Making History Part 3 – Uigwe

A Royal Procession UigweBy Matthew Jackson

It occasioned the UNESCO inspectors no little surprise when they came to inspect the restoration of the Hwaseong fortress, in order to verify its resemblance to the original complex. They were shown an exhaustive eight volume report documenting its original construction, prepared at the time it was built around two hundred years before.

Uigwe (의궤) were books which documented events of national significance both visually and textually. Since it was customary to follow the precedents set by previous kings when events of national importance (i.e. involving the royal family) were held, the procedures were documented comprehensively in Uigwe in order to serve as a guide for future generations. Uigwe is a combination of the two words uisik (ceremony) and gwebum (example). In addition to royal weddings, palace banquets, investitures, coronations, funerals and ancestral rites, Uigwe were also compiled for the publication of important works of literature, such as the Sillok, and also the construction of palaces and fortresses.

What is perhaps unusual about the Uigwe compared to similar records kept in other countries is the sheer level of detail. In the case of a wedding, for example, not only the order of events and the participants were recorded, but also their personal attributes, and even the size, color, and constituent parts of the items used in the ceremony, with accompanying illustrations.

Records which concerned the building of palaces and fortifications included a description of the building’s location, its structure and layout, the materials used in the building process, the budgeted and actual expenditures of the project, and the daily progress of the construction work.

Such a level of detail might well seem bizarre, but it did serve functions we would today regard as practical. In recording the names of even the servants and common labourers, it instilled a sense of pride and responsibility in all who contributed. The careful record of finances performed a function similar to today’s independent auditors, thus guarding against corruption. The third advantage was that it enabled buildings damaged through fire or occupation to be restored to their original form exactly.

Since even the materials used to make the paintings are recorded, the value of the Uigwe as a source for scholars of court tradition, traditional music, architecture, and currency, is enormous.

The restored buildings of Hwaseong fortress, a jewel in the crown of Korea’s architectural heritage which had been reduced to ruins during the Korean war, had been built in reference to Uigwe 1970’s. The inspectors were able to give their wholehearted approval to the admission of the new Hwaseong complex to the ‘World Heritage’ register.

Above right: Detail from an eight-paneled Uigwe screen entitled “Royal Procession to the Ancestral Tomb in Hwaseong” 18th century, color on silk, H 142.0cm W 62.0cm, Samsung Museum of Art.

An illustration from the Hwaseong Uigwe
An illustration from the Hwaseong Uigwe

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