In search of original hallyu stars

By Korea Herald

Exhibition highlights Joseon envoys sent to Japan to forge ties between the two countries

  • Published : Dec 27, 2012 - 19:11
  • Updated : Dec 27, 2012 - 19:11

Before Korean pop stars became the most welcomed Koreans in Japan, there were Tongsinsa, or diplomatic envoys to Japan, in the Joseon era (1392-1910).

These people were more like the rock stars of today as they transmitted to Japan some of the latest international trends from China, the Orient and elsewhere including Joseon itself. Composed of government officials such as diplomats, as well as scholars, artists and others, the group toured Japan ― from Tsushima Island near Joseon to Edo, today’s Tokyo ― where the Japanese king invited them to share developments in diplomatic, political and cultural affairs and others. And everywhere they went, they drew huge crowds craving new things. 
“Men from Joseon” by Ukita Ikkei describes men from Joseon sharing knowledge with Japanese people. (Chuncheon National Museum)
Textbook of Korean. The pronunciation of the Korean language is noted in Japanese katakana. (Chuncheon National Museum)

“Scholars, administrators, wealthy men and others interested in new things yearned to meet the envoys. They invited the groups to their homes and administrative offices for lectures, parties and friendship. Hence, their trip often took up to one year,” said Lee Yong-hyeon, curator of the Chuncheon National Museum. “They were the very first ‘hallyu’ stars.”

The Chuncheon museum in Gangwon Province is holding “Dispatch of Korean Envoys to Japan During the Joseon Period,” a special exhibition focusing on the exchange of political, academic and cultural exchanges between Korea and Japan until Feb. 24.

Documents of envoy appointments, letters between the scholars of the two countries along with their drawings and books that were exchanged are among the items on display.

According to records, groups of Tongsinsa consisting of up to 450 people visited Japan starting in 1429, when Joseon and Japan acknowledged each other as neighboring countries.

The Korean team’s initial mission was to demand the Japanese government to block piracy in the sea between the two countries. But after the Japanese invasion of Korea in 1529, the envoys became more of intelligence agents, observing, recording and memorizing what they saw and heard in Japan. Also they strived to bring back the wartime prisoners and hostages.

The Japanese counterpart, in return, expected the latest information from China as well as the latest technologies and art of Joseon. Hundreds of horses, art pieces, clothes, stationery, books and agricultural products were brought to Japan as gifts while medical doctors accompanied the envoys to teach skills and scientists taught astronomy. Protgs of famous calligraphers and painters joined the team to leave behind art pieces while scholars exchanged their ideas through letters.

“Through ties with these Korean envoys, Japanese intellectuals enhanced their writing skills. We can get a glimpse of the influence of Korean culture in the poems written by Japanese intellectuals who engaged in exchanges with Korean envoys,” Lee said.

The Koreans also brought back things from Japan, too. In 1764, one of the envoys, Jo Myeong, learned spinning and weaving technologies. Sweet potato was spread to Korea, saving Koreans from starvation.

“Also some members of the envoys left some Waka (Japanese poetry with a fixed form) after they returned from Japan. It seems that the two countries shared understanding for each other and their culture,” Lee added. The last group of Tongsinsa was dispatched 1811, according to records.

The exhibition is open Tuesday through Sunday between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. The museum is closed on New Year’s Day. For more information, call (033) 260-1500.

By Bae Ji-sook (