Ji Jin Hee as King Sukjong (r.1674-1720)
I’ve written about the characters and story of sageuk drama Dong Yi (MBC 2010) in another post here but in this post I’m going to concentrate on how King Sukjong and his court are portrayed in the drama.
It begins in the 7th year of King Sukjong’s reign. During his reign there were some serious battles for power between various political factions. At this point the political fighting is between the Namin (Southerners) faction and the Seoin (Westerners). In the drama officials are so ambitious that they even murder members of their own party to get to the top!
The Seoin are in power at first and so King Sukjong brings in his favourite concubine (and our drama’s baddie) Jang Ok Jung (later Hui Bin) who is supported by the Namin faction. So as she rises to the top of the concubine ranks in the palace, her supporters in the Namin faction rise to the top, too.
Lord Oh of the Namin faction
But it seems that the officials are more intent on their own agendas than doing anything to help the citizens of Joseon. In episode 22 we hear about issues with the lack of copper to make coins and the misappropriation of funds in the royal treasury. The eunuchs in the treasury have been filling their own pockets and not paying the workers. The lower classes are struggling due to high taxes and corruption. In the drama an army of low class men (the Geomgye – sword fraternity) form to help other members of the powerless low class such as runaway slaves.
But whilst the political factions only seem concerned with their wealth and status, King Sukjong is genuinely concerned about helping his people. He often leaves the palace incognito to see for himself how the people live and what they think of him as their ruler!
DIPLOMATIC AND RATIONAL
OK he didn’t drink coffee out of a paper cup from a coffee shop chain but he does come across as a king who wants to be modern and in touch with the people. Later we see that he is keen to get out of the palace whenever he can and he and Dong Yi go to a local tavern where he gets to try commoners alcohol (which looks milky so probably makkoli) and commoners food such as pig skin!
But we first meet the king in episode 5 and see straight away that he has a lot of stress with the political factions fighting for power. Still, he’s a playful king who likes to joke. The officials around him obviously can’t joke around with him and they don’t seem to know how to react.
The palace is a superstitious place and when a meteorite rock lands in the palace there is shock and horror as this is considered to be a bad omen. The Queen Mother and her Seoin faction supporters blame this on Jang Ok Jung. They believe that Jang Ok Jung will bring bad luck to Joseon!
Queen Myeongseong (Queen Mother) played by Park Jung Soo
But the king is rational and refuses to believe in superstitions. His mother tries again to create another bad omen this time by tampering with the musical instruments at a Royal banquet. The Seoin faction want Jang Ok Jung removed as they know her presence will give the Namin strength. But again the king refuses to believe in superstitions and does some investigating himself to discover that there is a manmade reason why the instruments at the banquet suddenly played out of tune!
envoys from Qing arrive in Joseon greeted by Lord Oh of the Namin faction
As well as having to manage the power struggles in his government, the king also has to handle the strained relations with the Qing Dynasty. Joseon had good relations with the previous Ming Dynasty but when the Qing Dynasty came to power (1644) things changed. Joseon did not want to accept the new dynasty. But Joseon became a tributary state of Qing so needed acceptance from the Emperor for various actions including the naming of the Crown Prince. We see the king’s frustration at having to deal with the envoys from Qing although relations remain civil.
Jang Hee Jae (played by Kim Yu Seok) looks on in the background as his sister Jang Ok Jung is promoted
The king can’t always control how his officials handle the relationship with Qing though. And Jang Ok Jung’s ambitious and ruthless brother will do anything to help his nephew become the Crown Prince – even to the point of selling out his country. He bribes the Qing envoy to put a good word in for his nephew to become Crown Prince by agreeing to give them the record books of Joseon security and borders. Of course when this is revealed he is branded a traitor in Joseon and the king is furious.
Jang Ok Jung and her brother have been involved in all sorts or shenanigans at the palace including plotting to kill the Queen and anyone else who gets in their way. When their crimes are revealed she is forced to drink poison and he is executed too. This causes great political upset as the Namin officials involved are also punished and the Namin faction collapses. Other factions take over in the government – the Soron faction and the Noron faction.
KING SUKJONG AND HIS LADIES
King Sukjong and Dong Yi (Suk Bin) (played by Han Hyo Joo)
The drama Dong Yi is the supposed love story of King Sukjong and his concubine Dong Yi (Suk Bin). But at the beginning of the drama the king is in love with his concubine Jang Ok Jung. He knows she is an intelligent woman and he listens to her advice about how to deal with political moves in the palace whilst they play the board game Baduk.
His second Queen – Queen Inhyeon – is on the throne, but their relationship seems to be purely political and arranged. But she is a loyal Queen who ends up being dethroned after she is framed by Jang Ok Jung. The king later realises that he has made a mistake and feels guilty about sending the queen away. Gradually he begins to realise that it is Jang Ok Jung behind all the evil doings in the palace. And gradually it becomes clear that she has lost the king’s trust and his love. It’s painful for the king and he weeps as she drinks the poison.
Queen Inhyeon played by Park Ha Sun
A SCHOLAR NOT A WARRIOR
The king is portrayed as a good politician and a diligent scholar of Confucianism but he is not a warrior! The Joseon kings had to take royal lectures with scholars at the palace and we find the loved up king daydreaming his way though his Confucian Royal lectures. But even on automatic pilot he is still able to argue aspects of Confucian ideology and correct the scholars’ mistakes!
The early Joseon kings were hardened warriors who fought to build their new dynasty. But by now in the late Joseon period the dynasty has settled down and kings are no longer warriors but scholars. And the king’s lack of ‘manly’ skills is put to comic use many times in the drama!
The first time Dong Yi meets the king she is hiding in a barn investigating the banquet bad omen incident. The king arrives doing some investigating for himself too and they bump into each other in the dark! She has no idea he is the king as he’s dressed as an ordinary yangban. Outside they are surrounded by some bad guys who are going to kill them! (The assassins clearly don’t realise that he is the king either).
The king grasps his sword very unconvincingly and splutters that he is ‘The King’. But the hard men just laugh at him! He is not used to this kind of world outside the palace and Dong Yi senses this too! Luckily royal guards arrive in time to save them.
King Sukjong (Ji Jin Hee) tries to man up in front of Dong Yi!
When he runs away with Dong Yi he can only run a few metres before collapsing on the ground out of breath. She can’t believe how unfit he is! Out in the real world the king really struggles to cope!
Later when he goes to his retreat to ponder over the political situation at the palace, he relaxes by practising archery. But he misses the target (a picture of a deer) every time. So we can guess he doesn’t usually spend much time practicing. Still, the officials flatter him and compliment his skills – no one tells him the truth which annoys him. He remembers Dong Yi chiding him about his weaknesses (he can’t run far, can’t fight with a sword, and can’t handle his liquor!). So he keeps practicing the archery as in front of Dong Yi he wants to be ‘a real man’!
The king meets his son Geum – future King Yeongjo
This feeling continues when years later (episode 46) he meets his son (who is living outside the palace) for the first time. They spend the day together and although his son Geum doesn’t realise that this is his father, the king wants to impress the boy. So when they see a ssireum contest (below) Geum encourages the nauri yangban to take part in the game!
The chief eunuch gasps in shock but the king feels he has no choice but to take part against a rather frighteningly large opponent. The chief eunuch looks on in horror as the king squares up against his opponent and then gets thrown to the ground. But somehow he manages to win the second round and falls on top of the much bigger man. His son Geum jumps for joy and the king feels proud!
The king plays Ssireum to impress his son
PROTECTING THE PRINCES
As King Sukjong gets older the arguing over who should be the Crown Prince becomes stronger. None of the Queen’s gave birth to sons so Jang Ok Jung’s son remains Crown Prince even after she is executed. And the Soron faction support this. But the Noron faction support Dong Yi becoming Queen and her son becoming the Crown Prince. So political squabbling continues.
A prince’s life is always in danger as he is a threat to the Crown Prince. But the king wants to protect both the Crown Prince and Dong Yi’s son too. According to the Palace rules, other princes must leave the palace after they marry. Only the Crown Prince is allowed to live in the palace. The king wants to protect both his sons and contemplates abdicating, that way the problem will be solved – one son will be King and the other Crown Prince and so they can both remain safely in the palace. In the end another option is found – the Queen agrees to adopt Dong Yi’s son – the future King Yeongjo. The Queen has a lot of power in the palace – much more than a mere concubine. And the Queen’s son is automatically in line to be Crown Prince. So that way she can protect him and he can stay in the palace.
Eventually the king announces that no concubine will ever be able to become Queen. This is a new law meant to stop ambitious concubines doing dodgy dealings to become Queen in the future! The law remained in place till the end of Joseon. So Dong Yi did not become Queen.
The king married his third Queen – Queen Inwon. Jang Ok Jung’s son became King Gyeongjong but he was not well and only ruled for 4 years (1720-1724) and had no heirs. Dong Yi’s (Suk Bin) son then became King Yeongjo and became the longest ruler in Joseon history. (r.1724-1776).
The drama portrays King Sukjong as an intelligent and hardworking king. But although he understands politics and the workings of the royal court well, until he meets Dong Yi he is removed from the common people and doesn’t really know how they live.
The king is a scholar and not a warrior. And so although he has power in the palace he seems powerless on his own in the gritty world outside the palace walls. The scenes where he struggles to be a ‘man’ in front of Dong Yi are very endearing. He’s also portrayed as a loving father who wants to protect all his children from the back stabbing dangerous world of the Joseon palace!