Recently, my Korean friend gave me some advice about watching more K-Dramas to help with my Korean language skills. She recommended an online service called Crunchyroll, which lets you watch Japanese anime1 and Korean dramas for a low monthly fee, plus they are legal, licensed copies, so you can watch them guilt-free. In particular, she recommended a good drama called “Jewel in the Palace”, though the Korean name is 대장금 (大長今, dae jang-geum). The Korean word 대장금 just means “Jang Guem the Great” which is how she is called in Korean culture.
This is a popular drama from several years ago about the life of a famous Korean woman named Jang-Geum, who eventually became the physician of King Jung-Jong of the Joseon Dynasty. Like the Japanese woman of Ōoku, the “kitchen women“, or gungneyo (궁녀, 宮女) of the Joseon kings had to live in the palace their entire lives, cook and be very charming for the king. Unlike the Ōoku, these women usually had no romantic relations at all, but they served the king mainly through food.
Life in the palace, not surprisingly, was full of intrigue, back-biting, political plots and so on. And of course, since this is a historical drama, things are exaggerated, but the drama is actually quite fascinating to watch. It’s interesting to see how men and women dressed,2 how they lived and so on. Plus, you learn a lot about traditional food in the Joseon palace. Kings and their family were served very fine food, sometimes imported from Ming-Dynasty China, and the kitchen women had to be extremely skilled in making food, or they would be whipped and thrown out of the palace in disgrace.
The drama isn’t too historically accurate about Jang-Geum because there aren’t many details about her life. Instead it’s more about the life and times of the Joseon Dynasty. Plus, I really like this drama because it has very little sex or violence apart from the first episode or two. So, I feel my daughter can watch it if I fast-forward a few parts.
The version on Crunchyroll has English subtitles, which helps a lot, but I still learn a lot just hearing certain phrases and common sentences over and over. You have to start somewhere. 😉
I’m on episode 8 now and it keeps getting more and more interesting.
If you’re curious about traditional Korean culture, I definitely recommend watching the drama. I believe the drama was also popular in Japan, so readers in Japan could probably find it easily. If you’re in the West, check out Crunchyroll. I’m pretty happy with it so far ($11 / month, unlimited access), plus the iPhone app works well so I can watch on the bus easily.
I’ll probably write more about palace life in the Joseon Dynasty as well. It fascinates me in the same way that life in the Heian Period of Japan does.
1 Crunchyroll also has Japanese dramas, but only low-quality (often adult) dramas. Not the good family dramas from NHK unfortunately. The licensing of shows from NHK might be more strict.
2 Of course, the women look very pretty in hanbok, while the men look cool in those black hats.