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Sajeongjeon Edition of The Annotated Zizhi Tongjian

By Lee Jaejeong and the National Museum of Korea
First page of chapter 236 of the Sajeongjeon Edition of The Annotated Zizhi Tongjian, edited and published by King Sejong, 1436 (Joseon dynasty), 27.7 x 14.7 cm, Treasure 1281-1 (National Museum of Korea)
First page of chapter 236 of the Sajeongjeon Edition of The Annotated Zizhi Tongjian, edited and published by King Sejong, 1436 (Joseon dynasty), 27.7 x 14.7 cm, Treasure 1281-1 (National Museum of Korea)
While every human civilization has studied history in order to learn lessons from the past, this practice is particularly integral to
cultures. Needless to say, with Neo-Confucianism as its official state ideology, the
placed great emphasis on history. Throughout the 500-year reign of the dynasty, the kings and intellectuals of Joseon scrupulously studied and consulted historical texts as guides for proper rule. One of the representative examples of this practice is The Annotated Zizhi Tongjian (資治通鑑), which explains the principles of the ancient Chinese political text Zizhi Tongjian, originally published in 1084.
Detail, Sima Guang, Zizhi Tongjian (Comprehensive Mirror to Aid in Government, 資治通鑑), 1084 (Song Dynasty) (National Library of China)
Detail, Sima Guang, Zizhi Tongjian (Comprehensive Mirror to Aid in Government, 資治通鑑), 1084 (Song Dynasty) (National Library of China)

Zizhi Tongjian, or Comprehensive Mirror to Aid in Governance

Zizhi Tongjian was written by the politician and historian
by the order of
of the Song Dynasty. The official title of 資治通鑑 (Comprehensive Mirror to Aid in Government) was conferred by
. In this text, Sima Guang chronologically examines more than 1350 years of Chinese history, from the reign of King Weilie of the Zhou Dynasty (starting in 403 B.C.E.) to 960 C.E., the final year of the
. Sima Guang spent nineteen years working on the publication of Zizhi Tongjian, which consists of 294 chapters.
Exhaustively documenting and evaluating a wide range of thoughts and actions by various types of people, this comprehensive record came to be known as the definitive “textbook for government” and “guidebook for a ruler,” and thus became mandatory reading for the emperors and kings of both China and Korea. Accordingly, over the centuries, many scholars published their own commentaries on the original text.
Pages from the Sajeongjeon Edition of The Annotated Zizhi Tongjian, edited and published by King Sejong, 1436 (Joseon dynasty), 27.7 x 14.7 cm, Treasure 1281-1 (National Museum of Korea)
Pages from the Sajeongjeon Edition of The Annotated Zizhi Tongjian, edited and published by King Sejong, 1436 (Joseon dynasty), 27.7 x 14.7 cm, Treasure 1281-1 (National Museum of Korea)

King Sejong: losing sleep in order to edit

Although we do not know exactly when Zizhi Tongjian was introduced to Korea, records indicate that it was referenced in
by
. As such, Zizhi Tongjian was clearly known in Korea by the
.
We do know that Zizhi Tongjian took on special reverence as a government book during the Joseon period. In his edict on royal accession,
pronounced that he would employ government experts who were well-versed in both the “Four Books and Five Classics” and Zizhi Tongjian. Likewise,
read Zizhi Tongjian and discussed it with his officials.
Sajeongjeon Edition of The Annotated Zizhi Tongjian, edited and published by King Sejong, 1436 (Joseon dynasty), 27.7 x 14.7 cm, Treasure 1281-1 (National Museum of Korea)
Sajeongjeon Edition of The Annotated Zizhi Tongjian, edited and published by King Sejong, 1436 (Joseon dynasty), 27.7 x 14.7 cm, Treasure 1281-1 (National Museum of Korea)
However, with almost 300 chapters, Zizhi Tongjian was extremely long, dense, and abstruse. Furthermore, it was very difficult to obtain the entire set. Thus, in order to provide the Joseon people with better access to and a deeper understanding of the text,
and his
set about creating a Korean version of Zizhi Tongjian.
From June 1434 to June 1435, King Sejong worked diligently on this project, assisted by the Hall of Worthies and various other scholars. During the course of the project, the king temporarily suspended the “Gyeongyeon” (經筵), or “Royal Lectures,” a regular forum wherein the king and his officials would meet to discuss political and scholarly issues and broaden their intellectual horizons.
King Sejong personally supervised the publication of this Korean edition. All of the scholars leading the project were required to submit their new pages to the king each evening, and the king would then stay up late into the night meticulously editing the submissions. According to records, King Sejong told his scholars that editing the manuscripts had reminded him of the benefits of reading, and that his intelligence was increasing every day, albeit at the cost of his sleep.
The final result of this project was the “Sajeongjeon Edition” of The Annotated Zizhi Tongjian (資治通鑑思政殿訓義), which was named after Sajeongjeon Hall in Gyeongbokgung Palace, where King Sejong and the Hall of Worthies often gathered for the Gyeongyeon (“Royal Lectures”). To help readers understand the original Zizhi Tongjian, this edition features annotations explaining the Chinese place names, historical figures, and stories, along with various other summaries and commentaries. The goal of the publication was to provide the Joseon people with the background knowledge and history needed to understand this Chinese classic.
Whenever possible, the Sajeongjeon Edition referenced existing Chinese annotations and commentaries about Zizhi Tongjian. In the preface, however, the scholars claim that this edition aimed to provide more in-depth commentary on Zizhi Tongjian while still making the text clearer and easier to read.
The Sajeongjeon Edition was widely praised by the Joseon
, including
, one of the leading scholars of the early Joseon period. In his Miscellaneous Writings in the Brush Garden (筆苑雜記), Seo Geojeong declared, “No other book in the world is as detailed and accurate as the Sajeongjeon Edition of The Annotated Zizhi Tongjian. I believe that it truly is the definitive edition.” After its publication, the Sajeongjeon Edition was chosen as the official textbook for the “Royal Lectures” of the king and crown prince, and was widely read throughout the Joseon period.
Large font of the imjinja type, created in 1772 as the fifth metal type based on the gabinja type. Imjinja types, Joseon dynasty, metal, each 1.3 x 1.5 cm (National Museum of Korea)
Large font of the imjinja type, created in 1772 as the fifth metal type based on the gabinja type. Imjinja types, Joseon dynasty, metal, each 1.3 x 1.5 cm (National Museum of Korea)

Publication of the Sajeongjeon Edition

After the text was completed in June 1435, the book was printed in February 1436. During the Joseon period, the printing and publication of books was led by the royal court and central government. Books printed in the capital were then distributed to the provinces or given to government officials.
Written records state that King Sejong originally wished to print 500 to 600 sets of the text using woodblocks. To enact this plan, the king ambitiously prepared 300,000 sheets of paper in 1434. In reality, it would have been prohibitively difficult, not to mention financially unfeasible, to use woodblock printing to produce 500 sets of a text with 294 chapters. For one, such an effort would have required the monumental task of carving thousands of woodblocks. Thus, in the end, the books were printed with metal type, rather than woodblocks. Each set consisted of 100 volumes (covering the original 294 chapters), and it is not certain how many sets were published.
Notably, the Sajeongjeon Edition of The Annotated Zizhi Tongjian was printed with gabinja metal type, another of the crowning achievements of King Sejong’s reign. Nurturing a deep interest in publication, King Sejong continually sought to improve the quality and efficiency of printing by developing metal types. The pinnacle of these efforts was the gabinja type, which followed the calligraphy style of a publication printed by the Ming court. The gabinja type was much more efficient than the two previous metal types (i.e. gyemija and gyeongjaja). Immediately recognized as the finest and most beautiful of all metal types, the gabinja type became the prototype for five more metal types that were cast during the Joseon period.
Pages from the Sajeongjeon Edition of The Annotated Zizhi Tongjian, edited and published by King Sejong, 1436 (Joseon dynasty), 27.7 x 14.7 cm, Treasure 1281-1 (National Museum of Korea)
Pages from the Sajeongjeon Edition of The Annotated Zizhi Tongjian, edited and published by King Sejong, 1436 (Joseon dynasty), 27.7 x 14.7 cm, Treasure 1281-1 (National Museum of Korea)

Embodying the generous spirit of the donor

Unfortunately, no complete set of the Sajeongjeon Edition of The Annotated Zizhi Tongjian printed under King Sejong has survived. Only a few extant volumes are known, scattered in various places. This is hardly a surprise, given the passage of time and the fact that so few sets were published in the first place. This particular volume, now housed in the National Museum of Korea, corresponds to chapters 236 through 238, which cover the Tang Dynasty from 801 (seventeenth year of Emperor Dezong) to 812 (seventh year of Emperor Xianzong). In addition to being one of the few extant copies of the original text, this is the only volume of the Sajeongjeon Edition of The Annotated Zizhi Tongjian printed under King Sejong that has been designated as a
(Treasure 1281-1).
Beginning of the first page, Sajeongjeon Edition of The Annotated Zizhi Tongjian, edited and published by King Sejong, 1436, 27.7 x 14.7 cm, Treasure 1281-1 (National Museum of Korea)
Beginning of the first page, Sajeongjeon Edition of The Annotated Zizhi Tongjian, edited and published by King Sejong, 1436, 27.7 x 14.7 cm, Treasure 1281-1 (National Museum of Korea)
The first line of the book (in vertical writing) states the title (i.e., Zizhi Tongjian) and the number of the chapter. The next two lines give the name and government position of the original author, Sima Guang. Interestingly, the characters of these two lines were fully engraved into a woodblock, which could then be inserted into the line of metal type. Since Sima Guang’s name and government post (which was quite long) had to be repeated for each chapter, the creation of the woodblock stamp would have saved valuable time and effort, in the same way that government offices of today often use a stamp to mark documents. The fourth line of text explains that the project of publishing The Annotated Zizhi Tongjian took place in Sajeongjeon Hall, confirming that the book was published by King Sejong and the scholars from the Hall of Worthies.
The Sajeongjeon Edition of The Annotated Zizhi Tongjian resonates with King Sejong’s love of literature, his reverence for history, and his aspirations to be a just ruler. Moreover, the book reflects the generosity of the late
, who donated it to the National Museum of Korea in 2003. Imbued with vestiges of the noble spirit and intelligence of the donor, this book is one of the true treasures from the collection of the National Museum of Korea.

Additional resources
Read this essay and learn more on The National Museum of Korea’s website.

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