Of over 50 pre-19th century woodblock and moveable-type editions in the British Library's Korean collections, the majority are Confucian texts, editions of Chinese philosophical works and bilingual Chinese character - Korean alphabet editions designed for teaching the Chinese language to Koreans.
Korea's syncretic religious traditions are neatly encapsulated in the Pulsol Taebo Pumu unjunggyong (Sutra of Filial Piety), held in two editions of which the earlier, printed on stiff, burnished dark paper, is of mid 16th -entury date. This apocryphal work stresses the obligation of children to honour and respect their parents through a series of illustrations from the life of the Buddha, whose birth and childhood are described in a simple parallel text (Chinese characters and Korean alphabet).
Or. 74.b.3 Detail from Pulsol Taebo Pumu unjunggyong (Sutra of Filial Piety), showing printer's name and including text in Korean Hangul script. Copyright © The British Library Board
Another notable holding is a group of 15th and 16th century editions of the Confucian tracts published in the early Choson period by the reforming court as it tried to discourage indigenous patterns of worhip, marriage law and funerary observance in favour of Confucian Chinese rules. These Samgang haengsildo (Illustrations of the Three Bonds) and related works are among the earliest works to be printed in the Korean alphabet Hangul which was promulgated in 1446AD and include numerous woodblock illustrations.
The earliest example of moveable type printing in the world was made at a provincial temple in central Korea and dates from the mid-14th century. The British Library's collection of Korean moveable type printing can boast examples of important fonts which built on the pioneering work of earlier printers, such as the kyongja of 1420 and the famous, finely proportioned characters of the kabin font, first used in 1434 and often recast in the succeeding decades and centuries.
Since Korean editions form a small part of the Library's rare collections relating to East Asia, and since until the 1950s the Library was without a member of staff able to recognise and describe works in Korea, confusion has occasionally arisen about the provenance of some editions, which can bear superficial resemblance to Japanese and Chinese versions of similar texts. Recataloguing and reattribution of many works has been carried out in the past 40 or so years, and the Korean collection is now clearly distinguished from the Chinese and Japanese collections, although a few isolated examples of problematic attribution do persist.
Hamish Todd, Lead Curator, Japanese and Korean
Asian and African Studies
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