In Praise of “Rookie Historian Goo Hae-ryung”

This is two Veritable Records of the Josen Dynasty used to represent the records in "Rookie Historian Goo Hae-ryung".
The Veritable Records of the Joseon Dynasty

Everything about Rookie Historian Goo Hae-ryung feels special.

Stories are malleable. The facts of an event can have entirely different interpretations and understandings if not agreed upon and recorded as truth. This ability to bend facts and history is dangerous which is while society has installed agents to protect the truth. Some of these agents are the historians and journalists who make up a significant portion of any functioning and ordered society. Yet while these figures hold great power and importance, they’re often neglected in the romanticization of the past in movies or TV shows. The South Korean drama Rookie Historian Goo Hae-ryung, attempts to fill the gap and presents a society where women can become pioneers of a moral and humanitarian world.

Rookie Historian Goo Hae-ryung is a historical drama following Goo Hae-Ryung (Shin Se-Kyung) and her journey into becoming a trailblazer in her institution and in history. The story is quite enjoyable to watch, rich with humour, education, and reflections on important issues such as abuse of power, the role of professionals, particularly historians in their society, and the unfair treatment of women and girls. It’s a very colourful story that calls viewers to question the norms in society and if certain traditions are worth keeping.

The show feels perfectly balanced with an addictive plot, powerful supporting characters and a strong leading woman. Goo Hae-ryung is a very likeable and brave character. She is smart, funny, well-spoken, firm and opinionated, a combination which is often lacking in the portrayals of women in romantic and historical dramas around the world. She develops a beautiful relationship with prince Lee Rim (Cha Eun-Woo), a confined prince with a fraught relationship with his father and emperor, Lee Tae (Kim Min-Sang), still despite the inclusion of their love story and the muddled accounts in the Royal Court, Goo Hae-ryung is always at center of every story arch and every secondary storyline is set in the back drop of her life story. It’s magnificent and extraordinary to watch, because screen writer Kim Ho-Soo never diminishes her development to tell the intricate stories of her environment. In the end, Ho-Soo’s efforts are flushed with nuance and realities which are at the root of any good tale.

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Everything about Rookie Historian Goo Hae-ryung feels special. From the careful attention to ideas about respectability to the seamless weave-in of humour through memorable characters like Yang Si-Haeng (Heo Jung-Do) the lead historian or Hae-rung’s maid Seol-Geum (Yang Jo-A) or even prince Lee Rim’s servant Heo Sam-Bo (Sung Ji-Ru). The acting of the cast is so sincere, so genuine, it’s easy to get swept up into Ho-Soo’s beautifully produced world, endowed with picturesque and romantic scenes, enchanting classical and modern music that feels so well placed and at the most opportune moments. It’s absolutely brilliant. Every character is introduced with purpose to add to the narrative and to the imagining of a life in the Joseon Dynasty that encouraged the advancement of women. Although the stories in the series are largely fiction, it still compels people to reflect on the adventures of women who yielded power in history and forged our modern life.

It wasn’t so surprising though. It was obvious that this drama was going to be different from the start simply from how Goo Hae-ryung was introduced. She was obstinate, unyielding and educated during a period of time when the dominating custom required more of a modest and passive countenance of women—behaviour in line with Confucianism. But Goo Hae-ryung is a non-conformist. She is entirely different with the ideal Joseon woman and her brother Goo Jae-Kyung (Kong Jung-Hwan) takes great pains to protect and nurture her independence and curiosity with tools for greatness.

When an underhanded political scheme demanded female historians to join the court of historians who complied Veritable Records of the Joseon Dynasty, she jumped at the opportunity to finally get an independent position of substance that would allow her to dodge the issue of marriage until she was ready. It was a historical decision that afforded the four women chosen power over their lives and influence and as the show progresses, it’s clear that the inclusion of women into higher levels of position in the royal court produces a stronger establishment. Despite this, things aren’t smooth sailing to start. In fact, the conflicts in their stories is rooted in sexism and the lack of respect for the role of historians and especially female historians.

Interestingly, the progressive nature of having female historians, is matched with an even more contentious background tale about modernization and the integration of western ideals in the very traditional landscape of the Joseon era. The aversion to change is so deeply instilled into the foundation of the imperial family, it’s punishable by death. Of course, advancement is hard to contain when it’s easy to argue it’s necessity, a fact which became undeniable to emperor Lee Tae.

The show is moving. The cries for accountability and progress, which in part references the cries for structural change in historical protests around the world, is touching. The historians are renegades, with a clear understanding of the importance of their role and the reliance that future societies would have on their work. This understanding is so strong, Goo Hae-ryung and her colleagues often risk their lives for the greater good of the truth and it’s quite enlivening to watch. The show feels almost devoid of flaws but perhaps it’s fair to critique how cringe-y prince Lee Rim can be or how egregious emperor Lee Tae is, but honestly, it’s hard to find a problem with this show except maybe one: It should have been longer.

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