Koreana AUTUMN 2002 Vol.16 No.3
Feature
Korea's Unrivaled Recordkeeping Culture
Shin Byung-ju
Curator, Gyujanggak Archives
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During the Joseon period (1392-1910), a variety of comprehensive records were compiled and stored for safekeeping. Among these, the Joseon- wangjosillok (Annals of the Joseon Dynasty), Ilseongnok, Bibyeonsadeungnok, and Seungjeongwonilgi (Diary of the Royal Secretariat) attract much attention because they systematically document massive amounts of detailed information on significant political, social, and economic matters of the nation in chronological order. Gyujang- gak houses a variety of materials, but the chronicles are the most noteworthy in that they are the formal records prepared by official national agencies.
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Regarding his invasion of Ganghwado in 1866, French naval officer Henry Joubert noted: "What must be looked upon with admiration here and what injures our pride is that every house, no matter how poor, has books everywhere." The people of Joseon were always around books. There was a tradition of placing great importance on the maintenance of records, with the government playing the leading role. To appreciate the significance of this for us today, it is necessary to examine the historical traditions of the Joseon period, when systematic recordkeeping was of such paramount importance.
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The most noteworthy historical record of the Joseon period is the Joseonwangjosillok, an official national chronicle covering 472 years (1392-1863) of the Joseon Dynasty from King Taejo, the founder of the Joseon Dynasty, to King Cheoljong, its 25th ruler. The records of the 26th and 27th rulers, Gojong and Sunjong, are compiled separately as Gojongsillok and Sunjongsillok. The Joseon- wangjosillok, a massive compilation consisting of 1,187 books (approximately 64 million characters), includes information on all fields, such as politics, diplomacy, economics, the military, law, thought, and lifestyle. No example comparable to the Joseonwangjosillok, which systematically and continuously records the history of a dynasty without interruption, can be found anywhere else in the world, and because of its unprecedented nature, UNESCO added it to its Memory of the World Register in 1997.
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The annals were compiled after a king's death. This is because of their concern that there would be political pressure if the annals were compiled during the king's reign. Upon a king's death, Sil- lokcheong, a temporary government office, was created with officials assigned to it full-time who would compile the annals based on sacho, which had already been prepared and sijeonggi, the daily records of various government offices. Sacho refers to the records of sagwan officials; records prepared on the spot were called chocho, with revisions of these being jungcho, and what was finally recorded in the annals were called jeongcho.
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Completed annals were stored in Chunchugwan, a repository where historical records were stored, and in repositories for historical documents built in the provinces. In the early Joseon period, in addition to Chunchugwan, the annals were housed in repositories located in provincial centers, such as Chungju, Seongju, and Jeonju, but there was constant anxiety about damage from fire or war. Such a crisis did occur during the Japanese invasion of 1592, when all of the annals except for those in the Jeonju storehouse were destroyed. The sole remaining annals barely escaped destruction through the efforts of An Ui and Son Hong-nok. After the war, there were those of the opinion that the annals would be safer if stored in mountainous regions. Accordingly, four storehouses were built on the Odaesan, Jeongjoksan, Jeoksangsan and Taebaeksan mountains during the late Joseon period, where the annals were distributed for safekeeping. Every third year, the stored annals were dried in the open air to help keep them free from insects and moisture. The annals were periodically inspected to determine their physical condition, for which an inspection record, or sillokhyeongjian, was prepared. These records confirm that the people of the time maintained the annals with meticulous care.
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The people of Joseon gladly endured the inconveniences that accompanied preservation of the annals while the officials charged with storing or drying out the annals considered this duty to be a great honor. Because of the tradition of preserving these records, the annals have remained in perfect condition until this day. Currently, there are two original copies of the Joseonwangjosillok in Korea. In keeping with the tradition of storing them separately, one copy is stored by the Government Archives and Records Services, while the other copy is housed in the second floor national treasure storeroom of Seoul National University's Gyujanggak.
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As the annals were based on the sacho records of the sagwan who were constantly around the king, they were primarily a political history recounting the king's activities. However, since the sijeonggi of each government office were also used as materials for compiling the annals, information on natural disasters such as floods and droughts, and events such as the outbreak of epidemics and the appearance of comets and meteors were also recorded in detail.
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In particular, in the case of floods and droughts, the loss of livestock such as cows and horses was recorded along with the number of human casualties. In addition, it is noteworthy that extensive information about the lifestyle of the common people is included in the annals. For example, in the Taejongsillok (Annals of King Taejong), it is recorded that the Japanese king gave Taejong an elephant as a gift, which the royal court entrusted to the Saboksi, the government office in charge of the palace's horses and palanquins. However, some people who came to look at the elephant were trampled and killed, while it ate so much grain that it was eventually exiled to an island in Jeolla-do province. Thereafter, it is recorded that reports were received saying that the elephant had become emaciated, but there is no further mention of the elephant in the annals. Besides an account of the first elephant to enter Korea, the annals also offer a diverse variety of information related to people's lifestyle, such as details on cigarettes, glasses, and clothing.
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With the changes in political power in late Joseon, revised editions of the royal annals were prepared: the Seonjosillok (Annals of King Seonjo), Seonjosujeongsillok (Revised Annals of King Seon- jo), Hyeonjongsillok (Annals of King Hyeonjong), Hyeonjonggaesusillok (Revised Annals of King Hyeonjong), Gyeongjongsillok (Annals of King Gyeongjong), and Gyeongjongsujeongsillok (Revised Annals of King Gyeongjong). Due to factional strife, when a new political group came to power, it prepared new annals with revised contents to supersede the annals compiled by the opposing party. However, the fact that the existing annals were maintained without change, to be judged independently by later generations, is praiseworthy.
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The Seungjeongwonilgi (Diary of the Royal Secretariat) is a daily record of the everyday documents and matters that were dealt with by Seungjeongwon, the Royal Secretariat, the agency charged with promulgating royal orders. Seung- jeongwonilgi is thought to have been commenced from the founding of the dynasty, but today only 3,243 books covering the 288 years from 1623 to 1910 remain. The original, written in cursive calligraphy, is housed at Seoul National University's Gyujanggak, while the National Institute of Korean History has published an edition written in standard characters.
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The Seungjeongwonilgi can be called the world's greatest historical record, in that it spans 288 consecutive years and comprises an incredible 3,243 books with a total of 240 million characters. Recognized for its truly unique value and excellence, the Seungjeongwonilgi was designated National Treasure No. 303 on April 9, 1999, and included on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register in September 2001. However, during the evaluation process, the international advisory committee questioned the inclusion of the Seungjeongwonilgi on the Memory of the World Register. With the Joseonwangjosillok already on the Memory of the World Register, the members of the committee wondered why the Seung-jeonwonilgi should be designated as well. This is likely because the people of other nations, which did not maintain national records in this manner, could not fully appreciate that separate national records were compiled by various agencies. The fact that two separate national chronicles have been listed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register attests to the unrivaled excellence of recordkeeping during the Joseon period.
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The Seungjeongwonilgi was used as a primary source for compiling the annals, and having been prepared by the Secretariat, the agency closest to the king, even the king's slightest movement and minor political details were recorded in full. During the Joseon period, when the eojin, the king's portrait, was painted, it was called jeonsin, indicating that along with the king's physical appearance his spirit was to be conveyed as well, thus requiring every effort to be exerted in this endeavor. As this record was prepared by the Seungjeongwon, which was the closest agency attending to the king, utmost effort would have been put forth to record the king's every mood, not missing a single nuance. In fact, there is even mention of when the king laughed or became angry while talking with court officials.
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Once the annals were completely compiled and placed in storehouses, they could not be viewed without a specific reason. In contrast, whenever facing an important national ceremony or an issue of national security or diplomacy, previous Seung- jeongwonilgi were readily referred to for guidance. Though it was a historical record, the Seung- jeongwonilgi was always used as a reference source for dealing with current political issues. In this way, the Seungjeongwonilgi and the Joseon- wangjosillok complement each other, and are more essential than any other reference material for researching the history of the late Joseon period. In particular, the detailed records of the weather are invaluable to the study of astronomy and weather conditions. In addition, the names of the officials who prepared the diary entries were recorded daily, as well as when they were on leave or sick, indicating the attention to detail of these records.
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The original copy of the Seungjeongwonilgi is housed at Seoul National University's Gyujanggak. It is written in cursive calligraphy and thus difficult to read. In order to overcome this difficulty, beginning in 1961, the National Institute of Korean History rewrote the Seungjeongwonilgi in standard characters for its easier readability, in addition to launching a reproduction project. Also, since 1994 the Korean Classics Research Institute has been working to translate the Seungjeongwonilgi into hangeul in phases, beginning with the diary from the time of Gojong's reign. When the hangeul translation is completed, it will be an invaluable resource for the study of Korean history.
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By no means inferior to the Joseonwangjosillok and the Seungjeongwonilgi, the Ilseongnok and Bibyeongsadeungnok chronicles are examples of the comprehensiveness of Joseon recordkeeping. Ilseongnok, as the title implies, is the king's "record written while reflecting on the day." It records in diary form various matters related to affairs of the state over a period of 150 years from 1760 to 1910. It was initiated in 1760, when King Jeongjo, who led a cultural revival of late Joseon from the time his grandfather named him Crown Prince, heir to his throne, started to record his activities and studies in diary form. When Jeongjo ascended the throne, the members of Gyujanggak prepared Ilseongnok which Jeongjo personally read and revised. Following Jeongjo, Il- seongnok focused on the activities of the king centered on events related to significant political matters, or reports on the performance of provincial officials. Ilseongnok was designated National Treasure No. 153 on December 31, 1973.
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Bibyeonsadeungnok records the details of the daily meetings of the Bibyeonsa, the highest- ranking national agency from the mid-Joseon period. It is similar to today's records of Cabinet meetings. The abbreviated designation for Bibyeonsa was Biguk, so it is also called Bigukdeungnok. The Bibyeonsadeungnok prepared prior to the Japanese invasion of 1592 have all been lost. What does exist covers the reigns of 11 kings spanning approximately 250 years from 1617. When the Bibyeonsa was established, the national issue of ensuring the security of frontier areas was of greatest importance to the agency. However, in response to the Japanese invasion it was expanded and strengthened into the highest decision-making agency, which addressed issues of national defense, diplomacy, and the whole of national administration.
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Accordingly, Bibyeonsadeungnok records in detail the decisions made by the nation's highest-ranking organization, and is a valuable reference for understanding prominent social and economic issues of the time. It was designated National Treasure No. 152 on December 31, 1973. Together with the Seungjeongwonilgi and Ilseongnok, Bibyeonsadeungnok was used as a primary source when compiling the annals, as these separate historical records complement each other and demonstrate the unprecedented efforts that went into the historical records of the Joseon period.
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More than anything else, people had a profound respect for history during the Joseon period. They thoroughly recorded the actions of the people of the time, including the king as well as the masses. This is because there was an established tradition of accurately recording the rights and wrongs of society for judgment by future generations.
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This mindset of such attention to detail in maintaining records is not only invaluable in more clearly understanding the various aspects of the politics, society, economy, and culture of the Joseon period, but also highlights the need for the records of today to be more accurate and systematic in order to benefit future generations.
 
 
 
     
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