HONOLULU (May 11) – Korea’s Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation’s 81-episode historical drama Chumong has been a run-away hit wherever it has played. But Dr. Edward Shultz, director of the Center for Korean Studies and interim dean of the University of Hawaii-Manoa’s school of Hawaiian, Asian and Pacific Studies, says the drama’s popularity is based on more than the obvious appeal of Song Il Gook who portrays Chumong in the television series.
Shultz told an East-West Center seminar recently, that there is also a touch of 21st century politics interwoven into the story of the 1st century BCE Korean king (born about 37 BCE) and the establishment of the Koguryo kingdom, the largest of Korea’s famed Three Kingdoms. According to Shultz, “Chumong came from the area that is now situated in China just across the border with North Korea … and both Korean and Chinese attention has been drawn to the region” in the recent past due to geopolitical and grass-roots economic reasons.
He points out there still remains a rather large ethnic Korean population in the area. And, that the sites associated with Chumong and the kingdom he established continue to be tourist draws. He adds in the academic argument over “ownership” of the region, the Koreans probably “have the upper hand in terms of culture … but China has claim due to history and geography.”
Shultz is quick to dispel, however, any thoughts of horse-mounted archers sweeping across the Yalu River and reclaiming the original Koguryo lands from China. But he does note that Chumong, and his story as told through the MBC drama, does have a role to play in reminding Koreans of a time when the ambiguities of modern-day diplomacy did not muddy the waters of national pride, and when the grandeur of greater Korea, through the prism of a couple of thousand years and a television drama, was … well … greater.
There is no denying that Chumong was a historic figure. But is the popular drama a true reflection of his life and times?
Shultz says it does not really matter if the story of Chumong depicted on television screens worldwide is fact or fiction. What does matter is that he “is an interesting individual,” the mantra of entertainment producers everywhere. Shultz notes that what is known about Chumong comes from only a few written sources in the 12th and 13th centuries, long after his death, “sort of like saying ‘okay, folks, write a history today of 10th or 11th century Europe’,” without solid historical documents from that era.
Shultz points out, “It was easy for the producers to fill-in the blanks, as it were,” when the historical sources mainly noted that “Chumong fought this battle … Chumong moved his people to this place …”
It is known, according to Shultz, that the real Chumong was a famous warrior, an excellent horseman and archer, and that he did establish the Koguryo kingdom, never mind the fact that he ruled it for only a little over 20 years, nor the fact that the kingdom moved continually south from Huanren to Chilin to Pyongyang over the years for protection.
There are other “facts” in the television drama that ring true, too. Chumong was separated from his mother at an early age, he did have a wife or two and children, did have an “evil” stepfather and step-siblings, and that he and his ancestors did spread their influence through large parts of Korea, from the Koguryo kingdom centering around the present-day area of Pyongyang in North Korea to the Paekche kingdom (founded by King Onjo, Chumong’s son from his second wife) located in what is now southwestern South Korea. Chumong’s influence, through the Paekche dynasty, reached even farther a field. Despite years of denial by Japanese experts, it found its way across the Japan Sea and into the cultural sphere of the early people of Kyushu.
What remains open to speculation, according to Shultz, are the so-called myth factors of Chumong’s life. That Chumong’s father was actually Haemosu, son of the Emperor of Heaven, and his mother Willow Flower daughter of the Earl of the River, is a good example. But, the most evident one is certainly his birth … emerging not from his mother’s womb but from a 5-liter egg. A story that Shultz says fits “nicely into the Northeast Asia egg myth,” and one that coexists rather well with the Japanese myth of the birth of Momotaro, coming into this world from a peach. “Not a far stretch of the imagination from an egg,” Shultz notes.
So, is Chumong man or myth? The answer seems to be, “Yes.” What historical facts can be gleamed from the popular Korean program? Shultz says, “I’ll let you draw the conclusion.” But, being in some shape or form responsible for two of the three great kingdoms in Korean history (and a major force in ancient Japan) certainly earned Chumong, man or myth, the right to his own television show. Even if, as Shultz quotes an old journalism axiom, the producers “never let the facts get in the way of a good story.”
Dr. Edward Shultz is the director of Center for Korean Studies and interim dean of the School of Hawaiian, Asian and Pacific Studies at the University of Hawaii-Manoa in Honolulu. He can be reached at (808) 956-7041 or via email at email@example.com
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