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Passion for jikji keeps Korean historian in France going

Park Byeong-seon, a Korean historian in France“All I ask is just another year of research.”

Dr. Park Byeong-seon, 83, is a Korean historian in France who is considered a hero at home for her discovery of Korea’s Buljo Jikjisimcheyojeol, a collection of Buddhist documents in the French National Library in 1967.

With it, she proved Korea as the first place in the world where moveable metal type was used for printing. This collection -- also referred to by its shortened name “Jikji” -- was printed in 1377, 78 years earlier than the Gutenberg Bible. UNESCO honored it by including it in its World Heritage listing in 2001.

It was not long after the Korean War (1950-53) in 1955 when Park first flew to Paris for additional study abroad after graduating from the history department of Seoul National University. Her initial goal was to learn the school system there and establish a private school of her own upon returning to Korea. 

After a decade-long stay, she applied for a post at the National Library of France in Paris. She went there for two reasons: easy access to the books and secondly for what her professor back home told her – that she might come across some of the lost national treasures taken to France more than a century ago.

“As a Korean, it’s only natural that you want to know more about Byeong-in Yangyo. If you want to hunt a tiger you must enter its cave first,” said Park in her interview with Weekly Gonggam Magazine. “Byeong-in Yang-yo,” or the French disturbance of Korea in the year named Byeong-in Year (1866) refers to French troops’ attack on Korea’s Ganghwa-do Island in October of that year. The attack was made after the Korean government’s execution of several French priests and thousands of Korean followers of Roman Catholicism in January the same year. In the process the island’s Oegyujanggak Library that contained some 5,067 books, portraits, protocols, seals and other priceless records was burnt down. The rest of the artifacts that managed to survive the fire were taken away by French troops.

After going through some 30 million books and writings over 13 years, she finally found them, the Jikji and another 297 “Uigwe” or royal protocols of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), covered in dust and mis-classified as Chinese books. She remembers vividly her first encounter of the Jikji.

Buljo Jikjisimcheyojeol (1377), a collection of Buddhist scripture in Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392)“I was confident from the beginning that this was the Korean Buddhist scripture from Korea, and more importantly printed with moveable metal type,” she said.

But to make sure, she bought some cast molds from a newspaper and print shop to try out herself. She almost burnt her house down three times while experimenting with lead type. It didn’t take long to discover a trace of metal in the old pages of Buddhist scripture.

Librarians called her “la femme cachee derriere le livre bleu” (a woman caught up in a blue book) seeing her buried inside the blue-covered Oegyujanggak books all the time.

She notified the result to the Korean Embassy in France. Thus began the long-winding struggle over these pieces of cultural heritage. In July 1992, the Korean Embassy made its first official request to France to return the books.

Her French supervisors turned a cold shoulder to her after that. Park submitted her resignation in order to keep up her quest. Since then she visited the library as a civilian, asking for the rights to see the books, resisting one rejection after the other. “I spent the next 10 years copying down the table of contents and summarizing the books. I always skipped lunch, afraid that they might hurry me to return them.”

So far only one book has been returned to Korea. It was during the Korea-France summit meeting between then-Korean President Kim Yong-sam and his French counterpart Francois Mitterand in 1993. France, which was bidding for a contract to export its high-speed train TGV at the time promised to return the rest of the 296 collection but this was met with harsh opposition back home.

The other alternative, for France to return the books as a form of “permanent loan” in exchange for other equally important cultural relics from Korea, was rejected by Korean scholars. In the latest step, the two governments joined hands to digitalize the contents of the books in 2008.

Frail body yet big dreams

Last September Park returned to Korea to collect more resources on Byeong-in Yang-yo. An unexpected stomachache led her to the hospital and there she was diagnosed with fourth stage colon cancer. “I still need a whole year to straighten up all my research. I would thank heavens if I were given that time,” she said.

She never married. Instead she wrote over a dozen academic books on her research. “Research was my lifetime task. Maybe I was too much of an egoist to get married. I was really not sure whether I could be a good wife and a mother.”

Park also worked on finding lost data and resources on the Korean provisional government and the Independence Movement during the Japanese annexation of Korea (1910-45). “Because the Korean provisional government was located within Shanghai’s French-controlled concession at the time, you wouldn’t believe how many resources I have come across related to Korea in that field, too,” said Park. “I feel compelled to find them all before my generation passes away, leaving those resources scattered about outside Korea.”

Metal-type of Korea’s Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392)Her other priority is writing a five-volume book based on the resources she collected for decades. The project is currently on hold after the publication of its first volume, due to a suspension of government aid. But even in her weakened condition she got excited when talking about her work.

“It’s a book that reveals the social and political background of how the Byeong-in Yang-yo Incident came to be. I wish I could meet someone who has letters or diaries from that time. I returned to Korea temporarily in hopes of finding such person,” said Park.

Meanwhile, the news of her ailing condition had Park’s fans and sponsors at home as well as government offices and big business scrambling to raise funds. The Cultural Heritage Administration and big corporations like Samsung Insurance, Hyundai-Kia Motors and Shinhan Bank, covered most of her hospital expenses. Her surgery in early January went well, to the delight of many, and Park is currently convalescing.

Cheongju City in Chungcheongbuk-do (North Chungcheong Province) that also chipped in with 120 million won for Park’s surgery plans to fund the Jikji Culture Research Center that Park established in Paris last year.

With such rooting from home, Park can’t wait to return to Paris to continue her task. “The reason I found the Jikji and studied Oegyujanggak was because I loved doing it. You have no idea the thrill of studying and disclosing what others didn’t know.”

Separately Cheongju Early Printing Museum of thee same city intends to establish a display booth about Korean Jikji at Germany’s Leipzig’s Museum of Fine Arts, one of the oldest museums in the country. About 50 million won of budgetary funds will be secured by the latter half of 2010 to install records, copies and replicas related to the Jikji book, such as a complete set of old printing equipment from the Joseon era, including casting molds.

For more information on the Jikji and Oegyujanggak, refer to these sites:
(1) National Memory Heritage Service
(2) Jikji

By Kim Hee-sung Staff Writer

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