K-Culture: Lesson 5 – Joseon Dynasty

From romance-comedy to fantasy to heartbreaking melodramas, Joseon Dynasty is probably the most prolific setting for saeguk dramas of any genre. Although most Korean period series were highly fictionalized, one can’t deny that it sparks curiosity to get to know the country’s history.

So, for the third part of K-Culture saeguk series, let’s learn more about Korea’s last dynasty. Kaja!

Foundation of Joseon Dynasty

In the late 14th century, Goryeo Dynasty was in decline due to internal turmoil and continuous threats of occupation. During that time, a popular army general, Yi Seong-gye, overthrew the weakened Goryeo Dynasty in a coup d’etat and founded a new dynasty named Joseon. Yi Seong-gye then became first King Taejo of Joseon. He also chose Hanyang (present-day Seoul) as the capital of the new dynasty.

Key Figures

King Taejo of Joseon is only one of the innovative leaders this five-century-old dynasty had. Its grandeur architectures have witnessed how the united Korean peninsula flourished under ingenious people who ruled Joseon. For an outsider’s point of view, Joseon Dynasty seems to have great influence on Korea’s present-day society. Let’s look at some of the key figures from this period through these popular Korean dramas.

Love in the Moonlight

This web-novel adaptation is probably the most popular saeguk drama set in Joseon period last year. Events in the whole series were all fictional with no historical basis. Although Park Bo-gum’s character was actually named after the Crown Prince Hyeomyeong, the eldest son of King Sunjo. Unlike the happy ending K-drama, the real-life crown prince died at the age of 20 after serving as regent for his father for three years.

love in the moonlight
Splash Splash Love

The unexpected hit web-drama, Splash Splash Love, was set at the time of one of Joseon’s great king, Sejong. This is a personal favorite among the list of dramas in this article because (1) it’s only two-hour long but well-written and (2) it sticks close to historical facts despite being a time travel genre.

Highlight’s Dojoon played the young version of King Sejong. One of the scenes in the series is the fictional retelling of how he invented Korea’s own script, Hangeul. It is also under his rule that Korea saw advances in literature, science, agriculture, and engineering.

In the drama, Kim Seul-gi’s time travelling high school student character invented a make-shift rain gauge. She was then given a scroll containing the name King Sejong gave her – Yeong-sil. In history, Jang Yeong-sil was a Korean scientist and astronomer who invented a water gauge that was the first of its kind in the world.

This serial also features another historical figure named Park Yeon. The Joseon musician (played by Ahn Hyo-seop in the series) has served as the staff of the institute in charge of educating the then crown prince, who later became King Sejong. See what I mean when I said this drama is a must-watch? It’s fun to watch and at the same time introduces Korean historical personalities in an intriguing way you’ll end up reading facts about them.

splash splash love

Saimdang, Light’s Diary

The highly anticipated comeback drama for Lee Young-ae portrays the life and career of Sin Saimdang, an artist, calligraphist and poet who gained prominence in the mid-Joseon. Yi Gyeom, played by Song Seung-heo, is a fictional character created to spice-up the poet’s life in the series. Despite being fictitious, the TV series still successfully weaved historical events from the 1500s and its present-day timeline.

Fun fact: Sin Saimdang is the first woman to appear on a South Korean banknote.

Saimdang Lights Diary

Dae Jang Geum

This 2003 series is one of the dramas that paved the way for other Korean TV content to spread overseas. It is also one of the earlier examples of fusion historical dramas that created a new trend in narrative structure and visual styles for saeguk dramas.

This Lee Young-ae drama is loosely based on the story of Jang-geum, the first female royal physician of the Joseon Dynasty. Despite being mentioned seven times in the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty, scholars are still arguing if Jang-geum was the real name of the female physician who served during the reign of King Jungjong or it was just a generic name.

Dae Jang Geum

Queen In-hyun’s Man

This tvN time-slip drama was set during the reign of King Sukjong. The story premise of Queen In-hyeon’s Man focuses primarily on the love story of actress Choi Hee-jin (Yoo In-na) and Kim Bung-do (Ji Hyun-woo), a time-traveling scholar from the Joseon Dynasty. Both leading characters were fictional but the tumultuous events in the drama series’ Joseon timeline were inspired by real events.

In the drama, Bung-do is one of the personalities fighting for the reinstatement of Queen In-hyeon into Queen Consort. The real-life Queen In-hyeon has been given back her title but then eventually poisoned by the scheming Lady Jang.

Queen In-hyuns Man

Hwang Jin Yi

One of the most famous Joseon figures in popular culture is the gisaeng and Sijo poet, Hwang Jini. Her life has inspired a number of novels, TV series, and movies. Two of those adaptations starred Hallyu superstars Ha Ji-won and Song Hye-kyo.

Hwang Jini was the illegitimate child of a Joseon aristocrat. Despite her low social status, Hwang Jini gained admiration among scholars for her beauty, intelligence and artistic talent. Most of Hwang Jini’s works are about the tragedy of her lost loves.

Hwang Jin Yi

Fun fact: You Are The Best!

Remember this IU-Jo Jung-suk weekend drama, You’re the Best! Lee Sun-shin? IU’s titular role was named after the great Joseon admiral, Yi Sun-sin. Yi Sun-sin believed to have defeated the Japanese in the momentous naval war, the Battle of Myeongnyang.


These are only some brief details on these Joseon historical figures. We’ll continue to delve into Korea’s intriguing past and rich traditions, so follow our blog for more K-Culture segment.

Image Credit
(1) KBS: Love in the Moonlight; Hwang Jin Yi; You Are The Best!
(2) MBC: Splash Splash Love; Dae Jang Geum
(3) SBS: Saimdang, Light’s Diary
(4) tvN: Queen In-hyun’s Man


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