Colorful parade celebrates return of Uigwe
Korea staged a ceremony rich in traditional pageantry Saturday to welcome the return of priceless ancient royal books, 145 years after they were looted by French troops.
A solemn procession of some 500 people wearing colorful traditional court costumes moved slowly along Sejongno carrying some of the books in a palanquin to Gyeongbok Palace, the largest built by the Joseon Dynasty.
After years of diplomatic wrangling, France in April and May returned 296 volumes of the Uigwe, richly illustrated records of major court ceremonies and events during the Joseon era of 1392 to 1910.
Korean President Lee Myung-bak and former French Culture Minister Jack Lang were among those gathered for the ceremony at the restored palace. “I announce the Uigwe, which were looted 145 years ago, have returned home,” said President Lee, who wore ivory-colored traditional robes.
High-tech Korea, the world’s most wired nation, places great importance on its history, even though much of its original heritage was destroyed during the 1910-45 Japanese occupation and the 1950-53 Korean War.
French troops seized the books in 1866 when they invaded Ganghwa Island, west of Seoul, in retaliation for the Joseon dynasty’s execution of French Catholic missionaries.
The procession marking their return was shadowed by court guards in traditional uniform, red or blue military robes, and sporting false beards.
Some volumes of the Uigwe were placed on an elaborate palanquin and carried on the shoulders of 12 red-robed bearers. As the procession passed through the main palace gate known as Gwanghwamun, it was met by a band of wind and percussion instruments playing solemn court music.
Some of the books, wrapped in red cloth, were then laid on an altar decorated with yellow satin cloth. Sohn Jin-chaek, who choreographed the ceremony, told AFP Friday that the return of the books symbolized “the restoration of our national spirit and tradition.”
“This ritual is for announcing to heaven and the earth that the Uigwe have returned to where they should be,” Sohn said.
“Through this rite, we will also vow before our ancestors that we will never repeat this sad history.”
Seoul began demanding the return of the books after a Korean historian working at the National Library of France stumbled upon them in 1975.
One volume was returned in 1993 when then-President Francois Mitterrand visited Seoul. France was pushing hard to secure a multibillion-dollar high-speed train project at the time. Current President Nicolas Sarkozy agreed last November to return the other volumes when he met President Lee on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Seoul.
Technically they are on lease for a five-year renewable term but former French culture minister Lang said Saturday that in effect the books were being handed back permanently. Culture Minister Choung Byoung-gug has described the books as “a proud part of our cultural heritage” and said their return deepens trust and friendship between the two countries.