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[FICTION VS. HISTORY] ‘Queen Seondeok’ adds drama to real queen’s life: The hugely successful TV series introduced the world to Korea’s first female leader

July 01,2019
Scenes from the drama “Queen Seondeok” (2009). At left is young Deokman (Queen Seondeok) in a desert in Mongolia and at right is Mishil, portrayed by Ko Hyeon-jeong. [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. Foreign Korea-philes can get a crash course in Korean history while watching historical films. But all historical dramas create characters, add romantic plots 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.

Back in 2009, nearly half of the country couldn’t leave their homes on Monday and Tuesday evenings for a full seven months because they were trying to catch what happens next to Queen Seondeok, the first queen to rule Korea, in the hit TV drama “Queen Seondeok” on MBC.

Starring Lee Yo-won as Queen Seondeok, Go Hyeon-jeong as the villain Mishil and Uhm Tae-woong as Kim Yu-shin, the drama ran for 62 episodes and topped TV ratings, surpassing 40 percent almost every week after its 26th episode.

Since it’s a historical drama chronicling the life of Queen Seondeok of Silla (57 B.C. to A.D. 935), most Koreans with a basic knowledge of history were able to predict what would happen next to Queen Seondeok, even without having watched the drama’s subsequent episodes. Clearly, the TV version of Queen Seondeok’s story had been fictionalized to ensure viewers were on the edges of their seats. “Queen Seondeok” was so successful that it also aired in other countries - such as Sri Lanka, Thailand and the Philippines - becoming one of the most popular Korean dramas around the world.

Succeeding her father, Queen Seondeok ruled Silla from 632 to 647 during a period of intense conflict with the neighboring Baekje and Goguryeo kingdoms. In “Samguksagi,” the 12th-century historical text of Korea’s Three Kingdoms, Seondeok, also known as Deokman, is depicted as a woman who is “generous, benevolent, wise and smart.” She is portrayed as such a character in the drama, only that these characteristics are more emphasized as she battles her nemesis, Mishil. Mishil, a diabolical character, dominates the drama from the very first episode and some viewers have even said that they thought the title of the drama was “Mishil,” not “Queen Seondeok.”

Yet Mishil is a semi-fictional character, therefore making most of the plot involving her character not based in historical fact. The only historical document that Mishil’s name appears in is in a copy of the “Annals of the Hwarang” written by Silla historian Kim Dae-mun. The original book disappeared, but in 1989, a copy suddenly appeared in the Japanese Royal Library. Historians are still having an intense debate about whether the copy is a forgery or, indeed, legitimate.

In the book, Mishil is said to have had three lovers who were pungwolju (leaders of the code of Silla chivalry who lived from 540 to 681) and ruled the court through the bedrooms of three kings, Jinheung, Jinji and Jinpyeong. She does not exist in any other historical documents.

Whether or not Mishil is real, the mischief she carefully coordinates to take down Seondeok in the drama is entirely fictional, causing viewers to wonder what her next move will be.

Left: Portrait of Queen Seondeok (unknown-647). Right: Cheomseongdae, an astronomical observatory in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang. [YONHAP]
The fictional elements of the story start from the beginning of the drama.

In the drama, Deokman is born as the younger twin daughter of King Jinpyeong and Queen Maya. Yet there was a Silla legend that said if the king and queen gave birth to twins - especially twin daughters - their bloodline would end. Fearing his beloved Queen Maya would be ousted by Mishil, whose ambition was to become queen and bear a crown prince, King Jinpyeong secretly sends the newborn Deokman away from the palace with his loyal servant Seohwa. Princess Cheonmyeong is raised in the palace while Deokman is raised in a desert in Mongolia by Seohwa without being aware of her royal identity.

Yet according to historical records, Deokman and Cheonmyeong were not twin sisters. Moreover, Deokman was the older sister. She never had to leave the palace and live the life of a commoner or even disguise herself as a boy, as portrayed in the drama right before everyone, including herself, finds out she’s a princess.

Every addictive TV drama has a love story, and “Queen Seondeok” was no exception. Although the young man and woman do not bluntly confess their love to each other, the drama frequently shows Deokman and Kim Yu-shin, Silla’s most famous general, developing feelings for each other. There’s even a love triangle - Deokman’s twin sister, Princess Cheonmyeong, liked Yu-shin first, but gives him and her life up for her country, causing Deokman to vow vengeance against Mishil. On the show, Princess Cheonmyeong dies after being shot with a poisonous arrow.

Yet the love story is also fictional and some historians criticized the drama for going too far to entertain the viewers with the queen’s romantic exploits. According to historical records, Queen Seondeok married three times, and had no children.

The drama briefly does touch on her actual achievements during her 15 years of reign, including how she erects Cheomseongdae, an astronomical observatory, as well as the nine-story pagoda at Hwangnyong Temple. The drama also stays true to history in telling how Bidam, whom the queen had appointed to the highest position in court, turns his back on her, creating the biggest rebellion in Silla’s history.

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


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