Korean history will be a mandatory subject on the Korean Scholastic Assessment Test(SAT), an university entrance examination, starting from 2017. This move emphasizes the importance of knowledge in national history. In addition, numerous students preparing for employment are studying Korean history more in depth as employers have started preferring applicants who possess a certificate of knowledge in Korean history. The Chat of Joseon Dynasty is a webtoon that helps students learn more about Korean history in a fun and effortless way.
Past and Present Linked Through Kakao Talk
The Chat of Joseon Dynasty is narrated on Kakaotalk, the most popular chatting application in Korea. Historical characters in this webtoon use this application for conversation. In this way, readers can easily relate with the webtoon. Ko Min-hee, an undergraduate of Business School at Yonsei University, said, “I have been studying Korean history to prepare for the job market. It is actually a lot of stress because of the massive amount I have to prepare. I read The Chat of Joseon Dynasty when I want to relieve my stress because it is so easy and fun to read that I can take a break while still having a sense of learning.”
Each real life character even has a unique profile picture and catchy statement on the Kakaotalk application. King Sejong, the fourth king of Joseon Dynasty and greatest leader of Joseon known for his many revolutionary accomplishments, is also well known for making scholars serve the people. His KakaoTalk statement is “Making scholars work crazy all night is fun.” which reflects his personality, and one of his servants’ statement is “Let me retire.” Readers can easily understand their characteristics and relationships as well.
History Repeats Itself
Readers of The Chat of Joseon Dynasty can sympathize with the characters in history while also
identifying with their circumstances. A character of 39th episode was Lord Gwanghae. Everyone kept their eyes on him, believing he would help his stepbrother to be the next king. Gwanghae was surrounded by those who were against him. Although he actually became the next king due to the abrupt death of his father, his loneliness made him skeptical. After that, Gwanghae became notorious for distrusting other people and for his cruel interrogation methods. Readers can find out the supposedly hidden reason for his personality and understand figures of history from a new perspective. Readers get to know about historic figures in a more relatable way through the webtoon.
Also, stories of The Chat of Joseon Dynasty are not presented chronologically. Each episode is about a different event which resembles a present one. The 22nd episode of the webtoon was about SeongGyunGwan, the academic institution of the Joseon Dynasty where students learned about history, Confucianism, and laws. When new students entered SeongGyunGwan, they were supposed to meet their senior classmates to exchange greetings. It was an old version of welcoming the freshmen, where they were expected to introduce themselves to the elder graders, sharing their age, talking about which test they took to gain entrance, and so on. This episode was narrated on February 24, 2015 when new semester and college entrance date were near. Readers could see that there was similar culture even in ancient times.
Likewise, the 49th episode was about an epidemic that occurred in 1451 and how King Moonjong and his officials managed the incident. The webtoon was uploaded on June 6, this year just as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome(MERS) was spreading in Korea. Viewers could instantly compare the past with the present, which makes reflection on the current situation more profound.
However, The Chat of Joseon Dynasty is not without its detractors who argue that the webtoon lacks legitimacy. Although it has attracted the attention of many people for its historical content, some say it lacks depth. “As The Chat of Joseon Dynasty covers minor facts and presents them
in a light tone, readers might end up not actually learning anything from an episode, and certainly not gaining any historical insight. Even after reading all the webtoon episodes, viewers cannot simply expect to be enlightened about the inner workings of Joseon because for one thing, the information is presented as just chatting, not a discourse,” argued Park Beom-gi, a Researcher and Culture Critic of the Center for Culture & Society. “Real discourse is accompanied by the
willingness to carry one’s philosophy into action. The contents of The Chat of Joseon Dynasty are limited in inspiring and inciting the public,” Park added.
Little Twists but No Fiction
There are many novels, movies, and dramas that use historical content in their storylines and they tend to diverge at some point from reality because many producers or writers prefer to overly dramatize the real story to make amusing plots for viewers. For instance, the drama Queen Sunduk
that was televised in 2009 was harshly criticized because it was deemed overly dramatical. In the TV series, Queen Sunduk and Mishil, the characters of the drama were portrayed as being rivals, which is historically inaccurate. In fact, their reign of power did not even overlap according to the historical records. On the other hand, The Chat of the Joseon Dynasty is based on real history and the writer clarifies what actually happened or not at the end of every episode.
Furthermore, readers of The Chat of Joseon Dynasty actively express their opinions and write feedback. Readers hotly debate the history in each episode. Byun Ji-min, the writer of The Chat of Joseon Dynasty once mentioned that readers’ comments are fairly useful and very sharp in terms
of its accuracy, on a television show called Ssulzun.
Bridging the Gap Between History and Public Interest
Webtoon is a powerful medium these days. Approximately 1,600 people each month watch webtoons of Naver, a Korean portal site where The Chat of Joseon Dynasty is uploaded every Wednesday and Sunday. Gong Yea-seul, a Culture Critic and Columnist said, “One of the merits that webtoons have is that they enable people read stories whenever they want and wherever they are. In addition, webtoon writers are good at using humor that young people can relate to because webtoon writers are usually quite young themselves, compared with writers in other fields. This is why teenagers in particular and those in their 20s are more likely to be interested in webtoons.”
Considering its large impact on youngsters, The Chat of Joseon Dynasty is serving as a bridge between history and the interest of the younger generation. Shin Chae-ho, a historian who worked
for Korea’s independence from Japan, once said, “There is no future for those who forget history.” Except for its lack of seriousness, this webtoon would even make Shin Chae-ho proud, for helping
readers interested in thinking about and even actively discussing history through fun stories that are not distorted. In this regard, The Chat of Joseon Dynasty can be said to be making helpful and
meaningful contributions in the area of history education.