Glossing over history

I thought I’d write a quick post about another web resource I’ve just started to use quite a bit recently. This is the online Glossary of Korean Studies put together by the Academy of Korean Studies. I’ll start with a gripe: the search function doesn’t work in Firefox. Ok, now that’s out of the way I can say that I think this is an absolutely wonderful resource – it’s massive and generally seems very well put together. The methodology that they have used is to rely, where possible, on a body of English-language books on Korean history mainly written or translated by Western scholars as their basic source material for translations of Korean historical terms. Specifically, the books that seem to have been most commonly used are Yi Kibaek’s A New History of Korea, translated by Edward W. Wagner; James B. Palais’ Politics and Policy in Traditional Korea; Martina Deuchler’s The Confucian Transformation of Korea and Han Woo-Keun’s The History of Korea. Obviously there are limitations to this approach – most of these books are now quite old and more recent works may have opted for other translations. But in general they seem like a pretty good selection particularly since they are very respected and established works that all undergraduates studying Korean history are likely to encounter at some point or another.

In general I think it is a good idea that we have standardised translations of Korean historical terms as well as standardised transliterations (actually the AKS glossary provides transliterations in both the current government system and M-R). It can certainly be confusing reading about the Ministry of Taxation in one book, the Board of Finance in another and the Board of Revenue in yet another (I’m talking about the Chosŏn dynasty central government institution called the Hojo 戶曺). Having said that, I would be wary of advocating in principle that all scholars use the same terms. Clearly people might have very specific reasons why they prefer one translation to another or they might want to challenge a particular translation on the grounds that it is not an accurate reflection of the meaning of the original (Sino)-Korean term.

An example that I can give you from my own research is that of the terms sijŏn 市廛 and yugŭijŏn 六矣廛. You will usually find these translated as ‘licensed store/shop’ and the ‘six licensed stores’ (as they are in the AKS Glossary). This takes the character 廛 to mean a shop, which is in one sense correct as the term sijŏn did indeed refer to the merchants’ shops that lined the streets of central Seoul during the Chosŏn period. However, in practice, the terms sijŏn and yugŭijŏn actually referred to the groupings of merchants arranged into guilds according to the products they sold. When government documents refer to the sijŏn or yugŭijŏn they are referring to these merchants’ organisations that actually interacted with the government on behalf of the individual merchants. Thus in my work I always use the term ‘guild’ to translate sijŏn and ‘Six Guilds’ to translate yugŭijŏn as I think the translation ‘licensed stores’ can be quite misleading to the modern reader.


  1. These are important issues and thanks for telling us about the AKS glossary. Having this kind of resource is of course wonderful and I like how you can see how others have previously translated the term. Incidentally, I didn’t have any problem with Firefox use of the page and I was happy to see that it worked quite nicely on my Mac but may be different on the PC.

    Interestingly, one of the first entries I wrote at Frog in a Well – Japan was about a similar glossary for Japanese historical terms. It is connected to something called the Japan Memory project (wrote about it here) and I blogged some info about the glossary here.

    Here is the direct link to the glossary:

    But it no longer seems to work! Ok, I found an updated version, looks like you need some kind of log in now:

    Not nearly as nice as AKS glossary in terms of accessability.

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