Dae Jang Geum’s King Jungjong

king jungjong

King Jungjong was the half brother of the tyrant king Yeonsangun (r.1494-1506) Even though King Jungjong tried to make reforms, he was often overpowered by the powerful hungu ministers who had put him on the throne. And a drama that depicts these historical events is …. Dae Jang Geum (Jewel in the Palace MBC, 2004).


(from top left) Jang Geum as a kitchen lady, her love interest and supporter Sir Min Jung Ho, the baddies Lady Choi and Lord Oh of the Hungu faction, Jang Geum with her mentor Lady Han. (Dae Jang Geum MBC 2004)  


Dae Jang Geum was the first sageuk drama I watched. It’s the story of Jang Geum, a young orphan girl who starts working in the palace kitchens and through her hard efforts ends up becoming the first female royal physician in Joseon history. Her character is based on a real person and her name is mentioned in the Annals of Joseon History so it’s thought she was a real historical figure but the drama is mostly fiction based around real historical events. The story also contains a gentle romance between Jang Geum and a yangban official Min Jung Ho. (He is a fictional character.)

But since it is already nearly ten years old (I know!) I couldn’t really remember what actually happened in the drama – apart from there’s lots of cooking and naughty court ladies trying to poison members of the royal family to protect their own status at the palace.


Several political events are portrayed in this drama including the death of King Seongjong’s deposed Queen Yun, the coup to depose Yeonsangun followed by the coronation of King Jungjong, and two literati purges (1504 and 1519). Also we get to see the unhappy legacy left by Yeonsangun.

The first time I watched Dae Jang Geum I wasn’t aware of which king was on the throne or if the events in the drama were based on historical fact or simply fiction. I just enjoyed the story. So this time I decided to skim through the story again with new eyes. But I ended up watching THE WHOLE THING again and writing up brief summaries of each episode for future reference. But there are 54 episodes in this drama! So let’s just say this project took a LOT LONGER THAN EXPECTED and this is as far as I’ve got with my ‘drama research’! :0 But anyway, at least now we can take a nostalgic look at Dae Jang Geum and how King Jungjong is portrayed. :)


Jang Geum’s future father carries out King Seongjong’s order to make deposed Queen Yun drink poison

The drama starts during the reign of King Seongjong (r.1469-94) (although we don’t actually see the king) and ends with the reign of King Myeongjong (who we only see as a child crown prince as his mother Queen Myeongjong is ruling in his place until he is old enough to take over) The main story covers the reign of King Jungjong (r.1506-1544) who had the difficult task of trying to clear up the mess created by his predecessor Yeonsangun.


In the first episode Jang Geum’s future father is a royal guard following orders from the incumbent King Seonjong to make the deposed Queen Yun drink poison. Queen Yun was Yeonsangun’s mother and when he comes to the throne (in episode 2) there’s big trouble ahead for anyone who was involved in his mother’s death. This became known as the literati purge of 1504 where Yeonsangun had lots of sarim and hungu officials exiled, tortured, or executed. Yeonsangun as a child is seen playing hide and seek with the court ladies, but after he becomes king and realises what happened to his mother he is portrayed as a cruel and heartless king who lives a life of luxury while his people are starving.


Yeonsangun receives the cloth stained with his mother’s blood the start of the literati purge

In episode 3, members of the hungu faction plan a coup. Jang Geum is an orphan living with Duk Gu and his wife who sell alcohol to the palace. The hungu officials pick Jang Geum to unwittingly deliver a message to Prince Jinsung (진성대군) telling him they plan to depose Yeonsangun and put him on the throne instead. He’s not happy about this but next thing we know the coup is a success and it’s King Jungjong’s coronation.


Plotting hungu faction officials (left) and a troubled Prince Jinsung (right) 


The coronation of KING JUNGJONG

King Jungjong is portrayed as a serious and frustrated king who later admits to Jang Geum that he didn’t want to be king and has been used as a puppet by the powerful hungu officials. He has not been able to do what he wanted while he was king. Whenever he tries to make changes such as bringing in members of the sarim faction to balance out the power in the government and make reforms, he is met by a barrage of complaints from the hungu faction who want to have all the power for themselves.

He is weak and indecisive. Every time he tries to make a decision that the hungu faction don’t like, his mother is told about this (by hungu faction associates) and he soon backs down!

But he is also portrayed as a thoughtful king who even as a troubled prince about to become king, is able to grant the wish of the child, Jang Geum, to become a court lady.


the coronation of King Jungjong 1506

As well as his difficult relationship with the government he is also stressed over Joseon’s relationship with Ming China. He mentions that since they also helped him to become king he is worried they keep wanting to be rewarded too. Envoys from Ming come to Joseon a couple of times in the drama – once to discuss the investiture of the crown prince causing lots of stress for the king. 


An envoy with diabetes from Ming is displeased and insulted to be served ‘humble food’ in Joseon even though the lady cooks are only thinking of his health


King Jungjong is also frustrated that his orders to stop bad habits that started during Yeonsangeun’s reign still continue. Greed and corruption continue as well as immoral practices such as court lady doctors being used as prostitutes to entertain officials at evening gatherings! :(

During Yeonsangun’s reign the people suffered due to heavy taxes to pay for his decadent lifestyle. But King Jungjong lives a frugal life portrayed through what he eats. When they have cooking competitions in court to see who the next Head Kitchen Lady should be, the king demands they cook simple dishes that ordinary people can eat. Not swanky banquets. The king wants to understand his people’s difficult lives so the kitchen ladies are given the challenge of making dishes with foods that are normally thrown away – like fish heads and windfall fruit.

But even though he lives a frugal life (as sage kings should in the Joseon period), palace spending remains high. Why? Jang Geum becomes a court accountant to find out the reason and realises that even though the king is very frugal, the accounts don’t reflect this at all and the spending is pretty much the same as it was during the decadent Yeonsangun’s reign. The reason is that the hungu officials and their affiliates around the court are skimming money here and there for themselves for bribes etc.DJG0613 DJG0615

cooking competitions at the palace


Although unlike Yeonsangun, King Jungjong wants to help his people, nature causes havoc around the country bringing floods and famine. Many people have nothing to eat. In episode 40 so many peasants get sick all at once that the government is worried a plague has broken out. But actually the people are suffering from food poisoning as they have been eating veggies that have gone off because they have nothing else to eat. :(


The queen mother has as lot of influence over the king’s decisions often refusing food or medical treatment to force him to back down from his orders


We also see a lonely king who lost his love – his first queen – and has never really loved again. His current queen (Queen Munjeong) seems aware of this as she criticises him for not loving her son as much as the crown prince (from his first queen.) But he starts to have feelings for Jang Geum when he gets to know her as a young doctor. Jang Geum recognises that a lot of his sickness is brought on by stress and she tries to teach him different ways to relax during their morning walks together.

Queen Munjeong is in a difficult situation politically as her son is not the crown prince. (The son of the king’s first queen later becomes King Injong but reigns for less than a year the shortest reign in Joseon history and we don’t actually see him as king. There were rumours that he was possibly poisoned so that Queen Myeongjong’s son could take the throne instead. This idea is suggested in Dae Jang Geum but we’ll have to watch Mandate of Heaven: The Fugitive of Joseon (KBS2 2013to watch the alleged plot to poison the king. I haven’t seen this drama yet …)

After Jang Geum becomes a doctor (episode 49) Queen Munjeong DOES order her to ‘get rid of’ the crown prince who is sick anyway. Then her own son can become crown prince. But Jang Geum refuses and the queen backs down and later apologises for trying to make Jang Geum do such a terrible thing!


Queen Munjeong and her son the future King Myeonjong. Sir Min comforts Jang Geum after she is ordered to kill the crown prince


I thought there may have been a noble reason involved in the coup to depose Yeonsangun as he was such a dreadful king. But the hungu officials involved in the coup are portrayed as corrupt, greedy, and power hungry. So although the immorality and cruelty of Yeonsangun’s court has changed under King Jungjong, bribery and corruption continue.

In Dae Jang Geum it is the greedy and ambitious Lord Oh, a high ranking minister of the hungu faction, who is particularly bad. He is a fictitious character though representing the kind of greedy officials that were prevalent in the court at the time. He receives bribes from the merchant Choi Pan Sul and lets him have a monopoly on selling goods to the palace.


Greedy and corrupt Lady Choi and hungu official Lord Oh; government ministers meet with the king


When the hungu officials decide to have a coup and depose the king, the Choi family must decide whose side they are on. The hungu are powerful so of course they side with them. Before the coup Jang Geum’s future mother notices a young lady Choi putting ingredients in the queen mother’s food that are bad for her. When she reports this she is framed and poisoned. The ladies in the Choi family have been in top positions at court for 5 generations and they do what it takes to stay there – even if that means poisoning the royals or anyone else in their way with the food they cook!

Thanks to the Choi family’s support of the hungu officials, Lady Choi’s brother the merchant Choi Pan Sul enjoys a monopoly on selling goods to the palace. A position he also wants to keep at all costs. Of course the king is unaware of all this until Sir Min starts investigating into all the dodgy dealings the Choi family are getting up which puts his own life in danger …


Lord Oh of the Hungu faction gives favours to the Choi family in return for monetary support.


We get another mix of fact and fiction as the fictitious Lord Oh of the hungu faction teams up with the Choi family to frame all his enemies including the sarim official Jo Gwang Jo who is already exiled.  (Jo Gwang Jo was a sarim official who worked for the king and tried to make reforms. He was the exiled and framed by the hungu officials and finally forced to drink poison by the king’s order. We never see him in the drama. We only hear that the king’s orders have been carried out).

In Dae Jang Geum the king is often sick and the baddie Lord Oh uses the king’s sudden illness after eating Lady Han’s duck soup to frame her and Jang Geum alleging that they are in cahoots with Jo Gwang Jo trying to poison the king!

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Lady Han and Jang Geum are caught up in the literati purge of 1519


Dae Jang Geum covers the whole of King Jungjong’s reign from his crowning to his deathbed. Sickness and old age catch up with him and we see a very lonely character who, perhaps because he is the king, has not been able to let anyone get close to him.

By the end of the drama King Injong has been on the throne and died without us seeing him at all! We only see him as a sick child and crown prince when Jang Geum heals him. Now Queen Munjeong’s son is King Myeongjong but he is too young to rule himself and so she is ruling in his place for now. And there is a sense that things at court have become more settled as the baddies have been caught and punished. (In the drama anyway!)


Queen Myunjeong feeds a frail King Jungjong; the sick king talks to Dr. Jang Geum


Well after my 54 nostalgic hours of drama watching I would sum up King Jungjong as seen in Dae Jang Geum by saying …he is a kind man with his heart in the right place, but he doesn’t want to rock the boat, so he is easily manipulated by the strong hungu faction and even his own mother. He’s a man who never wanted to be king but comes to power at a difficult time and has a lot on his plate trying to straighten out the court after Yeonsangun. He is not a particularly happy king and we hardly ever hear him laugh. He is worried about the hard life of his starving people and all the stresses and strains of the job make him often sick. Poor old King Jungjong. :(

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