One piece I believe to be missing from the course is (obviously) the Joseon Dynasty, or at least the Confucian underpinnings of Asian societies. Although Joseon and China were both Confucian societies, and although Joseon was a tributary of China, they had distinct cultures. Joseon has several features which make it important to library history apart from its shared features with the rest of Asia.
Tripitaka Koreana and the Jiki:
As mentioned in Actio 2.4, the Tripitaka Koreana is the most complete collection of Buddhist texts, engraved on 80,000 woodblocks between 1237 and 1248, remaining intact in an archive in South Korea. Additionally, the oldest example of printing with metal moveable type originated in Korea.
The highest educational institution in the Goryeo and Joseon Dynasties, it was originally established in 992, it went through several name changes, finally settling on Sungkyunkwan in 1362. It was relocated to Seoul thirty years later becoming part of a nation-wide education system in 1398. The main curriculum included translating Chinese, learning math, and studying Confucian ideology, and students prepared here to take the national civil-service examinations. Royal princes began attending the school in 1418. Because the king was expected to continue to improve himself as a scholar even after ascension to the throne, the teachers and scholars were able to check the king’s power. During the Literati Purges, the school was converted to a brothel, but with the turn of the next administration, it was returned to its former status. Sungkyunkwan was reformed into a modern, three-year university in 1895. The school suffered under colonial rule in the early 20th century and the campus was mostly destroyed during the Korean War. Restoration was completed in 1988, and today Sungkynkwan is a global university.
The Annals of the Joseon Dynasty were compiled by recorders who followed the king throughout the day recording his every action and word. Upon his death, these original records would be condensed into a finalized history of his reign. Great lengths were gone to protect the scribes’ neutrality, and no one was allowed to read the source records, even the king. When Yeonsangun broke this rule he began the first Literati Purge. The Annals were so respected that even attempts to rewrite history by competing factions were noted as such, so that the original text was preserved along with the revision. The Shillok is the most complete record covering the longest continual period of a single dynasty in the world, having been kept from 1413 to 1865. The annals of the first three kings were hand-written, but from 1450 on were printed with metal and wooden moveable type, which was unprecedented in the making of annals in China and Japan.
Sejong the Great and the Creation of Hangul
King Sejong is best known for crating the Hangul alphabet, in 1443, for the sole purpose of expanding literacy among the lower classes. He explained at the time:
The sounds of our language differ from those of Chinese and are not easily communicated by using Chinese graphs. Many among the ignorant, therefore, though they wish to express their sentiments in writing, have been unable to communicate. Considering this situation with compassion, I have newly devised twenty-eight letters. I wish only that the people will learn them easily and use them conveniently in their daily life.
However, the alphabet was not widely adopted before reforms in 19th and 20th centuries, as the literati classes saw widespread literacy as a threat to their power.
He also created the Hall of Worthies, a group of 20 scholars, who not only helped with the creation of Hangul, but also researched other scientific achievements including the first rain gauge, improved water clocks, astral maps, and a musical notation system. He commissioned the writing of manuals on farming, medicine, and other subjects that were distributed throughout the kingdom.
During Chongjo’s reign, books were seen as a status symbol, to the point where scholars would commission paintings of collections to show off in their homes, while the items themselves remained locked up in chests.
Library History Connection
There is so much more that could be included here, the efforts at modernizing educational institutions in the late 1800s through the Korean War, for instance. But all of these examples of how books, research, and study permeated every aspect of Korean culture has most to teach librarians about integrating information literacy into everyday life. Summer reading points and outreach storytimes can’t even come close. I really hope to see some of these aspects of Korean scholar culture integrated into library history programs. It seems librarians are constantly trying to reinvent the wheel. We might look more to the past to see what has worked before.
Lee, Gloria. “King Sejong the Great.” [“King Sejong the Great”]. King Sejong the Great, Sept. 2007, p. 1. EBSCOhost