KBS can't resist another telling of King Taejong's tale
For a revival of KBS’s signature historical dramas, the broadcaster decided to tell the story of Taejong Yi Bang-won (1367-1422), the third king of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910).
“The King of Tears, Lee Bang-won” is KBS’s first major historical drama series since “Jang Young-sil: The Greatest Scientist of Joseon,” which aired in 2016.
The first episode of Taejong Yi Bang-won’s story aired on Dec. 11 and earned a viewership rating of 8.7 percent, according to Nielsen Korea. That figure reached 10 percent by the eighth episode. This is regarded a huge success, not only for a historical drama series, but also considering the change of viewing habits among Koreans. More and more are watching TV programs on OTT services like Netflix.
Critics say this rather serious historical drama is appealing to viewers who have had enough of period dramas in Korea that are heavily fictionalized and obsessed with romantic relationships. The recently concluded KBS period drama “The King’s Affection” was set in the Joseon Dynasty but featured entirely fictional characters. "Secret Royal Inspector & Joy,” which ended on Dec. 28 on tvN, and "Moonshine,” which is still airing on KBS, are set in the Joseon era but don't feature any real historical figures. MBC’s "The Red Sleeve,” which came to an end on Jan 1, did focus on a real figure - King Jeongjo (1752-1800) – but highly romanticized his relationship with his concubine.
Historians like Han Young-woo, a professor emeritus at Seoul National University, said it’s interesting to see a KBS historical drama featuring Taejong just before presidential elections. It is sure to attract viewers agonizing over which of the presidential candidates should get their votes.
“It’s interesting to see the leadership capabilities and political tactics of Yi Bang-won as he tries to ascend to the throne, during this time of a presidential election,” said Han.
“Tears of the Dragon” (1996-98) was aired during the presidential election campaign of 1997.
“The King of Tears, Lee Bang-won” will only have 32 episodes, which means it will finish just after the presidential election on March 9. Previous historical dramas have had 50 to 100 episodes.
“It is relatively shorter than other major historical dramas but I believe it’s long enough considering the recent trend,” said Im Yong-han, head of the Korean History Research Institute. “I think the story can become more compact. It’s still double the number of episodes of recent historical K-dramas with 16 episodes.”
Why did KBS pick Taejong Yi Bang-won for its first big historical drama in five years?
In fact, there have been 14 historical drama series featuring Taejong, seven by KBS alone.
“Taejong was such a dynamic character that he can be interpreted in various ways,” said Im. “He himself lived such a dramatic life that his story appeals to writers and drama producers.”
Yi Bang-won was the fifth son of King Taejo Yi Seong-gye (1335-1408), the founder and the first king of Joseon who overthrew the Goryeo Dynasty (913-1392). He was posthumously called Taejong. He had eight brothers, six from his mother Queen Sinui, and two from Queen Sindeok. He was envied by his brothers as he was the clever one. Taejong passed the notoriously difficult state exam in 1382 and still is the only Joseon king who passed that examination.
As he helped his father overthrow Goryeo in 1392, Yi Bang-won expected to be appointed crown prince. However, his father and his prime minister Jeong Do-jeon made Taejo’s youngest son Yi Bang-seok the crown prince. Bang-seok’s mother Queen Sindeok may have contributed to making her son crown prince. It states in the Taejo Sillok, or the annals describing King Taejo’s time, that the king could hear her “weeping outside after hearing” a minister say that the crown prince should be the one that contributed a lot. It is also recorded that Taejo was hesitant to name Yi Bang-won as his crown prince because of his violent predisposition.
This complex family and the relationships with his brothers could have made Taejong more rebellious.
Jeong Do-jeon and Taejong were in deep conflict: Jeong saw Joseon as a kingdom led by its ministers through appointment by the king, while Taejong sought direct rule through an absolute monarchy.
In 1398, after learning that Jeong was trying to kill him, Taejong led a coup d’etat and killed Jeong and his followers as well as his two half-brothers.
Shocked by his sons' lethal contest for power, King Taejo abdicated and crowned his second son Bang-gwa as the first son was already dead. Bang-gwa became the second king of Joseon in 1398, and is posthumously called King Jeongjong. But it was Yi Bang-won who retained real power.
Meanwhile, his brother Yi Bang-gan also yearned for power, resulting in strife between the princes in 1400. Yi Bang-won defeated his brother’s forces and sent Bang-gan into exile. King Jeongjong was so afraid of his powerful brother that he named Yi Bang-won crown prince and abdicated in the same year. Yi Bang-won became the third king of Joseon and ruled the country for 18 years.
During his reign, Taejong made numerous changes to solidify Joseon.
As soon as he became the king, he abolished the private armies maintained by high officials and the aristocracy to forestall potential revolts. He revised land taxes and assigned officials to different counties, which led to the discovery of unregistered land and an increase in the national income. He instituted the system of hopae, an early form of identification that registered people's names and residences – somewhat like today’s registration ID. He created a strong central government and absolute monarchy. He is also known for ordering the creation of 100,000 pieces of movable metal type and two complete fonts in 1403.
But the killings to eradicate any threats to him and his son King Sejong continued until the final years of his reign. In 1418, fearing the growing influence of the family of Queen Soheon’s family - she was then married to Crown Prince Chungnyeong who later becomes King Sejong - Taejong killed Queen Soheon’s father and two of her uncles and demoted the rest of the family and relatives to the lower slave class.
According to the Taejong Sillok, Yi Bang-won resembled his father, who had a “prominent nose.” The existing portraits of Yi Bang-won were painted from imagination: all actual paintings of him were destroyed during two series of wars. It is also described in the Sillok that King Taejo shed tears, embracing his son Taejong before sending him to Ming Dynasty China as an envoy.
The Taejong Sillok states that King Taejo said, “How can you, with such a pale and weak physique, go all the way to the Great Ming?” The Ming Dynasty ruled China from 1368 to 1644.
Some historians imagine Taejong to be “smaller in physique, far from looking rough and wild,” according to Im from the Korean History Research Institute, similar to the Taejong depicted in “Six Flying Dragons” (2015), where actor Yoo Ah-in played him, or actor Joo Sang-wook’s Taejo in “The King of Tears, Lee Bang-won.”
Other experts like Choi Tae-sung, a popular history teacher on EBS, say that King Taejo referred to his son Taejong as having a "pale and weak physique" because he was worried about the long journey he was embarking on, not because he literally was "pale and weak."
"In reality, considering the achievement made by Taejong, he would be similar in appearance to actor Yoo Dong-geun, who portrayed Taejong in 'The Tears of the Dragon,'" added Choi, and that Taejong would have been a strong-looking man with charisma considering his achievements and all his killings. Yoo portrayed Taejong as a robust king, merciless when necessary.
Actor Jang Hyuk portrayed Taejong in JTBC’s “My Country: The New Age” (2019) as a man full of ambitions to become the next king.
As for Joo’s Taejong in “The King of Tears, Lee Bang-won,” he described the character as a “sympathetic king who is not all about killings and ambitions.”
“The drama series emphasizes his humane side,” said Joo, during a press conference for "The King of Tears, Lee Bang-won" late last year. “His actions of taking over the throne by ousting his father is morally reprehensible, but there are sides of him that we can sympathize with.”
“Yi Bang-won indeed had all those sides of him,” said Ban Byung-yool, an emeritus professor of history at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. “He was an ambitious, courageous, smart ruler who at the same time, had a soft side. That’s why many of the drama series associate him with the word ‘tears.’ It is said that he wept a lot because of his sons.”
There’s even a weather convention known as King Taejong’s Rain, referring to rain falling on the tenth of the fifth lunar month, when King Taejong died. It is said that while King Taejong was on his death bed, he continued to show concerns for his people as they were suffering from a severe drought. He hoped his death would bring ample rain to his people, and got his wish: it rained on the day he died.
BY YIM SEUNG-HYE [firstname.lastname@example.org]