Seoul Colloquium in Korean Studies: Koryŏ togyŏng, a Window on Koryŏ Society?

Sem Vermeersch, SNU Assoc Prof
Wednesday, February 28, 2018 -
6:00pm to 9:00pm
Grand Conference Room (Room number 310), of the Asiatic Research Institute, Korea University



Primary sources on the Koryŏ period—conveniently called “Korea’s middle ages”—are not exactly abundant. An edition of all transmitted documents dating to before 1392 is extremely thin. Of course, there are a number of other sources—official histories, epitaphs, literary collections (munjip) etc. However, all these stories are heavily edited; they are invariably edited summaries of primary documents, and as such we are one step further removed from the lives of people. A work that has long seemed to offer a way out of this is the Illustrated Account of Koryŏ (Koryŏ togyŏng), a description of the country written by a Chinese official in 1124. With his eye for the details of the society he witnessed, his descriptions of daily life in Koryŏ have long been utilized as a window into that society.


However, in the course of translating this work into English, Dr. Vermeersch discovered that what the work’s author, Xu Jing, witnessed, was fairly limited. Due to the brevity of his sojourn, his lack of understanding of the language and the culture, and the fact that his minders did not let him roam Koryŏ’s capital city of Kaesŏng freely, he had to pad up his account with other sources: previous descriptions by Chinese envoys, Chinese dynastic histories, texts that he could copy in Kaesŏng, hearsay, etc. This explains why some of his descriptions are less than inspiring; but more importantly, this should prompt us to review some of the long-held truisms about Koryŏ society, from marriage and gender relations to the  appreciation of Chinese culture by Koryŏ people. In this presentation I will try to cover a number of the most salient issues thrown up by this work.



Sem Vermeersch is an Associate professor, Department. of Religious Studies, Seoul National University


The February 2018 session of the “Seoul Colloquium in Korean Studies,” organized jointly by the Seoul Center of the ÉFEO and RAS Korea, will be held on WEDNESDAY February 28 in the Grand Conference Room (Room number 310), of the Asiatic Research Institute, Korea University, beginning at 6:00 pm. Everyone interested in Korean Studies is welcome, please share this information. No registration is needed. 


From Korea University station (line 6), take exit 1, go to the right, up the sloping walkway to the campus. Walk past the building with the Ilmin Museum (the first building you'll see almost in front of you, a little to the left), and continue walking straight up the hill until you reach the Asiatic Research Institute on the right. We will go somewhere for supper at the end of the colloquium. After 6 pm the front door of the Institute will be locked, so please try to arrive a little earlier. If the door is locked, please wait for somone to come out to let you into the building.  All are welcome!





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