So this is another ramble that began to stir while I watched most of Jewel in the Palace – a fictional account of a woman believed-but-not-proven to be a true Chosun Dynasty historical figure, (her story may be made up of several other stories – similar to the tale of Fa Mulan).
Jang Geum is thought to have been the first female to have been appointed as physician to the king, her name appearing in several medical annals. This drama follows her fictionalized character from before birth, tracing intrigue around the forced poisoning of a queen that devastates the paths of both her eventual parents, through their meeting one another and her birth, their arrest and killing, onto Jang Geum’s arrival to the palace kitchen as a child student who then goes on to become a full court lady. Through dramatic ups and downs she loses her role at the palace, and encounters a female physician mentor, who sets her on the rest of her path.
With 54 episodes, one can imagine that my basic summary will leave out too much, but I want to get to the most interesting thing about her, which is not that she was studious and talented, nor that she struggled and overcame incredible obstacles. It is that her character is shown to have a very spontaneous mind not limited to any role she is placed in, which reminds me of:
Thirty spokes converge upon a single hub;
it is on the hole in the center that the use of the cart hinges.
Shape clay into a vessel;
it is the space within that makes it useful.
Carve fine doors and windows,
but the room is useful in it’s emptiness.
The usefulness of what is depends on what is not.
Rather than Jang Geum being portrayed as a woman merely talented with food or good with details, she is presented as a strongly curious-minded person whose compassion feeds a wellspring of timely practical creativity. Although the options for women were indeed very limited, and far more limited than shown, this character played many roles; her vision was wider than her personal circumstances.
That is not a new angle for story telling. Many women posed as men during desperate times, or held their own in the marketplaces. Today there are still many female writers who alter their names to appear ambiguous, as a way not to throw up an automatic barrier. So several dramas have similar themes, and although the particular story angle doesn’t fit here, the devices are not entirely different. The writer is looking for a way to allow this female to come into the full dimensionality of her capacity, during a time when that was an impossibility for most people, period.
Considering that the 2003 drama is said to be the start of the Hallyu wave, I can’t help but wonder why it seems more well-rounded than many of the more recent shows. There are a several entertaining female characters here, and just one or two that are over the top who provide a good counterbalance to the sometimes too realistic tone that can drag the story down. That tone is the main reason I admit to skipping through quite a few episodes mid-way through the drama, and why I almost set it aside. But then the female physician appeared, and my interest perked again.
I missed there not being much of a romantic plot until the middle, except that the reason became clearer and clearer. Her love recognizes her devotion to her work as intrinsic to her happiness, and works to protect that. “The stories of her life are painted with her talents, which make up who she is” he tells the king. In the story, the king listens.