Readers Can Journey Through 500 Years of Choson Dynasty’s Virtual Wonderland

By Yang Sung-jin

Question: When was an elephant imported to Korea for the first time according to historical documents?

Answer: In the year 1411, during the early Choson period.

Question: What other information is there on the first elephant?

Answer: According to “The Annals of the Choson Dynasty,” a Japanese king sent an elephant in 1441 to King Taejong, who ordered it to be sent to a government department to be taken care of. One day, a government official named Yi Woo visited the site where the elephant was fed by the government employees. Yi thought it was a very strange animal. So he yelled and spat at the elephant. The animal got angry and trampled him to death. After this incident, the Minister of National Defense officially made a request that the animal be exiled, which King Taejong granted. So the first elephant in Korea went into exile on an island in Cholla-do and lived there for six months.

Question: Is there more information?

Answer: Over a time period spanning the next 10 years, there are 12
related articles.

Question: How long will it take to find all the articles and retrieve them?

Answer: About five minutes, at maximum.

This is not a joke, of course. This information was retrieved by Kim Hyeon, director of the Korean Study Database Research Institute (KSDRI), a research department of the Seoul Systems Co. Ltd. (SCC), the developer of the CD-ROM “The Annals of the Choson Dynasty.”

“I found this story by using the search function of the CD-ROM of the Annals — just by putting in the word ‘elephant’ and typing in a few simple questions. All articles about elephants from the Annals were called up in a few seconds and I was fascinated by the story. I think this example tells us what we can do with a computerized database of historical records,” Kim said in an interview with The Korea Times.

“The Annals of the Choson Dynasty” is said to be one of the most important items of cultural and historical heritage, not only for the Korean people but also for humankind as a whole.

One illuminating piece of evidence of this is that UNESCO, the Paris-based United Nations organization, decided to include the Annals on the list of “Memory of the World” last year in honor of its universal value as a piece of world cultural heritage.

In addition, there is nothing in the world which can equal the Annals since it is the one and only set of documents dealing with such a long historical time-period in a single chronicle.

Understandably, the value of the Annals lies in its all-embracing, historical records of the Choson Dynasty spanning 472 years (1392-1863) in which the reigns of 25 kings from King Taejo (1392-1863) to King Cheoljong (1849-1863) are melted into 1,893 volumes written in Chinese characters.

The process of how the Annals were made is helpful to understanding the real potential behind the astounding amount of information. Only after a king left the throne, the task of collecting all kinds of government documents and reports got underway, with the purpose of producing a just and impartial historical record.

Even the all mighty king was not allowed to read the Annals about himself, a system designed to prevent the king from wrongly tailoring the record to his own advantage.

The government officials appointed to piecing together relevant information for the Annals were the top-notch intellectuals of the time. Moreover, the compilation of the Annals was one of the most important government projects.

As a result, the Annals are a fair, well written kaleidoscope of the Choson Dynasty.

But the prism through which the vast historical information can be scanned was not readily available since the books were written in Chinese characters — 53,000,000 of them.

“There are only two complete sets of the Annals now, one in North Korea and the other in South Korea. Ironically, North Korea first started translating the Annals. It was only in 1968 when South Korean scholars followed suit,” Kim explained.

But the result of the 26-year-long translation of the Annals, though commendable in every sense, was not accessible to the general public.

For the 413 volumes are arranged in chronological order and not very user-friendly for efficient research.

That is why the CD-ROM version of the Annals was conceived after the translation, involving 3,000 professional scholars, was completed in late 1993.

Since then, numerous computer technicians and scholars across the nation joined the project until the initial version came out in October 1995. In the process, more than 800,000 A4-sized manuscripts were proof-read and corrected. As many as 200 researchers spent about one year in making the entries for the mind-boggling 362,161 articles. In total, exactly 198,246,365 Korean letters are stored in the three CD-ROMs.

Yet before the ground-breaking techno-historical product was completed, there was a lot of brain-wracking, hard work and pain, Kim said.

For instance, how to deal with the almost endless number of fonts of the Chinese characters in the Annals was a cause for headache. In order to display all the Chinese characters in the original, the SSC team developed a special set of fonts numbering 17,367 characters.

The reward, however, was as great as the undertaking.

James B. Lewis, Korean studies professor at Oxford University sent a letter to director Kim concerning the CD-ROM Annals. In the letter, James said that he had an occasion to visit his colleague in Japan, who studied late Choson economic history. James collected all the related materials on a particular law through the CD-ROM and put the records on two floppy diskettes.

As James gave the diskettes to his friend and explained the contents, the friend “stood there looking at the diskettes; he became exited, laughing and almost crying at the same time.”

It turned out that it took James only three hours to do the same work his friend spent three years on.

The question is, why does the Choson Dynasty matter so much?

“Even one small social system mentioned in the Annals, in fact, embraces the previous generations’ ideas. And the foremost reason for studying the Annals is that it contains all human affairs imaginable,” said Lee Nam-hee, senior researcher in KSDRI.

“Introducing the Annals to foreigners through English articles is very important, especially when it comes to the students interested in Korean studies abroad. One foreign professor teaching Koreanology told me that the Annals plays the most powerful role in satisfying the students and eventually leads them to pursue Korean studies,” Kim said.

“In fact, a lot of foreign scholars asked us whether we would make an English version. As you know, it’s almost impossible,” Kim added.

Senior Researcher Lee said, “The latest stories in the Annals happened only 100 years ago. More important, the stories are not only about our forefathers, but also ourselves because the Annals is the mirror showing where we are now and where we are headed for.”

For a more enjoyable journey into the Choson Dynasty’s virtual wonderland, the upcoming articles of the series will deal with thematic topics based upon the in-depth research data provided by the SSC staff.

Enjoy the ride!