Sageuk dramas are like all-in-one package; there’s romance, family angst, politics, and of course, an instant history lesson. For many international viewers, Korean period dramas are the foremost introductory platform into the rich culture of the East Asian peninsula nation. Historical productions highlight Korea’s arts, architecture, and social order. Although many popular sageuk dramas contain dramatized version of historical events, one can’t deny that it still pushes its audience to search and read more about Korea’s past.
So, let’s make learning history more fun by discerning facts and fiction through our favorite sageuk dramas.
If you search the start of Korea’s history, you would be lead to Gojoseon period (2333 BC – 108 BC), the earliest kingdom on record. But most known sageuk dramas actually starts with the Three Kingdoms Period, which specifically refers from circa 57 BC to 668 AD in Korean history. During this period, Korea is divided into three kingdoms: Silla (신라), Goguryeo (고구려), and Baekje (백제). Silla was founded around 57BC but it wasn’t until 37BC, when Jumong founded Goguryeo, that the term Three Kingdoms was used.
The highly popular K-drama, Jumong, is loosely based on the life of King Dongmyeong. Jumong is considered the founding monarch of Goguryeo, the northernmost of the Three Kingdoms of Korea. After Korea’s first kingdom, Gojoseon, fell into the Han Empire of China, Jumong reunited all of its remaining tribes into one kingdom. Soseono then became his second wife and gave birth to his son, who eventually established the kingdom of Baekje.
Just to clarify, the Goryeo dynasty where the 2016 melodrama, Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo took place is different from the time period of Jumong. Wang So’s Goryeo Dynasty was established after the Silla’s unification of Three Kingdoms, which will be dealt on further in this post. (You probably know this fact but I just really want a good excuse to put Lee Joon-gi’s photos here ㅋㅋ)
Soseono’s real-life counterpart is not just a lovely female lead to the mighty Jumong. Soseono actually played a significant role in the establishment of Baekje. To make a long story short, after Jumong died, Soseono and her two sons fled to the southern part of Korea, near the present-day Han River and Seoul, to avoid bloodshed due to succession issues with Jumong’s first wife (who says, history isn’t dramatic?!). Her son, Onjo, then became the first king of Baekje.
Here are other popular fictional characters as well as real historical figures from the Kingdom of Baekje. Seo Hyun-jin played the titular role in the 2014 period drama, The King’s Daughter, Soo Baek-hyang. She starred opposite actor, Jo Hyun-jae. Speaking of the veteran actor, Hyun-jae also top-billed another sageuk drama, Ballad of Seo Dong in 2006. The series was actually based on one of Korea’s oldest folk songs about a commoner who married a princess (yes, even this cliche K-drama plot exist during the ancient era). Oh, did I mention Ballad of Seo Dong also starred Lee Bo-young and Ryu Jin? A casting at its finest.
If you’re a veteran K-drama fan, you probably watched (or at least heard of) Queen Seondeok, which is the fictionalized version of the life of the second female sovereign in recorded East Asian history. The reign of Queen Seondeok was said to be the start of a renaissance in literature and arts in Silla. She also laid out the foundation for the destruction of Goguryeo and Baekje that lead to the unification of the three kingdoms and started another era in Korea’s history.
Fun fact: Most of the young actors cast in this 2009 hit drama are now popular and in-demand stars. Queen Seondeok’s roster includes Yoo Seung-ho, Nam Ji-hyun, Shin Se-kyung, Lee Hyun-woo, and Uee.
Additional fact: The 2016 fusion sageuk, Hwarang: The Poet Warrior Youth, was set during the time of King Jinheung, the Great. Park Hyung-sik’s role as the young king of Silla was written around the early life of Jinheung, who was considered one of the greatest kings of Silla.
Korea’s history doesn’t end in Three Kingdoms Period. K-Culture segment will delve into other historical periods such as the Joseon era and the Goryeo Dynasty on its following installment. So subscribe now to our blog!
(1) Korea.net: Photo of the Goguryeo palace model at the Naju Image Theme Park; Three Kingdoms and other State.
(2) MBC: Photos for Jumong, Queen Seondeok, and The King’s Daughter, Soo Baek-hyang.
(3) KBS: Photos for Hwarang: The Poet Warrior Youth
(4) SBS: Photos for Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo and Ballad of Seo Dong
(5) Koreanhistoricaldramas.com: Three Kingdoms Overview