The court of King Seonjo (1567-1608) and his government of squabbling factions provides the main setting for the story of Heo Jun, the most famous doctor in Korean history who rises from a low class son of a concubine to take the most prestigious medical position in the country: Personal Physician to the King. (This post is about the MBC 2000 version of Heo Jun where the king is played by Park Chan-Hwan)
The royal court is the setting for the second half of the drama when Heo Jun finally passes the state medical exam and moves to the capital. The king’s role in the drama is a minor one, but we can get an idea of what kind of a ruler and man he is considered to have been and we can get a taste of the political situation at the time. The drama covers the whole reign of King Seonjo starting in the first year of his reign in the countryside where life for commoners was hard. And the drama ends with the death of King Seonjo and the start of his son Prince Gwang Hae’s reign.
MIDDLE JOSEON KINGS
King Seonjo reigned during the mid-Joseon period which lasted for just over 150 years and there were 7 kings starting with the troubled and tyrannical Yeongsangun and ending with more problems as King Injo struggled with the Manchu wars:
THE LEAD UP TO KING SEONJO’S REIGN
YEONSANGUN was a tyrant ruler who, in the literati purge of 1504, had lots of sarim scholars exiled, tortured, or executed as a punishment for their involvement in poisoning his mother to death. This was the excuse but it seems that he was also angry that they were trying to reduce the power of the monarchy. And he wanted to be in control! (see the first episodes of Dae Jang Geum) He taxed the people heavily to pay for his decadent lifestyle.
His successor and half-brother became KING JUNGJONG. He didn’t want to be king but was persuaded by the Hungu faction after they deposed Yeonsangun in a coup. King Jungjong lived a frugal life unlike his predecessor, but the Hungu officials were corrupt, greedy, and power hungry and the immoral behaviour of the previous ruler’s court continued. Natural disasters – floods and famine – made life even harder for the people.
Jungjong’s son KING INJONG lasted less than a year on the throne before dying of ill health – there was a rumour that the queen mother at the time – Queen Munjeong – plotted to have him killed (see the drama Mandate of Heaven KBS 2013) so that her own son could become king.
KING MYEONGJONG was the son of Queen Munjeong (and King Jungjong). But he was too young to rule so Queen Munjeong ruled in his place. The Sarim scholars had been through 4 literati purges by now and King Myeongjong tried to reinstate them after his mother’s death. But he died soon too with no heir. Time for his half nephew to become King Seonjo.
KING SEONJO’S REIGN
His reign started off well. He encouraged intellectual pursuits and built a reading hall for the scholars (Dokseodang) on the River Han. So this was a good time for intellectuals and many big names emerged during this time. (He also encouraged Sarim Scholars to come and join the government) So in these terms his reign was very successful. But we don’t see any of this in the drama.
What we do see is the fighting for power between the political sarim factions in his government. King Seonjo reinstated Sarim scholars (who had been persecuted in the past) and they became the dominant faction at court. But as the number of Sarim scholars increased so did their ideological disagreements. And during King Seonjo’s reign they began to splinter off into more factions all jostling for power, so the situation becomes pretty complicated. Heo Jun doesn’t go into all of that – we are given just two factions who compete for power. And of course for dramatic purposes we need to see a clear villain who will DO ANYTHING to get his way. And the leader of the team of baddies is called Lord Jung (below left, played by Park Young-ji). Lord Sung (right, played by Byun Hee-bong) is the more moderate scholar in the drama who also wants his faction to be in control but doesn’t do anything immoral or illegal to get it. (So I guess we support him! 😉 )
The internal political bickering had to be put aside though, due to external threats, when the Japanese invaded in 1592. Unfortunately the Joseon court was unprepared for this and the king had to flee the capital.
KING SEONGJO’S JOSEON in HEO JUN
(episodes 1-25) The drama begins in 1568, the first year of King Seonjo’s reign. Peasant life is grim – the country is still feeling the aftereffects of Yeonsangun’s rule of high taxes as well as natural disasters causing flooding and famine. Heojun is the son of an aristocrat yangban and a low class gisaeng entertainer which leaves him in a difficult situation. Flashback shows that he was good at school but bullied because of his background – the other yangban kids wouldn’t accept him. Life is hard for ordinary people and Heo Jun has become tough and streetwise making a living smuggling herbs. So we can see that class and background are very important in Joseon. Later he begins to work for Dr Yoo a local doctor, but times are hard and to the annoyance of Dr Yoo’s wife, a lot of the locals can’t afford to pay for their medical treatment.
LIFE AT COURT
(episode 26-55) We first get a taste of the palace in episode 25 when Do Ji, Heo Jun’s rival, begins his new job as a royal doctor. Before we meet the king, we meet his favourite concubine at the time – Gong Bin (‘Bin’ is the title given to the highest level concubine) when Do Ji rushes to treat her son Prince Imhae (임해군) who is sick. In episode 38 Gong Bin gives birth to another son, Prince Gwanghae who will become the next king.
(Prince Imhae as the older son should have been the first in line to the throne – since King Seonjo’s first queen didn’t have any sons – but Gwanghae was chosen over him as Imhae did not have the skills to rule. This isn’t touched on in the drama though and although we see Imhae as a child, the reasons for choosing the younger prince are not mentioned.)
THE KING’S POO
By episode 33 we still haven’t met the king himself but we are introduced to his poo! The trainee doctors learn that part of their job at court is to examine mae woo – a special word used to describe the ‘Royal Poo’. The chamber pot is called a mae woo teul. The doctors have to look inside at the mae woo and smell it and dissect it – even taste it – to diagnose the king’s health. One doctor seems disappointed when he observes that the king’s poo smells just as bad as ordinary people’s! Heo Jun (bottom right) is the only one who can diagnose the king’s physical condition from his poo. He observes that the king has had black diarrhoea like black bean juice and diagnoses that he has seup ri – a kind of dysentery.
The goal of the queen and concubines is to produce a male heir. (as well as holding the affection of the king) Whoever can become the mother of the Crown Prince can secure power and security at court for herself and her own family members. So a lot of the drama in King Seonjo’s court here centres around who will become the heir to the throne.
The king had seven concubines during his reign but we only meet two of them here: Gong Bin (mother of the next king – Gwang Hae) and In Bin. Gong Bin is in a position of strength at the beginning as she has two sons as well as the king’s affection. And we see the king for the first time with Gong Bin lavishing attention on her and her family. The king seems kind and generous. When her brother is sick the king instructs his personal doctors to treat him. This is a special privilege as Gong Bin is not the queen (so some of the royal doctors grumble about this!)
But then the king’s affections turn from Gong Bin to In Bin. (episode 51) One minute he is crazy about Gong Bin and the next minute he has forgotten about her. In Bin sees her chance to strengthen her position so her ambitious brother hires Do Ji to ‘make sure’ she gets pregnant.
In Bin visits Gong Bin when she is sick
(episode 54) Gong Bin becomes sad and depressed that she has lost the king’s affection and she becomes ill. She sits alone neglected while In Bin entertains the king. It seems pretty heartless but that is the miserable life of a royal concubine. To make matters worse, Gong Bin hears that In Bin is pregnant.
Now the positions of Gong Bin and her sons have become weaker – it’s possible that In Bin’s child (if she has a boy) could become the next king – since the queen (who we never see in the drama) doesn’t have any children. So Do Ji is given the challenge of ‘MAKING SURE’ that In Bin gives birth to a BOY. (and she does)
Gong Bin seems to have given up on life now that she has lost the king’s love. She asks Heo Jun to look after her sons after she dies…The king seems genuinely grief stricken when he hears of her death even though he neglected her when his attentions turned to In Bin.
THE JAPANESE INVASION 1592
So far court life has focused on the concubines, their sons, and the political factions who have a vested interest in backing the future king. But the internal political bickering has to be put outside to focus on external threats (episodes 56-60) when the Japanese invade in 1592 and we see the start of the 7 year war. It’s time for the king to leap into action?
We jump to 14 years later to March 1591, the 24th year of King Seonjo’s reign. (episode 55) It’s the memorial of Gong Bin’s death, and her now adult son, Prince Gwang Hae, holds a ceremony for her. But he is sad and feels that his father, the king, has forgotten about him too – just as he forgot about his mother. The king is still focussed on In Bin. (she had 9 children but we only see one)
Heo Jun has been promoted to Royal Physician and is summoned to the King who is sick. But before he enters he overhears King Seonjo arguing with Prince Gwang Hae about the possibility of the Japanese invading. The Prince is convinced that the invasion will happen and wants to prepare for this by sending a messenger to Ming to ask for their support. With backup from Ming they may be able to put the Japanese off invading. But the king refuses to believe that they are in any danger. The relationship between the king and prince is strained because the king thinks his son is only saying this because he wants to become the Crown Prince.
Prince Gwang Hae tries to persuade the king that the Japanese really are invading
But around the city rumours spread about the possibility of war. Koo Ilsu has seen smoke coming from Mt. Mok Myuk which has five beacons. If there is smoke coming from one, it means that all is well. If there is smoke coming from two, the country is on alert, three means Japanese or Barbarians are approaching, four means the enemy has crossed the border, and five means the enemy has invaded and they are at WAR. So how many streams of smoke did he see? FIVE! Time to PANIC!!
Yang Tae and Koo Ilsu realise that something is wrong
Heo Jun rushes to the palace only to find the officials relaxed and calm. They STILL don’t believe they have anything to worry about. (Unbelievable!) After all, the Japanese have tried to invade before. And failed. But In Bin’s brother knows that the situation is bad and is preparing to take the king and flee from court! But he must keep it quiet. He doesn’t want to worry the court.
Heo Jun’s life continues as normal unaware that they are at war
The king and In Bin discuss who should be crown prince
5 episodes of the drama deal with the war. This is where the king has his biggest part in the drama although it was not in reality his finest hour. Defence had been neglected for years by the time Seonjo came to the throne. He was not interested in putting any more money into it perhaps because he was not aware of what was really going on – he was advised that the Japanese would never invade! But they did. Shock
Meanwhile, Heo Jun is trying to catch up with the king’s party – he’s late because he tried to save the books from the fire. He and his exhausted group head for the Imjin River too. They assume that the king’s party has already crossed the river and arrived in Kaesong (now located in North Korea). But of course they can’t cross the river because there are no boats …Heo Jun decides to skip Kaesong and head straight for Pyeongyang which is the king’s destination.
Again, we see how dismally the ordinary folk are treated by those in power. King Seonjo must feel horrible leaving the the palace and the people to fend for themselves. But the weakness of the Mid-Joseon palace is breathtaking. The Early Joseon kings were warriors – they had to be to overthrow the Goryeo Dynasty. But once the Joseon Dynasty settled down, the kings and their court were obviously able to soften too.. There’s no way any of the first three kings – King Taejo, King Jeongjong, and definitely not King Taejong – would have let this situation occur, and they would never have fled like this either…
The king hears more bad news: the Japanese are getting closer. Prince Gwang Hae again tries to persuade the king not to leave the country. But it’s no use. So the prince asks to remain behind in Pyeongyang castle. He doesn’t want to leave the people fighting for themselves. The king agrees and leaves for Weeju while the prince stays behind. The king sulkily decides that Heo Jun must stay behind in Pyeongyang with the prince! Not only is the king being petty, but he is putting the life of Heo Jun in danger (even though he is the best doctor in Joseon!)
King Seonjo is not coming across well at all. He seems weak and helpless, simply going along with whatever the government officials decide to do. His son, Prince Gwang Hae is the only one with any guts and shows a genuine concern for the people by choosing to stay and fight, when he could easily have run away with the king.
The prince gets sick when they leave the Pyeongyang and the Japanese are getting closer
After the king leaves, Pyeongyang Castle comes under attack. The Joseon army do their best to defend themselves and the women help by stacking up rocks to be used as ammunition. Their strategy works and the Japanese soldiers retreat – for now.
Meanwhile the king’s party arrives at their destination. But In Bin’s son Prince Sinseong is now very ill – and all the medical books are back at Pyeongyang Castle with Heo Jun. Do Ji’s hands shake as he applies acupuncture to the prince. Suddenly the prince starts convulsing. And then he is lifeless. Oh NO! Now they realise how short-sighted they have been leaving behind all the books – Do Ji couldn’t be bothered to carry them.
The king becomes ill from grief at the death of his son. Do Ji is put in prison and Heo Jun is summoned. The king realises he’s been foolish and asks Heo Jun to forgive him for questioning his loyalty and he is even prepared to forgive Do Ji. There’s some good news too: Ming has promised to back Joseon against the Japanese. And General Yi Sung Sin (there’s a statue of him in Seoul) is successful with his naval forces down south too.
AFTER THE WAR
Joseon managed to beat the invaders with the help of Ming but after the war the country was in a bad way – famine and disease killed many people. (50 years later records show that the population was still only 1.5 millions – a third of what it was at the beginning of the Joseon dynasty) Many books and cultural artefacts as well as buildings had been destroyed too.
By now the sarim scholars political factions have split up again – the Easterners had internal conflict and separated into Northerners (Buk-in) and Southerners! (Nam-in). The Westerners split up too into Old Learning (No-Ron) and New Learning (So-Ron). And then the Northerners broke up into Greater Northern (which were extreme leftists) and Lesser Northern.
The Northerners are in power and break up over who should become the next crown prince. In the drama as the king is getting old and sick we see the Greater Northern and Lesser Northern factions bickering over who should become the next king. Dae-buk Greater Northerners supported Gwanghaegun (he had good leadership skills and had done a good job during the war protecting the country) and the So-buk Lesser Northerners supported Prince Yeongchang (since he was the son of the queen).
NAMING THE CROWN PRINCE
The birth of Prince Yeong Chang causes trouble at court right up until the king’s death
Episode 61. Several years have passed and King Seonjo’s second queen – Queen Inmok – gives birth to a prince, Prince Yeong Chang. (34th year of Seonjo) causing arguments to rise again over who should become the next King.
Gwanghaegun is still technically the crown prince but his mother was only a concubine. Baddie Lord Jung wants Prince Yeong Chang to become the next king and tries to persuade Heo Jun to side with his faction and ‘get rid of’ Prince Gwang Hae! Heo Jun refuses to side with anyone but when both Prince Yeong Chang AND Prince Gwang Hae get sick right at the same time, Heo Jun is in a predicament as this will test his loyalty to the princes. In the end he heads off to check Prince Yeong Chang first as he is only a BABY. The feuding factions take this as some sort of ‘message’!
THE KING’S DEATH episode 63
Prince Gwang Hae’s status as Crown Prince is still very unstable when the king becomes ill and Heo Jun must announce that he won’t recover. The feuding factions are in a frenzy. The Greater Northerns faction need to sit tight and hope that the king dies without changing his mind about his successor. But Lord Jung of the Lesser Northerners insists on seeing the king – he wants the king to make Prince Yeong Chang the new crown prince. Heo Jun refuses to let Lord Jung in to see the king as he is too weak, but Lord Jung barges past Heo Jun knocking the king’s medicine on the ground as he goes!
But the king refuses to change his mind because Prince Yeong Chang is only 3 years old and too young to become King. He hands Lord Jung his written command naming Prince Gwang Hae as his successor. But even with the written command, Lord Jung refuses to give up because after all, only Heo Jun and a nurse saw the document, so if they can keep them quiet then ‘there is no document’.
The king takes a turn for the worse and the queen (his second queen) is called to his bedside to say her goodbyes. But she is asked to leave before the king takes his final breath as she’s told that ‘it’s not the done thing for a queen to be present when the king passes away’. So she leaves in tears. The king in his dying breath calls for his son Prince Gwang Hae. The officials look worried. Is he going to tell him he is the next king? But the last words from his mouth are ‘Yeoung Chang!’ It’s confusing. Then the king dies. NOOOOOOOO!
Even dressed in white mourning wear, the government officials continue to argue over who the legitimate crown prince is until Heo Jun reveals the truth – that the king ordered in writing that Gwang Hae would be his successor. The baddies – Lord Jung et al – are all arrested for trying to change the king’s order.
In history King Seonjo’s reputation took a beating due to his handling of the Japanese invasion. He has been criticised for his lack of leadership during the invasions as well as his fleeing the country when the Japanese invaded rather than staying to protect his land and people. And in the drama Heo Jun we see a lackadaisical approach to defence led by the weak leadership of King Seonjo. The court officials are more interested in securing their own political positions in the government than protecting the country as a whole. They don’t realise how vulnerable they have become and when they run away they are only concerned about saving their own skins. The burning of the boats at the Imjin River scene was just grim. Of course the king felt bad about it but he still went along with it. Although he had been warned about the possibility of the Japanese invasion, he chose to ignore it.
King Seonjo is also presented as someone who lets his emotions rule his thoughts and actions: Heo Jun should have been congratulated for trying to save all the medical books but instead the king gets annoyed with him and offended that he didn’t simply rush to follow him when he fled the capital. It’s a short-sighted and selfish reaction – what are they going to do in the future when someone in the royal family gets sick and they have no medical books to refer to? The king also turns away from his son Prince Gwang Hae and refuses to listen to his information about the invasion rationally because he believes his son has ulterior motives. (There’s another example of his emotions ruling his head concerning Admiral Yi. During the war the king had the hero of the war Admiral Yi Sun Shin arrested and almost executed for not following his orders – apparently he didn’t really like Admiral Yi! Duh! Luckily the king was persuaded not to have him executed and Admiral Yi went on to defeat the Japanese navy! Admiral Yi is mentioned in the drama but we don’t actually see him and any negative feelings the king had towards him are not shown either.)
The king is not portrayed as a bad person. Just weak with a lack of vision. And this weak leadership is shown right up to the end of the drama by the way he passes away leaving behind a chaotic court. Even on his sick bed the officials are hounding him to change his mind over his successor. Obviously the king has not made his opinion clear enough leaving room for the factions to squabble. On the other hand, Prince Gwang Hae, who becomes the next king, is portrayed very sympathetically in the drama as a victim of all the political in-fighting going on in King Seonjo’s court.