The dominant cultural theme addressed in Jumong relates to the family, specifically marriage and child-rearing. There is a pervasive tension within the series between romantic love, of which there is plenty, and arranged marriages. It seems nearly every significant protagonist has a special love with whom, due to fate or circumstance, they must live without. The heroes and heroines of the drama accept this as the will of the gods or a necessary sacrifice for the welfare of the larger whole. The less admirable characters stubbornly cling to their romantic obsessions and generally make life miserable for those around them. The series also explores variations of indulgent and strict patterns of child-rearing. The tension here is between parents or relatives who will stop at nothing to obtain preferential treatment or positions for their progeny and those who, in effect, “throw their tiger cub off the cliff,” hoping for them to make their own way. The dynamics of child-rearing, in turn, play into the broader issues of social development and cultural identity.
Loyalty, filial piety and obedience are traditional public virtues which have come under increasing strain in Korean society. Michael Breen introduces the term “han” to describe the collective pain, rage, helplessness, and resentment of the Korean people in the face of oppression and deprivation. Psychologically, it implies a “prohibition of one’s instinctive urges.” Breen cites a Korean psychologist who states, “Traditionally … if a man loved a woman, but his parents ordered him to marry another, he would obey, and live with han.” However, the same psychologist suggests what had been static han has been superseded by “dynamic han” in contemporary Korean society: “The id impulse is no longer suppressed. Instinctive demands surface. Koreans want it all now.” This, he says, is “behind the drive for economic growth and political freedom16.” It also factors into “soft” areas of marriage and family life.
The tension between static and dynamic han is apparent throughout Jumong. Interestingly, the two main heroines, Yuhwa (Jumong’s mother) and Sosuhno (his empress), both reject arranged marriages. Yuhwa, as a young girl, refuses a match, telling her father that he “looks like a pig” and that she would “drop dead” if he continues. Sosuhno, likewise, tells her father to “find another daughter” if he persists in marrying her to one she refused. Nevertheless, in the course of the drama, both Yuhwa and Sosuhno accept circumstances where they must let go ‘the love of their lives’. This is something that the series’ less admirable characters cannot do. King Kumwa, trapped in a loveless political marriage, is obsessed with Lady Yuhwa. He refuses to let her join Jumong, finally slaying her in a fit of passion rather than letting her go. His son Daeso is similarly smitten by Sosuhno. Though accepting an arranged marriage, he claims it’s “only politics” and that as king he will be able to do as he likes. Based on these and other instances, the drama appears to take a nuanced position favoring romantic love but acknowledging that its potent energies can do serious damage unless pursued within an acceptable ethical or religious framework. Jumong’s relatively liberal approach toward romantic attachments is most apparent in the series’ depiction of a homosexual liaison between the merchant Yuntabal’s chief strategist Sayong and Jumong’s lieutenant Hyupbo. Though subject to a good deal of comic relief and joking, at least early-on, their relationship is finally not only tolerated but openly acknowledged. Here, as elsewhere, Jumong reflects tensions in contemporary Korean sexual mores.
Jumong also explores variations of indulgent and strict patterns of child-rearing. The drama’s sharpest contrast is between Queen Wonhu and Lady Yuhwa. Queen Wonhu and her relatives go to whatever lengths necessary to secure the privileges, benefits and positions of her two sons. They cover-up the young princes’ lapses of judgment, attempt to eliminate rivals, and go to the extent of fomenting rebellion and usurping the crown. By way of contrast, Lady Yuhwa, realizing her mistake in indulging Jumong, cuts him off and consents in his exile from the palace for irresponsible behavior. She declares that she had been meaning to “drive him off the cliff” and states, “he must climb up alone if he wants to fulfill his mission.” Other parents or surrogate parents in the drama fall in between these extremes. Yuntabal, likewise, gives Sosuhno an extraordinarily long leash in sending her out to lead dangerous trade expeditions. He maintains that he “can’t expect her to take over without experience,” that he “can’t protect her forever,” and that “she needs to go on to a greater world.” In this respect, the indulgent model of child-rearing (what recently has been referred to in the United States as hovering or “helicopter” parenting) would appear to limit development. The drama suggests that the stricter or at least more accountable pattern, by forcing self-reliance, enhances development.
It is here that child-rearing practices connect to broader issues of societal development and cultural identity. The tension between indulgent and disciplined, accountable child-rearing relates directly to transitions in Korean society. Though trampled upon by formidable outsiders, or because it was trampled upon by formidable outsiders, Korean culture tended to insulate itself, developing a parochial, ethnocentric façade. Ironically, Korean identity became a privileged identity hedged in by homogeneous blood-ties, Confucian formalism, and rabid nationalism. Of course, this masked a deep insecurity or even self-loathing in the face of Korea’s tragic past. These structures of closure may have had some utility in preserving Korean identity under conditions of oppression. They are less meaningful, even problematic as Korea has emerged on the world stage. Breen, for example, states, “It is apparent from the volume of stories you hear about Koreans abroad that they are giving their country a name for coarse selfishness17.” In this respect, the tension in Jumong between child-rearing practices and cultural identities that facilitate self-absorption and self-promotion and those that facilitate legitimate engagement with others, or what Yuntabal terms the “greater world,” is a live question in contemporary Korea.