The Creation of National Treasures and Monuments: The 1916 Japanese Laws on the Preservation of Korean Remains and Relics and Their Colonial Legacies

By Pai, Hyung Il | Korean Studies, Annual 2001 | Go to article overview

The Creation of National Treasures and Monuments: The 1916 Japanese Laws on the Preservation of Korean Remains and Relics and Their Colonial Legacies


Pai, Hyung Il, Korean Studies


This article surveys the history of Korea's heritage management laws and administration beginning with the current divisions of the Office of Cultural Properties and tracing its structure back to the 1916 Japanese Preservations Laws governing Korean remains and relics. It focuses on the eighty-year-old bureaucratic process that has led to the creation of a distinct Korean patrimony, now codified and ranked in the nationally designated registry of cultural properties (Chijong munhwajae). Due to the long-standing perceived "authentic" status of this sanctified list of widely recognized "Korean" national treasures, they have been preserved, reconstructed, and exhibited as tangible symbols of Korean identity and antiquity since the early colonial era.

The Office of Cultural Properties and the Creation of Korean Civilization

The Office of Cultural Properties (Munhwajae Kwalliguk, hereafter referred to as the OCP) since its foundation in 1961 has been the main institution responsible for the legislation, identification, registration, collection, preservation, excavations, reconstruction and exhibitions of national treasures, architectural monuments, and folk resources in the Republic of Korea. [1] This office used to operate under the Ministry of Culture and Sports, but, due to its everexpanding role, it was awarded independent ministry (ch'ong) status in 1998. With a working staff of more than five hundred employees, it also oversees a vast administrative structure including the following prominent cultural institutions: the Research Institute of Cultural Properties (Munhwajae Yon'guso) founded in 1975; the two central museums, the National and Folk Museum, which are in charge of an extended network of nine national museums (located in Kyongju, Kwangju, Chonju, Ch'ongju, Puyo, Kongju, Taegu, Kimhae, and Chinju); the four Yi dyna stic royal palaces in Seoul; the King Sejong Shrine; Chongmyo; and the National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts. Thus, in the last four decades, the OCP has been the main institution responsible for the invention of "Korean" culture and tradition. [2]

National cultural property is currently defined in the Republic of Korea [3] as natural and man-made objects that are designated as having important archaeological, prehistorical, historical, literary, artistic, and technological value; they are Korea's cultural heritage. As of December 1998, the national cultural properties registry included 2, 591 items. [4] Seventy-five percent of the items on this list (1,951) are included in the three most prestigious categories of national treasures, treasures, and historical sites. Korea's national treasures include prehistoric sites such as shell-mounds and rock reliefs; burial goods of bronze weapons and gold crowns; architecture such as Buddhist cave temple sculptures; Three Kingdoms [5] (c. third to seventh centuries) tumuli, Yi dynasty royal burials (fourteenth to twentieth centuries), shrines; palaces; and battle sites and fortresses. As national symbols representing the Korean past, they frequently adorn entrances to historical monuments, tourist sites, museum d isplays, posters, guidebooks, and web sites promoting Korea to the world.

The Cultural Properties Preservation Act (Munhwajae pohobop) was first promulgated in 1962 following the establishment of the OCP and is currently divided into four major categories:

(1) Tangible Cultural Properties (yuhyong munhwajae): architecture, battle sites, old books, paintings, arts and crafts, and objects that have significant historical and artistic value.

(2) Intangible Cultural Properties (muhyong munhwajae): (a) Living artisans who as "possessors of traditional arts and crafts" (poyuja) are represented by craftsmen, wine makers, singers, and musicians; (b) religious customs such as Confucian ancestor ceremonies and shaman exorcism rituals; (c) regional theaters, musical and village dances; and (d) folksongs and folktales. …

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