S.Korea hails return of looted books by France

11th June 2011, Comments 0 comments

South Korea on Saturday staged a ceremony rich in traditional pageantry to welcome the return of priceless ancient royal books, 145 years after they were looted by French troops.

A solemn procession of some 500 people, wearing colourful traditional court costumes, moved slowly along Sejong Street, carrying some of the books in a palanquin to Gyeongbok Palace -- the largest built by the Chosun Dynasty.

After years of diplomatic wrangling, France in April and May returned 296 volumes of "Uigwe", richly illustrated records of major court ceremonies and events during the Chosun era which ruled between 1392 and 1910.

South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak and former French Culture Minister Jack Lang were among those gathered for the ceremony at the restored palace.

"I announce the Uigue, which were looted 145 years ago, have returned home," President Lee, who was wearing ivory-coloured traditional robes said.

Hi-tech South Korea -- the world's most wired nation -- places great store in its history, even though much of its original heritage was destroyed during the 1910-45 Japanese occupation and the 1950-53 Korean War.

French troops seized the books in 1866 when they invaded Ganghwa island west of Seoul in retaliation for the Chosun dynasty's execution of French Catholic missionaries.

The procession marking their return was shadowed by court guards in traditional uniform -- red or blue military robes -- and sporting false beards.

Some volumes of the Uigwe were placed on an elaborate palanquin, and carried on the shoulders of 12 red-robed bearers.

As the procession passed through the main palace gate known as Gwanghwamun, it was met by a band of wind and percussion instruments playing solemn court music.

Some of the books, wrapped in red clothes, were then laid on an altar decorated with yellow satin clothes.

Sohn Jin-Chaek, who choreographed the ceremony, told AFP Friday that the return of the books symbolised "the restoration of our national spirit and tradition."

"This ritual is for announcing to heaven and the earth that the Uigwe have returned to where they should be," Sohn said.

"Through this rite, we will also vow before our ancestors that we will never repeat this sad history."

Seoul began demanding the return of the books after a South Korean historian working at the National Library of France stumbled upon them in 1975.

One volume was returned in 1993 when then-President Francois Mitterrand visited Seoul. France was pushing hard to secure a multi-billion-dollar high-speed train project at the time.

Current President Nicolas Sarkozy agreed last November to return the other volumes when he met President Lee on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Seoul.

Technically they are on lease for a five-year renewable term but former French culture minister Jack Lang said Saturday that in effect the books were being handed back permanently.

Culture Minister Choung Byoung-Gug has described the books as "a proud part of our cultural heritage" and said their return deepens trust and friendship between the two countries.

© 2011 AFP

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