Learning about Traditional Korea by watching K-Dramas
If you’re interested in the history of Korea and its traditional customs, you can learn a lot by watching Traditional K-dramas. But before you start binge watching the hottest new Traditional K-drama, it’s important to understand the history of this style of drama and what facts you can actually trust!
What are Traditional K-dramas?
In Korean, “Traditional K-dramas” are called 사극 (sa-geuk). They are a type of historical Korean drama that typically take place prior to the end of the Joseon Dynasty (조선왕조).
The Origins of Traditional K-dramas:
Until the early 2000s, while some shows exaggerated certain historical events and characters, “Traditional K-dramas” were mostly known for their serious tone and historical accuracy. They focused on the actual kings, generals, and heroes from Korea’s history and brought them to life in entertaining ways while staying true to historical records.
The Rise of the “Factional Traditional K-Dramas”
Things began to change in 2003 with the release of “대장금 (Dae Jang Geum)” which was both a major hit in Korea as well as internationally, where it helped usher in the rise of K-dramas to worldwide fame.
“Dae Jang Geum” focused on the life of Jang-geum, an orphaned kitchen cook who rose above her humble beginnings to become the first female physician to King Jungjong (the 11th king of the Joseon Dynasty). Unlike most of the other Traditional K-dramas of the time “Dae Jang Geum” was almost entirely fiction. While many of the characters existed historically, their stories in this drama were largely fabricated. In fact, there are only three lines ever recorded in history about the actual Jang-geum. Considering “Dae Jang Geum” ran for 54 episodes, the writers had a lot of work to bring her story to life!
After the domestic and international success of “Dae Jang Geum”, Traditional K-dramas began to shift more and more in the direction of becoming “factional” (fictional + fact). Instead of focusing on brining history to life, this new style of Traditional Drama became known for taking historical backgrounds and populating them with completely fictional characters and stories, with the main goal of simply entertaining audiences. Because of the broad liberties “factional” dramas have taken with history there is an ongoing controversy in Korea about whether this style of drama should even be called 사극 (sa-geuk).
What Can You Learn From Traditional K-dramas?
The reality is, it’s now far more common to find “factional” Traditional K-dramas than ones that are faithful to the history of their subject matter, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use them to learn. While you may not be able to pass a history test based on the stories in these dramas, you can still learn a lot about the traditional customs, clothing, and culture of Korea. So the next time you are looking for a great K-drama to watch, you owe it to yourself to check out one of the many great 사극 (sa-geuk)!
Common Titles and Phrases Used in Traditional K-dramas
Now that you know a little more about Traditional K-dramas, let’s look at some of the most common titles and phrases you’ll hear when watching them. For fun try using them with your Korean friends and watch their reactions!
Addressing the Royal Family
The following were used to address members of the royal family. They roughly translate to “Your Majesty” or “Your Highness”.
폐하 (pye-ha): used to address the emperor and empress
전하 (jeon-ha): used to address the king
중전마마 (jung-jeon ma-ma): used to address the queen
저하 (jeo-ha): used to address a prince
공주마마 (gong-ju ma-ma): used to address a princess
Phrases Often Used in Traditional K-Dramas
아뢰옵기 황송하오나 (a-loe-ob-gi hwang-song-ha-o-na)
This very formal phrase was used when someone needed to speak to members of the royal family. The literal meaning is “If I may dare to speak”.
통촉하여주시옵소서! (tong-chog-ha-yeo ju-si-ob-so-seo)
This phrase means “Please think this through and consider it carefully!”. It was often used by court officials whenever they opposed a decision being made by the king.
This is an old formal way of saying, “yes” or “understood”. It was often used as a reply when receiving commands.
성은이 망극하옵니다 (seong-eun-i mang-geug-ha-ob-ni-da)
This phrase roughly translates to “Your grace is immeasurable”. For example, if the king did something kind for you, you could say, 전하, 성은이 망극하옵니다 “Your majesty, your grace is immeasurable”.