Glasses were once considered a product of Western-style modernization, but as movies and TV dramas featuring King Jeongjo of Joseon showed the appearance of the king wearing glasses, “glasses in the Joseon era” became no longer an unfamiliar idea. Who invented glasses? When and how they were first introduced in East Asia?
The invention of glasses dates back to the 1280s in Europe. Behind the invention of glasses was knowledge and technology on glass held by the Islam, and this new civilization spread simultaneously in Europe and Arab countries at the end of the 13th century. According to records, glasses were first introduced to China during the Xuande Emperor’s reign of Ming dynasty (1425-1435), but it was not until the 16th century that glasses were used in earnest there.
In its introduction to early Asia, glasses spread along the tributary trade route of the Ming dynasty, which combined diplomacy and trade. The tributary states of the Ming dynasty include Samarkand (present-day Uzbekistan), Mecca (present-day Saudi Arabia), and Melaka (Malaysia), showing how the Ming dynasty controlled ethnic groups, distinguishing those from the north and those from the sea. The author believes that the spread of glasses to China is the evidence that the trade network across Eurasia, which was thought to have been severed after the fall of the Yuan dynasty, was restored. The Ming dynasty gave generous reward for tribute and great quality glasses began to come to China.
It appears glasses were first introduced to Joseon during the Japanese invasions of Korea in 1592. Lee Ick wrote in Seonghosaseol that “The glasses called ‘Ae-chae’ will come from China, and they will surely be used at home.” The “Ae-chae” was one of the most familiar names for glasses during Joseon dynasty. Glasses were mentioned countless times in the records of the Yeonghaeng, a delegation to Beijing in the 18th century. In “Type of Glasses” written by Silhak scholar Lee Kyu-gyeong (1788-1856), there is an article that divides glasses into short-sighted and far-sighted ones and according to their shapes.
The book is interesting in that it carefully unravels the world history centering on the topic of important everyday objects, but it is lacking in some areas. The author presumes that glasses reached China half a century after they had appeared in Europe, but does not provide detailed proof. Since it is not an important part of the book’s topic, it would have been better to omit it. Also, it would have been kinder to general readers, who are not familiar with Chinese history, if expressions, such as ‘during Xuande Emperor’s reign’ and ‘during Qianlong Emperor’s reign’ were expressed in A.D. years as well. Lastly, ‘glinding,’ which often appears in the book, seems to be a typo of ‘grinding.’