Why K-dramas based on Chinese novels are a problem in Korea: Joseon Exorcist ended after two episodes following a viewer boycott while TVN’s Vincenzo and True Beauty face a ‘product placement’ furore

Shin Hye-sun, left, and Kim Jung-hyun, lead actors in the TVN K-drama, Mr Queen, one of many shows based on Chinese novels. Photo: TVN

When it was revealed that the TVN drama The Golden Hairpin and JTBC’s Until the Morning Comes were in the pipeline for later this year, numerous people in Korea raised their eyebrows rather than welcoming them with keen anticipation. The reason was simple – the Chinese background of those productions ruffled people’s feathers.

The two upcoming TV shows are Korean renditions of popular Chinese novels, which are expected to have star-studded casts. Although remakes are nothing new to K-drama production companies, a growing number of viewers are venting their discontent over works originally from China, largely due to the ongoing cultural clash between Seoul and Beijing over the “origins” of traditional Korean assets, including kimchi and hanbok.

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Joseon Exorcist was terminated after airing only two episodes, as the viewers boycotted it for “distorting history and unnecessarily featuring Chinese props”. Photo: SBS
The ensuing anti-China outrage has spilled over into the local entertainment scene. Recently, SBS’ big-budget historical fantasy drama, Joseon Exorcist, was terminated after only two episodes as viewers boycotted it for “distorting history and unnecessarily featuring Chinese props”. A few weeks ago, TVN’s Vincenzo , starring Song Joong-ki and True Beauty were also engulfed in controversy over “excessive Chinese product placement”.
Korean drama producers these days do not seem to immerse themselves in research and development – they are neither very interested in hunting [for] talent nor in developing new scripts
Yun Suk-jin, professor of Korean language and literature, Chungnam National University
Chinese drama A Love So Beautiful. Photo: Netflix

Nevertheless, there is a rationale behind Korean producers’ inclination toward Chinese content, according to experts. In fact, there have recently been plenty of soap operas based on Chinese novels or dramas including TVN’s Mr Queen and Kakao TV’s A Love So Beautiful.

Korean remake of A Love So Beautiful. Photo: Netflix

“China has a massive online novel market; more than two million novels are created in a year, and the number of readers exceeded 300 million as of 2016. Given this huge market, a successful Chinese work is often thought to have a guaranteed quality in terms of storytelling,” said Choi Min-sung, a professor of Sino-Korean Culture at Hanshin University. “Thus, Korean drama production companies think that remaking these works can reduce the risks of production by certain degrees and help them garner more rave reviews from the public.”

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But drama critic Yun Suk-jin, also a professor of Korean language and literature at Chungnam National University, believes it is Chinese money – rather than the quality of Chinese stories – that lures the producers.
Moon Ga-young and Cha Eun-woo in the drama True Beauty. Photo: TVN

“Overall, the quality of Chinese content is not yet as high as that of Korean content,” Yun said. “So it looks like the current trend is more attributable to Chinese investments, which have infiltrated the Korean drama market for a long time. Compared to the past, Chinese investors nowadays seem to demand more things from Korean producers, putting them under the thumb of Chinese money.”

Noting that the Chinese market is the biggest in Asia, the professor also explained why Korean drama producers cannot turn a blind eye to Chinese viewers.

“To target the Chinese market better, Korean producers search for popular Chinese works that can be used as their original sources,” he said. “Using these sources makes it easier for them to attract viewers in the neighbouring country and promote their creations there.”

From left, Jang Dong-yoon, Kam Woo-sung, Park Sung-hoon and Kim Dong-jun, lead actors in the SBS TV series, Joseon Exorcist. Photo: Studio Plex, Crave Works, Lotte Cultureworks

Concerning recent China-related disputes on the K-drama scene, experts point out drama makers should be more sensitive and refrain from taking short-sighted actions.

“If TV series’ producers are driven only by their profits, they will just face more conflicts and controversies,” Yun said. “They have to remember that Korean dramas have an identity as Korean products.”

Choi echoed this sentiment, saying drama makers should be more aware of the uniqueness of Korean culture and then try to add East Asia’s universal values to their creations.

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But more work has to be done for a better future for Korean soap operas, experts say.

“Korean drama producers these days do not seem to immerse themselves in research and development – they are neither very interested in hunting [for] talent nor in developing new scripts. The majority of them are busy looking for finished products that can be immediately used for production,” Yun said.

Forecasting that more Korean TV series based on Chinese novels or dramas will be made in the future, Choi underscored, “We should continue taking the Chinese market into consideration for our own growth.”

He also touched on the controversy over the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD).
A contentious US missile defence system called Terminal High Altitude Area Defence, or THAAD, seen in Seongju, South Korea, in September, 2017. The deployment of the system has angered not only North Korea, but also China and Russia, which see its powerful radar as a security threat. Photo: Newsis via AP
Since 2016, China has imposed “unofficial” constraints on hallyu, the global wave of Korean culture. These regulations are thought to be part of Beijing’s retaliation against Seoul, provoked by a dispute over the deployment of THAAD, a US missile defence system, in Seongju, North Gyeongsang Province, in 2017. China is opposed to the deployment “for its national security”. As a result, Korean TV series, films and concerts have been practically prohibited in the neighbouring country.
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“Although the THAAD issue has strained the relationship between Seoul and Beijing for several years, China will again become a crucial trade partner in the field of culture once the situation improves in the future,” Choi said.

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K-drama news
  • Some experts say dramas like Mr Queen and A Love So Beautiful show high quality storytelling while others suggest Chinese money drives programming choices
  • China contests the origin of Korean specialities hanbok and kimchi and opposes the deployment of the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system