Can historical dramas depicting fictional stories based on real dynasties cause domestic and international viewers to misunderstand Korean history?
Thanks to the growing popularity of Korean content globally, historical dramas are gaining more and more attention worldwide. KBS’s The King’s Affection recently ranked 4th on Netflix’s global trending. The King’s Affection is set in the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) but the characters are completely fictitious.
The plot emphasizes romance rather than actual events. This is also a common trend, leading some viewers to question the extent to which “history” is incorporated in historical dramas.
Historical dramas that focus on fictional stories
Ongoing historical dramas, tvN’s Secret Royal Inspector & Joy and KBS’s Moonshine are both set in the Joseon era but don’t feature any real historical characters. MBC’s The Red Sleeve depicts the life of King Jeongjo (1752-1800) of the Joseon Dynasty. However, the drama focuses on romanticized personal relationships rather than historical events.
Historical dramas with fictional elements have always been well-loved in Korea, but this trend is becoming more prominent. Meanwhile, historical dramas based on true stories are increasingly rare. Despite the commercial success, most domestic viewers consider these projects to be simply dramas using traditional costumes, not exactly historical dramas.
In light of this ongoing trend, many Korean viewers and experts are concerned that such historical dramas could change Korean history in the eyes of the international public.
Ban Byung Yool, a history professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, said, “I know there’s such a thing as an art license, but I feel a bit skeptical as a historian. When dramas only focus on fictional characters and storylines, I’m afraid viewers may not take history and historical events seriously.”
“I believe the purpose of a historical drama is to convey lessons from the past. The tribulations some historical figures from many centuries ago experienced are still quite common and easy to understand. Their true stories can deliver timeless messages. But if everything is just fiction, viewers are left with only romance and costumes” said Ban Byung Yool.
Professor Ban is also wary of misinformation. “I’m not saying TV shows have to be as realistic as academic articles, but there needs to be a certain level of historical accuracy,” he said. “If a show is set in the 1800s but the characters behave like modern times, that’s backwardism. I’m worried that the audience, especially foreigners, will see fictional stuff as the reality of Korean history.”
Experts have mixed reactions
On the other hand, Professor Park Chan Seung of the History Department of Hanyang University has a different view on the role of historical dramas.
“I would expect period dramas to promote traditional Korean culture rather than history. Fiction is a better choice to avoid disrespecting and distorting history or receiving complaints from descendants of real historical figures. This happened quite often when real figures were portrayed negatively on screen. Fiction allows screenwriters to be much more creative,” commented Park Chan Seung.
Park Chan Seung also pointed out that historical fantasy dramas are currently a worldwide trend.
“We’re seeing this phenomenon in Japan and the West,” the professor said, referring to Netflix’s Bridgerton (2020).
“There is no rule that historical dramas must follow true history. If so, the plot can become too serious and uninteresting. As a result, historical events may simply be inspirations for appealing storylines,” he emphasized.
Jessica McLaury, an American fan of Korean historical dramas, has similar thoughts when talking to the Korea JoongAng Daily.
“The appeal of historical dramas is in the costumes of that period,” she said. “They may not be entirely historically accurate, but that adds to the sense of magic. It’s fun to get a fantasy glimpse of old Korea and its romantic past. It’s similar to how people enjoy the fictional period in Downton Abbey (2010-2015). British and American historical dramas also romanticize history a lot and aren’t very accurate.” she said.
In response to this view, Professor Ban believes that authentic history can also be interesting material for K-drama. Tears of the Dragon (1996-1998) and Jeong Do Jeon (2014) are often cited as prime examples. According to the professor, such productions help viewers have a better understanding of a historical era and people who lived through that period.
Seeing such debates regarding historical drama and movies, pop culture critic Jeong Deok Hyun voiced his opinion that movies and dramas are purely entertainment. Because of that, real or fictional, the most important thing is an interesting storyline.
“Squid Game was a huge success and has encouraged people to watch more Korean content. Before that, many international viewers were already familiar with the Joseon dynasty thanks to the zombie series “Kingdom”. this means that Korean historical dramas and movies have many advantages when competing on an international scale, which is why “The King’s Affection” is trending worldwide,” Jeong Deok Hyun said.
“The problem is, most international audiences don’t have enough knowledge to decipher whether a historical drama is accurate or not, which is why the most important thing to them is an interesting storyline. Even many domestic audiences, who love Korean history, share the same idea. The most important thing to a drama is its entertainment purpose, not to educate someone about history. Real or fictional, the important thing is the drama’s efficiency,” he stressed.
Apart from that, Jeong Deok Hyun also pointed out that romantic love story in historical dramas helped give other topics a more interesting view. He explained that a forbidden love story has been overused in modern dramas already. However, if the background is changed into the Joseon dynasty with harsh social class differences, a forbidden love becomes so much more convincing and interesting as there are more obstacles for the couple to overcome. That explains why romance is a wonderful detail for historical plots.