I found this one beautiful article written about the flowers featured in The Red Sleeve and loved it so much to read it so many times, but I just could not bring myself to write something about it. Maybe I just want to spare myself from the pain, or maybe I want to savour everything for the review that is yet to write itself. I also wanted to honour the writer, Kim I-jin, and her beautiful words describing the scenes and the featured flowers, so I decided to translate the article as a whole.
Crepe Myrtle, the Tree One Plants to Show Their Sincerity Towards a Person They Consider Precious
Conversations about flowers made their appearances frequently in the drama The Red Sleeve. I first realized the symbolism and metaphor of flowers being used when Deok-im was still serving as a bedchamber maid beside Yi San. San was reading a book all night long when the rain started falling, and Deok-im gently pushed the windows open to look at the falling rain.
San raised his head and stared at the sight of her lovingly, and the plum flower sprigs in his room started to bloom. Feeling the stare on the back of her head, Deok-im turned to look as San, who acted as if he was deeply engrossed in the book he was reading. It was the beginning of the strange atmosphere forming around the two of them; the start of something new.
The Crepe Myrtle Tree Blooming for the First Time
The annex building of the East Palace was the place where the talk about flowers ripened; the place where the trees and flowers lived and breathed under the shining sunshine. It was also San’s favourite place where his inner self was reflected. Outside the walls of the annex, there would be the heavy duties of a king and the increasing number of his enemies eyeing him, yet it would seem as if he was entering a different world when he opened the door to a welcoming warmth and peace.
The name that no one could not say carelessly; the owner of that name being someone who was once an affectionate and loving father to San. As Deok-im and San sat crouching in front of the kennel while San brought up the story of his father Crown Prince Sado, the two of them looked like friends, lovers, and family. The difference in status between a king and a palace maid slowly crumbled. At that moment, San took Deok-im’s hand into his and pulled her to show the flowers on the tree.
“These flowers bloomed not too long ago; the first time since my father passed away. Could there be any meaning to it?”
Of course, there was. Once the meaning was found, everything would be imbued into it. The flowering tree became the storyteller to tell the story of San and Deok-im. ‘Your hearts made me bloom.’ At that time, San had not realized yet that the flowers he saw on that day with a fluttering heart would blossom into a love that would reside in his heart for the rest of his life.
The flowering tree shown by San was a crepe myrtle tree. It is also known as ‘the tree that blooms for a hundred days’ because the flowers bloom for that period, but in reality, the tree blooms for more than a hundred days, sometimes having the flowers hanging from the tree for almost half a year. How is it possible for the flowers to blossom for more than a hundred days? The crepe myrtle tree has its tiny buds of flowers gathered at the end of the thorns, forming an image of a bunch of flowers stemming from a single stalk. It might seem to us that these flowers bloom continuously, but actually, the small flower blooms and wilts over and over again to continue offering its beauty to the watching eyes.
When I look at the crepe myrtle tree, my heart is actually filled with disappointment; Cherry blossoms steal all the attention in spring despite their short bloom, yet the beautiful crepe myrtle flowers are forgotten after the beginning of the flowering season in summer passes by. Is it the sorrow of a tree that blooms for a long time? Everyone feels bad over the short bloom of cherry blossoms, but not many people are upset when crepe myrtle flowers wilt.
During summer, the crepe myrtle tree has its bark peeled off to reveal a smooth, translucent structure of it. The bark is shown to be the same inside or outside, hence it is used to symbolize fidelity and even loyalty. The flower language for the crepe myrtle tree is wealth and honour, but the blossoming flower itself carries the meaning of sincerity and single-hearted devotion.
Be it a king, an ancestor, or someone else, they would plant a crepe myrtle tree to show their sincerity and devotion towards a person they consider precious. Hence, that is the reason why the tree could be seen in various places such as the palaces, the memorial halls for Confucius, temples and venues where the ancestral rites were held. The Confucian students who planted the tree around the Confucian memorial halls did so, with the intention to shake off their worldly desires and be like the smooth bark of crepe myrtle. The tree carries a variety of interpretations and stories to it.
Choosing Love and Things One Need to Lose
If the annex is a different world, then the library is a space where reality resides. There is no space for flowers to bloom. From San’s point of view, the library of East Palace was his absolute property, and the same concept would be applied to the palace maid tasked to work in that library. On the other hand, Deok-im viewed herself as the person responsible to manage the library. It was her working space, which was natural for her to protect that place. Hence, this was where their views differed – between possession and jurisdiction – and they fought fiercely. San wanted her to let go of her possession and come to him, both pleading and intimidating her in the process. Deok-im did not want her life to be shaken, thus she pushed him away.
The fight and argument between someone who was a king through and through, and another one who dreamed of managing her own humble life as a palace maid. The problem was these two people were both extremely devoted to their respective positions. If one of them happened to push the other into one of their worlds, then the other person would have to live in a world foreign to them.
Of course, the person who instinctively understood that principle of power was Deok-im. What was a palace? It was where the king resided. The owner of the house might not know it, but people who worked there knew everything about the house. In the end, despite being well aware of everything, Deok-im stepped into the world of the king. She could not give up on her undying love and grabbed the hem of the king’s dragon robe.
After she became the concubine, Deok-im’s chamber was decorated with white chrysanthemums and trumpet creepers. The flowers were talking again. ‘I’m in pain and dying’. Trumpet creepers were the symbol status of noble families in Joseon and there were records of commoners being punished by spanking because they dared to plant the flowers.
On the other hand, there was also a legend telling the story of a palace maid named So-hwa (literally means ‘small flower’). So-hwa had beautiful features and a warm disposition, which made her catch the king’s eyes and she became the highest-ranked concubine. But then, the king fell out of love and stopped visiting her, leading to her wilting and dying while waiting for the king. It was said that the flowers bloomed under the wall from So-hwa’s dead body, hence the name neungsohwa given to trumpet creepers.
A flower who waited for the king. One day, when Jeongjo was lying on Uibin’s knees while idling around, he asked her what she did all day long. Uibin answered that she waited for him all day long. It was indeed a conversation that took place during the most blissful moment in their lives, yet it also showed directly how much things had changed in their relationship. Deok-im, who used to be brimming over with energy and vigour, had become a concubine who could only wait for the bright moment that was meeting the king. Choosing love and the things she had to lose…
Deok-im tried to refuse the offer to become a concubine until the end, yet one could not help but wonder if it was really possible for her to live the so-called life of freedom. Her friends also walked on different paths of their respective choices, as the young ties from their days of being trainee maids changed bit by bit. Be it being loved by the king or not, the place called the palace put their lives under restrain. Even the king himself had to run to a place where there was no one around just to break into a hearty laugh.
Lee Junho and Lee Se-Young are Unrivalled
After Deok-im’s death, Jeongjo only continued to live as a king. The trees around him all dried up; there was no way of finding out whether they were still alive or dead. Jeongjo’s eyes were also like a dry tree, empty and void. Despite being in such situation, he changed himself in order to protect his position as the king and carry out Heaven’s mandate, like what Deok-im told him to do so. With the pledge he made to forget Deok-im, he got to hear from a 90-year-old man on a hill that the world they lived in was a peaceful reign at that moment; his courtier who used to be his political rival also honoured him as a wise ruler.
When Jeongjo was lost between the world of the living and dead, he returned to the moment he was lying on Deok-im’s knees, at the annex where his heart lay to rest. The dried plum blossom sprigs suddenly bloomed. And he realized it at that time, ‘Deok-im had been waiting for me, and the crepe myrtle flowers were dazzling in full bloom.’
“It does not matter if I am dead. I will always choose this moment with you and hope for this moment to not change; for this moment to be forever.” Jeongjo, who had been so persistent in confessing and being rejected over such a long time. Hence, this time around, he said to Deok-im, “Love me, please.”
It was not a request for her to love him; he was, at that time, he became hers in absolute, so it was an earnest plea for her to love him. That was the direction they aimed at in this interpretation. ‘Now that I have become a free person, you can love me to your heart’s content. You can confess too. That is fine too.’
In a far future from now, when I become a grandmother, there might be days when there will be a new interpretation of Jeongjo and Uibin’s story. After all, it is a dramatic tale. Younger and beautiful actors will be in that drama. At that time, I will flash a wide grin and say, ‘It’s impossible, impossible! Lee Junho and Lee Se-young are unrivalled. They were amazing. San and Deok-im were the legendary figures who made the moment became forever under the crepe myrtle tree. I cannot let anyone take that place of Jeongjo and Uibin!’
The writer of the article did not focus on the plum blossom, so I did a bit of digging around to find the meaning of it since the tree stayed close beside San; from his days in the East Palace until he moved into the King’s quarters, to the end of his life. The flower of a plum tree is known as plum blossom and the flowers will bloom before green sprouts appear. Plum blossom is also one of the four plants known as Four Gracious Plants or Four Gentle Plants (사군자), symbolizing scholars’ principles and beliefs in life.
The Four Gracious Plants:
Plum blossom (매화, 梅花) – elegance and fidelity (아치고절, 雅致高節); clear mind and innocence.
Orchid (난초, 蘭草) – gentle in appearance but tough in spirit (외유내강, 外柔內剛); ardent and pure love.
Chrysanthemum (국화, 菊花) – protecting integrity even in the harshest snow frost (오상고절, 傲霜孤節); gratitude, truth, and sincerity.
Bamboo (대나무, 竹) : surviving with integrity intact even in the coldest winter (세한고절, 歲寒孤節); principle, integrity, and patience.
Over time, the plum flower sprigs would also be featured in the background, from the time they were blooming together with the green sprouts. Soon, the green sprouts fell, leaving only the plum blossoms in full bloom. Even when San moved from his East Palace to the King’s quarters, the flowers continued to bloom. When Deok-im became the concubine, San’s plum blossoms were decorated with yellow chrysanthemums and unidentified white flowers (which looked like white lisianthus to me) until Deok-im’s death marked the end of the spring for the plum blossoms. It remained thin and hollow when San was left alone until he was leaving for the afterlife…and new blooms appeared.
Lisianthus has the meaning of undying love, but yellow chrysanthemum holds the meaning of neglected and rejected love. Bonsai tree, suddenly featured in the background at the last moment of Deok-im trying to show that she was fine in front of San, also held a significant meaning from the way it was placed beside San; maybe, it was an earnest wish from Deok-im’s heart, for him to live a long life while displaying strength and wisdom as a king, like what he dreamed of becoming.