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Research Snapshot: Diaries in Joseon Dynasty and Research Trends

Geeeun Kwon (The Academy of Korean Studies)


Translated literally from Classical Chinese, the word ‘diary’ refers to a record of everyday events. During the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910), various terms were used to refer to records that have the form of a diary: illok [日錄], ilji [日誌], ilseong [日省], ilseung [日乘], illyeok [日曆], lok [錄], gi [記], et cetera. In addition to official records, many people in the Joseon dynasty also wrote diaries. In part, this phenomenon can be explained by increasing literacy rates and the growing availability of stationery. However, a more fundamental reason lies in the way that Joseon society operated and the self-awareness of Joseon people.

The diaries that are most well-known to the public are generally diaries written by individuals. What is special about these individual diaries that can be used as historical research data? The biggest feature and importance of the diaries written in the Joseon Dynasty is that it provides the possibility of interpreting historical events differently from the perspective of alternative historical sources, and also contributes to supplementing officially recorded histories. The royal-led compilation history books recorded in the Joseon Dynasty are very refined and can be said to be a government-centered record. However, since an individual’s diary is written from their own perspective of a given situation, diaries can be data that can shed light on the history of the periphery, not just the history of the center.

In 2007, a study confirmed the existence of 1,600 diaries from the Joseon Dynasty.[1] Of these, eighty percent of Joseon-era diaries examined so far are personal diaries. The distribution pattern of individual diaries varies by period. The prevalence of individual diaries gradually increased from the 14th to the 19th century, with about thirty percent of personal diaries written in the 19th century and twenty percent in the 18th century, followed by the 17th century and then the 16th century. In other words, starting in the 16th century, the number of personal diaries started to increase and the content became abundant.

The types of diaries written during the Joseon Dynasty can be divided into four types considering the writer and how they were recorded. First, are diaries that the author wrote by themselves. For example, the Imjin ilgi [The diary of the imjin year [1592]] is a diary that recorded a first-person account of an evacuation during the Japanese Invasion of Korea in 1592, written by the author Jo Jeong. Second, are transcriptions of an earlier draft in the form of a memo, which could either be transcribed by the author or transcribed by another person—usually a descendant. For example, Kim Ryeong (1577-1641) kept a diary from July 1, 1603, to March 12, 1641, of which the original diary from 1603 was recorded by himself, with the rest transcribed by his descendants. Third, are published diaries. After the writer’s death, an author’s descendants would organize his diary and include it in a literary collection. Among published diaries, most original versions of the diary do not remain, but in rare cases both the original and published versions remain, enabling a comparison between the original document and what was included in the literary collection. Jo Jeong’s aforementioned diary is also one example here. Fourth, are cases in which diaries were copied by someone else. The writings of famous scholars, including among them diaries, were published in anthologies and read by many people. Park Ji-won’s Yeolha ilgi [Travel diary of Rehe] is a typical example. This is a travel diary in which Park Ji-won went to Beijing and Chengde in his capacity as an envoy dispatched to celebrate the 70th birthday of the Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty in 1780. Travel diaries were popular in 19th century Joseon, in particular travel diaries recording visits to the Qing Dynasty. Many copies of different editions of this diary remain, as diverse as its popularity. The time period of each diary also varies widely. In addition to recording a day’s work, there are also diaries written over generations.

Then why did people in the Joseon Dynasty keep diaries? Hawa illok is the diary of Ryu Eui-mok (1785-1833), who recorded his daily life from January 1, 1796, when he turned 11 years old, to December 29, 1802. At the very beginning of the diary he included a preface, written later in 1806 when he was at the age of 22.

What is a diary? It’s just that you must record what you did every day in your notebook, look at it, reflect on it, and use it as a basis for making things right. Why does it start in the year of byeongjin (1796)? ……the rest of it recorded the whole work and was recorded in a sequence of dates. The clear and cloudy weather and some of the wind and rain were all recorded, and I wanted to spread them out from time to time in my later years. …… I hope there will be a small help on the way to control your mind and be prudent in your body.[2]

In this translation of the preface, Ryu reveals his own definition of a diary, his motive for writing the diary, the composition of the daily content, and so on. In short, for Ryu, diaries were written to record what he has done every day and to use them as a tool for self-reflection.

In the past twenty years diaries began to attract attention as a type of historical source. Until then, Joseon diaries were often studied as a genre of ‘literature’. Since 2010, about 20 studies directly using diaries have been published every year, with many more indirect references to diaries in addition to this. Also, personal diaries contain valuable data that can supplement or allow scholars to estimate the missing elements of existing historical narratives. There is definitely a philological or textual value to the diary.

Based on the historical nature of diaries as well as recent academic trends, various studies related to diaries are currently being written in Korea. The diary contains the world of the time as experienced by the author. Although individual subjectivity can present issues in their interpretation, diaries allow for a reading of history that in its detail is closer to daily life than has been available before..


[1] [1] Hwang Wiju, Joseon sidae ilgi jaryo ui hyeonhwang gwa hwaryong bangan [A Study on the Current Situation and Utilization of Diaries], Gugyeong Joseon sidae seowon ilgi [Translated Diary of Confucian Academy during the Joseon Dynasty], The Korean Studies Institute (2007). As of 2020, work is underway to comprehensively check the current status of personal diaries in the Joseon Dynasty. So far, it has confirmed about 4,000 cases. A list of diaries surveyed by 2022 will be released in 2023.

[2] Ryu Eui-mok, Hawa illok, “日記者何。日之所爲。必書于冊。以備觀省而資改耳。然則。曷自丙辰始……其餘則載其始終。日時悉無遺漏。而至於氣候之晴陰風雨之多小。亦備錄之。欲於晩暮優閑之暇。庶或有補於治心勅躬之道之萬一云。歲在柔兆攝提格。”


Author Biography

Geeeun Kwon

Graduate student (Ph.D.), The Graduate School of Korean Studies, The Academy of Korean Studies.

Korean Literature in Chinese / History of Late Joseon Dynasty / History of Mentality

My research interests lie at the intersection of intellectual, cultural, and social history. I am especially interested in the exchange and development of ideas and concepts across societies and people. I completed my master’s degree in Literature at Sungkyunkwan University. For now, I finished my Ph.D. course at The Graduate School of Korean Studies, The Academy of Korean Studies, and preparing a thesis to claim my Ph.D. degree.


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