Yes. I was watching Empress Ki the whole time. And finally episode 51 – the end of the story was aired after much delay.
This is a sad ending to a story told of the miserable lives of an age of suffering be they commoners or royalty or which side they are on. There was no escaping fate. No one had a good ending in this story. Minus the usual storyline of sageuks with all the men falling for the girl disguised as a boy who can fight like a man, the underwater kiss scenes and the take off your clothes to hug and warm up someone freezing to death, missing babies, dying by poison and the everyday life power struggle among court ladies… I liked the story because of the way Toghan Temur the character was written and portrayed.
I thought I would not meet another hero more tragic every time I read a story, watch a movie or drama. My first encounter was a hero of the Greek tragedy tradition, then as time goes by, I think I subconsciously look for them. I know. Stories of the last kings, or queens, or princesses, or prince or heroes or heroines before the fall of a empire, a kingdom or a race or an age are bound to be sad even if they are in the wrong, like the stories of the last Csar of the Romanov Empire, the last Emperor of China, the last of the Mohicans, Marie Antoinette, the story of the Island of the Blue Dolphins…
This time it is Toghan Temur, the last Emperor of the Yuan Dynasty. The study of Chinese history as a little girl sparked an interest in this Emperor early on. My teacher told his story and said that a fortune teller warned the Emperor of a man with a hundred faces. It turned out that this was later his prime minister – Bayan. In transliteration, the sound of Bayan is the same as ‘a hundred faces’. I thought it silly to pay heed to fortune telling and not be able to escape misfortune. This is sad. If fate cannot be avoided, why have it told? The poor Emperor must have been scared.
Then I read about the tragic life of Toghan Temur. He lost his father and his right as heir to the throne to court struggle and went into exile. He managed to stay alive and returned to take the throne after his younger brother’s death and lived under the shadow of his stepmother, his three prime ministers, his empresses… and in the end the Yuan Dynasty ended with him.
Many years later, the tragic life of Toghan Temur was revived in the form of a Korean drama. Like most drama, everything was romanticized, including this one.
Toghan Temur’s life was filled with perils, frustration, misfortune and hardship. The Yuan empire ended with him. That was the historical Toghan. The setting of the drama is the treachery and helplessness he has to face constantly in his life. The dramatised character Toghan has to live out this miserable life and on top of that, he also has to constantly protect his love interest who is stronger than him but also the most vulnerable person there is. Toghan is like a boy at this early stage, fascinated by the girl who is stronger, more mature, resourceful, worldly and a better man in every way than him. She reads, she writes, she thinks, she shoots and even plays football better than him. He has been kept illiterate by his enemies so that he would remain powerless. Yet without his protection, she can die instantly. And he has to watch over her and learn quickly as the least resourceful person how to keep her alive, protect her from others and from herself. He could barely keep himself alive but he has to keep her alive. Not only that, he also has to cheer her up from time to time and find ways to make her eat when she was wasting herself away.
Toghan is portrayed as a gentle, insecure, timid and helpless boy whose life depended on the people who uses him and that is just about anyone. He trusts but no one around him can be trusted. His stepmother the Empress Dowager, his two successive prime ministers, all his court officials, and the eunuch who took care of him and whom he has relied on for most of his life, all tried to manipulate him and keep him living a life filled with nothing but threat. He loves, but his love interest constantly thinks she loves another. It is hard, but he ends up giving up his life to save her. He is not a killer but he held a sword against his nature to murder people, including the man whom she loves to save her life.
Many a time, he was driven close to madness, but he managed to persevere for his land and for his love.
Toghan the character is at the top of the world, Emperor ordained by heaven to rule the land of Yuan, however, he is also the most helpless and tragic person there is. A twist of fate. Toghan strives to protect the woman he loves and his land in the name and honor of his father till he breathed his last breath. He went against his nature to accomplish all this. He was spoilt and weak. He made mistakes, fatal ones but he more than redeemed himself. He becomes sensitive and brave. He lives his grand life in a small way.
At the end of the story, he finally got to hear from the woman he loves that she loves him, too. He has loved her from the very beginning and it has hurt him so much, but it took a lifetime for him to win her over. The sad part is that he did not realize that she has loved him from almost the beginning and she did not even know it either. Then he died a long lingering death to save her. He never had a loving and certain moment living his life with his empress all this time. Like his eunuch who poisoned him had said, she was never his, never with him from the start.
And he never saw his land regain its glory. The empire collapsed and he went with it. No matter how hard he had tried.
A tragic hero who cannot be more tragic.
Ji Chang Wook portrayed Toghan the tragic hero in his transformation from boy to man with all the infatuation, gentleness, the hopelessness, helplessness, the despair, the subtlety, the hysterical fits of temper, the cowardice and the courage that went through this character.
Of course Ji Chang Wook’s charm and looks helped. He looks royal. He looks spoilt, annoyingly spoilt. He looks like a lot of fun. He makes Toghan come alive as a boy with a big heart and a much flawed and believable hero. Someone you can hate and you can love. That is, if you find Ji Chan Wook charming.
I watched whenever Ji Chang Wook comes on the show. This is because my teacher told me the story of Toghan Temur when I was little. Beware of the man with a hundred faces.