I have always been by fascinated by the importance of social status within the sageuk drama universe. However, I never really put much thought into it, except to perceive it as an unfair but very effective plot device designed keep a sageuk going for 50 or more episodes. My interest in the issue has really changed after the conclusion of the King’s Face,a sageuk which explored the evils of social stratification. I quickly moved on to a sageuk called maids, and the frank approach with which the show handles the topic of status in Joseon society is an eye opener. Based on this show, I could safely bet that most South Koreans alive today are glad they were born in this modern era as opposed to the Joseon era or the Goryeo era because depending on the group you were born in, your life could be a living hell or one of unfettered privilege.
Society in the Joseon era was built upon Neo-Confucianist ideals which advocated a strict stratification of the society.There were four classes in Joseon, the yangban nobility, chungin aka the middle class, sangmin aka the commoners and the cheonim aka the outcasts or slaves who occupied the lowest strata of society.The society was ruled by the yangban,who constituted 10% of the population and had several privileges while slaves and outcasts were of the lowest standing. Your birth into a certain class determined your educational opportunities,marriage opportunities and even a variety of personal freedoms that we in the modern age take for granted. Our heroine in the ongoing sageuk maids is becoming painfully aware of this reality in her riches to rags odyssey.
Maids very deftly showcases In Yub’s journey from being the privileged daughter of a minister to a lowly slave in the house of her father’s colleague. After her father is accused of being a traitor,In Yub finds herself dragged away by soldiers on her wedding day into the house of her former friend but this time not as a guest but a servant.Her life is drastically changed as the clothes she wears are downgraded from silk to rags and she lives with the constant threat of rape from male members of the household and constant beatings from the women of the household. In Yub’s journey is a painful one to watch as she comes to identify with the people she treated as livestock and also comes to realise that in the end we are all human and feel pain and joy in the same manner whatever our status in society.
Shine or go crazy is also a sageuk that reinforces the importance of status in that era. The Goryeo era does not come across as rigid as the Joseon era but even here everyone had to know their place, their lives depended on it. Jang Hyuk who plays the part of Prince Wang So in the series, spends a lot of his time masquerading as a pauper and gets treated with the appropriate disdain for his status including getting locked up in small cramped rooms and getting hit on the head by various people around him. That is until the moment they discover that he is really a prince and their treatment of him begins to change more because they fear death rather than because they respect him as a person. It is quite clear that in both the Joseon and Goryeo era,Yang ban was the place to be,not that it did not have its own share of problems but that is a discussion for another day.