In the past couple of weeks, I watched some of my favourite Korean TV dramas aired sometime ago again, and one of them is the “Queen In-Hyun’s Man” (인현왕후의 남자). In this TV drama, the male protagonist, a scholar supporting the reinstatement of the deposed Queen In-Hyun in the Joseon Dynasty time-travelled to the 2012 Seoul, and fell in love with an actress who was cast as Queen In-Hyun in a TV drama. The male protagonist read the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty (the “Joseon Annals”) in 2012 Seoul to learn about the history of his time, and time-travelled back to the Joseon Dynasty to use this knowledge to beat his political opponents. In fact, the Joseon Annals are the only extant dynastic annals in South Korea – they are designated national treasure of South Korea and are inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. Let’s learn more about them in this post.
The Joseon Annals (조선왕조실록 – Joseon Wangjo Sillok) cover the 472-year history of the Joseon Dynasty from the 1st ruler, King Taejo, to the 25th ruler, King Cheoljong, and were prepared according to strict compilation standards. The records of King Gojong (26th ruler) and King Sunjong (the 27th and final ruler) are not included in the Joseon Annals because these records were prepared during the Japanese colonial period not in accordance with the strict compilation standards, and there might be distortions of the records. The Joseon Annals consist of 1,893 volumes and are arranged by chronological order, including the events of every single day during the 472-year history.
After the death of the king, the Office for Annals Compilation comprising senior-ranking officials would be established to oversee the compilation of the annals of the relevant king. The annals were compiled based on daily records kept by the historiograpers and other reference materials such as records kept by the government departments. One of the key source documents were the Daily Records of the Royal Secretariat (승정원일기 – Seungjeongwon ilgi) which were the daily records kept by the historiographers following the king and recording everything they saw and heard. Even the king could not interfere with the recording of the historiographers – one incident was that King Taejong fell off his horse while hunting and asked the historiographer not to record this. However, the historiographer recorded both the fall and the kings’s request for not recording.
The Joseon Annals were originally in classical Chinese, and the National Institute of Korean History (“NIKH”) completed the 26-year project of translation of all the annals into Korean in 1993. Currently, you could access both the classical Chinese and Korean versions of the Joseon Annals online at the NIKH’s website at this link. In 2012, the NIKH commenced another project of translating all the annals into English by 2033. For the time being, for those who cannot read classical Chinese and Korean, you may get a glimpse of the Joseon Annals by reading the sample English translation of the annals of King Sejong by clicking this link.
You can also get a good introduction of the Joseon Annals by watching this video.
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Claire Lee, “Annals of Joseon Dynasty to be translated into English“, The Korea Herald, 2012-01-09
Park Hong Gab, “Masterpiece of Historical Records“, Koreana, Autumn 2008, Vol. 22, No.3
“Memory of the World Register“, Korea Tourism Organization
The Korea Society, “The Sillok: The Annals of The Chosŏn Kingdom“, Chosŏn Korea
“Veritable Records of the Joseon Dynasty“, National Institute of Korean History