(Essay 2 Part 2) Why Do I Love Korean Historical Dramas? by Anna Tzanova, M.A.

SBS http://www.sbs.co.kr/main.do

Part 2




It makes me cringe every time someone calls Korean drama, especially the historical genre, a soap opera. The fact that they are TV series doesn’t necessarily make them foamy. Quite the contrary, they are full of substance. They don’t go on and on for years, season after season. On average, most of them are 24 to 60, one-hour-long episodes. Some have fewer episodes, some have more episodes, but after they are done—we move on. It’s a good way to learn non-attachment.


Korean historical drama is thought provoking. It is multidimensional in the way it presents characters and stories. Plots are well developed, intelligent, intriguing, and entertaining. Yes, there are some predictable outcomes, but there is also a lot of substance and artistic craftiness, as well as clever twists and fascinating surprises.


Sageuk (Korean Historical Drama) can teach about history and culture, and also about mythology, philosophy, and spirituality. It reminds us of the values that are fading or have vanished in Western culture in the 21st century. The importance of subtleties in life is shown through plot development, rhythm, and acting. Reoccurring themes convey lessons like patience, acceptance, forgiveness, trust, integrity, perseverance, and courage… That is, the true meaning and practice of those. There is depth in the understanding of the writers, as well as in the corresponding depiction by actors. There is profundity, which evokes a reciprocal reaction in the viewers’ mind.


The characters are likable—and their outlook on life and their behavior are admirable. They evolve and influence each other and their environment. There is this definitive sophistication in expression of emotion. Something akin to meditation. In Sageuk, “silence speaks”. Thus, the experience is not only pleasant, relaxing and/or exciting, but many times healing and enlightening.


Confucian ideas mixed with Buddhist and Daoist ideals motivate the protagonists’ kind and considerate actions. A particularly valued quality in Korea is “착하다/착한 [chakhada/chakhan]”. I first heard it mentioned in an interview[i]/book[ii] presentation of Euny Hong. The translation in the dictionary reads, “good, nice, good-natured, kind-hearted, meek, obedient, docile, gentle, quiet.” Actually, it is all this and much more. It is a trait that when faced with, being cynical—as we often are in the 21st century—we can easily dismiss as being naive, gullible, submissive, and even foolish. However, in the words of Rumi, “Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates: at the first, you ask yourself, ‘Is it true?’ At the second gate ask, ‘Is it necessary?’ At the third gate ask, ‘Is it kind?’”. The heroines and heroes in Korean historical drama follow this teaching in words and action. Most epitomize pure heartedness. There is a child-like sweetness about many of them—come to think of it, by losing innocence, has humanity really gained wisdom?


In the online edition of Entertainment Weekly, I encountered a quote by Jacqueline Sia, Director of Video Operations of New York based DramaFever—one of the largest databases of subtitled Asian films and TV programs. In speaking about Korean drama she states: “Portrayal of love is a little more PG,”[iii] an observation that strikes any novice in the genre. We have become used to quick climaxes, crash-and-burn liaisons, as well as media glorified dysfunctional relationships. The predominant understanding of sex (and certainly the one staring at us from the TV and cinema screens) is hurried, flat, and linear. There is a disconnect between sex and love. Profanity and violence pour daily from everywhere. Exhibiting symptoms of an empath can easily be diagnosed as a psychiatric condition, and yet we are conditioned to be less and less sensitive. In this background, complex and refined emotional states, longing, embodied sacredness, and the act of leaving much to the viewers’ imagination, seem to be suitable only for children. Are we awake and mature enough to realize that all the psychological and social implications of the well-manipulated programming we are subjugated to is already bearing fruit in ‘real life’?

(Read Essay 2 Part 1. To be continued in Essay 2 Part 3.)


[i]           The Korean Society, “Euny Hong discusses with WSJ columnist Jeffrey Yang her first nonfictional book,”  YouTube (November 6, 2014).


[ii]           Euny Hong, “The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation Is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture,” Simon and Shuster (2014).

[iii]          Hillary Busis, “Korean Dramas: A Beginner’s Guide,”  Entertainment Weekly (April 11, 2014).


Description of Korean Historical Dramas: This course offers a series of Korean Historical TV-dramas or Sageug (사극) and discusses the traits of female characters as well as general features of Korean history, culture, art, aesthetics, thought, customs, and people. What makes Korean drama so unique? What is the “secret recipe” that makes it so popular internationally? Why is it that, after a few episodes, one can‘t wait to see the next one or the next new drama? Those questions have made many wonder, from audiences to journalists and critics. Participants are invited to explore answers to these questions and more. Our emphasis is on woman’s place in history, as well as her role as creator, healer and leader; her strife to discover and reinvent herself, her inherent wisdom, her abilities to surrender, without giving up, and her potential to adapt, thrive, and ultimately transform the world she is in. Our selection of dramas qualifies high criteria in story content, character development, actor portrayal, multiplicity of ideas and values, and abilities to educate, while engaging and entertaining the viewer. Facilitators (Dr. Helen Hye-Sook Hwang and Ms. Anna Tzanova) will provide articles and audio-video materials concerning salient themes. (For more, see here)

Info on online class, Korean Historical Dramas. 

See Meet Mago Contributor Anna Tzanova.

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2 Comments on "(Essay 2 Part 2) Why Do I Love Korean Historical Dramas? by Anna Tzanova, M.A."

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What an illuminating and beautifully written essay this is – A few thoughts: If we take archetypes seriously “predictable outcomes” are universal and hardly detract from any performance. In my opinion the loss of innocence has not helped humanity gain wisdom, it has created adolescent anarchy. We need to resurrect the values of Korean Historical Drama.