[Serendipity and thundie are teaming up to bring you Sungkyunkwan Scandal recaps. *wild applause on reading the first name, dead silence for the second* If you’ve read Serendipity’s recaps, you know you’re in for a treat. On the other hand, if you’ve read thundie’s, you know you’re in for one terrifying ride. Hang on tight!]
IN THEIR OWN WORDS, PURPORTEDLY . . .
My story feels like a dream. And indeed when you hear it, you will shake your head in disbelief and wonder aloud: “How can a Joseon girl have experienced all that you did? As a male impersonator, to boot!”
But this is no tall tale. I am Yoon-hee. I am also Yoon-shik.
Because of my brother’s failing health, I have taken on his name and become a transcriber. I dress as a man, I leave the house for the bookstore at the marketplace, I collect the books to be transcribed, I deliver them back when I’m done. Always in handwriting that will trump that of the scholars at Sungkyunkwan, Joseon’s foremost institution of higher learning. And thus I earn the money to keep my brother alive.
A few nyang here, a few nyang there. Just barely enough, but I’m happy because I’m helping the two people that I love the most in this world: my mom and Yoon-shik. But I come home one day and our belongings have been tossed out the door. A man demands that we repay our hundred-nyang debt. If we don’t produce the money in a few days, he would accept something else in lieu:
He would take me.
“I’ll find a way to earn the money, Mother. Don’t you worry. I’ll take care of everything.”
And so I return to the bookstore. The offer that the store owner had made to me earlier and which I had rejected, about becoming a substitute examinee at the national examinations, I will take it up. I have no other means of earning the loan repayment.
The day of the preliminary examination dawns and I am ready. Secret code? Check. Map showing where the (crooked) examinee Wang would be seated? Check. Nerves steadied by a last-minute “Relax! Cheating is so rampant, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone there who’s unsullied” pep talk by my crime enabler? Check, check.
How was I to know that I would, despite the best preparations, still head for the wrong person? The most unsullied one of all, too! And that we would end up becoming chaser and chased, he pursuing me with a vengeance?
I had to run. How could I not when the man was yelling: “Guards! Over here! Someone is trying to defile the examination grounds!”
My sob story, every word of it true, moved him as much as a mountain could be moved. I lost my father when I was young, my brother is sickly, we are heavily in debt… He heard it all and still he tried to expose me. Now you know why I had to leave a little souvenir for him before I fled. Just some parting words, in return for all his niceties.
So we run through the marketplace, that man and I. He is right on my heels when we run into a group of young men. I tumble but a stranger swiftly catches me. An argument breaks out between my pursuer and the group (who appear to know each other), giving me the opportunity to slip away. He doesn’t recognize me when he bumps into me afterwards (and eww… what’s that smell on his clothes?). He’s looking for a man, but I’ve changed back into being Yoon-hee, ha!
My mom learns of my escapade. It is one close shave too many. “Yoon-hee, you must stop.”
But the repayment date for our debt looms. And the money I have earned is far from enough. That does not deter me, however.
I gather all the nyang in a cloth pouch and walk resolutely to the house of our creditor. I tell him, he who is seated on a pavilion as befitting his lofty status, words he does not expect to hear: I will repay part of the debt now; the rest I will pay as soon as I can. However, if he insists on treating me as surety (my body and the rest of my life), then the public will point accusatory fingers at him for being a lecher coveting a young girl.
“As Minister of War, surely Your Excellency understands how important it is to gain and keep public support. A smart general does not provoke the enemy he fears; to ward off misfortune before it descends is the best fighting strategy.”
But he laughs, returns my money, and tells me my words have now made me even more desirable to him. In four days he will make me his wife.
What do I do now? In four days my life will be over. As I walk back, deep in my thoughts, a man grabs my money pouch and runs. Another man appears, and then another. They toss my pouch back and forth. A voice taunts; it’s the war minister’s lackey. “Men, she’s precious. Take good care of her.”
As I kneel in despair, begging the men to return my money, an apple suddenly sails through the air and startles thugs, pouch, and me. Thrown by a man supposedly in repose.
It’s over almost as abruptly as it begins. A man with hair over his eyes beats the living daylights out of the thieves, even remembers to shield my eyes from the altercation, and then, when flesh has been whipped into pulp and I’m faint from fright and overwhelmed by gratitude, turns around and berates me.
“You want to repay my kindness? Then never appear before me again. I can’t stand weak people like you kneeling so easily before bullies. Make your weakness a habit and it’ll stick.”
My money pouch safe at last, my mind returns to my troubles. Even if I descend into Hell, I must find a way to earn a hundred nyang. I will do anything.
So that’s how I end up being a courier for a forbidden book. And how I walk right back into the arms of the man who pursued me from the examination grounds and who has been searching everywhere for me ever since.
Why did my heart pound so as he grabbed me close?
“I don’t care if you hate me. But I will not tolerate you telling me that I am wrong.”
Coming from another man’s lips, you might think the above words smack of arrogance. But I will have you know that I speak with conviction. I will always stand for the truth even if it alienates me from everyone. And if I’m right, nothing you say to the contrary will sway me. Even if you hurl eggs at me!
Do you see now why I rejected everything that this wisp of a man tried to tell me during the preliminary examination? Trying to persuade me (who despised all forms of corruption) to do something illegal and unthinkable. Asking me to pay a ridiculous amount of money, too! And then, even pretending that he’s forced into such trickery because his family is in dire straits.
Do you understand now why I had to shout? I’m not one to draw attention to myself unnecessarily, but you will not believe the circus that day. Buying and selling of seats and answers. Bribery and extortion. Officials either doing nothing or encouraging the going-ons. If I were to bury my nose in my examination script and ignore it all, wouldn’t that make me an accomplice of sorts?
To expose unlawlessness. What is so wrong with that? Should it give the trickster who targeted me the right to play this dastardly prank on me? Writing the examination answer on the back of my clothes without my knowledge! Making it appear as though I was cheating!
“A scholar who knows only words and insists on righteousness, yet does not comprehend the lives of commonfolks. If a person who sells words for a living is considered a thief, then aren’t those who exploit words for power just as culpable? If there is indeed someone here who is a thief, that someone would be me.”
You should hear the roar of laughter at my expense. That might explain why I chased the man. Or perhaps there are other reasons that I’m not yet fully cognizant of? Like a certain curiosity? About a man with a delicate complexion who is on the surface a crook but who possesses an intellect and sensibility that intrigue me? I must find him.
But must the chase include colliding most unceremoniously with a box of smelly seafood and a bunch of snooty Sungkyunkwan seniors? The latter insisting that I pay my respects to them since they were elite scholars and all. And claiming that I had caused quite the commotion at the examination, too.
As a result of the collision, their leader and I had a little friendly exchange.
He said: “I look forward to consulting with you if you should gain admittance into Sungkyunkwan. But I must warn you that today is the last time I’m going to tolerate your fractious behaviour.”
I replied: “Just as well, because today is also my last time tolerating your unbecoming conduct as a Sungkyunkwan senior.”
I had no idea at that time, but my words to Ha In-soo would breed a resentment toward me, and a determination to get me into trouble. Somehow the group got wind that I was searching for the trickster. One of them, Gu Yong-ha, invited me for a drink.
“I think I can help you find the person you are looking for,” he said. “Not because you might be a future friend, but because it’s fun. I’ll help you for fun.”
Just like that, and because I was too eager to find the prankster, I was lured into a meeting at night in the woods…
You ask why I dress like it’s some formal occasion every day? Because I like it. I like making a lasting impression… on you. I like seeing your jaw drop… at my flawless complexion, my exquisite lips, my perfect everything.
I’m flamboyant, I’m a master of the grand gesture, I see things that you don’t. For instance, are you aware that the transcriber working for the bookstore is actually a she? Didn’t see that coming, did you? But I knew at once the moment I saw him, I mean her. That face. Those hands.
And now it seems that Lee Sun-joon is searching frantically for our lady scribe. Shall we give him a little help? I’ll rope in the bookstore owner, drop a few juicy baits, and wait for the action to unfold. Lee Sun-joon’s not as bright as he appears, or maybe he is. We’ll see.
This is going to be so much fun, I tell you.
People say I never smile, but they don’t understand. A smile needs to be earned.
For example, I smile readily for my sister because she adores me and because she has eyes like saucers. If you do not know us, you can’t imagine us being siblings because we look so different. In some families, however, the children look startlingly alike even if they aren’t twins. So a younger brother may end up getting called his sister’s name, with just the gender tagged in front, like this: Male Ha Ji-won.
Well, I’m In-soo and my sister is Hyo-eun. Our father is the Minister of War. Our father has also just indicated (not directly to us) that he wants to take a second wife, someone who’s about Hyo-eun’s age.
He never consults me on these things, even though I’m Sungkyunkwan’s official student leader. All the students and scholars fear me, as if I possess some mythical power bestowed by the guardians (departed and current) of this esteemed institution. Whatever it is, I’m not planning on sharing this power any time soon. On the contrary, I’m going to use it to make some people’s lives rather miserable. Just you wait, Lee Sun-joon.
I suppose you will soon learn the name that my parents bestowed on me. For now, just call me whatever you like, as long as it’s something I approve.
Also, if you want to do a little snooping, I guess you might find out why I go about like one newly released from some godforsaken dungeon. Don’t be casting snide remarks about my appearance, though. You don’t want to get on my nasty side, seriously.
Since I hate chatterboxes and am a man of few words myself, I’ll just leave you with a couple of presents…
See what you get when you behave? I have more in store so wipe that dribble; it’s too humid as it is. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I see a damsel in distress…
I daily grow more weary being Joseon’s most beautful gisaeng. The stares everywhere I go, the whispers. Lust, envy, disgust. I just ignore it all.
But how do I ignore junior gisaeng who ask dimwitted questions such as this one:
“How do I get the attention of this man with a face like a girl and a heart like a rock? I try to lure him by dropping my fan, thinking that’ll be a skip and a hop away from some snuggle time. Instead he claims the poem on the fan is written all wrong! Men drop dead at your feet but not at ours. Teach us what to do!”
Withhold it, silly. Your gaze, your heart, your caress. Don’t give any of it away. Can a satiated man feel hunger? The more unattainable he thinks you are, the more he’ll desire you. Get what I mean? Okay, that’ll be one nyang for today’s lesson.
To save my son, I allowed my daughter to go out into the world dressed as a man. To pay off this wretched loan of a hundred nyang, my Yoon-hee has trudged the streets every day, carrying with her books she has transcribed for lazy and dirty-minded nobility.
Because if there’s no money to pay for the medicine he needs, our Yoon-shik will die.
But this can’t go on anymore. Not only is Yoon-hee impersonating her brother to write the books for the bookstore, she has now ventured into places meant only for men. Taking the examinations as an illegal substitute! A girl pretending to be a man! If she had been caught, then what? Even her death would not assuage the rage of the authorities for the outrageous affront.
Live as a girl now, my Yoon-hee. Your cherished writing skills have become a poison. Discard them.
Scholar Jung Yak-yong:
I’m a confidant of the king, but don’t expect me to be trumpeting that fact to the students at Sungkyunkwan. Neither will I be telling them that my new appointment as their teacher is a demotion; after all, grievances are best kept private. As long as the king understands my circumstances, and as long as the heavens continue to protect the king’s reign, I’m content to be spending my days teaching the ways of Confucius to our kingdom’s future scholars.
Provided, of course, that they are teachable. And upright.
It’s early days, but what I witnessed on the first day of the national examinations did not augur well. Clowning and chicanery. No one seemed exempt, not even the chief official overseeing the proceedings. I thought the best examinee that day had submitted a flawless answer, but what was that inked on the back of his clothes?
So it turns out Left State Councilor Lee’s son is a cheat. Or maybe he isn’t. Because you should see the horror on his face when he realized what a trickster had done to him. You should see how he dashed out of the grounds, as though in pursuit of whoever had made him a laughing-stock in front of people with half his intelligence and none of his impeccable morals.
That hauteur. It lurks, definitely. But I think I’m going to like this Lee Sun-joon. I can feel it in my bones.
It’s amusing, I must admit it.
On a day long expected to be joyous and triumphant, Lee Jung-moo’s son lets him down? I did not see that coming. How he must be seething with anger and embarrassment. After all, who would think his oldest and brightest capable of dishonesty? And at the national examinations, too. Remind me, though, not to gloat the next time I see our Left State Councilor. Given our tenuous ties, I best not stoke the fire that’s keeping him and his party cronies awake at night as they plot their maleficent machinations against me.
Left State Councilor Lee Jung-moo:
I know I’ve raised my Sun-joon well. All of my good genes I’ve passed on to him: looks, intellect, character, the ability to incite mass squealing… How then did he make a fool of himself, and of me, at the national examinations? Even if it wasn’t his fault, think of the raucous laughter directed at him!
How do I teach my son to temper his fervor at righting everything that seems wrong and unprincipled? To stand quietly in the shadows and simply observe, rather than proclaiming his wisdom (and intentions) to the world? He will step on too many toes this way. This is not how Noron Party adherents operate; we are setting ourselves up for our enemies to pounce on our mistakes if we do.
Still, I can’t help the pride I feel when I look at Sun-joon. Such a fine lad. And so much like me.
Butt-Kisser No. 1:
The name’s Im Byung-choon, but everyone calls me Sycophant. I believe that’s a foreign word for a man who’s exceedingly handsome? At least that’s what a well-traveled merchant once told me, with a twinkle in his eye, his sight obviously dazzled by my resplendence. Some people are born with a face that only their mothers can love, but I am blessed with what you might call a “universal winsomeness.” (Hmm, I don’t know why the merchant laughed when he explained the meaning of my nickname, do you?)
You ask why I was wailing in the bookstore the other day? Was it because the cheat sheet I was awaiting hadn’t arrived? Hello! As a Sungkyunkwan student, I’m nothing but honorable. Rely on disallowed answer booklets? Don’t make my toes laugh.
Speaking of lower-limb appendages, my feet are never far away from Ha In-soo or Gu Yong-ha. Why? Because I’m more attentive than a dozen unpaid menservants, that’s why. If In-soo sneezes, my hands are there to receive the droplets. If he’s thirsty, he doesn’t ever need to pour himself a drink because I will do it for him. When Yong-ha makes a funny remark, I’m the first one to fall over, clutching my sides and howling.
But I wasn’t laughing when stuffy Lee Sun-joon tossed me into the river. Without warning! Just wait till he falls into the trap we’ve set for him, ha!
Butt-Kisser No. 2:
Am I quick-thinking or am I not? (Answer wrongly and you’ll be picking up the leaves inside Sungkyunkwan for a month. With your teeth.)
If not for my presence of mind, I would not have connected the dots. I would not have realized that the son of His Excellency (the Left State Councilor himself, oh my goodness) was taking the national examinations right under my nose!
Nothing matters in my life except ingratiating myself to the people in high places. Never mind that I’m a high-ranking courtier, the one overseeing the examination. Unless I am the king (and I’m only whispering this to the wind, so don’t go and tell His Majesty!), there will always be someone more powerful than me. My goal is to identify the asses that I can kiss, and to kick the ones that I can’t.
When Lee Sun-joon stood up during the examination and yelled about corruption and shameless shenanigans, my first instinct was to kick him black and blue. Stupid whistleblower! Declaring that everyone was guilty. Everyone including the chief examination official!
But as soon as he said his name, the latent part of my brain (the one ensuring that the examination is run according to the highest moral principles of the kingdom) creaked awake. Oh, you should see how swiftly I cleaned up the mess (which was of course never of my making) and restored order. My proudest moment, surely.
HBC (not Honest Bank of Canada but Half-Baked Critic):
What a charming first episode! I enjoyed it from beginning to end, watched it twice, and still found myself thoroughly entertained the second time. The drama is a perfect mix of whimsical and historical, and offers many light-hearted moments that make me smile and laugh. At the same time, it’s fairly poignant because at its heart is a story of a family struggling to survive.
The veteran cast is gold, of course, with the likes of Kim Gab-soo (*squee*), Ahn Nae-sang and Kim Mi-kyung (playing Yoon-hee’s mom). The young leads are mostly unfamiliar to me, with the exception of Yoo Ah-in (*squee*). His scenes in this episode (and it’s really just one extended scene and no more) give us a hint of mystery and make us eagerly anticipate the next episode. But surprisingly, it is not Yoo Ah-in that I like the most so far, it is Micky Yoochun. I don’t know him from the neighbor down the street, but he’s acquitting himself well here with his quiet but determined portrayal of a man who seems cold and proud but is actually astute and gentle. The camera seems to love him and…
Enough of the drivel. You can keep Micky Yoochun but I’m taking Yoo Ah-in away from you. Why? Because I’m your mom and I get first dibs.
That’s it. NO MORE KDRAMAS IN THIS HOUSE!