Early Printing in Korea - 5.1 The Government Publications (官)

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Understanding Korea Series No.2
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5. The Publishing Entities of Korean Traditional Prints 1) The Government Publications (官) 2) The Private Publications

The two major publishing sources of early Korean prints are the government and private organizations. The quantity of government publications greatly outnumbers that of private ones. During the Joseon Dynasty, in particular, publications were initiated predominantly by the government. Books had different uses back then. They were not for sale; rather, they were the means of spreading the country’s ruling philosophy. Published books including archive editions were distributed only to a few top officials and nobles, and as a result, production and circulation were bound to be limited. The government of Joseon, founded on Confucian ideology, regarded publishing books as an effective educational tool and utilized it vigorously. The books published by the government were called gwanpanbon (官板本), and were mostly published by Gyoseogwan (校書館, the Central Government Publishing Agency). Even though publication was not their main task, Gwansanggam (觀象監, the Meteorological Agency), Sayeokwon (司譯院, the Central Translation and Interpretation Agency), Sigangwon (侍講院, the Royal Education Agency for the Crown Prince), and Naeuiwon (內醫院, the Royal Medical Clinic) published books for their own needs, and temporary institutions such as Chansucheong (撰修廳), Chanjipcheong (撰集廳) and Gyojeongcheong (校正廳) were established to publish books as needed. Gangyeongdogam (刊經都監), of the early Joseon Dynasty, chiefly published Buddhist canons, and Hullyeondogam (訓鍊都監) of the early 17th century were typical temporary publishing institutions, printing books using wooden movable type when resources were scarce due to war. At the local level, provincial officers such as Yeong Yeong (嶺營, Gyeongsang-do Provincial Officer), Wan Yeong (完營, Jeolla-do Provincial Officer) and Gi Yeong (箕營, Pyeongan-do Provincial Officer) took the leading role in publishing. Although the quantity was not substantial compared to the government’s output, private entities such as Buddhist temples and schools, as well as families and individuals published books. Even banggakbon (books for commercial sales) were published in the later period.

Since books were published for public purposes during the Joseon Era, the circulation of books by sale was not as dynamic as in China or Japan. There were several discussions about establishing a book store (書肆) after the 16th century; however, nothing came to fruition. It was not until the 19th century that books became widely available for sale and book stores started bustling. The books published by the government were distributed in the form of imperial gifts, not sold, and this ritual of the King awarding books was called bansa (頒賜). When awarded, the date of the award and the awardee’s name were recorded on the inside of the front cover, and the record was called bansagi (頒賜記) or naesagi (內賜記). Primary recipients of these gifts included the history libraries (史庫) located on mountains like Jeongjoksan, Taebaeksan, Odaesan, and Jeoksangsan, major branches of the central and local governments, current and retired officials of the central government and local government officials. An early print with naesagi is called naesabon, and naesagi is recorded on the backside of its cover. The upper right corner of the first page of the main content is always stamped with printing notes (印記) such as Seonsajigi (宣賜之記), Gyujangjibo (奎章之寶), Dongmunjibo (同文之寶), Seonsadanbo (宣賜端輔), and Heummumjibo (欽文之寶). The fact that naesagi was recorded meant the book was published before the naesa date, and since bansa is usually done right after the publication, the naesagi year is sometimes assumed to be the publication date.

<Figure 25> Naesabon and Naesagi

Where were books actually published during the Joseon Dynasty? There existed myriad publishing houses in the Joseon Era, in which, unlike today, in many cases printing and publication were not clearly differentiated. In case of the central government, the differentiation was recorded, but in most cases, Gyoseogwan was in charge of printing, and each individual publishing branch’s name was mentioned or the book plate was stored. Several noteworthy institutions and publications will be discussed here according to the time of publication.

Joseon’s ruling ideology was Confucian philosophy, yet during the King Sejo’s reign, he established Gangyeongdogam to publish Buddhist canons, making it a national undertaking. Taking Daejangdogam (大藏都監) and Gyojangdogam (敎藏都監) of the Goryeo Dynasty into consideration, the main branch was placed in the central government and local branches (分司) were established in the provinces. Buddhist monks and Confucian scholars were both invited to the Dogam to translate Buddhist canons into Korean and conduct editing and printing. King Sejo sometimes added Gugyeol to the translation personally. The books published by Gangyeongdogam were made by the best printing masters using the highest-quality materials; they may be the best quality books produced at the time.

Gangyeongdogam only existed for a short time, yet it produced a large number of Buddhist canons. Gyoseogwan is known to have been the longest-maintained and largest publication institution. It was in charge of the central government’s printing, and was given its official name of Gyoseogwan in 1484. The engraving and printing quality of the books published by the central government was superior, and the ones published by Gyoseogwan were classic examples. Daejeonhusokrok (大典後續錄) records itemized punishments for the printing masters when there were any mistakes in the book: for example, 30 lashings per error.[1] This suggests the great efforts put into the book making process and helps explain why there are so few mistakes in the government publications of the early Joseon Dynasty.

Numerous books were published by government departments other than Gyoseogwan, even though their main task was not publishing. Gwansanggam (觀象監), the department designated for observing weather and astronomy, acted as a publishing institute. Gwansangam’s main tasks included astronomical and meteorological observations, the production of maps and selecting auspicious dates (taegil), and it also published calendars (冊曆) which it distributed every year. Since a high volume of calendars were published, the woodblock printing method was used in most cases, but many earlier calendars were published with metal movable type called Gwansanggamhwalja.

<Figure 26> Neungeomgyeong published by Gangyeongdogam in the 15th century

Sayeokwon (司譯院), in charge of translation and interpretation of foreign languages, published books as well. Workbooks for learning foreign language such as Chinese, Japanese, Mongol and Manchu were published; Nogeoldae (老乞大), Baktongsa (朴通事) and Cheophaesineo (捷解新語) are the most well known. Gangyeongdogam and Gyoseogwan were specialized publishing institutions, but other agencies like Gwansanggam and Sayeokwon published books according to their specific needs.

Although the topics were extremely limited, counting the number of plates engraved for woodblock printing shows that local government were as active publishers as the central government. Written records confirm there are 980 kinds of book plates maintained by the local governments by the end of the 16th century. After that, publishing was stalled temporarily due to the consecutive outbreak of wars: Imjinwaeran, Jeongmyohoran and Byeongjahoran. But it slowly started to resume from the late 17th century, and was once again flourishing by the beginning of the 18th century. This publication activities of the local government can be confirmed by the book plate lists such as Gosachwalyo (攷事撮要), Nupango (鏤板考) and Jedochaekpanmokrok (諸道冊版目錄). Among those, Nupango, which was compiled in the 20th year of the King Jeongjo’s reign (1796), introduces not only government publications but also the books owned by the Buddhist temples, local schools and individuals.


  1. 『大典後續錄』卷3 禮典雜令條. “...書冊印出時 監印官監校官唱準守藏均字匠每一卷一字誤錯者 笞三十每一字加一等 印出匠每一卷一字 或濃墨或熹微者笞三十每一字加一等 竝計字數治罪 官員五字以上罷黜 唱準以下匠人論罪後削任五十竝勿揀赦前”

Understanding Korea Series No.2 Early Printings in Korea

Foreword · Acknowledgments

1. Korea’s Memory of the World and Early Printing (古印刷)

2. The Origins of World Printing Culture and Korea · 2.1 The Emergence of Printing Culture and Korea · 2.2 The Development of Printing Materials

3. Woodblock Printing and Movable Type Printing · 3.1 Woodblock Printing · 3.2 Movable Type Printing · 3.3 Other Early Printing

4. The Invention and Development of Metal Movable Type Printing · 4.1 Metal Movable Type Casting · 4.2 Metal Movable Type Typesetting

5. The Publishing Entities of Korean Traditional Prints · 5.1 The Government Publications (官) · 5.2 The Private Publications

Reference · Glossary · Sources · About the Author