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Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC)

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Understanding the Art of War:

The Story of a Korean Military Manual

War is largely associated with the loss of texts, yet in many instances it also leads to their emergence. Motivated by the disastrous Japanese and Manchu invasions in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Korean court strived to enhance the Royal Army through a series of reforms and innovations. These efforts included the compilation and publication of a military manual entitled Pyŏnghak chinam (The Compass of Military Learning). A recently discovered version of this book, employing two languages and three different writing systems, provides rare insights into military education, literacy and written culture in traditional Korea.

Fig. 1: Cover with handwritten title.
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The ‘manuscript’ is in fact a woodblock-printed book, containing 119 folios and measuring 22.5 x 33.5 cm (the printed area on a single page measures 22.5 x 18.5 cm), with handwritten notes and glosses scattered throughout the printed pages and in the front and back endpages. The thick paper covers, finished with wax, have an embossed motif of lotus flowers (see fig. 1); the book is thread-bound with the five-hole sewing typical for Korean books. A few scattered wormholes indicate that at one point care for the book (especially the all-important spring drying) was neglected, but the book is otherwise in good condition. Originally purchased in the late 1950s in North Korea, probably in one of the last private bookshops in Pyongyang, it is currently kept in a private collection in Prague.

Fig. 2: Diagrams of military formations, kwŏn 4, 15b-16a.
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The book was published by Haesŏ (Hwanghae Province) Military Command in the cyclical year imin. Judging from the layout of the book, the year could be either 1722 or 1782. It may be presumed to be the version mentioned in the inventory of Korean woodblock matrices Nup’an ko (Survey of Woodblocks) published in 1796. The Haesŏ version was probably also used for the compilation of the royal edition commissioned in 1787; this made Pyŏnghak chinam one of the compulsory texts for the state military examination. As it was published by the local military command and in limited numbers, the book was probably not widely disseminated. After the division of the Korean Peninsula in 1945 and the sealing of borders between the Korean states, other copies (if any remained) were lost, or vanished into North Korean archives. Since no North Korean study on the topic mentions the Haesŏ edition, the Prague copy is probably the only one that survives. There are several well-known versions of the manual, both older and younger, kept in South Korean archives, which differ in content, layout, and linguistic features. Recent studies have strived to establish the precise genealogy of the transmission of the text; the Haesŏ Military Command edition is likely to provide important clues.

Fig. 3: Kwŏn 1, 2b, Chinese text with
Korean translations, and notes in
classical Chinese in the upper margins;
handwritten notes in columns 1,4,7
(right to left) and top left.
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Fig. 5: Kwŏn 1, 21b, handwritten
kugyŏl grammatical
marks inserted into the printed
Chinese text. > Enlarge

The woodblock printed part of the book is not, however, the most interesting part. The handwritten glosses and annotations in the book provide fascinating insights into its actual use and military literary culture in the late Chosŏn Dynasty (1392-1910). The original Chinese text of Pyŏnghak chinam was based on the works of the Chinese military thinker and general Qi Jiguang (1522–1582), adapted during the early 17th century to a Korean environment. The difficult text—of a technical nature and written partially under the influence of colloquial Chinese accessible to Chinese soldiers—was used by Korean military officials who were versed mainly in classical Chinese; the manual was probably for them not easy to understand. Although all Korean graduates of military examinations were supposed to be versed in classical Chinese, the enormous number of extant jokes and anecdotes about their so-called ‘literary’ abilities indicate that their physical and military prowess was not always accompanied by equally brilliant intellectual capabilities. The first printed editions of Pyonghak chinam of the 17th century therefore included translations into Korean, written in the Korean alphabet and accompanying the Chinese text in the first and later also the second section (kwŏn, or ‘fascicle’) of the book. The third and fourth sections, with illustrations showing military formations (fig. 2), and the fifth section, concerning the training of soldiers, sieges, and naval warfare, were printed without translation. The Haesŏ version inherits this setup, along with notes in classical Chinese printed in the book’s upper margins, a feature which appeared for the first time in early 18th century versions (see fig. 3).

Fig. 4: Handwritten notes at the end of the book.
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Despite all these aids to reading, some readers felt compelled to add their own exegesis. The handwritten notes in the book shed light on how and by whom the manual was used. We may identify at least two readers based on handwriting style. All of their notes are written in Chinese characters and show a considerable level of education. Some notes are several dozen characters long, and range from simple terminology glosses to technical matters, or comparisons with other military literature (such as the Chinese military classic Wei Liaozi). These notes may have been intended for personal use, or for later readers who could read classical Chinese. The high-ranking profile of at least one reader is affirmed by a list of all the military units of the Korean army he wrote on the last blank page in neat handwriting (fig. 4), indicating a knowledge of this topic ordinarily not accessible to lower-ranking soldiers. None of the notes are written employing the Korean alphabet, but a close look at some of the passages in the first volume reveals the presence of another level of textual exegesis. The printed Korean text in hangul was apparently considered insufficient to help with decoding the Chinese sections, and so in several places a reader has further marked the Chinese text with another vernacular Korean writing system, kugyŏl grammatical marks in their simplified version, which punctuated the Chinese text and clarified its syntactic features (fig. 5).

The original Chinese text is thus accompanied by multiple levels of exegesis, ranging from the printed vernacular Korean translations and notes in classical Chinese in the upper margins to handwritten notes in classical Chinese and insertions of kugyŏl punctuation into the text by a reader or readers. The multiple layers of the manual suggest that its readers were military officials with a good command of classical Chinese, able to render a difficult technical text more accessible via glosses and annotations. The book is thus an important document for studying literacy in the military circles of the late Chosŏn era. Its readers obviously preferred for their notes the use of classical Chinese and traditional kugyŏl punctuation over the Korean alphabet, which was nevertheless used in the printed text. In this sense military officials shared with their colleagues in the civil service the same preference for the classical language over the vernacular.


CH’OE Chinsuk (ed.) (1956): Pyŏnghak chinam. Pyongyang: Kungnip ch’ulp’ansa.

CH’OE Hŭngnok (1993): “Pyŏnghak chinam ŭi p’yŏnch’an e taehayŏ”. In: Minjok munhwa yusan, 4, 52-57.

CHŎNG Howan (ed.) (2013): Yŏkchu Pyŏnghak chinam. Seoul: Sejong taewang kinyŏmhoe.

KIM Ryongdam (2011): “Minchok kojŏn Pyŏnghak chinam ŭi kanhaeng kwa kŭ naeyong e taehayŏ”. In: Minjok munhwa yusan, 1.

PAEK Tuhyŏn (2016): “Pyŏnghak chinam ip’anbon ŭi yŏndae kojŭng kwa kyet’ong yŏn’gu”. In: Kugŏsa yŏn’gu, 20, 129-166.

PARK, Eugene Y. (2007): Between Dreams and Reality: The Military Examination in Late Chosŏn Korea, 1600-1894. Cambridge (Massachusetts): Harvard University Asia Center.

SIEGMUND, Felix (2016): Theorie und Praxis militärischen Wissens zwischen China und Korea im langen 17. Jahrhundert - Qi Jiguangs militärische Schriften und die nordöstliche Grenzregion. Unpublished PhD thesis. Ruhr-Universität Bochum.

TRAULSEN, Thorsten (2016): “The Rise of the Text Style ‘Vernacular Explication’ (ŏnhae) in Early Chosŏn Korea,1392-1598 - Diglossia, Canon, and Hermeneutics”. In: Lee Eun-Jeung, Marion Eggert (eds.): The Dynamics of Knowledge Circulation: Cases from Korea. Munich: Peter Lang, 113-139.

Book in private collection
Material: Paper, 119 folios, thread-bound with evenly spaced five-hole sewing
Dimensions: 22.5 x 33.5 cm
Provenance: Korea, 18th century

Note from the editors:
While the subject of the present article appears to be a printed book, we felt the article fit the scope of the Manuscript of the Month series, as it focuses on the handwritten matter within the book.

Manuscript of the Month 02/2017
Text by Vladimir Glomb
© for all pictures: Lukáš Příbaň
Reference note:
Vladimir Glomb, “Understanding the Art of War”
In: Wiebke Beyer, Zhenzhen Lu (Eds.): Manuscript of the Month 2017.02, SFB 950: Hamburg,