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Dong Yi — the politics

July 16, 2011 1 comment

One of the more interesting questions about any modern drama is whether it can escape the limits of our own time and achieve some degree of universality. If we look back at Shakespeare, the people of his time no doubt thought him good. At the very least, they paid to see his work on the stage and read his poetry. But I seriously doubt anyone thought he would still be going strong almost four-hundred years after his death. That his work is still performed is remarkable for two reasons. First, the English is four-hundred years out of date, and a not insignificant amount of the vocabulary is no longer in direct use. Second, the format of blank verse makes the delivery of the words sound even less natural to our modern ears. Yet, despite the fact the language represents a barrier to understanding, the themes are as relevant today as they were yesterday. The plays speak to the realities of power and the frailties of human beings. Sadly, men and women have always been afflicted by excesses of pride, jealousy and cruelty. Fortunately, they have also been uplifted by charity, wisdom and love. That we have survived all these generations is testament to the fact that a balance has been struck between the virtues and the vices, with the former edging into the lead to the race to glory or perdition.

Ji Jin Hee usually showing the King as a man of great humanity

Dong Yi is a Korean sageuk serial, directed by Lee Byung-hoon and based on a script by Kim Yi Young. It’s a story set in the real-world Late Joseon court of King Sukjong (Ji Jin Hee). It’s not about destiny or fate although there’s a Macbeth-style witch to predict the future. It’s about choices and living with the consequences. The framework for the story is the political situation inside the court. It’s bedevilled by infighting between the Western and Southern factions, the latter later dividing into the Soron group which supports the claims of the Crown Price to succeed his father, and the Noron group which prefers the son of Choi Dong Yi (Han Hyo Joo) for the next king.

The main problems with power and wealth are not just in maximising their accumulation, but being able to keep what has been acquired and decide what’s to happen after death. Succession planning becomes a key focus because those who follow the current power-brokers must decide how they will align themselves when the next generation takes over. The fact that fathers may favour one group does not guarantee the sons or daughters will view that group with the same favour. In a way, Dong Yi is a variation on the themes of King Lear in which an ageing king decides to divide his kingdom between his three daughters. We all remember Goneril and Regan, but it’s the virtuous Cordelia who wins out in the end.

Han Hyo Joo as Dong Yi showing the clothing appropriate to different ranks

Dong Yi balances on a political cusp between an old order and a new order. At this point, the inertia of the past reinforces an essential conservatism. Those that have the power naturally want to preserve the status quo and their politics are right wing. These are the High Tory grandees and the stalwarts of the Republican party. The new order is founded on more abstract notions of social justice. In utilitarian terms, it assumes the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, that through the emancipation and empowerment of the lower classes in a society, the community as a whole will benefit. Making an economic point, if wealth is more evenly distributed, the poor have money to spend. They form a market and, if those with capital build businesses that sell goods and services to the poor, the quality of life for all may improve. This is not to say that either old or new order is more rational. But the issue is whether the combination of rationality with a more altruistic use of power produces a better, more enlightened society. If it does, then the new order will prevail.

The problem with King Sukjong is that he lacks the motivation to live up to his Confucian ideals. Like Lear, he’s delegated the running of the kingdom to successive political factions within the palace and “trusts” them to run the country properly. So, in the debate about means and ends, the realpolitik of this historical period sees a well-intentioned king forced to confront the corruption inherent in the old order. For the nobility, the end is the accumulation of personal power, no matter what the cost. By contrast, Choi Dong Yi accumulates power almost inadvertently and only uses what she has for the benefit of others. The relationship between the King and Choi Dong Yi therefore takes the first step in the direction of a renaissance. This is selfless individualism with the power to confront the entrenched interests, thereby promoting the notions of class mobility and a meritocracy. Going back to the issue of succession, this is moving from what we might call a noble line based on blood, to a noble line based on ability and virtue. It’s therefore a threat to the status quo, not to say revolutionary.

Lee So-Yeon as Lady Jang Hee-bin showing the high-ranking hairstyle

In terms of statecraft, the new order reflects a more profound application of Confucianism, demonstrating that being righteous and honest in the service of humanity creates a new political reality. Given the nature of Korean society as an autocracy, Confucius teaches that a ruler will lose Heaven’s Mandate if he acts without proper respect for humanity. This produces a framework of benevolence in support of the people. Mencius also hints at some degree of democratisation in that a ruler should listen to the will of the people on important matters affecting their interests.

Coming to the Jang family as the primary representatives of the old order, we have Lady Jang (Lee So-Yeon) who starts off in an indeterminate state. She is filial and has been involved in the inevitable manoeuvring to acquire power. But, as the family gains status through the murder of competitor nobles, she becomes less directly involved and, in the end, rises above the infighting. She has intelligence and this could have empowered her as a force for good in King Sukjong’s court. Yet she is trapped by her relationships and loyalties. Her decision is to sacrifice her emerging virtue to protect her brother, Jang Hee-Bin (Kim Yoo Suk). This is fateful, based on selfish emotion without concern for the broader social consequences.

Choi Jong-Hwan as Jang Moo-Yul dressing down to pass unnoticed outside the palace

Jang Hee-Bin and Lady Yoon (Choi Ran), his mother, lack Lady Jang’s intelligence. They move at a more instinctive level, driven by the short-term desire to hold what they have despite the consequences, whether positive or negative. The most interesting counterpoint to Choi Dong Yi is Jang Moo-Yul (Choi Jong-Hwan). He represents the most rational mind in the old order. It’s interesting to watch him offer his services to Choi Dong Yi. This is pure pragmatism to join the new order while it ascends. If it then stabilises and holds power, he will be in prime position. If it should appear weak, he can bring it down from within. When she rejects him, he dismisses her as naive because he does not understand how fundamentally Choi Dong Yi’s philosophy will infect those around her. He’s blinded by his own faction’s orthodoxy, assuming the predatory ways of the court cannot change. As a result, he misses the straws in the wind like Matron Yoo (Lim Seong-Min). These people accept a second chance, develop a conscience, or trust each other as honest without looking for hidden motives. He loses when he selfishly overreaches to protect his own interests.

Although allegories are, by their nature, simplistic, Dong Yi is not simple fodder for television audiences. For those who want to look beyond the melodrama and romance, there’s a robust debate on the nature of power, who should have the right to wield it, and for what purposes. There are also fascinating uses of everyman figures. These are the fools and less able who nevertheless find their positions in the new order. To all their just deserts as we watch the more universal moral messages play out. Dong Yi is probably not going to be remembered in hundreds of years as a work of Shakespearean quality, but it’s a brave attempt to say something interesting about the kind of society we should all like to live in.

For more general discussions of the social and political context for the serial, see:
Dong Yi — the politics

Dong Yi — superstition and magic

Dong Yi — the minor characters

Dong Yi — final thoughts

Click here for the reviews of the narrative itself:

Dong Yi — the first 22 episodes;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 23 to 29;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 30 to 36;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 37 to 41;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 42 to 47;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 48 to 50;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 51 to 54;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 55 to 63;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 64 to 69;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 70 to the end.

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