List of Korean Historical Dramas of 2016

2016 was a busy year for Korean historical dramas, or sageuks. Some of the most popular K-dramas in 2016 were sageuks – including Six Flying Dragons and Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo. Based on the success sageuks had this year, 2017 is shaping up to big year with plenty already lined up.

Let’s take a look back at all the sageuks that aired in 2016. I have listed ALL dramas with a historical element to it, including a couple of mostly modern dramas (they are noted in the overview).  The following dramas are listed in order by AIR DATE:

1. The Merchant: Gaekju 2015

the-merchant-gaekju Native Title: 장사의 객주 2015 jang sa ui shin – gaekju 2015
Air Dates: Sep 23, 2015 to Feb 18, 2016
Network/Episodes: KBS2 41 Episodes
Overview: In late 1800’s Joseon, a poor man named Cheon Bong Sam honestly works his way up to becoming a powerful merchant. As tradesmen clash against the bureaucratic powers that attempt to oppress them by rigging bad deals, Bong Sam never loses sight of his humble beginnings as a peddler even after achieving great success and eventually shapes the way that industry and business are done in his time.
Other: The word “gaekju” is an old Korean word for “merchant” but more specifically, for traveling merchants who wandered to sell their goods. This term is no longer used.
I wrote about Chief Secretary, who was also the queen’s nephew, Min Young-Ik. He shows up in the drama about 3/4 into the series. Min Young-Ik was a REAL historical figure. Although it was not mentioned in this drama, Min Young-Ik was the first ever Korean ambassador to the United States and a master painter.

2. Six Flying Dragons

six-flying-dragons-p1Native Title: 육룡이 나르샤 yook-yongi nareusha
Air Dates: Oct 5, 2015 to Mar 22, 2016
Network/Episodes: SBS 50 Episodes
Overview: Set at the end of the Goryeo Dynasty, this drama focuses on the lives of six characters with Lee Bang Won as the central figure. Lee Bang Won was the third king of the Joseon Dynasty in Korea and the father of King Sejong the Great. He helped his father King Taejo establish the Joseon Dynasty. The drama follows the conflicts of those ‘six flying dragons’ as they attempt to realize the dream they all share of a new nation founded on Confucian principles, which would eventually last for 500 years.
Other: Check out some articles with additional historical background to this drama – Historical Backgrounds for Episodes 13 & 14 and Origin of Six Flying Dragons.

3. Jang Yeong Sil

jang-yeong-sil-poster3Native Title: 장영실 jang yeong shil
Air Dates: Jan 2, 2016 to Mar 27, 2016
Network/Episodes: KBS 24 Episodes
Overview: This is considered to be the first ‘historic science’ drama.  Set towards the early part of Joseon, this drama is about the life story of one of Korea’s most famous scientist, technician and inventor, Jang Yeong Shil.  Jang Yeong Shil was born in the lower class. King Sejong notices his abilities and brings him to the palace. King Sejong grants him a chance to display his abilities. He is credited for inventions such as astronomical instruments, iron printing press and a water clock.
Other: Here’s an article about the real historical person, Jang Yeong Sil

4. Dae Bak (aka: Jackpot, The Royal Gambler)

Jackpot_(Korean_Drama)-p1Native Title: 대박 dae bak
Air Dates: Mar 28, 2016 to Jun 14, 2016
Network/Episodes: SBS 24 Episodes
Overview: Baek Dae Gil is the best gambler in the Joseon era. He holds deep resentment inside, but is also cool on the exterior. King Yeong Jo is a man who never lower his head without a convincing reason. This story is a twist on the story of Lady Choi Sukbin 츼숙빈 (aka Dong Yi) and King Sukjong (r. 1674-1720) and Jang Ok Jung. The story is a fictional twist of her sons, the future King Yeongjo and Baek Dae Gil, the child was was forced to give up in order to save him.

5. The Flower in Prison

jang-ok-jungNative Title: 옥중화 oak jung hwa
Air Dates: Apr 30, 2016 to Nov 6, 2016
Network/Episodes: MBC 51 Episodes
Overview: This drama that takes place in the mid 1500’s during the reign of King Myeongjong명종왕, 13th king of Joseon (r. 1545–1567) . This is a fictional story that revolves around actual historical events including the poisoning of the previous King Injong by Myeongjong’s mother, Queen Dowager Queen Munjeong 문정왕후 and her brother Yun Won Hyung 윤원형. Due to the being a huge hit in Korea, this was expanded from 50 episodes to 51.

6. Mirror of the Witch

mirror-of-the-witch-p2Native Title: 마녀보감 ma nyu bo gam
Air Dates: May 13, 2016 to Jul 16, 2016
Network/Episodes: jTBC 20 Episodes
Overview: Story follows unfortunate princess Seo Ri whose mother, Queen Sim was unable to have a child and searched the aid of a shaman to help her have a child. With the shaman Hong Joo’s black magic, Queen Sim was able to have a boy and girl twins. But the girl, princess Seo Ri was put under a curse that turned her heart as cold as ice and was abandoned deep in the mountains, where she becomes a witch.

7. Love in the Moonlight (aka: Moonlight Drawn by Clouds)

love-in-the-moonlight-cp
Native Title: 구르미 그린 달빛 goo-leu-mi geu-lin dal-beit 
Air Dates: Aug 22, 2016 to Oct 18, 2016
Network/Episodes: KBS2 18 Episodes
Overview: Hong Ra On disguises herself as a man and counsels men on dating. Due to a love letter she wrote for a client, she meets Lee Yeong—future Crown Prince Hyomyeong. Hong Ra On is unaware that he is the Crown Prince and Lee Yeong is unaware that Hong Ra On is a woman. The Crown Prince becomes interested in Hong Ra On. His eunuchs become aware of this and attempt to get Hong Ra On to become one of them.

8. Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo

moon-lovers-scarlet-heart-ryeo-official-posterNative Title: 달의 연인 – 보보경심 려 daleui yeon-in – bo-bo-kyul-shim ryeo 
Air Dates: Aug 29, 2016 to Nov 1, 2016
Network/Episodes: SBS 20 Episodes
Overview: This one begins in the modern era, but by halfway into the first episode, it is all Goryeo! This drama is adaptation from a Chinese drama and is set in the early of Goryeo dynasty. Hae Soo, a 25 year old girl from modern era is transported back to Goryeo dynasty and wakes up in the body of 16-year-old Hae Soo, an aristocrat living with Lady Hae, her cousin who happens to be married to one of the sons of King Taejo. Hae Soo finds herself in the middle of the conflicts and struggles between the many son of King Taejo. While this was a huge ratings disappointment in Korea, outside of Korea, this was the biggest drama hit of the year. I can’t recall where there was such a major disconnect between the Korean audience and the rest of the entire world.
Other: Here’s an article about the real historical person from the drama, the 4th prince, King Gwangjong of Goryeo.

9. The Three Kingdom Wars – Imjin Wars 1592imjin-war-1592-poster1

Native Title: 삼국대전 – 임진왜란1592 sam-guk-dae-jun – imjin wae-lan 1592
Air Dates: Sep 3, 2016 to Sep 23, 2016
Network/Episodes: KBS 5 Episodes
Overview: This docudrama is based on historical facts. All the people, incidents, background, and even dialogues are based on historical documents. The Imjin Wars were invasions launched by the Japanese with the intent of conquering Korea (Joseon) and China (Ming). They were comprised of two seperate invasions, one in 1592 and the other in 1597. Unfortunately, I am not able to find this subtitled anywhere. If anyone happens to find, please post in the comments section.

10. Legend of the Blue Sea

the-legend-of-the-blue-sea-p2-copyNative Title: 푸른 바다의 전설 pu-leun bada-eui jun-suhl
Air Dates: Nov 16, 2016 to Jan 19, 2017
Network/Episodes: SBS 20 Episodes
Overview: This is mostly a modern drama that starts in 1582 and flashes back to that time at the beginning of each episode. Korean history has many records about mermaids. Shim Chung is a Joseon mermaid who finds herself transplanted to modern times. She is caught by Heo Joon Jae, a charming but cold con artist who is the doppelgänger for Kim Moon, the son of a nobleman from the Joseon Dynasty. But in the present time, Joon Jae works with Jo Nam Doo, a skilled conman who guides Joon Jae to become a genius scammer.

11. Goblin

goblinNative Title: 도깨비 do-ggae-bi
Air Dates: Dec 2, 2016 to Jan 21, 2017
Network/Episodes: TvN 16 Episodes
Overview: Mostly modern drama that begins with a historical backdrop in Goryeo dynasty.  This drama is a fantasy tale between a 935 year old goblin who needs a mortal bride to ends his immortal life, an amnesiac grim reaper who stays together with the goblin to oversees the passing souls, and a human woman who suddenly appears claimed to be the goblin’s bride, who actually destined to be killed.

12. Hwarang: The Beginning

hwarang-intl-teaser-image

Native Title: 화랑: 더 비기닝 hwa-rang duh be-gi-ning 
Air Dates: Dec 19, 2016 to Feb 21, 2017
Network/Episodes: KBS2 20 Episodes
Overview: Drama series depicts the story of Hwarang (literally “Flowering Knights”) – an elite group of male youth in during the Kingdom of Silla. The story takes place during the reign of King Jinheung of Silla 진흥태왕 who reigned from 540 AD – 576 AD.
Other: Check out the page on this site for a closer look at the real history of Hwarang.

Which ones have you seen so far? Which were your favorite or least favorite? Feel free to add your comments below.

Coming soon: A sneak peek at 2017’s line-up of Korean historical dramas.

Credits: Mydramalist.com and wiki.d-addicts.com

  • allywonger

    http://newasiantv.me/drama/three-kingdom-wars-imjin-war-1592.1625.html
    I believe they are in the process of subbing it. Not 100% sure tho.

  • Jade Kat Roberts

    In all honesty Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo is the best historical fantasy drama I have seen and knowing that it end so sadly makes it all more special.
    Don’t you agree!

  • Ben Tongco

    I have watched Moonlight and Scarlet Heart. But Scarlet Heart is very much better than moonlight. The story is so nice and all the cast did a very great job. I really enjoyed scarlet heart drama. For us, this is the best korea drama ever. Scarlet heart is the best and number 1.

  • Humbledaisy

    I actually have the first four on my “soon to be marathoned” list. I’ve seen a bit of Goblin so far and found it lovely and quite funny for such a dark subject. I’d like to hear your theories about why Scarlet Heart – Ryeo was so unpopular in Korea (my theory is that it was running up against the sunny and beautiful Moonlight/Clouds) because it is the show that I’ve been watching over and over. It was a bit choppy between the international and KBS versions but it was a riveting story. I was already familiar with the Chinese drama and novel it was based on but I thought this was a very credible re-visiting.

    • My theory as to why Scarlet Heart was a ratings flop is not just one reason, but multiple factors. I agree with you to an extent that Moonlight/Clouds could have contributed to the low ratings- they were competing head-to-head during the exactly same time slot.

      With streaming being so prevalent, the time slot conflict is only part of the problem. There was SO MUCH hype around Scarlet Heart, but the casting could have impacted the ratings. Moonlight/Cloud’s lead actress was Kim Yoo Jung – who is the PRINCESS of sageuks – she has literally grown up in sageuks! If she’s in a sageuk – it MUST be worth watching. Now lets compare her to the lead actress of Scarlet Heart, UI -who in comparison lacks any type of “street cred” when it comes to sageuks. I think for such a major production, maybe they should have went with another lead actress with a stronger sageuk credibility, especially when going head-to-head against Kim Yoo Jung. Perhaps then it might have been taking a bit more seriously by the Korean audience.

      There was also Flowers in Prison, which was an even bigger ratings hit in Korea than even Moonlight/Clouds – so basically Scarlet Heart was competing against 2 other sageuks airing around the same time that had more sageuk credibility.

      Going back to streaming – I’m not sure how big of a factor this played – but here’s what I think: SBS did not extend its licensing agreements to some of the major international outlets for overseas Koreans, such as ONDemandKorea or KorTV. I think this was a bad decision. For example, lets look at my parents who are MAJOR sageuk fans – they had never even heard of Scarlet Heart! Why? Because it’s not on the streaming services targeted to what we call “Overseas Koreans” – Limiting the licensing only to Dramafever in the US was a strategic mistake (sorry Dramafever). SBS missed the chance to gain international hype amongst Korean speaking Overseas Koreans. Can they watch it on Dramafever? Well yes. However, Dramafever doesn’t localize its app – meaning that it does not switch over to Korean when you set your device to Korean – the app is ONLY in English – so they don’t even bother.

      It’s not just ONE reason but several. Would have, Could have, Should have….
      Anyways, these are just my own humble theories.

      • Humbledaisy

        I didn’t know how poorly SBS promoted this to Koreans overseas. I did live view it via a link to SBS mobile because I happened to be free from 9-10 a.m. CST on Mondays with my very poor Korean and then re-watched it later in the day with English subtitles so I did wonder about those rights. Thanks!

      • smaritonii

        well eventhough scarlet heart rheo didnt do well in Korea..at least it was compensated by having the highest rating compared to the others internationally…kudos to the cast of moon lovers…