Ancient Folktales-Inspired K-Dramas

by Vivienne Tam

Over the years, it is no secret that K-dramas have become a huge part of modern pop culture. But did you know that some of the best series are inspired by ancient stories, with origins from Korea’s folktales and legends? These captivating stories not only entertain us, but are also a gateway to a world of Korean mythology, where symbols, creatures, and myths from centuries ago seamlessly blend with contemporary narratives.

Gumiho - The Nailed Tailed Fox

Out of all the creatures in Korean mythology, one of the most well-known is the gumiho (구미호).This creature is a fox spirit which shapeshifts into human form, usually a beautiful woman who uses her charm to trick others. The gumiho can have up to nine tails, with each one symbolising its age, wisdom and power. 

TVN | Tale of the Nine Tailed

Tale of the Nine Tailed (2020), although inspired by these folk tales, takes place in a modern setting where Lee Yeon (Lee Dong-wook), is an immortal gumiho that lives and works in the city. As an ‘Afterlife Immigration Officer’, his job is to eradicate spirits that threaten the human world. His encounter with Nam Ji-A (Cho Bo Ah), a reporter delving into supernatural mysteries, unfolds a story of crime, romance, and ancient vendettas, entwining their fates against elements of folklore. 

Other K-dramas that feature gumiho include ‘My Girlfriend Is a Gumiho’, ‘My Roommate Is a Gumiho’ and ‘Grudge: The Revolt of Gumiho’. 

‘On Dal and Princess Pyeonggang’

This is a Goguryeo folktale about Princess Pyeonggang, who’s such a crybaby that the King threatens to marry her to an infamously foolish commoner, On Dal. The stubborn princess later compels her father to keep the promise and indeed marries On Dal. Pyeonggang goes on to teach him many skills and brings wealth to his family, making On Dal a symbol of the ‘rags to riches’ trope. 

KBS2 | River Where the Moon Rises

River Where the Moon Rises (2021) is based on Choi Saggyu’s novel adaptation of the tale. In this drama, Princess Pyeonggang, played by Kim So-Hyun, is raised as an assassin who fiercely fights to win back her country after corrupt leaders take over. Unlike the novel, On Dal (Na In Woo, previously Kim Ji Soo) is a peace-loving man. Although it keeps the ‘opposites attract’ element of the folktale, the drama offers a different perspective on Princess Pyeonggang as a leader of her country and people, instead of merely a crybaby daughter and dutiful wife. 

Eou Yadam - A Collection of Folklores

Eou Yadam is a collection of Korean folktales written by Yu Mongin in the 16th century. From the collection, there are several mermaid stories, with one classic Joseon legend about a fisherman that captures a mermaid, then sets her free. Taking a modern twist on this legend, The Legend of the Blue Sea (2016-2017) transports viewers to a world where love transcends time, a story between a mermaid, Shim Cheong (Jun Ji Hyun), and a con-artist, Heo Joon Jae (Lee Min Ho). 

SBS | The Legend of the Blue Sea 

The series adapts the folklore and blends it with present day, where Shim Cheong who is a mermaid from the Joseon era tries to follow her nobleman lover, and ends up crossing paths with Heo Joon Jae in modern day Seoul, who has the same face as him. This star-crossed love story unfolds against a backdrop of ancient lore and contemporary allure, blurring the lines between myth and reality.

These K-dramas serve as windows into Korea's fascinating culture, and take us through time and imagination. Through the fusion of tradition and modernity, they show the influence of these ancient myths and legends in our ever-evolving world.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.