By Kim Yoon-mi
In November the French and the Japanese governments announced they would return the Joseon-period royal books on court rites and ceremonies that had been taken by force from Korea in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The announcements mark the end of years of negotiations between governments and relentless efforts by activists to have the priceless artifacts repatriated. To mark this significant milestone, The Korea Herald offers a four-part series on the return of “Uigwe,” the royal books on rites and ceremonies. Following is the first installment. ? Ed.
Imagine the beads of perspiration forming on the brows of Korean scribes as they wrote and drew, by hand, every minute detail of the royal protocols of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) ? a practice that lasted 500 years. And then imagine how the Koreans must have felt when they saw the militant French and the Japanese taking them away as war trophies in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Now, the looted “Uigwe,” or manuscripts of royal protocols, are to finally come home after President Lee Myung-bak reached agreements with his counterparts French President Nicholas Sarkozy and Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan in a series of bilateral talks on the sidelines of the G20 Seoul Summit and APEC summit in November.
|President Lee Myung-bak (right) and Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan look at a copy of “Uigwe” at a hotel in Japan on Nov. 14. (Yonhap News)
Officials from the Foreign Ministry and the Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea and civilian experts say the bilateral accords with France and Japan are fruitful, considering the value of the Uigwe and the nation’s decades-long negotiations to have them repatriated in the midst of global tension over looted cultural artifacts.
|A page of “Uigwe,” a collection of royal protocols from the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), illustrates the wedding ceremony of King Sunjong (1874-1926) and his wife, Empress Sunmyeonghyo. (Yonhap News)
But there are those who disagree, arguing that the agreements are only a partial a success, as France’s five-year renewable “loan” should have been a permanent repatriation, restoring Korea’s ownership of the assets. Also, Japan’s “transfer” of the Uigwe and other artifacts does not guarantee a return of many other remaining looted artifacts from Japan.
According to the joint statement announced by Korea and France on Nov. 12, France will lease 297 Uigwe books, taken the during the French invasion of Ganghwa Island in 1866 and now kept at the National Library of France, to the National Museum of Korea in Seoul for five years, after which the lease will be renewed automatically every five years.
Earlier on Nov. 8, Japan agreed to transfer a total of 1,205 looted Korean books, including Uigwe.
Japan is to return all of the 167 Uigwe books it took and has stored at the Imperial Household Agency since 1922, along with 1,038 other books.
Among the 1,038 books, 938 are those taken from Gyujanggak by Ito Hirobumi, the first Japanese resident-general in Korea, and the Japanese Government General in Joseon in the early 1900s. Others are 99 volumes of “Additional Data from the Munhonbigo,” an encyclopedia written by scholars of Joseon from the late 1600s to the late 1700s, and one copy of “Great Administrative Code,” a code of laws written in the late Joseon period.
Specific dates for the return of the Korean artifacts have not been officially set but the relics in Japan are scheduled to be transferred in about six months once the Diet approves the bilateral agreement, government officials said.
Return of Uigwe from France, however, could be delayed due to a strong resistance from curators at the National Library of France, who recently started a petition drive to protest Sarkozy’s announcement. They reportedly demand digitization of the Uigwe books which many observers believe is aimed at delaying the loan.
The curators are opposed to the five-year loan because it runs counter to French law, which prohibits the leasing of a public collection. The Uigwe books were registered as French property.
A government official at the Korean Embassy in France, who was in charge of fine-tuning the bilateral agreement, said the French government is showing a strong will to implement Sarkozy’s announcement as soon as possible.
“More than 300 curators signed the petition but the French government has not brought up the issue of digitization of Uigwe,” the official said in an e-mail interview.
Sarkozy’s decision to return the books, despite the strong resistance from the curators of the National Library of France, is a big step, said Park Sang-kuk, director of the Korean Cultural Heritage Institute, a private cultural research organization. Park is a former official at the National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage.
He rejected civic groups’ claims that the Korean government should have pushed harder for Korea’s permanent ownership of its cultural property, instead of being satisfied with the “loan.”
“France earns lots of tourism money through museums and galleries and the latest decision could affect other looted artifacts now held at French museums. This is what France is most worried about. It was a big decision on part of France,” Park said.
However, Hwang Pyung-woo, director of the Korea Cultural Heritage Policy Research Institute and an activist at Cultural Action, an NGO, said allowing France to “lease” Uigwe is like saying the 1866 French invasion was justifiable.
“I would call the government officials who negotiated to ‘borrow’ our looted property traitors,” Hwang said.
“Expert study and cultural exchanges between Korean and French civil experts should have come first. Political decisions should have come later. The negotiations with France and Japan were just a political show,” he said.
Uigwe books are unique in that they display both text and hand-drawn illustrations of significant rites and ceremonies of the royal family of Joseon, including weddings, funerals, banquets and receiving of foreign missions as well as other state rituals and celebrations.
Experts say such royal recordings do not exist in any other Asian countries.
The 297 Uigwe books in France were made in the 17th and 18th centuries and stored in Oegyujanggak, an annex of Gyujanggak, or the Royal Library, on Ganghwa Island, ironically, for safe keeping against invaders.
The first Uigwe book is believed to have been published during the reign of King Taejo, the first Joseon king, in the 14th century but the surviving Uigwe books are mostly from the 17th century, according to Hwang Jung-yon, curator at the National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage.
“Uigwe books had to be very neatly written by Sajagwan, the scribes, who were experts in calligraphy. Usually, they made nine copies of each Uigwe ? for the King, the Crown Prince and each government office,” she said.
Korea did not know the whereabouts of the 297 lost Uigwe books until 1975 when Park Byeng-sen, a Korean staff member at the National Library of France, discovered that books at the library classified as Chinese were in fact Korean royal books.
In 1993, then French President Francois Mitterrand promised to return the cultural artifacts in a summit with then Korean President Kim Young-sam, in return for Korea signing with a French company for a high-speed train project.
|Then President Kim Young-sam (right) and then French President Francois Mitterrand look at a returned “Uigwe” book at a summit at Cheong Wa Dae in 1993. (Yonhap News)
Out of the 297 books, however, Korea received only one, followed by yet more negotiations to retrieve the rest. From 2007 to 2008, Korea brought home digitized versions of 30 volumes of Uigwe out of 297.
By Kim Yoon-mi (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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