KajoPicks: 10 K-dramas based on real-life historical figures of the Joseon era
The Joseon dynasty was the last dynasty of Korea which lasted for about five centuries.
It was founded by Yi Seong-gye in July 1392 until it was replaced by the Korean Empire in October 1897.
The dynasty started after the fall of 500-year-old Goryeo dynasty. Yi was a Goryeo soldier who slowly rose through the ranks until he initiated a coup d’etat against King U of Goryeo.
He later killed King U and his son, who were then replaced by another royal – King Gongyang of Goryeo – on the throne.
Gongyang’s reign only lasted for three years. In 1392, Yi dethroned King Gongyang and exiled him.
Then Yi Seonggye put himself on the throne, using the name Taejo.
At first, Taejo wanted to continue to use the name Goryeo for his country and simply change the royal line of descent to his own.
However, his royal court convinced him to give a new name to the dynasty to signify a change in the country.
After much deliberation, Taejo declared the new kingdom as Joseon. It was a tribute to the ancient Korean state of Gojoseon.
With a dynasty that spanned over five centuries, Joseon was rich with historical figures.
Hence, it is no surprise that the Korean entertainment industry has taken much inspirations for their dramas from this period in history.
While some of these Korean historical dramas (or better known as saeguk) have taken more entertaining and fun approaches to retell the history of Joseon, other dramas tried to give justice to the original stories.
Fun or serious, these saeguk dramas are still entertaining to watch. So here are 10 K-dramas based on real-life historical figures of Joseon dynasty:
1.Warrior Baek Dong-soo (2011)
Baek Dong-soo (1743-1816) was a swordsman and martial artist.
He became a folk hero when his group protected King Jeongjo from numerous assassination attempts.
His story inspired Lee Jae-heon’s manhwa entitled “Honorable Baek Dong-soo”.
This comic was later adapted into Korean television series Warrior Baek Dong-soo.
In this drama, Dong-soo is played by Ji Chang-wook. He started as a carefree swordsman who later became a member of the royal guard.
The plot is set against the political struggles between different factions including those led by King Jeonjo, by the Qing ambassador to Joseon, by the Japanese swordsman and by the assassin’s guild.
Overall, the series showcases intense political intrigue with a tale of how a best friend can turn into an arch-nemesis.
Warrior Baek Dong-soo was a hit when it aired and Ji won the received a ‘New Star Award’ at the SBS Drama Awards for his role.
2.Dae Jang Geum (2003)
Today, Dae Jang Geum (2003) is still holds the honour of bein one of the tenth highest rated Korean dramas of all time.
Directed by Lee Byung-hoon who is known for his historical dramas, the series was later exported to 91 countries.
Based on the life of Lady Jang-geum, it tells the story of an orphaned kitchen cook who went to become the first royal female physician.
According to history, King Jungjong was so impressed with Jang-geum’s medical knowledge that he trusted her with the health of the royal family.
Jang-geum eventually became the third highest-ranking officer in the royal. Additionally, she was granted the use ‘Dae’ before her first name which means ‘great’ in Korean.
She was that impressive for a woman during her time (sometimes during 16th century) that some historians believed that she was just a fictional character.
However, we bet our money the historians who did not believe her existence are men.
Nonetheless, the series was praised for its highlights on Korean royal cuisines, traditional medicine and culture.
3.The King’s Doctor (2012)
Here is another saeguk drama directed by Lee Byung-hoon.
This time, it is based on the real-life historical figure Baek Gwang-hyeon (1625-1697).
He was just a low-class veterinarian specialised in treating horses.
Thanks to his knowledge and hardwork, Gwang-hyeon worked his way up to become the royal physician who is in charge of the king’s health.
The series marks actor Cho Seung-woo’s television debut, playing the role of Gwang-yeon.
Before this, Gwang-hyeon was know for his works in film and theatre.
4.Painter of the Wind (2008)
Shin Yun-bok (1758-1813) was a Korean painter of the Joseon dynasty. His paintings were considered erotic.
One of his paintings called ‘Scenery on Dano Day’ depicts a group of women entertainers bathing in a stream and two young monks spying on them in the background.
In a historical fiction novel by Korean author Lee Jung-myung, the story explores the possibility of Shin Yun-bok actually being a woman.
Yun-bok disguises herself as a boy to search for her father’s murderer.
She then meets Kim Hong-do, another real-life historical figure, who guides her into becoming a great artist.
The drama Painter of the Wind is based on Lee Jung-myung’s novel and the role of Yun-bok is portrayed by Moon Geun-young.
5.Goddess of Fire (2013)
Speaking of Moon Geun-young, she plays the role of Yoo Jung in Goddess of Fire (2013).
Her character is based on real-life historical figure Baek Pa-sun during the 16th century.
Pa-sun was renowned as the first female potter and porcelain artist in the Joseon Dynasty.
Her talent was so famous that she was among the Korean artisans captured and forcibly taken to Japan during the Japanese invasion in 1592.
In the drama, Jung falls in love with Prince Gwanghae.
She eventually needs to choose between love or her country.
6.Six Flying Dragons (2015)
The main characters of this historical drama are a mixture of real-life historical figures and fictional characters.
Among the six dragons, Lee Bang-won (Yoo Ah-in), Jeong Do-jeon (Kim Myung-min) and Lee Seong-gye (Cheon Ho-jin) are real-life historical figures.
Meanwhile, Boon Yi (Shin Se-kyun), Ddang-sae (Byun Yo-han) and Moo-hyul (Yoon Gyun-sang) are all fictional characters.
It follows the story of Lee Bang-won who helped his father King Taejo to establish the Joseon Dynasty.
He later became the third king of the Joseon dynasty known as King Taejong.
7.Jeong Do-jeon (2014)
Another popular real-life historical figure during the Joseon Dynasty is Jeong Do-jeon (1342-1398).
He is known as one of the most powerful politicians and a close ally of King Taejo.
In this period drama, the story follows how Do-jeon help in founding the Joseon dynasty and the hardship he faced in the process.
Critics praised Jeong Do-jeon (2014) as one of the most ‘authentic and realistic’ Korean historical dramas in the new millennium.
So this drama is definitely worth your time to watch especially if you love history.
8.Saimdang, Memories of Colours (2017)
14 years after her successful portrayal of Jang Geum in Dae Jang Geum (2003), Lee Young-ae returns to small screen in Saimdang, Memories of Colours (2017).
In this series, Young-ae portrays real-life historical figure Shin Saimdang (1504-1551).
She was a popular artist, writer, calligraphist and poet.
The plot follows a Korean university art history lecturer Seo Ji-yoon also played by Lee Young-ae who discovers a long lost diary.
Through the diary, Ji-yoon uncovers the extraordinary life of Shin Saimdang and a mysterious ancient painting.
Saimdang’s birth home, Ojukheon is well-preserved to this day.
9.Queen for Seven Days (2017)
This historical drama follows the real-life story of a queen who only held the title for seven days. She has been known as the shortest time a person to have reigned as a queen in Korean history.
Queen Dangyeong (1487-1557) was the first queen consort of King Jungjong, the eleventh Joseon King.
In September 1506, she became Queen consort of Joseon only for seven days.
She was disposed and expelled from the palace because her own father led a coup against her husband.
The disposed queen continued to live in exile until she died childless in 1557.
In the fictional version of Queen Dangyeong, the king and queen still long for each other even after she was dethroned and abandoned.
Overall, the drama focuses on the struggle of a woman who was unwillingly thrown into the political royal court in the 16th century.
10.The Crowned Clown (2019)
Prince Gwanghae (1575-1641) was the fifteenth king of the Joseon dynasty. He is perhaps one of the most famous historical figures with fifteen appearances in films and television series.
Even though he is one of only two deposed kings who were not restored and given a temple name, Prince Gwanghae is now considered one of the wiser kings in Korean history.
Unfortunately during his reign, the king was a victim of conflicts between political factions.
The Crowned Clown (2019) is based on stories of many assassination attempts carried out to kill Gwanghae during his reign.
To avoid assassination, Gwanghae or better known as King Lee Hun (Yeo Jin-goo) hired a clown named Ha Sun (Yeo Jin-goo) who looks identical to the king.
While impersonating the king, the clown later proved himself that he is a wise king on his own merits.
The drama is a remake of the 2012 film Masquerade.