JeJoongWon (제중원) (Part 1)

JeJoongWon (제중원)

Jejoonwon is set from 1884 through around 1915 during the reign of King Gojong.

Note: As I was writing this, there was so much I wanted to write about that I decided to divide this article into two parts. The first part is to discuss the historical aspects of the drama, Jejoongwon. The second is closer look at the real people behind all the characters we know and love in this drama. If you haven’t yet seen it, don’t worry there aren’t any real spoilers. 

I finished watching the 36 episode SBS drama, JeJoongWon (제중원). Let me start by saying that I loved it! I found myself thinking about this even after several days. I have no idea why this drama hasn’t reached the grand scale popularity of other sageuks such as Dong Yi or Jumong or Dae Jang Geum (Jewel of the Palace). JeJoongWon begins in the year 1884, towards the end of the Joseon Dynasty. It continues into the Korean Empire up through about 1915, which was 5 years into the Japanese colonization of Korea. What makes this historical drama so unique and fascinating is that it is the only sageuk (at least that I know of) which covers this time period in the way that it does. Through JeJoongWon, we see first hand the rapid transformation and social changes in Korea during this time. Within this short period of time, the entire foundation of Joseon was shaken up. It was here that we see the abolition of slavery and an end to the caste system. It is also here that we see the end of the 500 year old Joseon Dynasty and the beginning of Korea. We see the events leading up to the Japanese annexation of Korea and the wide spread adoption of Christianity. 

jjw-building picture


Jejoongwon was the first medical hospital and school in Korea that focused on western medicine. It was established in 1885 by Dr. Horace Allen with the full support of King Gojong. In 1904 Jejoongwon became Severance Hospital, the first modern style hospital facility in Korea. In 1957 Yonhei University (연 “Yon”) merged with Severance Medical Center (세 “Sei) to become what is now Yonsei University, one of the most prestigious universities in Korea. 

I admit, I have never been a fan of medical dramas and have zero interest in watching them.  Part of what kept me away from Jejoongwon for so long is that it’s been classified as a “medical drama”, which was a turn off right away. If you are also not a fan of medical dramas, please don’t let this deter you. To call this a medical drama is to miss the point altogether – it’s really about the modernization of Korea.  It’s the medicine that serves as a catalyst for the rapid transformation that helps to pull Korea into the modern era. 

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Hwang Jung – The son of a butcher


To fully understand the context of this drama, along with my subsequent point, it’s important to understand the fact that Joseon society was based on social caste system. Caste systems have existed in Korea since the Three Kingdoms Period (ex: Silla’s Bone Rank System) to Goryeo and throughout Joseon. The Joseon caste system was a very well defined and rigid system which put every single person in one caste or another. This system was hereditary and pretty much determined one’s entire fate in life – from one’s occupation, to whom they could marry and for some castes, where they could to live. Although the caste system was abolished in 1894, the reality is that it didn’t simply go away over night. The remnants lasted throughout much of the early 20th century through various forms of discrimination. 

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Sukran – the modern woman, ahead of her time in Joseon

This drama centers around three medical students who were among the first group to graduate from Jejoongwon.  Baek Doyang (백도양 ) from the Yangban (양반) or aristocratic class, Yu Sukran (유석랑) a female from the ChungIn (중인) or upper-middle class, and Hwang Jung 황정 who was from the lowest subset of the CheonMin 천민 or “untouchable” caste, known as Beakjung 백정. The Beakjung were butchers who were so low that they were considered by some to be subhuman and had to live in their own area separate from “real” human beings.  


Doyang – the aristocrat who wants to bring Korea to the modern age

Each of these characters had obstacles and challenges that reflect a different piece of the Korean experience. Through these characters and others in the drama, we get a glimpse into how these changes impacted everyone up and down the entire social strata. Through Hwang Jung, we see the life of extreme discrimination and abuse people of the butcher class were subjected to. Through Sukran, we see the challenges she faced as a women despite being more intelligent and possessing more worldly sophistication than most men of her day. Then there’s Doyang, who despite being an aristocrat and one might say an oppressor in Joseon, becomes the oppressed and experiences subhuman treatment by his Japanese colleagues for being Korean. 

JeJoongWon is the only sageuk that takes this close of a look at all the various social dynamics within Joseon society. It does this in a very matter of fact way that doesn’t place judgement. Amongst the Joseon people, there aren’t any clear over-the-top villains. The ones who I thought were the villains, I ended up either empathizing with or feeling a bit sorry for in the end. In addition to the internal social dynamics of Joseon society, there was the rapidly growing influence/pressure from Japan, China, Russia and the West. Top that off with all the new technology that started pouring in – its the first sageuk I’ve seen with a camera along with the initial horror that it caused amongst the people.  


Bringing us a glimpse of the changing times


Another interesting aspect of JeJoongWon is that it is a “Who’s Who” of everyone who played a role in the widespread adoption of Christianity in Korea (In Part 2 we’ll look at all the different characters and the real life historical figures behind each of the characters). It wasn’t until I finished and reflected on it that I realized that JeJoongWon can also be seen as the history of Christianity in Korea.

I want to be very clear: this point was never outrightly discussed or brought up in the drama, but rather this is my own take away.  As most Korean-Americans know, the church has always played a very major role Korean American society. All the western figures featured in the drama were actual historical people who played major roles in helping to build Korea in the modern era. Their students also went on to shape the modern history of Korean and Korean-American history. 


For those who may not already be aware of this, let me provide some additional context regarding the whole Korean/Christian connection.  The rapid and fervent embrace of Christianity by Koreans is unlike anything seen before and even since. Missionaries first arrived in China and Japan, but it didn’t quite take off there as it did amongst Koreans. Today, figures show between 30-40% of Koreans in S. Korea identify themselves as being Christian. For Korean-Americans, that number jumps to a whopping 80%. The world’s largest “megachurch” is located in Korea, with around 250,000 members. Of the top fifteen “megachurches” in the entire world, six are in Korea. So in other words, Christianity is HUGE. Understanding all the underlying dynamics mentioned in the drama will help to shed light as to how and why Christianity spread like gangbusters amongst Koreans.

Screen Shot 2015-06-18 at 11.01.59 AMWhile it was never directly stated in the drama, Jejoongwon was not only hospital and school for learning western medicine, but it also played an important role in the spread of Christianity. During the Joseon period, churches were still not allowed but schools and hospitals were.  Jejoongwon, along with the other medical centers and schools, were the hotspots for various missionary activities, including providing a place for worship, community meetings and bible study. The doctors and teachers who ran these schools and medical facilities, including Dr. Allen of Jejoongwon, Dr. Heron, Dr. Horton, Rev. Underwood, and Rev Appenzeller were in fact missionaries sent by the Presbyterian and Methodist churches. 

Jejoongwon62-actor Dr. Allan

Dr. Horace Allen – the first director of Jejoongwon


As the old saying goes, “timing is everything.” We can see in JeJoongWon that the social and political conditions were ripe for the picking for the spread of Christianity. The early Christian missionaries embraced everyone – this means those who were formerly slaves, butchers and other “untouchables” were fully accepted into the fold, which up to this time was practically unheard of.  When it came to women, these missionaries set up school for girls. This was first time girls could receive an education outside of the home, which had never existed before. It was through these education missions, coupled with the ease of Hangul (Korean alphabet invented by King Sejong), that literacy rates among women and the lower classes sky rocketed. This in turn meant there were more people who could actually read the bible thereby spreading Christianity even more. For those in the higher castes, such as CheongMin and enlightened Yangban, adopting Christianity was viewed as part of the modernization process. For others, there was a strong relationship amongst Christians and the Korean independence movement. In essence, to be Christian was to be a true Korean Nationalist and vice versa. Most of the political leaders and Screen Shot 2015-06-18 at 6.27.03 AMprominent reformers leading up to and through the Japanese colonial period were Christians or had converted to Christianity as a political statement against the Japanese. So again, while Christianity is never directly discussed in the drama, many examples are given throughout the drama that shed light certain aspects that allows the most Korean viewers to put two and two together.  

For a deeper look at the real people who were either direct characters or served as the inspiration for the characters, please visit the Part 2 page. If you haven’t seen it, I really encourage you to see do so. I hope this modern talk hasn’t scared you Screen Shot 2015-06-18 at 6.32.13 AMoff. For those of you looking for a more traditional sageuk, don’t worry – there are still a lot of very gorgeous hanboks, giseang and royalty to watch! 🙂  

Please feel free to comment and discuss.

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Sources: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

To read more about the real people behind the characters click here for Part 2. Some other very good blog articles related to this topic that might be of interest:

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Follow Bibimgirl’s board JeJoongWon (제중원) on Pinterest.

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Hwang Jung showing Sukran just how “modern” he really is after he learned that western men get on their knees to propose.


Hwang Jung and Sukran’s Christian wedding



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Stop looking, go back!


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Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

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