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English Translation of the Veritable Records of the Joseon Dynasty of Korea

National Institute of Korean History

National Institute of Korean History launched a 22-year project of translating Joseon Wangjo Sillok, or the Veritable Records of the Joseon Dynasty, into English beginning 2012. Investing approximately 20,000,000 USD, National Institute of Korean History is planning to translate page by page this extensive chronicle which documented the whole gamut of the Joseon dynasty for about five centuries and, upon the completion of the translation of each volume, to provide free its English translation online. National Institute of Korean History expects to complete the whole translation in 2033.

The Veritable Records of the Joseon Dynasty

Joseon Wangjo Sillok, registered in the list of UNESCO’s Memory of the World as the Veritable Records of the Joseon Dynasty but usually known as the Veritable Records of the Chosŏn Dynasty to Koreanists of Anglophone countries, comprise 1,893 books covering 472 years (1392 -1863) in the whole duration of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897). The Veritable Records of the Joseon Dynasty (hereafter referred to as the Veritable Records), for their cultural and historic significance, have been referred to as an invaluable documentary heritage of the world. The outstanding merits of the Veritable Records are as follows: First, the Veritable Records are the authentic records of a dynasty with no significant hiatus in documenting its five-century history (only a single volume covering two months in the mid-fifteenth century is missing). There are some other well-known collections of historical documents comparable to the Veritable Records. For instance, Huangming Shilu, or the Veritable Records of Ming Dynasty of China, contains the history of the 260 years of thirteen Ming dynasty emperors, and Daqing Lizhao Shilu, or the Veritable Records of the Great Qing Dynasty, covers 296 years. Yet the Veritable Records of the Joseon Dynasty, which deal with approximately five centuries with the same editorial policy, are unrivaled not only in the length of the time covered but also in the continuity of documentation. Second, thanks to the unintermittent documentation of every event in the dynasty, the Veritable Records pales similar veritable records in traditional East Asian countries in quantity: Sandai Jitsuroku of Japan, or the Veritable Records of Three Reigns, is a very small collection in comparison; The Great Authentic Veritable Records of Vietnam, containing the history of the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945), consists of 546 books. Huangming Shilu of China, while surpassing the Veritable Records of the Joseon Dynasty in number of volumes, is dwarfed four-to-one by the number of words. Another chronicle of China, the Veritable Records of the Great Qing Dynasty, whose volumes double those of the Veritable Records of the Joseon Dynasty, present far limited information in that , like the Rosetta Stone, the same contents were written in three different languages - Manchu, Chinese, and Mongolian. Therefore, the Veritable Records are next to none in terms of the amount of information available to historians. Third, ‘the Veritable Records’ richness in quantity naturally leads to its comprehensiveness in scope. Since the Veritable Records contain everything reported to the throne and debated by officials in charge, the Veritable Records, although compiled by Royal order, contain numerous amount of valuable information on the real lives of the grass-roots within the territory of the Joseon dynasty as well as the ideological direction of the Confucian kingship of the dynasty. At the same time, the Veritable Records also include information on Joseon dynasty’s diplomacy with neighboring northeast Asian countries – Chinese governments, Bakufu and semi-independent powers in Japanese archipelago, and other nomadic polities. Whether peaceful or violent, and whether a long-running institution or a sporadic event, the Veritable Records reflect various aspect of the international relation in traditional East Asian region. Fourth, the broad scope of the Veritable Records goes together with the correctness and reliability which come from the methodological strictness in the course of compilation. The historiographers in charge of the compilation, who first-handed collected materials, wrote and edited draft, and finally published the Veritable Records, were professional officials guaranteed with legal independence in their record-keeping and the right to keep secrets. They were allowed to observe and document everything relevant to a king’s personal and official life as well as all governmental activity to make out the Sacho, or “Draft History.” In addition to the Sacho, other kinds of primary sources, such as the diaries of the royal secretariat, memoranda from government offices, and petitions to the throne, became the main sources for the Veritable Records. A king’s part of the Veritable Records began to be compiled after his passing away and nobody except a few officials in charge was allowed to read either the Sacho or the Veritable Records upon completion. Even kings were not accessible to them, and any historiographer who disclosed anything about the contents of the Veritable Records was severely punished. These four merits pointed out so far – unintermittent documentation for five centuries, richness in quantity, comprehensiveness in scope, and their correctness and reliability – are why the Veritable Records were inscribed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World International Register. Also they made the Veritable Records an irreplaceable source of information available to historians in East Asian countries as well as Korean. For example, when Gakushuin University in Japan found it hard to fund its long-term project of publishing the facsimile edition of the Veritable Records in the late 1940s, Guo Moruo, a prominent historian and then the first president of Chinese Academy of Sciences of People’s Republic of China which had no diplomatic relations with Japan at that point, saying that the Veritable Records were the cultural heritage of not only Korea but also the whole East Asian cultural sphere, financially supported the publication project. This is a symbolic episode revealing the shared sense of importance of the Veritable Records among historians of East countries. Furthermore, the day by day record of the Veritable Records with the same compilation policy consistent for approximately five centuries is now appreciated as a cornucopia of information on natural, climatic, and astronomical abnormality which can be used in the research of long-term effect of global environmental changes. In sum, the Veritable Records are one of the richest and most valuable sources with which historians of the world would write the new story of human history of last six centuries, and ultimately contribute the development of human civilization through widening the scope of human history.

Project of English Translation of the Veritable Records

The Veritable Records, made four copies in classical Chinese, were stored at four archives at remote locations in order to prepare for possible war destruction. Despite these efforts, only one archive survived the Imjin Waeran, the seven year war between 1592-1598 also known as Hideyoshi’s Invasion. The Joseon government reprinted the only surviving edition and built new archives at more remote locations as soon as the war ended, and now three editions survive in South and North Koreas (two and one edition respectively), even though one edition, which was moved to Tokyo Imperial University by Japanese colonial authority, almost became into ashes following the 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake. National Institute of Korean History published the Veritable Records’ low-price facsimile editions for academic community between the 1950s and the 1970s, and then completed the twenty-six year long project of translating the Veritable Records into Korean from the original classical Chinese in 1993. The digitalized version of the translation was released in 1995 and its online service began in 2005. Thereafter, hundreds of thousands people, whether Koreans or not, enjoy the online service of the Veritable Records annually and use it as a rich source of inspiration for their works such as television dramas and historical novels as well as professional articles and monographs. Furthermore, the historical information provided through the online service is expected to upgrade the Korean Wave – the spread of Korean pop culture around the world. The aim of National Institute of Korean History’s twenty-two year project of English translation of the Veritable Records is to enable scholars of the world to use this ‘Memory of the World’ as a probe into the human civilization, and at the same time to present the world citizens, as they are enjoying the Korean Wave, the chance of understanding the history of Korean people and widen their scope to the world

¹ Although the history between 1864 and 1897 was compiled in 1926, because of the colonialist approach of the Japanese editors-in-charge as well as the lack of strict principle in compilation, the Veritable Records of the years are regarded less credible.

² The first facsimile edition of the Veritable Records was published between 1928 and 1932 by Keijo Imperial University. Since only thirty copies were released then, the Gakushuin University’s project was actually the first facsimile publication of the Veritable Records.