KBS drama raises questions about the 6th century Korean Romeo
KBS’s ongoing drama “River Where the Moon Rises” is a periodic romance based on the novel “Princess Pyeonggang” (2010) by Choi Sa-gyu, which is a fictional reinterpretation of the folktale of Princess Pyeonggang and the Fool Ondal. It first aired on Feb. 15 and after just four episodes saw its viewership rating hit 10 percent.
In the drama, Princess Pyeonggang is the only daughter of King Pyeongwon (?-590) but after losing her memory, ends up as an assassin. Ondal is the son of a fallen aristocratic family and the black sheep.
However, as recorded in “Samguk Sagi” (1145, History of the Three Kingdoms), Ondal was a poor man who lives with his sick mother. Princess Pyeonggang married Ondal after running away from the palace because she refused to marry the son of a high-ranking official. Princess Pyeonggang raised money for their household by selling her jewelry and helped Ondal realize his potential as a soldier, who died honorably in battle.
The story of Princess Pyeonggang and Ondal is about a forbidden marriage that transcends social classes and is one of the most romantic stories recorded in Korean history but details about who Ondal actually was has never been verified in academia, and only theories exist. Even the place of his death remains a divided issue, with some claiming it to be Acha Mountain Fortress in Seoul while others say it was Ondal Mountain Fortress in North Chungcheong.
Who was this 6th century Korean Romeo?
Was he a fallen aristocrat as suggested in the KBS drama?
This is the most widely accepted hypothesis. Goguryeo (37 B.C. to A.D. 668) had a strict rule in choosing the royal spouses, such as selecting the queen from only a certain region of the nation. Even in neighboring Silla Dynasty (57 B.C. to A.D. 935), nobleman Kim Seo-hyeon (564-?), who was the father of Kim Yu-shin (595-673), is said to have run away from his country because he could not marry his wife Princess Manmyeong (574-?).
Park In-ho, a researcher at the Hanllym University Museum, explained in his thesis “Koguryo's aristocracy in the 6th century around Ondal” (2004) that he was given the title of Daehyeong, “the seventh ranking in Koguryo.” Seeing as how the sons of General Yeongaesomun (603-666), who is said to have been Goguryeo’s leading politician and soldier, were given higher rankings after being named Daehyeong, it is likely that Ondal was also from a noble family, according to Park.
Goguryeo in the sixth century was divided among those who wanted to keep the old capital city of Guknae Castle and those who called to move to Pyongyang Castle. Park theorized that Ondal would likely be from a noble family rooting for Guknae Castle and lost in the power struggle. The description of his appalling living conditions would have been “metaphoric” of the family’s political downfall.
The reason that the king chose Ondal as the spouse for Princess Pyeonggang would have been a gesture of peace offered to the Guknae Castle advocates, represented by Ondal. Sixth century Goguryeo also suffered from the power-gaining Silla Dynasty and yielded the rich lands of the Han River as well as attacks from the inner continent. The king needed to unite local powers and the princess’s hand was the best peace offering.
Was he nouveau riche?
Another theory puts Ondal at the forefront of a social dynamic of the sixth century, which saw the struggle between blood-born nobles and lower class citizens gaining power through money.
A 1993 paper by Lim Gi-hwan, a Professor at the Seoul National University of Education, titled “The social change in sixth century Ancient Korea read through folktale of Ondal and Seodong” (translated) found that the common link between Ondal and the tale of Seodong was that both men were said to have started out poor and made their way up the social ladder by selling their wives’ riches. Seodong is the name of King Mu (580-641) who became the 30th King of Baekje (18 B.C. to A.D. 660) when he was just a child. He is said to have heard that Princess Seonhwa (date of birth and death unknown) was beautiful, so he spread rumors that he met her every night in secret. She was exiled in disgrace, but married him when she met him on her way to exile.
According to the paper, “During this time, the social change was accelerated due to the invention of steel farming tools and plowing using cows. There would have been a number of ordinary people who accumulated riches due to that change.” Lim described the two men as having been such cases where the lower ranks acquired gold — a symbol of wealth — and sought political power, and the two folktales tell this story.
Some theories suggest that Ondal was from a newly-rising noble family from Pyongang Castle rather than an old aristocratic family from the Guknae Castle. In this case, the description of his living conditions can be interpreted as the old families’ hostility toward a new player.
Was he even Korean?
Perhaps the most daring of all theories is put forth by researcher Ji Bae-sun at Yonsei University Institute of Korean Studies who argues that Ondal was in fact not even Korean and was from Sogdiana, a middle-Asian city occupied by Scythians.
Ji explained at a Korean-Middle-Asian international conference held in Kazakhstan in 2014 that Ondal was born from a royal father from a Sogdian nation called Gang and a Goguryeo woman, basing her argument on the findings from two Chinese books, “Jeondangmun” (1819) and “Buksa” (659). According to the two recordings, Sogdiana was referred to as the Gang Dynasty and its royal bloodline was surnamed On. The name On had never been recorded before Ondal was mentioned in “Samguk Sagi.”
Ji also referred to records from China’s Tang Dynasty (618-907) that described the Sogdian people as being “brave and courageous, mostly soldiers” and “No match for any enemy in battle, as they take death for granted” in books such as “The Great Tang Dynasty Record of the Western Regions” (1857) and the “New Book of Tang” (1060).
“The descriptions are evidence of the hardship that children of multi-cultural families had to endure due to the strict class division in conservative Goguryeo,” Ji said in explaining the poor living conditions of Ondal within the folktale.
BY YOU SEONG-UN, YOON SO-YEON [firstname.lastname@example.org]