Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Great Jang Geum, and the Collected Knowledge of Mankind

Having just seen the fantastic Korean historical drama "Dae Jang Geum" (subtitled in English, of course), I have become fascinated with Korean history, and with this historical figure, of which the show is a fictional representation. A great fictional representation, I should say, for I cannot remember seeing another show that left me feeling as entertained AND FULFILLED as this one. It is as if I just finished reading an epic masterpiece, such as Lord of the Rings. Being that the series consists of 54 one hour episodes, watching it is a bit like reading a large--and exceptionally well-written--book.

Which leads me to two points: 1.) were DVDs not in existence, and subtitles not available, I would have had no way of watching this show--ever; 2.) do a web search on "Dae Jang Geum," and the only pages that come back concern the show. So while popular entertainment has illuminated a culture unknown to me and a person unknown to people outside of Korea, actual historical knowledge proves harder to come by. Even though there are Korean history books in the English language, I have not found any books that deal exclusively with this figure in history, and while information on her may be scarce (and may be why the most well-known account of her life is a TV series), no novels have been written about her, either. Now, if I went to Korea and searched the Korean titles in a major bookstore, would that still be the case? If she is as revered a figure as the TV show makes her out to be, I doubt it.

I accept that neither I, nor anyone else, will ever be able to assimilate all the knowledge that mankind has accumulated up to this point in history, never mind the knowledge yet to be learned. What I do wish for, however, is for all or most of that knowledge to be readily available to those who wish to receive it. In this way, translators are some of the most useful people to society, for often what is hidden from one culture is revealed by another (case in point: "Dae Jang Geum"). And while it's always better to read something in its original language (as something is always lost in translation), when one is dealing with knowledge, better to reveal most of it that to reveal none of it. In fact, when it concerns history or culture, I feel the work cannot be translated into enough languages. We stand to gain more as a species if all of us can share in the tragedies and triumphs that make our planet's history so very interesting.

So, if any of you readers out there can shed some knowledge on this historical figure, feel free to comment.

Note: Since posting this blog, I have come across this article on King Jungjong, who appointed Jang Geum as his personal physician. While it does help to give a little background on the history of the period, this linking article on Jang Geum may explain why I can't find much on her: not much about her was written down. Even if more were known about her, however, I would prefer her portrayal in fiction to her portrayal in history, for I feel that the greater truths about a person and his or her times can sometimes only be reached in fiction, as nonfiction is limited by its scientific adherence to facts. Fiction, on the other hand, is only answerable to Truth, the facts be damned.


  1. Well, I was going to answer your question, but you seem to have found the answer already. There were just one or two references to Jang Geum in the historical annals of Korea. You also came to the correct conclusion---fiction can be more important than history. As Aristotle said, history shows man as he is, while fiction shows man as he could be, and ought to be. Which is far more important.

    Of course, not all fiction meets that standard. But one shining example that does is Dae Jang Geum. I'm not sure how you discovered it, but I was lucky enough to have it recommended to me by a friend. It is easily the best television drama I've ever seen. And you're right, it is like an entire novel dramatized on film.

    By the way, dvd is not the only way to watch the series. Dae Jang Geum, and dozens of other Korean dramas, are available to watch, free of charge, on a website called It's a legitimate site with permission to show the dramas from their Korean producers. There are at least two other dramas on that site by the author who wrote Dae Jang Geum.

    I wrote a lengthy review of Dae Jang Geum on my blog, if you're interested in my take on it:

  2. Thanks for the info. I'll be sure to check out your blog. :-)


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