Saturday, December 19, 2015

Gongju and Buyeo (Baekje Culture)

Dating back almost 1700 years, the Baekje Kingdom at its height was the center of arts and culture on the Korean peninsula and beyond.

King Munyeong's Gilt-bronze Incense Burner of Baekje, was molded on a Boshan incense burner. A Boshan incense burner symbolized the mountain dwelling of the gods, and such incense burners are covered in symbols portraying celestial affairs. This incense burner is mounted with the mystical phoenix, the lid is mountain shaped and filled with holes for the smoke to escape. Since its discovery in 1993 and then its designation in 1996 as a National Treasure of Korea, the incense burner became a symbol of national pride and an icon of age-old art in the Korean peninsula.

About the Baekje Kingdom

Baekje (18 BC - 660 AD) was one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea—along with Goguryeo (37 BC - 668 AD) and Silla (57 BC - 935 AD)—and its people were descendants of Buyeo tribes people of Manchuria. Baekje tribes migrated southward to what is now Seoul where the Baekje leaders set up a capital, asserting control over the local tribes people and beating back pressure from the northern kingdom of Goguryeo.

Baekje flourished in the 4th century, trading with Japan and the Chinese kingdom of Chin. Goguryeo then forced Baekje south from Seoul to Ungjin (now Kongju) in 475, so for the next 63 years Ungjin became the Baekje capital. Ungjin was near water—the Geum or “Brocade” River—and well defended by the Kongsan fortress, but it was too far from the sea and too surrounded by mountains to allow easy communication with the outside world.
Click to enlarge
King Song-wang (ruling 523 – 553) moved the capital downstream to Sabi (now Buyeo) to a place on the Geum River now known specifically as Paengma or “White Horse” (the name explained later). Sabi was nearer the sea, had a large, rich farming area, and also had the nearby riverside Sabi fortress at Puso-san.

Cultural Sharing during the Baekje Kingdom

Baekje made many contributions to the Japanese culture in the 6th century—most obviously, the teachings of Buddha and Buddha temple architecture, some of which can be still seen near Nara, Japan, at the Horyuji Temple (the world’s oldest wooden building). 

Baekje also benefited from the direct importation of Chinese culture. The Baekje upper class knew the Confucian classics, Chinese medicine, and divination.

Baekje artifacts speak of a society that was interactive with a wide range of tribes people and cultural interactions. Baekje tombs remain distinct from other tombs of contemporary kingdoms. Burial urns now housed in the Buyeo National Museum hark back to tribal culture, while Buddhist temple objects and figures testify to a strong religious flavor and the import, assimilation and development of Buddhism. The tombs give some indication of the society and economy—elite clans which evolved from tribal holdovers as well as elaborate ranks and grades of salary for officials and military leaders (as can be seen through Chinese imports used by military elites). Farmers paid taxes in silk and rice. In battles, prisoners were taken as slaves.

The Demise of Baekje

Baekje came to an end in 660 when it was overcome by combined forces from T’ang China and the neighboring Silla Kingdom, which was based in Gyeongju. The interference of Chinese forces came after a long hiatus (220 – 589 AD) during which China had been fragmented into many small kingdoms. Prior to 220 the Han dynasty had claimed large parts of northern Korea (the Lolong colony) but the fall of Han allowed the Koreans (or proto-Koreans) to develop their own kingdoms—Goguryeo, Silla and Baekje. In the early 600’s, China was reunified by the Sui (581 – 618 AD) and then the T’ang (618 – 907 AD). T’ang, which was the greatest empire the world had seen, naturally aimed to recapture the glories of the long-gone Han empire, and gaining control over Korea was part of this design.

Overcoming one of the Three Kingdoms in the Korean peninsula was not so easy as the kingdoms were adept at alliance politics, manipulating each other and foreigners in China and Japan. Koguryeo in particular was armed, and it beat back the repeated Sui and T’ang invasions in Manchuria. Since force was ineffective, the T’ang government combined forces and political manipulation with the Silla kingdom, knowing that Silla and Baekje were at odds. T’ang struck an alliance with Silla, and their combined forces destroyed Baekje in 660 AD.

Modern Buyeo Reveals the Denouement in 660 AD

The T’ang forces, purportedly numbering 130,000, approached Sabi from the north. The commanding general, Su Ting-fang, stopped when he reached the river facing the Sabi fortress on Puso-san. The diviners said that he couldn’t cross the river until he got rid of the river dragon which protected the Sabi fortress. Knowing that dragons were pushovers for white horses, General Su went fishing using the head of a white horse for bait. As the story goes, he lured the dragon to the surface, killed it, and then led the army across the river to assault the Baekje capital. Another version of the story is that a storm caused by the protective dragon raged, and so Su Ting-fang using the head of a white horse which dragons have a special attraction to, fished for the dragon amidst thunder and lightning and was able to lure and capture the live dragon, who, in exchange for its life, stilled the storm so the general's army could safely cross the river.

The Chinese were not alone in their assault. Kim Yusin, the great Silla general, had fought his way through the Baekje army led by General Kyebaek (see statue in Buyeo) and had laid siege to Sabi fortress all around the south wall. The Chinese assault across the Geum river and directly into the fortress left the Baekje people nowhere to flee. 3,000 court women unable to flee and preferring suicide to being taken captive by the horny hordes flung themselves over a cliff, now called the Nakhwa-am or “Falling Flowers Cliff”.  Though King Uija managed to get away to Ungjin (Kongju), his kingdom was crushed.

Mural on one of the walls of the Goran-sa. The mural faces the healing medicinal waters of Goran-sa.
Buyeo Town

The name Buyeo comes from the ancestral home of the Baekje people in Manchuria, and for a while it was called Nam-Buyeo or “South Buyeo”, but it is universally known as Baekje, the “Hundred Tribes”.

Cheongnim-sa was once an elaborate temple, but now all that exists is a site marked in downtown Buyeo and two important stone relics—a weathered stone Buddha (National Treasure #108) and the five-storied stone Baekje Pagoda (National Treasure #9), which is only one of two pagodas that have survived since the Three Kingdoms period. Su Ting-fang added insult to injury when he carved the story of his victory over Baekje on the base of the pagoda, hence the “Pacifying Baekje Pagoda” name which is sometimes attached to it. The shame of this inscription was such that the survivors buried the pagoda and it lay buried—and therefore better preserved—at Mireuk-sa some kilometers away until the 1890’s.

The five-storied stone Baekje pagoda (National Treasure #9),
sometimes shamefully known as the "Pacifying Baekje Pagoda".
Strangely, this Buddha looks very much like the Easter Island moai at Ahu Tahai ...

Puso-san has a hiking road from the Baekje museum that goes up the mountain and into the forest on what used to be the Sabi fortress. At the top of Puso-san is Yeongil-lu (“Greeting-the-sun” Pavillion) and the Songweol-lu (“Seeing-off-the-setting-moon” Pavillion), and the Nakhwa-am (“Falling Flowers Rock”).

One of the pavillions at the top of Nakhwa-am.
Goran-sa is the "Korean Orchid" temple below the Nakhwa-am near the water’s edge. Its name is derived from the Gorancho plant (Crypsinus hastatus), which is something like an orchid and which grows in profusion near the adjacent spring of medicinal water. This spring is where the Baekje kings got their drinking water, and the temple site was constructed to commemorate the “Falling Flowers” of Nakhwa-am. According to legend, the king enjoyed drinking water from Goran-sa and sent someone to fetch his mineral water every day. Before drinking, court ladies floated leaves on the water to prove it came from the temple. Legend also has it that if a person drinks a cup of Goran mineral water, he or she will become three years younger. [It didn't work. Several of us tried it.]

For those interested in a boat ride on the Geum “Brocade” River, the boat will take passengers past the Choryong-dae, or “Fishing-for-the-Dragon Terrace”) where Su Ting-fang is said to have caught the dragon.

King Munyeong’s Tomb in Kongju

Kongju, capital of Baekje from 475 to 538 AD, lies upstream from Buyeo on the “Brocade” River. As the Middletons point out in their Some Korean Journeys (RAS, 1975), Kongju has twice had its status as capital taken away—it lost out to Buyeo in 538 and then to Daejeon in 1931 under the Japanese Government-General.

Kongju also has a mountain (Kongsan) on the river, a fortress larger than the one in Buyeo on the mountain (Kongsan-seong), a Chinese connection (the Ming helped fight Hideyoshi’s Japanese invaders here in the 1590’s), a set of royal tombs, and a branch of the National Museum.

dragon on the tilework in King Munyeong's tomb
fanciful tilework inside King Munyeong's cave
Kongju’s greatest treasure is the Baekje tomb of King Munyeong (also spelled Muryeong) and who ruled 501 – 523 AD. Munyeong’s tomb is in the tomb complex near the river. Over the centuries the other tombs were picked clean by thieves and scrofulous antique dealers, but Munyeong’s tomb remained undiscovered until, by accident, government restorers happened on it while working on a nearby grave in 1971. Excavations revealed an undisturbed Baekje royal tomb, guarded in the entry chamber by a little stone pig and containing hundreds of jewels, decorations, pots, and a very diverse assortment of artifacts. Discovery of the tomb was to Korea what the discovery of Tuthankhamen’s tomb was to Egypt, or like the discovery of Ch’in Huang’ti’s terra cotta army was to China.

Outstanding among the tomb objects is Munyeong’s gold crown ornament, in a flame-shaped pattern hung with gold decorations and sewn, apparently onto a silk cap which did not survive the centuries. In the Kongju National Museum along with the guardian pig and the crown ornaments, are bronze mirrors, gold earrings, jade, hairpins, pots, headrests, figurines, and decorated bricks and roof tiles. Where Baekje studies prior to that time had relied on the likes of Su Ting-fang’s carved account on the Baekje Pagoda in Buyeo, Munyeong’s tomb opened up new vistas for comparisons and studies of the transmission of culture among the kingdoms and peoples of East Asia. Until recently, visitors could enter the now emptied tomb but which has intricately designed tile work; however, now that a replica of the tomb has been included in a nearby viewing room, the tomb, having survived centuries is being preserved and removed from the influx of visitors so that it can continue to survive and breathe the presence of the past to the present and future generations.
Imagery of King Munyeong wearing his Baekje crown ornaments.
The mythical, mystical creature - the guardian pig of King Munyeong's tomb

Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch detailed printout (take the tour of Buyeo and Kongju)

Visit Korea. "Gongju: The Glory of Baekje Lives On" by Robert Koehler. June 27, 2008.

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