These Korean sa geuk (historical) dramas are completely surprising to me. I thought it was all about swordplay, until in Episode 8, I think, of Emperor of the Sea, the female protagonist, perhaps the first woman I can really identify with, overcomes her odds by deftly wielding a wolf brush.
A dethroned noblewoman raised by a Dragon Lady to become a profitable courtesan to some other Korean nobleman, she decides she doesn't want to marry some rich guy, but really wants to run her own business. To earn her MBA she is lucky to be taken under the wing of the merchant/pirate, played by Jumong's ultra-attractive Song Il-Guk, who is in love with her, the third part of the requisite K-D love triangle. (Never mind that the man she loves is literally slaving to build some extension to the Great Wall off in some desert province of China.) But to earn her business credentials she must pass a test: she must sell five rolls of silk to a nobleperson, apparently not an easy task in 8th century Korea. But she prevails like Melanie Griffith in "Working Girl," with a head for business and a bod for sin, not that K-D ever really shows any of that.
She arrives at her client's palace with her rolls of plain white silk and is quickly rejected by her potential customer who is busy making landscape paintings.
"But I don't want to sell you this silk for clothes," the literate and art-savvy woman says, observing the wall scrolls on display. "I see you like the landscape painting of Wang Wei...it looks so much better on silk than paper." She is invited to demonstrate her own awesome brush skills on the silk, makes the crucial sale, and earns the respect of the pirate as well as her Madam who appoints her, basically, as CFO for her trade enterprise. I should note she was also skilled in manipulating spreadsheets and creating relational databases that no one had ever thought of before to forecast and plan their business conquests.
I was delighted by this scene. I saw some paintings in the style of the 8th century poet, Wang Wei, in Shanghai on my recent trip (only derivative copies exist). I have actually attempted a couple like this, at right, myself, although not on silk. Korea and China must have been differentiated in the Tang Dynasty mostly by the Yellow Sea, the art and culture are so similar, like medieval France and Italy. The scenes in the marketplace of the K-D actually feature fake 3-color-glaze Tang Dynasty horses and other objets d'art that look lots more Chinese than Korean, not that I could tell the difference anyway.
But the best part was the skill exercised in using a paint brush to win over a difficult client/adversary. You never know what gong fu (skill) is going to get you ahead. And as much as I would really like to study tai chi chuan with Vincent Zhao and swordplay with Song Il-Guk, I think the most interesting skill I may be learning recently is my Chinese brush painting practice with my teacher. The brush may indeed be as mighty as the sword.