(1) ‘Sagwan’ Showcased Best of Penetrating Journalism

By Yang Sung-jin

There were no journalism textbooks, no state-of-the-art tape recorders and no style guide. Yet, they did an amazing job of reporting, which is now regarded as a masterpiece. Even editors of today’s top-notch newspapers may well envy the accuracy and fairness of the reports, not to mention the much-honored privilege of the reporters involved.

They are “sagwan,” or historiographers of the Choson Dynasty, who made the “Annals of the Choson Dynasty,” chronicles embracing the 472-year-long Hermit Kingdom with unparalleled detail and sense of history.

But why is it that sagwan were given such a powerful right to peep into every nook and cranny of the Choson Dynasty? Or, why did the Choson Dynasty’s rulers undertake such a time-consuming work with so much passion in the first place?

“In the earlier Choson Dynasty, the government published a relatively large number of historical documents. What scholars speculate about the flood of the government-led history books is that right after overthrowing the Koryo Dynasty (918-1392), the elite strongly felt the need to justify their rule.

The creation of the `Annals of the Choson Dynasty’ can be viewed under this historical context,” said Lee Nam-hee, senior researcher of the Seoul Systems Co. (SSC), the developer of the CD-ROM version of the Annals.

But the deeper, underlying reason for the compilation of the large-scale Annals is the widespread belief that the historical-recording serves to set an example for the following generations while checking the rulers of the day through close observation and monitoring.

The CD-ROM Annals of the Choson Dynasty provides a pertinent episode suggesting the role of sagwan as today’s sharp-eyed reporters: In 1401, King Taejong went on a hunting trip but was irritated to find a sagwan in the hunting excursion. The king asked a high-ranking official why the sagwan followed him even to a site unrelated to state affairs.

The official answered, “the king’s acts are essential to what the sagwan records. And nobody can dare to check a king from falling for laziness and indiscretion. Therefore, what the king duly should fear are only death and the pen of the sagwan.

“The heaven, though intangible, rewards good behavior, punishes the bad. The pen of history leaves nothing untold whether it’s good or bad. The indelible record is to be read by our descendents, which is why we fear history most,” the official said. Following this event, King Taejong, who had disregarded the sagwan, was much more careful about how he acted.

Though the spirit of recording history was strong in the earlier Choson Dynasty, the systematic process for compiling the Annals had yet to be made.

At the heart of the systematic backup comes from a government’s organization, whose role slowly shaped as time went by. “When a king dies or is dethroned, the incoming king set up a committee in charge of publishing the Annals of the previous reign. And then, sagwans and related government officials, deemed as the best writers of the time, started working on the Annals,” Lee said.

The special committee, launched whenever the need to publish Annals arose, was called “Sillockchong.” But this does not mean that sagwans worked only during specific periods designated for generating the Annals — they worked all the time.

Unlike the on-and-off Sillochong, what occupied a permanent spot in the government’s organization is Chunchukwan (Office for Annals Compilation). Established in 1401, Chunchukwan collected various
historical documents and records when it was not in charge of compiling the Annals. Then, if the Annals-making started, Chunchukwan, in concert with Sillockchong, took the lead, supplying necessary manpower and logistics.

More important, the Chunchukwan was the place where the sagwans — eight full-time and about 80 other chroniclers were added if the Sillockchung was set up — dipped their pens into every subject while collecting and classifying the necessary information.

The Sagwan’s status in the government hierarchy was not that high, but the quality of the sagwan as a historiographer was second to none.

Even from the beginning of the Choson Dynasty, laws were enacted concerning the selection of sagwans. The initial conditions and requirements for the sagwan were very strict. Those who applied for the job needed a mastery of the Chinese classics and history, not to mention excellent writing skills. In addition, the family background of the applicants were thoroughly reviewed in an effort to divert any involvement with factional strife.

But that was not the end of the complicated process for selecting sagwans. The king himself should be consulted about the specific sagwan that were recommended by related officials. The highly prudent selection process testifies to the emphasis placed upon the role of sagwan, and the confidentiality (thereby, fairness and neutrality) of the Annals.

The confidentiality of the Annals was crucial, especially concerning the incumbent king and officials, whose conduct was closely recorded by the sagwans.

As is human nature, nobody wants their misconduct to be recorded in the history books. Therefore, there was a consensus that the related persons including the almighty king were strictly banned from reading the Annals about themselves, and even the first draft and basic materials were classified as confidential. If not, the correct and fair history would be arbitrarily forged and edited by the king drawing his unchallenged authority, which opposed the fundamental idea of recording history as it truly was.

But as is human nature again, the kings fervently yearned to get a peek at the historical documents about themselves. King Sejong, widely regarded as one of the best rulers during the Choson Dynasty, was no exception.

The CD-ROM Annals reveals an incident, dated March 20, 1431, showing King Sejong’s desire to read the Annals. “As Chunchukwan completed the Tajong Sillock [Annals of Sejong’s father], I desire to read it,” King Sejong said.

One of the highest-ranking officials, Mang Sa-song, said, “If Your Majesty reads it, future kings will do the same and change the records. Meanwhile, the sagwan also will not record what really happened fearing the king will read it, all of which will block the truth from being written down as it is.” King Sejong agreed with Mang’s remark, and since then, no king ever read or touched the Annals throughout the reign of the Dynasty. In short, the Annals were sacred.

“The fact that there were four copies of the Annals demonstrates how much the Choson people cared about the Annals. More importantly, they made the type printing only for the four copies, which is also evidence of the Annals’ significance at that time,” the SSC’s senior researcher Lee explained.

The CD-ROM Annals shows that during the King Sejong’s reign, it was decided that the four copies of the completed Annals were to be stored in four different places: one in Chunchukwan, and three other copies in Chungju, Chonju and Sungju, in an effort to prevent the Annals from being impaired by unexpected accidents.

Considering that sagwans were conferred absolute autonomy as reporters, it seems likely that some ill-willed sagwans would abuse their power. But that kind of abuse never happened, Lee said. “Choson scholars, especially sagwans had a strong sense of honor. It was not a high-ranking position, but the post of sagwan was regarded as the highest honor to the entire family. And surely, they retained the idealism about being clean and fair in doing such a public work,” she said.

Indeed, Choson scholar’s idealism involved in the Annals contributed to a remarkably accurate reporting of the society. But that was not the only factor. There were a lot of other systematic mechanisms protecting the process, as well. One of them is “saecho,” a process of deleting all the other drafts except for the final.

The 80-something sagwans had to choose which items should be dealt with and which ones should be excluded. Therefore, it was likely that once the decision was made, no more controversies were welcome. To that end, the practice of saecho (meaning washing the draft in Chinese characters) was adopted in order to prevent any controversy from flaring up later. But saecho was a peculiar act. The scripts were actually washed and dried in the river.

“Saecho was possible because at that time the paper was soaked with oil, and if it was washed, the paper could be used again,” Lee explained. Also the paper itself was a precious material, so the saecho process was an energy-saving measure, she added.

“The sagwan system and the Annals played the role of a check and balance for the power structure of the Choson Dynasty. What matters most here is that the Annals symbolize the relentless historical judgement on one’s behavior. The sense that your present acts will be judged by historians, and the atmosphere in which sagwans faithfully acted as candid reporters, therefore, were the driving force of the 500 years of history,” Lee said.

There is a striking passage in the CD-ROM Annals revealing how closely, and “faithfully” the sagwan reported nearly everything concerning the king and state affairs: in 1404, King Taejong, a perennial hunter, tripped and fell off his horse while chasing after a deer. The embarrassed king ordered the officials nearby, “Don’t let the sagwan know about this.”

All of which are now safely recorded in the Annals, including the king’s desperate order.

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!

Old Dynasty’s Tales Available in English

By Yang Sung-jin

It takes at least four years and three months to read the entire Korean text of the “Choson Wangjo Sillok,” the Annals of the Choson Kingdom (1392-1910). That is, only if the reader has the incredible ability of scanning through 100 pages a day.

But now, all the reader needs to do is click on the mouse. A CD-ROM title, “The Annals of the Choson Dynasty,” now brings all sorts of information from the 500-year-long dynasty’s unprecedented historical record to the reader’s fingertips.

In an effort to promote a deeper understanding of Korean history and culture, The Korea Times today begins a weekly series of thematic articles based upon the CD-ROM of “The Annals of the Choson Dynasty.” With the support of the Seoul Systems Co. Ltd. (SSC), which developed and regularly updates the CD-ROM, The Korea Times will use the computer technology to its fullest extent by conducting keyword searches of the entire 1,893-volume record. Such a research technique would have been impossible before.

The series is aimed at providing useful and interesting information about Choson, the longest-running dynasty in world history, to foreign scholars as well as to ordinary readers. It will not simply be a chronological translation of the annals, but an eye-catching collection of facts and anecdotes little known or totally kept in the dark, away from the public’e eye. Everything from how criminals were punished to how elephants and camels first came to the country will be explored in the weeks to come.

The Korea Times series is the very first time the Choson Annals is translated into English. As such, it will become an invaluable tool for foreign Korean studies scholars and an illuminating text for others interested in the old past of the country.

The original text of “The Annals of the Choson Dynasty” (Choson Wangjo Sillok in Korean) covers 27 kings from 1392 to 1910, in which all kinds of information including the innermost political situations as well as the everyday life styles of the general public, are meticulously recorded with masterful accuracy in the form of countless piles of data.

Unfortunately, the original text of the annals, written in Chinese characters, is hard to read, much less understand correctly. Worse, the sheer amount of the volumes — 1,893 in its original Chinese characters — is overwhelming.

To make the one of the most important cultural, historical treasures of Korea available to the Korean studies scholars, both at home and abroad, the task of the translation started in 1968 by the King Sejong the Great Memorial Society.

The translation work went into full swing as the National Culture Promotion Foundation joined the project in 1972.

The fruit of the efforts came to the light only in late 1993 after as many as 3,000 professional scholars had worked on the time-consuming translations and corrections.

But even the Korean version, composed of an astounding 413 volumes, is nothing less than a lifetime’s worth of reading. Worse, the large space to accommodate the whole collection and its high price have made even universities hesitate to buy the annals.

To resolve the dilemma, Culture-Sports Ministry and the two organizations involved during the 26 years of translation agreed in early 1994 to push ahead with the digitalization of the annals into three CD-ROMs, whose job was assigned to the SCC and the Korean Study Database Research Institute.

The CD-ROM version was completed in October 1995. In the process, over 300 people were hired in typing the Korean manuscripts into the computer database alone. In addition, some 200 professional researchers and scholars in the field of Korean history helped with the tedious corrections and classification. Also, 70 staffs of SSC worked full time during the digitalization process in order to collect related materials and develop necessary computer programs.

Moreover, the CD-ROM version was upgraded in November last year. As a result, the search engine and the classification functions are better suited to meet the demands of the user.

“What we need is not the language interpreter. We need a cultural interpreter who knows and understands the Korean culture and tradition. We believe `The Korea Times’ will greatly help produce the much-needed cultural interpreters through this weekly series,” said Kim Hyeon, director of Korean Studies Database Research Institute of the SSC, who has supervised the CD-ROM digitalization from the start.