Tuesday, January 31, 2012

An Intro to the Joseon Dynasty Uigwe

"What can one expect to find in these uigwe books that will further our understanding of Joseon culture? Depending on one’s area of interest, one might retrieve information on Joseon society, politics, economics, rituals, literature, art history, musicology, culinary history, and perhaps more. Of particular interest to the art historian is the extensive description of the visual culture of the court. There is a seemingly endless amount of documentation along with numerous illustrations of ritual performances, and also of court costumes, musical instruments, ceremonial utensils, and finally of interior decoration, notably, screen paintings--all of which were made for those special events. This lecture will highlight some of these features, drawing on the lecturer’s research on several categories of the uigwe, those documenting royal weddings, the painting and copying of royal portraits, palace banquets, and finally on royal funerals and related rites." [taken from the overview of the lecture posted on the RAS website]

The Uigwe is broken down into ui or rites and gwi, tracks or models to be followed. Therefore, Professor Yi Song-mi from the Academy of Korean Studies translates the Uigwe as the Book of State Rites. The person sitting beside me was a historian who has worked on the books and he whispered that the translation should actually be "manual" of rites as the compilation is not a book per se but a manual on prescribed conduct to be performed.

Currently there are more than 4,000 volumes of uigwe. I'm not clear whether these are inclusive of all the copies made because between 4 and 9 copies were made of each book/manual and sent to its respective location. One copy was bound in silk cloth and its spine secured with a strong fancy metal binder. Between 3-8 other copies were made and sent to history archives throughout the nation. Depending on the content, even a copy was made for the crown prince's personal library to enrich his mind and tutor him in the rites of his nation.

There are various topics within the uigwe, many uigwe are dedicated to specific topics, for example, Unique Paintings of Royal Portraits or Unique Paintings of Gyeong-mo Palace, a lesser palace where a king's mother resided. Some uigwe are prescriptions on how a marriage ceremony should take place or took place for a king. But through the language used or the pictures drawn, some deeper hidden unworded sociocultural layers of the Joseon dynasty can be revealed. One point that was particularly interesting was the painting shown of a king's procession with great detail given to the horsemen and banner bearers, etc. However, the king's chair being carried was conspicuously empty, and the reason revealed was, the king can only be painted in portrait; he was like a god and therefore his likeness was only recreated in the formal setting. Ah, those interested points that give dry dusty history books flesh and life!

An (blurred) analysis of the topics in the Uigwe:

In 2007 all of the existing Uigwe were designated as Memory of the World, the world-wide designated collection of historical artifacts that represent humans fight against collective amnesia of key historical documentation.

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