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Treasures from the East Asia Library; Palais’ Pangye Surok Translation

February 14, 2017

The East Asia Library at UW is home to one of the most extensive collections of information about Japan, Korea and China in the USA. It’s also home to one of a kind materials, each with its own story unique story of how it was made and how it ended up at the library. This series tells some of those stories.

Every scholar spends untold hours researching, writing and teaching. Regardless of what field they work in, each spends enormous amounts of time improving their knowledge and expertise so that they can contribute to their field in a positive way. Few scholars have made as big a contribution to their respective field as Professor James Palais did in Korean Studies.

James Palais was a Professor of Korean History at the University of Washington for 33 years between 1968 and 2001. Upon his arrival in 1968, the UW became the biggest Korean Studies program in the USA with three senior faculty members devoted to the region. It was here that Palais became one of the most important scholars of the Korean Studies field in the United States; both through his own publications, and through mentoring graduate students who have gone on to teach about Korea around the world. Of course it is his direct contribution to the Korean studies field that is remembered most and Palais wrote several hugely influential works, including Confucian Statecraft and Korean Institutions.

His impact on the UW continued even after his death in 2006. Professor Palais left his personal collection of books and manuscripts, over 10,000 altogether, to the UW, making one final contribution to the university. Some of these volumes were duplicates of volumes at the UW and were given to other universities for their collections. It was whilst searching through all 10,000 volumes though, that the East Asia library’s Hyokyoung Yi stumbled upon something incredible.

As part of his research Palais had worked tirelessly on an English translation of Pangye Surok; the selected works of Yu Hyongwon. This work is known as a virtual encyclopedia of Confucian statecraft and focuses on Yu’s plans for a reformed Korean system of government. Hyokyoung knew Palais had worked diligently on translating this work, but was unable to find it until she gained the funding necessary from the National Library of Korea to hire one of Palais’ last students to search through the volumes of books and manuscripts Palais had left to the library. The process of searching took months but finally the translation was found.

The original Pangye Surok manuscript consists of 26 volumes altogether, and the Palais translated version Hyokyoung found was a full translation of all 26 volumes. Palais had painstakingly translated it from the original classical Chinese into English by hand, binding each volume individually. This is almost unheard of. Not every classical Chinese book has a Korean translation, let alone an English one, and the amount of time it took Palais to complete this must have been huge.

The book itself is Yu Hyŏng-wŏn’s (柳馨遠) masterpiece and is primarily concerned with a description the Korean system of government. Yu wrote Pan’gye Surok based on 20 years of observation and study. He traveled throughout Korea in his early years, seeing the reality of life for the peasant population during the Chosŏn Dynasty, and the book is a summation of everything he witnessed. Many scholars and political elites such as Sŏngho Yi Ik (李瀷) and Tasan Chŏng Yag-yong (丁若鏞) were heavily influenced by Yu Hyŏng-wŏn’s work.

Since finding Palais’s translation of Pangye Surok, the East Asia Library has been able to digitize it, offering anyone around the world the opportunity to read through a translation of this masterpiece. The library has also had the original copy put into the UW Libraries Special Collection, for UW students, scholars and alumni to request and view. Visiting the Special Collection, and seeing the immaculate translation on every page is a reminder of the impact and contribution one person can have on a library, a university and an entire field of study.