Korean dramas (“K-dramas”) are typically mini-series TV dramas of 16-24 episodes each. While there are a variety of genres of K-dramas, the key ones are romantic melodrama, romantic comedy and historical drama. K-dramas are definitely a key driving force of the Korean Wave (a term referring the popularity of Korean pop culture) which has swept the world. There are a lot of Korean culture lovers who are attracted to the Korean culture by the K-dramas, and I’m one of them.
My Korean culture quest started in 2009 when I was attracted to the various K-dramas during my career break. The various aspects of Korean culture, e.g., food, fashion, scenery, architecture, music, etc., depicted in the K-dramas seemed so interesting that I decided to get to know more about it – I started to learn the Korean language, travel to South Korea (including the filming locations of the K-dramas) and do Korean culture-related research. In 2013, I even went to Seoul for 6 months to study Korean at the Sungkyun Language Institute of the Sungkyunkwan University and to familiarize with the local culture.
I’m going to write a K-drama series of blog posts covering different aspects of K-dramas. In this blog post, let’s have an overview of the background for the popularity and the key features of K-dramas. In the coming posts, I will cover in greater detail the various aspects of K-dramas, e.g., history, key developments, unique features, recent issues, etc.
How did K-dramas become popular with worldwide audience?
The Korean Wave started with the popularity of K-dramas in China in late 1990s. Actually, the term “Hallyu” (한류) (i.e. Korean wave), which refers to the popularity and spread of Korean popular culture over the world, was coined by Beijing journalists in 1999. One of the popular K-dramas at that time was What is Love? (사랑이 뭐길래) which is about the story of two families with very different background (one being a traditional conservative Korean family and another being a westernized, open-minded family) being in conflict over the marriage of their children and was broadcast in China. The drama’s portrayal of Confucian values of the importance of family tradition with humorous touches captured the hearts of the Chinese audience who shared the same values. Another popular K-drama was Star in My Heart (별은 내가슴에) which is about the story of an orphan with an artistic talent who was adopted into a hostile family environment but finally made a career as a designer.
A major breakthrough came with the airing of Winter Sonata (겨울연가) in Japan. The drama is about the tragic love story of a young lady and her boyfriend who suffered from amnesia set against the background of beautiful winter scenery. It was first broadcast by the NHK in 2003 and had been repeatedly aired 4 times. Almost 40% of the entire Japanese population had watched the drama at least once. The leading actor, Bae Yong-joon, was so popular that he was called “Yonsama” (a respectful designation) by the Japanese.
The popularity of K-dramas climbed to its new height with the airing of the historical drama, Dae Jang Geum or Jewel in the Palace (대장금) which was sold to over 120 countries in Asia, Americas, Middle East and Europe. The drama is about the story of a woman called Jang Geum who overcame all odds and neo-Confucian values to rise from being an orphaned kitchen cook of lower-class background to the king’s first female physician in a patriarchal, strictly hierarchical society of the Joseon era. The drama had drawn a record of viewers of more than 40% of Hong Kong’s population. The success story of Jang Geum touched the hearts of viewers in many countries with different cultures. Moreover, the magnificent traditional architecture, music, attire, food and medicine depicted in the drama sparked interests in Korean culture and heritage.
On the other hand, the advance of the internet including online streaming sites and social networking sites relating to K-dramas has definitely helped the spread of K-dramas. In particular, enthusiastic fans have helped prepare subtitles in different languages like English, Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, Vietnamese, etc. These subtitled K-dramas have helped attract an international audience who don’t know Korean.
Key features of K-dramas which appeal to worldwide audience
Most K-dramas portray traditional Confucian values of family relationships, respect for parents, friendships and love which have a universal appeal, and they also manage to blend these traditional values with Western materialism and individualism which appeal to modern audience. Almost every K-drama is related to the main characters overcoming all odds and working their way up from the bottom and such “rags-to-riches” stories have global appeal.
K-dramas are generally less sexual and violent than the Western dramas. The delicate way of representing emotions and intense romantic passion without overt sexuality resonates further with viewers in Asian countries and the Middle East where displays of physical sexuality and violence may draw censorship and protest.
As K-dramas usually are designed to last a specified number of episodes, the narratives are compact and the story is dedicated to a central theme. The simple storylines make K-dramas easy to follow and also make it easy to distinguish between good and evil roles. Moreover, as their storylines are simple, they rely more on dramatizing evolving relationships or conflicts between individuals, which make K-dramas more emotionally charged than the dramas in other countries and this helps hook the viewers.
The above is a brief overview of the background for the popularity and the key features of the K-dramas. I will talk about different aspects of K-dramas in greater detail in the coming posts. In the meantime, if you have any suggestions for topics/issues to be discussed/included in my coming posts or any other comments, please do not hesitate to post your comments here.
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鐘樂偉著，《韓瘋：讓世人瘋狂的韓國現象》，香港： 天窗出版社有限公司，2014年版, 45-52頁
康熙奉編，黃約雯譯，《阿拉搜！韓國》，台北市： 商周出版，2013年版, 23-125, 175-177頁
Youna Kim (ed.), The Korean Wave: Korean media go global, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2013, pp. 7-8
Korean Culture and Information Service, K-drama: a new TV genre with global appeal, Republic of Korea, 2011