With all the inaccurate definitions and misperceptions floating out there, I wanted to call this article “Sageuk: The Definitive Guide To Korean Historical Dramas.” I opted for a lower key-key title, but with the aim to providing as much information as possible 🙂
Here is a general introduction to world of Korean Historical Dramas, also known as Sageuks. We’ll explore the various terms and examine the issues (and controversies) of this global phenomenon. Let’s start by defining exactly what a sageuk is. The word sageuk 사극 literally means “historical drama” in Korean. The word itself is derived from Sino-Korean (Hanja) words, Sa (사/史) meaning “history” and geuk (극/劇) meaning “drama”. Sageuk refers to any Korean TV or film drama based on either historical figures, incorporate historical events, or use a historical backdrop. While technically the term sageuk means historical drama, the term is typically reserved for dramas taking place during Korean history. Non-Korean historical dramas use another term that we will talk about it just a bit. Although sageuk is not limited to a specific time period, per se, the term is generally used to refer to dramas taking place before the end of the Joseon Dynasty(1897), although that is not by any means a hard cut off.
Sageuks are typically long, epic dramas with very complex story lines filled with love, betrayal, and deception, with some degree of martial arts and sword fighting. Then there’s the beautiful Korean clothing, called hanboks and elaborate hairstyles that are real eye catchers. Unlike American or European TV series that go on for an indefinite number of seasons, sageuks (as with most other types of Korean dramas) have a set number of episodes with a predetermined end; similar to what we would call a “mini-series” in America, but with a lot more episodes. Whereas a typical American miniseries might have an average of 4 to 6 episodes, the average sageuk has around 40 episodes, with many ranging upwards of 80 episodes or more.
Now that we have defined sageuks, we will explore the various terms related to sageuks.
Shidae Geuk 시대극/時代劇)
Shidae Geuk (시대극/時代劇) is a Korean word that literally means “period dramas.” Shidae-geuk is used to refer to any TV, film, or theater piece taking place during a specific period of time; it is what we would refer to in English as a period piece (ex: Medieval Period, US Revolutionary Period, Victorian England, etc). The word shidae (시대/時代) comes from the Sino-Korean word meaning “time period” or “era”. This term is not limited to Korean dramas, but is used to describe any period dramas from any country or language. For example, Youngdeu shidae-geuk (영드 시대극) is the word for “British period drama” and Mideu shidae-geuk (미드 시대극) means “American period drama”.
Korean history can be broken down by the following eras:
- Ancient Times (산고 시대): This would include any time prior to the Three Kingdoms Period
- Three Kingdom Period (삼국 시대): 57 BC – 668 AD This time period includes the kingdoms of Goguryeo, Baekje, Silla and Gaya. It may also include post-Three Kingdoms kingdoms of Balhae (698-926) and Unified Silla (935).
- Goryeo Dynasty (고려 시대): 918-1392
- Joseon Dynasty (조선 시대): 1392-1897
- Japanese Colonial Occupation (일제 강점기 시대): 1910-1945. This period of time includes time leading up this period (i.e.The Korean Empire 1897-1910)
Since most of these time periods lasted for literally hundreds of years, they can be broken down even further. For the purposes of this article, I kept it at the highest level. For a list of sageuks by time period, please click here:
Modern Korean History can be broken out as follows:
- Military Regime (군사 정권): 1945-1948
- Korean War Period (한국전쟁 중에): 1950 – 1953
- 1st, 2nd Republic and Military Dictatorship (제1공화국/제2공화국/군사혁명): 1948-1963
- 3rd & 4th Republic (제3공화국/제4공화국):1963 – 1981
- 5th Republic (제5공화국): 1981-1987
- 6th Republic (제6공화국): 1987 – Present
Here’s where things get a bit sticky. I’ve seen various explanations, so I want to lay it out a clearly as possible: all Korean historical dramas, or sageuks, fall under three distinct categories: authentic sageuks, fusion sageuks and faction sageuks. We will take a look at each one so you have a clear understanding between each of the categories.
Authentic Sageuk (정통사극) or Jeong-tong sageuk is what we call a “docudrama” in English; a dramatized version of real historical people or historical events. While authentic sageuks utilizes a degree of dramatization for entertainment value, they stay close to real history. Authentic sageuks involve extensive research and draws upon historical records (so much as is available) to offer a high degree of historical accuracy. Authentic sageuks may use a commentator throughout various points the series to give viewers more information to give more historical context. Some examples of this type of sageuk would include The Great King’s Dream (KBS 2012) and Dae Jo Yeong (KBS 2006). Most sageuks up to the late 1990’s/early 2000’s fell into this category, in fact, the late 1990’s to early 2000’s was considered the “golden age” of authentic sageuks, when viewership in Korea reached as high as 60%. By the mid-2000’s, authentic sageuks fell out of favor for sageuks that veered away from the traditional textbook version of history and incorporated much more artistic license. However, just as people began to think that authentic sageuks would disappear along with silent films and Polaroid cameras, came the massive success of the authentic sageuk Joeng Dojeon (KBS, 2014). This success has elated historical purists by proving there may still be a place for authentic sageuks after all.
On the complete opposite side of the spectrum are fusion sageuks (퓨전 사극). Fusion sageuks are completely fictional dramas that only use a historical backdrop to tell the story. Any use of real historical figures is used purely in a fictional context. Some examples of this vein of fusion drama would be Sungkyunkwan Scandal or Moon Embracing the Sun, both achieving huge international success. There are also fusion sageuks that incorporate elements like time travel, monsters, supernatural abilities, and vampires. Fusion sageuks such as Faith, Gu Family Book and Scholar Who Walks The Night have all been very successful with both Korean and global audiences.
Problems With Fusion
With only these two categories proved to be a bit problematic, as this left a lot of sageuks with strong historical foundations to be thrown into the fusion category if too much artistic license was taken. By the end of the 2000’s, nearly every sageuk was considered fusion, regardless of historical merit. Global hit sageuks such as Jumong (MBC 2006), Queen Seon Duk (MBC 2009) and Dae Jang Geum (Jewel in the Palace) (MBC 2003) helped put sageuks on the map, but were all classified as fusion sageuks (along with vampires and time travelers) because of their fictional story lines. While 90% of these sageuks may have been creative fiction, the remaining 10% was in fact based on real history, using the relatively small amount of historical documentation in existence. The problem with the broad stroke use of the fusion label, was that it completely discredited and disregarded the historical value these sageuks did bring to the table. It also turned what were legitimate historical events and figures in Korean history, into nothing more than a screenwriter’s imagination. This dilemma lead to creation of a new sageuk category called faction sageuks.
Faction Sageuks (팩션 사극) is derived from the English word Fact (사실) combined with Fiction (허구): Fact + (Fic)tion = Faction. These sageuks have the framework of an authentic sageuk by focusing on actual historical figures and events, while taking varying degrees of artistic liberties to weave in a fictional story line. They may be a reinterpretation or a retelling of well documented pieces of history, or a fictional story line created to fill in the gaps on people and events that lack a lot of historical records. By applying this term correctly, faction sageuks account for the majority of all sageuks from the mid-2000’s to the present. They have been huge rating blockbusters within Korea and have achieved major international success.
Daeha or Taeha Drama (대하드라마) is used exclusively by KBS to describe their annual major dramas series. KBS began to use this term for their sageuks in the 1970’s to mirror the highly successful Japanese historical dramas known as Taiga Drama, but didn’t produce their first daeha drama, Daemyeong until 1981. Both “Taiga” and “Daeha” come from the Chinese word meaning “great river” (大河). These full length epic dramas flow through the course of some great event or the life of a heroic figure like a great river. The average daeha drama has between 80 to 100 episodes. Due to the length and sheer budget of these dramas, KBS only churns out one every 12 to 18 months. Daeha dramas are known for taking an authentic approach. Among some daeha dramas from the past several years include Jing Bi Rok (2015), Jeong Dojeon (2014) The Great King’s Dream (2012-2013) and Gwanggaeto the Great (2011-2012).
Controversies Surrounding Sageuks
There is growing concern among critics consisting of historians and other literal purists, is that sageuks, while entertaining, is a distortion of Korean history. Even with the addition of the faction category by no means has put an end the controversy. Sageuks such as wildly popular Empress Ki (MBC 2013), ignited controversy because it seems on the surface to be a faction sageuk, when in fact, it provided absolutely no historical; even the king of Goryeo was a fictional character. Entertaining? Absolutely! Historically accurate…even just a little? Not at all. Critics believe sageuks such as Empress Ki adds confusion for viewers as they will only come to learn the distorted version of Korean “history”, which isn’t even history, but rather fiction.
Value of Sageuks For Korean Globalization
While I recognize the concerns regarding historically accuracy, from my personal perspective, I believe the advantages of sageuks strongly outweighs the negatives for the following reasons:
- The credit for the globalization of Korean history can only be given to sageuks. Sageuks have single-handedly placed Korean history on the global stage which is an achievement that neither universities, think tanks, or even the Korean government has been able to accomplish to the scale and degree sageuks have.
- Korea’s own version of history has always been squeezed out by the Chinese and Japanese versions of Korean history. Sageuks have provided Korea with a voice to stake her own claim in history.
- Sageuks are the only exposure most 2nd and 3rd generation Korean-Americans have had to Korean history and I suspect the same can be said for Korean-Canadians, Korean-Australians, Korean-British, etc.
- The popularization of Sageuks have provided an educational component by prompting people from all over the world to become interested in learning about Korean history in a way that hadn’t existed before.
- History aside, sageuks provide exposure to Korea’s rich cultural past ranging from art, architecture, to fashion; while providing insight into other elements such as the social order of Korean society, Confusion values and gender relations.
While the distortion of history is something that needs to be considered and thought through, I believe viewers also want to know the real history. Take this very website as example. The whole reason behind its creation was to house my own research and to give a platform for other curious viewers to discern fact from fiction by providing access to historical and cultural content.
Conclusion and Final Thoughts
As you can see, I REALLY like sageuks. OK, that’s an understatement. 🙂 Therefore it’s a bit disappointing when I see criticism surrounding sageuks (not by all, but there are the haters). It’s really easy for historians and other critics to tear a sageuk to shreds, point out all the historical inaccuracies, and then place blame on everyone else for distorting Korean history on the global stage. If they are so concerned, then here is what I have say: “do something about it!” Provide content and material that breaks down Korean history in a way that is accessible for a global audience (i.e. in English). Much of the English content can only be found on Wikipedia, which is often a complete joke since many of those entries are literally a recaps of their character in a sageuk! Rather than placing blame on screenwriters, use that energy to clean up Wikipedia. As of now, the work of providing legitimate historical context has been left to the work of a handful of mindful and dedicated bloggers, who too, are trying to weave their way through 5000 years of Korean history.
I’d love to hear about the reasons you like sageuks and the benefits they’ve had from your perspective.
Additional Sageuk Terms
Here are some more terms not already mention relating to the world of sageuks. Please feel free to add any additional terms in the comments section and I’ll gladly to add to this list.
- Political Sageuk (정치 사극) jung-chee sageuk
- Great Achievements Sageuk 성공사극 sung-gong sageuk
- Heroic Figure Sageuk 인물 사극 ein-mool sageuk
- Great Achievement of Heroic Figure Sageuk 인물의 성공사극 ein-mool-eah sung-gong sageuk
- War (Battle) Sageuk 전쟁사극 jung-jahng sageuk
- Contemporary (Modern) Drama (현대극) hyundai-geuk