The Diary of The Royal Secretariat

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Diary of the Royal Secretariat, Courtesy of Kyunjanggak,
Seoul National University

Scholars during the founding of the Chosŏn Kingdom knew history’s importance. They knew that the records they were writing would become tomorrow’s history. With this in mind, Confucian scholars wanted to ensure that every day events were recorded accurately and objectively. Thus, the scholars created The Royal Secretariat (Sŭngjŏngwŏn) to help record the daily events in the royal court.

Structure and Roles

The Royal Secretariat consisted of six royal secretaries, two scribes, and several clerks.(The Structure and Role of the Seungjeongwon,” The Daily Records of the Royal Secretariat of the Chosŏn Dynasty, Accessed June 23, 2012, http://sjw.history.go.kr/eng/eng01.jsp) The Royal Secretariat had two primary roles: (1) carrying messages between the king and his ministries1 and (2) serving as scribes in the royal court. Although the first duty of carrying messages was important, the most significant and lasting work of The Royal Secretariat was the recording of events in the royal court. These secretaries are similar to the role of modern day judicial court recorders. However, the information they recorded encompassed important scholarly debates, stately pronouncements from the king, frivolous happenings within the women’s quarters, and even the weather.

The scribes spent most of their time attending the king and recording his every word and deed, because the king was the most powerful and central figure in the royal court. Not only did the secretariat’s accounts emphasize the importance of the king’s role, but it also served as a check to the king’s power. The king, whose word was law, had no equal in the Chosŏn Kingdom. As such, recording the actions of the king served as a reminder that his legacy would be remembered long after his death. With that in mind, the scribes and clerks were required to make a detailed record of everything they saw and heard. With such detailed accounts, kings would think twice before doing anything ignominious.

The Royal Secretariat in Practice

Typically, two scribes followed the king everywhere, every day. If a scribe was, for some reason, unable to record that day, then a clerk stood in his place. By law, the king could not tamper with the records nor force the scribes to write something untruthful. There were several instances of kings asking the scribes not to write something in the records; however, the scribes dutifully wrote it anyway along with the king’s request to disregard it. Only one ruler, Yŏnsangun (r. 1494 – 1506) tried to change the scribes’ writing, and, as a result (along with several other infractions), he never received the title of king.

After one month of recording, the scribes took the daily records and compiled them into a smaller, single volume. These volumes were stored and became known as The Diary of the Royal Secretariat. Following the death of a king, the government commissioned an elite group of scholars to write the history of the deceased king’s reign. These scholars used The Diaries of the Royal Secretariat as their primary source of information. This new condensed record became known as The Annals of the Chosŏn Kingdom.

Because of the diligent efforts of these scribes and officials, The Diaries of the Royal Secretariat is one of the largest collections of dynastic records in the world — consisting of 3,243 diaries. This is a considerable feat considering that most Korean records before the early seventeenth century were completely destroyed in war, revolts, and palace fires. In recognition of these efforts, UNESCO inscribed The Diaries of the Royal Secretariat on the Memory of the World Register.

In order to see The Diary of the Royal Secretariat or to learn more, please visit:  http://sjw.history.go.kr/main/main.jsp