Dae Jang Geum

Produced By:
Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation
First Aired:
Sept 15, 2003, Korea
Lee Byung-Hun
Script writer:
Kim Young-Hyun

Dae Jang Geum, produced by Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) and popularly known in English ahttps://web.archive.org/web/20070926222836/http://www.imbc.com/withmbc/mbcintro/index.htmls Jewel in the Palace and in Mandarin as Da Chang Jin (大长今), is 1 of the latest products in the Korean entertainment wave that’s sweeping the world. The craze for Korean dramas and movies has made household names of the movie My Sassy Girl in 2001, the drama series Winter Sonata in 2002, and now the acclaimed 70-part period drama series, Dae Jang Geum – Jewel in the Palace, which was aired in Korea almost 2 years ago.

Dae Jang Geum’s popularity especially within Asia is unsurpassed in this century. Its viewer ratings reached a historical high of 57.8% in Korea and it was the number 1 viewed programme in Taiwan. It was also a massive hit in Hong Kong where it took the spot for the most popular television drama in history, boasting a top viewer rating of 49%, meaning over 3 million out of Hong Kong’s entire 6.9 million population tuned in at its peak.

The Good

Written by a sole scriptwriter who did a year of research for it, Dae Jang Geum is set around the late 15th to the early 16th century and is based on references within the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty to a female doctor of that time named Jang Geum (Lee Young-Ae) who possessed unparalleled skills in the medical field. Her skills granted her the prestige of becoming the 1st woman ever to be an imperial physician and the King’s personal doctor.

Dae Jang Geum shows how Jang Geum starts off in the royal kitchen as a cook before breaking new ground in the royal physician hall. Throughout the series, viewers are treated to historically accurate depictions of the Korean royal palace, cuisine and medical treatments of that time.

Viewers will also be touched by Jang Geum’s unfaltering perseverance, empathy, humility and compassion; values that are brought out in so poignant a manner within the show that they resonate with every human soul.

I had initially thought it was a sappy Korean drama that only appealed to aunties (old, pedantic, gossipy, post-menopause women who love weepy dramas) and so balked at having to review it. However I was won over after only watching a couple of episodes, as Dae Jang Geum is not just a show that educates us on Korean culture, history, food and medicine; it’s also a show that makes you feel good watching it.

The Bad

I often felt tears welling up at certain points of the show, tears usually not of sorrow or pity, but of pride in the female lead, when she persevered unwaveringly in her goals despite continued bullying and discrimination from her peers and superiors.

My recommendation is, don’t watch Dae Jang Geum if you aren’t ready to be hooked.

The show starts off slowly during the 1st episode, giving the viewers some background on the court politics of that time before moving on to how Jang Geum’s mother and father are separately forced to leave the palace before meeting each other by chance outside. They then fall in love and have a daughter called Jang Geum.

Jang Geum is a precocious young girl with an insatiable curiosity for knowledge, dogged persistence towards goals and a somewhat untempered bold streak that often borders on rashness. She repeatedly attends classes at the village school on the sly despite having to endure her mother’s canings because of that. Her rashness soon results in the capture of her father and death of her mother in episode 2. The series has an early climax here, where Jang Geum’s mother dies from an arrow wound in her bid to protect Jang Geum from assassins sent by their enemies. It is a heart-rending scene, where 8-year-old Jang Geum tries to feed her dead mother with berries she’d chewed on first before attempting to ease into her mother’s mouth.

Her mother’s final wish was for Jang Geum to enter the palace and become the royal cook of the highest order to enable her to record her mother’s grievances in a book accessible only to those holding that position, possibly so future head cooks will know what happened. Therefore Jang Geum enters the palace to train as a palace maid in the royal kitchen after having buried her mother.

Episodes 3 until the late 20s show Jang Geum growing up in the palace and learning the art of cooking under the guidance of Lady Han. The usual power struggles arise as factions in the palace who had originally framed Jang Geum’s mother got jealous of Jang Geum’s intelligence and popularity and conspired to get rid of both her and Lady Han. Lady Han dies on the way to their exile on Jeju-do Island, and Jang Geum spends the next few years as a maidservant working under a talented medical woman on that island. She picks up medical knowledge and episode 32 shows her return to the royal palace to study and work as a medicine woman.

While in the palace, she successfully diagnoses and treats the queen and the empress dowager of ailments that stump even the male imperial physicians. She then discovers the root cause of an apparent epidemic and treats the commoners who are afflicted with it. She further distinguishes herself by treating the emperor of a complicated ailment and later on not only contains the spread of a smallpox outbreak but also personally nurses the afflicted back to health.

During the course of her stint in the royal medical hall, her genius as usual evokes jealousy and fear from both old and new adversaries and they make many attempts to bring her down. Thankfully, their treacherous plans fail after Jang Geum and her long-time admirer Min Jung-ho (Ji Jin-Hee) manage to trap and expose them.

The final part of this series from episode 48 to episode 54 focusses on Jang Geum’s struggle to overcome the traditional practices and gender discrimination in the male dominated society. Jang Geum finally obtains recognition for her medical skills and is appointed to be the King’s personal physician as well as bestowed an official rank of the 3rd grade with the title of Dae (Da in Chinese) Jang Geum, which translates to the “Great Jang Geum”.


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