WTF ASIA TELEVISION SPECIAL: Jewel in the Palace (2003)

Seven years before “Gangnam Style” burst upon the scene, I read this article in the New York Times about the “Korean Wave”. You may have heard of it. Well, back in 2005, East Coast Banana me knew nothing about this Korean Wave that had already been going on for years. Well, I had to get in on this. I no longer remember why I had to, but I had to. And what better place to start than with Jewel in the Palace, the show in the first paragraph of the article? I also don’t remember how I found the show on television, but I found it, at least the second episode, and watched every single episode after that.

Free on Viki. Google also says that it is on Netflix. Google lies.

54 episodes between 56-108 minutes.


Okay, so, how do I summarize the story? Well, the story takes place in the…16th century? It is about a woman named Jang-Geum, but the actual series starts out with her parents. Her father was a government official who was ordered to poison the Queen…or Queen Mother, I don’t remember. Lets just say the Queen. Either way, he reluctantly did it, but was haunted by the act…and hunted down by the Queen’s son when he became King. Jang-Geum’s mother was a royal…kitchen servant of sorts, who discovered one of her co-servants doing something bad with food. She tried to report it, but fell afoul of a greater conspiracy. She was falsely accused with fraternizing with a male royal staff (which was forbidden), and was poisoned in a secret ritual punishment by her fellow kitchen servants; it was only thanks to some quick thinking on the part of one of her servant friends that she survived and could run away. The two runaways from the palace met, fell in love, got married, and had Jang-Geum.

Errrr…okay, that is actually way too detailed. Okay, I will try to barrel through this. The inquisitive and curious child Jang-Geum accidentally (though it was fated) reveals her father to be the royal fugitive, and he is taken to be executed. Jang-Geum’s mother is found out as well, and the people who wanted her dead years before kill her. As she is dying, Jang-Geum’s mother tells her that this was fated to happen, but that Jang-Geum is destined to save many people. She also asked Jang-Geum to avenge her by becoming the Highest Kitchen Lady in the Royal Kitchen.

Jang-Geum gets taken in by a poor chef/wine-seller and his wife, but she soon manages to enter the palace as a novice kitchen helper, gaining tutorship under a woman who had been her mother’s friend, though neither knows about their connection, since talking about it would have gotten them both in trouble. The friend, Lady Han, is a strict teacher, but kind. She often gives Jang-Geum odd or incomplete orders, and it is up to Jang-Geum to figure out what she really wants and why. All but one of the other novices are mean to Jang-Geum because of her supposedly low station, and she sometimes gets scolded for experimenting or wandering into places where she is not allowed. Despite this, her ambition and dedication, along with the tutelage of Lady Han, makes her often better than her peers at tasks.

Flash forward almost two decades and it is still the case.

Egads, I am only at episode six of fifty-four. Okay, so, she manages to make some friends in the kitchen and even outside of the kitchen. However, her main competitor, Keum-Young, is part of the Choi family, which has held control of the Kitchen for five generations. The Choi family is also involved in a lot of illegal activities, doing dirty deeds for some of the high class families. Lady Choi, Lady Han’s equal and main rival, was the one who had to poison Jang-Geum’s mother way back when, though neither Jang-Geum nor Lady Choi knows about their connection. Jang-Geum frequently gets the better of Keum-Young in terms of memory tests and taste tests. Jang-Geum and Keum-Young start out as friends, but Keum-Young eventually starts acting more competitive. She is determined to beat Jang-Geum fairly, but her aunt, Lady Choi, wants Jang-Geum out of the picture as soon as possible, seeing her as an extension of Lady Han’s threat to her chances of becoming the Highest Kitchen Lady. As Jang-Geum becomes friendly with a royal official whom Keum-Young had pined for since childhood, Keum-Young begins to take Jang-Geum’s victories more personally.

Jang-Geum often has to deal with problems, sometimes from the Choi family and their associates, sometimes by bad luck due to someone else’s wrongdoing, and sometimes by ruffling feathers due to her unconventional methods of doing things. She gains more friends and allies, but also enemies.  More than once does she get locked up, and she has had to deal with different degrees of banishment. Each time, she bounces back, sometimes simply through her will and skill, and sometimes through the abilities of her allies to help her out. Her talents eventually move beyond the kitchen into the medical field, and her reputation for being both a selfless savior and a troublemaking nuisance only grows.

Wow…that was…a real hack job summary. That’s okay, though, since that is not what I really wanted to talk about anyways. I am not going to pretend that this show is great. Even back then, I knew that I was not really enjoying the show on its own merits. Other people may argue that it is, but I found it to be highly flawed on many levels, some of those flaws seeming to be traits of many Korean dramas as well as television shows in other countries. I am not going even say that I found the show to be entertaining or engaging as a show, as there were long stretches that were boring or irritating. I could go on about what I dislike about Korean dramas. But why did I keep watching? Well, I suppose that, even having been born and raised in a diverse and liberal community, I grew up feeling that my Americanness was considered conditional and could be revoked if the mood of enough of America turned against me. People who looked like me were on the sidelines if they were ever shown and the already difficult to find stories given to people like me were all immigrant narratives that barely applied to my parents, let alone to me.

Maybe I it was simply that I had never seen an Asian television show before outside of Anime or clips from Japanese game shows. Perhaps a desire to see Asians on television (this was ten years after All American Girl and ten years before Fresh Off the Boat) was simply enough to keep me watching Korean shows and a few shows from other Asian countries, where I could see a world where people who (vaguely) looked like me did not have to view their own cultural identity and heritage at a remove, for whom finding the best of two worlds was never some grand existential struggle. I did not relate to the characters or the story, but I could believe that I saw myself in them, one hour at a time. Was it logical of me to feel that way? No. I had no use for that. To hell with your logic. It took five years before I finally acknowledged that I did not genuinely enjoy this stuff. And, even after that, I would find myself occasionally checking out the stuff that was up on Hulu until everything seemed to require subscription. In any case, the quality or entertainment quotient of the show is not what I wanted to talk about either.

I wanted to talk about the character of Jang-Geum and her mission. The world of the show is full of cynicism, politicking, corruption, rigid hierarchies, crime, apathy, and dishonesty. Jang-Geum’s parents acted out of a sense of duty and loyalty (her father very reluctantly so) and were both hunted down and killed for it. Jang-Geum suffers from feelings of guilt over her role in her parents’ deaths. That, coupled with her sense of filial piety, is what drives her to get into the palace and try to become the Highest Kitchen Lady. Filial piety and the ability to do what one does not want to, however, can lead one down a dark path. The Chois, Keum-Young and Lady Choi in particular, do what they do because they feel indebted to their ancestors and see no other choice in their actions. We see a young Lady Choi practically in tears as she is forced to frame Jang-Geum’s mother, but she has steeled her heart by the time that Keum-Young is an adult and going through a similar crisis of conscience. To them, the ends justify the means when it comes to filial piety.

Unlike the Chois, Jang-Geum honors her parents and wins by being the best and doing the best; by using her mind, her heart, and her hands; all without cutting corners. She studies hard, she works hard, she thinks about everything, and she does what she feels what is right. She wants to do the right things and do things the right way; not just the way that things have always been done, but way that is best. This leads to some unorthodox methods, which get under the skin of the hardline traditionalists. She does not resort to underhandedness, and the only shortcuts she takes are due to efficiency, not cheating or half-measures. Even in the worst of situations, she tries to make the best of what is there. While she is kindhearted towards people who lack her abilities, she has little tolerance for laziness amongst the talented. She wants to believe in the best in people, even those who have frequently done her wrong. There are times when she could easily resolve things by taking the low road or even just exposing her tormentors for what they really are, but she leaves them with the choice to confess their crimes. She tries to do what she believes is best for everyone, including those who dislike her or wish her harm, even if she knows that this will lead to practical difficulties down the road.

Jang-Geum’s main faults derive from her relative purity of heart. She is sometimes too trusting of people, even when she should know better. She tends to respect the spirit of traditions more than the laws that derive from the traditions, and her sometimes rash behavior in attacking a problem gets her in trouble. In her experiments, investigations, and attempts to improve materials and methods, she often fails to explain her actions to others until after the fact. Her inability and unwillingness to play politics with her principles can sometimes upset many. She can sometimes be a little too forceful when trying to approach a problem, but she is quick to criticize herself for this and to apologize to anyone whom she may have antagonized. When those whom she admires think badly of her or start to envy her, she often has trouble reassuring them that she means no harm.

For the most part, Jang-Geum is pure of heart, justified in intention, and validated in talent. This infuriates the power-hungry, the lazy, and the complacent, who cannot fathom someone acting so good not having an ulterior motive. That said, she does have an ulterior motive: vengeance for her parents. It is not vengeance through blood, though, but vengeance through good; through validation and justice. It is vengeance through showing the good that good can do; and maybe even helping good to spread. And since good cannot truly triumph as good by stooping to evil’s level, Jang-Geum vengeance will be completed through soaring above all of it. Often this involves enduring a lot of suffering and courting without complaint. She is not so naïve or such a pushover that she does not recognize the difficulty of taking the high road. And she is not above thinking dark thoughts. It is overcoming these thoughts and sticking with her principles despite those thoughts that show her character.

Jang-Geum is not trying to show up anyone or get credit for anything. She gives credit where credit is due and often avoids taking credit when she deserves it. She does not press to become the Highest Kitchen Lady or even try to show that she deserves it, but tries her best to earn that title. She does things because it is the right thing to do and doing the right thing makes her not just the better person, but a better person. She shows much gratitude to those who help her, teach her, and inspire her, even those who do so reluctantly. And she always tries to honor them as best as she can, publically too, if it does not cause them trouble. This is particularly so in her relationship with Lady Han, but there are many others. So, just as her goodness perplexes the wicked, it also inspires many, though it takes some longer than others to come around. Her good deeds and her incorruptibility earn her friends amongst the lowly commoners, throughout the palace, and even within the royal family. All without compromising who she is.

Whether she is a cook or a physician lady, Jang-Geum strives to be the best that she can be and then try to better herself. There is little question over whether either of these things what she actually wants to do. She has vowed to become the highest kitchen lady to honor her mother and then became a physician to fulfill her destiny. This is her obligation and she has accepted all of the responsibilities and struggles that went with it. Her sense of filial piety extends to Lady Han. While she also loves her adopted parents dearly, she tends to treat Lady Han as her true mother even without knowing that Lady Han was her mother’s friend. Just as she tries to honor her parents, Jang-Geum is determined to help and protect Lady Han, to vindicate her when she is accused of wrongdoing. Jang-Geum does this sometimes at the expense of her own safety and reputation. Indeed, Jang-Geum’s safety and reputation is important to her only in terms of how much she can help others. She does not do things to gain favor or better her station, but to honor her station. It is never her intention to shake up the status quo or attack down the class system or challenge the monarchy or rid the Kingdom of the criminal element or combat gender discrimination or act as an example to others or even promote a meritocracy. It just happens that she does a little of all of that in her quest to be the best person that she can be and to do as much good as she can.

Jewel in the Palace was, at least by 2004, the highest rated drama in South Korean history, and was huge throughout Asia and wherever the Korean Wave hit. I had not questioned it before, but now I wonder, would a character like Jang-Geum work in an American television show? Or even a movie? Would audiences connect with her or want to watch her story? Or would they think her to be unrealistic in her attitude and talents? Would they think her to be too boring? Too corny? Too old-fashioned? Too unrelatable? Too simplistic? Too annoying? Too perfect? Too Mary-Sueish? Well, I suppose that you can judge for yourself.

So, why did I spill so much electronic ink on a show that I do not particularly like? Well, I will tell you tomorrow.