Thanks again for writing an article for my last blog post idea about archetypes (post is here)! I loved it and shared it with some of my friends who watch kdramas too.
I had another question for you. I did a quick search of your site, but didn’t find anything.
Can you give us a quick explanation of sageuks? I have seen a few, but I’d like to understand more about them.
The different types: fusion sageuk, etc., recommendations in each category, how they are produced (if you have any insight), why they seem to be longer than other dramas, etc.
Thanks for your question!
I don’t consider myself an expert in sageuks, by any means, but I will do my best to share what I do know.
Hopefully that will help you at least a little bit, in your quest to learn more about sageuks.
Everyone, please feel free to share your own knowledge and insights in the comments below!
WHAT’S A SAGEUK?
The hanja for saguek is “史劇” which translates literally as “historical series.”
Loosely speaking, any historical series may be referred to as a sageuk, though in general usage, most people use the term to refer to shows set in the Joseon dynasty or earlier.
Meaning to say, turn-of-the-century dramas like Mr. Sunshine, while technically period pieces, aren’t typically referred to as sageuks.
The reason many sageuks have longer running times, is, I think, due to the court machinations which are often integral to the story, and which tend to take up large chunks of screen time.
Additionally, many of these stories (especially the more serious ones) tend to be more complex, thus requiring the extra screen time.
TYPES OF SAGEUKS – A LIST
A traditional sageuk is one that aims to be historically accurate, and is based on actual historical figures and historical facts, as much as possible.
A great example of this type of sageuk, is ‘500 Years of Joseon’ (조선왕조500년), which ran for eight years in the 1980s. This comprised of 11 separate TV series, with more than 800 episodes in total, carefully designed to showcase the history of Joseon.
You can watch a quick clip of Gwanghaegun becoming the king of Joseon. This is from 1986.
Due to a lack of popularity among younger audiences, in the early 2000s, the approach to sageuk-making veered away from the traditional sageuk, to the fusion sageuk.
A fusion sageuk does not aim to be historically accurate, and may or may not use actual historical figures.
Instead of focusing on dry historical events, fusion sageuks tend to focus more on the emotions and relationships of the characters, thus increasing audience interest and engagement.
Sometimes, these fusion sageuks do focus on real historical figures, but artistic license is often heavily applied, in order to make the stories come alive to audiences.
Technically speaking, all the sagueks that currently come out of Dramaland may be considered “fusion.”
In popular usage, the term “fusion sageuk” is often used to refer to sageuks which have extra modern sensibilities woven into their drama worlds.
Below, I’ve come up with a handful of sub-categories of fusion sageuks, which I hope will help you to understand the sageuk landscape a little better.
Please note that these are general labels that I’m using quite loosely, and it’s absolutely possible for some of these labels to overlap.
For example, a show might be a youth sageuk that’s primarily a romance, and it might have fantasy elements too.
I’ve just got the dramas more strictly sorted, for the purposes of this post. I hope that works for you guys.
The “youth sageuk” tends to feature young characters, and they also tend to be rather cheerful stories, with distinctly modern sensibilities woven into their drama worlds.
For example, a youth sageuk might use modern pop music to score its scenes, or showcase very modern-looking contraptions, which are obviously inspired by modern gadgets.
It’s all meant to be tongue-in-cheek fun, so no harm done.
Youth sageuks are a great starting point, if you’re looking to dip your toe into sageuks, but are intimidated by how inaccessible they might appear.
Examples of youth sageuks include:
Hwarang, Moonlight Drawn By Clouds, Rookie Historian Goo Hae Ryung, Splash Splash Love, Sungkyunkwan Scandal, The Tale Of Nokdu.
My personal recommendations:
Splash Splash Love
This one’s only 2 episodes, so it’s low commitment and extra accessible. The time-travel fantasy premise also means that the Joseon scenes are viewed through our protagonist’s modern eyes, which should also add to Show’s accessibility.
Most importantly, Doo Joon and Kim Seul Gi are ridiculously adorable together, and I could’ve watched these two together, for many, many more episodes. 😍
Flash review is here.
Moonlight Drawn By Clouds
This one’s light and cute in the first half, and a little heavier and angstier in its second half – but that’s basically par for the course, for just about any sageuk, really, so it shouldn’t be a deterrent.
What matters more, is that Show manages to be emotionally engaging all the way through.
Also, Park Bo Gum is delightful as our cheeky Crown Prince, while Kim Yoo Jung is cute and endearing as our crossdressing eunuch.
Review is here.
This was my gateway sageuk drama, so I’ve got a soft spot for this one.
Considering how I’d always felt that sageuks weren’t my thing, until I inhaled this show, that says a lot? 😁
Show boasts lots of fun earwormy modern pop tracks on its OST, and has a lot of those fun modern touches that I mentioned earlier as well.
The OTP is earnest and sweet, but perhaps more importantly, Song Joong Ki is delightful in this, while Yoo Ah In is wonderfully intense and broody.
Review is here.
There are lots more sageuks which feature romance as a main theme. However, I’m limiting this section to sageuks which feature only fictional characters, because I’ve got another section for sageuks that focus on real historical characters.
In a romance sageuk, political machinations are still likely to be integral to the story, but the dramas’ main focus is still the romance between our main characters.
Examples of romance sagueks include:
Bossam, The King’s Affection, The King Loves, The Moon Embraces The Sun
My personal recommendations:
Show is a little too long for its own good, however, the central romance between Jung Il Woo’s character and Yuri’s character, is really well done.
It’s restrained and heartfelt, and manages to feel raw and real. I could really feel the burgeoning feelings growing between these two, over the course of our story.
It was worth sitting through Show’s rather repetitive last stretch, for these two.
Review is here.
The Moon Embraces The Sun
I enjoyed this one, for how simple and slurpy it is. It’s not complicated, nor does it aspire to be.
Our story is all about our young king’s smolder, as he grapples with his feelings for his leading lady. And Kim Soo Hyun smolders oh-so-well. 😍
Show slumps a little at the end, and Han Ga In’s delivery lands pretty limited and flat, but dang, it was worth it for the Kim Soo Hyun smolder. 😁
Review is here.
Folklore-inspired / Fantasy sageuk
Aside from court intrigue, one of the popular themes in sageuks is that of the folklore hero.
Aside from this, meshing fantasy and sageuk together can make for some interesting storytelling, which is why this is also quite popular.
Technically, this could be split into two different sections, but I’ve chosen to merge them into one, because there’s a good amount of overlap between folklore and mythology &/or fantasy.
Examples of folklore-inspired / fantasy sagueks include:
Arang and the Magistrate, Arthdal Chronicles, Faith, Gu Family Book, Iljimae, Joseon X-Files, Kingdom, Lovers of the Red Sky, Mirror of the Witch, Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo, Scholar Who Walks The Night, Mr. Queen, River Where The Moon Rises, The Return Of Iljimae, The Three Musketeers, Warrior Baek Dong Soo.
My personal recommendations:
Arang and the Magistrate
The internal mythology of this show is very solid, with a lot of thought clearly put into the world-building.
On top of that, Shin Min Ah is delightful as Arang, our titular ghost, and Lee Jun Ki is wonderfully restrained and intense, as her magistrate.
Show slumps a bit near the end, but that’s not enough to put me off this excellent OTP, who share such a crackly, enjoyable brand of chemistry. 🤩
I really liked this one.
Review is here.
The time-traveling, body-swapping hijinks are suitably hilarious, and the OTP chemistry is very excellent, but hands-down, THE reason to watch this one, is Shin Hye Sun’s outstanding delivery, of a modern man suddenly trapped in a Joseon woman’s body.
Super fun, and also, surprisingly heartfelt.
Review is here.
What I mean by meatier sageuks, are sageuks that aren’t folklore or fantasy based, and feature fictional characters (versus real historical figures), but offer more in their story, than the straightforward romance.
Examples of meatier sagueks include:
Bloody Heart, Chuno, Joseon Gunman, Nokdu Flower.
My personal recommendation:
There is some political intrigue that’s relevant to our story, but most of our story actually takes place outside of the palace.
Our key characters are mostly slaves and slave hunters, rather than officials of the court, and that already provides a very different perspective than a court-based sageuk.
It’s beautifully shot, the OST is fantastic, the entire cast is excellent, plus, this is arguably Jang Hyuk‘s most iconic role. And he’s utterly magnetic and mesmerizing in this. 🤩
Review is here. Open Threads are listed here.
This type of sageuk features (at least some) actual historical figures, and re-imagines what might have happened, that’s not recorded in the pages of history.
I have a definite soft spot for this type of sageuk, because it’s always so interesting to me, to see how a writer might re-imagine history.
Examples of alterna-reality sagueks include:
Dong Yi, Empress Ki, Hwang Jini, King’s Daughter Soo Baek Hyang, Jang Ok Jung: Live in Love, Jang Yeong Sil, Jewel In The Palace, Jumong, King of Tears Yi Bang Won, Queen For Seven Days, My Country, Painter Of The Wind, Six Flying Dragons, The Crowned Clown, The Great Queen Seondeok, The Princess’s Man, The Red Sleeve, Tree With Deep Roots, Yi San.
My personal recommendations:
The Crowned Clown
Based on the 2012 film Masquerade, this story focuses on Gwanghae-gun, the 15th ruler of the Joseon Dynasty, and hypothesizes that the King had met a doppelgänger in a clown, and had put the clown on the throne.
Yeo Jin Goo plays both king and clown, and does a fantastic, impressive job of both roles. Additionally, I thought the story was well-written overall, and quite affecting.
Review is here.
The Red Sleeve
Based on a novel of the same name, this is the re-imagined court romance between King Jeongjo and Royal Noble Consort Uibin Seong, who had started out as a court lady.
Show is so tenderly written, directed and produced, that it basically shows in every frame. This is truly a labor of love by the entire cast and crew.
Junho and Lee Se Young do marvelous jobs of their roles, and together, make a compelling OTP whom I instinctively rooted for.
Altogether quite exceptional. ❤️
Review is here.
I hope you find this post useful, and that it gives you some clarity on the various types of sageuks that are out there in Dramaland.
You might also find this Dear kfangurl post, where I talk about various dramas from which we can learn Korean culture and history, tangentially useful &/or interesting.
Like I mentioned earlier, everyone, please feel free to add your own knowledge, thoughts and insights (and favorite sageuks!) in the comments below. As they say, sharing is caring. 🥰
I hope this post helps!
~ KFG ❤️
PS: The Dear KFG post that I wrote in response to the other half of T‘s question, about good starter kdramas that would be suitable to introduce to drama newbies, is here!
PPS: I thought I’d leave you all with Park Bo Gum‘s Boombastic dance for the Moonlight Drawn By Clouds trailer. Coz it’s fantastic, and why not, right? 🤩
1. If you feel that I missed anything, or if you have your own insights that you’d like to share with the rest of us, do tell us about it in the comments!
2. Do you have a question of your own? Drop me a comment here or on the Dear kfangurl page, or send me an email!
Hi kfangurl! I’m a new fan of your blog and I really loved this post. I loved sageuks as well but upon reading your recommendations, I realized I haven’t watched enough. The first one I’m going to see it right away is Chuno because, well it’s Jang Hyuk *blushes*. Have you seen Moonshine though? 😉
Wonderful breakdown of the sageuk genre. I have a soft spot for sagueks with the epic tales that they weave, beautiful costumes, and grand romances. So much fun! 😊
This is great! Thank you so much! I would recommend 100 Days My Prince to people (including you, kfangurl 😉 ). I’d probably categorize it as a youth sageuks.
As far as reviews go, I’d put it in the small class as Rookie Historian although I think the OTP in 100 Days is much better.
sageuks (specifically Queen for Seven Days, which i loved) were my gateway genre to kdramas. i haven’t watched one in a while (you know how Moods are) but i still have a soft spot for them. my personal favorite is The Princess’ Man, but i loved Bossam for the romance. The Crowned Clown was also an early favorite (as a side note i did not immediately realize that Lee Se Young plays the queen in that till way after watching The Red Sleeve…she kills it in both!).
And Sungkyunkwan Scandal was the first time i um…”noticed” Yoo Ah In😅
one thing i enjoy about sageuk is, if you watch enough of them, you start noticing patterns – not necessarily in the storytelling but in the history. even if they’re not historically accurate it’s fun (for me) to recognize recurring figures and observe how events all fit together. like i got a HUGE kick when watching Splash Splash LOVE when our time-traveling high schooler finally recognized the king she was smitten with, and i think without having watched Tree with Deep Roots already and being at least somewhat familiar with certain historical events, i wouldn’t have connected nearly as much with the drama special.
Ahhh Sageuks ❤️❤️❤️ —my absolute favorite Kdrama genre. Literally my entry drug into the world of Kdrama. I’m such a sucker for whatever is the newest sweeping Sageuk drama.
Every major crush I’ve had on a Korean actor started with them in a historical dramatic role. And believe me —I’ve seen nearly all of the dramas listed in this article and many and most still have a special place in my heart.
Ahh, let’s see —The Moon Embraces the Sun was my very first Kdrama. I watched this years before I would find my way to Kdramaland. I have so many thoughts from that first watch.
My absolute favorite, watched more times than I can count, own the soundtrack, started a zillion fanfics based on it —Moonlovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo still waiting on that reunion… Anyone one else here? Nope. Just me… Such a heart breaker.
Sageuks that surprised and out did my expectations: Bossam, My Country, Scholar who walks the Night, Chuno and there are so many more…
Sageuks that live in a very special place in my heart: Arthdal Chronicles —Song Joong Ki is phenomenal and the plot felt very fresh/new in Kdramaland I’ve been hoping/waiting/praying for a 2nd/3rd installment since I finished the 1st. The Crowned Clown —Where do I even start. This show has it all. And I love the cast/costumes/sets. Just brilliantly acted.
Arrang and the Magistrate/Gunman in Joseon —I lump these together because, this is the golden era of Lee Joon Gi —I honestly wish he’d just return to the Sageuks and keep making them like the lovely Jang Hyuk.
Anyway, if you made it this far though my comment —I love you for letting me ramble about few Kdramas very near and dear to my heart.
Aww. I don’t think Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo will ever get a second season, all of them are big stars now and their schedules might never align. Have you seen the original Scarlet Heart (2011’s Bu Bu Jing Xin)? It initially looks old/outdated and the half-shaved, half-braided hairstyle takes a while to get used to but it has its own charm and watching it helped explain a lot of the things that the characters in the Korean version did (but was never expounded).
As for Scholar Who Walks the Night, I dropped it after the first episode… Could there really be more to it than meets the eye? Or it’s just because of your love for Lee Jun Ki? Nearly everything else that you’ve mentioned, I’ve watched or is on my to-watch list (like Bossam).
Just wanted to add: Empress Ki (though I fastforwarded through a bunch of Wang Yo parts), Tree With Deep Roots and Faith.
Oh I’m completely aware that MLSHR will never have a second season for all those reasons. But deep down I still hope. 😅
Scholar that walks the Night —I do agree it starts slow (ends kinda slow too —as and tied things up too nicely for me). I threw that one in because I enjoyed how the show wrestles with what it means to be this powerful, flawed and immortal being. I enjoyed the struggle he goes threw to hang onto his humanity and how that’s important to maintaining a moral compass when you’re immortal. So I felt that was a fresh take on the vampire trope. Plus —LJK/the sets/costumes/cinematography of how everything looks was divine. *chefskiss* —honestly the only thing I didn’t care for was the female lead —no chemistry whatsoever, could have been stump. So bland I can’t even recall who the actress was.
I struggled with Empress Ki (a little too long for my taste in dramas so it was eventually dropped) —honestly I loved everything about it —at first, but after about 15-20 eps in I found myself frustrated with everything/everyone. It didn’t help that I’m not a fan of Ji Chang Wook —I’ve pretty much dropped everything that I’ve seen him in.
The thing I LOVED about Scarlet Heart Ryeo was Lee Joon-gi 😍 God, such a beautiful man. I’d watch a second season just to be all heart eyes again over his styling 🥰
OH. MY. GOSH. Park Bo Gum!!!!!!!!!!!!! 😂😍 I’ve not seen that dance before! Hilarious! He positively melts with those eyes. Gah! That got my heart racing eve more than my Jang Hyuk looking very very handsome in The Chuno Pic 😅🥰
Excellent break down! Thanks for tackling this head-on.
My gateway “sageuk” was Mr. Sunshine which was a long, painful-at-times, watch. Next I tried a Korean sageuk movie, The Royal Tailor. Then I barely made it through 2 episodes each of Lovers of Red Sky (TOO much mythology) and Three Musketeers (for Jung Hae-In, but became bored).
Then, a “game-changer” came along, the Red Sleeve (2pm’s JunHo!!!!!), and I finally “got” it. Next I dove into the Crowned Clown, Sungkyunkwan Scandal, Love in the Moonlight and finally, Chuno. This genre can be a welcome break from rom-com tropes, however, sageuks seem to have their own set of tropes. KFG, I’m working my way up to Nirvanna in Fire!
As a beginner, things that help me enjoy Kdrama sageuks was to improve my palette by
–finding relationship charts with photos (google images) used in combination with Asianwiki to identify the characters. Often, it is a challenge for me to identify the characters because the appearance is similar and/or I don’t understand the titles.
–looking for episode recaps when the political plots become overwhelmingly complicated.
–learning about the Joseon era with google: significant events, court ranks & uniforms, places, language, etc.
With a little bit of effort, I was rewarded with a new set of Kdramas to enjoy.
Next on my watch list The Moon Embracing the Sun!
Well, my first drama was a sageuk (Chuno, which I stumbled upon completely by accident and thanks to your review of it, somehow, but I don’t remember how it all happened anymore; destiny, it was destiny) and I’ve been watching almost exclusively sageuks since then.
I’m very happy with my life.
I had intelligent things to say.. till I watched that Boombastic video and I’m currently dead. Hahah!
Ok more seriously this was a great introduction – appreciate it! I’ve always found sageuks intimidating. But this whets my appetite to go in! (and Queen In Hyun’s Man is quite a good introduction too)!
LOVE that PBG video–SO FUN!
Never went beyond ep. 3 in the Sageuk (too boring IMO). The only one I finished is Truth or Dare (Cdrama) as FL was too lovely and the story was simple and light.
Can totally recommend to you “Ever Night Season 1”
Its the only one I got through and its pretty epic. But loads of fantasy stuff.
I watched and mostly enjoyed Ever Night (though I think I blame the director for some issues I have with it). Rather than a sageuk, I think it’s classified under the pure fantasy/xianxia genre (although quite unusual that it focuses on mortals rather than immortals).
If you like fantasy and intricate world-building, I suggest Novoland: Eagle Flag. I don’t know how it flew under most’s radar but the script, directing and acting are all fantastic.
Fabulous post that will help anyone navigate the Sageuk-world!
I know you weren’t a fan, but I really liked Lovers of the Red Sky (despite its flaws) 😍
Moonlight and Sunkyunkwan Scandal are also favorites!
Aw thanks Kate, I’m glad you think so!! ❤️
I tried to enjoy Lovers of the Red Sky, but I failed.. 😅 So you’ll have to love it extra, for me. 😁 And OMIGOSH, yes, Moonlight and SKKS are just sooo delightful! 😍😍
I will give it extra love, np 😛
Ahaha!! Yes, CHUNOOO~!! 🤩🤩
Very nicely done, kfangurl 😊
Aw, thanks so much, @seankfletcher – I’m glad you enjoyed the post! 😃