Tracing Pages Of Korean History Through The Best Korean Historical Dramas
Korean historical dramas look intimidating to watch? Not when you know how to relish its good points. Here, we teach you the proper sequence on how you can enjoy these traditionally set dramas.
Korean historical dramas give us an immersing time to explore details of Korean culture that has passed on from the old kingdoms to its now divided nation.
Albeit the innovative stories broadcast stations paraded in the recent years, you will notice how they pay attention to the period drama productions. It is a commendable act to place high effort in conceiving historical television presentations, as it pays homage to their heritage as a nation of patriotic people.
Often overshadowed by the regular romantic comedy favorites, sageuks spin a serious tone and languid pace reputation. It also took me a while to enjoy the beauty of period dramas, so I’m here to help you navigate a course, in case you are ready to travel back in time – by watching these Korean historical drama favorites.
We will be covering sageuk (Korean historical dramas) that aired from 2000 onward as it is easier to find video resources for recent dramas. We chose the most elaborated Korean historical dramas that would delineate the Korean arts and civilization.
Classical dramas usually thrive on politics and governance driven plot with filial love, patriotism, brotherhood, revenge and romance as recurring themes. Ancient figures like Joseon Kings, kingdom monarchs, warriors and scholars are often portrayed in the historical dramas.
The slow and feeble pace is but normal owing to the myriad side problems and back stories to cover since the narrative usually settles after crossing the middle part of the narrative.
Patience is a required trait needed in watching Korean historical dramas. A little googling of Korean history online will also help in grasping the situation on the era of the drama you are watching.
Warm Up With Fusion Sageuk Delights
For initiating period dramas, it is encouraged to shoot for the fusion sageuk – a modernized korean historical drama, that usually takes the romance and fantasy tone.
Sungkyunkwan Scandal and Moonlight Drawn by the Clouds are vintage fusion period dramas that incorporate the gritty power struggle involving the Joseon Monarchy, along with the fascinating friendship and heart fluttering romance plot.
Both have cross-dressing heroines and strong supporting male leads. The young main cast cushions the austere bureaucracy distress by capitalizing on the poignant love trajectory.
On the other hand Queen In Hyun’s Man and Rooftop Prince utilize time-traveling element to propel the bewitching chronicles that are centered on the heroes’ sojourns. The male protagonists seamlessly maneuver their endearing and clever personas as they get accustomed to a generation they do not belong with.
Sorcery and supernatural characters enhance dramas Jeonwoochi, Mirror of the Witch, The Night Watchman and Arang and the Magistrate. These mystical-themed adventures traverse Korean folklore as well as ancient beliefs in an epic storytelling, reminiscent of high fantasy favorites like ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’.
These hybrid sageuk dramas will let you become familiar with the norms and practices of antiquated Korean culture, which you will be needing on the second phase of this blog journey.
Notch Up Your Period Drama Exploration By Visiting Different Eras
Now that you have the basic grasp of period dramas, learning Korean history will be a piece of cake if you follow these Korean historical drama path.
We will not go to a complicated route so I will divide the dramas that we will thread in three parts, while acquiring the fundamental flow of the Korean eras. Please take note that most period dramas run long, so commitment is expected for you to endure it.
Ancient Kingdom – Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla
Song Il Gook cemented his popularity in MBC’s Jumong: The Book of Three Han. The 81-episode drama is the best depiction of the old Kingdom of Goguryeo. It narrates the story of expert archer Jumong and the founding of Goguryeo Empire.
It covers the struggle of the young prince against his half-brothers, who are intent to claim the seat of power of Buyeo. He chances upon his biological father Haemosu – an old resistance army leader, who passes on his skills in combat training.
He gets involved romantically with Lady Soseono of Gyeru merchant clan, who extends her help in growing diversified local tribes and strengthening their army that formed the foundation of Goguryeo Kingdom.
The decline of Goguryeo empire is captured in KBS’ 2011 drama King Gwanggaeto the Great. The titular role is portrayed by actor Lee Tae Gon, who dramatized the King’s tenacious effort to reclaim the Kingdom’s lost glory.
Baekje Kingdom founded by Jumong’s son with Lady Soseono – King Onjo, is pictured through dramas King Geunchogo and Gyebaek. The latter chronicles the tumultuous last stand battle of General Gyebaek against Silla and Tang Dynasty’s soldiers.
King Geunchogo in contrast illustrates the peak of Baekje’s dominance by the warrior King’s remarkable control of the Korean peninsula.
Upon taking over the dominions of Goguryeo and Baekje, the Kingdom of Silla continued preserving its dynasty for almost a thousand years. The elaborated wardrobe and artistic set design in Silla period dramas are pleasing to the eyes so it would most likely lure you to follow it without any problem.
The more recent KBS drama Hwarang tells the story of young King Jinheung, who bolstered Silla’s military system. MBC’s Queen Seondeok, which raked ratings during its run, displays the intense political strife battled by King Jinpyeong’s daughters against the cunning Lady Mishil, portrayed by brilliant actress Go Hyun Jung.
Both dramas cover the bone-rank system – a strick lineage-based system that mandates the norms and practices like marriage, clothing, house size of the social class as well as the continuing border contentions with neighboring kingdoms Baekje and Goguryeo.
After Silla unified the three ancient kingdoms, the government faltered and eventually lost control of the throne. Wang Geon, a war general, joined the remnant of Goguryeo kingdom, and from there, he established Goryeo Empire as King Taejo.
SBS’s star-studded Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo uses King Taejo’s family as the characters from a Chinese novel adaptation. Although the sageuk circles on a romance plot, it shows facets of the early stages of the empire, including the crown contention by the princes fathered by their King.
Goryeo is founded by a military regime, hence the military officers go side by side with the reigning monarchs in governing the country as limned in KBS drama Faith, which is the first period drama portrayal for hallyu actor Lee Min Ho. He brings General Choi Young to life, who comes from a famous warrior clan.
Empress Ki, a romance period drama starring Ha Ji Won, who gets entangled with the Yuan emperor and Goryeo King, shows the sojourn of a Goryeo woman caught in between two reigning monarchs. The oppression that Goryeo empire suffered in the hands of Yuan dynasty and the waning power of the regime are outlined as the romance unfolds in the story.
Korean Historical Dramas are mostly imagined in Joseon era setting. SBS’s Six Flying Dragons and KBS’s Jeong Do Jeon streams from late Goryeo period and the eventual founding of Joseon by prominent Korean scholar Jeong Do Jeon and General Yi Seong Gye, who later became King Taejo.
A common fixture in the shifting of ruling dynasty is how the heirs fight and usurp the throne. Yoo Ah In portrays Yi Bang Won, later King Taejong, who is instrumental behind the fall of Goryeo, but his conflicting views with Jeong Do Jeon made the latter influenced King Taejo not to appoint the prince as his successor. He inevitably secures the throne from his weak brothers and achieved a dominant central government.
King Taejong is succeeded by King Sejong, and his incumbency is portrayed by Han Suk Kyu in the Tree With Deep Roots. The period drama also stars Jang Hyuk and Shin Se Kyung, who helped picture the hardship faced by King Sejong in creating the Korean alphabet.
For a detailed interpretation of King Sejong’s life, 2008 KBS production King Sejong the Great gives an account of his early years, ascension, stabilizing the throne, and enhancing the arts, science and culture of Joseon.
Classic MBC drama Dae Jang Geum played by Lee Young Ae covers three Joseon Kings, and sketches the story of the first woman doctor appointed by the King. It gives women an empowering message through the heroine’s quest in fulfilling her dreams amidst a society which does not pay attention to a woman’s worth.
Hallyu actress Han Hyo Joo played the titular role of Dong Yi – the drama that recounts the turbulent governance of King Sukjong in controlling the resistance of the stubborn factions eager to cause trouble in his tenure.
The romantic plot, involving King Sukjong and his concubines, is also relayed in a classic sageuk manner, having a villainess keen to make everything hard for the heroine.
Dong Yi’s son with King Sukjong, Yi Geum (King Yeongjo), can be watched through 2019 SBS drama Haechi. The series highlights the journey of Lee Geum to prove that he is a worthy king.
The intuitive King Jeongjo is depicted in the drama Yi San by Lee Seo Jin. Known for his filial love to his father Crown Prince Sado, who was put to death by his grandfather, his governance lets Joseon experience a bountiful period.
Joseon Gunman by Lee Jun Ki is set in the reign of King Gojong. It brandishes the transition to the modern times about a Joseon sword fighter, who picks up a shotgun to avenge the death of his family.
Depicting the crumbling Joseon, Mr. Sunshine captures the failing nation left with a few people helplessly clamoring to salvage the defeated Kingdom.
Post Joseon Era
Joseon era crumbles and is reigned by the Japanese for 35 years from 1910 to 1945. These years mark resistance attempts by Korean patriots. The intense action drama Gaksital pictures a defiant hero and his painful parting of ways to a friend who supports the Japanese regime.
Chicago Typewriter is a fantasy romance drama that alternates the present time and the Japanese occupation era. It also features resistance fighters who are reincarnated 80 years after to fulfil their unfinished business.
Going retro, the experimental plot of Lights and Shadows, top billed by Ahn Jae Wook vibrantly showcases the life of an entertainer during the 1970’s.
Reach the Nirvanic Korean History Scholar Stage by Watching Korean Dramas of Varied Taste
By this time, Korean historical dramas already excite you. Chances are that you are already a quasi-Korean amazed by the richness of their history and culture. The last batch of dramas I will recommend has focal themes, but still follows the distinct checklist of sageuk offerings – the labyrinthine political problems, the big number of memorable cast and the epic storytelling.
Hwang Jin Yi, The Princess Man, Jang Ok Jung, Living in Love and Queen for Seven Days are all framed on Joseon era setting and sketch poignant love stories that will linger in your heart.
The Flower in Prison navigates to the local prison setup and evolution of judicial system in Korea, while Jackpot excitingly draws an image of the Joseon gambling world.
Talented actress Moon Geun Young plays an artist, disguising as a man on a mission to uncover her father’s death in Painter of the Wind and a celebrated pottery genius in Goddess of Fire.
A sure hit action dramas for the boys would be Warrior Baek Dong Soo. It is about the unfortunate brotherhood of an assassin, who is on a mission to kill the current King but protected by his warrior friend. Chuno grittingly plunges on the cinematic revenge story of a slave hunter.
The Horse Doctor presents the life of a slave, who overcomes discrimination to become the King’s physician. Ji Sung’s The Great Seer expounds on divination, geomancy and face reading, which are highly regarded by the new empire built by King Taejo.
TVN’s Reply Series projects love, friendship and family stories that covers the 1980’s up to late 1990’s period. The detailed setup will transport you back in time when technology is on its budding stage, and also when relationships are strengthened by sharing memories together.
Hurrah for staying with me in this Korean history lesson!
Go and set forth in immersing yourself with these beautiful Korean historical dramas today!
abbyinhallyuland likes to travel when she is not on a K-Drama scheduled bingewatch. She is fond of Spencer Reid, Starwars saga, and Haruki Murakami.