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“In the earlier Choson Dynasty, the government published a relatively large number of historical documents.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.