Dong Yi — superstition and magic
In another article, I happily assert that Dong Yi is not a serial about fate. It’s about the choices people make. This reflects my own prejudices. Since I do not believe in anything supernatural, all representations of religion or “magic” do nothing more than show the belief systems of the day. None of them can be real. Hence, in my view, the serial is always about the choices people make. But, of course, if the characters do believe in magic, their decisions are inevitably influenced by what they believe.
The role of superstition or magic in any culture can never be underestimated. In the Late Joseon period shown in Dong Yi, the moral and intellectual framework for their society comes from Confucianism and Taoism, i.e. from a more formalised religious base rooted in a relative degree of rationality. The more traditional culture, what we in the West would call pre-Enlightenment, is rooted in ignorance and a fear of the unknown. Superstition takes natural events that cannot be explained in scientific terms and gives them an unnatural explanation. Anything unusual is taken as evidence of supernatural beings and their influence over our world. This can be returning spirits and ghosts, or gods and demons. Standing in the centre of this cultural phenomenon is the shaman. He or she contests the battle between the rational science that appeals to the educated classes, and charlatanry that appeals to the gullible peasants and slaves. Even the nobility can find it difficult to throw off the old social practices, looking for a cause and effect in defending their financial and social status through a shaman’s intercession with gods and ancestors who might affect their fortunes. Such beliefs run in parallel with their equal acceptance of medical science, an increasing understanding of chemistry, astronomy, and so on. For them, there’s no need to choose between the old and new beliefs. You can pray to any god or ancestor that might help you while exploiting all the latest in knowledge and technology. Naturally the Confucian officials condemned shamans as practitioners of black magic with unclean rituals. This was not to deny the existence of spirits. But rather to say there were better ways of honouring ancestors.
The first major plot we see from within the palace shows Queen Myeongseong (Park Jeong-Su), the Queen Mother, exploiting the superstition of the masses to destabilise the position of Jang Hee-Bin (Lee So-Yeon). First comes the fall of the meteorite into the palace. The Ministers immediately claim this as an ill omen, arguing that King Sukjong (Ji Jin Hee) should not reinstate Court Lady Jang (Lee So-Yeon). It seems the fate of the nation turns on such events. It’s fascinating to watch the fear of the Ministers when they are each given tokens made out of the meteorite. The King, it seems is not only a rationalist, but also has a sense of humour. However, he stops laughing for the Omen of Dissonance. The nation’s music has lost its melody which, of course, foretells the fall of the nation — at least that was supposed to be why China fell into chaos. For King Sukjong, it seems if the meteorite doesn’t fall on your head, the music can assault your ears. The masses in the city are thrown into a panic. Fortunately there’s a rational explanation.The pitch of the chimes has been altered using rock salt. The fact the plot is illogical takes nothing away from the power of the idea. If the instruments were tuned wrongly, the musicians would play badly from the outset. Unfortunately, the dissonance in the main banquet is shown only as coming on dramatically after playing had begun.
Later in the serial, even Chief Seo Yong-Gi (Jeong Jin-Yeon) gets in on the superstition act with a reference to a “falling star” being a harbinger of doom — in his case, not fully realised, of course, just the coincidence of a minor wound. Then Dong Yi herself exploits the superstition there’s a “kingly” aura in the house where the newly married prince would go to live. This would lead the common people to expect the prince to become king, somehow usurping the Crown Prince. Fearing this might influence the succession, the young prince is therefore allowed to stay inside the palace.
More generally, the serial is framed by the predictions of two seers or soothsayers depending on your preferred jargon. They both claim to see into the future but are very different. In terms of magical systems, the first represents a form of neutral advisor. Although he’s interventionist, he’s less engaged in the real world. Yes, he talks with the rich and powerful, and takes their money, but he also offers help to the weak and unlucky. However, having offered help, he steps back. Those who have heard his words are free to decide how to react. This is an interesting view of what we might consider fate. He physically holds back Choi Dong Yi (Han Hyo Joo) when she might have given herself away as her father and brother are dragged past her under arrest but, thereafter, he turns away with a prediction of great things if she can survive. Later, by another coincidence, he’s on hand to pull Cha Jeon-Soo (Bae Su-Bin) out of the river. Whether by accident or design, he keeps the key players alive — good scriptwriting!
He offers the lieutenant for Chief Seo advice on who will win the wrestling match. Taking the powers as real, he achieves a godlike omniscience and detachment. He knows the unlucky lieutenant will reject the advice and go home to face the wrath of his wife. This does not prevent him from offering the advice and watching the choice made. Equally, it does not prevent him from making the right bet and profiting. We can say he’s moved by pity for those that cannot change their nature, but there are also signs he has hope for the future. Over time, nothing is ever completely certain. Many factors must interact to produce outcomes. There are always random elements that can change those outcomes. Sometimes, perhaps, individuals could surprise him by making different decisions.
So the pivotal movements come in the Jang household where he advises Oh Tae-Suk (Jeong Dong-Hwan) that the young Jang Hee-Bin whom the family proposes to place in the palace as a concubine, will rise to the top position. In a private session with the girl, the seer advises there will be a challenge from another girl who will burn as brightly. He warns that, if she does not want to be in the shadow, she must not fight the other girl. This is advice to a tiger to change its essential nature but, given Dong Yi’s nature, he’s right that they could share in the good outcome. The second seer is explicitly a shaman who represents the darker arts. She tells the future for Jang Hee-Jae (Kim Yu-Seok) and his mother, Lady Yoon (Choi Ran). They are more open to the notion of proactive black magic and participate in a ritual to curse the dying Queen Inhyeon (Park Ha Sun). Under the law of the time, this was considered an act of treason against the Crown. That they are prepared to run the risk is a sign of both their belief in the power of the ritual and their desperation.
Superstition is both an intellectual trap and an opportunity. It closes your mind to other belief systems that might provide more reliable insights and outcomes. Yet it also represents an opportunity for, if you understand how to exploit the power of the beliefs in the mass culture, you can bring down Kings — the notion of an ill-omen can infect a mob and incite chaos. That the magical systems ultimately fail in Dong Yi shows a new rationality in the ascendancy. Curiously, the battle is still being fought today as remnants of shamanism persist in modern Korea. In some parts of Korea, you will still find shamans performing a kut to exorcise adverse ancestral influences. Misin T’ap’a Undong remains a powerful ideology even in modern times.
For more general discussions of the social and political context for the serial, see:
Dong Yi — the politics
Click here for the reviews of the narrative itself: