The account of the famous scholar Choe Chiwon is the 21st of fifty biographies included in Kim Busik’s Samguk-sagi (三國史記).
Choe Chiwon 崔致遠 최치원
Choe Chiwon’s style name (字) was Goun (孤雲 ‘lonely cloud’) and also Hae’un (海雲 ‘sea cloud’). He was from Saryang-bu (裟梁部) in the [Silla] capital [Gyeongju]. Historical biographies have disappeared so his ancestry is unknown. From a very young age, Chiwon was meticulous and sharp minded and liked to study. At the [Korean] age of twelve, he planned to cross the sea by ship and enter Tang [China] to study. His father said to him, “If you don’t pass the Tang civil service examination within ten years, you are not my son. Go, and work hard!”
[Chiwon] reached faraway Tang. He followed a master and in studying was not idle. In the 1st Ganfu year (乾符), Gab’o (甲午 874), [Chiwon] successfully passed in one attempt the examination supervised by the shilang official of the Department of Rites (禮部侍郞), Peizan (裵瓚), and was selected to be a wei (尉) [county official] of Lishui county (溧水縣) in Xuanzhou province (宣州). Examining [records about him] in more detail [we can know that] he became a shengwulang shiyushi neigongfeng (乘務郞 侍御史 內供奉) and was given a purple and gold fish bag (紫金魚袋).
At this time, Huang Chao (黃巢) rose in revolt. Gao Pian (高騈) was made commanding general (諸道行營兵馬都統) to put down the rebellion. [He] called Chiwon and, making him a congshi (從事) [attendant], appointed him as a secretary (書記). His [various] biao, zhuang, shu and qi [writings] (表壯書啓) [from that period] have been passed down to the present.
At the age of twenty-eight, he had the desire (志) to return home and see his parents (歸寧). Knowing of this, in the first Guangqi year (光啓, 885), [Emperor] Xizong (僖宗) had him sent home by [his own] imperial edict (使將詔來聘). [Back in Silla,] he was made sidok-gyeom-hallimsa (侍讀兼翰林學士 attendant reader and royal scribe) and subyeongbu-sirang (守兵部侍郞 military defence official) and jiseo-seogam (知瑞書監).
Chiwon had obtained much [knowledge] through [travelling] west to study. [Upon return] he was going to act according to his own intentions (己志) but [the situation] deteriorated with the end [of Silla] (衰李); there were many [who were] suspicious and envious [and so] he was not accepted. Leaving [the Silla capital] he became the chief magistrate (太守) of Daesan county (大山郡).
In the second Jingfu year (景福, 893) of Tang [emperor] Zhaozong (昭宗), the napjeong-jeolsa emissary (納旌節使) and military section sirang official (兵部侍郞), Kim Cheohoe (金處誨), drowned at sea. Immediately the chief magistrate of Chuseong county (橻城郡), Kim Jun (金峻), was made a gojusa emissary (告奏使). At the time Chiwon was chief magistrate of Buseong county (富城郡) but he was reverently called (祗召) and made a hajeongsa emissary (賀正使). However, during this period on account of constant famine there were bandits roaming across the country [such that] the roads were impassible and in the end they could not go.
After that, Chiwon again had the experience serving (嘗奉) as an emissary to Tang but the date is unknown. In reference [though] the collection of his writings contains a missive (狀) he addressed to the Taishi shizhong (太師侍中 great master palace attendant) which reads:
“[I] have humbly heard that beyond the eastern sea were three countries; their names were Mahan (馬韓), Byeonhan (卞韓) and Jinhan (辰韓). Mahan was Go[gu]ryeo, Byeonhan was Baekje and Jinhan was Silla. At the height of Goguryeo and Baekje’s flourishing they [had] one million strong armies; to the south they invaded Wuyue (吳越 southern China), to the north they menaced (撓) Youyan (幽燕 modern Hebei) and Qilu (齊魯 modern Shandong) and [in this way] became a great source of harm (巨蠹) to China. That the Sui emperor [Yangdi] went to ruin (失馭) was owing to [his attempted] conquest of [Goguryeo occupied] Liao[dong]. During the Zhengguan era (貞觀 626-649) our Tang emperor Taizong personally led six armies across the sea to administer celestial punishment. Afraid and awed, Goguryeo sued for peace. Emperor Wen (Taizong) accepted their surrender and returned (廻蹕).
At this time our great king, Muyeol (武烈大王), entreated with absolute sincerity (犬馬之誠), to [be allowed to] help with the suppression of a ‘one sided disturbance’ (助定一方之難). After this Goguryeo and Baekje continued their bad behaviour [and so] King Muyeol sent [as many as seven missions] requesting that they may become guides (鄕導) [to the Tang army]. In the 5th Xianqing (顯慶) year of Emperor Gaozong (高宗, 660), the emperor ordered (勅) [general] Su Dingfang (蘇定方 (591-667) to lead a strong army of the ten provinces (道 lit. ‘roads’) and ten thousand tower ships. [The army] destroyed Baekje and on that territory established the Buyeo governor-general (扶餘都督府). Summoning the remnants of Baekje they were given Han [Chinese] titles [but] because their customs (臭味) were not the same, there was constant news of rebellions (屢聞離叛) and in the end those people were moved to Henan (河南 in China).
In the 1st Zongzhang year (總章 668), the [emperor’s] order was given to Yinggong Xuji (英公 徐勣) who destroyed Goguryeo and established the Protectorate General to Pacify the East (安東都督府). In the 3rd Yifeng year (儀鳳 678) those [Goguryeo] people were moved to Henan and Longyou (隴右). The remnants of Goguryeo regrouped and moved north to below Taebaek mountain (太白山 aka Baekdu-san); the name of [their] country became Balhae (渤海). In the 20th Kaiyuan year (開元 732), bearing a grudge against the celestial court (i.e. Tang) [Balhae] launched a surprise attack on Dengzhou province (登州 present day Shandong peninsula) and killed the cishi sheriff (刺史) Weizun (韋俊). At this Emperor Ming (aka Xuanzong) was enraged and by his order, neishi interior official (內史) Gao Pin (高品), Hehangcheng (何行成), and taipuqing (太僕卿) Kim Saran (金思蘭) led an army across the sea to attack [Balhae]. Consequently, our [Silla] king, Kim ‘somebody’ (金某 – an expression of humbleness), was made Zhengtaiwei-chijie Chong-ninghai-junshi (正太尉 持節 充寧海軍事) and Great governor of Gyerim province (鷄林州大都督). With it being deep winter the snow was thick; the [Silla] barbarians (蕃 – again being deprecatory) and Chinese (漢) suffered from the cold and so the order was given for the army to return. [Since that time] until today, it has been more than three hundred years, but there has not been a single incident and the blue sea (i.e. the Yellow Sea between Silla and Tang China) has been peaceful. This is the achievement (功) of our great king Muyeol.
Now [I, this] shallow scholar (末學) of a certain Confucian college, a foreigner of mediocre talent, impertinently deliver up this memorial (表章) and come to the court of the joyful land (樂土 i.e. Tang China). In general [I] have utmost sincerity (誠懇) and in accordance with correct etiquette [I hope to] make a statement (禮合披陳).
Having humbly examined (伏見) [historical antecedents], in the 12th Yuanhe year (元和 817), Prince Kim Jangnyeom (金張廉) was blown by a typhoon and arrived at the coast of Mingzhou (明州) province (present day Yin country 鄞縣 of Zhejiang province 浙江). A certain official of Zhedong (浙東 Eastern Zhejiang) provided an escort to the capital. In the 2nd Zhonghe year (中和 882) on account of the revolt (the Huang Chao 黃巢 peasant uprising) the [Silla] emissary Kim Jik-ryang (金直諒 김직량) was unable to travel along the roads. Eventually he came down the coast of Chuzhou (楚州 present day Huai’an city, Jiangsu province) and by a circuitous route (邐迤) arrived at Yangzhou (揚州) where he learnt that the holy [emperor] had [already] moved to Shu (蜀, present day Sichuan); the gao-taiwei high sheriff (高太尉) dispatched dutou (都頭) Zhang Jian (張儉) to escort (監押送) them [all the way] to Sichuan (西川). The events prior to that are clear.
[I] humbly beg that Taishi shizhong (太師侍中) will bend down [to me] and bestow a great kindness granting [us] a permit of travel by water and land; ordering at the places [we] will be (令所在) the provision of boats, food and [enough] hay for [our] donkeys [to complete] the long journey, and [arranging] a military escort that will conduct us to the front of the emperor’s procession (駕前).”
It is not possible to know the name of the taishi shizhong (太師侍中) referred to in this [letter].
Having served the great Tang in the west, Chiwon returned to his home country (i.e. Silla) in the east. [But] meeting with a world [suffering] chaotic rebellions [亂] his feet [metaphorically] were restrained (屯邅蹇連) [as] to move would easily meet with disaster (咎). Pained that he could not meet [with better fortune/was not better received], he did not again seek a career in officialdom. He wandered in self-abandon; below the mountain forests beside the sea, he built a pagoda (臺) and pavilion (榭) and planted pine and bamboo. He [used as] his pillow books and histories and composed aloud poems (風月 lit. ‘wind and moon’). Such places as Namsan (南山 ‘south mountain’) in Gyeongju (慶州), Bing-san mountain (氷山) in Ganju (剛州), Cheongnyang-sa temple (淸涼寺) in Hapju (陜州), Ssanggye-sa temple (雙溪寺) on Jiri-san mountain(智異山) and the pavilion (別墅) in Happo-hyeon county (合浦縣): these were all sites he visited on his wanderings. At the very end [of his life], he took his family and concealed himself at Haein-sa temple (海印寺) on Gaya-san mountain (伽耶山). He formed a Buddhist friendship (道友) with two monks (浮圖) who were actual brothers, Hyeonjun (賢俊) and Master Jeonghyeon (定玄師); he lived out his last days growing old in quiet leisure (棲遲偃仰).
When he first traveled to the west [to Tang China], he became acquainted with the Jiangdong (江東) poet, Luo Yin (羅隱 833-909). Yin held his own talents in high regard and did not lightly [have dealings with] (許可 lit. ‘permit’) others, [but] to Chiwon he showed five of his poetic compositions (歌詩). [Choe Chiwon] also became good friends with Go Yun (顧雲) who was the same age. When he was leaving back [to Silla], Go Yun bade him farewell with a poem [which] roughly went:
I have heard there are three gold turtles on the ocean;
on the turtles’ heads is a high, high mountain.
At the top of the mountain
is a pearl palace with shell halls (闕) and golden halls (殿).
Below the mountain
waves [stretch] for thousands and tens of thousands of li.
Beside, a single dot, is Gyerim [aka Silla] blue.
Turtle mountain conceived a [precocious] talent and gave birth to a marvel.
[Aged] twelve he boarded a ship and came across the sea;
[his] writings moved China [deeply].
[Aged] eighteen he freely competed in a poetry contest (詞苑);
firing a single arrow, he shattered the Golden [Horse] Gate (金[馬]門 refers to the central palace gate and alludes to his success in the civil service examination.)
In the “Treatise on Art and Literature” (藝文志) in the Xin Tangshu (新唐書 New Book of Tang), it says, “Choe Chiwon [left behind] the single volume (卷) Saryuk-jip (四六集 Forty-six Collection) and the twenty volume Gyewon-pilgyeong (桂苑筆耕 Cultivated Writings [of the] Gyesu-namu [tree] Garden).” In the annotation (注), it says, “Choe Chiwon was from Goryeo (高麗). Passing the bin’gong (賓貢) examination [for foreigners], he [served] as a congshi attendent to Gao Pian; his name is know as such in the higher kingdom (上國 aka China). There are thirty volumes of his collected writings which have been passed down.”
Previously when our [king] Taejo (太祖) arose [establishing the Goryeo dynasty], Chiwon knew that [Wang Geon, the future king Taejo,] was an extraordinary person who would receive the [celestial] command to establish a new kingdom. Consequently [Chiwon] sent a letter inquiring [on his health] which contained the lines, “The leaves of Gyelim (鷄林 aka Silla) are yellow [but] the Gongnyeong (鵠嶺 곡령 refers to Song’ak 松嶽 ‘pine peak’ mountain in the new Goryeo capital) pines are green.” [From amongst] his students, at the beginning of the new [Goryeo] dynasty, there was more than just one given high rank.
When King Hyeonjong (顯宗 r.1009-1031) was on the throne, Chiwon secretly helped with the king’s work (祖業). Unable to forget this meritorious service, [the king] issued a writ [posthumously] conferring on him the rank of naesaryeong (內史令). In the 5th month of the 14th year [of King Hyeonjong’s reign, which was] the 2nd Taiping (太平) year [of Liao emperor Shengzong 遼聖宗], Gyehae (癸亥 1023), [the king] bestowed [on Choe Chiwon] the posthumous name Munchang-hu (文昌侯 ‘writing beautiful lord’).