Korean Treasures: Rare Books, Manuscripts and Artefacts in the Bodleian Libraries and Museums of Oxford University (2 Volumes)
Minh Chung
The Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, 2011 and 2019
Volume 1, 144pp, 92 colour illustrations,
Volume 2, 170pp, 245 colour illustrations
Hardback, £35 (Vol 1) and £35 (Vol 2)


Until 1876, when Korea was forced by Japan to open its ports to foreign trade, this East Asian country was known in the West as the 'Hermit Kingdom'. During the Ch˘oson dynasty (1392–1910) it existed largely in physical and cultural isolation. Then, from 1876 to 1910, the year Korea became part of the Japanese empire, it enjoyed a short-lived period of contact with European countries and the United States, which allowed Westerners to start diplomatic relationships with its government, live in the country, explore it and initiate first-hand studies of its culture. It was during this period that the core of most collections of Korean artefacts in Western museums today were begun with objects collected by diplomats, missionaries, travellers, scholars and archaeologists.

The collections of Korean artefacts in the Bodleian Library in Oxford is no exception; dating from the end of the 19th century, they were gradually expanded during the 20th century. An ample selection of the most important items housed in this centuries-old institution, and in other university museums in Oxford, is now presented in two volumes, compiled by Minh Chung, Head of the Bodleian Chinese Studies Library and Korean Collections of the University of Oxford since 2001.

The first books in Korean to enter the Bodleian Library were a group of bibles, translated into Korean, between 1882 and 1887, by John Ross (1842-1915), a Scottish Presbyterian missionary in Manchuria. He also produced the first Korean grammar in English, in 1882, and the first history of Korea published in any Western language, in 1879. These bibles are so rare that two of them are presently included in the '100 Hangul Heritage'
list, han'g˘ul being the national Korean alphabet created in the 15th century by King Sejong (r 1418–1450).

Other important works to enter the library, between 1896 and 1930, were donations made by Mark Napier Trollope (1862–1930), the first Anglican Bishop in Korea, from 1911 until his death, who first visited the country in 1890. These include a rare painting of the funeral of King Y˘ongjo (r 1724–1776), 21st king of the Ch˘oson dynasty under whose reign, the longest in the dynasty's history, Confucianism reached its height. The painting, originally a long scroll, now mounted in three sections pasted together, is a meticulously illustrated visual description of the funeral, which served the purpose of informing all of the ceremony's participants, in advance, of their roles and places in the funerary procession. A particular feature of this painting that differentiates it from other similar depictions of royal funerals, is the presence of a special palanquin carrying the written works of King Y˘ongjo, famous for his great knowledge of the Confucian classics and his fondness of books. This rare painting entered the Bodleian Library in 1902, but how Bishop Trollope acquired it is not known. Two further rare and important donations by Trollope are a unique world map and an atlas, both 18th century, that demonstrate the keen interest in cartography developed by the Koreans after their initial contacts with European missionaries in Beijing, the Chinese capital.

The two volumes of Korean Treasures also include selected artefacts from other important museums in Oxford, grouped in separate, thematic sections: ceramics; photography; sundials; weapons and other military artefacts; coins; clothes and accessories. Together, they provide a fair and thorough overview of Korean culture, mostly during the Ch˘oson period.

The Ashmolean Museum's collections include artefacts, mostly ceramics and bronzes, belonging to the earlier periods of Korean history. Among them are rare examples of vessels manufactured during the Three Kingdoms period (4th century to early 7th century AD): an unusual four-spouted footed jar, a typical bird-shaped pot from the Kaya kingdom, and roof-end tiles with lotuses that clearly show the diffusion of Buddhism in the Unified Silla period (AD 668–935).

These two meticulously documented volumes are an invaluable tool for scholars studying the long-neglected collections of Korean artefacts in Western museums.

Filippo Salviati

 

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