By Matthew Jackson
After the invasion of Kanghwa Island in 1886, a French navy officer remarked that he was surprised to find that even the poorest Koreans he met lived in companionship with books. There was a strong culture of writing as well as reading in Korea, particularly following the adoption of Hangul. It was customary for scholars to publish monographs and anthologies containing their own reflections and compositions, and many of these diverse historical documents and writings have survived from the time of Choson dynasty. A rich and vast legacy of literary works was written and passed down to subsequent generations.
Monumental works of literary heritage, such as the Diaries of the Royal Secretariat, represented, rather than constituted, this literary culture. The Diaries of the Royal Secretariat refer to the records kept by the Sungjongwon (승정원), or Secretariat to the King, in the Choson period (1392~1910). Only the last 288 years have survived (1623~1910), but despite the loss of these earlier volumes, the Diaries are the world’s most voluminous chronological record in history – at 3,245 volumes, they are five times larger than the Sillok.
The Royal Secretariat, or Sungjongwon, was responsible for communicating royal commands and instructions to the relevant government departments and local officials throughout the country. The Secretariat also relayed to the king reports intended for his attention, submissions made by ministers and so on. The Secretariat also engaged extensively in the administration of the state, including the preparation of receptions for foreign envoys, as well as ceremonies such as the royal ancestral rites. A month of entries recorded on a daily basis were compiled and presented to the king for his approval before the 20th of every month, after which the record was stored in the office of the Royal Secretariat.
Since they were based mainly on the reports of the members of the Secretariat, who served as aides to the king, the Diaries did not cover everything. Episodes unrelated to the king, or which took place in other areas of the kingdom, are better documented in the Sillok. For example, we find a more detailed account of the crown prince’s admission to school on 11th March in the Sunjo Sillok than in the Diaries. Descriptions of natural disasters which affected the whole country, such as floods and earthquakes, are much more detailed in the Sillok, which incorporated extensive reports from each of the local governments. Consequently, the value of the Diaries as a historical source is greatly enhanced if it is read in conjunction with the Sillok.
The Diaries also made a careful record of the weather, with entries such as “morning rain, evening clear,” and “morning sunny, afternoon cloudy,” appearing daily for 288 years. Whenever there was rainfall, the amount of precipitation was measured using a rain gauge and carefully recorded. It has been remarked that the weather observations contained in the Diaries could by themselves contribute greatly to an understanding of meteorology from 17th century to the early 20th century.
The Seungjeongwon ilgi (the Diaries of the Royal Secretariat) are National Treasure #303.