Monday, July 16, 2012


I've been watching a 77-episode Korean drama, Yi San, from 2007, that is intriguing me in part because one of the characters is a "damo," a commoner in the Imperial art department, a talented young woman who, with some support from her childhood friend, the Crown Prince, rises above painter's assistant to actually being an artist. In a time when women aren't permitted to do such things, it always helps to have an enlightened friend in a high place, even if the main theme of the drama is that virtually everyone in the corrupt Royal Court is trying to kill him.  If I had started watching this in 2007, I'd be done now.  I had Volume 1 on hand a couple years ago, but at the time didn't realize it was only the first of four.  It's almost as long as Jumong.  But a little slower.  Not until episode 34, when the Crown Prince finally has a beard and comes to realize he actually loves the damo, and the King falls into easily manipulated senility, does the plot get really interesting. 

Facial hair seems to be a symbol of coming of age and maturity and in this case it certainly makes the Crown Prince look a lot more authoritative (and sexually attractive), even if he is only 25 years old.  There is another character, a loyal advisor to the Crown Prince, who has the most attractive eyebrows, like perfect kaishu calligraphy strokes.  I haven't been so fascinated by eyebrows, also a staple of Asian operatic costume, since the long multi-colored ones on the crazy old doctor in The Herbalist's Manual.
Crown Prince in childhood

Young Crown Prince recalling his childhood.

The mature, bearded Crown Prince

Trustworthy kaishu eyebrows
The "damo" plot recalls Painter of the Wind, another K-D that had oriental painting as a sort of character, and is just perfect as I start brush painting lessons with yet another teacher who has kicked my enthusiasm up a notch: he practices qigong and has promised to help me with my Chinese.

But back to my theme...77 episodes of commoners and the court is kind of the mirror opposite of "The King's Speech," the Oscar-winning two-hour movie I only just watched, about King George VI and his speech impediment.  It's a great movie and in addition to illustrating the grace of good manners (the Queen mum apparently had 'em; who knew Helena Bonham Carter was so regal), it is about a commoner, an Australian no less, who supported the reluctant Bertie in his destiny to become the King after the Prince of Wales abdicates (and it was a good thing, we think). 

As the damo and the Joseon king forge an alliance (I think she becomes a concubine and produces an heir, sometime in the next 20 episodes), so too did the uncredentialed speech therapist become King George's friend and supporter.  He apparently coached the King through every public speech he ever made, turning his stammering into an "asset," as Churchill said (at least in the movie) of his own tongue-tied condition.

As an American, I am always bemused by the way some cultures cherish their royalty--Asian dynasties, the British empire, the Hawaiian monarchy.  Sometimes I think the problems we have today in American politics are because we DON'T have a stable royal presence to look to.  We want our president to be a royal leader, a strong symbol of our nation, but alas, the candidates are all just commoners.  Usually rich, but common, still. All of our popular royal icons are sports, entertainment or business superstars, all of whom we like to point and laugh at when they prove to be, through failure, as common as the rest of us.  It is with some nostalgia we look back on the illusions of the Kennedy "dynasty" era, the "Camelot" which couldn't last and will never come again. 

In both Yi San and The King's Speech, there is a theme of loyalty and royalty, friendship and respect across the palace border, two-way service, that actually secures a better future for the people. 

The Yellow Emperor is my damo. But he won't let me paint!