Seduced by Yi Seong-gye: the first volumes in the Sillok are translated

by Philip Gowman on 18 October, 2014 updated 25 February, 2018

in Book Reviews | History Books | Joseon Dynasty

Annals of Taejo - coverThe Annals of King T’aejo, Found of Korea’s Choson Dynasty
Translated and annotated by Choi Byonghyon
Harvard University Press, 2014, 1,028 pp
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I wandered into the University bookshop last night for a browse. I’d just been to see Andrew Killick talk about Hwang Byungki at SOAS, and thought I might try to pick up his book. They didn’t have it, but I ended up in the Asian history section looking through the spines to see what was new.

My eyes could not miss the biggest book in the Korean section. Initially I ignored it – it was far too big and intimidating – but as most of the other titles were either familiar or of little interest I absent-mindedly reached for it and sat down in one of the comfy armchairs. It was a translation of the Annals of King T’aejo.

I opened the book at random.

Book VI. Third year of the reign. 11th month. 8th Day (Kapchin)

There was fog

Hmm. Not too riveting.

There’s no entry entry for the 9th day, and on the 11th day (Chongmi) the entry reads

The trees were covered with hoar frost

Picturesque, but a bit mundane. But in between, on the 10th Day (Pyongo), we learn “that the crown prince held a banquet in his residence for the members of the royal family and high officials.” Good, they had something to eat. And then:

The king visited the Yongsan River and inspected the lumber used in building the Royal Ancestral Shrine.

There’s a helpful footnote to explain that the Yongsan River is a section of the Han River in the modern Mapo-gu area. But hang on. This is the Jongmyo Shrine being built. The king is doing some quality control. And this is a contemporary text that gives a (nearly) day-by-day account of the first years of the Joseon Dynasty, in which customs and institutions were established which lasted into the 20th century and beyond.

The penny suddenly dropped. This book is a translation of the first 15 volumes of the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty, listed in the UNESCO Memory of the World register, and designated as National Treasure #151.

Part of the original Annals of the Joseon Dynasty

Part of the original Annals of the Joseon Dynasty (the Sillok) (photo: Joongang Daily)

Another page opens at random. A senior official is given two jobs, big ones, and tries to refuse. “Left Chancellor Cho Chun declined to accept the fief of Pyongyang and the post of comander-in-chief of Kyonggi Province by submitting a memorial.” We then get the memorial itself, in full. All ten pages of it, in which Mr Cho argues at great length why he should not have to take up his new responsibilities. The memorial is a wonderful demonstration of early Joseon dynasty rhetoric, bringing in history, the examples of ancient Chinese sages, pleas, flattery and more before a final peroration that if the king gives him a break, “I will exert myself to the utmost to repay your life-saving virtue and benevolence bestowed upon me.” The memorial deserves to be read and re-read. How could the king refuse? But after 10 pages of moving oratory, how does the king react? With a dismissive one-liner: “The king denied the request, sending down his royal decree.” Brutal. Just do what you’re told.

I was beginning to get hooked.

Another random page, two pages before the end. A proposal from a government agency.

Cloth, which is a commodity currency, is the product of the people’s labour. People, however, are using fine ramie cloth to make flowers and decorations for public and private banquets and throw them away once they have used them in that way because they become good for nothing after those occasions. Hereafter, except on the occasions of royal presentations or entertaining Chinese enoys, the flowers made of cloth should be subsititued by seasonal flowers or colorful paper flowers.

Why did that catch my eye? Because I just had to do a bit of reading up on the practice of ramie-weaving in connection with a recent craft exhibition in London. And over the page, a Japanese envoy asks for a copy of the Tripitaka Koreana to take home with him. A fascinating little snippet, of which there seemed to be at least one on every page.

So the book can generate endless random and fascinating facts to ensnare the interested reader. How about its use as a research tool?

It so happens that as of now I’m trying to get as much information about the Sajik Daeje (the rites to honour the gods of Land and Grain) as possible, and there’s not a great deal of information in English online. As the Sajik altar was built in King Taejo’s time, I thought it worth browsing the comprehensive index to see what I could find.

There was nothing under Sajik or Sajikdan, but plenty under Altar of Earth and Grain. The first entry:

The king sent officials to Hanyang in order to choose the sites of the Royal Ancestral Shrine, the Altars of Earth and Grain, the royal palace, and the markets and roads.

This was in the Autumn of 1394, two years after Taejo came to the throne. Four years later, Taejo abdicated in favour of his son. And the first proclamation of the second king of the Joseon dynasty, Jeongjong, contains as its very first measure:

The sacrifices to the Royal Ancestral Shrine and the Altar of Land and Grain shall be offered with sincerity and respect. The foods and sacrificial vessels on the table shall be clean, and invocations and rituals appropriate so that there may be no disrespect at all.

Two entries among many which testify to the central importance of the Sajik rituals in the early Joseon dynasty. Strangely, the second occurrence quoted above does not appear in the index – so maybe the index should not be fully relied upon. But this should not detract too much from the use of this volume as a research tool, and will not worry the general reader in the least.

Yi Seonggye

I do not need the Annals of King T’aejo. I do not have the six centimetres of shelf space required to store it. But it spoke to me, and I had to buy it. It is a treasure trove.

Here’s hoping the translation project is extended to cover some of the other reigns. There is in fact a target to have the whole Sillok translated by 2033. Overall the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty extends to 1,893 volumes, so that means I’ve got to find 7.5 metres of shelf space by then.

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