Goguryeo’s popularity? Blame it on the Chinese
“I was frustrated that all three broadcasting networks were showing the same soccer games at the same time,” said the 18-year-old, who goes to high school in Gueui-dong, eastern Seoul.
Kang might not be happy for long, however. Instead of the weepy, dad-in-the-hospital dramas she loves to watch, television broadcasters are serving up generous helpings of historical swashbucklers.
Korea’s networks, it seems, have a prime-time crush on Goguryeo, the militant kingdom that existed on the northern expanse of the Korean peninsula from 37 B.C. to 668 A.D. Three major broadcasting networks ― MBC, KBS and SBS ― have either already started or are planning to air dramas about the kingdom this year, with each story set in a different time in that era.
“Goguryeo was the most beautiful era of our time,” said the producers of MBC’s “Jumong,” one of the Goguryeo-based dramas that revolve around the character of Jumong, the mythical founder of the kingdom. “We were strong, and it was then that our people defeated the Chinese empire, an amazing feat.”
Just over the weekend, SBS joined the Goguryeo banquet with “Yeon Gaesomun,” an eponymous program about a courageous general who lived in later Goguryeo. The company spent over 35 billion won ($37 million) in the 60-part series, that starts off with a battle over Ansiseong (near Pyongyang), in which Goguryeo defeats an army from Tang China.
In October, KBS, the last of the three broadcasters to join the feast, will air “Taewang Sasingi,” a drama about Goguryeo’s greatest territorial expansion during the reign of King Gwanggaeto the Great (whose name literally means “great expander of territory”).
What makes Goguryeo so attractive to the big three networks?
Youn Myung-chul, a Dongguk University professor and member of the Goguryeo Research Council, says it’s no coincidence that several super-productions are running roughly at the same time.
“Goguryeo was a strong, courageous kingdom with many legendary heroes, and that’s comforting for modern Koreans,” Mr. Yoon said. “It gives pride to modern people, who have been wishing for Korea to become a stronger country amid the international disputes in which Korea is involved.”
One of those disputes, not surprisingly, is about Goguryeo itself. In 2002, the Chinese government announced its Northeast Asia Project, part of which aims to prove that the the kingdom had not been an independent state, but a bordering suzerain state. The assertion immediately brought an outcry from Korea, and lead to a growing interest in the kingdom by academics and civic groups.
“It’s true that we were indifferent to the Manchurian region [before the Sino-Korea imbroglio],” wrote Choi Gwang-sik, a Korean history professor at Korea University in a contributing column he wrote for a Seoul paper. “The amount of research we did on the upper northern peninsula is not enough. We need to be more logical in arguing against what the Chinese are claiming.”
Despite there being so few primary sources about the kingdom’s history, researchers welcomed the idea of producers of historical television dramas finally focusing on the kingdom. Aside from a television drama in 1964 that depicted an ancient romance myth from the Goguryeo era, there had not been a single production made that focuses on the kingdom, although countless dramas have been set in the Joseon and Goryeo dynasties.
Lee Hwan-gyeong, an author and scriptwriter for several history dramas, including “Yeon Gaesomun,” said he had diplomacy on his mind when he started writing the story about Goguryeo. He called his work a cultural effort to respond to the Chinese researchers who claim Goguryeo as part of their history.
“This drama will be a denial of what the Chinese researchers have been saying,” Mr. Lee said at a press conference. “This will be different from other [dramas about Goguryeo], many of which tended to focus on fictional romances and war heroes for amusement.”
He added that he was upset to find out that many of the historical reading materials on hand did not have much information about the kingdom. Even the ones that he found, he said, had been rewritten and edited by historians from the Silla-Tang coalition that ended Goguryeo rule in the 7th century. “I looked up 50 books and 200 thesis papers on the Goguryeo issue,” he said.
He and the production staff members spent months doing research, he said, explaining that they could not depend wholly on “Samguk Sagi,” or “The Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms,” generally considered the primary source of information on Goguryeo. Many of the chapters in the chronicles are excerpts and examples from biased Chinese books, he said.
“The producers and I are going to make sure this drama helps straighten the history some have tried to distort,” he said.
According to Yonhap News, at the recent 2006 Shanghai Television Festival, Chinese broadcasting officials were said to have reacted sensitively to the Korean broadcasters’ promotion of Goguryeo-related dramas. The report quoted a KBS official as saying that Chinese officials believed Korean stations were acting under the influence of their government.
Most Koreans, however, seem to like the new dramas. “Jumong” has received ratings of over 30 percent, while “Yeon Gaesomun” recorded a 23-percent rating its first week, according to AGB Nielsen Media Research.
“Viewers find these dramas new and interesting because the two are trying to depict what really happened centuries ago, whereas conventional historical dramas generally focus on the entertaining parts, using unofficial sources,” Mr. Youn said. “These dramas are going to show that Goguryeo was the legitimate predecessor of Korea.”
Whether it’s the politically sensitive issue that viewers see as intriguing, or whether it’s simply the rarity of Goguryeo-related programming, the kingdom’s popularity seems to be solid for the time being. Other performers are also getting in on the act. Starting tomorrow, the Seoul Performing Arts Company will be staging a musical performance, “The Land of Wind,” based on a comic book about Daemusin, the third king of Goguryeo.
“The performance is focused on making beautiful images and music rather than following the storylines according to historical facts,” said Lee Ji-na, the director of “The Land of Wind.” She said the performance boasts exotic wardrobes and beautiful visual effects that are “unknown to the public.”
Joo Mi-seok, the promoter of the musical, said that Goguryeo was a new, challenging theme for the musical troupe.
Publishers are also swinging into gear. In just the last two months, over 10 novels set in Goguryeo have been published. Five publishing companies have also released cartoon books for children about Goguryeo heroes.
by Lee Min-a