The Sillok: The Annals of The Chosŏn Kingdom

Shillok

Sillok, Courtesy of the National Museum of Korea

Koreans are well known for their record keeping. From the court proceedings of the royal palace to personal journals, many Koreans have kept detailed records for thousands of years. Foremost among these records is the Annals of the Chosŏn Kingdom or the Sillok. Though the Sillok documents the history of the Chosŏn kings spanning hundreds of years, the Sillok itself has its own history of being preserved through the ages.

Basic Explanation

Beginning in 1413 CE and ending in the early twentieth century, the Sillok is the longest continual record of a single dynasty in the world. The 1,893 volumes of the Sillok are a compilation of royal court’s records that discuss numerous topics including the weather, the king’s daily actions, important events, scholars’ debates, and royal court rulings. Today, they serve as the primary source of information about the Chosŏn Kingdom (1392 – 1910 CE).

The writers of the original Sillok in the early fifteenth century — who were also some of the founders of the Chosŏn Kingdom — were deeply devoted to Confucianism. Confucianism taught people to value historical texts. Confucians believed that if one studied historical texts, then one could follow the good examples of the wise and avoid the mistakes of the misguided. They also believed that records kept in the present helped future generations learn from the past. Record keeping also encouraged the living to follow principles of integrity and benevolence in order to keep their own legacy unmarred. This sense of responsibility towards one’s legacy especially applied to the king.

The Diary of the Royal Secretariat

Although the Chosŏn king had power to make and enforce any law he desired, he had to bear in mind that scribes were recording his every word and action. By law, two to three scribes followed the king during his every waking moment. These scribes recorded everything they saw and heard — even if the king told them not to. The Sillok reports of one instance when the king fell off his horse. Embarrassed that the fall would enter into the Sillok, he told his scribes not to record the fall. They silently nodded and wrote away. To this day, the Sillok has both the fall and the king’s words upon its pages.

Following a full day of recording what the king said and did, the scribes would meet together each night and summarize what they had written. After several weeks of recording, the scribes summarized the daily recordings into a single bound volume. These volumes became known as the Diary of the Royal Secretariat, or the Sŭngjŏngwŏnilgi. During a king’s reign, the daily entries transformed into hundreds of volumes of accumulated history. After the king’s death, the royal court handpicked an elite team of scholars in order to study the diaries and write the Sillok. Assigned with their task, these scholars traveled to a secluded place to begin their work. Only minimal contact with the outside world was permitted. Painstakingly, they began writing the history of the reign of the recently deceased king. For weeks, the Sillok scholars strived to make an unbiased and accurate account of the king’s reign. In order to protect that accuracy, the current king and future monarchs were not allowed to contact the writers nor tamper with their writing.

History Is Preserved

After the scholars had written and edited the Sillok for the previous king’s reign, they sent the manuscript to the printers. Using movable metal type, the printers made four copies of the Sillok. One copy was sent to reside in the royal library. The other copies were distributed to separate, secure depositories in case of an emergency. These three extra copies became history’s safeguards against the uncertain future.

These precautions eventually preserved the Sillok during the Hideyoshi Invasions (1592 – 1598 CE). As part of their invasion, the invading Japanese army found and burned all the copies of the Sillok they could find. Only one survived. This last remaining copy had been tucked away in a secluded box canyon that the Japanese had missed. After the war, the court used the surviving Sillok to once more make additional copies of their kingdom’s history.

Today, the complete Sillok is housed in the Kyujanggak, or Royal Library at Seoul National University. Using modern technology, researchers and technicians have created digital versions of the Sillok that are available to the public. These digital versions are the next step in the centuries-old preservation process of the Sillok began by some of Chosŏn’s founders. Furthermore, in 1997, the international community recognized the efforts of the Sillok’s writers by inscribing the Sillok in the Memory of the World Register.

You can see the Sillok today by visiting this URL: http://sillok.history.go.kr/main/main.jsp