June 14, 2011

The Empire gets its writing back


South Koreans celebrate the return of their ancient texts, looted over 145 years ago by French troops.

After 145 years, France has given back to South Korea a substantial trove of its literary culture. The collection of nearly 300 ancient texts were looted by French soldiers and have been sorely missed in Korean culture ever since. Park Chan-Kyong described for the AP the reception of the long lost artifacts:

A solemn procession of some 500 people, wearing colourful traditional court costumes, moved slowly along Sejong Street, carrying some of the books in a palanquin to Gyeongbok Palace — the largest built by the Chosun Dynasty.

After years of diplomatic wrangling, France in April and May returned 296 volumes of “Uigwe”, richly illustrated records of major court ceremonies and events during the Chosun era which ruled between 1392 and 1910.

The initiative to give back the books was begun as most good-will gestures do, that is beneath the banner of reciprocity. The first volume was returned in 1993 when President Mitterand sought to create good-will for a proposed high-speed train project that would have brought billions of Korean dollars back to France. The story and seriousness of the Korean desire to get their books back goes back a little further still, but oddly not the full 145 years that the books were missing. The books were believed completely lost until 1975, when a Korean scholar stumbled upon the collection in the National Library of France while researching. Since that point Korea has demanded their books back.

Chan-Kyong also adds that the books have a few potential hurdles ahead yet.

“Technically,” Chan-Kyong writes, “they are on lease for a five-year renewable term but former French culture minister Jack Lang said on Saturday that in effect the books were being handed back permanently.”

No doubt some French industrial firm has landed a nice contract in Korea.

Paul Oliver is the marketing manager of Melville House. Previously he was co-owner of Wolfgang Books in Philadelphia.