Sunday, October 12, 2008

Dae Jang Geum on the Value of Purpose

Episode Seven of Dae Jang Geum addresses the value of purpose in man's life, and the awful state of men without purpose. Having decided to dramatize this issue, how to proceed?

The wonderful writer of DJG solved the problem in this way. First, Jang Geum got into trouble for going outside of the palace, which was strictly forbidden without special permission. The Head Lady decided to expel her from the palace, the standard punishment for that transgression. Everyone is appalled, knowing as they do that Jang Geum is one of the best among them, if not in fact the best. Finally, the Head Kitchen Lady, named Lady Jung, and Jang Geum's mentor, Lady Han, offer to forgo three year's worth of their salary if the Head Lady will allow Jang Geum to stay in the palace. This shows how highly the best and the brightest of the palace women value Jang Geum. The Head Lady greedily accepts their offer, but still banishes Jang Geum to the lowliest section of the palace grounds - the herb garden. It is a place to which loafers, miscreants, drunks and criminals are sent, and no one expects to return to the palace proper from the herb garden. It is essentially a place of exile and abandonment.

At the herb garden, the workers are supposed to be growing herbs. But none of them do any gardening, or in fact any kind of work, at all. When Jang Geum arrives, she finds the workers - and even their supervisor - lying in the fields, asleep. When she asks them what she is supposed to do, the supervisor tells her not to do anything, unless she wants to drink. No one expects any work to be done in the herb garden, and all the people there are content to do nothing, wasting away their existence drinking, eating, and sleeping, without purpose. These men are clearly going to pot, their minds and bodies atrophying from lack of use. It is against this background that we are able to contrast the behavior of Jang Geum.

Jang Geum finds their behavior incomprehensible. She literally goes to bed weeping at the apparent purposelessness of life in the herb garden. Finally, she tells the supervisor she cannot "do nothing," as it would drive her crazy. So she begins collecting all the assorted herb seeds she can find in the storehouse, none of which have any identifying lables attached to them. Those she recognizes, she labels accordingly, for those she cannot identify she bothers the supervisor until he identifies them for her. Soon she has them all identified, and she begins clearing some of the weed infested field and planting some of the herbs.

The other workers, and the supervisor, watch her and laugh at the "futility" of her actions. They begin taking bets on how soon she will give up - or worse. The last court lady sent to the herb garden had committed suicide. But Jang Geum persists in her methodical categorizing and gardening.

One day she comes to the workers and asks them for better gardening techniques. One of them mentions a particular herb that no one has succeeded in growing, though they had been trying for 20 years. Immediately, Jang Geum's face brightens, and she says: "Good! I will use that!" When they ask what she means, she explains that she will use that as her goal, as a purpose toward which to strive while in the herb garden. But why that particular goal? "Because you said it was hard!"

After a methodical trial and error period, Jang Geum succeeds in growing the rare herb - and finally the other workers, and the supervisor, begin to admire Jang Geum, and to want to bring some purpose back into their own lives, as well. They all recognize, once they have seen it again, the ennobling, uplifting value of purpose.

Jang Geum taught them that, though it was not her intention. She simply wanted purpose in her own life. But her good example had a salutary effect on all those around her.

And not coincidentally, Jang Geum's success in growing the rare herb brings about the thing she most desires at the moment: she is allowed to return to the palace as a court lady in training, her status fully restored.

Thus did the writer of Dae Jang Geum - Kim Yeong-hyeon - dramatize the value of purpose in man's life. This is but one wonderful episode in a magnificent, 54 episode series called Dae Jang Geum.

I paid more than $200 for the full three volumes of this series and it was worth every penny - and would still have been worth it at ten times the cost. It's that good.


Froi Vinci said...

Great post! DJG is the best tv series I've ever watched in the Philippines...

Chuck said...

Best television series I've ever seen, too. And it was reviewed in the most recent issue of The Objective Standard.