[FICTION VS. HISTORY] MBC’s ‘The Red Sleeve’ combines fact and fiction, leaving some confused

Seong Deok-im, who later becomes the noble consort Uibin Seong, in “The Red Sleeve” is played by actor Lee Se-young. [MBC]

In film and television, historical dramas have never gone out of style. Fans of period dramas, both in Korea and abroad, like to be transported to a different time and learn about the stories that swept up — or were put in motion by — our ancestors. Some watch to see how the present compares with the past. Others watch to see progress. Korea-philes can get a crash course in Korean history while watching historical films. But all historical dramas create characters, add romantic plotlines and conflate or invent events to make sure viewers don’t lose interest. With Fiction vs. History, the Korea JoongAng Daily attempts to distinguish fact from fiction in popular period dramas and films for clarification and to dispel misunderstandings.

Among many of the historical K-dramas that recently hit the small screen, MBC’s “The Red Sleeve,” which centers around King Jeongjo (1752-1800) of Joseon and his beloved concubine Uibin Seong (1753-86), was the most popular .

The 17-episode came to an end on Jan. 1 with a relatively high viewership rating of 17.4 percent. It became the first MBC drama series in nearly three years to have double-digit ratings. The hype around the drama continued, or more precisely, increased after it came to an end as it became available on several OTT services allowing more viewers from both home and abroad to watch it. It stayed high up on the rankings of most-watched content on Wavve and Coupang Play for nearly two months.

Koreans who became “infatuated by ‘The Red Sleeve’” scrambled to bookstores to grab books on King Jeongjo as well as the 2017 novel of the same title that the drama is based on, while foreign fans are trying hard to translate and understand the difficult details of Korean history that are necessary to really understand and appreciate the popular K-history drama series.

There have been numerous historical K-dramas portraying the life of King Jeongjo, whose name is Yi San. But what was different about “The Red Sleeve”?

It’s probably the fact that the drama series focuses on King Jeongjo (played by Lee Jun-ho of boy band 2AM) and his concubine Uibin Seong’s (played by actor Lee Se-young) highly-romanticized personal relationship. The drama is based on historical records such as the fact that Uibin Seong, whose real name is Seong Deok-im, rejected Ella’s Jeongjo’s proposal to make her his concubine, not just once but twice.

However, the drama is also heavily fictionalized leaving some viewers confused about what’s fact and what’s fiction.

It’s hard to believe that a court lady of Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) could reject a courtship of a king or a crown prince. Would it even be possible for a king to accept such behavior?

In the drama, Crown Prince Yi San and Deok-im gradually find out their feelings for each other, however, Deok-im refuses the prince's affection as she does not want to live the life of a concubine. [MBC]

In the drama, Crown Prince Yi San and Deok-im gradually find out their feelings for each other, however, Deok-im refuses the prince’s affection as she does not want to live the life of a concubine. [MBC]

This epoch-making incident is recorded in the funeral prayer documents and eulogies written by King Jeongjo after the passing of Uibin Seong (1753-86). According to the description written by the Academy of Korean Studies for the historical documents written by Jeongjo about Uibin Seong such as “Epitaph of Uibin Seong,” which can be digitally accessed at the Academy of Korean Studies’ digital archives, “it was not common in Joseon Dynasty to write eulogies for a tombstone of a spouse, let alone a king writing one for his concubine.” King Jeongjo didn’t write just one, but several texts during and after the three years of the mourning period to express his heartfelt love for and grief about the passing of Uibin Seong.

“Epitaph of Uibin Seong” written by King Jeongjo in 1786, documents his romantic tale with Uibin Seong [ACADEMY OF KOREAN STUDIES]

“Epitaph of Uibin Seong” written by King Jeongjo in 1786, documents his romantic tale with Uibin Seong [ACADEMY OF KOREAN STUDIES]

The “Epitaph of Uibin Seong,” written in 1786, states that when he proposed to her the first time in 1766, Deok-im “refused my proposal at the risk of her life, saying that Queen Hyoui [1754-1821] had not yet given birth to any children. I was moved by this and did not force it anymore.” King Jeongjo was 15, while Deok-im was 14. (All ages stated in this article for historical characters hereafter follow the Korean age system to refrain from causing confusion with what is written in the historical records.) King Jeongjo then went on to state that he asked her again 15 years later, after having numerous other concubines, but she rejected his offer “once again.”

“It was after her servants were punished that Uibin obeyed the orders, became pregnant that month and gave birth to a crown prince in September of 1782,” he stated. The king was 31 and Deok-im was 30.

According to historical records, Deok-im entered the royal palace in 1762 as a 10-year-old girl and worked as a gungnyeo, or a court lady because of her father’s relationship with the Pungsan Hong clan — the clan of King Jeongjo’s mother, Lady Hyekyeong, also known as Queen Heongyeong. It is said that the queen looked after Deok-im as if she was her foster daughter de ella, therefore, Crown Prince Yi San and young Deok-im would’ve been familiar with each other since their teenage years.

In the drama, Crown Prince Yi san and Deok-im do not know each other and have coincidental encounters, but historical records say they were familiar with each other since teenage years. [MBC]

In the drama, Crown Prince Yi san and Deok-im do not know each other and have coincidental encounters, but historical records say they were familiar with each other since teenage years. [MBC]

Evidently, the coincidental encounters between the two as depicted in “The Red Sleeve” and the two forming a romantic relationship after turning 18, are all fictional as Yi San had already been rejected by Deok-im once at the age of 15. The drama also hardly mentions Yi San’s first wife Queen Hyoui. She married the crown prince in 1762 at age 9 when Yi San was 11.

The romantic tale does not have a “happily ever after” ending, in either the drama or in history.

Deok-im gave birth to Crown Prince Munhyo in 1782 — King Jeongjo’s first child — but he died of measles just 22 months later in June, 1786. Deok-im was in the early stages of pregnancy at the time of Crown Prince Munhyo’s death. She died of disease four months later and the couple’s unborn child did not survive. What’s not included in the drama is little details like how Deok-im had given birth to a daughter two years before Crown Prince Munhyo’s death, but she also died just a few weeks later.

Deok-im, right, gives birth to King Jeongjo's first son, Crown Prince Munhyo in 1782, and received the highest rank 'bin' of the eight-rank gungnyeo system.  The king gave her the hanja ui, meaning appropriate. [MBC]

Deok-im, right, gives birth to King Jeongjo’s first son, Crown Prince Munhyo in 1782, and received the highest rank ‘bin’ of the eight-rank gungnyeo system. The king gave her the hanja ui, meaning appropriate. [MBC]

The director of “The Red Sleeve” interpreted Deok-im’s refusal to become a concubine, as a gungnyeo, trying everything she can to at least have the right to choose as she wishes to live within the boundaries of a royal palace. He also created a fictional group called Gwanghangung, a secret organization led by Head Court Lady Jo, which attempts to kill King Jeongjo. In the drama, Head Court Lady Jo often expresses how gungnyeo are the ones with real authority as they feed, clothe, bathe and even persuade kings and queens when there are important decisions to be made. There were rumours, according to historians, that gungnyeo were involved in the suspicious death of Crown Prince Hyojang, the first son of King Yeongjo (1719-28) who died at age 10 due to unknown reasons.

Historians insist, however, that since Joseon was a country in which the king managed state affairs through discussions and deliberation with his subjects, it’s impossible that the court ladies could intervene, especially in such a Confucian society that adhered to strict gender hierarchy.

In the drama, a gungnyeo named Kang Wol-hye appears. She is portrayed as a niece of Head Court Lady Jo and a trained assassin, who dies after a failed attempt to kill the king. The character is based on a real historical figure of the same name. In the “Annals of Joseon Dynasty,” it states that Wol-hye, who was a daughter of one of the members of the political faction that was against King Jeongjo, assisted with a plot to kill King Jeongjo in 1777. She was imprisoned and was kicked out of the palace and forced to become a slave.

Was Hong Deok-ro, King Jeongjo’s close ally, really a heartthrob?

“Memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong” is an autobiographical manuscript written by Lady Hyegyeong, who is the wife of Crown Prince Sado and the mother of King Jeongjo, between 1795 to 1805. [CULTURAL HERITAGE ADMINISTRATION]

“Memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong” states that King Jeongjo’s close ally Hong Deok-ro, was an attractive man, as depicted in the drama. [MBC]

As portrayed in the drama, the “Memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong” states that both King Yeongjo and Jeongjo favored Deok-ro, whose real name was Hong Guk-yeong. Lady Hyegyeong wrote that he was clever and charming and that many of the court ladies were infatuated with him. As a result, he was able to hear various information from the court ladies and relayed it to King Jeongjo.

Saengaksi, or junior court ladies, hold a ceremony to be promoted to nain, assistant court ladies, 15 years after entering the palace.  In the drama, however, the junior court ladies all become nain after turning 18, including Deok-im. [MBC]

Saengaksi, or junior court ladies, hold a ceremony to be promoted to nain, assistant court ladies, 15 years after entering the palace. In the drama, however, the junior court ladies all become nain after turning 18, including Deok-im. [MBC]

What most viewers are confused about is whether or not all gungnyeo with red sleeves were king’s women.

The answer is yes and no. No, they were not all his concubines, but yes, they were forbidden from being involved in any other romantic relationships and had to dedicate their lives to serve in the palace. There are different ranks of gungnyeo and the red sleeves are given to junior gungnye who have not yet moved up to the upper-class sanggung who wear greenish-blue top.

BY YIM SEUNG-HYE [yim.seunghye@joongang.co.kr]

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.