In the first of three articles, Matthew Jackson looks at the ways that the official history of the Joseon dynasty was written.
At most Korean events I have been to, there has generally been a Korean studiously taking photographs throughout, for reasons that were not immediately obvious to me. I once asked, and was told simply that it was important to record the event.
The importance of documenting the present for future generations is something that runs deep in Korean culture. The Joseon dynasty (1392-1910) saw the introduction of three monumental forms of official documentation – the Sillok (실록), the Diaries of the Royal Secretariat, and the Uigwe (의궤).
The Sillok (literally “true and complete record”) were the royal annals of the Joseon period (1392~1910). Bringing together 472 years of history in a total of 1,893 volumes – from the first ruler, King Taejo, to the 25th, King Choljong – they are the world’s most extensive record of a single dynasty.
The Sillok contained literally every event of a king’s reign. King Taejong once fell from his horse during a hunting expedition. Embarrassed, looking to his left and right, he commanded, Do not let the historian find out about this. The historian accompanying the hunting party, however, record even these words in the annals, in addition to a description of the king’s fall.
Only young, competent and upstanding officials, who had passed the state literary examination with merit, were appointed to be court historians. Unlike many government ministers, they had ‘clearance’ to attend every meeting involving the King. They were granted full immunity, as their office was to record events plainly and objectively.
King Sejong once requested to see the annals covering his father’s reign. He was refused on the grounds that it would set a bad precedent, and future historians would be less candid if they believed that their work would be examined by the king himself. Sejong withdrew his request, and subsequent monarchs followed his example.
Four printed copies of the final Sillok were made, and kept in the capital Seoul, and Songju, Chongju and Chonju, to ensure their survival. During the Imjin War (1592-1598), three of the archives were burned by the Japanese. The remaining copy was moved to a remote hermitage directly before a planned Japanese raid.
To improve access to the vast collection further, the annals of Joseon were published in CD-ROM format for the first time in 1995. Since 2005, both the original and the translated version have been available online.
The aim of ensuring an accurate record of history was to enable future generations to benefit from the lessons of the past. The knowledge that their words and deeds would be documented in such a detailed manner, and judged by posterity, made kings fearful of history and served as a mechanism to curb tyrannical tendencies.
The Joseon wangjo sillok (Annals of the Joseon Dynasty) is National Treasure #151.