Drafting history

The other week I was flipping through a copy of American Archivist in the staff room and came across Kyung Rae Lee’s “The Role of Buddhist Monks in the Development of Archives in the Korean Middle Ages.” My East Asian history (coursework and more informally absorbed) is split between China and Japan; in those contexts Korea remained a peripheral entity, serving (willingly or otherwise) as a bridge between the two. So I was quite happy to delve, for even a handful of pages, into something more Korea-centric.

One of the interesting take-aways was the Sacho, the Draft History, a record maintained by historiographers in the strictest confidentiality. Only after the end of a reign were the annals compiled—annals generally deemed trustworthy, due to the process involved. There’s no such thing as absolute objectivity, no unbiased author, but a political and temporal gap certainly removes (or complicates) some concerns of patronage or pressure. But perhaps it simply makes authorial intent more of a moving target; when a work is dedicated to the person footing the bill, it’s pretty easy to infer. So it may be that, in this case, the presumed trustworthiness is the most dangerous aspect, from the perspective of later historians. Though the authors had the luxuries of a big old pile of documents to consult (which I picture as a mix of meeting minutes and tabloid gossip) and political and temporal insulation, they were still making choices about what to preserve and prioritize in their account of a reign.