I encountered my first Western antiquarian book on Korea in the mid-1980s. It was a copy of Mrs Bishop’s Korea and Her Neighbours, published in New York in 1897. The moment I laid eyes on it, I couldn’t contain my excitement. The design of the book was truly remarkable, and it sparked my interest in collecting Western materials tracing the development of contact with Korea. In 1996, I published a two-volume bibliography of my collection entitled Western Books on Korea, in which I provide information on 287 books in English, French, German, Dutch, Swedish and Russian, written by missionaries, explorers, soldiers and scholars, who spent time in Korea from the arrival of the Dutch East India Company in 1653 to the outbreak of the Korean War. It contains 550 illustrations and I hope that it’s useful as a specialist bibliography and as a historical work. My decision to write this book was greatly influenced by Maurice Courant’s Bibliographie Coréene. I was awed by the fact that Korean bibliographical work had been undertaken by a foreign scholar. Courant was an Orientalist and diplomat, who served as interpreter for the French legation in Seoul from 1890 to 1891, when the bibliophile Victor Collin de Plancy was the French Consul. Courant was able to begin his study of Korean bibliography by cataloguing Collin de Plancy’s incomparable collection.
The four volumes of Courant’s monumental work were published between 1894 and 1901, and include descriptions of 3,821 Korean books, from ancient movable metal types to wood-block printing from the Goryeo and Joseon periods. Victor Collin de Plancy’s collection included Jikji, the oldest known book in the world printed with movable metal type. Jikji is the abbreviated Korean title of the monk Baegun Hwasang’s book on the essential elements of Zen Buddhism. Dating from 1377, Jikji was printed in what is now the South Korean city of Cheongju, 78 years before Gutenberg’s 42-line Bible. Collin de Plancy sold the only extant copy to his compatriot Henri Vever in 1911, and he bequeathed it to the Bibliothèque nationale de France in 1950. Its importance is recognised by UNESCO, and it’s listed as one of South Korea’s national treasures.
My family originally came from North Korea, but managed to escape to the south in 1948, just before the establishment of the Republic of Korea government, crossing the 38th parallel in the middle of the night. When the Korean War broke out, my parents were evacuated to Daegu, a city in the south of the country, where I was born in 1953. It was the year of the armistice, and my family later settled in Seoul. I grew up in a time of destruction and great turmoil. Paper was precious and books were scarce. Textbooks were practically all we had in terms of books and, like so many of my contemporaries, I had limited exposure to reading.
A book that moves the heart is a good book. One day my high school teacher recited a poem by Soo-Joo Byun-Youngro, and then spent nearly three hours teaching us about the writer’s life as a heavy drinker. Soo-Joo wrote a collection of essays, published in the year I was born. Its title roughly translates as Forty Years of Drinking, and it’s a record of his eventful life. When our teacher read some of Soo-Joo’s stories in a most engaging way, I realised that they were far more than mere tales of drunkenness. As soon as school ended that day, I headed to Cheonggyecheon in downtown Seoul, where over a hundred used bookstores were located at the time. It was truly a paradise for book lovers but, until that day, I had never stepped into a bookstore. Although I didn’t find a copy of Soo-Joo’s book, it left me with a peculiar sense of determination. It took me another three years to find a copy, by which time I had decided that I would spend my entire life with books.
The history of the book trade in Korea is not well documented, although Maurice Courant left some interesting observations in his bibliography of the book stalls in Gwangyo in the historic centre of Seoul, where the HoeDongSeoGwan, the first bookstore in Korea, was established in 1897. The business was founded by the Goyusang brothers, and became the centre of the publishing industry until the Korean War, after which it disappeared from history.
When I turned thirty in 1983, I opened Hosanbang, my bookstore in Seoul. It struck me as the best thing I could do as a profession. I started with a small office and a collection of books mainly related to modern Korean literature that I had gathered since high school. I began by selling one book to buy two, and then selling two books to buy four and, in just a few years, Hosanbang became famous not only in Seoul but nationwide. The name of the business is inspired by ‘Ho San’, the pseudonym of Cho Hee-ryong, a painter and calligrapher of the late Joseon dynasty, who excelled in orchids and plum blossoms. Ho San referred to himself as ‘Maesu’, meaning ‘Plum Blossom Grandfather’, and I have admired his work since my teenage years.
Business prospered and we moved to a bustling area right across from Kyobo, Korea’s largest chain of bookstores. You need to have great expertise to run an antiquarian bookstore; it’s about having a special niche that other bookstores can’t imitate. I believed that focusing on manuscripts and letters was the key to success, and Hosanbang continues primarily to deal in material of that nature. Every item is unique and offers the opportunity of discovering something new. I enjoy the research and of course the material is highly appealing from a business perspective.
I issued our first catalogue in 1988, and in the early 1990s I began my exploration of bookstores around the world. My interest in acquiring Western books on Korea inevitably led to much interaction with foreign antiquarian bookstores, and my dealings with them left a strong impression on me. They were such experts in their subject, very honest, and extremely passionate about their work. Their catalogues contained a wealth of information, that would be a formidable task even for seasoned scholars. I’m always striving to incorporate their example in my own work, but I feel I fall short. What I most envy and respect about foreign antiquarian booksellers is their history and spirit. The tradition of antiquarian bookshops staying in the same family for several generations is a testament not only to cultural power but to the stability of a country. I would like such a future for Hosanbang, but my elder son is a physicist in the United States, and the younger one is deeply engaged in his own business. I shall have to keep an eye on them!
If I had to recommend one book from the first three centuries of foreign contact with Korea, I would start with Hendrik Hamel’s Journael van de Ongeluckige Voyagie van’t Jacht de Sperwer, published in Amsterdam in 1668. I regard it as the publication that finally brought Korea to the attention of the Western world. Hendrik Hamel served as the secretary of the Dutch East India Company, and was aboard the Sperwer when it was shipwrecked off the coast of Jeju Island, with the loss of almost half the crew. The survivors were immediately reported to the Korean government, transported to Seoul, and subsequently spent many years in captivity. Hamel and seven others managed to escape, and returned to Amsterdam. The report of their experiences was originally compiled during their captivity so as to be able to claim their wages from the Dutch East India Company. It contained first-hand information on Korean manners and customs and, although it was primarily intended for his employers, Hamel’s report was eventually published in book-form, and became an international bestseller.
In the eighteenth century, Jean-Baptiste Du Halde’s four-volume work on the Chinese empire was published, containing the first Western-produced map of Korea, clearly showing Korea’s independence from China. As it was the work of the French royal geographer Jean-Baptiste Bourguignon d’Anville, the map’s objectivity could not be denied from China’s perspective. All subsequent European maps of East Asia in the 18th century were based on d’Anville’s.
Captain Basil Hall’s account of his exploration of the southwest coast of Korea was published in 1818. The book contains a list of 28 Korean words, which represent the first examples of the language to be introduced to the West. One of the illustrations shows a ‘Corean Chief’, who holds the distinction of being the first Korean to taste cherry brandy.
In Korea the occupations of bookselling and publishing are admired as cultural endeavours, but it’s extremely challenging to operate a small business in either field. The trend of the one-person bookstore has increased in recent years among young people, but they have been driven by enthusiasm alone and have yet to make a breakthrough. The fundamental problem in Korea is the lack of understanding of book culture. As a result it is difficult to maintain a specialised bookstore. I believe that the solution lies within the realm of education and awareness.
In 2011, I had a visit from some officials who were members of a reading group in Wanju county, an area of great natural beauty 200 km south of Seoul. They had been to Hay-on-Wye in the UK, and were eager to create their own book village. I had experienced visits from local government officials before, and so I didn’t have high expectations. During our discussions I emphasised that creating a book village was not as simple as it sounded, and administrative leadership alone would lead to a 100% failure. They assured me that they would not be involved in the day-to-day business, but would provide support. Their response seemed sincere, and in June 2013 I began to plant the seeds of culture in a culturally barren place. Over the next decade the Samnye Book Village took shape, and now consists of a picture-book museum, gallery, secondhand bookstore, restaurant, book café and of course Hosanbang.
Government officials tend to think that the success of a museum is measured by the number of visitors – especially young visitors, which can be quite burdensome for me. As a result, most museums are becoming like playgrounds for children. Of course some exhibitions are specifically designed for children but, even in such cases, I believe that an exhibition that doesn’t gain experts’ recognition is meaningless. Samnye Book Village is just getting started. True success will depend on the determination of Wanju county’s administration and the local residents. I have shown that the potential for development exists, and there are plans to attract several renowned foreign antiquarian bookstores to Samnye Book Village, and to organise an annual international bookfair, with those bookstores at its core.
Although there’s a growing interest in book collecting among the younger generation in Korea, they tend to prefer modern books rather than antiquarian items. They lean towards light enjoyment and nostalgia, for example the comics of their childhood, rather than academic research materials. Young Koreans, who can afford to buy luxury cars and designer handbags, are less willing to spend money on a rare book. This is often due to a lack of knowledge of the value and interest of rare books.
The historical facts about Korea recorded by Westerners are valuable resources for the study of our culture. They not only shed light on the past that our ancestors may not have recorded, but they also have the benefit of being an objective comment from an outsider’s perspective. If we are to sell more Western antiquarian books in Korea, they will need to be reinterpreted in a meaningful Korean context. If we can add that value, it may be possible to gain an advantage in competition with the well-established dealers in the West.
I have a dream to create the world’s smallest yet most beautiful literary museum, inspired by a poem by the fifteenth-century Wang Bangyeon, and its influence on the French surrealist Guillaume Apollinaire. It’s an extraordinary story, and begins with the murder of King Danjong (1441-1457) by his uncle, who had forced him to abdicate so that he could assume the throne as King Sejo. The poet and courtier Wang Bangyeon was given the awful task of administering the poison that killed King Danjong in his place of exile.
On his return to Seoul, Wang Bangyeon sat down by the Cheongnyeongpo river and recited a poem entitled, ‘On a road ten million miles away’. The poet’s feelings are summarised in the line, ‘Even the river seems to weep like my heart as it flows along the night road’. In 1912, Apollinaire’s poem ‘Marie’ was published, expressing similar emotion and sorrow after parting from his beloved Marie Laurencin: ‘Le fleuve est pareil à ma peine/ Il s’écoule et ne tarit pas/ Quand donc finira la semaine’. Apollinaire’s ‘Marie’ and Wang Bangyeon’s poem are so similar in content, structure and expression that it’s possible that Apollinaire encountered the Korean’s poetry amongst the books that Victor Collin de Plancy brought back to France. This is certainly the belief of the late Professor Hwang Hyun-san in an unpublished paper on Apollinaire and Korea, written in 2015. In the realm of modern Korean poetry, Yi Sang was the first to attempt a calligramme in the style of Apollinaire in 1934, and he’s also included in Professor Hwang Hyun-san’s study.
I’ve been collecting materials to establish my literary museum, including works on paper and artefacts by writers and artists who were associated with Apollinaire. Among my possessions there is a manuscript copy of a Korean book written in 1708, which includes Wang Bangyeon’s poem. This is twenty years earlier than Kim Cheon-taek’s Cheongguyeongeon, which is regarded as the earliest book to include the poem. Books are treasuries of knowledge, and reading nurtures the soul. I have experienced unparalleled joy and fulfullment from collecting and researching rare books. Others may not understand, but books are everything to me.
Interviewed in November 2023