People Over Money: Merchant Kim Man Deok (2010)

Merchant Kim Man Deok is an interesting blend of finance and romance. In both, it’s best to be on the up and up. The Kdrama gives a peek into Joseon-era business practices: the buying, the selling and the deals under the table.  Corruption is rampant, and the most successful merchants are those who pay government officials to keep the competition down.  On top of that, women are not viewed as savvy businesspeople, so they have an even harder time.

Man Deok isn’t a queen or an outlaw, but she is awesome in her own way.  At first, you just think she’s a bratty urchin willing to pimp her fellow orphan-siblings just to make a buck, but gladly, she quickly realizes that being a merchant isn’t about the money: it’s about the people.  Man Deok’s way of being a merchant is really different from the ways that other men make money in the series.  One could say that it’s because Man Deok is a woman, who learns her craft from  a woman, that makes this story unique.  Man Deok’s adoptive grandmother, a successful merchant herself, teaches Man Deok to value people over money, to build relationships with her customers to ensure not just return business, but a sense of loyalty.

This way of doing business is very different from Kang Kye Man, a former protegé of Man Deok’s mentor and current troublemaker in the market.  Kye Man is not above using extortion and violence to get his way.  He doesn’t care about loyalty; he wants his benjamins now. While Man Deok learns her business acumen from a principled woman, Moon Seon, Deok Man’s childhood friend, learns her business sense from Kye Man.  And enter the villaness!  She’s mean, from a young age.  Although she and Man Deok are both orphans, Moon Seon is driven by a sense of jealousy and uses survival as an excuse to get rid of anyone who gets in her way.  She intends to get as much money as possible in order to be secure, but her pursuit of wealthy only makes her position more precarious.

The romantic entanglements revolve around the merchant world as well.  Kang Yoo Ji, Kye Man’s son, is the spoiled merchant that’s been banished to Jeju Island to look after his family’s interests there, and because of his connections, is the Big Man on the Island.  He is an instant mismatch for Man Deok’s righteous ways: the more he tries to force her to “be his woman,” the more she resists.  It takes a traumatic event to make Yoo Ji change his ways. Adding spice to the pot is the conflict between shady Yoo Ji and upstanding Hong Soo, Man Deok’s love interest and son of one of the biggest and most corrupt government officials.  Hong Soo is a law man whose pursuit of justice puts him at odds with his father.

The drama has some interesting twists and turns, along with the familiar “I can’t believe that happened” melodrama.  It shows how life on Jeju island is different from life on the mainland. It pays a lot of attention to the local people who make their living off of selling things on Jeju.  Everything from pearls to hats gets sold in this Kdrama.

The most compelling conflict is between Man Deok and Moon Seon.  Moon Seon is  gangster, let’s just be frank.  She condones murder, extortion, and torture. She lies, cheats and steals.  And while her shenanigans don’t rise to the level of Queen Seondeok’s Mishil (she is my gold standard for female villainy), she does make a strong showing. If she can’t have Hong Soo (and that ship sails WAY early, because what upstanding yangban would want Moon Seon after she’s manipulated Kye Man into making her his wife AND having his child), no one can. If she can’t sell the tribute to the court, no one will. If she can’t have a ship, no one can.  Even when she’s a mother, she’s a nasty piece of work.

Man Deok, on the other hand, is a saint. When she’s down, she always finds a way to pick herself up.  Although it gets a little annoying when she refuses to accept help from others, she always helps others, even when she ends up with nothing. And when she strikes it rich, she shares it with everyone.  For instance, when she takes advantage of a tip about the king’s health, she pays her craft workers before doing the work AND after getting the work done.

It’s great to see Man Deok, though, get a little spunky when she realizes that Moon Seon is not her friend.  Moon Seon’s comes off as pathetic when she insists on making decisions just to get back at Man Deok.  Man Deok wins because she never gives into the desire to retaliate (although sometimes the viewer would want her to).  Everyone who ever does Man Deok wrong, reaps what they sow.

Another great aspect of this Kdrama is the relationship between Man Deok and Hong Soo.  Separated by class, their relationship ends up the way so many do in the historical Kdrama, but before that, they do actually agree to have a relationship, and nothing that anyone does damages their feelings for each other.  It’s sweet!  As children, Man Deok is the more outgoing one, while Hong Soo is the reserved, sheltered noble who becomes enchanted by her courage and outspokenness.  Of course, Hong Soo’s father will not be having any of this, and constantly calls Man Deok names and accuses her of seducing his son.  What surprises me is that Hong Soo’s parents do not take the drastic step of forcing him to marry into some well-placed family, although Moon Seon has a little bit to do with that.

There are also several other narratives that go on: Japanese merchants and their illegal trade, government gisaengs, famine, loan sharks, quarantine, and lots of contract hits for hire.  I mean, you expect this type of thing in historical Kdramas that involve palace intrigue. But we are talking merchants, people!

Also, I have to say that there are some people who don’t get their due, and chief among them is MOON SEON! Why does she get to have self-reflection time? Not so much as a cut or scratch on her!  While her uncle gets his comeuppance, what about her other henchman?

Sources: Kim Man Deok 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

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Put Your Own Hair Up!: Female Agency in the Historical Kdrama

Kim Man Deok, Merchant Kim Man Deok

For some, Kdramas may be the last place to look for empowered female characters, but I think they contain quite a lot of female agency.

Modern Kdramas sometimes draw feminist-inspired critiques for their representations of women.   On Outside Seoul, Amanda sets up a tension between feminist ideals and Kdrama:  “I’ve always considered myself to be a feminist, which can be a difficult thing to reconcile with a love of Korean drama. As much as fun as I have watching these shows, I often find myself cringing when it comes to their depictions of relationships between men and women.”

Theresa Celebran Jones tentatively approaches her critique of Kdramas because of her unfamiliarity with the cultural context, but defines herself as a “feminist since my early teens,” which causes her to give the genre of romantic comedies the side-eye:  “Even then I knew that romantic comedies had a tendency to reinforce traditional gender roles and set unrealistic expectations for relationships. Too often, I felt romcoms cosigned behavior that would come off creepy or be otherwise unacceptable in real life.”  Her assessment of A Gentleman’s Dignity was not without critique:  “A lot of wrist-grabbing, possessive boyfriends, and stalker-like behavior, and this was a show that completely favored the male perspective.”

While Amanda admits that “feminism is a weirdly fraught topic in America,” she does not elaborate. One of the reasons why feminism is complicated is because there are actually several brands of feminism, including black, postcolonial and third-world feminisms.  These brands of feminism recognize that race and nationality can impact what agency and equality mean to different women. One of the critiques these feminists express is the notion that early brands of feminism were defined by what white women wanted, which may be different from what women of color want.  For feminists of color, the issue may be more about choice rather than a predetermined equality.

With that said, one may be able to see feminist tendencies in Kdrama that are overlooked if we only view feminism through a white feminist lens.  Women have different opinions of what agency looks like. Kdramas may in fact promote agency by Korean women that may not look like agency to women measuring their behavior by Western mainstream feminist standards.  I’m an American woman looking at Kdrama, so like Amanda, I don’t have a full understanding of the cultural context either. But what I do see are women, even under patriarchy, making decisions for themselves.

Both Amanda and Jones focus on contemporary Kdramas, but I find a lot of female agency in a place one might least expect it: the historical Kdrama, or sageuk. I’m currently watching Merchant Kim Man Deok, and Kim Man Deok (also known as Hong as a young girl) may be subject to certain expectations of women in Joseon-era Korea, but there are significant instances where she exerts her agency.

Generally plucky,  Man Deok finds herself as a government gisaeng on Jeju Island. The time comes for her to have a man “put her hair up.”  The gisaeng headmistress explains that the man who “puts a woman’s hair up” becomes like a husband to her. Man Deok does everything she can to avoid the ceremony.  Even though she knows Kang Yoo Ji, the foreman of a local merchant company who is attracted to her, she does not want to have that kind of relationship with him. During the elaborate processional to the ceremony, Man Deok looks like she’s going to the gallows.

As is typical of a melodramatic Kdrama, circumstances occur that postpone the ceremony, and Yoo Ji never “puts her hair up.”  But what is interesting is that a few episodes later, Man Deok makes a point of telling her father that she “put her own hair up,” which seems to suggest that she does not belong to a man. This act seems to signify  not only a certain maturity, that she is a young woman rather than a teenager, but also that she is not dependent on a man.

Kim Man Deok, Merchant Kim Man Deok

Man Deok continues to show independence when she rejects the aggressive courtship tactics of Yoo Ji. After failing to be the man to “put her hair up,” he continues to pursue her. Following the faulty advice of his scheming stepmother, he initially withholds evidence of Man Deok’s commoner status, which can allow her to be dropped from the government gisaeng rolls. At first, he intends to exchange it for her “being his woman.”

When that fails, he works with his stepmother to try to destroy East Gate, the merchant company for which that Man Deok works.  When they succeed in falsely accusing the East Gate head foreman of smuggling illegal goods and economically crippling the company, Yoo Ji offer to “save” Man Deok. When she refuses, he tells her that he will destroy any company she works for until she relents. Not only does she tell him she would rather jump in the ocean than be his woman, she asserts that she will not join another company but build East Gate back up with her own hands.

It’s easy to root for a character like Man Deok; she’s so likeable and plucky. It’s harder to root for a female who goes against societal expectations in a way that hurts others but exerts the same degree of independence.  I have to admit, Choi Song Yi is relentless in God of War.  She falls in love with Kim Jun, a slave, and after helping him advance through the military, she drops the bomb on her father that she wants to marry him. Because her father, Choi Woo, the supreme military commander, wants an heir to succeed him, he’s not going to let that happen.

You would think she would just let it drop. But no!  She engineers a plan to run away with Kim Jun, but he’s not having it.    When forced to marry another man to satisfy her father’s wishes, she continues to hold a torch for Kim Jun, right up to when she meets her demise.  While she doesn’t murder anyone with her own hands, her inaction contributes to the death of at least four people.  I have to admit, when she was alive, she was not my favorite character. In fact, I thought she was not right in the head.

Song Yi, God of War

But during her last episodes, I realized that she defies her father and societal convention, up to the end. Her impassioned pleas to her father and mother about her love for Kim Jun suggests an unwavering desire to flout societal expectations.  She explains that she is willing to give up her wealth and position to be with him. While one could argue that she’s a stereotypical woman who does anything for love, Song Yi actually is little more savvy than that. Kim Jun is her man, so while he spurns her affections (every time!), she also looks out for his political future.  She even chastises her father for failing to free Kim Jun earlier and give him more responsibility.   She routinely tells her father than Kim Jun is the man he can depend on, unlike the flunkies that surround him. Finally,  she is so confident in her actions,  she never shows remorse, even when she knows it’s wrong, even at the end.

I may not like her choices, but Song Yi boldly makes them and she accepts the consequences of her actions.  In doing so, she consciously challenges societal convention, and while she does not make it to the end of the series, even the soldiers marvel at her will.

To me, agency is about women making their own choices, even in situations where they are limited, even when we don’t agree with them. They are still their choices, and isn’t that what feminism is about?


Merchant Kim Man Deok,1, 2,  Han Cinema.

God of War, Han Cinema.


Amanda.  “The Other F Word: Feminism versus Korean Drama.”  August 21, 2012.  Outside Seoul. Accessed September 30, 2012. <>.

Jones, Theresa Celebran.  “A Primer on K-Drama Feminism.” September 12, 2012.  Hyphen.  Accessed September 30, 2012. <>.