South Korea is known throughout Asia for producing some of the best dramas for television, both historical and contemporary. Longer than BBC miniseries, the programs are romantic, intense, and addictive, inspiring fannish devotion. Unfortunately, the Western world has not yet caught onto South Korea’s splendid drama series, but with such sites as Crunchyroll (available through Roku) and MBC Global Media offering free downloads, there’s no excuse not to.
A great place to start is Jewel in the Palace, one of the most popular Korean dramas ever. Known in Korea as Dae Jang Geum, or “The Great Jang Geum,” Jewel in the Palace takes place during the Joseon (or Choson) period, a vast era of cultural flowering and occasional bloody chaos, including political purges and Japanese invasions. One of the longest running dynasties in history, Joseon ruled from 1392 all the way to 1910.
Jewel in the Palace chronicles the life of Jang Geum, a semi-historical figure who was the first (and last) female physician to the king. Nothing is known about her early life, but during the years 1515 to 1549, she is mentioned in the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty, a famous year-by-year record written during the Joseon era. To put Jang Geum’s time period into perspective, while she was alive, Henry VIII reigned across the ocean and died, Copernicus proposed that the Earth revolved around the Sun, and Magellan sailed the Pacific.
In Korea, the king reigned from within a densely populated palace complex that included a vast army of “palace women” (gungnyeo), who dedicated their lives to him and could not marry. These palace women, divided up according to their allotted tasks of cooking, cleaning, sewing, and so forth, lived under strict rules; breaking them, or displeasing the king, could mean death.
Within this world, Jewel in the Palace focuses on the kitchen women. These women worked under high-ranking kitchen women called sang-gung. Highest of these was the choi-go sang-gung, a position that was prestigious, lucrative for the woman’s extended family, and competitively sought.
As a low-ranking kitchen woman, Jang Geum battles the niece of a powerful choi-go sang-gung, who is determined to keep the position of highest-ranking kitchen woman in her family line. Like a deadly Top Chef competition, Jang Geum struggles to create spectacular dishes and stay alive in a court rife with deadly intrigue.
You might wonder why a story about a female physician has kitchen battles, but it’s in the kitchen that Jang Geum first finds herself responsible for the king’s health. The kitchen frequently prepared dishes as directed by the court physician. This could be the correct meal to accompany a medicine, food with the medicinal herbs directly added, or dishes with herbs to aid digestion. A kitchen woman could be held directly responsible if the king got sick, or even be accused of poisoning.
Korean dramas always have romance, and Jewel in the Palace is no exception. For Jang Geum that means trying not to fall in love with Min Jung Ho, a scholar-official who also happens to excel at martial arts. As palace women are symbolically (and sometimes literally as concubines) wedded to the king, falling for Min could place Jang Geum in a dangerous position. If anyone found out she had interest in another man, she would be killed.
It’s helpful to know before watching the first episode that the series begins in the years before Jang Geum’s birth. The main characters in the first episode, although extremely important, are not the hero and heroine we will follow throughout the series. Even the second episode takes place largely outside the palace grounds, where the rest of the series is set. The first episode does introduce the world of the kitchen women—be on the lookout for Choi Seong-geum and Han Baek-yeong, two women who, when older, will play pivotal roles in the story.
For over a decade, Asian fans have devoured South Korean cultural exports. The so-called Korean Wave, or Hallyu, includes everything from movies, pop music, and Korean manga (manhwa) to television dramas. Especially dramas.
If you love opulent historical dramas, you will feel right at home in the Joseon era.
Jennifer Savage is a writer living in New York.