M. Courant, pioneer of Korean studies
In the course of the modern history of Korea, Westerners have undertaken a wide range of Korean studies. Among the Westerners who devoted themselves to research on Korea, Maurice Courant, a French diplomat-turned–scholar has inspired me as a pioneer of Korean studies.
The young Courant came to Korea as translation attache of Victor Collin de Plancy, the first official French diplomatic representative in Korea after the official agreement of the Treaty of Friendship, Commerce, and Navigation between Korea and France in 1886.
Maurice Courant (1865-1935) was an ardent and enthusiastic lover of Korean studies. He was passionate about the history and culture of the whole of Korea, particularly in research of the ancient Goguryeo Kingdom.
Having served at the French Legation in Korea from 1890 to 1892, he immersed himself in studying history and culture of Korea with affection during his stay, as well as after leaving Korea. He wrote 21 works, including the ``Korean Bibliography” (Bibliographie Coréenne) on the basis of purely academic motives.
The ``Korean Bibliography” stands out as a vast repository of Korean knowledge. In total, 3,821 books, including astronomical ones are listed chronologically together with bibliographical notes.
Remarkably, he classified the ancient astronomical Korean books of ``Korean Bibliography" into nine divisions and 36 classes systemically, and he published them as three volumes (1894-1896) and one supplement in 1901. The magnificent volume of books is essential in the field of Korean bibliographical references, which contains abundant astronomical materials and information on Korean historical documents.
During the process of the completion of ``Korean Bibliography”, Courant collaborated with the French Catholic Bishop Gustave Charles Mutel (l854-1933) who is famous for his diary from 43 years life in Korea (1890 -1933) and de Plancy. They provided Courant a great amount of cooperation in order to collect data.
The ``Korean Bibliography” has been a milestone of Korean studies and has been held in high esteem by historians at home and abroad. In addition to compiling such a work, Courant praised Korean culture in the preface of the book, particularly on the craftsmanship of printing and excellence in art.
Furthermore, Courant vividly recorded “Jikji,” produced using a movable metal print type, in the appendix of the “Korean Bibliography” that was published in 1901, thus introducing it to the world. He clarified that “Jikji," the abbreviated title of Korean Buddhist document "Anthology of Great Buddhist Priests' Zen Teachings," was printed in 1377 at Heungdeok Temple in Cheongju, South Chungcheong Province. He described that ``the metal-printed Jikji is the oldest printed book with molded type" in the world.
It was presumed that de Plancy had obtained “Jikji” during his service in Korea. However, Henri Véver, a book collector, purchased the work at an auction in 1911, and later donated it to the French National Library. Later, “Jikji” was displayed in Paris during the International Book Year hosted by the National Library of France in 1972, which drew great attention for its value.
In addition, Courant dedicated himself to propagating Korea by publishing a booklet entitled ``Memory of Seoul" when the Paris Universal Exposition took place in 1900.
Abandoning his diplomatic career, he immersed himself in research and followed an academic career as a faculty member of the University of Lyon, France. He was able to share his erudite knowledge on Korean studies with a wider audience in Lyon, where he taught the history of the Far East. During his lectures (1928–1935), he never neglected to mention Korean studies.
Courant is an unsung hero of that era and he displayed great courage in pursuing his studies, which combined with other scholarly efforts, made him stand out within the legacy of Korean studies.
Choe Chong-dae is a guest columnist of The Korea Times, the president of Dea-kwang International Co., as well as a director of the Korean-Swedish Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.