Drawing Morality: the Visual Illustration and its Function in the Samgang Haengsil-to [Illustrated Guide to the Three Relations]
The Samgang Haengsil-to, a Choson-dynasty (1392-1910) moral primer, collected stories of moral actions from Chinese and Korean history by filial sons, loyal subjects and devoted women. As indicated in its preface, the court’s intention in compiling, printing and distributing this book was to educate the lay audience—who were mostly illiterate—in Confucian ethics. For this reason, the court decided to provide each story with a visual illustration that included multiple scenes of the story depicting the hero or heroine in action and highlighted his or her outstanding ethical quality. If a reader should expect to understand a story with the aid of the illustration, however, it would confuse the reader, for the order of scenes in the illustration mostly likely does not follow any anticipated flow of the story as described in the written text. This talk attempts a careful reading of the dynamics and intents behind these illustrations, and presents a hypothesis that these illustrations were inserted to provoke and recall the “moral nature” of illiterate lay audience, rather than to help them follow or understand the written texts by visually recounting them. This is different from previous hypotheses regarding Chinese narrative illustrations and illustrated fictions in late imperial period, in which illustrations supposedly worked with written texts. Taking into consideration the context of reading in Choson and the Confucian moral philosophy, this talk delineates a third text embedded in this book: the oral text. Since classical Chinese texts presented a dual impediment to the illiterate public of Choson—for being written and for being foreign—these illustrations could not work directly with the written text but only indirectly by inspiring them with accompanied oral texts told by the literate readers in the form of interpretation.
Young Kyun Oh is Assistant Professor of Chinese and Sino-Korean in the School of International Letters and Cultures, Arizona State University. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a Ph.D. in Chinese linguistics. He has published several articles on Sino-Korean linguistics and cultural connections, and recently finished a book manuscript, Engraving Virtue: the Print History of a Premodern Moral Primer (forthcoming, Brill).