This is where you can read the manhwa. https://www.lezhinus.com/en/comic/steel_silk But be aware that this manhwa is a mature Yaoi, which means, it is about homosexuality with explicit scenes. If you want to read more essays about other manhwas, here is the link to the table of contents: https://bebebisous33analyses.com/2021/06/06/table-of-contents-of-analyzed-mentioned-manhwas/ Here you can read a second analysis about Steel Under Silk: https://bebebisous33analyses.com/2022/05/11/steel-under-silk-painter-of-the-night-the-lotus-%f0%9f%8c%b8-and-the-snake%f0%9f%90%8d/
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When Lezhin US announced the release of snob’s new manhwa, many readers were surprised by the English title: Steel under Silk. They were all expecting the following title: “Blade and flower”, because this is the actual title in Korean. The blogger @Theprocrastinatingredkitty even questioned https://theprocrastinatingredkitty.tumblr.com/post/682875047499726848/in-other-unrelated-potn-news-blade-and-flower-has the reasons behind the change. How did the original title get lost in translation? Naturally, it was done on purpose, and I can’t tell exactly how this choice came to the surface. Nevertheless, I would like to give a possible answer why the English title fits perfectly to this story. But for that, I need to explain the meaning of the original title first. Then I will elaborate the signification behind the new title by including an examination of the story and characters.
1. Blade and Flower
Like mentioned above, it is important to elaborate the symbolism behind the original title. The blade is a synonym for the knife which embodies severance, death, sacrifice, division or even liberation. Striking is that the first chapter reflects these notions. It started when Kwon Hee-Ryang entered Lee Yeonjo’s life and killed his father in front of his eyes. (chapter 1) From that moment on, the main character lost everything. In one single night, he became the son of a traitor, while in reality we have to imagine that the king had made a coup d’état and got rid of his opponents. This explicates why Yeonjo made the following statement: A new king!! (chapter 1) In other words, Lee Yeonjo’s father was sacrificed. However, this is just the beginning, because now the king is determined to strengthen his authority and power by eliminating the hojok in Hamgil-do. This means that Kwon Hee-Ryang will have to use his blade for the monarch one more time. Simultaneously, Lee Yeonjo as a slave is seeking revenge. He plans to kill the person whom he views as responsible for his family’s death: Kwon Hee-Ryang. But the real mastermind behind this is actually the new king. (chapter 2) The reference of the “blade” in the title implies that the relationships between the characters in the story will get affected: severance, sacrifice, liberation and death. There’s no ambiguity that lord Chang won’t be able to use Yeonjo as his boy toy like in the past, or even claim him as his lover due to Yeonjo’s closeness to the new governor Kwon Hee-Ryang. (chapter 6)
On the other hand, if I take into consideration that the main lead is carrying a sword in his hand, the blade could be a reference to this weapon. Thus I should add the signification of the sword as well. The sword symbolizes not only power, protection, authority, strength, courage, but also righteousness and justice. This explicates why the sword Excalibur was given to the king Arthur or the goddess of Justice with her covered eyes is carrying one. With her sword, she is giving justice. Therefore it is not surprising that the main lead is seeing carrying a sword. He is not just protecting the new king, he is making sure that the hojok (chapter 2) are removed, for they represent a threat to the royal authority. The monarch is supposed to represent “justice”, but if there exist warlords, the latter can do whatever they please. This means, they can escape any punishment, the king can not control them. Finally, the sword should be perceived as a metaphor for the phallus (penis). As the manhwaphiles can sense, the blade is referring to the main lead Kwon Hee-Ryang. That’s the reason why I believe that when Snob chose the title, she was thinking of the two protagonists, Hee-Ryang was the blade, and the flower was the uke Lee Yeonjo.
But if the sword represents justice, why did Lee Yeonjo‘s father get removed? Let’s not forget that this story took place in 1448. (chapter 1) That’s the reason why I looked into that historical period. This is what I found:
“King Sejo of Joseon (hangul: 세조; hanja: 世祖; 1417-1468, r. 1455-1468) was the seventh king of the Joseon Dynasty of Korea. Born in 1417 as Yi Yu, he was better known as Grand Prince Suyang. The second of King Sejong the Great’s many sons, he showed great ability at archery, horse riding, and martial arts. Suyang was also a brilliant military commander, though he never went to the battlefront himself. Although his ascent to the throne was stained with ruthless bloodshed and the forced removal of his nephew from the throne, he went on to prove himself one of the most able rulers and administrators in Korean history. […] First, he strengthened the monarchy established by Taejong, by weakening the power of the prime minister and bringing staff directly under the king’s control. The Uijongbu, the board of counselors who helped the king rule that had been established by Taejo and Taejong had been intended to give the king support and collective wisdom to assist him in running the country, but in practice, the members of the aristocracy on the board had become too influential, and held too much of the power, so Sejo restructured the government to return more power to the king. […] He restructured the military system, stationing large military garrisons in each province.” quoted from https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/King_Sejo
“From 1456 on, Sejo’s power was not again questioned. He had his way in virtually everything, and it can be said in his favor that, once established, he was a remarkably effective king. Among his achievements were lavish support of Buddhist writings and their publication, effective frontier defense, suppression of a major rebellion, and institution of the “secret censor” system, by which royal spies circulated covertly through the provinces ferreting out and summarily punishing corruption. In time these posts became themselves major focuses of graft, but the original idea of incorruptible censors had a long life in popular fiction.” quoted from https://biography.yourdictionary.com/sejo
Though the dates don’t correspond perfectly, we can perceive strong parallels between the ruling of Sejo and this faceless king, for their policy is very similar. (chapter 2) Hence I am assuming that the author was inspired by Sejo. Kwon Hee-Ryang’s biography indicates that the monarch values more merits than lineage. (chapter 1)The main protagonist is the son of a concubine, therefore according to social norms, he should have never expected to raise the ranks and become a governor. He is not the official son. This explains why the main lead has so many scars, and why he is willing to do the dirty work. He had to work hard to reach the top of the hierarchy. This exposes the strong will from the new governor. He never accepted his fate as the son of a concubine, who was supposed to live in the shadow. The manhwalovers should keep in their mind that in Joseon the son was supposed to inherit the mother’s social status. That’s the reason why I don’t believe that Kwon Hee-Ryang truly meant this, when he spoke to Lee Yeonjo. (chapter 1) The man could sense the main lead’s resent in his eyes and even provoked him with this statement. He didn’t want him to give up on his life. In truth he was encouraging him to fight back and not to resign. Why? It is because the noble had been put through the same experience. He had not accepted his fate as the son of a concubine. And now, you comprehend why Yeonsuk and his brother’s life were spared. Actually, they should have been killed, since the father had been labelled as a traitor. They would usually eradicate a whole household due to this principle: “guilty by association”. To conclude, the governor embodies the sword, for he is a representative of the new ruler. He was sent as a spy to eradicate corruption and eliminate the powerful lords close to the border. As you can imagine, I came to the conclusion that Lee Yeonjo represents the flower.
And now, it is time to examine the different significations of a flower. Contrary to the blade, the flower embodies life and emotions, for it is not cold. The beautiful face from Yeonjo is arousing many emotions in Kwon Hee-Ryang and lord Chang. Both feel attracted. (chapter 5) Besides, it symbolizes tenderness and temporality as well. Therefore a beholder will want to protect it. Kwon Hee-Ryang (chapter 2) and lord Chang (chapter 1) intervened and stopped the bullying from other slaves. That’s how the two semes perceive the slave due to his frail silhouette. He is small and thin, therefore he reminds them of a fragile flower which could be trampled on so easily by others. However, this is just an illusion, as we can view it in the last image. Lee Yeonjo is not afraid of fights, he will never allow others to look down on him. He can fight back, if he desires it. And this leads me to the English title.
2. Steel Under Silk
One might reject the English title, for steel appeared during the Industrial revolution which took place in the 19th Century. Yet, the story is set in the 15th Century. Therefore we would have an anachronism. On the other hand, the readers shouldn’t overlook the alliteration, the figure of style in which a series of words, usually two or more neighboring words, have the same first consonant sound. In our case, it would be the “S”. This letter and sound is associated to the snake. (chapter 2) As you already know, the serpent embodies cunningness, knowledge and seduction. This is important, for “silk” is a reference to the bed. As you can see, the English title gives us a totally different approach. It implies sex. Furthermore, steel symbolizes strength and invulnerability. I would even add: determination and calculation, for a metal is cold and hard. Thus I come to the deduction, steel represents strategy and power. Since steel is used in weapon, I conclude that the author desired to include the notion of a fight in the bed. Yes, here I detect some similarities to Yoon Seungho’s following doctrine: “Sex is like a battle”. The one surrendering to his feelings should be judged as the loser. Though the story has just started, the manhwalovers could sense the presence of struggle during a sex session. (chapter 5) No one is allowed to reveal his emotions: neither passion nor pleasure.
In addition, the readers can detect another difference from the Korean title: the vanishing of “and”. Since I had pointed out that for me, the blade and the flower represented the 2 protagonists, I came to the conclusion that Steel and Silk can not be referring to two different characters. For me, Steel under Silk represents all the main characters in this story: Lee Yeonjo, Kwon Hee-Ryang and lord Chang.
2. 1. Lee Yeonjo
What caught my attention is Lee Yeonjo’s strength. In verity, he is not a flower. I would even say that he is as strong as Kwon Hee-Ryang. This was particularly visible in this panel. (chapter 1) He watched how the main lead killed the protagonist’s father. He never closed his eyes and looked straight into his enemy’s eyes. Note how he is clenching his jaw, a sign for hatred and strong-will. He didn’t hide his true thoughts and emotions. Furthermore, there’s blood on his face, which is quite similar to the scars from the governor. Despite the blood and the violence, the young boy never closed his eyes, while the older brother was turning his back on Kwon. And now, you comprehend why the governor feels that he has already met Lee Yeonjo. He could never forget this gaze full of resent and determination. In that scene, Lee Yeonjo showed courage. (chapter 1) He didn’t mind provoking his enemy with his daring gaze. Observe the huge contrast to the brother. The latter closed his eyes, and later turned his back on the official. This is not surprising that at the end, Yeonjuk died. He could never bear the cruelty of this world and resigned. I would say, the scene in the first episode revealed the brother’s weakness. Yeonjo might have been trembling, yet the latter was in reality the one comforting his brother. In other words, Yeonjo is a fighter. Therefore it is no coincidence that we could see him imaging how he would attack his enemy. (chapter 6) But he doesn’t let his emotions cloud his judgement. This explicates why in his second meeting with the governor, he didn’t try to take his revenge on the main lead immediately. The uke is calculating, developing how he should approach the official. (chapter 6) The bed is the place where the man is totally vulnerable, for he is sleeping. But the main lead is far from stupid, he doesn‘t trust many people.
We could see how determined Lee Yeonjo was in a different area: Prostitution. Since he chose to prostitute himself for his brother’s sake, he never considered himself as a homosexual. (chapter 1) Hence it is not surprising that he rejects sodomy. For him, selling his body was just a duty, and not really a job. Therefore he forces himself to think that he shouldn’t feel any pleasure. This explicates why he is resisting and not admitting that he is aroused while having sex with lord Chang. (chapter 5) Yet, his hands and his curled toes are betraying him. This means that Lee Yeonjo’s inner struggle about pleasure will keep increasing, the more time passes on. Note that his position changed, the moment he requested from the administrator of public works his assistance and protection. Here, the main lead lied saying that he desired to live a better life. (chapter 2) Lee Yeonjo was implying that he was willing to rely on someone. Hence it is not surprising that lord Chang started treating him more like his lover in episode 5. On the other hand, since headman Choi asked the protagonist to seduce the governor, this means that the slave will be forced to use his body differently. Even if he fails in the beginning, there’s no ambiguity that the young man will be cornered at some point. How can he “seduce” his enemy, if he is as cold as steel? This will force Yeonjo to act, even to fake pleasure. Thus I am expecting that Kwon Hee-Ryang will play a huge role in the slave’s transformation, his acceptance of his sexual orientation. And this leads me to the following observation. Steel under Silk is revealing the presence of a disguise and as such of acting. Note that Lee Yeonjo has been acting tough or respectful in front of the two other main characters. He never shared his suicidal thoughts to lord Chang. He is never honest to his counterparts.
Another important aspect is that Kwon Hee-Ryang truly views the slave as weak and frail, for he caught him in two situations, where he showed vulnerability. This incited the governor to show great care towards the young man. (chapter 3) Yet, the latter doesn’t want to be judged like that. Imagine his rage, when he had to thank the governor for his help and benevolence. (chapter 2) How could be thankful towards the man who had brought misfortune to his family? He is in truth steel behind his thin body.
2. 2. Kwon Hee-Ryang
And this is not something that the governor is expecting from the slave. He wished to see the young man in tears, as the latter would feel extreme pleasure. But this will represent a immense hurdle for Kwon Hee-Ryang. Not only the slave resents him, but also he rejects homosexuality. Thus I am expecting that the battles in the bed won’t be easy. For the first time, the governor will meet a strong-willed opponent.
On the other hand, the governor is also represented by steel. Behind his title as an official, he hides his true function: a fighter. (chapter 2) As a warrior, he was tasked to eliminate the hojok. And he will use every possible mean: poisoning for example. He is a strategist exactly like Yeonjo. The only difference is that he has more experiences than the slave. The noble could perceive the betrayal from headman Choi right away and even anticipate his moves: planting spies through the kisaengs. Since the man is nominated as a governor for 2 years, the warlords are underestimating their opponent’s authority. And this observation leads me to the following conclusion. The slave was the only one who could detect Kwon Hee-Ryang’s true personality. He is a warrior and he is cunning as a snake. Why? It is because he witnessed himself that the man wouldn’t mind to dirty his hands himself. (Chapter 1) He killed the traitor himself. However, due to his “robe” as a governor, his enemies are underestimating his intelligence, ruthlessness and his strength. He can do it without any trouble, since he is backed up by the monarch himself. As a conclusion, the silk can be also a reference to the hanbok and the official robe as the governor. I have to admit that I couldn’t help myself thinking of this scene from Painter Of The Night: (chapter 88) The removing of the jacket made of silk… Behind the silk hides a chest made of steel… 😉
On the other hand, I have the impression that Yeonjo doesn’t know his enemy either. He is overlooking him as a governor. The slave is driven by his revenge, yet he is forgetting the importance of politics and the problems concerning the country. From my point of view, Yeonjo needs to see Kwon Hee-Ryang acting as a governor. He never saw his sense of justice, when the noble said this. (chapter 2) He was fair, as he never asked for a punishment for Yeonjo. He could perceive that he was a victim, and he didn’t condemn him because of his social status. Later he never asked for a punishment, when the domestic broke the vase as well. In fact, he valued more the slave than the broken item. (chapter 6) Yes, Yeonjo is not paying attention to this. But it is only a matter of time, until he discovers the main lead under a different light. Notice that both are standing behind the sword, an indication that they will come to stand on the same side.
2. 3. Lord Chang
There’s no doubt that this man is in love with the slave Lee Yeonjo. This was truly perceptible in episode 5, where he kissed the main lead so tenderly. (chapter 5) Striking is that he even bit him. (chapter 5) It was, as if he was marking Yeonjo as his lover. He thought, he had finally the main lead in his hand. The latter was no longer rejecting him, (chapter 2), he was even requesting his help and protection. Thanks to him, he would have an easier life. This explicates why the next time they met, lord Chang was particularly gentle. (chapter 5) He could even sense that Yeonjo was feeling pleasure, and it was no longer prostitution.
But lord Chang has no idea about Lee Yeonjo’s revenge. This is important, because so far, the man doesn’t have a high position in the administration. He doesn’t seem to have a lot of power. But what will he do, when he sees that Yeonjo is getting closer to the governor? Let’s not forget that he brought him to the castle himself. He will have to find a way to get back Yeonjo… either by supporting him in his request for a revenge or by getting more power, because he believed in his lies: (chapter 2) Here, he believed that the main character had moved on and overcome the brother’s loss. That’s the reason why we should expect a transformation of lord Chang. He might raise the rank as well… So far, the administrator seems quite caring and gentle, but I have the impression that he is only showing this side towards the main lead. He showed favoritism which stands in opposition to justice. The manhwaphiles should keep in their mind that lord Chang is responsible for the construction of streets or protection walls. This means that he is in charge of many slaves. He could definitely let the workers work to exhaustion so that he could finish his projects on time. Thus I deduce that he is a man of steel as well. He could be as coldhearted as Kwon Hee-Ryang. In other words, I believe that Yeonjo will discover a new side from lord Chang. As the administrator of public work (behind his silk), he could be quite demanding and cold.
As the manhwaphiles could see, I do think that the title of “Steel Under Silk” is quite a good choice. It offers more aspects, and thanks to the metaphors, I could get new insight.
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