The Korean television Drama Tree With Deep Roots is a complex series. As products of 15th century Japan, many character’s lives revolve around the concept of honor and how strictly it is adhered to. This adherence however, as we will see, sometimes forces characters into life-threatening positions.
The Honor of the Korean Scholar
This issue is first addressed in Episode 15 of the series, where Ddol-Bok tries to uncover the secrets of Lee-Do’s new alphabet from the scholar Seong Sam-Mun. In this scene (about 2/3 into the episode), Seong Sam-Mun refuses to give up the secrets and whereabouts of the King’s alphabet and 27-letter sequence. He boldly holds his ground, stating to Ddol-Bok “I have King Tae Jong’s blood inside me” despite being threatened by the sword of Lee-Do, who warns him- “your life is at stake here!” In this sense, Sam-Mun’s refusal to give up the secrets of his King seem incredibly honorable, particularly when his words are put up against the dangerous threats of Ddol-Bok, who is well known to be skilled in combat and who has killed men in the past. Sam-Muns intentions then appear good, as his actions would likely be considered memorable and honorable in 15th century Korea, particularly if he had actually been killed for his refusal to give up the King’s secrets. Honor in Tree With Deep Roots then, appears reflective of traditional codes of honor in 15th century Korea, where losing ones life to a cause is considered more honorable than saving yourself and betraying your king. This scene however, highlights the inherent flaw with Korean honor of the time, and how its adherence can be life threatening. Luckily, Lee-Do does not decide to kill Sam-Mun, but simply knowing that he could have forces us to question what is more important to these television characters- life or death?
The Honor of a Warrior
The following episode of the series (episode 16) shows another critical scene where honor and self-sacrifice come into conflict with one another. In this scene, the Hidden Root assassin responsible for many of the scholar’s deaths turns himself in to King Lee-Do. The assassin (Yoon Pyeong) sits on his knees in a self-sacrificial stance while the king interrogates him in order to discover the location of the Hidden Root base. Lee-Do eventually results to yelling at Pyeong- “I will extinguish even the cousins of your cousins!” This threat does not shock Pyeong, as he remains calm while the King threatens to kill him and his entire family. Once again, we see characters faced with the very difficult moral dilemma of betraying friends to protect oneself or remaining loyal while facing the possibility of an honorable death. This scene goes a step farther however, as it also describes honor in Korea as a concept that not only affects oneself personally, but those related to that character as well. Honor in Korea then, extends past the self, as Lee-Do threatens not only Pyeong, but the lives of Pyeongs cousins, who if he were to betray Hidden Root and therefore, be dishonorable, would subsequently be shamed for generations to come. This idea does not necessarily justify dying to remain honorable, but it does help us understand that honor in Korea is important, as it seems to also have the ability to affect entire families for the dishonorable actions of just one family member.
Tree With Deep Roots shows the ways in which a strong sense of honor might actually end up harming or even killing characters. And although these characters do not end up dying, they still serve as somber reminders that Korean codes of honor can be a dangerous thing to follow.
“Episodes 15 and 16.” Tree With Deep Roots. Seoul Broadcasting System: . Television. <http://www.dramafever.com/drama/4050/1/Tree_With_Deep_Roots/>.
Lee Soo Hyuk. N.d. Photograph. BlogspotWeb. 14 Apr 2014. <http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-LiAbXEdLNAc/TwlB6GVLf8I/AAAAAAAAAbI/rddyZNpiaqM/s1600/tree-with-deep-roots-ep-10-avi_003635402.jpg>.
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