After a decade of research and a century overseas, Oegyujanggak Uigwe is open to public
It’s been 11 years since the 297 volumes of Oegyujanggak Uigwe, books that detail the protocols for various state rites of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) in text and drawings, returned to their country of origin, after being away for 145 years, and now they will be revealed to the public as a special exhibition.
According to the museum, the exhibit “Pinnacle of Propriety: The Uigwe, Records of the State Rites of the Joseon Dynasty,” which kicks off on Tuesday, attempts to show visitors the fruits of the past decade of research on the returned Uigwe so that the public can better understand the important national treasure.
In 1866, French troops took the royal books from the royal archive called Oegyujanggak, located on Ganghwa Island in Incheon, during the French invasion of Korea. Korea found out that the looted royal books were in the French library in 1977 when they were discovered by late Korean-born French scholar Park Byeng-sen.
While Park was working at the French national library, she came across the royal books in the library’s collection and prompted a campaign in Korea for the books’ return.
When all 297 volumes of the royal Oegyujanggak Uigwe books returned in 2011, Park received a national medal from the Korean government that September. She passed away two months later, on Nov. 23, 2011.
Park was also the one who discovered Korea’s Jikjisimcheyojeol, the world’s oldest metal printing type, at the French national library when she worked as a librarian there in 1972.
There are 2,940 volumes of Uigwe, which was added on Unesco’s Memory of the World register in 2011. Uigwe is largely divided into two types — one on burials and the other on offerings for kings. The Uigwe for kings’ offerings are known as Oegyujanggak Uigwe, as they get stored in the royal archive called Oegyujanggak, and these are the ones that got taken by the French.
Historians say the Uigwe books represent a culture of documentation in ancient Korea. The books even include the names of the commoner craftsmen who took part in the rites and ceremonies, despite Joseon being a strict hierarchical society. The drawings are equally detailed, requiring a magnifying glass to capture the ornament details on a horse’s carriage, for example.
The museum exhibit looks into the great value of the Uigwe books that were created for the king. After a state ritual, the entire procedure was recorded as texts and drawings, but only in one copy, made of the finest materials and bound with great care by the best artisans, to be presented for the king for review. After the king reviewed it, it was kept in the Oegyujanggak.
Visitors can also observe the finest details and vivid illustrations on different pages of Uigwe for themselves.
“It’s amazing to see how the colors used in the illustrations remain practically as vivid as the day they were first completed,” said Lim Hye-kyung, curator of the exhibit, pointing to the illustrations of the royal procession, known as banchado, and the illustrations detailing the items used for the ceremony, doseol, on one of the Uigwe books.
According to Lim, visitors may be shocked to see the complicated formalities for important events that were carried out during the Joseon Dynasty.
“It wasn’t just a boring manual to make the people serve the king, but an ideology that the Joseon kings pursued,” she said. “In a broader sense, Joseon pursued the order that could be established when all members voluntarily followed propriety and the social stability that came with that order.”
The exhibit displays all 297 Oegyujanggak Uigwe books that returned home 11 years ago. Ironically, however, Korea still is not the legal owner of this important cultural property. In 2011, France returned them as a lease; therefore, France still technically owns the books, and Korea has to renew the contract every five years. France still has about 3,000 cultural properties of Korea under its possession.
The museum said it “wishes not to discuss the leasing issue or discuss whether Korea can ever get back its ownership at this moment,” as it “wants to focus on the outcome of the research at the special exhibit.”
The museum added different lectures and forums will be held next January, and the issue may be discussed then. To commemorate the late Park’s death and her contribution in bringing the Uigwe back to Korea, the museum also decided to open up the exhibit for free from Nov. 21 to 27. An online version of Oegyujanggak Uigwe can be viewed at www.museum.go.kr/uigwe/
The exhibit runs until March 19 at the museum’s Special Exhibit Gallery on the ground floor. Tickets cost 5,000 won ($3.50).
BY YIM SEUNG-HYE [email@example.com]