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Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Korean Medical TV Dramas

In 1999 I was teaching English in Korea and I used to rush home after work to try and catch the next cliff hanging episode of Heo Jun. This Korean medical TV series was the dramatization of the well-known and loved 16th century Korean physician Heo Jun.

"Heo Jun (허준, 1537?/1539 – 9 October 1615) was a court physician of the Yangcheon Heo clan during the reign of King Seonjo of the Joseon Dynasty in Korea.[1] He was appointed as a court physician at the age of 29. He wrote a number of medical texts, but his most significant achievement is Dongui Bogam (lit. "Mirror of Eastern Medicine"), which is often noted as the defining text of traditional Korean medicine. The work spread to East Asian countries like China, Japan, and Vietnam where it is still regarded as one of the classics of Oriental medicine today. Although Heo Jun worked extensively with the royal family, he put a great emphasis on making treatment methods accessible and comprehensible to common people. He found natural herb remedies that were easily attainable by commoners in Korea. Furthermore, he wrote the names of the herbs using the simple hangul letters instead of using more difficult hanja (Chinese characters), which most commoners did not understand.[2][3]"

At that time there were no English subtitles and I had to ask my Korean family for a running translation. There were no English TV channels and I lived in a county in the middle of Korea where few people spoke English. I was spending more time learning Korean than teaching English just so I could communicate and get around. Even with my family's limited English ability, I was still entranced and riveted to each episode. And each episode ended with a cliff-hanger and the suspense for the next week's episode was contagious. I did literally run home so I could catch at least the opening theme music, which was in itself very catchy. It wasn't until 6 years later that I was able to see the drama again with English translation. In 2013 they did an excellent remake.

In 2005 we were able to rent VHS tapes from a local Korean grocery store in Canada where we now live of a Korean drama called Dae Jang Geum. This drama was a huge international hit and all time classic. Dae Jang Geum is sometimes translated as "Jewel in the Palace". Dae Jang Geum doesn't start out as a medical drama though there are a few scenes with illustrations of Traditional Korean medical practices. It starts out as an intrigue in the royal palace and then develops more of a theme focused on palace cooking and palace politics and customs. The theme later dives very deeply into Korean Traditional Medicine and how Dae Jang Geum learned the art and science in order to return from exile and enter palace life again, but this time as a physician. The palace cooking stuff continues and it is great. Who doesn't love Korean food?

This VHS series also did not have English translations so I had to rely on translations from family and my own interpretation of the actions. If I had spent over $300 I could have ordered English translated CDs. Eventually I was able to watch the drama for the first time on Youtube, in short 10 minute clips that had passable translation. Even with my limited Korean it was obvious many translations were wrong. It was a great revelation to finally be able to see the English subtitles though, and not too long ago, I re-watched it in hour long episodes with good translation. Tragedy, romance, comedy, politics, history, culture, Traditional Korean Medicine - it has it all.

"Dae Jang Geum (Hangul: 대장금; hanja: 大長今; RR: Dae Jang-geum; MR: Tae Chang-gǔm; literally "The Great Jang-geum"), also known as Jewel in the Palace, is a 2003 Korean television series directed by Lee Byung-hoon. It first aired from September 15, 2003 to March 23, 2004 on MBC, where it was the top program with an average viewership rating of 46.3% and a peak of 57.8% (making it the 10th highest rated Korean drama of all time). Produced for US$15 million, it was later exported to 91 countries and has earned US$103.4 million worldwide, becoming known as one of the primary proponents of the Korean Wave by heightening the popularity of Korean pop culture abroad.[1][2][3]

Starring Lee Young-ae in the title role, it tells the tale of an orphaned kitchen cook who went on to become the king's first female physician. In a time when women held little influence in society, young apprentice cook Jang-geum strives to learn the secrets of Korean cooking and medicine in order to cure the King of his various ailments. It is based on the true story of Jang-geum, the first female royal physician of the Joseon Dynasty. The main themes are her perseverance and the portrayal of traditional Korean culture, including Korean royal court cuisine and traditional medicine.[4]"

Now that I have seen more Korean dramas that just have medical or hospital themes I am also interested in ratings and what are the best ones. Of course, what is best is subjective and ratings don't necessarily reflect what one might personally enjoy. I find that a lot of ratings are on Wikipedia. Hur Jun and Dae Jang Geum are in the top ten all time rated Korean dramas, and that is not just drama that involve a lot of Traditional Korean medicine. I remember signing a petition to ask the BBC to play Dae Jang Geum drama for British TV audiences. I don't think it was ever successful, but the drama did play successfully around most of known universe.

An important note to make about Heo Jun and Dae Jang Geum is that they were both directed by Lee Byung-Hoon, who is still going strong making these epic 50 plus episode period dramas based in the Joeson Dynasty history or saeguk. I think they are superb representations of the Korean people and culture - even if only part fantasy and dramatization - there is so much to speak for them.

It seems like it was about 4 years ago that we started watching a lot of Korean TV dramas on our laptop computers utilizing the streaming services of a variety of Asian and Korean drama websites. A lot of these had dubious video and sub-title quality and came with annoying ads. Eventually services like Dramafever and Viki would become the best in quality and we subscribed monthly for a very low subscription rate. A few years ago we cut the TV cable and bought a Chromecast device so we can stream Dramafever and Viki to our big screen TV. The age of binge Korean TV drama had finally arrived.

Here is a list of Korean TV dramas that have a medical theme, plot or drama (In fact if you google "Korean TV medical drama" you will get several lists but these are just the ones that we watched). I must say that 2016 has been an awesome year for good medical dramas from the Koreans.

1. Doctors, 2016
2. Descendants of the Sun, 2016
3. Beautiful Mind, 2016
4. Yong-Pal, 2015
5. Doctor Stranger, 2014
6. Good Doctor, 2013
7. Hur Jun: The Original Story, 2013
8. Sign, 2011
9. Jejunwon, 2010
10. General Hospital 2, 2008

Why is the Korean word for scalpel "mes" 메스? Is that konglish ( Korean-English ) or is a real Korean word? According to Asianwiki it is actually a Dutch word! "Early Korean title was "Green Mes," which translates literally to "Green Scalpel". The word "Mes" is derived from the Dutch language and used in Korea/Japan to refer to a "scalpel". Title was then changed by KBS2 staff to "Good Doctor" due to some people's unfamiliarity with the word "Mes"." There is some very interesting stuff going on with these dramas and I think I will leave that to another post.