For International Women’s Day (March 8th) I was thinking about who would be the top 10 most famous women through history who have (or will soon have) appeared in Korean film and drama. Here’s what I came up with. I’ve put them in the order that they lived historically.
1 QUEEN SEONDEOK of SILLA
picture: Queen Seondeok MBC 2009
She became the first Queen to reign Silla, one of the three kingdoms, and ruled for 14 years from 632 to 647. At that time the three kingdoms (Silla, Baekje, and Goguryo) were often at war and she is known for her skill at politics and leadership. She was chosen by her father King Jinpyeong as his heir to the throne because she was intelligent (and he also had no sons!)
It was rare to have female rulers at the time but the status of women was higher than later in the Joseon period where a woman could never have become the ruler in the patriarchal Confucian society. She has been compared to Queen Elizabeth the 1st of England as she led a renaissance in art and thinking. She died without an heir too.
Queen Seondeok was a hugely popular MBC drama in 2009 reaching ratings of over 40%.
2 ARTIST & MOTHER: Shin Saimdang
picture: Light’s Diary SBS 2017
If you ask anyone in Korea who is the most famous Korean woman they might well say Shin Saimdang (1504-1551). She was an artist and poet who also became famous as the mother of the renowned Confucian scholar Yi I (1536-1584). She was praised for being a ‘good wife, wise mother‘ which was the ideal for women to achieve during the Joseon period. (1392-1910) Her son is said to be the most famous scholar in Korean history.
Her claim to fame these days is that she is the first woman to appear on Korean money. Her image is on the 50,000 won bill (her son is on the 5,000 won note. Here’s more on Korean money) Whilst I think it’s great to honour motherhood I also see the feminist’s point of view that choosing her as a contemporary model stereotypes female roles in society.
There’s a drama about her on SBS at the moment which caused quite a stir as it stars Lee Young Ae, (of Jewel in the Palace fame, of course). The drama Saimdang Light’s Diary is set in her home town of Gangneung on the east coast of Gangwon province. She’s not the only famous woman from Gangneung, see this koreatimes article for more info.
3 LITERARY CLASSIC CHARACTER: Chunhyang
picture: The Servant 2010
This time we move to Namwon in North Jolla province which is the hometown of Chunhyang, the heroine in the The Story of Chunhyang, a Korean literary classic. It is supposedly based on a true story which occurred during the reign of King Sukjong (r.1674-1720)
The story goes that a young nobleman, Yi Mongnyong, the son of the magistrate of Namwon falls in love and marries Seong Chunhyang, the daughter of a servant class gisaeng. Normally a nobleman and a servant wouldn’t be able to marry so they overcome strict social barriers to be together. The couple meet for the first time on May 5th in springtime and so Namwon Chunhyang Festival is held every year around that time (Chunhyang’s name means ‘fragrance of spring’, chun = spring, hyang = fragrance)
Apparently there are over 100 versions of this story which was popular in Joseon times when the ideal qualities of a woman were virtuousness and faithfulness – being a good wife and all that stuff. See here for more examples of virtuous Joseon ladies we learned about on a trip to Andong. The story has inspired films such as The Servant (2010) which gives a twist to the original story and by the look of the poster (above) promises to be quite saucy.
There’s more info here on our trip to Namwon which also boasts a Chunhyang Theme park. There are a lots of ‘romantic’ things to do here – you can stand on the ‘propose zone’ spot by the river and you know, propose. And if you want to get married you can make a wish at the portrait of Chunhyang at the shrine. Enjoy.
4 FEMME FATALE: Jang Hee Bin
picture: Jang Ok Jeong: Living in Love SBS 2013
You can’t have a good drama without a great baddie. And who better than Jang Hee Bin, the infamous concubine of King Sukjong? She was famous not only for her beauty but for her ambition to be Queen. King Sukjong did end up dethroning his Queen and putting Jang Hee Bin on the throne. But he later restored the Queen to her position and Jang Hee Bin was demoted back to a concubine!
She was suspected of several crimes including using black magic to put a curse on the ill Queen and was put to death for her crimes along with members of her family. Her son still became King though – King Gyeongjong (r.1720-1724).
Jang Hee Bin’s tomb is famous too. Behind the tomb is a large rock but a pine tree managed to break through the rock and grow. Some say that this reveals that her ki (energy) is still very strong.
5 ENTERTAINER: Hwang Jini
picture: Hwang Jini KBS2 2006
The most famous gisaeng was Hwang Jini (1506-1560) who has been portrayed in lots of dramas including this KBS2 2006 version starring Ha Ji Won.
I wrote about the paintings of Shin Yun Bok (1758-1813) like this one (below) which reveal so much about the life of gisaengs and the life of women in general during this period.
Gisaengs were actually classed as slaves and belonged to the government. But they were wore beautiful hanbok and were educated and trained in music because their job was to entertain and socialise with wealthy noblemen at Gisaeng houses – exclusive restaurants with private rooms.
A Gisaeng’s working life was fairly short – they had to ‘retire’ from entertaining when they reached 30 but after that, if they had nowhere to go, they could stay on and work in the kitchens or look after other gisaengs’ children. Gisaengs could not expect to lead ordinary family lives.
6 REGENT: Queen Munjeong (1501-1565)
picture: Mandate of Heaven KBS 2013
Here is Queen Munjeong (played by Park Ji Young) in one of the creepiest sageuk drama scenes ever – even if it does involve flower petals and what should be a relaxing bath!
King Myeongjong (r.1545-1567) was only 12 years old when he came to the throne. But there were rumours that his mother Queen Munjeong had the previous King Injong killed so that he could be king – or more specifically so that SHE could become Regent and rule in his place since he was too young.
And yes she ruled for many years on Myeongjong’s behalf even after he became of age! We can see her dominating character in The Flower in Prison (MBC 2016) where she continues to rule the country (badly) despite her now adult son King Myeongjong doing his best to take over!
In the drama Mandate of Heaven (KBS2 2013) Queen Munjeong is portrayed as so EVIL with no saving graces whatsoever (she’s even mean to her own son!) This is a fast-paced thriller with gritty gasp-out-loud scenes of sudden violent acts from face slapping to strangling. There’s a lot going on, but all roads lead to one person: a ruthless Queen desperate for power and the throne single-mindedly sending her death orders to her unscrupulous underlings.
7 WOMAN IN A MAN’S WORLD: Doctor Dae Jang Geum
picture: Jewel in the Palace MBC 2003
From baddies to goodies. Jang Geum is probably still the most internationally famous character in Korean historical drama. So actress Lee Young Ae appears twice in this list!
At a time when only men were able to become the King’s doctor, Dae Jang Geum broke the tradition and became the first woman to be the king’s doctor. She was an actual historical figure as her name appears several times in the Annals of Joseon – the history records of the Joseon period – for treating King Jeongjong. But nothing is known about her life so the drama Jewel in the Palace is pretty much all fiction – especially the bit about her cooking and working in the Royal kitchens!
The reason why the drama is based on Royal Cuisine is because the director Lee Byoung Hoon didn’t want to do a drama about medicine again too soon after his previous medical drama Heojun, as viewers would be reminded of that! Read what the director says about making Jewel in the Palace here.
8 EMPRESS MYEONGSEONG (1851-1895)
picture: The Sword With No Name 2009
She was the wife of King Gojong, the last King of Joseon and the first Emperor of the Korea. She is also known as Queen Min but her title became Empress Myeongjeong.
Korea was still a ‘hermit kingdom’ closed off from the west at the end of the 19th century but Queen Min was a progressive and supported opening up the country to foreign trade and ‘westernization’. Gojong relied on her for much of the decision making in the country, so she had a lot of influence.
She tried to develop stronger relations with Russia so as to weaken Japan’s influence in the country but this led to her assassination at Gyeongbokgung (palace) by Japanese agents.
The 2014 KBS drama Gunman in Joseon is set during this time when the hermit kingdom underwent huge change. And the film The Sword with no Name (2009) is a fictional account of her life. Her story was also made into a very popular musical in Korea.
9 FREEDOM FIGHTER Yoo Gwan Soon (1902-1920)
Known as Korea’s Joan of Arc, Yoo Gwan Soon was a young woman who became the symbol of Korean Independence. She took part in peaceful protests on March 1st 1919 protesting against Japanese rule but was arrested and died in prison.
Apparently 3000 Korean soldiers were asked in a survey which actress they would like to play Yoo Gwan Soon in a drama about her life and the number one choice was Kim Go Eun.
10 FEMINIST WRITER: Na Hye Seok (1896-1948)
OK, well this film (or drama) is still waiting to be made. Because even though she was a famous feminist and painter (whose work now sells for loads of money) there are as yet no dramas about Na Hye Seok.
Na Hye Seok was the first feminist writer in Korea and turned away from the ‘good wife, good mother‘ ideal that women had been expected to achieve. Her most famous work is a short story Gyonghui published in 1918 about a woman looking for meaning in her life. This story is now available in English as part of a collection of short stories: Questioning Minds: Short Stories by Modern Korean Women Writers (Hawai‘i Studies on Korea) Paperback – November 3, 2009
She lived during the Japan colonial rule in Korea and she spent time studying in Japan but was also arrested for protesting against Japanese rule on March 1st 1919 (now Independence Movement Day). She also contributed articles to the first magazine for women shin-yoja (New Woman). She married for love (which was rare at the time) but her husband filed for divorce with allegations of her adultery.
She was also the first professional female painter in Korea. She used her paintings and writings to protest against women’s inequality but rumours of her private life gave her a bad reputation. And for a time she was used as an warning of what happens to women who do try to follow their dreams and pursue a life of art – they get a bad reputation and die alone. She was clearly ahead of her time. I think this would make a great drama!