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Uigwe: The Royal Court Records

The Joseon Dynasty is well known for its record-keeping, particularly when it came to the royal family. While the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty (Joseon Wangjo Sillok) are the most well-known records from the Joseon Dynasty, Uigwe are just as important and informative. Uigwe (儀軌 의궤) is the general term used for the collection of records on royal protocols. The records were texts and illustrations of the ceremonies and events that were held by the state and the royal court which often centered around the main members of the Joseon royal family. The texts typically are detailed descriptions explaining the processes of the events and the illustrations accompany these texts to show aspects that are harder to explain in writing.

황태자가례도감의궤 Uigwe for the Wedding of King Sunjong and Empress Sunjeonghyo, 1906. National Palace Museum of Korea

Uigwe were created after the event by the Royal Protocol Office, Uigwecheong, and would contain facts related to the event such as kings’ decisions, documents exchanged, and names of artists and staff involved. Five to nine copies of each document were produced, usually one of these copies was created specifically for the king. The rest of the copies were backups and stored in various libraries and depositors across the country. The uigwe copies that were produced for the king were written on high-quality mulberry paper, bound with a silk cover, brass bindings, and had chrysanthemum-shaped nails. The calligraphy and paintings were also done to a higher standard than the other copies. These were stored in the royal library of Gyujanggak, specifically the Oegyujanggak. The copies that were not produced for the king were made from general mulberry paper and were distributed to locations such as Uijeongbu, Chunchugwan, Yejo and the regional archives. The majority were handwritten and hand-painted, however, some were printed for a wider distribution which allowed the paintings to be produced using woodblock prints. An example of this is the Royal protocol of Jeongjo's visit to his father's tomb in the year of Eulmyo. Some of the most important scenes from the records would also be painted onto folding screens including King Jeongjo's Procession to Hyeollyungwon, as shown below.

Painting of King Jeongjo's Procession to Hyeollyungwon. National Museum of Korea

The Joseon rites were divided into several types Gilrye/Gillye (auspicious rites), Garye (festive rites), Binrye (official banquets or envoys), Gunrye (military rites) and Hyungrye/Hyungnye (funeral rites). There are also additional rites and events that were recorded through uigwe, such as the construction of a royal palace, which resulted in a variety of uigwe being produced. The types of uigwe called Garye, referred to joyous occasions initially in the early period and then in late Joseon was highly associated with the weddings of the kings or crown princes. The 'Uigwe for the Royal Wedding of King Yeongjo and Queen Jeongsun (영조정순후가례도감의궤 Yeongjo Jeongsun hu garye dogam uigwe)' is a beautiful example of this type of uigwe and is a common image used for museum souvenirs. This uigwe depicts the wedding arrangements of the 1759 wedding of King Yeongjo's second marriage to Queen Jeongsun. The uigwe includes descriptions from the selection of a queen through to the ceremony in both text and illustrations. Like all uigwe, this uigwe can tell us a lot about Joseon society and King Yeongjo himself. King Yeongjo was a big advocate of frugality, so he sought to reduce the extravagance of royal wedding ceremonies. Therefore the uigwe includes documentation of Yeongjo ordering the reduction of costs by cancelling banquets, decreasing the number of flowers, recycling/reusing tables and palanquins etc. The illustrations for this uigwe are divided into 50 parts which can be viewed on the National Museum of Korea's online Oegyujanggak. Other ceremonies recorded through uigwe include funerals, investiture ceremonies, construction of buildings (palaces, tombs, shrines etc), and enshrinement of sprit tablets. Surprisingly there are very few texts on the coronations of kings. This was due to the fact that, more often than not, kings would ascend to the throne because their predecessor had died, and the focus was on the funeral rites.

Royal Wedding of King Yeongjo and Queen Jeongsun souvenirs. Image by the author.

You may have noticed the word 'dogam (도감)' in the Uigwe for the Royal Wedding of King Yeongjo and Queen Jeongsun's Korean name '영조정순후가례도감의궤 (Yeongjo Jeongsun hu garye dogam uigwe)'. The term dogam refers to a council that was put together specifically for the state ceremonies and events. This word could be further added to the specific type of event that was being held, for example the aforementioned Uigwe for the Royal Wedding of King Yeongjo and Queen Jeongsun had a Garye dogam (가례도감). The teams and individuals who made up the dogam council were required to keep records and reports of their progress for the event. Another key document created by the dogam were banchado (반차도). Banchado were extensive plans for positioning each participant and instruments involved in a ceremony. These were important as they would be used by the participants including the king to practice their formation before the event. In particular, events surrounding the king could include an impressive number of participants to create a sense of power and strength, the banchado for events with such a large number of participants could end up being meters long. These plans were extremely detailed, down to the colours of clothes and instruments used which teaches us a great deal about the Joseon Dynasty. The reports from the dogam council and any plans used were immediately collected after the event and compiled to create the uigwe.

The largest number of uigwe are stored at Kyujanggak Library, Institute for Korean Studies at Seoul National University. Here there are 2,940 volumes of uigwe, 546 individual types. After this is the Jangseogak Library collection, Academy of Korean Studies which holds 490 volumes, 287 individual types. A large sum of the uigwe from Ganghwa Island, unbeknownst to the Joseon authorities at the time, were taken by French forces during the 1866 French campaign against Korea. They were basically forgotten and stored away at the National Library of France in Paris. Luckily, in 1975 the Korean historian Dr. Park Byeng-sen was working at the National Library and discovered the texts. However, not until 1993 during a visit to Seoul did French President Francois Mitterrand return one of the uigwe books. The 296 remaining uigwe that were kept in the library were not completely returned to Korea until 2011. These uigwe are now stored by the National Museum of Korea. Similar to this, another 145 volumes were taken from Odaesan archives in 1922 during the Japanese colonial rule and were housed in the Imperial Household Agency of Japan until 2011-2012 when they were finally returned to the National Palace Museum of Korea. Both these museums held celebratory special exhibitions for the return of the Uigwe. The National Museum of Korea's exhibition was called 'The Return of the Oegyujanggak Uigwe from France: Records of the State Rites of the Joseon Dynasty' and the National Palace Museum of Korea's exhibition was called 'Books from the Joseon Dynasty Returned from Japan'. The majority of uigwe that still remain in these collections were created during late Joseon as the earlier works were practically all destroyed during the Imjin Wars (1592-1598). In 2007, before either of these returns, Joseon uigwe were selected for UNESCO's "Memory of the World" list.

보인소의궤 Records About Repairing and Casting Royal Seals, 1878. National Palace Museum of Korea

Other than the large collections held in Korea there are a few uigwe that have been scattered across the world including here in the UK. Although it is unknown how the Records of the Ritual Presentation and Banquet in the Kisa Year (Gisa jinpyori jinchan uigwe) left Korea, it is speculated to have been separated from the manuscripts that were taken by the French troops back in 1866. It is the manuscript for the 60th anniversary in 1809 of the marriage of Prince Sado and Lady Hyegyeong. The manuscript was purchased in Paris in 1891 by the British Museum for only £10 and displayed in the Korean Gallery when it opened in 2000, however it was soon moved to the British Library St Pancras building where it is still currently housed. Oxford University's Bodleian Library does own a very similar manuscript that is worth mentioning when discussing uigwe. Bishop Mark Trollope, the third Anglican Bishop of Korea who lived in Seoul in 1890, along with many other items, donated a scroll painting to the University. This scroll was mistakenly believed to be the 'Funeral Procession of Queen Dowager Cho in 1890', however, thanks to the investigation by librarians and curators of the Kyujanggak library, the scroll was confirmed to be the related to the 'Funeral Procession of King Yeongjo'. They were able to come to this conclusion through the comparison with the funeral procession of King Yeongjo uigwe housed at the Kyujanggak library. The scroll owned by Oxford University is a preliminary painting made before the funeral as an aid for the event. After the funeral, eight copies of the official uigwe for Yeongjo’s funeral were made and five are still surviving. Although the scroll owned by Oxford is the plan, not a uigwe, it is still extremely valuable and informative, with only a few differences compared to the official uigwe.


'The Return of the Oegyujanggak Uigwe from France: Records of the State Rites of the Joseon Dynasty.' National Museum of Korea

'Oegyujanggak Uigwe.' National Museum of Korea –

'National Museum of Korea: The Permanent Exhibition.' National Museum of Korea'

'The King at the Palace: Joseon Royal Court Culture at the National Palace Museum of Korea.' National Palace Museum of Korea

‘A Royal Manuscript of 1809 in the British Library.’ Beth McKillop, The International Journal of Korean Art and Archaeology, 2010, Volume 4

'Court Paintings From the Joseon Dynasty.' Park Jeong-hye

'Korea Treasures: Rare Books, Manuscripts and Artefacts in the Bodleian Libraries and Museums of Oxford University.' Minh Chung

‘Unearthing Joseon Court Life from Uigwe Joseon’s Documentary Heritage.’ Park Chan Seung, Korea Journal, 2008, Volume 48, Issue 2

'Joseon Royal Court Culture: Ceremonial and Daily Life.' Shin Myung-ho


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