Honestly speaking, the only thing that is stopping me from recapping MBC’s latest Friday-Saturday drama The Red Sleeve is that I am afraid I cannot commit myself to finishing the recaps until the final episode. I have so many things to talk about (or ramble?) about the drama, so instead of spamming people with tweets or posts, I think I will just update this post with random tidbits about the drama and the related historical facts every week. Feel free to ask anything and as usual, consider yourself warned since this post will be chock full of spoilers 😉
EP 1 – 2:
- We are not informed about the year in which the characters are currently living in the drama, but if The Red Sleeve is to follow the timeline of the real history, then Royal Noble Consort Yeong or Yeongbin’s death suggests that the year is 1764 in the drama. It has been two years since the tragedy befalling San’s father Crown Prince Sado in 1762, yet it is apparent how the event looms around like a shadow on San’s path towards becoming the Heir. In order to ensure the legitimacy of his grandson towards the succession of the throne and silencing the talks of Yi San being the son of a criminal, King Yeongjo made Yi San, then the Grand Heir, as an adopted son of his eldest son who died before Crown Prince Sado’s birth, Crown Prince Hyojang. This means that Yi San was considered unrelated to Yeongbin (who was his birth grandmother) and even his birth mother, Lady Hong.
- I realize that there are way too many parallels than what I mentioned in my first impression (which was written in a flurry of excitement), from Yeongbin and Deok-im, to San and Crown Prince Sado, and even San and Yeongjo.
- Yeongbin used to serve as a palace maid and received the king’s grace quite late at the age of 31, giving birth to princesses before the much waited birth of Crown Prince Sado. She rose through the ranks – from sukui and gwiin before becoming the senior 1st rank bin with the title Yeong. Although she lived a long life until the age of 68, she had to witness most of her children dying before her, except for Princess Hwawan. Uibin, the historical figure who is the basis of Deok-im’s character, had rejected Jeongjo’s intention of making her his concubine twice before she gave in and granted the title soyong, right after she gave birth to Crown Prince Munhyo. Her rose to the rank of bin with the title Ui was faster, probably due to the fact that she bore the royal heir at that time. However, the consecutive deaths of her children, particularly Crown Prince Munhyo, led to her falling sick before her death at the age of 34 while she was heavily pregnant.
- Both San and his father Crown Prince Sado witness the death of their grandmothers, but it is clear how different they react from the event. At the time of Queen Inwon’s death, Crown Prince Sado was already fragile from the strained relationship between him and King Yeongjo, and the passing of his grandmother drove him into a corner as he lost a person who was like a shield against Yeongjo’s continuous wrath towards him. The death also marked the further decline of Sado’s condition, which led to his eventual demise. As for San, living post Sado’s death makes him studious, aspiring to live up to his grandfather’s expectation. Even at the moment of Yeongbin’s passing, he can only sneak out secretly to see her grandmother for the last time. When San visits her, his formal greeting shows how matured and composed the young heir is. Perhaps, the death of Yeongbin becomes another reason for San to strive to be the perfect heir to the throne, in order for him to correct the wrong things he witnessed all his life.
- I find it interesting that the drama chooses to highlight Yeongjo’s complex regarding his birth mother’s low status. It might be too early to draw the parallel, but I just can’t help but to be reminded of Lady Hong’s records, Memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong, which retells the lengths Jeongjo went to honour the late Crown Prince Sado (please read it if you have time!). King Yeongjo also did something similar with regard to his mother, Lady Choi Sukbin. The low status of his birth mother became the point people used against him in his whole life up until he became the Crown Brother and the King, hence it turned into a complex he had to overcome. Yeongjo’s effort to lift Lady Choi’s status continued years after her death, from raising the status of her shrine and her residence, to the status of her tomb.
- The book Deok-im is holding when she (literally) runs into San is the same novel she transcribes together with Princess Cheongseon and Princess Cheongyeon, San’s sisters. The work was recorded to be completed in 1773, so the current timeline of the drama is probably a year or two earlier than that. The two princesses’ hold the title Gunju 군주(郡主), a senior 2nd rank reserved for the legitimate daughters of a Crown Prince (more on the princess title here). The holder of the title would be upgraded to the title Gongju 공주(公主) once the father becomes the king, but in the princesses’ case, since their father passed away before becoming the king, then their title remains as a Gunju.
- Deok-im is still a saenggaksi or a trainee court maid at the moment, hence the reason why the court maids of the Eastern Palace keeps giving her wrong direction when she is trying to find San. I believe that she will undergo the coming-of-age ceremony or gyeryesik soon before she can graduate from the braided hair and don the jade topcoat reserved for court maid. I guess that is the explanation for the lack of contact between San and Deok-im all this while despite being so close in the same Eastern Palace complex, since Deok-im is still under training and not officially a gungnyeo or court maid. (An overview of the court ladies’ rank can be found here)
EP 3 – 4:
- The antagonists made their first appearance in episode 3 and they did not wait for long to show their claws, eagerly waiting for their chance at every turn with the change in Yeongjo and San’s relationship.
- Princess Hwawan (Seo Hyo-rim) – Yeongjo’s daughter and San’s aunt. The only surviving child of Yeongjo and Lady Yi Yeongbin, she has lived receiving all the attention from the king himself. Although her marriage suffers a setback with the early death of her husband, her adopted son continues to serve her and play an important role in her attempts to be at odds with San. At least there’s the Queen to control her a bit for now.
- Jeong Baek-ik (Kwon Hyun-bin) – real name Jeong Hu-gyeom. Hwawan’s adopted son. Another person who would later be strongly against Yi San and exiled after Jeongjo was enthroned.
- Hong Jeong-yeo (Jo Hee-bong) – real name Hong In-han. If you are familiar with Sado’s family, then you will find his real name familiar. That is because Hong In-han is the step-brother of Sado’s father-in-law Hong Bong-han, which makes him San’s step maternal uncle. Despite the family ties he has with San, he’s person who would be strongly against Yi San’s regency later.
- So, so glad we get to see more of Deok-ro’s menacing and ice cold side. There’s also the mention of his younger sister during his conversation with his distant relative Hong Jeong-yeo, which is just a small hint at what will happen in the near future in the drama (probably?). In real history, Hong Guk-young’s sister would be made Jeongjo’s concubine Lady Hong Wonbin. Deok-ro is ambitious and calculating; despite his seemingly strong support towards San in order to see the latter rising to the throne, the two will ultimately have a fallout after Jeongjo becomes the king.
- I finally get to hear clearly what Deok-im addresses the two Princesses Cheongseon and Cheongyeon with. She used Ilgung jaga (일궁 자가) and Igung jaga (이궁 자가) for them respectively. Igung (이궁) was generally used to refer to a palace of lower status than the royal palace where the King resides, Beopgung (법궁). It could also refer to secondary palace used instead of the main palace, or the palace of the Crown Prince. However, in this context, I think that Deok-im was just referring to them as the ‘first princess’ and ‘second princess’ (since ‘il‘ means one and ‘i‘ means two) instead of referring to them using their residence inside the palace.
- Yeongjo’s mood plays an important role in how he deals with people, and I love to see another detail from the memoirs being referenced in the drama. The King was said to be sensitive and moody, and his actions clearly dictated whether he was having a good or bad mood; Yeongjo was known to wash his ears when he hears something unlucky. When Deok-im asks Bok-yeon about the King’s mood, Bok-yeon hears from the court maid who just leaves the King’s quarters that the King washed his ears, which is a sign that his mood is not good.
- I don’t know why, but the sight of San kneeling in front of the throne hall gives me flashback of the too familiar sight of Crown Prince Sado prostrating so many times on my screen. The scene with Lady Hong is just…heartbreaking. The way she reminisces about her late husband and then holding San preciously as she vows to protect her son is just bittersweet. When San is surrounded by the dragon screens, that reminds me of the claustrophobic view of Sado in the rice chest. Luckily the scene turns out to mark the end of San’s setback for now, but that dragon screen also reminds me of a part in Memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong, where she told about the drawing of a dragon by Sado when she was pregnant with Jeongjo. The movie The Throne also had a scene of Crown Prince Sado drawing the dragon, and the painting was made into a paper fan.
- The style manora (마노라) is used when Deok-im’s brother calls Lady Hong. The style used to be on the same level as mama, but became exclusively used to refer to the Crown Prince’s consort and regarded as one step lower in rank as compared to mama. Notice how Lady Hong used to be referred to as manora while she was still the consort to the successor to the throne, but now that her husband has passed away, the style used for her is another step lower than manora, which is jaga.
- I think it’s kinda funny to have the ‘suspicion’ Lady Hong has about San’s nightly escapades is referencing the memoirs, where she regards the Princesses’ husbands (who are a part of San’s secret meeting) as bad influence in her son’s early years. In history, she also had bad impression on Deok-ro despite being relatives, but we shall see how she treats him in later episodes, right?
EP 5 – 6:
- The coming-of-age ceremony or Gyeryesik (계례식) is an important milestone in a court maid’s life, where she dons the green ceremonial jacket wonsam and puts her hair up in a bun while wearing a coronet called jokduri. While in normal setting, the ceremony would be symbolizing her new beginning as an adult, it’s like a wedding ceremony for the court maid; she officially becomes one of the king’s women, since all court maids and court ladies belong to the king. I find it quite funny and sad at the same time to have San mistaking Deok-im for being made a concubine; the hairdo is quite a stretch for a court maid, but on the other hand, if it really happens, he has no power to stop it from happening. I’m also reminded of what Yeongjo said about Yeongbin in the first episode…
- Yeongjo’s suggestion about regency makes it clear that the drama is around the year of 1775. While it is normal for a grandpa to dotes on his grandson with endless praises, it is scary to have a king talking about handing over his throne to his successor while he is still alive. Yeongjo was known to be temperamental and used to threaten to abdicate his throne so many times over the years. In this situation, the court and the Crown Prince would have to plead for him to retract his decision. Although Yeongjo is merely talking about making San a Prince Regent through the Prince Regency (대리청정), that is enough to make the court tense as the last time someone became the Prince Regent, it didn’t end well. In history, Jeongjo did carry out the regency in the year before Yeongjo’s passing…so that probably leaves us a step closer to see San in his red dragon robe.
- I am excited to find out that they are going to show another important ceremony in the Inner Palace, which is Chinjamrye (친잠례) or Sericulture Ceremony since there’s a chance to see another interpretation of the robe worn by the Queen in the ceremony. But then, the drama probably decides to follow the practice of the late Joseon, where the women participating in the ceremony would be wearing their wonsam and the Queen her jeokui, instead of the yellow and blue gukui.
- Court Lady Jo’s intention is revealed in this week’s episode and it is now clear that she is not on San’s side; the reason being San having the possibility of going crazy like how his father did and harming the lives of the court maids and eunuchs. Is that why she is planning to push Deok-im into San’s embrace so that the anti-San movement can get a new justification? That the heir to the throne is idling around with a concubine instead of putting his mind and soul into grooming himself to become a good ruler in the future? Well, that kid has gritted his teeth for so long without stirring much trouble that I bet he won’t be shaken…or maybe, it’s Deok-im who will keep her promise of protecting San.
- The questions asked by the Queen (Jang Hee-jin) to Deok-im are among the actual questions said to be used during the queen’s selection, and Queen Jeongsun was chosen because Yeongjo liked her answers. However, it is clear that she also finds Deok-im’s answers intriguing, from how she reacts afterwards.
- The dog painting San looks at as he muses over the memorial during the anniversary of his father’s death belongs to Crown Prince Sado.
- In my opinion, Deok-ro and Princess Hwawan might be best friends if not for their conflicting interests; one wants to see San sitting on the throne, while the other isn’t going to let that happen. Both of them are so insecure and afraid of having another person stealing their limelight in front of the person they serve. Still, I am happy to see Deok-ro being so good at what he is doing in order to achieve his goal, but one question remains: what happens once San becomes the king? Is Deok-ro going to support his king with all his heart, or will his ambition pushes him to dream of becoming someone above the king?
- I didn’t expect to see Deok-ro’s sister quite early, but it is just a proof that the inevitable is coming soon. The girl Deok-im helps to enter the palace will later be selected as San’s concubine per Deok-ro’s plan, and for him to warn Deok-im against being close to his sister is quite sly and crafty of him. Is he a fortune teller, or is it simply because he is quick-witted?
EP 7 – 8:
- The King is really getting older. The onset of dementia – one of the many, many signs shown by Yeongjo during his final years. He was known as the longest reigned king of Joseon Dynasty and said to never miss taking concoctions, which might be the reason for his longevity. However, he was also experiencing symptoms linked to various illnesses throughout his life, with forgetting things being more apparent four months before his death.
- San’s vow to protect the person he loves instead of following his grandfather’s cold choices for Yeongbin makes me feel down. Ah, if only you know San…fate won’t be that kind either with you. No matter how much you try to protect the person you love, San, by not killing your own son like what your grandfather did, fate is cruel….
- The more I watch the tangerine scene, the more bittersweet it feels. It might be a symbolism of the first rejection made by Uibin in history towards Jeongjo, then the Grand Heir. Never thought that it would be this painful to watch two characters who clearly like each other but the situation is just not right for them to reciprocate each other’s feelings. Ah, tragedy…
- Deok-ro is always acting bold and mighty and I forget that he is still lower-ranked than some people, for instance, Tae-ho, San’s bodyguard. It’s so satisfying to see Tae-ho giving advice (akin to a warning) to Deok-ro for going against San’s order since there is no one there to put him under control. Still, with the recent turn of events in the drama, nothing will be able to stop him from trying to get everything under his control. I pity his sister Hong Dan so much for the future that awaits her…
- The time has come for San’s regency, but not before the fierce opposition coming from the antagonists. San and Lady Hong are basically reciting what the future has in store for the antagonists from the historical records. She might not be able to become a Queen Dowager in her lifetime, but Lady Hong sure did receive all the deserved respect for a King’s birth mother during Jeongjo’s reign. As for Princess Hwawan, her playtime is almost over.
- The story of the heavenly maids living on the Moon Palace (廣寒宮) according to Court Lady Jo’s version is like a combination of the original version (with the maids going down to the King’s palace on Earth) and the history of King Seonjo abandoning the palace to seek refuge during the Imjin War. While the story presents a connection between the instilled fear in court ladies (enough for them to make a secret alliance among themselves to protect each other) and Court Lady Jo’s reason why she is so fixated on going against San, there is this slight feeling of disconnection I have when I see the gathering of the alliance. Still, it does help to explain why she continuously pushes Deok-im towards San..and seems like this isn’t her first rodeo in guiding (or goading?) court maids to vie for the King’s grace.
- I thought that the kites in the remote palace is just San’s way of asking Deok-im of a kite-flying session…but it’s not that romantic. Their designs were similar with the signal kites used by Admiral Yi Sun-shin in the battles against the Japanese navy during Imjin War. But then, the one Deok-im touches has the sign that reads “wrestle and fight!” and the arrow…is it telling her to fight against all odds and move straight to where her heart lies?
BOOKS FEATURED IN THE DRAMA
- The story in the first episode narrated by Deok-im is The Tale of Janghwa and Hongryeon (장화홍련전), a famous Korean folklore about two sisters who died a wrong death. It was also adapted into modern Korean movie, A Tale of Two Sisters, starring Im Soo-jung and Moon Geun-young, released in 2003.
- Yeongbin’s book which is given to Deok-im by Yeongjo in the first episode (also the reason behind Deok-im’s problem in episode 8) is Moral Norms of Women (여범, 女範), a collection of exemplary historical women’s biographies compiled and penned by the royal concubine herself. It was considered another text for standards of women, the other one being Instructions for Women (내훈, 內訓) written by Queen Sohye, widely known by her another title, Queen Dowager Insu.
- Records of the Grand Historian (사기, 史記) is the banned book with the phrase “your mother is a servant (이모비야, 爾母婢也). In history, the book was not a banned book and Yeongjo even enjoyed discussing about it.
- 곽장양문록 (sub-translated as The Tale of Gwak and Jang) is the novel transcribed by Deok-im and Co. with the princesses. The novel is a classic novel with 10 volumes, with the one in real history bearing the footnote ‘Uibin’s handwriting’. Yeongjo was someone who was known to enjoy reading folktale novels while Jeongjo despised them.
- Supplement to the Exposition of the Great Learning (대학연의보, 大學衍義補) is the book Deok-im transcribes in the second episode and also the book San is studying with his tutors. The book, written by Ming Dynasty’s Qiu Jun, was also recorded being Jeongjo’s favourite book.
- The book Court Lady Jo wants Deok-im to transcribe in episode 2 (with the norigae as the advance payment) is The Great Compendium of Works by Zhu Xi (주자대전, 朱子大全), a collection of works by Zhu Xi, a renowned Confucian scholar during Song Dynasty.
- Classic of Poetry (시경, 詩經) is the book Deok-im reads to San while the latter is being confined in episode 5. The book is a collection of poetry said to be compiled by Confucius. The part Deok-im reads is an ode entitled North Wind (北風) in the Odes of Bei (41). Another poem from the anthology also makes an appearance in during San’s studying/daydreaming session in episode 7, entitled Reed (蒹葭) in the Odes of Qin (129).