Hwarang is a 2016-2017 Korean drama that details a fictional account of the political unrest that lead to the formation of the hwarang warriors from the time period when Korea was split into three kingdoms. Ah-ro is the daughter of a noble (the highly respected Master Ahn-Ji) and a servant. As a result, she is well known around the Capital, both because of her father and her master storytelling abilities, but she is of a low class. Ah-ro works multiple jobs to help support herself and her father, as well as work off her massive drinking tab.
Ah-ro’s title changes from that of a “half-breed” (half noble, half servant) worker to the physician of the hwarang to the physician of the princess to wonhwa (female predecessor to hwarang) over the course of the show. She captures the attention of the hidden king, the queen, the princess, every member of the hwarang, and, of course, the main protagonist, Dog-Bird. Not too bad for a half-breed.
The first major scene with Ah-ro is when one of her employers refuses to pay her because of her low rank. She responds by grabbing a large jug of alcohol and downing it before storming out. Drunk and wandering home, she runs into Dog-Bird (literally) who catches her as she falls but she loses her shoe. Cue the classic Cinderella moment where she begs for her shoe and he throws it at her and hits her in the head. Romantic, right? Drunken Ah-ro sure thought so, as she instantly fell in love with him and still thought of him a bit when she sobered up.
Her relationship with Dog-bird is weird, to say the least. The next time she meets him, he points a sword at her (accidentally). She goes home after almost dying to find Dog-Bird at her house. It turns out he is her long-lost brother, Sun Woo. He has zero social skills and doesn’t know how to fit into society because he lived his entire life outside the capital as a peasant, so she takes him under her wing and teaches him how to fit in. She loves her brother and they become very close. It’s heartbreaking for her when he snaps at a parade and tries to kill the queen’s head guard (it’s a revenge thing) and is taken off to jail. He is forced to become a hwarang to save Master Ahn-Ji and Ah-ro, but he must leave home to be a hwarang. He can’t see Ah-ro unless it’s a rare visiting day. She is sad to see him go because she loves her brother. She’s also starting to think she’s in love with him at this point.
Fortunately, her separation from her brother isn’t permanent. One of her employers happens to be good friends with Master We Hwa, the guy in charge of the hwarang. He needs a physician for Hwarang House and Ah-ro’s employer recommends her. After all, she trained under renowned physician Master Ahn-Ji for her entire life. She gets to see her brother and, more importantly, she has an important position and an in with the sons of the most notable nobles in Silla. From here she unknowingly teaches the hidden king how to read and write, heals many hwarang, and gets on the queen’s bad side for seeing the face of the king (she kills anyone who sees his face). She would’ve died if the king wasn’t in love with her and he hadn’t ordered her head guard to not kill Ah-ro. She gets around this by sending the princess to Hwarang House and appointing Ah-ro to be her personal physician. The promotion was mostly to keep Ah-ro close to the princess so she could be personally murdered by the princess of Silla, but after that all blows over the princess keeps her around because of her medical skill.
On a peace mission to Baekje (another of the three kingdoms), Ah-ro gets arrested for supposed theft. She is thrown into a jail cell with sick prisoners who have lost their hope. Ah-ro used what little medicinal supplies she had on her to heal a few of prisoners, but she gave the rest of them hope. She used her storytelling abilities to tell them of a great hero called Sun Woo and his band of hwarang who would come and save them all. They were reluctant to buy into this, but a lot of them did. A few of them died along the way, but Sun Woo did save them and Ah-ro gave them hope for life after he did. She also helped a newly-orphaned boy find a new home with a loving father.
Back in Silla, the peasants outside of the capital are getting very sick. The remedy is easy to make, but both key ingredients are mysteriously missing from every shop in the capital. The illness is spreading fast and people are dying. Ah-ro discovers a corrupt nobleman has been buying up the ingredients to sell at inflated prices once the disease hits the capital. She organizes a raid to get the ingredients and save the peasants.
Ah-ro and the princess get made into wonhwa so the queen can use them to take control of the hwarang, since wonhwa should be the rightful leaders of the hwarang. Although this is just so the queen can use her, it’s momentous that a half-breed like Ah-ro was promoted to such a high-ranking and respected position. Behind the scenes, it’s a ploy, but the public doesn’t see the ulterior motive behind the wonhwa; they just see Ah-ro, the wonhwa. Her appointment as a wonhwa causes Sun Woo to rush to visit her and make sure she is okay. The queen’s head guard is trying to kill him, so Ah-ro uses this opportunity to be the heroine she always was and takes an arrow for him (which mirrors when the princess was trying to kill Ah-ro so Sun Woo took an arrow for her, but it’s the thought that counts).
Marxist criticism is being able to examine a work and determine what part economics and wealth play into the work and the lives of the characters/people. Social status and class are either determined by wealth or vice versa. The struggle between characters and the economy is what drives Marxist critics.
Class is very important in Hwarang. There is a class ranking system called the “bone-rank system”. Sacred Bones (royalty) are at the top, followed by True Bones (nobles), half-breeds, and servants. Peasants are lower than servants, but they are killed if they enter the capital so that’s not applicable for much of the show.
Ah-ro definitely gets the short end of the economic stick. Although her father was a very respected True Bone, her mother was a servant and that is what people seem to see her as. She is always in debt to someone for something, whether it is her slight drinking problem or someone paying off her debts to get loan collectors away from her. She has to work multiple jobs to pay off her debts and support herself and her father. Despite her class, she always seems to have nice clothes to wear and there is always food on her table so she isn’t living in poverty like a peasant might be, but she still isn’t treated well.
A specific episode where Ah-ro’s class is the first episode. One of her employers refuses to pay her because of her low rank, stating that her father may be a True Bone but her mother was just a servant and she shouldn’t expect to be treated above where her mother was. He tries to mask his bias by saying she owed him money for drinking too much of the alcohol he was trying to sell, but she insists that this isn’t the case. She responds by grabbing a large jug of alcohol and downing it before storming out since he wasn’t going to pay her and she might as well do what she was being accused of.
An important thing to note about Ah-ro is that she defies her class. She goes from a half breed working multiple jobs to the physician of the hwarang to the princess’s personal physician to a wonhwa and she is assumed to marry a Sacred Bone, something that would be completely unheard of for someone of her rank.
Feminist criticism looks at the idea of feminism with respect to other frameworks like Marxism and also the idea of power between characters and who holds the power. It also has to do with gender and how gender roles come into play.
Ah-ro has a considerable amount of power over people, especially considering she is a woman. The hidden king would do anything she asked, as would Dog-Bird. Master We Hwa respects her opinions and listens to what she says and every hwarang is somewhat afraid of her, probably because she has a tendency to threaten to kill them with needles and other medical equipment.
The amount of power she holds is unusual for a woman, especially in Korea 1500 years ago. Let’s compare her to her best friend, Soo Yeon. Soo Yeon is from one of the most prominent families in Silla and everyone knows and loves her. Despite this, she is often ignored and treated like she doesn’t matter. Her brother, Soo Ho, discredits her thoughts and feelings. The princess is treated similarly by the queen. The level of respect and power that Ah-ro has is on par with some of the male characters and even above a few of them, like Dan Se.
A specific scene where we see Ah-ro having power and being respected is after one of the tests that the hwarang had to do. They had to make and argument about what a king should be based on a specific text, since the point of hwarang is to protect the king. Sun Woo makes a fantastic argument about what a king should be, but he says that the text is wrong and argues against it instead of with it so he fails the test. Master We Hwa wouldn’t listen to Sun Woo or Ji Dwi when they tried to argue that he shouldn’t have failed, but he listened to Ah-ro when she talked to him about why Sun Woo shouldn’t have failed. He didn’t change the fail to a pass, but he listened to everything she had to say and arranged a special task for Sun Woo to give him a second chance. Master We Hwa didn’t listen to what the male leads said, but he listened to Ah-ro and valued her opinion on the matter.
As for gender roles, Ah-ro doesn’t completely conform to the stereotypical feminine archetype. She is sweet and a caring woman at times, and she cries so much. However, she is also kind of terrifying, especially when she is threatening to kill people with acupuncture.
Ah-ro is also pretty blunt and doesn’t beat around the bush. She doesn’t embrace the cutesy image of the sweet girl that one might expect from looking at the promotional pictures for the show. Her drinking is also not a very traditionally feminine thing that she does. Ah-ro challenges the ideas of femininity and holds power where she probably wouldn’t be able to if she was any other woman.
Ah-ro is an interesting character because she fills the role of heroine from a Western viewpoint and is a moldbreaker when it comes to Eastern views of women in the present and at the time during which the drama takes place (1500 years ago). Most women in Korean dramas I’ve seen serve the purpose of providing a love interest for the male lead (or male leads) and don’t do anything heroic themselves. While she is the main love interest, she is also a figure who inspires the people of Silla and Baekje and a courageous woman who saves the life of the male lead at the risk of her own. In a time where women mostly did work at home, Ah-ro went from helping her father with medical work (among other things) to becoming the physician in Hwarang House, where men train to protect the king, before becoming the personal physician of the princess and finally a Wonhwa (female predecessors to hwarang who later helped lead hwarang). When she isn’t in Hwarang House, Ah-ro helps her father provide free healthcare for the people in the capital. To the people she helps, she is a heroine. Ah-ro also rises above her low rank and is made a Wonhwa and is assumed to marry someone of royal blood. No ordinary woman could do this, but a hard-working and heroic woman could.
If a heroine is someone who is courageous and kind, Ah-ro is a heroine. If a heroine is someone who challenges expectations and the social norm, Ah-ro the working woman who defies her class is a heroine. If a heroine changes lives for the better, Ah-ro who rehomed the orphan boy from the Baekje prison is a heroine. If a heroine is someone who saves lives, Ah-ro the physician who takes arrows for people is a heroine. Ah-ro is a heroine worthy of noting and more people should be aware that she exists.