Sunday, October 17, 2010

Exhibition traces Joseon’s reading culture



Restored movable type characters are on display at the “Best Sellers in the Joseon Dynasty” exhibition, which will continue through Oct. 31 at the Seoul Museum of History in central Seoul.

/ Courtesy of Seoul Museum of History


What did the Joseon people read? During the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910), the noble class was the primary producers and consumers of knowledge and culture. Women in those times, on the other hand, whose priorities were caring for their husband, children and household work, quenched their intellectual thirst by reading novels and other popular literary works.

A special exhibition themed “Best Sellers in the Joseon Dynasty” is now displaying the very reading culture of the Confucian state at the Seoul Museum of History.

The exhibition features about 90 classical books and records donated in 2008, by Hong Du-seon, 82, a former police chief. The exhibit contents were selected from 967 donated items.

“Due to the early development of printing technology in our history, the Joseon people appear to have loved reading. The exhibition shows how the different classes from the Joseon era enjoyed books and its printing and publication culture,” Kim Moon-taek, a curator of the museum, said.

Books were made with different methods back then. They were printed either with movable type, which were cast in metal or carved in wood, or with woodblocks. Also, handwritten manuscript books were also widely circulated.

The oldest printing technique was woodblock printing. Movable type made with metal or wood were subsequently invented. In ancient times, they used one of these printing methods depending on the type of books and quantity produced.



Among the metal type, “gabinja,” one of the most widely used characters during the Joseon era, was created in 1434 during the reign of King Sejong. Some 10 books printed with metal type including volumes printed with “gabinja” such as “Annotated Account of the Comprehensive Mirror for Aid in Government” are presented for viewing. The “gabinja,” which was used during the reigns of King Sejong to King Jeongjo, was reproduced six times and became the foundation for other metal type.

“During the Joseon era, the books printed with metal type were only available to the noble class and court officials living in Hanyang (ancient capital city of Joseon). So the lower classes and commoners living in provincial areas read books printed with woodblocks and wood movable type or handwritten,” said Kim.

A great variety of books with different topics were read according to one’s social status, gender and age. Confucian classics were essential readings for educated men of the scholar-official class. Noblemen read Confucian books such as the “Seven Chinese Classics” and other historical books.

In contrast, women and commoners, for instance, enjoyed reading the fiction genre as well as books of Confucianism such as “The Story of Su Daicheng,” “Samganghaengsildo” and “Instructions for Women.” Children read educational books such as the “Thousand-Character Text,” “A Summary of the Five Relationships in Confucianism” and “A Necessity for Enlightening Children.”

Commoners who could not read Chinese characters enjoyed reading books written in hangeul in the 1500s. In the 1800s, more books were available for purchase and these were also frequently loaned and borrowed.

An interesting section of the exhibition reveals that Hanyang, had many other book-related subcultures at its cultural center.

“The streets in the town center were densely lined with bookstores. In the 1900s, there were large bookstore neighborhoods near the four city gates of Hangyang, attesting to the thriving cultural life in Joseon’s capital city,” said Kim.



Books were distributed in Hanyang through various channels. While they could be directly bought from their sources, they were most often circulated through brokers. People could also loan books, either free of charge or for a fee. Certain rare books, not available for purchase, were hand-copied.

Those who could not purchase books or who were unable to read turned to professional book readers called “jeongisu.” They knew how to tell a story from a book interestingly and keep their listeners riveted. The traditional storytellers were found on street corners in the neighborhoods such as Jongno, Insa-dong and Gwanghwamun.

“They received money after telling the stories from books such as ‘Chunhyangjeon’ and ‘The Story of Su Daicheng.’ They were like present-day entertainers. Also, that kind of culture was only found in the capital,” said Kim.

The exhibition includes the treasure-level books such as “Poems and Sermons of a Buddhist Patriarch” and “Ode on Meditation by Buddhist Priest Xuanjue,” which were metal type printed in the 15th century.

“The two pieces display the essence of the printing culture of metal movable print,” the curator said.

“We are grateful for Mr. Hong who donated such an enormous amount of old books from his personal collection to our museum and allows a wonderful opportunity for all of us to peer into the past reading culture,” he said.

The exhibition will continue through Oct. 31. For more information, visit www.museum.seoul.kr.

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