Dae Jang Geum has become a worldwide drama. According to wikipedia, following countries have watched the drama. Let us know if your country is missing :-) Now I added Kenya based on a comment. Thank you Susan for the comment.
Australia / Brunei / Canada / Egypt / India / Indonesia / Iran / Israel / Japan / Jordan / Kenya/Mainland China (plus Hong Kong) / Malaysia / Nigeria / Philippines / Russia / Singapore / Taiwan / Thailand /Tunisia/ Turkey / United States
So what made the drama so popular around the world? Of course, the success story of the heroine, Dae Jang Geum who worked hard to turn herself from a low position apprentice in the royal kitchen to a royal physician.
Now naturally a question can be raised as we are watching a historical drama here. How much of this is true or really happened?
First, Dae Jang Geum was a real person that we can find related records in Annals of Joseon Dynasty.
March 21, year 10 of the reign of the king, Joong Jong (1515)
Dae Jang Geum appears for the first time in the historical record. Jang Geum took care of the second queen of the king, Joong Jong while she was pregnant. The queen bore a prince who will later become King In Jong. For Joong Jong, the birth was a cause for a big celebration as he had the first son. However, the queen died soon not overcoming aftermath of difficult childbirth.
Now, there was a question of responsibility of the medical persons who attended the queen. Saheonbu – Board of Audit – submitted a petition to the king that Jang Geum who was in charge of assisting the birth should be punished.
To this, the kins sent a reply like this. “Jang Geum, the female physician, did a sucessful job of attending the birth. She deserves a big prize. However, she did not receive any reward because of the queen’s death. Now the least we can do is to relieve her from punishment though we did not reward her. Punishment demanded by Saheonbu cannot be allowed. This is my decision based on balanced consideration of her contribution and mistake.”
Later, Saheonbu again request to the king to allow punishment on Dae Jang Geum but the king did not change his mind.
This record shows us a number of facts.
First, she was a physician from the beginning. She was not a court maid and never sent to Jeju Island in exile as in the drama. Dae Jang Geum served as a physician in the days of the queen Jang Gyung which was before the queen Moon Jeong who appears in the drama.
Second, the incident that Dae Jang Geum originally had a last name Seo but received new last name Dae – meaning “great” due to her contribtuion is a fiction. Her last name was always Dae.
September 5, year 17 of the reign of Joong Jong (1522)
Dae Jang Geum shows up again 10 years later in the Annals. On that day, Ja Soon Daebi, King Joong Jong’s mother, recovered from long illness and rewarded those who took care of her. Dae Jang Geum was one of the people who received the reward.
Year 39 of the reign of Joong Jong (1544)
Around this time, Dae Jang Geum appears several times in history .
Dae Jang Geum already earned a special trust from Joong Jong by taking good care of the king. The old and weak king needed her service more than before.
Then, two male physicians and two female physicians including Dae Jang Geum were taking care of the King.
In January, Joong Jong stayed long in bed for a terrible cold. In February, he fully recovered and rewarded physicians.
In October, Joon Jong’s condition got worse and even became critical. The king could not even defecate properly, and ministers were curious to know how bad he really was.
The person that explained the king’s condition to ministers were none other than Dae Jang Geum herself.
The next day, Joong Jong get a little better, ministers visited the king. when they asked him how he was, the king said, “the female physician knows what my condition is”.
The female physician that Joong Jong mentioned was Dae Jang Geum. This shows that Dae Jang Geum was the pyhsicain in charge for the King at that time. This also lends credibility to the drama’s argument that Dae Jang Geum was the first femaly royal physician.
It is unclear what disease Joong Jong was suffering from. But given that he had difficult in defecating, it may have been rectum cancer.
Dae Jang Geum lessened the sever pain of the King and succeeded in helping him gain some strength. However, the king’s condition was already at the fatal stage. Therefore, Dae Jang Geum’s job was not curing the disease but lessening the pain.
On 14 November, the king gave the throne to In Jong and died the next day. Dae Jang Geum did her best to take care of the king until he passed away.
After this, we find no more record about Dae Jang Geum in the Annals. So, we do not know what happened to her. We can only guess that it must have been difficult for her to stay in the palace as the king under her care died.
Apart from the above, all the other story in the drama is fiction. But this does not make the drama less meaningful or less interesing.
What is real is that there was an excellent woman who had a good professional skill in the history of Chosun and she excelled among male physicians in the male-domainated Chosun dynasty. At least on this point, the drama is not far from the history. The drama is also about the success of a woman that did her best to overcome obstacles and reached a top position in her field.