(61) ‘Sungjongwon Diary’ Posted as National Treasure

By Yang Sung-jin

“Sungjongwon Diary,” a 3,245-volume record of the Royal Secretariat of the Choson Kingdom, has been designated as National Treasure No. 303, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism said last Friday.

The diary, now preserved at Seoul National University, is a treasure trove of various government-issued orders and classified documents on major historical incidents.

The diary’s contents include state affairs and various court rituals, all of which were recorded meticulously on a daily basis. Thanks to the comprehensive coverage, the diary was used as one of the sources for “The Annals of the Choson Dynasty.”

“Sungjongwon Diary,” however, does not cover the entire period of the Choson Kingdom (1392-1910). A considerable number of documents were lost to war and fires. Though the available version chronicles only a 288-year stretch between 1623 and 1910, the diary deserves the honor of National Treasure status.

Sungjongwon (Royal Secretariat), an organ through which documents were transmitted to and from the king, played a pivotal role in government throughout the Choson period.

Certain kings amplified the power of Sungjongwon in an attempt to tighten their grip on national affairs, so the actual status and influence of Sungjongwon varied from reign to reign.

Sungjongwon was founded as an independent agency in 1400 during the reign of King Chongjong. Six chief secretaries of third grade or higher served at the agency, which had a staff of 30 low-ranking officials.

No doubt, the central function of Sungjongwon was to deliver the message of the king, rapidly and accurately, to the parties involved. When it failed to serve as an efficient communicator, it is easy to imagine how the Choson kings must have felt.

Royal Communicator

On June 8, 1440, Sungjongwon filed a report to King Sejong via a messenger named Chon Kyun, who would have been expected to deliver the report promptly. For whatever reason, the eunuch ventured to report to the king verbally without bringing the documents from Sungjongwon.

King Sejong, apparently puzzled by the unusual process of delivery from Sungjongwon, grilled the lazy eunuch on the reason. Chon remained tight-lipped and the king duly ordered his officials to arrest him.

Among other functions of Sungjongwon was to receive a wide range of appeals from officials.

On Sept. 9, 1440, an official named Huh Pi was transferred to a different department. He filed an appeal to Sungjongwon, complaining that he had not received the government stipend due to the transfer.

Sungjongwon immediately reported the case to King Sejong. After reviewing the case, the king said that although Huh should be paid, trivial reports to the king were a waste of his time.

“Sungjongwon should deal with all cases involving delayed or missed payments due to transfer instead of reporting each and every one of them to me,” the king said.

In mid-1443, King Sejong’s health deteriorated. To alleviate his burden, King Sejong relegated a considerable portion of state affairs to Sungjongwon, where the Crown Prince worked with other high-ranking officials on behalf of the ailing king.

Officials Ha Yon, Hwang Po-in and Kwon Che entered the court and urged the king to streamline the process of handling state affairs by at least reviewing the most urgent reports from the Crown Prince and Sungjongwon.

“Certainly I have the desire to do what you request, but my health is worsening day by day, which is the heaven’s will. Therefore, the Crown Prince should learn how to handle various state affairs for the next two or three years at Sungjongwon,” King Sejong said.

In the same year, the king refined the process by which Sungjongwon handled classified government information. “In terms of statements and orders issued by the government, all the materials involving the classified activities of the court should be handed over to Sungjongwon officials in sealed envelopes.

Classified Information Stops Here

As King Sejong’s health showed no signs of improving, Sungjongwon called for the king to begin to drink wine for medical purposes in May of 1445. “In recent days, Your Majesty has become too worried about the drought, for this reason refusing to drink wine. For health purposes, wine is essential,” Sungjongwon told the king, ultimately in vain.

In January of 1495, Sungjongwon was worried about the health of Yonsangun, the 10th monarch of Choson who was notorious for his ruthless tyranny.

Sungjongwon said, “Since Your Majesty has had the urge to relieve himself more often than usual, royal doctors are said to have offered a prescription. Instead of medicine, a fur patch on your clothes would be more effective in warming the lower party of the body.”

The king replied that he had tried goat’s hide in his underwear and found the method effective.

In 1469, King Yejong used the extensive communication channel provided by Sungjongwon to call for a campaign to use domestic products rather than imported goods: “Instead of Chinese imports, goods easily available here should be used for funeral rituals from now on.”

In 1509, a high-ranking official suddenly resigned in a show of his deep displeasure with the way pressing issues were being handled in the government hierarchy.

The disruptive scandal stirred up the court and “Sungjongwon Diary” was used as objective evidence to end the squabbling among the parties involved.

In 1592, King Chungjong turned to the diary as a quick reference for the detailed steps needed to deal with those hit by drought, as recorded by King Songjong.

But the precious reference book was entirely destroyed in a fire in 1592, when the nation was invaded by the Japanese. The following year, the Choson government subsequently undertook the massive task of restoring the lost materials.

They succeeded, but unfortunately, on Oct. 12, 1744, an enormous fire flared up at Changdok Palace at midnight, reducing all the restored editions of Sungjongwon Diary to ashes.

Sungjongwon building suffered another fire in 1888. But whenever disastrous fire accidents occurred, the Choson kings and officials lost no time beginning the repair work needed to preserve the historical records for posterity.

That is why last week’s designation of “Sungjongwon Diary” as a National Treasure is something to celebrate, however belated an honor it may be.