While Empress Ki lays emphasis on the journey that Seung-nyang takes and the success milestones she achieves as a woman in a man’s world, in my opinion, the soul of this series was the story of emperor Ta Hwan–
Of the journey he takes from being the imbecile, incompetent crown prince who lacks meaning and purpose and is incapable of standing up for himself or for his people, to being the people’s emperor and a survivor.
Ta Hwan is quite unlike Seung-nyang or Wang Yoo. He is naive and has always been shielded from the ground realities of the world. He is emotionally close to his father and has lived a life of luxury, without any accountability. He has not had to build his life or earn his privilege, and this makes him a person who lacks survival skills. The death of his father and Ta Hwan’s subsequent exile is probably the first setback in his life. As an individual who has never learnt to swim and is abruptly thrown into sea, he does not know how to save himself. He gives in to the only emotion he feels at this point- fear:
He is unable to move beyond the fear.
It is at this juncture that he meets Seung-nyang. Though they are quite unlike each other, they grow fond of each other. Ta Hwan has no ambition or goals; the privilege he has always enjoyed causes him to lose value for positions of power. Instead, all he desires is for his life to be spared so that he can live his life and savor the world. He does not realize that life in itself is a privilege, and has to be earned. He does not realize that there are obstacles and challenges that one has to overcome in order to be worthy of life. His personality is that of a child, naive to the ways of the world and to the hardships of life. However, there is a fundamental goodness in his character that enables him to love people. Though he has always led a privileged life and he expects to be cared for, he also demonstrates the ability to acknowledge his shortcomings. He is so true to himself and so true to his love for people that despite the privileged life he has led, he is able to find it in him to be guided, led, and advised by the people he loves. He does not see himself as above people; he genuinely loves them and is receptive to them. He respects their feelings and their perspectives.
What I found valuable in Ta Hwan was his life force. Ta Hwan belonged to the natural world governed by the automatic force of life; the world created by human beings was alien to him. For him, love, peace, companionship, and the savoring of experiences were of value. He could not understand ambition, vengeance, and people’s desire for power and money. He could not understand systems and the unnatural behavior they demanded. He could only understand the journey guided by the spontaneous flow of one’s raw emotions. He could not understand how it was possible for someone to not see the worth in the love that came their way and be capable of disregarding it.
It is perhaps his inherent goodness that enables Seung-nyang to grow fond of him. Ta Hwan clings like a child to her. Seung-nyang’s companionship comforts him in his confused loneliness. Her courage, confidence and independence provide a protective framework that soothe his anxiety and fears, and he allows himself to be guided by her. He is trusting of her, and follows her lead.
Her companionship does wonders to him. It motivates him to go against himself and rise above his fears and limitations. Ta Hwan’s openness to experience comes in useful as he strives to survive. Unlike Wang Yoo, he does not live by a rule book, and in the protective framework that Seung-nyang provides, he drives himself to accomplish what he imagined he was never capable of. He finds himself taking risks and demonstrates moments of intense courage and strength. He surprises himself and this helps him gain confidence.
In the cocoon that Seung-nyang weaves for him, Ta Hwan finds the inspiration and motivation to metamorphose from being a caterpillar to a butterfly. However, he does not accomplish this instantaneously. As with any creation, he breaks and then reinvents himself persistently. Initially, his vulnerability dominates, interrupted by brief displays of courage and strength. However, as time goes by, his decisions and actions demonstrate more conviction and strength, though he continues to slip back to vulnerability and weakness. However, he finally moulds himself into the emperor who has found a firm footing. As he finds meaning and purpose, his vulnerability settles. It becomes more tempered, more mature, more resilient. It loses its threat and its ability to self-destruct.
Seung-nyang becomes such a powerful force in Ta Hwan’s making that he begins to derive meaning from her companionship. He finds the purpose of his life in her companionship.
To the casual observer, Ta Hwan’s love for Seung-nyang may come across as desperate, needy, inconsiderate, and chaotic. But in truth, it is pure, unshakable, profound, and alive.
Ta Hwan is unapologetic in his expression for he believes in the truth in his emotions. He is therefore unapologetic in the expression of his love for Seung-nyang. He does not hesitate exposing his desperation and vulnerability to her. He is blatantly honest about his feelings, and unabashed in the expression of his love.
Ta Hwan connects to Seung-nyang at multiple levels. They are complementary to each other. Ta Hwan is creative, versatile, spontaneous and expressive. Ta Hwan’s ability to savor the world and his ability to offer diversity and texture to their relationship, drive the evolution of the relationship into an intense and highly aesthetic relationship. There is a certain freshness about his character; it is this freshness that he infuses into their relationship. He never loses the ability to surprise and re-imagine life. There is more life in their relationship than in Seung-nyang’s relationship with Wang Yoo. However, Seung-nyang chooses to disregard the truth in her relationship with Ta Hwan.
Ta Hwan goes to great lengths to win her heart. He finds it in him to sacrifice everything that it takes to keep her companionship. He finds it in him to embrace her journey and her goals as his own. He empowers himself by educating himself and by taking an interest in the political affairs of the empire. From a passive individual, he transforms into an active individual who is able to execute his power and rise above the opposition. He understands that in order to win Seung-nyang’s love, he has to be worthy of her. Though he does not value power, he understands that unless he empowers himself, he cannot offer her protection and help her fulfill her purpose. He risks his own life in order to save her. His efforts and sacrifices become hard to ignore and though Seung-nyang’s mindset does not allow her to acknowledge the truth in their relationship, she cannot help opening her eyes to his conviction. She finds it in her to be by his side and instill strength and confidence in him.
As opposed to Seung-nyang, Ta Hwan experiences more fulfilment. He comes across as a more healthy personality. Though he takes the journey to strength and resilience, he retains his ability to feel. He does not lose his inner child– his ability to savor the simple joys in life. He continues to be unapologetic about his emotions and demonstrates the ability to accept his sadness, as long as Seung-nyang is by his side. He is grateful more than he is sad, and he is able to find his happiness in whatever form of companionship she is able to offer him. In truth, the story is more about the making of emperor Ta Hwan, than the making of empress Ki.
The most important question this series helps us dwell upon is in the context of our relationships. It prompts us to take a journey into our own personal relationships and question the truth in the love in them. What did we sacrifice for the other person? What did the other person sacrifice for us? These are key questions that we must ask of ourselves in the context of relationships.