The Joseon wangjo sillok, or the True Records of the Joseon Dynasty, is the official compilations of daily records of Korea’s Joseon court from 1392 through 1863. Spanning 472 years, the Sillok, or the true records, consists of 888 books (47,700,000 Chinese characters) and contains a vast array of information including not just political, diplomatic, and legal affairs but also social, economic, cultural, scholarly, artistic, scientific, and technological matters. Its far-reaching scope ranges from grand state ceremonies and eloquent expositions on macroeconomics down to candid stories of human depravity and humorous descriptions of humble fraudsters. To history buffs, this is a veritable treasure trove of information, a seemingly inexhaustible source of clues and hints for research into Korean history and East Asian civilization, and indeed, human nature.
The Sillok Institute is founded on the idea that such Sillok records bear relevance even to this day, and particularly today—given the fact that the Sillok was hardly ever read by anyone during the 472 years of its making. Once volumes covering the reign of a recently deceased king were compiled, they were strictly safeguarded from prying eyes, especially from those of the successor kings, who upon reading them might have been tempted to change the facts recorded therein to beautify their predecessor. Thus, in a very real sense, the Sillok was written, not for anyone then living, but for future generations who would someday emerge to read the records after their dynasty would have ended. This happened in 1910, when Joseon was forcibly annexed to the Japanese Empire, but the records remained virtually inaccessible to most people until the original texts of the Sillok, which were written in hanmun (classical Chinese), were translated into Korean and digitized in the second half of the 20th century and then uploaded to an internet website in the first decade of the 21st century. Finally, the Sillok was made public in an accessible form.
The value of the Sillok lies in the richness and truthfulness of its accounts. For instance, because of the importance Confucians attached to abnormal heavenly phenomena and natural disasters as Heaven’s warnings against the ruler’s misconduct, such events were carefully recorded in the entire span of the Sillok, which contains well over 25,000 observations on natural abnormalities. This stands in stark contrast to a paucity of information regarding natural disasters and abnormal atmospheric phenomena in the comparable records of Joseon’s neighbors, where such records were purged by the succeeding emperors precisely because they were considered signs of imperial imperfections of the preceding reigns.
Joseon’s laudable effort to maintain historiographical honesty has begun to bear fruit in the form of Professor Tae-jin Yi’s ongoing research on the little ice age, which is made possible by the sheer magnitude of accurately collated data on natural phenomena found in Sillok texts. Such an abundance of collected scientific data spanning nearly five hundred years is rare anywhere in pre-modern times and will prove invaluable in many fields of study in coming years. The Sillok Institute seeks to raise global awareness on the significance and the untapped potential of the Sillok records by actively engaging in a wide range of scholastic and creative endeavors conducted in English, such as research, translation and annotation, publication, training and education, and multimedia content creation relevant to the Sillok.