The Korean drama “Rookie Historian Goo Hae-Ryung” has come to a close, and in doing so, it helped shed some light on an interesting aspect of Korean history!
The drama stars Shin Se Kyung (“Bride of the Water God”) and ASTRO member and actor Cha Eun Woo (“My ID Is Gangnam Beauty”). The story revolves around an intelligent and brave young woman who goes against the norm to become one of the first female historians in Joseon and the tragic, yet hopelessly romantic prince who falls in love with her. Although their own story and details are fictional, the rest of the drama brings to light some interesting aspects of Korean history of which many international viewers may not be familiar.
The story begins like any typical romance drama, especially one with such young and beautiful stars. There is a somewhat typical meet cute that turns into a love-hate relationship as the two stars butt heads due to their opposing personalities.
While corruption is rampant at the court, a darker story soon comes in to play as the prince tries to learn why he, despite being a prince, seems to be so unloved by the King. As the drama progresses, we begin learning about a place that used to exist where medical students first began learning about Western medicine and the subsequent consequences for going against tradition. Although it’s predictable, the drama manages to keep your attention with a fresh look at the real-life importance of historians, as well as why the nation first fought so hard against change.
A stark contrast to the often corrupt government officials, the historians were a group of people that work in their own office and are responsible for recording every single thing, conversation, and event that goes on daily in the palace. Although their records are detailed, they cannot be revealed to anyone else besides fellow historians. While at first, viewers may not understand the importance of these records, it is soon seen in the drama that people fear being written down as a corrupt or terrible person in the historical records. With honor as a core value (or at least honorable in the public’s eye), it seems people will do almost anything to keep their name clean for future generations to learn about.
Although the female historians and details of the ruling royal family are fictional, the story does a good job at telling a tale which also provides a glimpse into the factual history. As Catholics first began coming into Joseon, the King and the people in the drama seem to be controlled by fear of the strange and unknown. However, it soon becomes apparent that it goes much further than that. The King and subsequent upper class and ruling families fear change. As Catholics teach that all are equal in the eyes of God, it goes against the Neo-Confucian value of a hierarchy built on age, status, and rank. If Catholicism were to enter Joseon, the people might begin to feel equal to the ruling classes and a rebellion could threaten their current situation. This part of the story is indeed factual and was a large part of why Korea was so opposed to Catholicism at first. However, the drama only lightly touches on the religious aspect of it all and talks more about the side affects of the Western world’s teachings, such as education for all.
The main way we see the fears of the King and ruling people take action is when a medical school is established by a Catholic doctor who allows anyone who is intelligent, diligent, and promising to study Western medicine- regardless of their economic status, gender, or social rank. This goes directly against the real-life teachings of the time when even women of high rank were mostly illiterate and didn’t have much of an identity beyond serving the men of their family. Although the medical school in this drama is fictional, it gets inspiration from Jejungwon, the first modern Western hospital in Joseon that was started by Christian missionaries. In fact, other dramas like the 2010 series “Jejungwon” delve more into the details of this story, while the hospital itself grew and is still in existence today as the esteemed Severance Hospital of the Yonsei University Health System. So, while our drama “Rookie Historian Goo Hae-Ryung” is a lighthearted tale of romance, it is still interesting to see the history of the first Western medical school in Korea through the eyes of the royal family and those in the palace. Through it all, the historians continue to stand by steadily recording everything for future generations.
In the drama, some more open-minded people embrace the idea of the school while other high-ranking officials are not as keen to allow the foreign way of thought and culture to invade Joseon. As a result, they prey on the fears of the uneducated public by telling them that the medical school is full of dark practices and immorality.
The sweet romance of the drama is always present, as well as plenty of comedic and lighthearted moments from the supporting cast. However, as the drama progresses, we began to see more of the struggle of the historians and realize that many were truly unsung heroes of the time. In addition, we witness the story of individuals who stood against the old school of thought and embraced a change that they believed would better their country and their people.
At times, the series is lighthearted and romantic. At other times, the drama is sad and frustrating as we witness the struggles of those who desire change. However, it doesn’t let the backstory overwhelm the romance and doesn’t focus too much of viewers’ attention on the changes taking place. Instead, it just focuses on the lives of the people who were there at that time in history, living each day to the best of their ability while not fully understanding that they were seeing the dawning of a new age that would soon take place. More than anything, the series focuses on the simple fact that the people in history were indeed humans too and had their own stories of love and loss, friendship and sadness, triumph and pain.
The drama doesn’t take itself too seriously. It doesn’t have an immense emotional story behind other historical dramas like “Scarlet Heart: Ryeo,” yet it doesn’t take itself too lightly either. It just stands as testament to the historians of the time, whose records and stories are the reason why we know what we do about the history of Korea. In fact, while watching the series, take it for what it is: a sweet tale of romance and a look into the palace life that was undergoing the beginnings of change. However, you should also watch the daily lives of the historians in the drama while realizing how important they were in real life. In fact, the records they recorded are known today as the Veritable Records of the Joseon Dynasty and record the history of Joseon from 1413 to 1865. The records consist of almost 1,900 volumes and have been deemed a National Treasure of Korea, as well as being included in UNESCO’s Memory of the World registry. As the longest continual record of a single dynasty in the world, the historians’ work is important to the world at large and is in the process of being translated in English, a project which is estimated to cost ₩40 billion (approximately 33.5 million USD) and will be finished by the year 2033.
Despite being set in a somewhat turbulent time at the palace, the well-acted and beautifully shot series is a pleasant one to watch as it provides a look at love, as well as plenty of humor in the relatable relationships of our lead characters and the friends and loved ones around them.
In fact, one cannot forget to mention the superb set of side characters that bring so much humor and charm to the series. Stars like Yang Jo-a (“Something in the Rain,” “Priest”) and the perfect Sung Ji-ru (“Ms. Ma, Nemesis,” “A Korean Odyssey”) are true scene stealers and are a large part of why the drama is so enjoyable in the first place! In addition, the use of actual historical sites and palaces in the drama make for an added bonus that lend a further air of authenticity. While certainly not based on a true story, it’s based on a true time in history, and that’s good enough to make it worth the watch.
Did you watch this series? What did you think? Let us know your thoughts by tweeting to us @whatthekpop1!
In the meantime, check out the trailer below!
Media: Netflix, MBC