Royal books return 145 years after being looted
By Chung Ah-young
The first batch of ancient royal books from the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910) returned home Thursday afternoon 145 years after being looted during the 1866 French incursion.
Seventy-five of the 297 volumes of the ancient books called “uigwe” (royal protocols) from the Oegyujanggak archives aboard an Asiana Airlines plane landed at 2 p.m. at Incheon International Airport. They were sent directly to the storage facility of the National Museum of Korea at around 4 p.m.
The rest of the books will be returned through three more deliveries by May 27.
“The process of retrieving the Oegyujanggak books was long and winding because there was a big difference between Korea and France concerning the national consensus. Against all odds, the return of the royal books is the outcome of the two parties’ efforts to open a new future of friendship,” Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism Choung Byoung-gug said in a press conference at the museum.
Minister Choung said that most of the royal texts to be returned by the end of May were specially designed for the royal inspections. Among them, 30 volumes are the originals with high historical value and significance.
“I expect that this case will have a positive effect on our efforts to retrieve other historical relics taken to other countries,” he said.
To help people directly appreciate the books, the museum will hold an exhibition from July 19 to Sept. 18 after a grand celebration event in June.
“Also, we will prepare online services and digitalize the contents for easy access by anyone, anywhere and fully support scholars’ researchs,” Choung said.
The return has been made on a five-year renewable lease basis after French President Nicolas Sarkozy accepted Seoul’s request during the G20 Summit held in Seoul last November.
A Korean delegation from the National Museum of Korea signed an agreement with the National Library of France in Paris in March to return the 297 volumes of the ancient books through four shipments to Korea.
The museum will form a research team specializing in the Joseon Kingdom’s royal documents, including royal protocols, and follow suitable preservation techniques and exhibition conditions.
Listed in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register in 2007, Joseon “uigwe” are a model of rites and rituals unique to Korea, which were recorded during the kingdom. The historical documents record and prescribe through prose and illustration the major ceremonies and rites of the royal family.
Particularly, the books made for viewing by the kings differ greatly in the quality of the paper that enabled the documents to endure, and in the refined descriptions recorded by top court artisans.
For viewing by the kings, “chojuji,” the highest quality paper available then, was used to publish the protocols. The “chojuji” paper used for the king’s copy was bordered with red lines, bound with a silk cover and used elaborate binding techniques, which included five bored holes with brass reinforcements.
The Oegyujanggak books, including the protocols, were taken by French troops in 1866 when they invaded Ganghwa Island off the west coast in retaliation for the persecution of French Catholic missionaries.
The books had been stored at the National Library of France and remained unnoticed until Park Byeong-seon, a Paris-based Korean professor, discovered they were incorrectly classified as Chinese documents in 1975. One of the books was returned to Korea on a permanent lease basis in 1993 by then French President Francois Mitterrand.