[VIEWPOINT]Nationalism invades historical dramasWhen I visited China two years ago, I had the chance to take a look at the remains of the ancient Silk Road. On the journey from Xian to Urumqi, one has to drop by Dunhuang and Turfan. At the bottom of the ice-capped Tianshan mountains is the hottest and driest desert in the world.
Yet there are oases here and there, and the roads that connect them to the east and the west spread out. That is the ancient Silk Road. Turfan was one of the key points along the ancient Silk Road. The ancient city of Gaochang was situated there from the 5th century to the 7th century, and the ruins of the ancient city still remain. I vividly remember the strange feeling I had while walking through the ruins with a guide under the hot sun and in the sandy wind.
Gaochang was toppled by the Tang Dynasty of China in 640, and the news was conveyed to Goguryeo, which was situated in the northeast region of China and the northern part of the Korean Peninsula. It was inevitable that the Tang Dynasty would make Goguryeo its next target. Goguryeo had an internal conflict over whether to make peace or go to war with Tang. Then, Yeon-gae-so-mun appeared. Through a coup d’etat in October 642, he toppled the incumbent king and his followers, supporters of appeasement with Tang. Then he helped King Bojang to be enthroned and ultimately took the helm of Goguryeo by assuming the position of prime minister. Three years later, the first emperor of the Tang Dynasty, Taejong Lee Se-min, invaded Goguryeo himself, leading a huge military force.
Historical dramas are in their prime on television networks in Korea these days. MBC is broadcasting “Ju Mong,” while SBS is showing “Yeon-gae-so-mun,” and KBS is planning to show “Dae-jo-yeong” in September, which is about the founder of Balhae, the ancient Korean empire situated in the northeast region of China.
There are common points in the three historical dramas. First, they deal with historical figures about whom there are very few historical records. Second, the backgrounds of the dramas are related to the history of the northern part of the Korean Peninsula, starting with Goguryeo.
The lack of historical records is a big barrier in historical studies, but in novels, dramas or movies, it can be an attractive factor because it broadens the range of imagination. The problem is to limit the imagination. To begin with, let’s put aside “Ju Mong,” because there are too many elements of the birth myth of a nation in the story that are found in historical documents.
Let’s also skip criticism on some of the details of the drama “Yeon-gae-so-mun,” which dealt with the fight at the Ansi Fortress in the first few episodes. After all, a drama is a drama. However, the plot that made Yeon-gae-so-mun the one who led the Ansi Fortress fight is too absurd to be sensible.
The fight at the Ansi Fortress that made Emperor Taejong of the Tang Dynasty flee back to his empire is well known, but historical documents do not state clearly who was the lord there at that time.
Late Joseon Dynasty scholars Song Jun-gil and Park Ji-won wrote that it was Yang Mang-chun. North Korean history books state that “General Yang Man-chun was the lord of the Ansi Fortress,” however, our academic community still uses “the lord of Ansi Fortress” without specifying the name of the lord. The scene where Emperor Taejong was struck by an arrow in his eye during the Ansi Fortress fight is said to be recorded in the writings of late Goryeo Dynasty scholars, Lee Saek and Lee Gok, but the writings are not regarded as authentic historical material. They are regarded to be on the line between history and oral transmission, and can be used in historical novels or dramas freely.
Nevertheless, the plot that made Yeon-gae-so-mun the protagonist of the Ansi Fortress fight is a completely different story. “The lord of Ansi Fortress” was the one who strongly protested against the unjustness of Yeo-gae-so-mun after he came into power through the coup d’etat, and refused to respond to the new leader’s summons. Yeon-gae-so-mun tried to punish him with his military force once but failed. At last, both of them made a compromise that they would recognize each other.
The drama says that the lord of Ansi Fortress, who did not recognize Yeon-gae-so-mun, entrusted him with the right to command his own army of 30,000 strong soldiers and 70,000 subjects in the fortress only two years after that.
Moreover, Yeon-gae-so-mun had already sent 150,000 troops to Ansi Fortress to help defend the fortress, although it ended in a crushing defeat due to strategic failure, and there was no way he could have gone to the fortress since his army was busy fighting against another military force of the Tang Dynasty.
It may be better than the case of “Ju Mong,” but Yeon-gae-so-mun also lacks in historical material. Therefore, it is hard to understand why the producers of the drama distort the little truth that they can find in historical documents. Are they doing it to make the main character of the drama more appealing? If so, that will make it a fantasy, not a drama.
It is also necessary to ponder whether it is appropriate that the historical dramas broadcast by the three major television networks of South Korea all focus on the history of the northern region of the peninsula.
The effort to raise the historic and national pride of the people may be in response to China’s “Historical Study of Northeastern Provinces,” under which China tries to distort the history of Goguryeo and Balhae and treat them just as remote regional administrations of theirs. However, if we focus too much on independence and nationalism without the support of historical or archaeological research achievements, we could end up creating a simple confrontation structure of “a prosperous empire of Northeast Asia” in the past versus “the crushed history of the Korea Peninsula” since then.
The three major broadcast stations should at least recognize the fact that looking back on our history and contemplating its significance in this era is a separate issue from encouraging nationalism.
* The writer is the chief of the editorial page of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Park Tae-wook
More in Columns
A cautionary tale
A government in disarray
China’s thin skin
The Korean War from China’s view
Who’s laughing now?