon Dynasty (1494 – 1544) and consisted of 54 episodes. The drama received a high viewership rating of 57.8 per cent and is extremely popular in East Asia and Asian immigrant communities in America (Lin & Tong, 2009).

It was produced for US$15m, broadcasted in more than 60 countries and generated more than US$ 56.8m from international sales since it aired in September 2003 (Jang, G., & Paik W.K., 2012). The success transformed the relatively unknown cast into stars, and the film sets became a Dae Jang Geum theme park, where thousands of fans flock to visit the kitchen and royal palaces every year. Dae Jang Geum became internationally renowned and its Hallyu effects were even acknowledged politically. 18 diplomats and delegates from countries all over the world visited the theme park during the “Friday with Friends at Dae Jang Geum Park” event (MBC website). The drama promoted closer proximity between South Korea and other countries, and began, with other Korean popular culture, the Korean Wave.

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Dae Jang Geum resulted in a 75 percent sales increase in Korean electronic products in Iran (“Iran”, 2010), and Jang Geum was even featured in a Hong Kong Primary School textbook teaching etiquette, manners, wisdom and pure love (Song, 2007). The overwhelming success of the drama internationally is impressive. This paper will examine the factors that helped to propel the drama into the global stage. Food Food is a central theme in Dae Jang Geum. Cooking and eating occupy more than half the drama, presenting food as important to people’s physical, mental and spiritual health (H.S. Lin, 2011). Most cooking scenes are part of cooking competitions held between the protagonist or her mentor (Lady Han), against the ‘villains’, Lady Choi and Geum Young, who use dishonorable methods to undermine and discredit their talent or banish them from the palace. Food knowledge and skills are used in the battle between ‘good’ and ‘evil’, and thus not only are the scenes educational in ingredient usage and food nutrition, the scenes are also dramatic and entertaining. The scenes are also inspiring as they main protagonists always overcome the unfair obstacles set by Lady Choi despite how unfair the odds are.

For example, the villains tried to hinder them by influencing the judge to choose seafood as the topic of competition as they knew that Lady Choi’s merchant brother would be able to get the freshest seafood which made all the difference in taste. However, Jang Geum was able to think of an ingenious method of cooking dried or salted fish which surpassed that of the villains’ fresh ones. This inspires the audience and also encourages them to reach for their goals no matter how many obstacles come in their way. Moreover, the scenes of cooking healthy dishes and brewing medicine satisfied a global trend for healthy living (Jang, G., & Paik W.K., 2012). It also contributed to the rise of food-motivated tourism in Korea, where viewers are inspired the traditional Korean dishes and desire to try them out by visiting food-themed tours and farms, stimulating an interest in the national culture and cuisine.

A study (H.S. Lin, 2011) on Japanese women’s perceptions of the drama found that Japanese female audiences were drawn to the drama because of the way female cooks are portrayed as deeply knowledgeable and skillful chefs who are extremely caring. They are seen as incredibly selfless women who devote much of their time and energy to perfecting their craft, understanding the variety of ingredients and their relevance to health conditions. For example, when the Ming Dynasty emissary visited the palace, Lady Han and Jang Geum were tasked to prepare his meals for him. After learning about his shortness of breath and other health conditions, Lady Han realized that he was a diabetic. Even though they knew the emissary preferred food that is rare, flavorful and tasty (but bad for a diabetic), they prepared vegetarian courses that would help to regulate his blood sugar levels.

The emissary threw a rage after he tasted their food, but they refused to change the courses even with the threat of a death sentence. Lady Han was eventually thrown into jail and Jang Geum pleaded with the emissary to try their food for one week, and if it did not have an effect on his health she would be executed willingly. Sure enough, the emissary felt better after eating their food for one week and revealed that even though he knew what sorts of food were good for his health, he rarely was able to commit to eating those. He praised Lady Han and Jang Geum for their integrity and refusal to serve up any food which will worsen health problems for the consumer. This shows Lady Han and Jang Geum’s absolute commitment to the health of the people around them. This way of framing enhances women’s traditional role in the household (as a cook and caretaker) and is especially gratifying for the housewife, who might have spent a lot of time and care preparing food for the family, only to receive little gratitude in return. In the drama, we also see Jang Geum painstakingly experimenting with ingredients and learning about their medicinal values. Many of the audience sees Jang Geum’s training as a cook (learning about foods’ subtle effects on our bodies) as paramount to her success as a physician. She uses food and medicine as two interconnected crafts to cure illnesses.

Given that housewives often suffer from low self-esteem due to the low status of housework (Anderson, 2000; Ehrenreich, 2002), the idea that food can heal the mind, body and soul is profound to housewives, who spend hours taking care of their family and might feel especially empowered and validated after viewing the drama. Below are some snippets of the interview (H.S. Lin, 2011): 2. Values and Culture Dae Jang Geum has attracted international and varied audiences across all kinds of social boundaries (Lin and Kim, 2005). Americans and Europeans may have found the drama refreshing, uncomplicated and romantic, without sexual or sensational scenes. Asians found lifestyles and trends they wanted to follow. The Middle East found the drama ‘safe’ – Saudi Arabia’s government broadcasted Dae Jang Geum for the protagonist’s significant support and loyalty to the government (Jang, G., & Paik W.K., 2012). Iranian viewers also stated that they were drawn to the old Korean society and the story content itself – loyalty, strong female lead, happy ending, pure love, self-achievement (“Daejanggeum’s Record-High Audience, 2007). Middle-aged audiences seemed to think that it was a good drama for families to watch together and teach children ethical values, while younger groups paid more attention to the food and clothing and watched mainly because it was a family ritual (Jeong, Lee & Lee, 2017).

Furthermore, based on the concept of cultural proximity, Dae Jang Geum has a bigger influence on Asians, especially East Asians. Due to the long history of intercultural mingling between East Asians (the rise of Confucianism in China which spread to other Asian countries in imperial China; the use of Chinese characters in the Japanese written language kanji and in Korea, Hanja), it is probable that Asian countries share similar cultures and values. “Cultural proximity theory” posits that the rise of transnational flows in Asian cultures, even in Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia, shows that this could be the reason (Jeong, Lee & Lee, 2017). Dae Jang Geum highlights traditional values like loyalty, tradition, self-sacrifice, respect to hierarchy, and reaffirms an Asian cultural community. The Asian mindset that food and medicine are interdependent sciences is also one of the prevailing features of the drama (de Carvalho, 2009). However, a huge factor explaining the popularity of Dae Jang Geum is the universal values of perseverance, grit, devotion and courage demonstrated in the drama. The theme of morality, of good and evil, is familiar to any audience. Viewers can choose to focus on the deep and universal aspects of the drama, ignoring the differences in culture, or delight in the visual exoticism of the different customs. In other words, it offers something for everyone (de Carvalho, 2009).

Dae Jang Geum also draws from rich historical socio-political influences of ancient China and Japan, illustrating the political tension between Korea and its neighboring imperial powers (Lin & Tong, 2009). These tensions between neighboring countries are still seen today, giving Dae Jang Geum a richer and more realistic touch. For example, references were made to the Ming Dynasty emissaries whom Lady Han and Jang Geum had to impress, and the Japanese spies sent to Chosun to strategize for an invasion. Although these rich cultural histories might make viewing difficult for Chinese or Japanese audiences, a study in the viewing patterns of Hong Kong audiences (Lin & Tong, 2009) suggests that they selectively pay attention to aspects which they can identify with culturally (the influence of Chinese culture in olden Korea). However, what makes Dae Jang Geum so appealing to many Asian women lies in the way they select and interpret scenes, which helps to frame the women’s experiences meaningfully. Interviews with Japanese middle-aged women seemed to suggest that there is a strong tendency for many women to project their needs, desires and nostalgia for the old times onto the tv programs they watch, and in them find ways to alleviate their frustrations (H.S. Lin, 2011).

Moreover, the protagonist’s love interest, Jeong Ho, always supported her in whatever she chose to do. In the drama, there is very little touching and no kissing or sexual scenes at all. This may be attractive to female audiences who like the idea of ‘pure love’. 3. Narrative Techniques Narrative suspense is a tool to create suspense and drama. One common strategy is a cliffhanger, which makes the viewer curious and eager to know what happens next. This pushes emotions to the extreme and keeps the viewer hooked throughout the drama. In Dae Jang Geum, every episode ends in a cliffhanger, which helps to create an addiction-like anticipation for the series. Not only that, the technical quality of production, beautiful settings, and unique soundtrack also helped propel the drama into success (de Carvalho, 2009). The episode would often end right after the King or competition judge tasted the food cooked by Jang Geum or her rival, and would often create a sense of anticipation and suspense in the viewer as he or she wonders if the King liked it or not. The characters were also complex, interesting and realistic. The villains, Lady Choi and her niece, were compelled to do crimes out of loyalty and protection of their family. In fact, her niece is the one of the most complex characters as even though she was Jang Geum’s direct rival in the kitchen and for her love interest, she shows sympathy for her and remorse in the end. This reflected the complicated real world and made the viewers sympathise with the villains, as well as encouraged them to think about the gray shades between moral and immoral (de Carvalho, 2009).

When Jang Geum was consumed with rage after she discovered it was Lady Choi who killed both her mother and Lady Han, she was consumed by a desire to use medicine to take revenge. This shows that the main protagonist was also complex and had her own struggles. The portrayal of Jang Geum as an orphaned girl from a peasant background thrown into a situation where most of the girls are from middle-class and upper-middle class backgrounds who bullied and looked down on her made the viewers sympathise and root for Jang Geum from the start. As the trials develop and the audience sees Jang Geum go through deep suffering and difficult circumstances of politics, they become more involved in the story and more inspired when she rose above those difficulties and became even more knowledgeable, powerful and revered. The shooting style – involving lots of close-ups of the characters’ faces – also helped to draw the audience closer into the Dae Jang Geum universe. These shots in television are able to stimulate “a contact intimate, direct and personal” (Campedelli, 1985) with the viewers and help to facilitate identification with the characters in the drama, which is key to the drama’s popularity. Identification is a mechanism which allows audiences to experience events happening in a film or drama as if they were happening to them (Cohen, 2001).

This helps to convey moral lessons to the audience and leads to the success of Dae Jang Geum. Also, the music and non-verbal portrayals of emotion in the drama are intense and convey strong feelings. The drama’s running theme song, ‘Onara’ is sung by a choir of young children and is immediately recognisable to people who don’t understand Korean. In moments where the characters were unable to freely express their thoughts and emotions, it is this song that plays and expresses what they cannot (de Carvalho, 2009). Factors that limited its success As Dae Jang Geum is a faction drama, many scenes and events are not historically accurate, and the storyline of how she became the first female Royal physician can be distorted in the writer’s imagination, which may bring misrepresentation of national and historical culture (Karpovich, 2010; Kim, 2010; Reyes, 1995; Schofield, 1996). Another criticism is that Jang Geum’s motivation to achieve success is from her pledge to her dead mother. The portrayal of women as unconditionally filial daughters and dutiful wives are construed by some as objectionable and problematic. Some women also found it ‘depressing’ to watch women fight with one another over trivial matters as choosing ingredients for a dish or to gain recognition from the king. While the drama celebrates unprecedented achievements of women, it features women who subscribe to the feminine ideal in a patriarchal society (H.S. Lin, 2011). Here are some responses from the interviews: Dae Jang Geum also came under attack for ‘misappropriating’ Chinese culture as Korean culture, in relation to acupuncture and herbal medication (Chua and Iwabuchi, 2008).

Below is such an example: The argument that Dae Jang Geum misappropriated cultures is highly contentious – the drama did not mention that Korea was the origin of acupuncture, but did not mention where it came from either. However, the drama did portray China as a ‘big brother’ of Korea where some of the rarest ingredients come from (eg. the golden pheasant). I think in Asia it is common knowledge that acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine practice, so when I watched the drama this point that Korea ‘stole’ it from China did not occur to me at all. I think that because watching television is an active activity where viewers interpret and reconstruct culture and meanings portrayed in the drama, and because Dae Jang Geum encourages self-reflexivity and introspection, it generates different responses from different women, who interpret the drama in diverse ways from their individual experiences, desires and aspirations. So even though some women might find that the drama portrayed traditional views of women, Dae Jang Geum still nonetheless addressed a variety of women’s issues and provided a platform for audiences to reflect and express their emotions on gender equality in some of our societies today.

Furthermore, Dae Jang Geum’s unusual depiction of a main female protagonist who is smart, powerful (in the sense that she is able to influence the decision of the king), and courageous is very different from the typical kind of female lead most dramas portray. I think this strong female lead empowered many women and the drama’s underlying message that women should be allowed to do the jobs of men also promotes equality. Even though there might be some critics of the drama, I think it definitely took the right step in gender equality and portrayed how capable women can be. As for the distortion of historical facts, some period dramas do include a disclaimer that historical depictions of events may not be completely accurate. I believe that if the dramas provided a more detailed account of the true historical events that happened in that period, the viewers would be more informed and there would be less concern that historical events would be mystified or distorted. Furthermore, viewers are becoming more critical of things they see in the media in recent years, as more accounts of fake news have been exposed and people are starting to realise that things in the media may have a slanted perspective on the truth. As for young children who might be impressionable and easily influenced by messages in dramas and get confused with historical facts, adults have a responsibility to correct their children’s mistaken impressions of the world or history. I know this might seem idealistic as most adults do not have a lot of free time, but this might be the best way to help children enjoy dramas and absorb the important values while also teaching them to be critical thinkers and mindful learners.

In conclusion, Dae Jang Geum was an impactful drama and a historical tale that is meaningful and touching to many viewers in this day and age. It portrays our fight for gender equality, and our values of love, perseverance and courage. Melodramas are able to bring moral encouragement and entertainment to audiences, and is more than a tool for viewers to escape the harsh realities they may be facing in real life. It can represent social ideologies and behaviour of cultures and societies around the world (Elsaesser, 1991). Although some might argue that the female protagonist never breaks out of the patriarchal society of Korea then (she fled for her life when the King died because the male-dominated court would prosecute her, and she often had to listen to the orders of the court when she was a Royal Physician), Dae Jang Geum gave women a voice and helped to put female emotions, desires and thoughts in the foreground.

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