The pages of Korea’s past

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The pages of Korea’s past

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“The Hunmin Chongum Manuscript” Provided by the Cultural Heritage Administration

Discoveries of lost archives and previously undiscovered historical records have made headlines here time and time again, offering clues to the country’s history, which goes back to as early as 2000 B.C. Earlier this year, a discovery of about 300 personal letters written by King Jeongjo (1752-1800) thrilled historians, revealing previously unknown facts about the king and his affairs of state.

The king was just one in a long line of officials to have kept meticulous records of his reign. Rulers of nations, guardians of religions and inventors of all kinds have undertaken the task of documenting their actions, not only to educate future generations but also to preserve their legacies.

These documents are being catalogued by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as part of its Memory of the World Register, which aims to encourage their preservation and increase their dissemination.

Korea has seven pieces of documentary heritage in the registry. In addition to “Donguibogam: Principles and Practice of Eastern Medicine,” which was added to the list in July, the six other pieces of Korean heritage on the list are: the wood blocks of the “Tripitaka Koreana” and miscellaneous Buddhist scriptures (2007); “Uigwe: The Royal Protocols of the Joseon Dynasty” (2007); the second volume of “Jikji: Teachings of Korean Buddhism” (2001); “Seungjeongwon Ilgi: The Diaries of the Royal Secretariat” (2001); “The Annals of the Joseon Dynasty” (1997); and “The Hunmin Chongum Manuscript” (1997).

The country has the sixth-highest number of items on the list in the world and the most in Asia. Germany has the highest number of registered items, followed by Austria and Russia.
The Hunmin Chongum Manuscript

This manuscript, published in 1446, promulgated the Korean alphabet, Hangul. “Hunmin chongum” means “proper sounds to instruct the people.”

Hangul was created by King Sejong (1418-1450), the fourth king of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) in 1443. The king was concerned that Chinese characters, which were used to write Korean at the time, were designed to fit Chinese, a language structurally different from Korean. In creating it, the king hoped to develop an orthography that perfectly represented the Korean language. He also wanted every Korean to learn to read and write, skills that were reserved for the upper class.

King Sejong wrote the book’s preface, which clarifies the origin and purpose of the new alphabet and gives brief examples and explanations of each of its letters. He had the scholars of the Jiphyeonjeon, or “Hall of Worthies,” give more detailed explanations and examples of them.

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“The Annals of the Joseon Dynasty”

The alphabet Sejong made consisted of 28 letters. Today’s Hangul uses only 24 of those. The name Hangul, a combination of “han,” meaning “the Korean people,” and “gul,” meaning “letters,” was not given to the alphabet until the early 20th century.

The Haerye edition of the Hunmin Chongum was published about 550 years ago. Once thought to have been lost, a copy was found in 1940 in an old house in Andong, North Gyeongsang. It contains the haerye, or commentary, written by the Jiphyeonjeon scholars. It was designated a national treasure in 1958 and is currently housed at the Gansong Art Museum in Seoul.

Seungjeongwon Ilgi: The Diaries of the Royal Secretariat

Seungjeongwon, the Royal Secretariat of the Joseon Dynasty, was in charge not only of important national events, but also simple routine ceremonies as well. Thus, this office was responsible for keeping the Seungjeongwon Ilgi, the Diaries of the Royal Secretariat, a detailed record of daily events and official court schedules from the Joseon Dynasty’s first king, Taejo, to its last, Sunjong.

Written by six secretaries and two scribes, it is a vivid depiction of an Eastern monarchy, its politics, policy-making procedures and power structure.

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“Uigwe: The Royal Protocols of the Joseon Dynasty”

Today 3,243 diaries still exist, which may seem like a lot, but this is a small number compared to the original number. Many of the diaries were destroyed in war and fire, or deliberately burned by the Japanese, but some of these have been restored.

The existence of these diaries is significant because they served as the primary source for the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty, making its value as great or even greater than that of the Annals themselves. It also makes possible the accurate comparison of lunar and solar dates, meaning it even has scientific and statistical value.

The original Seungjeongwon Ilgi is housed in the Gyujanggak Library at Seoul National University, and public viewing is not allowed. But 141 photocopies have been made by the National History Compilation Committee and are available for public reference.


Jikji: Teachings of Korean Buddhism

This book explains the essentials of Zen Buddhism. It was compiled by the priest Baegun in the late Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) and printed at Heungdeok Temple in present-day Cheongju, North Chungcheong.

An inscription on the last page indicates “Jikji” was printed in July 1377, about 70 years earlier than the Gutenberg Bible in Germany. It is now one of the world’s oldest existing books printed with movable metal type.

The teachings of great Buddhist priests were carefully selected for this book to allow anyone to learn the core of Zen teachings. It contains historical biographies, which were to be studied by student monks after they had attained the wisdom necessary to understand the essence of Zen, including the Buddha’s sayings from his last moments. The book draws on various forms of literature on Buddhism, as well as the works of 145 priests and monks from India, China and Korea.

The words “jikji simche” from the book’s title were derived from the famous phrase, “Jikji insim gyeonseong seongbul,” meaning the attainment of an enlightened state by direct appeal to the mind. The idea was that when one comes to see through Zen what the mind is, then one comes to understand that mind to be the mind of the Buddha.

Jikji originally consisted of two volumes, but the first no longer exists. The second is preserved at the National Library of France.
The Goryeo Daejanggyeong

The “Goryeo Daejanggyeong” (Goryeo Dynasty Tripitaka), most commonly known as the Tripitaka Koreana, is a Korean collection of Buddhist scriptures that has existed since the 13th century. It was commissioned during the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392). Through the generations, the woodblocks of the Tripitaka Koreana were used as an outline for Buddhism itself, compiling scriptures, commentaries and history.

When Buddhism was first transmitted to East Asia through China, its scriptures were translated from various Indian and Central Asian languages to classical Chinese. Although there were several attempts by numerous countries to inscribe them onto wooden printing blocks for distribution, the Tripitaka Koreana remains the only complete canon still extant on the mainland of Asia.

In addition to the Tripitaka Koreana, which consists of 81,258 wooden printing blocks, there are 5,987 miscellaneous wood blocks at the temple.

The woodblocks of the Tripitaka Koreana possess undoubtable cultural value and represent the best available printing and publishing techniques of the period. They are highly valued for their systematic preparation and beautiful inscriptions. The pieces have endured for centuries, allowing paper scriptures to be produced from them even today.

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“Jikji: Teachings of Korean Buddhism”

The Tripitaka Koreana can be found at the Haein Temple monastery in southeastern Korea.

Uigwe: The Royal Protocols of the Joseon Dynasty

Confucian rites and rituals were held in high regard during the Joseon Dynasty. Therefore, it was crucial to document the specific protocols for these important ceremonies, including weddings, funerals and banquets, along with the details of the construction of royal buildings and tombs.

This fastidiousness led to the production of the book known as “Uigwe,” a collection of royal protocols that later generations could use as a guide for replicating official ceremonies.

Uigwe comprises over 3,895 books categorized by time and theme. It has gained worldwide recognition because it has contributed to our understanding of how royal ceremonies changed. Comparisons with other East Asian cultures have also provided valuable knowledge about the period in which it was written. What makes Uigwe especially valuable is that most of the volumes were handwritten by professionals, making each copy of Uigwe unique.

The collection is currently being held at the Institute of Korean Studies at Seoul National University and the Academy of Korean Studies. Access to the originals is strictly limited, but the public can access reproductions on the Web sites of the custodial organizations.

The Annals of the Joseon Dynasty

This collection covers the Joseon Dynasty, from the reign of its founder King Taejo from 1392-1398 to the reign of King Choljong from 1849-1863. The annals are composed of 1,893 volumes, and are believed to cover a longer period than any other collection of records regarding a single dynasty in history.

The corresponding annals of the Chinese Ming Dynasty (1369-1644) record only 260 years and the reigns of 13 emperors, while those for the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) cover 296 years. The Great Authentic Annals of Vietnam, which record the history of the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945), consist of 548 books.

To broaden public access to these records, the Korean government had them translated into Korean from the original Chinese, a 26-year project that was completed in 1993.



Portions of this text were provided by the Cultural Heritage Administration. Additional reporting by contributing writers Yim Seung-hye and Hyon Mi-kyung.


By Kim Hyung-eun, Limb Jae-un [hkim@joongang.co.kr]

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