Korean Queens

May 17, 2009
*Special to asia!
The women of China can take a leaf from Korean women who have come into their own through a great belief in themselves.


In Asia, 2006 was the year of the Korean woman. It began with actress and model Lee Young-ae dominating the Asian airwaves with her phenomenally successful television series Dae Jenggeum. It ended with golfer Grace Park leading an all-women Asian team, made up of mostly Koreans, wrestling the Lexus Cup from the defending champions, and International team captained by Annika Sorenstam of Sweden, the world’s top woman golfer.

Grace Park’s radiant smile when she raised the Lexus Cup capped an extraordinary year, which saw the rapid spread of what the Chinese fearfully call “Hallyu” or the Korean Wave across the length and breadth of Asia. It is the year Korean culture shook off is Chinese and Japanese roots and came fully into its own.

Suddenly South Korea is the place to visit, and not because of its ski slopes, its cheap holidays and its counterfeit goods. Millions went there for its culture, inspired by Dae Jenggeum to know more about the birthplace of their heroine.

The Korean government has long practised cultural marketing where Korean movies, television series, music and performers are used to brand the country. The exercise had not been successful. Up until 2005, the most famous Korean name was Samsung. Though the Korean chaebol (family run cong

lomerate) manages to get into the top rungs of electronic and IT companies, it does little to inspire those who buy its mobile phones or television to identify with Korea, let alone visit the country.

Then the Moonhwa Broadcasting Corporation sold its 70-part series Dae Jenggeum to overseas markets.

The story, loosely based on a real-life character in 16th century Korea who fought her way up from being a kitchen apprentice to becoming the first female royal physician in history, topped the charts in numerous Asian markets, from the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam to Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and China. It opened the eyes of millions, including Chinese President Hu Jintao, a self-proclaimed fan, to the intricacies of the ancient Korean court and Korean culinary offerings.

Suddenly Korean restaurants sprung up everywhere, in Shenzhen, in Bangkok, in Hanoi and in Jakarta. And “Jenggeum Tours” became a top tourist draw.

There is no doubt Jenggeum is an enduring character. It is also generally accepted that she has done wonders for the image of Korea.

The Korean government swung into action. It brought the sites – where he series were filmed – conveniently near the tourist spot of Yangju – and turned it into a Jenggeum theme park.

It was packed from Day One. Even historical sites if the 16th century Choson Dynasty, where Jenggeum lived, saw a big jump in the number of foreign visitors. The key to Dae Jenggeum’s success is, of course Lee Young-ae. She played the role superbly. Jenggeum grew up in Korea’s oppressively male chauvinistic society where women were expected to be submissive and play second fiddle to men. But she had an unshakeable belief in her potential and her right to fully realise it. Her determination in the face of overwhelming obstacles, her gentle but persistent manners, and – like Grace Park – her radiant smile made her the perfect embodiment of the Asian female. It is no wonder Jenggeum (or Lee Young-ae, the two have become inseparable in the minds of her admirers) has become the role model of many women in Asia today. She is also voted, time and again, by men, to be the person they most want to marry.

The success of Dae Jenggeum opened the door for more Korean series. A rare few have proved to be even more popular, in selected markets. My Name is Kim Sam Soon, a comedy about a modern-day girl, fat but pretty and jobless, who found love with the owner of a chain of restaurants , overtook Dae Jenggeum, when it first aired. But Jenggeum bounced back to the leading spot on re-runs, and has continued to enjoy high ratings ever since

There is no doubt Jenggeum is an enduring character. It is also generally accepted that she has done wonders for the image of Korea.

Jenggeum… has created a significant positive impact on how they view Korea and things Korean,” declared the Bangkok Post. “People who thought modern-day South Koreans were rough, tough and uncultured, now view them in a different light. Greater understanding about the country’s cultural heritage aside, South Korea has reaped massive commercial success,” said the paper.

If Lee Young-ae embodies the gentle (though not submissive) and timeless value of the Asian female, Grace Park and her team of Korean lady golfers have shown another aspect of the women of Asia, one that is perfectly suited for the 21st century.

Park took part in the inaugural Lexus Cup and lost big to Sorenstam. She and her team bounced back a year later and beat Sorenstam and 11 top lady golfers from all over the world. In doing so, they have shown they can take on a sport which originated in the West and was long dominated by Westerners and emerge victorious. Like Lee Young-ae, they have also become role models for their sisters.

It is intriguing to ask why Korea can produce the likes of Lee and Park while other countries are not able to. The answer, perhaps, lies in the strong belief Korean women have in themselves, and that Korean society has changed so much that it is now possible for at least some women to get to the top.

There is a lesson there for other nations, especially China, which has a stated policy of gender equality. (“Women prop up half the sky,” Mao Zedong had famously said). The Chinese intelligentsia had reacted negatively to the popularity of Lee in their country. What they should ask is why China, with 26 times the population of South Korea, has failed to come out with one female that is universally considered to be at the top of her profession. If they can answer the question, perhaps one day China will produce someone to compete with Lee or Park.


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lee han shihLee Han Shih is the founder, publisher and editor of asia! Magazine.


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