The King has invited Jang ok-jong, his concubine, back into the palace but the Queen Mother, Tebi Mama, and the western faction are not happy about this. They don’t trust her and want to get rid of her. So they plan an incident that will cause the musical instruments in the palace to play out of key at the Prince’s birthday banquet causing um-pyon (음변 音變 – sound + change) musical disharmony. They know that the um-pyon will be interpreted as a bad omen that predicts the coming ruin of the country.
Banquet scene for the Prince, Dong Yi Ep 5 MBC
Just as they planned, during the birthday celebrations when the musicians start to play, the pitch of the instruments is off and the musicians play out of time with each other. The musicians can’t play the music properly and they have to stop and look around at each other confused. Immediately the palace is in panic as everyone realizes that this is a bad omen for the future of the country. They have already had one bad omen when a meteorite fell down from the sky and now this. Jang Ok-jong was not invited to the banquet by the Queen Mother so the King has sent musicians to play for her too to comfort her, but these musicians have the same problems with pitch and tempo and in the end have to give up.
Court musicians try to play for Jang Oj-jong, Dong Yi, Episode 5, MBC
The court officials are worried but the King is convinced this is not an omen but simply that someone has tampered with the musicians’ instruments to cause the disharmony and he is determined to find out who it is. He is aware what this ‘omen’ is meant to imply about his concubine but undeterred he commands the police to start their investigation.
Hidden meanings of the Omen
Throughout history the harmony of music has symbolized the harmony of the country. But how can the omen be connected to Jang Ok-jong except for the fact that it occurs at the same time that she enters the palace? Looking at Korean blogs I found this interesting theory about the meaning of the disharmony’s hanja, Chinese characters: 音變 (음변, um-pyon) Here’s a summary:
The first of the two hanja is 音 (reading: 음, um, means ‘sound’) but there are other hanja with the same reading but different meanings. This one, 陰 means shade as in 陰陽 음양 um-yang (Yin and Yang – shade and sun). According to Chinese philosophy about Yin and Yang, the Yin (um) represents the female and Yang represents the male. So in this way does the omen predict that a female (Jang Ok-jong) will cause ruin to the country?
Another hanja with the same um reading is 淫 meaning lewd or lustful. This could be a reference to King Di Xin of China, the last king of the Shang Dynasty in the 11th century BC. He started off as a good ruler but then became obsessed with his concubine Da Ji. He neglected his duties as king and focused all his attentions on her having musicians sing songs with lewd lyrics to amuse her. He also had a wine pool constructed big enough for boats to sail on and an island with trees with meat hung off the branches at parties called 酒池肉林,주지육림, chu-chi-yuk-rim. He ended up neglecting the country till it was in chaos and open for attack by enemies. In the end he was beaten in battle by King Wu of Zhou which finished off the Shang Dynasty and brought the start of the Zhou dynasty. To this day in Korean the idiom 酒池肉林,주지육림chu-chi-yuk-rim refers to people who drink and laze around and idle away their time.
Di Xin’s concubine, Da Ji was blamed for his downfall. She was known to be very cruel and enjoyed watching people suffer. She even designed punishments that brought on a slow and painful death so that she could sit and watch and laugh.
Tebi mama wants to get rid of Jang Ok-jong, Dong Yi Ep 6 MBC
So perhaps this is what Tebi mama and the Western faction are insinuating – the King is letting his heart rule his head by letting Jang-ok-jong back into the palace even though she was exiled for her behaviour before. This means that he will not be able to think clearly and will focus all his energy on her causing the country to be left in ruin. The meaning of the omen is created through the use of hanja with different meanings but the same reading as the hanja used in the 音 of 音變 um-pyon, disharmony. Unless there is another explanation?