Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Donguibogam listed in UNESCO's Memory of the World Register

In 1596, King Seonjo ordered his physician Heo Jun to oversee the compilation of every piece of information related to medicinal herbs with a focus on Korea because the country relied only on Chinese references which mentioned plants often unavailable in the peninsula. The 25 volumes of Donguibogam (동의보감 or Principles and Practice of Eastern Medicine) were published in 1613, five years after Seonjo's death.

Today July 31st, 2009, almost four centuries later, and one year after its submission, the book kept in The National Library of Korea and The Academy of Korean Studies has been awarded inscription to UNESCO's Memory of the World Register.

Beyond its sometimes weird bits of traditional medicine wisdom, Dongui Bogam has been praised for its modern vision (see "Donguibogam: Principles and Practice of Eastern Medicine" on UNESCO portal) : "In terms of health care system, it developed the ideals of preventive medicine and public health care by the state, which was virtually an unprecedented idea up to the 19th century". Considering today's heated debate about health care in the US, one could even push that up to the 21th century...

Initiated in 1992, the UNESCO Memory of the World Program aims for preservation, documentation, and awareness of key documents. Donguibogam is Korea's 7th entry to a list of about 190 representing more than 80 countries. That's a lot, particularly when you compared with France (5), the UK (2), or the US (1).

But these figures tell more about each country's efficiency in submissions than about the size of their respective treasures. UK's Magna Carta joined the crowd only this year (submitted last year). It also seems to be a matter of what priorities are on each submitter's minds : USA is not represented by its Constitution but by a movie. Citizen Kane ? No : The Wizard of Oz. Go figure...

Korea's special role also appears in the UNESCO/Jikji Memory of the World Prize, named after what is undoubtedly one of the World's most important documents in history : Jikji, the first metal type printed book (1377, Guthenberg's 42-line Bible came much later, in 1455). Every other year since 2005 (year of Jikji's induction to the UNESCO list), the UNESCO Jikji Prize is awarded, along with USD 30,000, to "individuals or institutions that have made significant contributions to the preservation and accessibility of documentary heritage". First laureate : the National Library of the Czech Republic.

Note that the UNESCO/Jikji prize was created one year before the 120th anniversary of French-Korean diplomatic relationships, putting a gentle pressure on France for giving the only extant part of the book back to Korea, or at least making it more accessible to the public. The Baegun hwasang chorok buljo jikji simche yojeol volume II, or second volume of "Anthology of Great Buddhist Priests' Zen Teachings", is kept in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France. La BNF also holds part of Uigwe, but the bulk of the Royal Protocols of the Joseon Dynasty remains in Korea's Royal Libraries (Kyujanggak, Jangseogak). If you've ever been to Korea, you've probably already come across visual elements of Uigwe : many museographies and all costumed revivals of royal ceremonies tap into that ultimate blueprint.

So now you know at least 4 of the 7 Korean documents listed by the UNESCO :
- Donguibogam (listed in 2009)

- Jikji (listed in 2001 - the same year as Guthemberg's bible)
- Uigwe (listed in 2007), and 
- Tripitaka Koreana (listed in 2007) : we mentioned that great marvel last year in our focus on "Haeinsa Temple Janggyeong Panja".

Another essential document is Hunminjeongeum (훈민정음 - listed in 1997, now in Gansong Art Museum), the code that set the Korean alphabet in 1446. Nowadays, bits of that fundamental text are used to decorate the fence protecting, on Gwanghwamun Square, the site where King Sejong's statue and information center will be erected. Does the name ring a bell ? We recently mentioned the Hunminjeongeum Society, a private initiative trying to promote hangul overseas (see "Hangeul lands in Bau-Bau, Indonesia... to save the Cia !").

If you intend to read the other two Korean entries in the register, take a big breath and make plans for a borgesian-size library :

Joseonwangjosillok (조선왕조실록 or Annals of the Joseon Dynasty), listed in 1997 and preserved at Jeongjoksan Archive / Jeongjoksan Sagobon in Seoul, cover 472 years (1392-1863) in 1,893 books.

- Seungjeongwon Ilgi (승정원일기, or Diaries of the Royal Secretariat), listed in 2001 and kept at Kyujanggak and Seoul National University, deliver more crispy state secrets and many volumes have been lost for good, but that's still a collection of 3,243 diaries stretching over 288 years (1623-1910). Those diaries shouldn't threaten Bridget Jones' days on top of the bestseller list.

Korea does have a knack for written arts, and a long tradition of great respect for scholars over warriors. Still today, I'm sure there's something in the air (beyond the smog, that is). A good place to live if you love books.

SM 20090731 updated 0826

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