“If I had a thousand lives to give, Korea should have them all.”
Tears stung my eyes when I read the above epitaph. I had just finished another episode of Jejoongwon (SBS 2010) and was poking around the Internet, gobbling up every bit of information I could find on the historical facts behind the drama. Those words, even though they are inscribed on the tombstone of Ruby Rachel Kendrick, who is not a character in Jejoongwon, are nevertheless so true of the foreigners whose lives are reenacted in the drama.
Horace Allen. John Heron. Lilias Horton.
These names now roll off my tongue as if they are old friends. All of them were doctors. All of them were fiercely devoted to a foreign country called Joseon. This drama is about them and the hospital they established. But above all it is about one man’s journey, from an outcaste clan to an operating theater, from being a despised butcher to becoming one of Korea’s first surgeons.
Hwang Jung’s journey (and all of the events in the drama) takes place in a time of political tumult and tremendous social change. Allow me to take you on his journey (spoiler-free, as much as possible), and to introduce to you a drama that is one of the very best TV productions out of Korea in the last 2.5 years.
To begin, let us try to understand the history, because doing so will enhance our enjoyment of Jejoongwon. This is after all a historical drama, and many of its characters once walked on this earth.
Joseon Caste System
I want to start with the Joseon caste system because most of Hwang Jung’s struggles are due to his place in a hierarchical society that has existed for hundreds of years (the Joseon dynasty began in 1392 and ended in 1910). Understanding the social structure will not, in any way, diminish our horror at how cruelly he is treated. But it will help us marvel at the astonishing fact that within Korea’s first batch of Western-trained doctors there was indeed a butcher, and whose life was the canvas upon which writer Lee Ki-won drew the story of Hwang Jung.
(Incidentally, Lee Ki-won also wrote 2007’s fabulous medical thriller, The White Tower. Miss this and you miss the best TV performance by a Korean actor, bar none.)
Simply put (because much as I love history, I don’t want to turn this review into a treatise), traditional Joseon society comprised four groups (excluding royalty). At the top of the hierarchy were the Yangban, namely the nobility or elites who were civil and military officials.
Below them were the Chungin, literally “middle people” because they were sandwiched between the yangban and the next caste. Merchants, local magistrates and interpreters were just some of the members of this middle caste. (Much-loved Interpreter Yoo, played by extremely-loved Kim Gab-soo, is a chungin.)
Sangmin (“common people”) made up the third caste, with 75% of the populace falling into this category. Most were farmers, fishermen or laborers, and they paid the most taxes. (The yangban collected taxes on behalf of the government and many were more than willing to siphon away the proceeds for their own coffers, thus cementing their reputation as corrupt oppressors of the common folks.)
The fourth caste was called Chonmin (the “base people”), with slaves, convicts, entertainers (such as gisaeng) and shaman included in this despised lot. At the very bottom of the Chonmin caste was a group so reviled its members were considered a subgroup and had to live in segregated communities.
Yes, I’m speaking of the Baekchong, the outcaste group in Joseon. So low was the status of the baekchong, who were mostly butchers, gravediggers and executioners, they had no family names. Thus our Hwang Jung began life in the drama as Little Dog, while his father was simply called Yard Dog. And indeed the baekchong in Joseon were treated like dogs, because they dealt with meat and hide and were therefore considered unclean (even though their customers were the higher castes!).
Despite (and perhaps because of) their lowly status, the butchers were proud and even protective of their trade and abided by strict rules of conduct within their community. Skills were passed from father to son; there was no conceivable long-term route out of the butchers’ village unless one was headed toward the netherworld.
Thus… can a butcher become a doctor? Can a butcher become a surgeon who cuts up people and sews them back, still alive? Say what? Excuse me while I call upon you the wrath of a thousand departed ancestors for so preposterous a notion. Die!
Jejoongwon (House of Universal Helpfulness)
Set during the second half of King Gojong’s reign (he reigned from 1863 to 1907), during the twilight years of the Joseon dynasty, the first major historical event that unfolds in the drama is the reenactment of the Kapsin Coup.
In this failed December 1884 coup d’etat carried out by reformist elements in the palace, the nephew of Queen Min (the king’s consort) was stabbed and severely wounded. Even on the best of days, such an injury would have hastened Min Young-ik’s departure into the arms of the Grim Reaper. However, using medical procedures hitherto unseen in Joseon, an American medical missionary was able to save Min’s life.
As a result of his successful surgery on Min, Dr. Horace Allen gained the favor of the king and queen, and was given the mandate to establish Korea’s first modern hospital. Gwanghyewon (House of Extended Grace) was thus born. It would soon change its name to Jejoongwon and become Korea’s first medical school.
To better appreciate Jejoongwon’s beginnings, it is helpful to know a little (or better yet, a lot more!) about Queen Min (known as Empress Myeongseong upon her death).
A modernist who was far ahead of her time, the queen supported reform and the westernization of Joseon, but at a pace that would not rile the traditionalists or upset the social order. The king consulted her on state matters and she was regarded as the mother of the nation, beloved by the people. The Japanese, however, hated Queen Min because of her pro-Russia and pro-China stance. Considering her a thorn in the flesh and too powerful for her own good, they plotted repeatedly to snuff out the queen. Whether they succeeded or not, I shall let the drama answer that question for you.
Unaware of the planned attempts on her life, the queen had other more pressing concerns. Joseon in 1884 was a dynasty on the wane, weakened by successive waves of foreign invasions in the centuries before. Yet it was also on the cusp of changes that the country both welcomed and resisted. The previous year, before the Kapsin Coup, the queen had sent Min Young-ik to America. Floored by all that he saw on his visit, her nephew returned with the following urgent vision:
“Your Majesty, we must take immediate action to further modernize this still ancient kingdom.”
Spurred by Min’s words, the queen encouraged more inroads into her country by the Americans, such as the building of English language schools led by foreign missionaries. Dr. Allen’s arrival in Joseon was at her invitation.
Because of the king and queen’s trust in him, Allen would be instrumental in leading an influx of medical missionaries into Joseon. One of them, Dr. Lilias Horton, would later become the queen’s personal physician. In the drama, Horton is a mentor to (and a close friend of) Yoo Seok-ran, the main female character who later becomes the first female doctor trained in Jejoongwon.
Although it accepted its first batch of 16 students in 1885, it would take two decades for Jejoongwon to produce its first Western-style doctors. Natural attrition and other factors (which you will see unfold in the drama) resulted in just six in the original batch graduating. Among them was a former butcher.
Today the name Jejoongwon is no more. The hospital came under the jurisdiction of the Presbyterian Church of America after the Joseon government could not continue financing its upkeep. It was then renamed Severance Hospital in 1904, after its main benefactors, the Severance family. It is now the second largest university hospital in Korea, and is part of the Yonsei University Health System.
But the spirit of Jejoongwon lives on, in the building that has been faithfully recreated from the original and which now stands on the grounds of Yonsei University. It lives on in a TV drama that premiered early this year to little fanfare.
I don’t know about you, but I thought a drama about slave hunters would knock my socks off and become my drama of the year. Instead a 36-episode medical sageuk crept out of nowhere and looks set to become not just my favorite drama of the year but my favorite drama in the last two and the half years (out of all the 2008-2010 dramas that I’ve watched).
What is so special about Jejoongwon the drama? I will tell you some of the reasons in my next post. And… if I can’t contain myself in just one post, then perhaps in two or more posts. Catch you later.