Category Archives: Korean Culture through Drama

The Nameless Adjumma in New Tales of Gisaeng episode 9

We often see adjummas (housekeepers) working in the homes of the rich in Korean dramas. No well-to-do family would be without an adjumma. But they are always in the background; nameless characters in aprons. I believe it’s actually pretty common for wealthy people to have adjummas working for them in Korean society too – not just drama. And some families may have more than one – perhaps one to cook and one to clean. Adjummas can work full time in the same home or part time  a couple of days a week in different homes. I started to think more about the role and status of adjummas when I was watching the ‘baby on the door step’ story line in New Tales of Gisaeng, (SBS)

Ra Ra’s dad and grandparents discuss how to find the adjumma, New Tales of Gisaeng SBS Continue reading

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Filed under Korean Culture through Drama, The New Tales of Gisaeng

makali and jon in the rain

makali and kimchi

Whenever it rains in Seoul, my husband wants to eat jon (like a savoury pancake) and drink makali (milky colored Korean rice wine). Apparently it’s traditional “rainy weather” food and on rainy days we’ve been to restaurants that sell jon and makali and they’ve been pretty busy. There are lots of scenes in Korean dramas of eating jon in the rain too. The scene from Brilliant Legacy (starring Dong Yi’s Han Hyo joo) comes to mind with the scene in episode  4, where Go Eun sung (Han Hyo joo) the poor heroine meets a halmoni, old lady, and ends up letting her stay at her flat because she has lost her memory. Go Eun song comes home in the pouring rain and suggests that they eat kimchi jon. Continue reading


Filed under Korean Culture through Drama, Life in Seoul

King Sukjong and Jang Hee Bin’s Tombs

Myeongneung (明陵)

King Sukjong and Queen Inhyeong’s tombs

Last weekend I went to Seoorung 서오릉 (meaning 5 western tombs) a UNESCO World Heritage site just outside of Seoul in Gyeonggi-do where some of the Joseon Kings and Queens and concubines are buried. Lady Choi’s tomb, (Dong Yi)  is not here.  But we did see King Sukjong, Queen Inhyeon, and Jang Hee Bin’s tombs. Continue reading


Filed under Dong Yi, Korean Culture through Drama

The Music Exam in Dong yi Episode 5

In episode 5 DY is working at the Academy of Music helping the musicians get ready for their music exam. It’s an important exam and everyone is nervous. It took me back to taking piano exams and feeling apprehensive especially because I knew I hadn’t really practised enough. From what I remember, after playing the required scales and set pieces I’d practised at home, I’d be given a sight reading test, have to clap out a rhythm the examiner played on the piano, and then sing the notes the examiner played. It was pretty nerve-wracking. One time I froze in the middle of a piece – my mind went blank and it took several goes to finish it. So I felt for the students in their music exam in this episode. This episode was interesting in many ways including how the court music is related to bad omens. But I will write about that next time. For now I want to look at what the court musician students had to do in their music exam.

聽音 청음 (chong-um) listen + sound. Dong Yi, ep. 5

The students gather outside in the courtyard and the first part of the test is revealed on a scroll. The students must listen to a group of musicians playing a piece of music. They have to write down the melody each musician plays.

Music exam listening test part 1, Dong Yi episode 5 MBC

Korean instruments from left

gayageum, (가야금; 伽倻琴) has 12 strings  made of silk and each string rests on a moveable bridge carved in the shape of a crane’s foot.

daegeum (대금; 大琴) a bamboo flute. It has six finger holes spread wide apart and has a range of over 2 octaves.

geumungo (거문고; 玄琴) has 6 strings and is plucked with a bamboo stick.

Here is some more information on Korean musical instruments and Korean traditional music. Continue reading

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Ten New Korean Words reading Dong Yi

It’s a struggle trying to understand Dong Yi without subtitles so my new strategy is to try reading the novel in Korean as well. Hopefully this should help me pick up some useful vocabulary along the way and help my Korean study in general too. I like to know the hanja (Chinese character) for new words as I find this helps me remember them better. So here are 10  useful new words.







= king




王國 = king + country

regal power



王權 = king + power




王位 = king + rank/position




王妃 = king + queen

mother of the king



大妃 = big + queen

royal concubine



後宮 = behind + palace

This is an interesting one.




奴婢 = person/servant +

I think the hanja on the right means to despise or look down on, be humble.

servant class



賤民 = humble + people




兩班= both + groups (refers to the civil yang-ban and the military yang-ban)

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Dong Yi, social classes in the Joseon period

Dong Yi the novel

In the introduction to the novel Dong Yi, the author, Chong Che-in 정재인writes about the approach to writing the story. The writer had to imagine what life was like for Dong-yi’s character as the history books tell us very little about her since she came from the servant class.

All that’s known is that she was born into the chonmin class – the lowest of all the social classes during the Joseon period – and was taken into the palace as a maid to serve King Sukjong. The King took her as a concubine and she gave him three sons and the second son became King Yongjo.

Chong Che-in writes that, according to the history books, both Yongjo and his mother had a complex about coming from the chonmin class. Chong wondered how she really felt about this. Perhaps she was optimistic that the blood of low and higher classes would mix and create social equality, so Chong considered this point when writing the novel.

Social classes during the Joseon period

Ji Jin-hee as King Sukjong (1661-1720)

Rules about marriage between the classes seem to have changed several times during the Joseon period but apparently, during King Yongjo’s rule it was impossible for a child born with parents from different classes to move up to the higher class. Yongjo changed the law so that if a child was born to a parent from the chonmin class and the other from the higher yangin class then the child could move up into the yangin class.

I did some research, some of it here, to find out more about the strict hierarchy of social status in Joseon times to understand this story better. Continue reading

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Tofu and Prison in Kdramas

tofu scene, Lady vengeance (2005)

We had guests this weekend. Normally when friends come over we go sight seeing and my husband is busy planning which pork or beef BBQ restaurant to take the guests to. But this time, as one friend is a strict vegetarian, we knew from past experience that eating out was going to be a problem. Since we moved to this area though, I’ve found a great tofu stall in the local market. The tofu is made on the premises every day and so I can buy tofu so fresh it’s often still warm – Fried tofu with soy sauce, chili, and sesame oil. Fabulous. Speaking of tofu, I’ve noticed in Kdramas that tofu is often given to people when they come out of prison and I wanted to find out why. Continue reading

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Age and Ajumma

Ji Jin-hee as the bachelor Jae-hee and Uhm Jung-hwa as Dr. Jang in the 2009 romantic comedy, The Man Who Can’t Get Married, KBS

Perhaps it’s because my birthday is coming up that I’m getting more and more sensitive to the term ajumma but I had to laugh at the “ajumma scene” with Dr. Jang and the children in Episode 2 of The Man Who Can’t Get married. Dr. Jang, a 40 year old single doctor, is being nagged by her dad to find a husband. He tries to set up blind dates for her and then wants her to join a match-making service. She’s mortified when she finds the application form he has got for her to join the agency and goes to question him about it. Her dad is a dentist and busy with a patient when she arrives so she sits next to two kids while she waits for him to finish so she can talk to him. But after she sits down the little boy next to her turns and tells the “adjumma” that she is sitting on his comic. His sister tells him not to call the lady ajumma because she’s heard that single ladies don’t like being called this.

What shall I call her then? he asks.

His sister looks flummoxed. She doesn’t know. And there’s the problem. What do you call a woman over 30 other than ajumma? The little boy looks closely at Dr. Jang and turns to his sister and says,

She does look like an adjumma though… Continue reading

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