Old Dynasty’s Tales Available in English

By Yang Sung-jin

It takes at least four years and three months to read the entire Korean text of the “Choson Wangjo Sillok,” the Annals of the Choson Kingdom (1392-1910). That is, only if the reader has the incredible ability of scanning through 100 pages a day.

But now, all the reader needs to do is click on the mouse. A CD-ROM title, “The Annals of the Choson Dynasty,” now brings all sorts of information from the 500-year-long dynasty’s unprecedented historical record to the reader’s fingertips.

In an effort to promote a deeper understanding of Korean history and culture, The Korea Times today begins a weekly series of thematic articles based upon the CD-ROM of “The Annals of the Choson Dynasty.” With the support of the Seoul Systems Co. Ltd. (SSC), which developed and regularly updates the CD-ROM, The Korea Times will use the computer technology to its fullest extent by conducting keyword searches of the entire 1,893-volume record. Such a research technique would have been impossible before.

The series is aimed at providing useful and interesting information about Choson, the longest-running dynasty in world history, to foreign scholars as well as to ordinary readers. It will not simply be a chronological translation of the annals, but an eye-catching collection of facts and anecdotes little known or totally kept in the dark, away from the public’e eye. Everything from how criminals were punished to how elephants and camels first came to the country will be explored in the weeks to come.

The Korea Times series is the very first time the Choson Annals is translated into English. As such, it will become an invaluable tool for foreign Korean studies scholars and an illuminating text for others interested in the old past of the country.

The original text of “The Annals of the Choson Dynasty” (Choson Wangjo Sillok in Korean) covers 27 kings from 1392 to 1910, in which all kinds of information including the innermost political situations as well as the everyday life styles of the general public, are meticulously recorded with masterful accuracy in the form of countless piles of data.

Unfortunately, the original text of the annals, written in Chinese characters, is hard to read, much less understand correctly. Worse, the sheer amount of the volumes — 1,893 in its original Chinese characters — is overwhelming.

To make the one of the most important cultural, historical treasures of Korea available to the Korean studies scholars, both at home and abroad, the task of the translation started in 1968 by the King Sejong the Great Memorial Society.

The translation work went into full swing as the National Culture Promotion Foundation joined the project in 1972.

The fruit of the efforts came to the light only in late 1993 after as many as 3,000 professional scholars had worked on the time-consuming translations and corrections.

But even the Korean version, composed of an astounding 413 volumes, is nothing less than a lifetime’s worth of reading. Worse, the large space to accommodate the whole collection and its high price have made even universities hesitate to buy the annals.

To resolve the dilemma, Culture-Sports Ministry and the two organizations involved during the 26 years of translation agreed in early 1994 to push ahead with the digitalization of the annals into three CD-ROMs, whose job was assigned to the SCC and the Korean Study Database Research Institute.

The CD-ROM version was completed in October 1995. In the process, over 300 people were hired in typing the Korean manuscripts into the computer database alone. In addition, some 200 professional researchers and scholars in the field of Korean history helped with the tedious corrections and classification. Also, 70 staffs of SSC worked full time during the digitalization process in order to collect related materials and develop necessary computer programs.

Moreover, the CD-ROM version was upgraded in November last year. As a result, the search engine and the classification functions are better suited to meet the demands of the user.

“What we need is not the language interpreter. We need a cultural interpreter who knows and understands the Korean culture and tradition. We believe `The Korea Times’ will greatly help produce the much-needed cultural interpreters through this weekly series,” said Kim Hyeon, director of Korean Studies Database Research Institute of the SSC, who has supervised the CD-ROM digitalization from the start.