SEPT / OCT 2014: BY FAITH WHITE
The written word—an essential piece of communication, reaching places that spoken words cannot. Our alphabet is what makes this possible. It’s so fundamental we never even think about not being able to read or write. Imagine a world where education is only for the rich. Imagine learning an alphabet of more than 50,000 characters—and these letters don’t even represent the sounds of your language.
This is the world of pre-15th Century Korea. A Tree With Deep Roots delves into the creation of Hangul, the Korean alphabet. This 24 episode series revolves around King Sejong, the creator of Hangul. Despite being born into power and wealth, young Sejong is merely a pawn. The puppet king can only watch as his father, the true de facto ruler, executes any who stand in the royal family’s way—even Sejong’s politically influential in-laws. Underneath the young king’s fears, there is a gnawing for more: to be a great leader remembered for helping his people, not ruling with tyranny. So he begins a secret mission to create a language that even the poorest people can learn; a language of less than 30 characters based on Korean pronunciation.
Sejong’s dream is birthed in a time when China is the dominant superpower. Though Korea governs itself, they acknowledge the Chinese Emperor as the Son of Heaven, a ruler with the mandate of heaven. To create a new alphabet goes against years of hard-rooted culture. The nobles will never accept a world where even slaves can be educated. It is foolish; daresay even treasonous.
It’s not only the upper-class who balks at the idea of change. The show’s main hero, Chae Yoon, a runaway slave, despises the king. He couldn’t care less about the king’s great cause when he’s willing to sacrifice the lowly people in the game of politics—people like his father, a mentally challenged slave, who died in a political massacre. Chae Yoon vows retribution and slowly works his way into getting a position as a royal guard—all in the hopes of driving his sword into the king’s heart. He enters the palace just as a political cult emerges, murdering palace scholars. While Chae Yoon investigates these deaths, his vengeance is painfully challenged when he discovers his childhood friend, So Yi, a slave girl turned palace maid, is deeply involved in the creation of the Hangul alphabet. How could she be serving the king who had their families slain?
If anyone can understand his pain, So Yi does. Because of her photographic memory, she hasn’t spoken since the traumatic massacre of her childhood, memories haunting her every night. Survivor’s guilt fuels her dedication to making Hangul no matter the cost. She knows the dynamic change that this written language could bring—just as she hopes Chae Yoon will put aside his hatred and help the king. But Chae Yoon lived on hate alone for years. Finding So Yi, the last person of his old world, awakens a soul tie that he cannot deny. But to follow her path—and that of the king—will cost him everything.
Mostly emotional and soul-searching, at times heart-warming with a hint of comedy, this show features excellent writing, a rare find in most television nowadays. Add gorgeous costumes, exciting martial arts, intense acting, and a thought-provoking story and A Tree With Deep Roots is one of the best Korean dramas I have seen. And seriously good television. ♥