K-Culture: Lesson 3 – Goryeo Dynasty

The 2016 saeguk drama, Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo, kept its audience on the edge of their seats in every episode they aired. Intense, sometimes funny, and often heartbreaking, this star-studded series really left a mark on our hearts.

This Korean adaptation of a popular Chinese drama was loosely set on the events occurred during the time of King Taejo, founder of Goryeo, to the ascension of King Gwangjong, its fourth king. The 20-episode drama featured Goryeo’s rich history and tradition. Although it’s a fusion saeguk and claims to have taken creative license to history, some of Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo’s characters still stick closely to the lives of the real historical figures upon which they were based on.

If your one of those K-drama fans who always wonders whether their oppa’s character is fiction or not, this K-Culture lesson would definitely feed your curiosity. Kaja!

Fun fact: The word “Goryeo” is where the name “Korea” came from.

Foundation of Goryeo

Veteran actor Jo Min-ki played the role of King Taejo in Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo. Also in the photo are actresses Park Ji-young, Jung Kyung-soon, and Park Si-eun.

After Wang Geon ( 왕곤 ), later to be known as King Taejo ( 태조 ), successfully united the Later Three Kingdoms, the next phase of Korean history takes place under the reign of the Goryeo Dynasty, which ruled the from 936 until 1392. During that time, aristocratic clans held much power and influence over the dynasty. To maintain peace over the whole Korean Peninsula, King Taejo established marriage ties with numerous aristocratic families across Goryeo. Thus, the large royal family and a long list of consorts and princes.

Succession from King Taejo

(L-R) Kim San-ho as Crown Prince Wang Mu, later the King Hyejong; Hong Jong-hyun as 3rd Prince Wang Yo, later King Jeongjong; and Lee Joon-gi as 4th Prince Wang So, later King Gwangjong.

One of key plot developments on Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo is the death of King Taejo and the bloody fight for the throne. Let’s just say that the reality isn’t too different from what was depicted in the drama. King Taejo’s death were unstable times marked by left and right rebellions from powerful clans vying for the throne. This tug-of-war resulted to the short reigns of the next two monarchs, King Hyejong (943–945) and King Jeongjong (945–949).

Reign of King Gwangjong of Goryeo

Lee Joon-gi’s interpretation of King Gwangjong of Goryeo.

The first two monarchs after King Taejo lacked the political power to stabilize the turbulent kingdom. It was only when 4th Prince Wang So took the throne in 949 that Goryeo finally stands on its own. King Gwangjong (광종 ) enacted the Slave Review Act, which lessened the number of slaves owned by aristocrats and military commanders and in turn also decreased their power. He also established a civil service examination, which promoted people based on skill rather than family lineage. King Gwangjong instigated purge to those who objected his reforms including the previously powerful military commanders and civil officials.

Historical records of King Gwangjong’s reign actually spark debate among historians on whether he is a tyrant monarch or a true reformer. But as some history experts pointed out, King Gwangjong’s reforms are still being taught up until today regardless of ways it was implemented.

As I’ve said earlier, Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo didn’t strictly stick to historical facts alone. The drama took artistic license to change to history to make it fit for their time slip story premise. So, what’s real and what’s not?

Facts vs Fiction

IU takes the melodrama’s lead role, Go Ha-jin or Lady Hae Soo.

Singer IU’s character, Go Ha-jin or Hae Soo, is one of the obvious purely fictional character. Our hearts shattered into million pieces because of Wang So and Hae Soo’s depressing ending (I still can’t get over that Wang So didn’t have a modern day reincarnation!). But in reality, there was no Hae Soo.

Kang Han-na portrayed Hwangbo Yeon-hwa, later to be known as Queen Daemok.

The real Wang So did end up with three consorts including Hwangbo Yeon-hwa, who later became Queen Daemok. Yep, he actually married his half-sibling and 8th prince Wang Wook’s sister. King Gwangjong and Queen Daemok had five children including his successor, Wang Ju, who later became Gyeongjong, the fifth ruler of Goryeo.

Goryeo Dynasty princes portrayed by actors Kim San-ho, Hong Jong-hyun, Lee Joon-gi, Kang Ha-neul, Yoon Sun-woo, EXO’s Baek-hyun, Nam Joo-hyuk, and Ji Soo.

As for the stunning ogle-worthy princes of Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo, most of them were loosely based on their real counterparts although their side stories were probably the result of the scriptwriter’s imagination. But did they really kill each other for the throne? there were no actual historical records depicting it happened. The only prince ordered to be killed by King Gwangjong was the 9th Prince Wang Won.

Hae Soo literally gets closer to Prince Wang So as she helped him cover his face scar.

Fun fact: Goryeo Dynasty is known for its celadon wares. Items discovered from the tombs of Goryeo royals include cosmetic box, hair accessories, and bronze mirror.

<< K-Culture: Lesson 1 – Three Kingdoms

(1) SBS: Images for Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo
(2) Korea.net: Goryeo
(3) Koreanhistoricaldramas.com: King Gwangjong of Goryeo
(4) The Korea Times: Tracing History of Cosmetics

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