The Moonlight in the Well

山夕詠井中月 (산석영정중월) – 이규보(李奎報)Moonlight in the Well Poem by Yi Kyu-bo 山夕詠井中月 (산석영정중월) – 이규보(李奎報) in 2012 Korean Drama / Sageuk The Moon Embracing the Sun

山僧貪月色,(산승탐월색)

井汲一瓶中。(병급일호중)

到寺方應覺,(도사방응각)

瓶傾月亦空。(병경월적공)

A monk living in the mountains fell for the moonlight.

He scooped it from the water and poured it into a bottle.

Moon in water

Graphic adapted from 달의 연인 - 보보경심 麗(려)

But when he returned to the temple,

he realized as he tilted the bottle, the moonlight would disappear too.

 

Life, as embodied by moonlight, is essentially evanescent, yet rare is the person who does not lust after power, fame, wealth or love or who remains unperturbed by grievances or losses. This Buddhist concept of emptiness can be perceived in celebrated Goryeo Dynasty poet Yi Kyu-Bo’s poem above. In The Moon Embracing the Sun, Yeon-woo cited his lines in her apology letter to Crown Prince Lee Hwon, urging him not to take an incident where she mistook him for a palace thief to heart. Interestingly, though, the letter itself was not an effort to ‘let it go’ on the part of Yeon-woo herself, but rather, embodied the longing of a young woman for her teenage sweetheart. Does the spirit of the letter then contradict its conveyed meaning?

Well, emptiness in Buddhism – which, incidentally, was the state religion in the Goryeo Dynasty – goes deeper than nothingness. While the idea is that all phenomena are empty in themselves, it does not mean they can never be of value to some greater purpose. Rather, Buddhism holds that everything is dependently originated and interconnected. Yet only after we release our grasp on things for their superficial significance and free ourselves from the negative thoughts that arise because of this attachment to them can we embrace the nobler notions of unconditional love and self-sacrifice. And these ideals are what many a romance drama ultimately boils down to.

Moon-Well-Poem-2

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Quote

The Inquirer…

Scholar: “What can light up the world in an instant and plunge it into darkness in a flash?”

Crown Prince: “The answer is the politics of the monarchy. As stated in the Doctrine of the Mean, with equilibrium and harmony, peace will reign and all things will flourish. Hence, as long as the monarch rules with sincerity and kindness, the lives of all things and the people will be bright and harmonious. Otherwise, the lives of the people will be plunged into darkness.”

Scholar: “I’m afraid my answer is different… The answer is our eyelids.”

Crown Prince: “Are you pulling my leg?”

Scholar: “Is it a joke because you don’t like the answer, Your Highness? … If the answer isn’t in the Classics, does it make the question vulgar?”

Crown Prince: “Is a childish answer correct then?”

Scholar: “In the eyes of a child, everything is a question, as well as an answer. There are two things we should take note of: Do not become arrogant just because you know the answer. Do not be prejudiced and do not make judgements based on your own standard. Yet arrogance and prejudice have blinded Your Highness’ eyes and heart. While politics is also a reasonable answer, how do you observe the lives of the people with your eyes closed? How do you become the King? First, you must learn earnestly.”

The Moon Embracing the Sun, episode two “Two Moons and a Sun”

Pop culture attracts probably more flak than it deserves – for its shallowness, its pedestrianism, its embodiment of herd mentality, and above all, its mindless worship of skinship and materialism. Its detractors do not deny that, from time to time, mass culture offers moments of enlightenment and reflection. They argue, though, that undertaking life lessons  from what they dismiss as lowbrow art is an inherently inefficient process, and before you accumulate sufficient credits to award yourself an imaginary diploma, the trash abound in it is more likely to convert you into yet another mind-damaged automaton slavishly contributing to the coffers of the capitalist masters behind today’s devices and screens.

Implicit in this somewhat discriminatory criticism of pop culture, however, is the assumption that highbrow works hold the moral high ground, with their sophistication and disdain for mass appeal or immense profitability. Yet if an artist is truly concerned about uplifting the human condition, why does he work only in arenas accessible only by the fiscally or culturally privileged few in a society? And if one passionately believes in the messages conveyed in these works, why not spread them among the “uneducated”, “unrefined” and “unthinking” masses in ways they can understand, through means they can afford? Thus, ironically, the absence of the trait shunned by critics who simultaneously discredit pop culture and hail its highbrow cousin – mass appeal – in exclusive cultural works ultimately limits their societal and spiritual value.

Perhaps one can counter that art should not be reduced to a game of statistics. Every instance of beauty is worth celebrating, regardless of the number of views it enjoys. Accordingly, high-end culture merits acclaim simply for its intrinsic worth. Yet, would not the same be true of pop culture? Cultural products catering to mass market audiences should not be written off automatically just because of a deluge of vulgar offerings crowding the market. Indeed, art appreciation sometimes defies the rules of statistics in that a discerning patron can glimpse the gems from amongst seas of garbage and, with them, build up his own world of pure artistic splendor.

In any case, the chasm between high culture and popular entertainment may not be as wide as it may seem. While profit may be the order of the day in the corporate sector, not a few artists do yearn to break out from the banalities of mass consumerism as it is and create something greater than themselves, with some even seeking inspiration from the classics. It is with this insight that this site seeks to bridge the gap between pop culture, on the one hand, and more esoteric art-forms and scholarly research, on the other, illustrating how similar the various tribes really are, and where they are not, undertaking the audacious mission of self-fulfilling this bold prophecy anyway. Targeted here are Asian dramas (more specifically, East Asian dramas, owing to language barriers) – a genre seemingly receiving the brunt of criticism in the region itself for its lack of intellectual depth.