5 Sageuk Dramas of 2017: Fiction Vs. Fact

The term "Sageuk" is used to refer to Korean films or television series that are historical in nature. It is often mistakenly pronounced as "Saeguk" or even "Saguk". These dramas are filled to the brim with political intrigue and action. I prefer to watch sageuk dramas after every 2-3 romcom or thriller ones, simply because of how overwhelming they are. That being said, I couldn't do without them. When I watch these dramas, it irks me to not know how much of it is true; and I find myself on Google a lot! Still, it is no easy feat to research. So I've done the dirty work and compiled a small list of Sageuk Dramas from 2017, differentiating fact from fiction.

1. Ruler: Master of the Mask

While this drama draws from a period in the Joseon Dynasty wherein King Sukjong (a.k.a Yi Sun) was the Crown Prince, the basic elements of its plot appear to be fictitious. For instance, there seem to be no records of any specific organisation that Yi Sun dealt with for water privatisation. However, the director, No Do Cheol, was heard saying during an interview that privatisation of wells by noblemen in the Joseon Dynasty is a fact that furthered the plot. Moreover, the elite classes had a major role in influencing the King. Undoubtedly, Yi Sun is known to have made substantial contributions to society, i.e through tax reforms, agricultural development, uplifting the middle class etc. But as far as this drama is concerned, much of the storyline is fictional. 

2. Hwarang: The Beginning

The elite group of male warriors in the Silla Kingdom were referred to as Hwarang. The plot of this drama is based on actual historical events. Firstly, Sammaekjong is raised to ascend the throne after the death of King Beopheung. Secondly, upon the death of Beopheung, the Crown Prince was too young to rule, so his mother, Queen Jiso, became the regent. The drama follows the same parallels, and we see that Jiso endeavours to protect the throne so that Sammaekjong could one day be the rightful ruler. Later, he comes to be known as King Jinheung of Silla. Thirdly, Princess Sookmyung is known to be Sammaekjong's consort and in the drama, too, she is his half sister and future consort. An aspect that we are unsure of is what Sammaekjong had to do with the Hwarang in real life. 

3. Bride of the Water God

Based on a 2006 manhwa, Bride of the Water God follows the story of So Ah, a commoner who decides to sacrifice herself for the betterment of her village. Due to a drought, the villagers were required to appease Habaek, the Water God. And so begins her story as his bride. Now, as per Korean mythology, Habaek is the God of the Yalu River. I couldn't find any folktales that align with the story of this drama. So looks like it is inspired by mythology, but is not completely based on any recorded mythological occurring. 

4. Saimdang, Light's Diary

Shin Saimdang, a renowned artist from the Joseon Dynasty, is the focal point of this drama. It follows two timelines: Saimdang's life and times (the past) and Seo Ji Yoon's life as the lecturer who discovers Saimdang's work (the present). For obvious reasons, we are going to set aside Seo Ji Yoon's story and look at how true the depiction of Saimdang is. Her father is Shin Myeonggwa, a Confucian scholar who encouraged his daughter's education. While the drama explores her bond with Lee Gyeom in great detail, it is not accounted for in historical records. On the other hand, her marriage to Yi Wonsu is factually accurate. Saimdang dies at an early age of 47. 

5. Rebel: Thief Who Stole The People

Hong Gil Dong is a historical figure, infamous for his Robin Hood-esque stunts. He was born illegitimately to a High Minister and a servant. Despite his lower status in society, Hong Gil Dong goes on to become a leader of his rebel clan - the Hwalbindang - with the main aim of serving the common people. The drama portrays all of these events in accordance with historical facts. It also delves into the heinous acts of King Yeonsangun of Joseon in subjugating people. Also, Jang Nok Su was, in fact, King Yeonsangun's royal consort. Where this drama veers off from reality is its addition of Ga Ryeong's storyline. 

With the help of this guide, you should be able to identify some basic elements of these dramas as being true. Comment and let me know of any historical facts or stories that are relevant to these dramas. Also, apart from Bride of the Water God (which hasn't aired yet), which sageuk drama did you like the most? 

Hope you liked this article. Stay tuned for more! 

Comments (19)

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  • Reply
    cherishbabe Jun 23, 2017

    Can any kind soul advise on Empress Ki plssssssss?

    Maucks maucks :)

  • Reply
    BlueMcFlurry Jun 17, 2017

    From what I know, historically it was King Jinheung who established the Hwarang.

  • Reply
    hongtaku Jun 16, 2017

    Thanks for the interesting article. It's important to know and differentiate what elements were incorporated into dramas. I think it would be awesome if you were to write one about movies as well :)
    Also, from my understanding and research, Ruler: Master of the Mask is completely fiction and is not based on any of the actual kings in the Joseon dynasty. Like you pointed out, if you were to match the period of the drama, it would indeed be during the time of King Sukjong as there are numerous parallels but I just wanted to clarify that the characters are entirely fictitious.

  • Reply
    WhiteGoldMVs1 Jun 16, 2017

    i always research historical facts when watching historical dramas!!! i love them sooo much <33 great article!

  • Reply
    RayRay Jun 16, 2017 - edited

    I learned more with this article than i did in my history classes..

  • Reply
    RayRay Jun 16, 2017

    Of course i liked this article! Creative one!

  • Reply
    sunflower63 Jun 16, 2017 - edited

    Thanks for this article. I have always been a great fan of saeguks and I have watched many of them in the past years. I never really checked if they depicted some real historical events but I always trusted that there must have been some truth in their plots.
    I have learnt so much about Korean history also about Korea's relationship with China and Japan. I don't think I will ever get tired of them.
    Out of the ones you listed my favourite is definitely Saimdang which was beautiful and poetic too, and at the moment Queen for Seven days is proving to be just as amazing. :)

  • Reply
    Sooyi Jun 16, 2017

    This is what I know about the setting of Habaek's Bride. The gods in the story derive from Chinese mythology and I guess the myth of Habaek shows us about the relationship between Korea and China in pre-Goguryeo Dynasty since Yu-hwa, one of Habaek and Soah's daughters, is the mother of Jumong, the founder of Goguryeo.
    However, we won't see much of the fascinating mythological and historical premise as the drama adaptation would not be a sageuk.

  • Reply
    Ma-ri Jun 15, 2017

    Thanks for the article ♥

  • Reply
    blacklatina Jun 15, 2017

    Excellent article !!!!

  • Reply
    kez Jun 15, 2017 - edited

    I hope you have something about Queen for Seven Days!! i still wonder why was she a queen for just 7 days.

    • Reply
      ruby Jun 15, 2017

      that drama has me so hooked !!

    • Reply
      kez Jun 15, 2017

      me too! im currently watching it right now. the chemistry of these two young prince and lady chae gyung is so good

    • Reply
      Shojoshit Jun 16, 2017 - edited
      Reveal Spoiler »
    • Reply
      curlyglasses Jun 16, 2017


  • Reply
    LoveAsianWorld Jun 15, 2017

    I also find it very interesting to know, which part of sageuk are actually historically correct, so I welcome articles such as this!
    Keep up the grood work! ;)

  • Reply
    fiflydramalover Jun 15, 2017

    Wow I love this! Sometimes i watch these and I'm like, how much history am I actually learning? Thanks for sharing this!

  • Reply
    IssunHime Jun 15, 2017

    I love the old Korean language in these dramas too!! *o*

  • Reply
    ruby Jun 15, 2017

    gahh rebel is such a gem <3

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