Wow, the Queen Munjeong in Mandate of Heaven is BRUTAL. Talk about an Ice Queen. And there is no end to the creative ways she comes up with to get rid of poor old Crown Prince Yi Ho. (Surely she wasn’t that bad in real life!!) When one plan fails she moves right on to the next one keeping everyone on their toes! And as well as being the brains behind the plots, she also gives us what I think has got to be one of the CREEPIEST scenes ever in a sageuk drama: The peony petal bath scene (episode 10) Blimey, that sent horrible shivers down my spine. But more about that later.
Queen Munjeong (Park Ji Young) in Mandate of Heaven. Picture source KBS2 Official site
MANDATE OF HEAVEN’S PLOT IN HISTORY
First of all I’ll just mention where Queen Munjeong’s story fits into Joseon history since I’m plodding through dramas that portray the kings and important figures in Joseon history in chronological order. Mandate of Heaven portrays the end of King Jungjong’s reign (r.1506-1544), Crown Prince Yi Ho and his coronation (King Injong r.1544-1545), Grand Prince Kyung Won as a child (later became King Myeongjong r.1545-1567), and of course Queen Munjeong (Regent 1545-1565).
The drama is about the plot by Queen Munjeong to kill Crown Prince Yi Ho so that her own son can become king. Historically the plot by Queen Munjeong and the Soyun faction of the government (including the Queen’s brother) is just a rumour, but Queen Munjeong is known to have been ambitious and although Yi Ho did eventually take the throne his reign was the shortest in Joseon history (less than a year) as he died of ‘ill-health’. So was there really something dodgy going on? Involving undetectable poisons imported from Ming China perhaps? Queen Munjeong’s son DID then become King Myeonjeong but he was too young to rule so Queen Munjeong became Regent. Which, according to the drama Mandate of Heaven, is what she wanted all along ….
Mandate of Heaven (KBS2 2013) Queen Munjeong (Park Ji Young) manipulates King Jungjong.
THE FICTIONAL CHARACTER OF QUEEN MUNJEONG
Queen Munjeong in Mandate of Heaven has one goal and one goal only: to have her own son Grand Prince Kyung Won become King. But that means she must get rid of Crown Prince Yi Ho. Her single-mindedness means that not only high ranking officials, but even her own son are scared of her. So much so that at one point her son even begs Crown Prince Yi Ho to make him a commoner and send him out of the palace so that he can get away from her. Aigoo.:( Even at his young age he has realised that the real reason she wants him to become King is not for his sake or the country, it’s so that she can manipulate him to do exactly what SHE wants. (Oh it’s all about you, isn’t it Munjeong?) All she wants is POWER. And she will do ANYTHING to get it: frame innocent people, torture, threaten, blackmail, kidnap, or even kill them. It’s all in a day’s work. The theory is that if her son is King then she and her people are safe. But there is no talk of what she wants to do AFTER she gets the Crown. She doesn’t seem to give a second thought to the poor people of Joseon who at this time were still struggling to live and simply feed themselves. (The people have suffered natural disasters (famines and floods) not to mention enduring the horrific tyrannical reign of Yeonsangun when they were heavily taxed to support his decadent lifestyle.)
Mandate of Heaven’s Grand Prince Kyung Won is just another pawn to be used by his ambitious mother Queen Munjeong
QUEEN MUNJEONG IN DAE JANG GEUM (MBC 2004)
(left) Dae Jang Geum (MBC 2004) Park Jung Sook as Queen Munjeong with her son Grand Prince Kyung Won
In Dae Jang Geum (MBC 2004) Queen Munjeong is portrayed as an attractive but strong woman who seems to support King Jungjong although there are no real displays of affection between them. She is certainly concerned about her position at court and she can be pleasant and charming to people when she wants something but turn on them when things don’t go her way – she she even tries to make Jang Geum kill the Crown Prince but then backs down. However, it’s emphasised that she only does this because she’s worried about the safety of her son, Grand Prince Kyung Won (there have been threats to his life) But I don’t think she’s portrayed here as being overly ambitious herself. HOWEVER, Queen Munjeong in Mandate of Heaven is a different character altogether …
Mandate of Heaven ep 1: The manipulative Queen Munjeong faces Crown Prince Yi Ho
In episode 1 we meet the manipulative Queen Munjeong who on the surface soothingly agrees with the sick King Jungjong’s plans to abdicate. But the eerie background music and her cat-eye upper lid eyeliner suggest that Munjeong is not into this idea at all and is already planning how to stop it.
Virtually every time we see Queen Munjeong she is sitting demurely painting in the blood red petals on her painting of peony flowers. She obsesses over mixing just the right shade of blood red so she even cuts her finger and lets the blood drip onto her painting. But whilst her demeanour is calm, her words are like poison as she sends out her dreaded death orders with her signature red peony flower. And no one is immune to her venom – she even threatens her ally Lord Kim suggesting that her next death order will have his name on it if he doesn’t buck up! 😮
THE SYMBOLISM OF THE PEONY FLOWER
BTW A quick search on the Internet tells me that the peony flower has been used for a long time in Eastern culture. It’s also known as 富贵花 “flower of riches and honour” or 花王 (huawang) and became known as the “king of the flowers” in the Chinese Imperial Palace. All the meanings are positive. It’s a symbol for nobility and value and a metaphor for female beauty and reproduction. In feng sui flowers have a good meaning and represent strong energy. But in the hands of Queen Munjeong they symbolise blood and death. To me the use of the peony flower which should have positive and beautiful meanings show how unnatural the Queen’s actions are. She’s trying to kill the young man who she brought up as her own son after his mother (Jungjong’s first queen) died. She should be trying to protect him not kill him!
The flower symbolism relating to Queen Munjeong continues throughout the drama. In episode 6 the scholar Cheon Mong tells Crown Prince Yi Ho that he must rip the Queen from his heart by the roots. And eventually with a heavy heart he seems to follow this advice as he symbolically throws a flower into the palace pond.
THE CREEPIEST BATH SCENE EVER
In episode 10 I watched what has to be the creepiest scene I’ve ever seen in a sageuk so far! And the strange thing is that it involved two things that should be soothing and relaxing: a bath and flower petals! When she’s not painting the peony petals Queen Munjeong is bathing in them. But disturbingly, we also see her bathing one of her underlings in the bath! (shouldn’t the maid be washing the Queen??)The bath scenes emphasise how vulnerable the servants are. Even under normal circumstances they are powerless to refuse the Queen’s orders. But their nakedness in front of her makes them seem even more helpless – there is no way they can refuse to carry out her dastardly plan..
So that’s why it’s shocking when the good and upstanding nurse Da In gets trapped in the bath of petals. It was like watching one of those films about serial killers who trap each victim in the same way every time before they kill them. And the final victim is the female detective who is trying to catch the serial killer! And we thought she was invincible.
The Queen has turned the flowers into a symbol of blood and murder and something to be feared. She smells the petal and says she enjoys the aroma. But if Da In doesn’t do what the Queen wants – kill the Crown Prince – then Da In won’t be bathing in red petals but in her adoptive father’s blood! That’s a way to make a statement! It sent shivers down my spine.
MANIPULATIVE TO THE END WITH NO MATERNAL INSTINCTS
Although a mother to Prince Kyung Won and step-mother to Yi Ho, Queen Munjeong seems to lack maternal instincts. She beats her son viciously when he disobeys her orders and jeopardises her plans. And she manipulates him by threatening to harm herself with a knife if he doesn’t give her the information that she wants. Of course the young prince has no choice but to tell her whatever she wants to know.
It’s not just her son that she can manipulate. She has been able to manipulate the King with her charm. And is convinced she can make him believe anything with her tears and soft words – even that she is innocent of a crime when there is clear evidence that PROVES she is guilty. When she finally begins to wonder if she can’t get away with it anymore, she storms into the King’s meeting and collapses dramatically before him after begging him to spare her and the prince’s life. But it’s all just an act. As soon as she is ‘helped’ away she starts scheming again. And when she is finally caught red-handed plotting to kill Yi Ho she is unrepentant and arrogant. In fact she seems outraged that the king is NOT prepared to forgive her! Ha ha. She certainly has a sense of entitlement.
Often the baddies in a drama have a saving grace. They are not 100% bad. Maybe they are doing evil acts because they are trying to protect their family, or perhaps they are acting out of love. Even Jang Hee Bin (the infamous baddie and concubine of King Sukjong) is portrayed as being capable of love – for her son and King Sukjong. But the Queen Munjeong we see here has nothing good about her. She doesn’t seem to have feelings for the king and doesn’t even seem to love her own son. He is just another pawn in her game. In fact, everyone around her is a pawn in her game. She uses her feminine charms to get what she wants and will act the victim whenever it suits her. She pretends to show empathy and support to the Crown Prince and the King. But it’s all just an act to gain their trust so that it’s easier to carry out her evil plans. Yikes. Surely nobody could really be that bad!