Hotter than Kimchee: The Korean Wave as Chinese Management Literature

Esoteric Asian herbal recipes. Petty infighting in an ancient court. The travails of a frustrated-imperial-chef-turned-physician serving a Korean empress. This hardly sounds like a prescription for a gripping TV series, let alone for a hard-copy guide to career management success in the 21st century.

Yet Jewel in the Palace (Dae Jang Geum in romanized Korean) has become just that. Named after the intrepid Korean female doctor Da Chang Jin (大长今) who possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of even the most obscure herbal-based cuisine, it’s one of the most fantastically popular Korean-made TV series ever aired in China—and has spawned dozens of books in Chinese. Trivia galore it may seem, but devoted fans do get their money’s worth. Everything you wanted to know about the dear doctor is revealed in the untranslated All about Da Chang Jin (细说大长今), a 222-page work that takes itself almost as seriously as a Seoul salaryman.

We learn that Da Chang Jin (a historical personage of less than blue-blood stock who lived at the turn of the 16th century) worked faithfully to serve the Korean court as a physician even when her vocation as an imperial chef was left tragically unfulfilled. The book also includes a “Changjin Dictionary” catching us up on buzzwords, such as the names of those rarified herbs used to restore good health to ancient Korea’s rulers.

A tad of insight into why the series has been such a hit comes from All about Da Chang Jin director Yi Byeong-Hoon. “When a nation’s [average annual] income tops US$10,000, a TV series about food will certainly be popular.” Unfortunately, we aren’t quite sure if he is referring to South Korea…or China.

No matter. At the tail-end of the book, a chapter titled “The Chinese Roots of Da Chang Jin” rewards the reader by pointing out that much of the Korean TV series is based on—you guessed it—ancient Chinese culture, including frequent camera shots of Chinese calligraphy, and allusions to China’s “Warring States Period” and the famous Confucian philosopher, Mencius.

Younger viewers will find other things appealing in this new genre of literature; namely the handful of low-end coffee-table tomes that are chock full of pix of stunningly photogenic stars one sees in the currently popular Korean TV series playing in China.

韩剧全解密For instance, China Citic Press’s offering, Decoding Korean TV Dramas (韩剧全解密), treats these programs less as TV fare than as part of the Korean tsunami sweeping China.

One chapter, “Major Events in the Korean Wave,” turns tabloid with revelations on how much a famous Korean soap opera duet paid for their real-life, one-night nuptial chambers (nearly US$90,000), as well as detailing the suicide of the 25-year-old starlet Lee Eun Joo (李恩珠) on the popular Korean soap, Fire Bird (火鸟).

Regrettably, this 218-page classic devotes zero pages to one area of intense interest in China: What these Korean stars have done to their faces and bodies to look so flawless, how much $$$ they paid, and the cell phone numbers of the miracle workers (read: plastic surgeons) behind it all.

Adorable visages, storms-in-a-teacup, and a bite of the oh so Forbidden Fruit, all this we have come to expect from Korean soaps broadcast in China. But what does all this have to do with managing one’s career?

Surely one of your friends has already bought and memorized Da Chang Jin and the Workplace (直场大长今)? Sorry, it’s not out in English. Yet.

Arguably, Da Chang Jin is about a lowly palace servant in ancient Korea, but “somehow I feel the Imperial Kitchen and Infirmary are just like our office,” comments a netizen cited in the book. “There is danger lurking at every corner, people playing politics. Only Da Chang Jin is able to set all of that aside, and focus on doing her job well. If only many of my colleagues were like her.”

If you hang out in airport bookstores throughout China (I do, often traveling five days a week), then you realize what a neat idea author Lü Guorong (
吕国荣) has here.

Books on management know-how and career success are now riding their second wave. The first wave was a deluge of success stories ghostwritten for semi-literate, in-your-face American CEOs. The second is more recent, shouting the benefits of Chinese management “style” over those of the efficient but somehow “not-quite-right-for-us” Western approach.

大长今职场With Da Chang Jin and the Workplace we have a refreshing variation on a theme that draws on an East Asian role model rooted in China’s very own Confucianism. It’s an easy read if a bit formulaic: Description of scene/event from the TV series + a clearly stated moral + modern-day example. This capitalizes on Da Chang Jin’s popularity as an icon, while ensuring that the lesson is seen as relevant and applicable to the here and now.

The first chapter, “Office Politics and Da Chang Jin,” teaches a basic survival lesson. A well-meaning servant informs a superior that she has seen a toxic ingredient being put into a dish for the Empress. The superior immediately provides a plausible excuse, but promises to investigate. Alas, little does the informer realize that her superior is in on the plot, and not long thereafter he does her in. The moral: Do the Right Thing, but for heaven’s sake, watch out for Number One!

Da Chang Jin exemplifies the detail-minded, sincere, obedient and utterly loyal government servant in the Confucianist vein. Interestingly, this Korean role-model has unwittingly become the focus of on-line debate. According to an English blog titled Musing under the Tenement Palm, some Chinese commentators see the TV series as an expression of Korea’s newly exercised “soft power” that manages to deliver a compelling message about traditional Korean culture, including medicine and Confucian values.

Even more fascinating are the comments of a Hong Kong scholar who professes the aim of the TV series is to “compete with China for the right to explain the essence of Confucianism.”

Just something to keep at the back of the mind the next time you turn on the boob-tube for a bit of kimchee.

By Bruce Humes. First published in that’s PRD, July 2006

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