Korean language and culture series: Makjang

A reader asks, “What does makjang mean?”

Makjang (막장) can refer to a number of different things.

One, it is a soybean and red pepper paste that can be eaten with the traditional Korean meat wrap, or made into stew or soup (similar to miso soup).

Two, makjang can also refer to the far closed end of a mine. Or it can refer to the mining work itself.

But I’m guessing these things are not what you meant?

The above two are the true dictionary definitions of makjang. Interestingly, the word “makjang” as commonly used in reference to dramas is a made-up term – a misnomer of the word “ggeutjang” (끝장), combined with the word “majimak” (마지막). (Ggeutjang means death or the end, whereas majimak means final or last.)

Koreans frequently say the phrase “갈때까지 간다,” and it means “seeing things to the end, whatever may come of it.” In popular culture, the term “makjang” came to be used to represent the idea of having reached that extreme. For instance, a thug who steals from his mob boss, commits murder, and now on the run can be described as leading a makjang life.

Then what makes a drama makjang? When it comes to dramas, when plot devices involving extreme, absurd, or outrageous instances of life (cases that make you go, hmm, what’s the likelihood of that happening in an average person’s lifetime) are dealt with in an illogical or twisted manner to arouse or hook the viewers, or conveniently inserted for that exact purpose, they are described as makjang. (Think American daytime soaps.)

Some frequently used makjang devices include birth secrets, potential incest, adultery, revenge, terminal illnesses, rape, murder, and suicide. But it is important to note that it is not the mere appearance of these elements that make a makjang, but in how they are handled and how much this deviates from what is an acceptable behavior. For example, just because a drama deals with an extramarital affair doesn’t automatically make it a makjang. But in a case where the husband has an affair with his wife’s friend, tries to force his wife to have an abortion despite her refusal to do so, and then eventually watches as his wife drowns in a boating accident that he caused, well, this comes awfully close to being safely classified a makjang (a scene from Temptation of a Wife).

Since “makjang” is not an official word, it’s difficult to say what would be the correct or incorrect usage of the word. But as commonly used, makjang can be used as a noun to refer to the classification/genre of dramas that play up their “makjang elements”, or as an adjective that describes the characteristics of such elements.

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7 Responses to Korean language and culture series: Makjang

  1. supah says:

    Heheh! Love how the above drama ‘defines’ makjang and always gets used as a reference point whenever makjang is mentioned.
    Never watched it, but I do enjoy the snark against it.

  2. ewez says:

    Thanks for explaining that.

  3. kcomments says:

    I never knew there are other meanings of makjang thanks, and may I add ‘amnesia’ to you device list? also ‘deaf’ is becoming popular too. To me, makjang(drama) = ridiculously tragic life leading to *gasp* *roll eyes* and excessive tears ^^

    Surprisingly tho that such stories ,most of the time, pulled such high ratings (i.e East of Eden, Baker King). I seriously ,at one point, discussed with my friends that most of Korean seem to have sad childhood, parents trade their kids to live aboard, and they must have lots of single mom out there in Korea. Well, that’s because Kdrama use the same plot devices over and over which can mislead a faithful viewer like me ^_^

  4. April says:

    Thanks for the explanation ! Makjang definition kind of make me think at the American expression “jumping the shark” (which is maybe more negative). Predictable is the “use of the same plot devices” (kcomments quote, I’m lazy) in so many dramas.
    But I find annoying the tendency to cumulate (in some dramas) : birth secrets, tragic fate and so on, usually happening to the same character (Is he/she cursed?), or same motif used over and over in one drama (like when every character seem to have a birth secret).
    Your example really made me laugh (Temptation).

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