The World Turned Upside Down: Social Change in Historical Kdrama

Chun Doong and Gwi Dong, The Duo
Chun Doong and Gwi Dong, The Duo

One of the most common plots in sageuk (historical Kdrama) pits those with power against those without power.  These tensions become even more complicated with friendships and romantic relationships.  Nothing makes the elite more nervous than when the “riff raff” start to question “the natural order of things.”  Historical Kdramas like The Duo and Hong Gil Dong begin with the possibility of social change, but end up reinforcing the status quo.  However, Tree with Deep Roots sustains the promise of social change to the end.

The Duo (2011): Nobleman or Brothers?

The Duo, Main Poster
The Duo, Main Poster

The Duo blends the classic “switched at birth” theme with sibling rivalry, all against the backdrop of class tensions. Chun Doong (Chung Jung Myung) is born to a nobleman, but spends his life growing up as a beggar with his mother. Gwi Dong (Lee Sang Yoon) enjoys all the benefits of being a nobleman’s son, unaware of his humble beginnings. Despite the class line that separates the two of them, they become close friends. Chun Doong, with the help of Gwi Dong’s father, becomes a merchant, while Gwi Dong slacks off as a police officer, a position secured for him by his social station.

Two things cause friction between the brothers, and both are connected to their class differences. First, Chun Doong sees how the people are mistreated and used by the upper classes in his duties as a merchant. Gwi Dong sees the corruption in the government. Because Chung Doong is more directly impacted by it, he sides with the people, becoming their champion and an outlaw to help their cause. This, of course, causes tension in his relationship Gwi Dong, who is The Law. Will Gwi Dong turn a blind eye and help the people, or will he he turn his friend in and cast his allegiance with the power structure?

Second, Chun Doong and Gwi Dong both like the same girl, Dong Nyeo (Han Ji Hye).  What complicates the story, however, is Dong Nyeo’s attitude towards those below her in social status. Already part of the elite (even though her father has a reputation for speaking out against the government), she becomes a powerful merchant. One would think she would be more sympathetic to others, but she sticks with the status quo. She has feelings for Chun Doong, but believes him to be lower than her in social class. She manages to overcome this, making an exception for Chun Doong, but she is not about to ally herself with the same kind of people he does. When she finds about his true noble origins, she is ecstatic, but that is short-lived, because Chun Doong has no intention of distancing himself from helping the people. Given the choice, she would rather sell out the people than honor any kind of allegiance to Chun Doong. By the time she realizes she is morally bankrupt, Chun Doong has moved on to a woman who understands the need of the revolution: Dal Yi (Seo Hyun Jin)!

In the end, Gwi Dong sides with Chun Doong, the close friend that acts more like a brother, but even that is not enough to help improve the plight of the people.  Despite Chun Doong’s best efforts, things remain the same: the people continue to be exploited, and Chun Doong meets a bad end for his trouble.

Hong Gil Dong (2008): Rebel With a Cause

Hong Gil Dong, Main Poster
Hong Gil Dong, Main Poster

Lighter in tone than The Duo, Hong Gil Dong tells the story of another figure at odds with the elite. Hong Gil Dong (Kang Ji Hwan) grows up in the household of his father as a servant. He is never acknowledged, and eventually runs away, becoming a folk hero who helps the people. His popularity grows with the people, thus making him a threat to the crown. It’s not like that’s hard: the king is a womanizing dope with post traumatic syndrome after having secured the throne by murdering his family. He could care less about what happens outside of the palace.

While Hong Gil Dong is poised against the upper class, he finds himself allied with someone seeking to get the throne, Lee Chang Hwi (Jang Geung Suk). As always, when someone is trying to eradicate others in line to the throne, you always miss one. Chang Hwi has been hiding out in China, and comes back to regain the throne. Seeing the state of the people and the horrendous rule of his half-brother, he looks like someone who will institute reform.  Gil Dong and Chang Hwi, while not best buddies like Chun Doong and Gwi Dong in The Duo, do seem to respect each other.

That respect was not easy to achieve, when you have clueless object-of-everyone’s-affection, Yi Nok (Sung Yu Ri), making up the other side of this romantic triangle.  While she ends up with Gil Dong, her presence acts to temper the way Chang Hwi deals with the people, at least in his quest for the throne. They plan missions targeted toward the elite.

At least that’s the case before Chang Hwi gets the throne. Once that crown is on his head, all bets are off.  After Chang Hwi is installed as king, Gil Dong, Yi Nok and the merry band of outlaws they lead retreat to the mountains, but they continue their activities in the service of the people. Eventually, Chang Hwi sees this as a challenge to his authority, and once again, our heroes meet a bad end for trying to change social rules. This time, Chang Hwi, a former ally, is directly responsible.

Tree With Deep Roots (2011): Pen Mightier Than the Sword

Tree With Deep Roots, Main Poster
Tree With Deep Roots, Main Poster

While both The Duo and Hong Gil Dong make heroes of individuals who come the lower social statuses, Tree With Deep Roots puts all its money on King Sejong (Han Suk Kyu). Sejong is secretly plotting to create Hangul,  the Korean alphabet, and he’s got enemies  inside and outside the palace.  At this time, Chinese is the language of the realm. Not only is it a foreign language imposed on Koreans by China, it’s hard! Because only those of a particular social class can learn it, the language serves as a way of keeping the people down. Sejong wants to change all of that by making a Korean language that a wise man can learn in a morning and a fool can learn in ten days.  However, his enemies wonder:  once everyone learns the language, how can we stay in their positions of power?

While Sejong’s nemesis thinks he is doing it for fame, Sejong sees the plight of the people, and becomes committed to the idea of creating a Korean language that everyone can use. This may sound lame, but people lie, steal, cheat, kill and are willing to die over hangul in this Kdrama. Sejong gets help from other people, some of whom are part of the elite, like Sung Sam Moon (Hyun Woo), but others come from humble beginnings, like Kang Chae Yoon (Jang Hyuk) and So Yi (Shin Se Kyung).  The Kdrama sacrifices some of its most appealing characters, but in the end, Sejong completes the alphabet and gets it out to the people, who immediately recognize what it means for their lives.

In all of these Kdramas, those who fight for the people face incredible odds. The endings of The Duo and Hong Gil Dong may make that struggle seem futile, but the ending of Tree With Deep Roots show how lasting social change can be achieved, even in a Kdrama.

Images: 1, 2, 3, 4

Creative Commons License
The World Turned Upside Down: Social Change in Historical Kdrama by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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