Saturday, November 1, 2014

Seokguram, and the Creation of Orientalism

Seokguram ("Stone-cave Hermitage") is a grotto hermitage and part of the Bulguksa temple complex. In 1962 during the Park Chung-hee era, it was designated National Treasure No. 24, and in 1995, Seokguram Grotto along with Bulguksa Temple was added as a UNESCO World Heritage for exemplifying some of the world's best Buddhist sculptures.

At the cultural peak of the Unified Silla Dynasty (668-935 BCE), Seokguram was built on Tohamsan, a sacred mountain during the United Silla era. Kim Daeseong, a court sculptor who resigned from his position, started work on Seokguram (originally called Seokbulsa, Stone Buddha Temple), but the work was completed a few years posthumous to Kim in 774. Kim not only built Seokguram Grotto but also Bulguksa, the temple four kilometers away. The latter he dedicated to his parents, and the former he dedicated to his parents in his former life, according to folk legend.

The Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) was a time of Buddhist proliferation. However, when the dynasty was overthrown and the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897) began, Buddhist practices fell into decline with the growing acceptance and pendulum swing for the philosophy of Confucianism rather than the following of the religious practices of Buddhism. Confucianism was for aesthetics and Buddhism which relied on visual iconography was downplayed, and by the fourth king of the Joseon Dynasty, Buddhism had little involvement in the courts. Buddhism was thus suppressed, and therefore its temples and grottos and places of worship were not valued and so given little regard or attention.

Repairs and renovations:

1703 & 1758 - During the Joseon Dynasty Seokguram underwent repairs and improvements but as Buddhism was suppressed during the era, by the end of the 505-year long dynasty temples and grottos not kept up had fallen into sad disrepair.

1909 - Seokguram was "discovered" by a Japanese mailman and reported to officials as a Buddha of astonishing beauty.

1913-15 - The Japanese completely dismantled Seokguram, but in putting it back together, the granite stones that had fit like "woven silk" and allowed circulation of air and indirect sources of light into the rotunda were not replicated in the reconstruction. Water and air circulation thus became a problem.

1917 - The Japanese buried drain pipes above the dome to channel rainwater away from the grotto, yet leaks continued.

1920-23 - The Japanese applied asphalt over the surface of the concrete, which increased entrapment of humidity, so moss and mold grew.

1927 - The Japanese attempted to clean off the moss and mold by steam spraying the sculptures, only resulting in disastrous results.

1960s - Park Chung-hee ordered a major restoration project. By building a wooden structure over the antechamber, a mechanical system was installed to regulate temperature and humidity. This structure is now under scholarly debate as historians disagree that the gaze of the Buddha was not interrupted in its perpetual contemplation of the East Sea.

The interior of the grotto is now further blocked by a glass window, which keeps a regulated temperature within the grotto. Visitors are permitted to go beyond this glass windows one day a year -- Buddha's birthday, and on this day there is free entry. On other days a person is required to pay W4,000.

Colonializing Korea's Past

In April 1909, the vice governor of the Japanese colonial government in Korea, Sone Araske, and his delegates had a photo taken sitting on the knee of a Buddha statue at the Seokguram Grotto in Gyeongju, South Gyeongsang Province. This is the oldest known photo of Seokguram, which was designated World Cultural Heritage in 1995. (not the above picture) - Source
The questions which should arise when reading about the repairs and renovations of Seokguram are why would the Japanese try to repair and as a result showcase historical brilliancy of a nation that it had annexed and made into a colony? Why would the Japanese colonial state spend money and resources to restore Seokguram (as well as Bulguksa and the Silla capital Kyoungju) and sing odes on Seokguram's beauty? 

One must ask these questions in order to understand the complexity of colonial domination and power. Ultimately colonial rule depended on coercive power -- the power to eradicate or repress armed resistance, the power to hold the upper-hand. But in order for the Japanese to sustain coercive power, they had to establish sufficient hegemony, and to do that, they had to create a political and cultural environment in which the colonized recognized the relative superiority of the colonizer.  

Well, the Japanese did quite like the British did to India and the American in the Philippines. They studied the language of those they colonized, did intense studies on culture, history, architecture and then wrote about their colonies in a way that would make them as righteous overseers of their colony. And the "discovery" of Seokguram in 1909 by a Japanese mailman climbing Tohamsan Mountain, the year before Japan annexed Korea, was the perfect cultural item to initiate on a pedagogy for asserting their cultural and historical superiority. The colonized Koreans had allowed this jewel of an ancient past to fall into near ruins, so what could they as the colonizer do but recreate the past and "teach" on its value back to the colonized. Thus Japanese researched and wrote on their colony, albeit in a somewhat proprietary way, teaching the world and Korea's place in it as defined by Japan. 

The "discovery" of the Buddha of astonishing beauty in Seokguram was the beginning of the colonial pedagogy. Japan did not initially intend to repair the grotto, but to take it apart stone by stone, which they did -- all except for the large Buddha with his ethereal smile. They planned to dismantle it, truck it down to Bulguksa and send it by rail to Kampo and then by boat to Japan. For this purpose, they had had a road constructed from Bulguksa to Seokguram and had drafted plans for a rail line from Bulguksa to Kampo on the East Sea. Costs, however, would have been prohibitive, not to mention the unlikelihood of "easy" transport to Japan as in North Kyeongsang Province the Righteous Army, which had sprung up with the forced abdication of King Kojong in 1907, was launching attacks against the Japanese, on their road and rail constructions and trying to inhibit other colonizing acts. Therefore, due to frightful costs and the concerns of being attacked, the plan for reconstructing Seokguram in Japan was aborted. 

In 1910, the year that Korea was annexed by Japan, Sekino Tadashi published a study explaining to the Japanese the artistic value of Seokguram. The first photos of Seokguram were published that year ... in Japan. In 1912 Governor-General Terauchi Masatake, the head of the colonial government, visited Seokguram and approved plans and a budget for restoration. The restoration began in 1913 and took three years to complete. 
"This shift in policy -- from plunder to restoration -- would showcase not just Seokguram but also Japan's sophistication and modernity, its mastery of the disciplines of archeology, architecture, and art history. This restoration work would demonstrate Japanese knowledge and commitment in studying, restoring and appreciating "Asian art". Japan would be the curator, uniquely able to preserve and present Asian art as equally compelling as Western art to both Asia and the West."
Thus school trips were organized with teachers bringing their students by rail from Seoul to Busan, and via roads built by the Japanese, and via the new road from Bulguksa to Seokguram, so under Japanese tutelage Koreans would learn about the beauty and significance of Seokguram. Similarly the beauty and grace of the ancient Buddha was brought to the attention of the West.

With the restoration and showcasing of Seokguram and Bulguksa as well as the discovery of the Guze Kannon (a mysteriously concealed seventh-century gilt-wood sculpture of a Buddha and obvious of Korean art "discovered" in the Japanese Horyuji Temple) Japan began discoursing on the artistic achievements in ancient times rather than in the pre-colonial past. Japan placed focus on a brilliant past that was Asian rather than Korean. Thus were the beginnings of Japanese toyoshi (Oriental history). Japan had set itself to lead Korea into a modern civilization, and the West could acknowledge that Japan's research and pedagogy did present to the world a knowledge previously unknown. Japan received adulation for its showcasing of knowledge. The West did not argue the colonization; the colonized Koreans were powerless to argue.
"Starting with the restoration of Seokguram, it was the Japanese colonial state that went on to establish controls over print capitalism as well as national systems of schooling, transportation, and communication that produced colonial Chosenjin (Koreans)... At the same time, there was a steady proliferation of discourses concerning Korean identity emanating from the Japanese colonial sate itself, including studies of Korean history, geography, language, customs, religion, music, and art in almost immeasurable detail."
What are we to make of this? The goal of exploiting Korea and using it for Japan's strategic ends was for marking Japan's position and destiny in relation to the West and the rest of Asia. The embodiment of toyoshi also provided justification for Japan's imperial expansion.

(Information given under "Colonializing Korea's Past" was taken from Chapter 3 in Henry Em's scholarly book "The Great Enterprise" (2013).

Overgrown, nearing collapse
source: Sungkyunkwan University Museum
Seokguram nearing collapse and in desperate need of repair - Source
renovations in process
source - Sungkyunkwan University Museum
The Japanese repairing Seokguram, many such photos taken by Japanese archaeologist Fujita Ryosaku of the repair and renovations of Seokguram are in the Sungkyunkwan University Museum, Millennium Building. Fujita Ryosaku also was the first archaeologist to identify two distinct types of ancient pottery in Korea, the "comb-pattern" pottery and the plain pattern pottery.  - Source

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