The Red Sleeve – Notes and Historical Stuff

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?

EP 9 – 10

  • It is almost surreal that we have passed the halfway mark this week! San is attacked by the assassins of the secret alliance under Court Lady Jo’s order. The assassination attempt depicted in the drama is probably a nod to the attempt made by the opposition to his regency in history. The one who blocked the attempt was no other than Hong Guk-young, or our resident ambitious Deok-ro. It was said that Yeongjo himself was aware of the strong opposition against his grandson that he gave him the wooden tablet to mobilize the troop in case anything happened.
  • Deok-ro playing the role of a clingy consort is something I have never imagined, but it totally works in this situation for the drama. In reality, San would have been married to the future Queen Hyoui at his current age in the drama..but his consort is nowhere to be seen until now, so it might be safe to assume that he is still single. Still, it kinda works (albeit in a very ambiguous way) since Lady Seong rejected Jeongjo’s first advance because of his consort while in this drama, Deok-im wants San to put the throne as his priority…which is what Deok-ro wants.
  • Persimmon and marinated crab. I have never thought that Court Lady Jo would resort to this, but she did..and oh dear, she has invoked the king’s wrath. Yeongjo was the longest reigned king of Joseon, yet he was the king with so many complexes and issues surrounding him even before he became one; from his mother’s humble status to his sudden rise to the successor’s seat when his brother Gyeongjong failed to produce an heir, there was also the suspicion regarding him poisoning his brother in order for him to sit on the throne. Gyeongjong had always been sickly ever since he was young, but his ailment grew worse after he supposedly ate the persimmon and marinated crab prepared by Yeongjo. The death of Gyeongjong opened the path for Yeongjo to rule as a king, but not without the rumour of him poisoning his own brother following him like a dark cloud throughout his reign.
  • If you have watched Sungkyunkwan Scandal, then you might be familiar with the phrase uttered by Deok-im in the preview for episode 11: Geumdeungjisa. Yes, it is the same thing. It was said that greatly saddened with the death of Crown Prince Sado and burdened with the realization that it was political conspiracy by his court which drove him to send his own son to death, Yeongjo wrote the details in a document known as Geumdeungjisa (금등지사, 金縢之詞). In other words, the document was a proof of the conspiracy behind Crown Prince Sado’s death. Although Jeongjo himself spent his lifetime searching for the whereabout of the document, it was nowhere to be found, hence disputing its existence in the first place.

EP 11 – 12

  • Never thought that I would be crying over Yeongjo-Sado again, but here I am…one can only imagine what San feels when he is continuously being doubted by his grandfather, yet he is still keeping himself under control. Yeongjo’s mind is probably befuddled with regret, so much that he mistakes San as the son he got rid of himself. The death of Sado is forever a mark which cannot be erased in both Yeongjo and San’s life, but in the end, Yeongjo’s final words remain, “I did so many wrongs, but I did my best.” Not everything he did was right, but maybe, it was the best decision he could come up as the king.
  • The way Deok-ro using the analogy of Taejong-Taejo for San-Yeongjo reminded me of the time when Yeongjo himself viewed as Taejong who hid all Sejong’s books like how he did to San. Taejong, the king who killed his own half-brother and caused his father Taejo to give up the throne. He was also the king who deposed his own son from the Crown Prince’s position and chose his third son as the next king, killing his in-laws in the process in order to prepare a smooth ground for the reign of Sejong. Almost 400 years difference, yet some things hardly change.
  • Although we seldom see Sado himself in this drama, his presence is as strong as ever, hovering in the background when it comes to the relationship between San and Yeongjo. The usage of geumdeungjisa here is not as a confession, but as a guarantee letter in securing San’s safety and future. Oh, one can only imagine how suffocating it is to have such an unfortunate family history….
  • Who wouldn’t miss a chance to show her presence and influence? Certainly not the Queen, who has been living without any real power due to lack of child or political influence surrounding her. Deok-im sure knows how to ruffle her feathers, enticing the Queen into taking the position of being San’s saviour. It is certainly worth anticipating to see what kind of Dowager she will become after San becomes the king.
  • Court Lady Jo’s end leaves me wondering how will everything be different should Yeongjo did choose her instead. Perhaps, she might not be as bitter as she is in the present and the secret group might not be as active as it is. But then, there will always be someone who is there to protect their interest, despite not being directly associated with the king like she was. How will her successor fare? Wol-hye, my eyes are on you…
  • Despite the focus on the throne this week, we get to see Deok-im pouring her heart out and talking about her real feelings. She puts herself as the top priority, but at heart, there is also her sincere feeling of carrying out her duties as a court maid, including supporting her master in whatever way she can. San’s change in status – from being in the most unstable position as the heir to the king’s throne – will also stir a change in Deok-im’s life goal; now that San is a king who has the power in his hands, how will Deok-im’s presence be of any help to him? Will she get to live in peace now that San has everything? And the most important question: will her own heart be at ease? Loving a king is indeed a difficult path to walk on; there is no way he will belong solely to her, for he is a king and father of the whole nation first before her partner in life.
  • All hail to the new king, who has endured everything under the sun to become the sun himself.

EP 13, 14, 15

  • Deok-im said that she wishes that everything will stay the same even after what happens in episode 12 and Kyung-hee’s words, while sounding like a sharp knife stabbing through her simple wish, have already proved that everything is changing and will only continue to change. We don’t really see much of Deok-im’s friends over the years, but the sight of Bok-yeon in her common clothes doing menial work at the tavern is like a wake up call for us to realize that Deok-im’s safe space is already changing. Bok-yeon – who has to leave the palace since she was a court lady of the late King’s quarters and her master has passed away – is given a chance to return to the palace per Deok-im’s request and victory. Even in history, a court maid would have to leave the palace once her master dies, but per special request or approval, she will get to return to the palace to serve under a new master. Life inside the palace was certainly more comfortable than outside, since they would get regular stipends instead of having to live without marrying anyone outside the palace and working to fend for herself with no guarantee of stability.
  • I thought that the assassination part is going to be covered quite extensively, but considering that they have pushed the event to two years later than the real historical timeline, the importance of is diminishes as well. I take it that the assassination is based on the Treason Case of 1777 or 정유역변, with Deok-ro being the hero capturing the assassins and people behind the plan. The movie The King’s Wrath is a story based on this event.
  • Everything around Deok-im is changing rapidly; from Wol-hye’s departure to San’s status, which might contribute to Deok-im’s even stronger will to protect her belief in order not to lose the balance in her life. The person who treats her like a little sister turns out to be an accomplice in the assassination, and her words come off as harsh when she talks about dealing with the people behind the attempt, without realizing that it turns to be San’s half-brother Prince Eunjeon. But then, even if she is making every effort to not change and stay at one place, she is like a tree that is bound to be shaken by wind despite being deeply rooted. Although she wants to avoid losing herself, she is more like a leaf that will be blown away if the typhoon comes.
  • The world is like a wheel for those living in it. People like Hong Jeong-yeo and Princess Hwawan (now Madam Jung), who used to strut in high air during Yeongjo’s reign, are now being pushed to the bottom, while Queen Dowager is rising, exerting her influence through the concubine selection as her way of getting back at San for sending her brother to exile. It is interesting how Kim Kwi-ju is only mentioned in passing, yet his presence is huge enough to push for not only one, but two concubine selections here.
  • Like what the Queen Dowager said, San’s early reign is marked with intense house cleaning through the effective Deok-ro. Jeong Baek-ik and Hong Jeong-yeo are among the casualties of said house cleaning whom we have seen onscreen, but there were more in history, including those whose deaths were indirectly implicated by it like Lady Hyegyeong’s own father, Hong Bong-han.
  • Deok-ro is sure meticulous with the plan of making his sister the first royal concubine of San, to the point of gaining the support from the Queen Dowager and Lady Hyegyeong. Still, it is heartbreaking to see someone so young like Lady Hong Wonbin being pushed into the position, thinking that it might be of help to her brother, only to end up dying because she is worried sick about her inability to be of any help. It is such an irony to see how the plan Deok-ro thought would be a stepping stone for him to rise to the highest point in his life, ends up lining the path to his doom. His back door dealings are being brought to light one by one, leaving San with no other choice but to face the end of their long-term relationship.
  • Hearing Deok-im say herself that the King is not to be trusted, it seems that Court Lady Jo’s words do have some truth to it. I can see why she feels inclined to ask for the Dowager’s help instead of directly reporting it to San, since she knows that San will have even bigger things at stake should she confront him about Deok-ro. Unbeknownst to her, the Dowager herself is laden with politically charged motive that is huge enough to put a dent in San’s reign. Knowing that her friends mean the world to her, Deok-im takes matter into her own hands and put her life on the line.
  • Everything is following the history quite closely, including Deok-ro’s activity of torturing the Queen’s court ladies and maids under the suspicion of having their master instigating his sister’s death through poisoning and his mysterious reason of resignation and early retirement, for him to be called the black-haired retired official. However, Hong Guk-young was actively involved in the activities of Gujanggak (unlike Deok-ro who was left behind) but had records in Gyujanggak documents related to him erased after the fallout between him and Jeongjo. It is expected for Deok-ro to have his wings clipped, but it sure hurts to see San grieving over the lost comradeship and Deok-ro over the realization that he has never been San’s person, after all.
  • Deok-im leaving the palace is similar to the original novel, although her master is different in the drama; here, she becomes a member of Princess Cheongyeon’s household. I initially think that it is the Queen Dowager who brings her back to the palace just to spite San, but if she really has a hand in it and wants to annoy San, she would have make Deok-im her own court maid, turning Deok-im into something San can never dream of having (out of filial piety, since it was considered unfilial even for a King to take in his superior’s court maid as his concubine).
  • Isn’t it funny that we never (will we ever?) get to see San’s Queen on the screen, yet Lady Yoon Hwabin is featured just to give a nudge to San and Deok-im’s relationship. And Deok-ro’s passing too! His interaction with Deok-im is still fiery until the end, which makes me even sadder to send him away. Still, if only he knows that his death has become a spark in pushing San and Deok-im to the next chapter in their lives…would he be happy? Or sad? Or jealous? Maybe it is also his way of atoning for his sin of winning San’s favour through deception all this time.

Honestly, it is suffocating to see Deok-im being driven into a corner by people who cherish her. Indeed, Wol-hye’s last words are true: being likable might sometimes turn into a poison for that person. She is afraid of losing herself, yet people around her are already changing and losing that familiar facets she used to know. No matter how much she tries to resist the change, she is visibly shaken. I want to keep watching, wanting to see how on Earth is this drama going to convince me that someone who loves herself so dearly is suddenly willing to give away a piece of her affection, knowing the risk that she might lose herself in the process. Or perhaps, Deok-im herself is already changing and losing herself bit by bit, with the death of Deok-ro becoming a wake-up call for her to face her feelings, instead of losing herself should she lose something dear to her as well. This might sound foreboding, but there is also the possibility of the drama not addressing her inner thought once she becomes a royal concubine; she would be even more careful than she is now, keeping everything bottled to herself instead of sharing it with her close friends. Wait, she is already doing that for quite a while now, so the change that she is afraid of is already making her lose her own facets. San assures her that changes can be undone for there is still a chance to do so in one’s lifetime; still, what if the chance is something denied to her? Something that she can never attain, be it in life or death?

EP 16 – 17

  • Hwabin’s plan to get rid of Deok-im totally backfires…and serves as another proof of how tactless and thoughtless she is as a person. Everyone has started to notice when she starts blabbering about being a criminal’s child, and then she has the guts to argue about Sado being a criminal in front of the family of the criminal themselves? Such a thoughtless and short-sighted thing to say, and I can’t help but to be reminded of San musing over Deok-im’s thoughtfulness after the rice cake/King’s path incident.
  • I am so, so glad we get to see lots of things from Deok-im’s point of view. After watching episode 15, I did say that I wanted to see how they are going to convince me about her choice. And I think they did. Deok-im again made her choice, but just like all the countless choices we have made in this life, there are bound to be moments when we rethink of the choices; the things we gain and lose among everything else. I really, really love the scene where Lady Seong is saying goodbye to Seong Deok-im. A very bittersweet gesture indeed from the director ❤
  • Yeong-hee’s words also linger in my mind. (Seriously..this drama is just chock full of lines that will linger on and make you ponder on everything.) The thing about life is there are things you cannot run away from, things that will just happen. Maybe some call it fate, maybe some call it luck, maybe some call it bad luck. But then, when it is something you cannot run away from, maybe acceptance is a good start to come in terms with it, instead of avoidance. Living while giving your best in whatever it is might also become a small source of happiness itself.
  • Life is indeed a mixed bag of happiness and sadness, but in this drama’s case, the bliss feels so short-lived. Only sadness, pain, and deafening silence surround them afterwards, peppered with small blasts into the past. The words of reassurance San keeps getting from people around him is a proof of his achievement as a king, yet he never heard the word he wants to hear the most from that one person. That one person, Deok-im; the person who is good with words, yet her choice is to refrain from expressing her real feelings towards him and instead show it through her actions…just like what she has been doing from the very beginning.

Hands down the best scene:

  • 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).

128 thoughts on “The Red Sleeve – Notes and Historical Stuff

  1. Hi Mimi,

    Am I correct to assume that (Hong)Jung-yeo is the courtesy name of San’s grand-uncle Hong Inhan? I can’t think of anyone else as the Prime Minister towards the end of Yeongjo’s reign besides Inhan.
    I can’t wait for San to start his house cleaning. Yeongjo may have tolerated the old school Norons, but they forced him to make terrible decisions when it came to his family.

    1. Hi kiara!

      Yes, Hong Jung-yeo is Hong In-han 😀 The drama doesn’t dwell much into the political stuff, but to me, Noron can be considered as Yeongjo’s staunch supporters, as well as being stern when it comes to things they believe in.

      LOL at the house cleaning! I wonder if they are going to show Jeong Baek-ik as well, as the ‘victim’ of the house cleaning, since he was directly implicated after the assassination attempt. At least the drama lets us take a breather after the death of Yeongjo and pushes the assassination plot until the mourning period has ended.

      1. Thank you Mimi <3.

        I’m expecting three, including Jeong Baek-ik. Maybe, Deok-ro’s fall from grace, too; I’d love to see Dasan in the extra episode :).

        1. Please help me understand, is King San Marie’s and has a queen whom he Al’s is intimate with and Doek Im is his concubine?

        1. Awww…I was hoping to see him with Hwawan one more time, but I guess it’s really the end for them (ㅠ.ㅠ) Thanks for the info Gladys 😀 At least we can look forward to the house cleaning lmao

        2. Hello. Do you have any idea if the book (where the drama is based on) has an english translated version? I am really fascinated how close the drama is to the novel/book itself. However, I am not fluent in Korean so I’m trying to find the tanslated version. Thank you in advance.

    1. Not sure if the drama is following the exact historical timeline but from what I’ve gathered, it has been 15 years since they first met in childhood and 8 years since their reunion in adulthood.

  2. Watching the drama, I wonder why Princess Hwawan hates Yi San so much to the point she wants him to be deposed…I mean..she was his biological aunt! It’s not that she was his father’s half sister or something..Is it because Sado didn’t treat Hwawan well that she transferred her resentment to the young Yi San?..

    1. From the drama’s point of view, she seems to harbour jealousy toward people who are adored by Yeongjo. Both Lady Hyegyeong and San, despite being related to Sado, were among the few people Yeongjo liked. It is easy to see why Hwawan would be so jealous of San, since she prides herself as the precious daughter of the King, but the King himself also loves his grandson. But then, she also mentioned how Sado was out killing people at one time, so she could be so traumatized with the event that she never wanted to support anyone related to him, ever.

      According to Lady Hyegyeong’s memoirs, Sado was closer to the older sisters of him compared to Hwawan. Still, only Hwawan lived a long life and witnessed the tragedy befalling her brother. There was also one time when Sado half-threatened her to put in good words about him in front of their father, knowing that Yeongjo loved her and despised him.

        1. Memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong did talk about Hwawan being so obsessed with Yi San, to the point of spending so much time with him that he ended up growing distant from his consort. Lady Hyegyeong said that Hwawan was acting like she gave birth to Yi San, so I guess at one time, it was like her raising him.

  3. Hello Mimi and many thanks for your insightful comments on the episodes and extended explanations on historical facts.

    I’m watching the series and found this story as particularly compelling, most surely because of the two leads’ performance, but also for the brilliant script, spectacular visuals and uniqueness of building a full-length story in each episode. What I like most is the sense of continuity across the episodes, but with rounded stories in each episode.
    I’m learning bit by bit something more about Korean history and have read what I could about the real historical facts from the sources that are available in English. However, I’ve read that the Red Sleeve is mostly based on a novel, that I was unable to find translated but I’ve learnt that the author was particularly meticulous in reconstructing all the historical details, especially in picturing Seong Deok Im’s strong-willed and independent personality, as she valued so much her independence to be able to refuse the Crown Prince and then King twice but still remain very close to the Royal Family. However, I haven’t been able to get hold of the translated novel (apparently no English versions are available) and I was wondering how the drama is close to the novel and possibly how the novel ends.
    I also have a couple of questions, considering my very limited grasp of Korean culture, language and history:
    1) what does the adjective translated as “meticulous” mean in the context when San uses it to describe her (episode 5, ca. min 1:05)? He says: “A lady is certainly quite meticulous”, but it does not fit well with the context in question, so I wonder if in Korean the word used here has other connotations/meanings.
    2) the three-year gap after the King’s ascension seemed quite abrupt to me and little consistent with how the story has been conducted so far: how is it that the two (previously practically inseparable) are so cold and seem to have been apart for the whole period? iIs there an implication that during the mourning period the two could not meet, not even as Seong Deok Im is her personal maid?

    I’ll stop for now and many thanks if you can answer me! 🙂

    1. Hello!

      I also haven’t had the chance to read the novel myself and can’t say anything about the ending, but from what I’ve seen around, a stark difference between the novel and the drama is Jeongjo Yi San; he does not express his feelings freely in the novel, unlike the drama. This is also one of the things that the writer herself expressed her regret since the novel was finished before the facts about Jeongjo’s undying love immortalized in the epitaph he wrote for Uibin was known to the world. She had been doing research for the novel for years, hence the close reference to history.

      Regarding your questions:

      1- I think you are referring to Episode 4, right? The scene where San thanked Deok-im for saving him regarding the King’s rice cake issue. The word used is 세심하다. I saw two versions of subs translating it as ‘meticulous’ and ‘delicate’. I can say that both are technically correct, since the word itself carries those meanings, but ‘thoughtful’, ‘careful’, and ‘attentive’ might be closer to what the word implies as compared to ‘meticulous’ in that context. As for ‘delicate’, the exact word for it (섬세하다) is almost similar in meaning to 세심하다 (‘delicate’, ‘detailed’, or ‘careful’), so I think I get why it is used in the subs. I don’t know if I’m making sense over here lol

      2- I can see how the gap might make the story feel disjointed, but there are so many things a newly crowned king would have to oversee, with the late king’s funeral and all the court matters. In Jeongjo’s case, he even set up a library to house Yeongjo’s writings and books during the mourning period. Since Deok-im is his maid affiliated with the King’s chamber, it is possible that she rarely sees him around if he does not even go back to his bedchamber. Although the king does have the prohibition from having any relationship during the mourning period of his superior, in San’s case, it is more like him concentrating on the demanding tasks and it is in character for him, from what we have seen of him so far.

      1. Hi Mimi and many thanks for your well-articulated answers! All is much clearer to me now. In the meantime, I’ve watched the other episodes and now I’m eagerly waiting for the 16 and finale. I was a bit disappointed about how the story was being dragged in episode 13 (and the seemingly coldeness of the phenomenal pair, as well as the apparently unexplicable three year gap), but at the same time thought that they would have stopped the story before the tragedy and leave the audience with a much awaited and longed for “happy ending” (that to me meant to stop the story soon after the wonderful couple finally ended up together), but the last preview (even though I did not understand any single word, despite my attempts at learning Korean, ..but I had the feeling of recognizing some lines Deok-Im was reading to CP while he was being secluded, I’m not sure) crashed all my hopes as it seems to me that they lose their son (the young Crown Prince), so if they (i.e. scriptwriters) in the end follow closely the historical facts an unpending tragedy is bound to happen us. I’m Italian and in my country the audience tends to be very upset and even mad at tragic drama’s finales (the Italian dramas are called “fictions” and are of immensely inferior quality than the average K-dramas). Are Koreans generally cool with tragic finales or are they like us hot-blooded Italians? 🙂

        Any way, let’s wait for the last two episodes and we’ll see how it goes.
        Even though I’m quite familiar with sageuk, this one strikes me as particularly well done in all respects, for its visuals, overall performance, script, general cinematography, editing and soundtrack. I’m also deeply impressed by Junho’s performance, I think it may the role of a lifetime. Lee Se-young is really good as well, but I think that Junho is given the best lines and his character is more open to the viewers’ scrutiny, whereas Deok-Im has lost some of her unyielding resourcefulness and wit in the last episodes (I would say from episode 12 on). I did not get why she trusted more the Queen Dowanger than San in ep 15 (you explained it, but it still does not make full sense to me, as Deok-Im should have known very well how San was being partial to her and in all possible ways). Furthermore, all her refusals should have been explained in greater psychological detail to make them much more convincing IMHO, as it’s not entirely clear what Deok-Im is cherishing so much about her life, that is deemed several times as “independent”, when in fact it is not. She explicitly mentions the excruciating pain of sharing the man she loves with other women and the superior interest of the country (even though this is an anachronism as the real Deok-Im could not have seen the realities of the life of a concubine as we see and perceive them as women in the 21st century). Still, I think that the script is more articulated in explaining the ML in all his finest psychological traits, and Junho’s performance is outstanding in making the script live.
        P.s, apologies for the typos in my post.

      2. Hi Mimi. I tried to reply to your answer with a very long post, but it doesn’t appear and says that duplicated messages can’t be published, is it perhaps moderated—? I dont know how to post it, can you help me please? or perhaps my post is too long…..

        1. Oh, it seems that the comment has to be moderated. Done!

          People in general love happy endings, but in this drama’s case, with the history known too well by so many, the sad ending is inevitable and people might go into a riot should the drama tries to distort the history just for the sake of showing a happy ending. So… I would say that people wouldn’t wish any other ending than a sad one for The Red Sleeve, but the question is how they will deliver the ending up to people’s high expectations so far.

          I actually agree with what you said, about the lack of explanation from Deok-im’s point of view. We as the viewers are not allowed into her thoughts, unlike what we were given in the earlier parts of the drama. I’m quite apprehensive about the acceptance part too, but I’m willing to wait for the final week to see if they will address this pressing matter regarding Deok-im’s stand in the matter. I so hope that they won’t butcher her character ㅠㅠ

  4. is it true that this drama only has 17 episodes in total? if so, we are now on episode 13 and Deok Im is not even a concubine yet and we are yet to see the demise of concubine Hong and Deok Im’s climb to the highest rank. can all the tragic events about to follow be well covered and executed in less than 5 episodes??

    1. Yes, the drama will end next week with a total of 17 episodes. Keep watching! I can’t guarantee how well the events will be executed, but seems like flash forward is going to be used quite frequently.

  5. Hi thanks for the fascinating details which lend so much colour to the drama. I was trying to look online for the actual epitaph written for Concubine Uibin, but was unable to find it (mainly because i do not know Korean and only searched in English). Would it be possible for you to provide a link to the epitaph so that i can try google translating it? Thanks very much in advance!

  6. I am glad to find this blog. I have just started the drama (still on episode 5) and I feel like a stumble upon a pot of gold.
    Also enjoying the other posts about title and ranks, women in Joseon etc, Knowing the background makes the drama much more interesting. Thank you.
    I plan to read your the weekly thoughts bit by bit as I go along.

      1. Thank you too, and you know what, I have already found something I learned from your post that add flavours to the story. I am on episode 6, and when Deok Im’s friends urged her to eat, she sat with them in a room. One of the friends who was a sewing maid showed them a piece of silk clothes that her dad a trader boss imported from Qin. Well it clicked together, sewing maids came from families with good background, and so she must be the one who was seen going home on interns day off on a palanquin while other maids went home walking. Sorry for blabbering, just getting excited to find something.

        1. Yes, Kyung-hee was the friend in the sewing department! Hahaha don’t worry, I can relate to that excitement you feel when you discover little things like this 😀

  7. hi, thank you for your thoughts, but can you give me a summary on the lives of court ladies and what does it mean to be a red sleeved maid? i would be so grateful

    1. Hello sunny!

      The red sleeve is actually just the novel and the drama’s way of tying the significance of the court maids to the king. In history, the term ‘red sleeve’ or ‘hongsu’ was used as an unofficial nickname for court maids, but there was no exact record about their work uniform being red-sleeved. Even from the photos of court maids in late Joseon did not show the maids wearing darker sleeves or cuffs. However, considering that married women would be wearing a dark purple collar and dark purple cuffs as a symbol of her being married and having given birth to a son, maybe that was where the writer took her inspiration from.

      Court ladies and court maids were said to be the king’s women because once they become court maid, they would never be able to get married unless they received the grace from those in the line of succession (King, Crown Prince, Young Crown Prince/Grand Heir) and became royal concubines. Even the king’s other sons (Grand Prince and Prince) were forbidden from having a relationship with court maids and there were instances in history where the involved parties were punished severely. Even if they had to leave the palace when they were older or when the person they served died, they would have to live alone for the rest of their lives. There was a story of a young trainee court maid of Sado who had to leave the palace after his death, but she continued to live by herself despite being in hardship. She was still alive until Jeongjo’s reign and her story reached his ears. He was touched and awarded her for her loyalty.

      1. thank you, i had just watched the last episodes and i cant keep my tears from falling. this was one of the historic dramas that i adored dearly. i am so grateful for your blog. i appreciate your efforts. i hope to see more of it… thank you and may god bless you

  8. “I want to keep watching, wanting to see how on Earth is this drama going to convince me that someone who loves herself so dearly is suddenly willing to give away a piece of her affection, knowing the risk that she might lose herself in the process.”

    This writer lost me somewhere in the middle of the show, but I want to know how this sudden change of “mind” from this headstrong girl happened.

  9. Hi kiara ,
    Do you know where the filming location of the house deokim stays after she became a concubine ?
    I have visited changdeokgung palace before including its secret garden also the korean folk village at yongin but I dont recall to see this tiny house in it
    If I have chance to go korea again I really want to visit this place.
    Thank you.

    1. Hehe no problem!

      The filming location is Yeolhwajeong Pavilion in Boseong Ganggeol Village, South Jeolla Province (Jeollanam-do). It was quite a distance from Seoul and I think Lee Junho said it was about 4-hour journey to go down there.

  10. Hi. I was so heartbroken and a deep sense of loss, emptiness after seeing ep17 finale. But coming to your site and reading your wise, insightful words (below) has somehow comforted the pang inside me. I can’t thank you enough.

    (Seriously… this drama is just chock full of lines that will linger on and make you ponder on everything.) The thing about life is there are things you cannot run away from, things that will just happen. Maybe some call it fate, maybe some call it luck, maybe some call it bad luck. But then, when it is something you cannot run away from, maybe acceptance is a good start to come in terms with it, instead of avoidance. Living while giving your best in whatever it is might also become a small source of happiness itself.

    1. Writing has helped me and provided me a sense of comfort during difficult times, and drama withdrawal is one of those times. I am happy to know that my words have comforted you as well. hugs

  11. I have been following your recaps randomly, but decided to stalk this particular note.

    Just wanted to leave a comment to thank you for these quick thoughts, and insights! I can’t believe DB didn’t cover this too (the strange choices they make…) Much love for the random historical facts too!

    This show is triggering all kinds of feelings, and I’m just incoherent right now on the tails of Episode 16 (will I survive 17?)

  12. Hi Mimi, I wrote a comment yesterday but it disappeared. Hope this comes out. Just want to thank you for the great insights, I especially enjoyed knowing that all the books referenced in the drama were real. I never knew that Korean royalty/nobility read so many Chinese classics? I have also noticed in other sagueks where they mentioned the Book of Zhou and the kings of Zhou. Was the Zhou dynasty some sort of model for Joseon?

    I really like how this drama has paid attention to the little details, like all the beautiful ink brush stands! Even that little water pot that Deok Im had to keep filling was so beatiful!

    I ugly cried throughout ep 17, thinking that there were really people who experienced such trajedy was so heart wrenching…I wished the show had given us more happy family scenes in ep 17 and ended with Uibin getting pregnant with their 2nd child. We all already know the sad ending in history anyways. Junho was fantastic but all those lonely scenes after Uibin died (boohooo)…

    I feel like Deok Im did love San but it was mixed with resentment and that parting shot to San to pretend not to know her in the next life seemed quite cruel. I wonder if San understood the sacrifice she made and why he kept saying that he didn’t care if she loved him or not because she was his anyways…(a bit disturbing for our modern sensibilities…). I thought the show made it clear that life was hard for women in Joseon. From the Queen Dowager to the court ladies, no one was really happy…the show mentioned court ladies taking their lives more than once. Also what happened to Young Hee could easily have happened to Deok Im if San really had been a tutor and she had fallen in love with him (which I think at that point she already had)…so loving San was difficult whether he was Crown Prince or not because she was a court lady. Gosh this show has so many layers!

    I thought it was a bit strange that San suspected her of having a man outside when he saw that scene with her brother but yet he was able to brush that aside and still ask her to start a family together later. He never once asked her about that directly.

    Thank you too for translating her story (I read your other post too), made me cry all over again. I just wanted to ask how the original poster knows that Jeongjo wrote to Uibin on her death annivesary every year (did I get that right?) and even informed Uibin about the birth of Sunjo. Are the letters preserved somewhere?

    Also, I’ve been trying to find a portrait of Uibin without success. Would you have a reference? Did royal women have their portraits painted at all? I can’t find portraits of any Queen either?

    Sorry this is such a long post. It has been a long time since a show gave me so many feels and made me cry so much…and made me want to write instead of silently stalking! Lol…thanks again Mimi for sharing so much with us.

    1. Hello michele! I’m afraid the comment has disappeared because I can’t find it anywhere (ㅜㅜ)

      Joseon was a nation built based on the Confucian thought, or more specifically, Neo-Confucianism, so they referred a lot to the thoughts of Zhu Xi, Rites of Zhou, and the classical Confucian texts.

      I think we all can agree that the happy scenes were way too short, right? Sadness hit way too soon and those scenes of lonely San reminiscing their happy moments were so difficult for me to rewatch (ㅠㅠ)

      It is probably the drama’s intention to leave the interpretation of Deok-im and San’s thoughts to the viewers. I find it interesting how we could never know what Deok-im’s real feelings towards San and we can only assume from her actions that she did love him. As for San, we could never know if he was truly able to understand Deok-im, from how he kept wondering and doubting, yet he continuously reassured himself.

      Like what Queen Jeongsun (the Dowager) said, the palace is like a dazzling prison from the outside; everyone there was either trapped in position or bound to their duties. The royal ladies especially were almost powerless despite their high position, and the court maids could only wager their lives as they serve their masters.

      San’s decision not to pursue further about Seong Sik after he saw Deok-im with him for the first time was quite surprising, considering that he had all the means to dig around…but I guess it showed how he was also human and men can be so unpredictable when they are in love 😉 Love is blind, after all…

      Jeongjo’s visits to the tombs were recorded in the Diary of Royal Secretariat (Seongjeongwon Ilgi) and Diary of Self Reflection (Ilseongnok) but the letters were not preserved…I think the letters would be burned during the ritual?

      Unlike the kings, the Joseon queens and concubines did not have their portraits officially painted, hence the lack of their portraits left until today.

      You’re welcome, and thank you too for sharing with me your thoughts 🙂 It’s always a joy to be able to talk with someone about something you love and cherish dearly ❤

  13. Hello! I was wondering where can I find a PDF copy or any hard copy of the original novel where this drama was based from? I want to read more of San and Deok Im’s love story 🙂 Thanks ❤

    1. Hi Aimee!
      As far as I know, there are only e-books and physical books of the novel being sold both online and offline. Maybe you can try looking around in the international site of Yes24 and Gmarket?

      1. Oh! Thank you! ❤ Did you perhaps know the title of the novel (book) where The Red Sleeve drama was based from?? Thanks ❤ 🙂

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