With the arrival of the final set on May 27, all 297 volumes of the royal protocols of the Joseon Dynasty which had been housed at the National Library of France in Paris have been returned home to Korea. The return of these royal books, which are of immense cultural and academic significance, has been heralded with a series of commemorative events.
Lee Kyong-hee Staff Reporter, The JoongAng Ilbo | Suh Heun-gang Photographer
The royal protocols that have recently been returned are especially valuable because most of the materials are the highly elaborate originals prepared for the king. In addition, about 30 volumes are the sole extant copies of the original documents.
In 1782, during the sixth year of King Jeongjo’s reign, a remote branch of Gyujanggak, the royal library and archives, was built on Ganghwa Island. It was named Oegyujanggak (literally “Outer Gyujanggak”), where over 5,000 volumes from the capital were relocated to the new archives. Among these materials were royal protocol volumes, detailed records of important state events. But in 1866 (third year of King Gojong), troops from a French naval vessel invaded Ganghwa Island and plundered about 340 volumes from the library’s collection, including 297 volumes of royal protocol. The remaining materials were set ablaze by the intruders.
The whereabouts of these palace documents had long remained unknown until the Korean bibliographer Dr. Park Byeong-seon, who was working as a librarian at the National Library of France (Bibliotheque nationale de France), discovered the books in the library and released a listing of the documents in 1975. “The Anthology of Great Buddhist Priests’ Zen Teachings” (Jikji simche yojeol, or Jikji simgyeong) was also discovered by Dr. Park in the same library. This is the world’s earliest extant book printed with movable metal type, published in 1377 during the Goryeo Dynasty.
Negotiations for Return
Seoul National University, which has assumed maintenance of materials from the Gyujanggak royal archives, initiated efforts to retrieve the Joseon royal books from the French library in 1991. Thereafter, the Korean government forwarded an official request to the French government for their return in 1992. During the Korea-France summit in 1993, when France lobbied for the export of its TGV high-speed train technology to Korea, French President François Mitterrand returned “The Royal Protocol on the Relocation of Hwigyeongwon Tomb” (Hwigyeongwon wonso dogam uigwe), one of the royal protocols of Joseon that had been taken to France in 1866, and made a promise to return the remainder.
This promise would not be fulfilled, however, due to opposition in France, including a protest lodged by the librarians of the National Library of France. Inter-governmental negotiations also faltered, as talks for the books’ return, broken off several times, made little headway.
Finally, there was a breakthrough in 2010. During the G20 Seoul Summit, the presidents of the two countries agreed on the return of the books under a five-year renewable lease. While many Koreans were displeased with such a lease arrangement, the government asserted that this compromise was the most practical means of getting the books back to Korea, since a permanent return would only be possible if the French government agreed to amend its relevant laws. The National Library of France and the National Library of Korea signed a working-level agreement on the return process, and the books came home in four air deliveries, from April 14 to May 27.
Royal Protocols of the Joseon Dynasty
Most of the books returned from France are royal protocols of the Joseon Dynasty, which are detailed records of important state or royal events that took place during the dynasty’s some 500 years of history, documented with handwritten text and painted illustrations.
The Korean word for the royal protocol, uigwe, is a compound of the characters ui, for “ceremony” and gwe for “exemplary standard.” Uigwe can thus be defined as the “exemplary standards for ceremonies,” or “white papers,” for a variety of significant events and ceremonies, which served as a valuable reference and model for future generations. These palace documents of the Joseon Dynasty have been inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, as of 2007. Along with “The Annals of the Joseon Dynasty” (Joseon wangjo sillok), another set of Joseon court records with the same
UNESCO designation, the royal protocols are regarded as the epitome of Korea’s record-keeping culture. Compared with the annals of the Joseon Dynasty, a chronological record of major events during the reign of each king, which includes only text, the royal protocols provide a more vivid documentation of history with exquisitely rendered illustrations accompanying the written accounts.
In large part, the royal protocols followed the lives of the royal family. For instance, when a prince was born, a site was selected for the construction of his placenta chamber, where the placenta was stored as prescribed, with the entire process being recorded in the form of a royal protocol. The proclamation of a crown prince and related procedures were also documented as a separate royal protocol.
In the case of a royal wedding, the entire event was recorded in great detail, including the selection of the bride, the dowry listing, and the groom’s procession to welcome the bride. A royal protocol would be published upon the death of an important member of the royal family, such as the king, queen, crown prince or his spouse; the construction of royal tombs; and the enshrinement of a deceased king’s memorial tablet in the royal ancestral shrine, Jongmyo, following the three-year mourning period. In addition, the processes of palace or fortress construction or renovation, important royal banquets, publication of the annals of each king’s reign, and production of the kings’ portraits were all carefully documented.
The royal protocols of the Joseon Dynasty are noted for their rigorous attention to detail, which includes a list of people involved with each event, their personal profiles, the dimensions and materials of the items produced or used, as well as all expenditures, down to the smallest currency unit. For example, “The Royal Protocol on the Construction of Hwaseong Fortress” (Hwaseong seongyeok uigwe) lists the names of over 1,800 artisans and workers who participated in the construction work, along with details of the wages paid to each worker, according to the number of days worked, down to half a day. The detailed accounting information in the royal protocols helped to prevent the waste or abuse of state funds by disclosing all the particulars of an undertaking.
The illustrations in the royal protocols were painted by the most talented artists of the Royal Bureau of Painting (Dohwaseo). These works have such a high level of artistry and descriptive detail that the protocols are at times used today for a recreation of the documented events. For example, Hwaseong Fortress in Suwon, which suffered extensive damage during the Korean War, was eventually restored in 1975 based on the royal protocol written almost 200 years ago. The inscription of Hwaseong Fortress as a UNESCO World Heritage site can in large part be attributed to the role of the royal documents, which served as an indispensable reference.
During the Joseon Dynasty, the royal protocol for each individual event was produced in multiple versions, including one for the king and additional copies that were stored in history archives and the various departments in charge of court rituals. The royal protocols that have recently been returned are especially valuable because most of the materials are the highly elaborate originals prepared for the king. In addition, about 30 volumes are the sole extant copies of the original documents.
The king’s version was produced with high-quality paper (chojuji) and paint, and bound in silk covers with bronze clamps. On the contrary, copies for distribution to the relevant government offices and archives were made of coarser mulberry paper (jeojuji) and bound in hemp covers with iron clamps. It is known that the books retrieved from France are of a superior quality as compared to the some 3,800 volumes of royal protocols housed at the Kyujanggak Institute for Korean Studies at Seoul National University and the Academy of Korean Studies.
Among the recently returned 297 volumes, about one-half are records of royal funerals, while the remainder includes accounts of royal weddings, various celebrations, investitures of crown princes, and construction or repair of palaces and fortresses. Shin Byeong-ju, history professor at Konkuk University, who has personally inspected the royal protocols from France on five occasions, has noted: “The banchado illustrations in the books were just perfect. The depiction of numerous figures, lined up in accordance with their official rank, was so detailed that even the strands of their beards could be made out.”
Except for the 30 volumes that are sole extant copies, other versions of the remaining volumes can be found in Korea. However, since all copies of a particular protocol were written and painted by hand, differences can be found in their covers, binding styles, and other minor details. Although the copies preserved in Korea include various omissions in the painted illustrations, the returned books have more detailed depictions since they were produced for the king, according to Professor Shin.
The 30 volumes that are the single existing copies had been digitally recorded in 2005, for the French and Korean governments. Since there was no guarantee of the books’ return at that time, Korean scholars were eager to study the materials, even in electronic images. Now that the books are back home, they can be closely examined firsthand for subtle details, such as the quality of the paper, covers, and paint. “Naturally, the actual books provide more information than the photographed images. The royal protocols need to be studied from a more comprehensive perspective, taking note of factors aside from the content, such as the material and quality of the paper, descriptive styles, and paint,” said Professor Shin.
Overall, the returned royal protocols are of immeasurable academic value and will contribute much to academic research in history and bibliography, as well as Korean costume and art history. Nearly all the books, excluding 12 volumes (seven titles), have had their covers repaired. It is presumed that the covers were damaged by fire or water, before or during their transport to France, and were later mended. Therefore, the 12 volumes preserved in their original form have an even greater significance as reference materials.
Aside from the initial volume returned in 1993, the Joseon royal protocols were transported to Korea in four sets. After a fierce competition between Asiana Airlines and Korean Air, the two airlines took turns flying the books home. Upon arrival, the books were immediately placed in storage at the National Museum of Korea in Seoul.
Events to celebrate the return of the royal protocols were held on Ganghwa Island and in Seoul on June 11. That morning, a procession of some 500 people, including island residents, made their way from the South Gate of Ganghwa Mountain Fortress to the original site of the Oegyujanggak archives. The procession reenactment was based on “The Daily Records of the Cabinet” (Naegak illyeok), the journal housed at Gyujanggak, which recorded the relocation of the materials from Gyujanggak in Seoul to Oegyujanggak on Ganghwa Island in 1783. A solemn ancestral rite to announce the books’ return to the kings of Joseon was also held, along with related commemorative events.
The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism has formed a research team of related scholars and specialists that plans to conduct an academic symposium in December 2012. By 2013, the royal protocols returned from France will be compiled into a digital database. Electronic versions of the 30 volumes that are the sole extant copies will be made available online later this year.