Empty borok case, now back in Korea, leaves much to the imagination
An old reddish box was placed under the spotlight for local reporters to take photographs of at the Korea House on Wednesday.
The Cultural Heritage Administration (CHA) and the Overseas Korean Cultural Heritage Foundation were able to bring back this box, known as borok, from the United States early this month. Riot Games, a United States-based video game developer, provided the funds to acquire the box from a British corporation in the United States, who was about to sell it to a different owner, to make sure it could safely return to its home country.
This box with a lock appears to have once stored something very valuable. But it was found empty and brought back empty.
Why would the Korean government try so hard to bring back an empty box?
A borok is an outer case that was used to store a royal seal known as eobo, which was produced for the occasion of the bestowal of an honorific title or posthumous name on a king or queen of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). A royal seal was placed in an inner case known as botong and then set inside the outer borok before being stored at the Jongmyo Shrine or the Outer Royal Library. A borok was conventionally produced together with the seal. However, this borok appears to have lost its seal.
According to the CHA, it is difficult to find out the owner of the borok as most borok are practically identical. According to the foundation, hundreds of borok and inlok, or the outer case especially for a seal of the crown prince, crown princess and eldest son of the crown prince and his consort, were produced over three centuries, from the early 1600s after the Japanese Invasions of Korea in 1598 through the reign of Emperor Sunjong.
Despite its lack of content, the borok retrieved from the U.S. is still significant as borok for royal seals were not produced in large quantities compared to those for ordinary seals.
“That is why borok is highly regarded as a symbol of the legitimacy and historicity of the Joseon royal court,” said Seo Joon, a retired researcher at the National Palace Museum who specialized in royal seals.
Storing eobo inside borok required certain formalities, as did nearly everything that took place in the royal court. Eobo had to first be wrapped with a red bojagi, or a cloth, tied with a ribbon crosswise and then placed in the inner botong. A pouch filled with 14 different medicinal herbs would be inserted also to keep moths away. Cotton balls were inserted to fill the space so that the seal would not move. After closing the lid of the botong, it was wrapped again using another red bojagi and tied crosswise with a purple ribbon. It would then be inserted into a borok, together with another pouch of herbs and cotton balls. It would then be locked with a key, and the key would be stored in a separate key pouch. A small piece of paper with signatures would be attached to the lock to seal it once more.
There’s a turtle-shaped handle attached to the center of the upper panel of the returned borok. The interior of the box is lined with red silk and the exterior is wrapped with leather and coated with red lacquer.
Currently, 312 borok and inlok cases transferred from the Jongmyo Shrine are housed in the National Palace Museum of Korea in central Seoul.
The latest borok will first join some of the other restituted cultural properties that were looted during the Japanese colonial rule (1910-45) and the Korean War (1950-53) in an exhibit titled “Treasures of Ours Treasured by Others: Journey of Korean Cultural Heritage,” which kicked off early this month at the National Palace Museum of Korea.
According to the Overseas Korean Cultural Heritage Foundation, the borok will join the other retrieved cultural properties next month. The exhibit runs until Sept. 25.
Some of the retrieved cultural properties on display in the exhibit include, the Odaesan Copy of the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty, which was plundered during the Japanese occupation and repatriated in 2006, and the Junmyeongjibo or the State Seal of Royal Appointment, which was stolen by an American soldier during the Korean War.
The exhibition also explores the repatriation, study and future utilization of the roughly 200,000 pieces of Korean cultural properties scattered across 25 countries.
“Korea is working to facilitate the utilization of overseas properties in the sites where they are held, including providing support for conservation treatment and exhibition,” Lim Kyoung-hee, an official from the museum, said.
BY YIM SEUNG-HYE [email@example.com]