William McMurray and Gordon Mower, Philosophy
This research project investigates and evaluates how South Korean historical dramas advance the arguments of classical Chinese philosophy. Such philosophical investigation is particularly relevant when considering the rise of China and Korea in the global community: both countries now stand prominently on the international stage both economically and culturally. This is, perhaps, most obviously the case with what has come to be known as the “Korean Wave”—a rolling tide of Korean media entertainment that is receiving worldwide recognition and popularity. In its wake there has been an explosion of academic research regarding the historical, sociological, and anthropological origins and implications of the Korean Wave; however, the underlying philosophical narrative has been left largely untouched. Thus, our principle aim is to provide a critical analysis that demonstrates not only that Korean dramas rely heavily upon the classical corpus of Chinese philosophy, but that they actively engage and critique it from within its own tradition.
We began researching by conducting a study of the texts of classical Chinese philosophy. These texts can be generally categorized within three schools of thought: Confucianism, Daoism, or Legalism. Confucianism represents the most dominant school of thought, and because it plays such a key historical role in the ideological, political, and social frameworks of Korea, we concentrated our efforts mainly in assessing the primary Confucian texts: the Analects (論語), the Mengzi (孟子), and the Xunzi (荀子). However, we also studied the primary positions made in the Daoist texts, the Dao De Jing (道德經) and the Zhuangzi (莊子), as well as those made in the primary Legalist text, the Han Feizi (韓非子).
Having familiarized ourselves with the primary sources and arguments, we selected three popular Korean historical dramas: Jumong (삼한지-주몽 편; 2006), Queen Seondeok (선덕여왕; 2009), and Tree with Deep Roots (뿌리 깊은 나무; 2011). These were chosen because they represent three key historical periods that trace China’s philosophical influence from Korea’s nascent years until its Golden Age under King Sejong (세종; 世宗), when Confucianism reached its height on the peninsula.
We then undertook a lengthy process of assessing the content of three popular Korean dramas in order to establish argumentative analogies. We developed these argumentative analogies by identifying premises that formed the basis of each narrative that also responded directly, either favorably or against, the positions and arguments found in the texts mentioned above. These premises could be either explicit or implicit. For example, explicit premises often arose in Tree with Deep Roots in which King Sejong employs assemblies in which the ministers and scholars engage in verbal debates to determine what courses of action are most correct within a Confucian framework. Most notably, Sejong endeavors to personally debate with and convince his detractors that his creation of a native, phonetic alphabet, Hangul (한글), is sanctioned by Confucian principles because, although it goes against the natural order and progression of a historically developed alphabet like Chinese, it provides an avenue for even the common people to acquire virtue through learning—a wonder that was impossible while continuing only with Chinese characters.2 More implicit, however, are criticisms of class rigidity. While the characters themselves debate the roles and actions of virtuous kings and slaves, the overarching narrative serves as an indictment of the system that makes such discussions necessary.
The overarching positive arguments of the three dramas favor Confucian idealism over both Daoist naturalism and Legalist realism. The Daoist’s connection with the “Way” (道) can lead to unbelievable skillfulness, however it is amoral and can too easily be bent to evil designs. The Legalist’s adherence to law and the raw power of position can lead to order, but it too is amoral—an unrighteous ruler can too easily manipulate the law and use his or her position for personal gain. Only Confucianism provides the moral wherewithal to cultivate virtuous leaders and evaluate them based on their goodness, for it is virtue that ultimately leads and legitimizes individuals and nations to prosper. However, while Confucianism is held as the highest standard of ethical living, it is not above criticism: the narratives not only provide forceful critiques of political idealism in the face of weak or evil leaders, but also expose elements of misogyny and class distinctions that appear to be incongruous with Confucian commitments to other virtues, such as benevolence and filial piety.
Ultimately, we found that Korean dramas do in fact engage the larger tradition of Chinese philosophy. Moreover, we concluded that they are appropriate instruments by which to do so: though some arguments of the classical Chinese philosophers are made in prose or expounded in dialogues, many of them—and in some cases, the great majority of them—are made through stories, analogies, and anecdotes. Thus the analogies created through dramatic narratives appear to be right in line with the method of those being critiqued, making them particularly effective mediums not only for carrying on the philosophical conversation of Confucius, Zhuangzi, and Han Feizi, but also for disseminating the ideas and conclusions of that conversation to a wider audience.
Dr. Mower and I are still working to complete the final manuscript detailing our research, arguments, and findings. Once it is completed, we will submit it to the Royal Asiatic Society-Korea Branch for consideration for publication. We will also present to the Brigham Young University Philosophy Department faculty and, if possible, to students in the weekly Philosophy Lecture Series. The ORCA grant has allowed me to set aside the time and space necessary to research and write, for which I am deeply grateful. I look forward to completing the final paper with anticipation.
1 This research project was formerly titled: “Classical Chinese Thought in the Modern Korean Drama: A Critical Analysis of the Confluence of Eastern and Western Philosophy in the Global Korean Wave.” We have changed the title to better reflect the scope of the final project.
2 “Episode 19.” Tree with Deep Roots. SBS, 7 Dec. 2011. Hulu. Web. 29 July 2015.