Shanghaiist first heard of the Korean TV drama Dae Jang Geum (大长今) or Jewel in the Palace from mom, who used to recapitulate every episode on the phone, which, as anyone who really loves watching TV, knows is impossible. Our interest was further piqued when Shanghaiist’s Chinese literature professor remarked that he too was glued to the television every night. So, is the target demographic 60-something Asian eggheads? Evidently, Hunan TV doesn’t think so, because the folks down in Changsha wouldn’t want to follow up their smashing success with Super Voice Girls with a dud.
In fact, this is one of the most popular TV dramas in all of East Asia. The story centers around the true story of one Jang Geum, a Korean girl living in the Chosun dynasty (about five hundred years before the Chicago Bulls dynasty). Her parents are killed for political reasons, and then, through her intelligence, resourcefulness, goodness, sweetness, selflessness (you get the point), becomes one of the most talented cooks in the Korean palace. Later on, she gets framed and kicked out, but rather than accept defeat and exile she fights her way back, eventually becoming the King’s chief doctor, a feat unheard of for a woman during those times.
What makes the show different from the average costume drama is the prominent role played by the food — since Jang Geum is a kitchen maid in the beginning, and much of the drama centers around how they prepare food for the emperor, create new types of cuisine and compete with each other to win the hearts, minds and stomachs of their superiors. Court intrigue, plots and conspiracies, heart-rending romance and a cooking show all in one!
Just how popular is this show? Try the highest TV ratings in Korean history — and similar success in Hong Kong and Taiwan, as well as Japan. What explains this cross-cultural appeal? According to Shanghaiist’s mother, it’s all the traditional Confucian culture — including many references to Chinese culture. In fact, the official written language of Korea at the time used Chinese characters. For more on the historical background and references to China and Confucian culture, try this (in Chinese), and this blog (you may need a proxy server to access it), which has tons of information on the show, the history, the production, media links, interviews, etc. (in both Chinese and English). Two (conflicting) versions of a novel based on both the history and the TV show are now available in Chinese. If you’re hard core, you can even visit the Dae Jang Geum theme park in Yangju, Korea, which was created for the filming of the series.
Two episodes of Jewel in the Palace (大长今) show every night on Hunan TV at 10 pm. DVDs are also available at most
reputable illegal DVD shops around town.