A century later, royal books reveal Korea’s lost past

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A century later, royal books reveal Korea’s lost past


Royal books recently returned from Japan including “Sunjo Mundo Youngjeong Mosa Dogam Bowan Uigwe,” below, are on display at the National Palace Museum of Korea. Provided by the NPMK

More than a thousand royal books returned from Japan in early December are on display at the National Palace Museum of Korea inside Gyeongbok Palace in central Seoul.

To commemorate the books’ repatriation, the Cultural Heritage Administration is holding a special exhibition, “Books of the Joseon Dynasty Returned from Japan.” There will also be lectures explaining the books’ significance.

Japanese officials looted the books before or during their 35-year colonial rule of Korea in the early 20th century. The repatriation came after former Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan promised to give back part of Korea’s cultural heritage last year as a token of the government’s commitment to forging a better relationship with Korea.

Of the 1,200 ancient books returned, 167 are uigwe - books that describe royal ceremonies and rites.

Since most of the uigwe given back in December were produced during the reigns of emperors Gojong (1852-1919) and Sunjong (1874-1926), it is possible to see how rituals changed towards the end of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), which also encapsulated the short-lived Korean Empire (1897-1910).

Among the insights offered by this ancient collection, a copy of “Daerye Uigwe” includes information and pictures of the coronation ceremony of the new emperor and the investiture of the crown prince.

Another uigwe, “Sunjo Mundo Youngjeong Mosa Dogam Bowan Uigwe,” is being shown to the public for the first time. Originally the crown prince was the only person with privileges to view this uigwe, but the emperor’s copy has been retrieved and displayed.


The museum will provide visual aids alongside the repatriated books. Below, the eobo, a seal used in royal ceremonies, is displayed next to a drawing found in one of the uigwe. Provided by the NPMK

To help visitors understand the detailed information the uigwe contain about royal artifacts used in rituals, the museum is displaying matching artifacts it already has in its collection. For instance, the king’s eobo, a seal used in royal ceremonies to show the king’s approval, is displayed next to the open pages of the uigwe where the seal’s mark is shown.

Among the non-uigwe books, 938 of 66 kinds were taken at the direct order of first Japanese governor-general Hirubumi Ito between 1906 and 1909 for “research purposes.”

Ito took a total of 1,028 books at the time. Ninety books were returned under a 1965 bilateral treaty that Japan claimed settled all issues about cultural items looted from Korea.

Ito’s research was focused on the study of Korean traditions and royal families.

Many of the books were once kept at the Gyujanggak, a royal library and a setting for the study of contemporary political and societal policies. They even include some books written by King Jeongjo (1776-1800), titled “Hamheung Bongung Uisik,” in which he described rituals from the house of founding father Taejo (1335-1408) of the Joseon Dynasty. An anthology written by King Jeongjo, “Hongjae Jeonseo,” is also on display.

To motivate visitors to pay further attention to the importance of the return of these cultural heritages, the museum also prepared some visual aids. On one side in the exhibition hall, the museum plays a documentary of the return process of every Korean cultural heritage object since the signing of the 1965 bilateral treaty.

Extensive lectures regarding the return of the books will also be offered in the first floor hall of the museum at 2 p.m. on Jan. 12 by Park Sang-guk, general director of the Korea Cultural Heritage Institute. On the same day at 3 and 4 p.m., other experts will deliver two lectures on the significance of Hirubumi Ito’s direct order to take the books to Japan and the characteristics of the returned books.

*“Books of the Joseon Dynasty Returned from Japan” runs through Feb. 5 at the National Palace Museum of Korea. The museum is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. from Tuesdays through Fridays, and from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. The museum is closed on Mondays. Admission to the museum is free. To get to the museum, go to Gyeonbokgung Station, line No. 3, exit 5. For more information, call (02) 3701-7500, or go to www.gogung.go.kr

By Lee Sun-min [summerlee@joongang.co.kr]
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