Sources: Choe Namseon’s “Bulham-munhwa-ron” – The great lineage of Joseon sindo 神道

Below is a translation of another representative chapter from Choe Namseon’s Bulham-munhwa-ron. This chapter was not so easy to render into English and so the translation should be understood only as giving the basic impression of what was originally written.

In addition to what’s already noted in the previous post, text struck through denotes words in the Korean translation which do not fit comfortably into English syntax.

There are two words I haven’t yet been able to translate, myeonpa (面怕) and joyeon (助緣) – any suggestions are welcome.

The term minjok (民族) translates as ‘ethnic group’ or ‘people’ as in ‘the Korean people’; in this sense it corresponds to the Latin gens.

Chapter 10: The great lineage of Joseon sindo (神道 ‘way of the gods’ / ‘divine way’)

Taigăr (대갈) representing the sky and Taigam (대감) its personification (인격형), and Părk (ᄇᆞᆰ) representing god and its personification of Părkăn-ai (ᄇᆞᆰ은애) are all originally religious [concepts]. In fact, from ancient times an extremely clear doctrine (宗旨) based on these was established and a theocratic (제정일치) world appeared; this formed a single expansive cultural area (문화권). [From this] sinseondo (神仙道 ‘way of gods and xian‘/’divine way of xian‘) was a Chinese development [whilst] susindo (隨神道 ‘following the way of the gods’) was a Japanese branching, however, it seems to have been what belonged to Joseon that was at the centre of its distribution and maintained a comparatively [more] pure true-aspect (진면목).

In Joseon, with Părk as the original root, [the term] also became Părkăn, and changed to Pukun (부군) or was simply called Pur (불). For a long it became buried and dropped out of people’s (世人) attention (주의), however, if one carefully investigates, the teaching (가르침의 모습) and tradition (法脈) [become] comparatively clear; at times like a great river, at times like an underground spring, it threads (관통) its way through Joseon history and its permeation within society can clearly be observed both in textual sources and actuality.

In textual sources, the [most] directly expressed extent evidence is the first section (서문) of the Nallang-bi stele (鸞郞碑) [inscription by] Choi Chiwon (崔致遠) recorded in the Samguk-sagi (Book 4, King Jinheung 37th year [576CE]).

“The country has a mysterious way (道) called Pung-ryu (風流). The root which bestowed this teaching is contained in the Seon-sa (仙史 ‘History of Seon [mountain sage/immortals]’) and so it includes the Samgyo ‘Three Teachings’ (三敎 [Taoism, Buddhism and Confucionism]) and enlightens (교화) all living things as it comes into contact [with them]. Further, entering at home [there is] filial piety, going out [there is] loyalty to the country and this is the true meaning of Confucius’s teaching; progressing through life without doing anything and teaching without words, this seems to be the primary root purport of Laozi; [finally] not behaving in any evil manner and holding aloft good actions, this seems to be the enlightenment (교화 [in the educational sense]) of [Buddha] Shakyamuni.”

 {NB The syntax of the follow paragraph is particularly garbled so the following is only an approximation of the meaning.}

Thus [he] transmitted the teaching (가르침의 양상). However, aside from this one passage, there are no other written sources that pass on the religious nature (상태 lit. ‘state’) [of Părk]; to be sure, together with the facts of Wonhwa (源花) introduced there [in the same entry of the Samguk-sagi {or in the Sillaguk-gi}], [implicit reference of Părk as the Hwarang order 花郞] was recorded in the text of the Xinluoguoji (新羅國記 K. Sillaguk-gi ‘Record of Silla’) [by] Ling Hucheng (令狐澄 fl.860?) of Tang [China]; // looking [only] briefly [at the original Xinluoguoji description] it may have seemed [to compilers or readers of the Samguk-sagi entry] that [Părk/Hwarang] was [just] a normal social institution for cultivation (교화) and with its name as ‘Pung-ryu’ it [seemed just one particular] religious group; // [consequently] it would have been easy [for readers] to have neglected the point that it was likely the highest religious order (宗門) in the country.

{Alternative interpretation of the latter part of the above paragraph.}

// [for the original author of the Xinluoguoji ] observing [only] briefly [the circumstances of Silla] it may have seemed that [the Hwarang he described] was [just] a normal social institution for cultivation (교화) and with its name as ‘Pung-ryu’ [to have been just one particular] religious group; //

{According to a footnote of the Korean translation, the Sillaguk-gi was a first hand account of Silla compiled by Gu Yin 顧愔 who was part of an official embassy in 768. This in turn was quoted from by Ling Hucheng and this, apparently is all that survived although it doesn’t say in which of his writings.}

In any event, through ethnic universalism and national veneration, at first it was a solemn (장엄) and large ritual (의식 or ‘consciousness’), but in later times for various reasons the old meaning (古義) was entirely lost, and because traditionally it ended at the succession of the physical form (형체) it subsequently became like an annual event and the [original] sacred meaning (진의) was increasingly obscured.

However, this [reference to] ‘wonhwa’ also, [represents just one] social application and one [particular] circumstance (상태) of ceremony, not the entirety [of Părk]. Further, the phrase ‘pung-ryu’, too, is simply phonetic with no relation to the characters’ (문장) meaning. It was only much later that I came to this idea (이에 생각이 미쳤고), and only on account of this did the beginning and end [points] of this research link together.

As it [otherwise] becomes to complicated, I will simply state the results of [my] investigation. Părk was practiced on the [Korean] peninsula since ancient times and gradually assumed a national hue; in Silla, from its foundation it was transmitted by a class of ritual [specialists] called Pak (朴 Bak). The ceremony (제사) was called Părkăn (ᄇᆞᆰ은) and the priests (祭司) Paksu (박수); [those] made leaders were [termed] Geoseogan (居西干), Chacha’ung (次次雄), Isageum (尼師今) and Maripgan (麻立干); [there was] the religious order (교단) ‘wonhwa’ (hwarang, Părkăne) and the era Părknui (불구내 bulgunae ).

Because society was centered around ritual (제사), at first the priests were the rulers, but together with the development of society, politics and religion became separated and the belief systems of pung-ryu (풍류 pur) or na’eul (奈乙 nar) became the independent religion; the [subsequent] development of this religion becomes gradually [more] noteworthy. Concerning doctrine, sacred texts (聖典) such as Sinji (神誌), Seonsa (仙史), Bisa (秘詞) and Book of Jeong Gam (鄭鑑의書 {refers to Jeonggam-nok 鄭鑑錄 ‘Record of Jeong Gam’}) were compiled. Concerning practice, [both] secluded mountain practice as well as temporary mountain pilgrimages occurred, [both] had music as one aspect. The societal activities of the Wonhwa (separately the guk-seon 國仙; later there is the name hwarang ) become visible, giving strength to Silla’s national circumstances (국가정세).

Later, [Părkăn] flourished (융섭) alongside the introduction of Buddhism, [with which] it synthesized; Părkăn sacred rituals (聖儀) were practiced under the name of Palgwanhoe (Joseon pronunciation ‘Parkwanhoi’) [which was based on] similar sounding characters. But as Buddhism flourished (융성) it [began] gradually to dominate and the famous mountains of superior topography (승지) that had been the spiritual grounds of Părk all became lands of garam [sangharama] (伽藍) and nan’ya [araṇya] (蘭若) [temples], the guksin (國神 ‘national gods’) and their sasa (社祠) shrines barely managed to maintain their remaining life within the shadow of the character bul (佛) [of Buddhism].

However, the reason [it] was protected by the state and [the fact it was a] custom which had permeated folk traditions {or had itself been permeated by folk} meant that it could not be entirely obliterated (소멸) by foreign ideos (사상). Consequently the Palgwan (八關) rituals of the courts of [both] Taebong (泰封 aka Later Goguryeo) which continued from Silla, and Goryeo which succeeded Taebong, were consistently held on a grand scale; when the sinsa (神事 ‘divine matters’) were increasingly neglected because of this kind of Buddhism, it was such that on several occasions the state issued royal decrees (칙명) admonishing this and giving warnings.

Towards the end of Goryeo Confucianism arose and following the success of the Yi dynasty revolution, a policy was taken to suppress [both] sin (神 ‘gods’) and Buddhism for the sake of plotting (도모) political stability. As a result, leaving aside [the similar circumstances of] Buddhism, sindo (神道 ‘the way of the gods’) was [now like] ‘a once mighty bow down to its last arrow’ (强弩?) appearing clearly lonesome. Further, during the period of Taejo, sinseo (神書 ‘divine books’) were burnt bringing the loss of much literature on this subject [of Părk]. Only fragments which prophesied the fate of the Yi dynasty such as the Book of Jeong Gam (鄭鑑의書) which had been the most powerful, were secretly transmitted, [albeit] with later corruptions in the text.

However, during the Yi dynasty the Buddhist term palgwan [used] since early Goryeo, changed its makeup (얼굴 모습) to the Confucian term bukun (Pukun) [whilst] the old appearance (모습) of the sinsa shrines were preserved throughout [the country] by government offices (官府) and station inns (驛院). Concealed by the deep myeonpa (面怕), Pukun-harmöi (부군-할머이) fortunately continued the public/official (공적) belief [system] and in the form of Purki (呼旗 {hogi }) and Pukun-kut (府君굿 {bu’gun-gut }) the national Palgwanhoe has maintained the reverence of the people (민중적) until today.

Consequently, national instability and social discontent were treated as joyeon (助緣) and the phenomenon of belief (religious behaviour) arose connected to such [texts] as Book of Jeong Gam. [A picture of] the ideal world of ‘South Joseon’ (南朝鮮) was drawn, and all manner of big and small [events like] ripples [across] (波紋) were transmitted through history. Within this meaning, whilst in actuality having disappeared (망실), approaching the modern era the Way of Părk (ᄇᆞᆰ道) can be seen to have [undergone] a spiritual revival and has formed the core of [our] minjok‘s way of life with a vigour it previously had lacked.

For example, [amongst] Donghak (東學; later [named] Cheondo-gyo and Sicheon-gyo), Heumchi-gyo (吘哆敎 우치교; later Tae’eul-gyo 太乙敎), Bocheon-gyo (普天敎) and other similar religious groups that have appeared with various names, there is not one that is not based on this [Way of Părk]. The reason that such [new religions] as these have been easily established and that they (오느 것이나) have developed to a considerable degree is not due to the personality of the founder (敎祖) or the profundity of their [particular] doctrines, but [because] they have caused a response in the Joseon minjok’s single traditional spirit/soul (정신) that lay submerged in the people’s (민중) hearts, transmitted from ancient times. In truth, the ‘Way of Părk’ never died, it is living in the present and is the reality [of the] currently active generation (일대 현실). [Just] the people (민중) are not so conscious [of it in] themselves.

Source for the translation:
Choe Namseon 최남선, translated by Jeon Seonggon 전성공. 2013. 불함문화론ㆍ살만교차기 (최남선 한국학 총서8). Seoul: Kyung-in Publishing 景仁文化社.

See also a translation of the concluding chapter.

Sources: “History of the Balhae Empire” – Forward, Contents and Afterword

Balhae Empire c720

Seo Byeong-guk 서병국. 2010: 발해제국사: 발해가 고구려의 계승국인 34가지 증거 (History of the Balhae Empire: 34 pieces of evidence that Balhae was the successor state to Goguryeo). Gyeonggi-do Paju: 한국학술정보(주)

General warning: this is a good example of Korean subjectivity in the history dispute with China.  I do not particularly agree with the arguments presented.

Translation notes: the verb ggeul’eodeul’ida 끌어들이다 has been directly translated throughout as “to pull in” to maintain its clear nuance, although in the context it would sound more natural as “to incorporate”.  The loaded terms minjok 민족 and jongjok 종족 are both translated here as “people” or “ethnic group”.


Following the collapse of the great empire of Goguryeo in northeast Asia, what could be called ‘the great exodus of a people (민족)’ continued for more than thirty years where the remnants (유민) of the Goguryeo people and the Malgal, who had been under Goguryeo’s rule, left their beloved homeland and [moved] to an unfamiliar foreign country, or else had to move their livelihoods to alien land (i.e. exactly the same thing.) Through this exodus of a people, the territory of our [Korean] people (우리 민족) received a mortal wound. Silla unified the peninsula but because they were unable to occupy the former Goguryeo territory north of Pyeongyang, an expansive area was expelled from our (i.e. Koreans’) historical interest.

Time passed, and the country of Balhae established itself (들어서다) in the land of the Songmal-malgal (粟末靺鞨 Ch. Sumo-mohe) which had been formerly governed by Goguryeo and so the ethnic chaos which had been stirred up by the great exodus of a people entered into a stage of calm. However, the lack of interest in the territory north of Pyeongyang remained the same.

So, how did Balhae come to be established? Tang caused the downfall of Goguryeo, but had been unable to advance into its former land north of the Yalu River (압록강) and so [the territory there] was in a state of empty vacuum. This vacuum was a prime requirement for founding a country and it was Balhae that was established here. Because Balhae was established outside of the region of Tang control, the only ethnic group (종족) who could have established it were either the remnants of Goguryeo or the Malgal.

Both during the Goguryeo period and after its collapse, the Goguryeo and Malgal people successfully maintained a relationship of mutual reliance. The founding of Balhae was achieved through this cooperative relationship. Goguryeo had originally been a multiethnic state and Balhae too, established on former Goguryeo land, was a country with a similar personality. Demonstrating in particularly that Balhae was a multiethnic state [is the fact that] Balhae was established immediately following the Khitan led rebellion against the Tang in Yingzhou (營州, modern Chaoyang 朝陽 west of the Liao River), in which the Goguryeo remnant people and Malgal had participated as a joint force.

But even in multiethnic states, it is inevitable that there will be [one] ethnic group (종족) which controls the whole territory. Just as in the multiethnic state of Tang, the principle power was the [Chinese] Han (漢), so in Balhae must there have been a dominant power (주체 세력). If so, was it of Goguryeo or Malgal lineage? The ethnic lineage (종족 계열) of the dominant power can be distinguished both by looking collectively at the relationship between the two during the Goguryeo period and [also] which ethnic group ruled the Balhae after its establishment.

However, this issue has not yet been properly resolved. Although the history of Balhae has largely been elucidated through written records (문헌), there is a need for further research. Even whilst research on this problem is so urgent, there are people who [would] deny this. They are the Chinese. This is because they blindly follow only the record in the ‘Bohai-zhuan’ (渤海傳 ‘Account of Balhae’) chapter in the Xin-Tangshu (新唐書 New Book of Tang) which says, “The Songmal-malgal (粟末靺鞨 속갈말갈 Ch. Sumo-mohe) established Balhae.”

However, to the same extent that the ‘Bohai-Mohe-zhuan’ (渤海靺鞨傳 ‘Account of the Balhae Malgal’) section of the Jiu-Tangshu (舊唐書 Old Book of Tang) provides an antithesis [to this], detailed historical examination is required into the issue of the dominant ethnic group. Unless this problem is solved, even if Balhae history is pulled onto the stage of our [Korean] history, it will not be acknowledge [as Korean] by the rest of the world. The Chinese have managed to separate the history of Balhae from us and pulled it into their own history. This is all because the problem of who the dominant ethnic group of Balhae was has not been researched.

Until now both Korea and China have relied only on fragmentary records. China has consciously avoided approaching the problem whilst Koreans have failed to deeply investigate from more than one angle. China avoids the issue because of a selfish judgement that [to do so] is beneficial to their national interests.

In the spring of 1990, this author participated in ‘The First International Conference on Balhae History’ sponsored by Yanbian University, established in China’s Korean Autonomous Prefecture; he was able to directly observe live what kinds of opinions Chinese scholars of Balhae history had regarding the history of Balhae [nice tautology!] The concluding report (합의문) presented during the closing ceremony suggested leaving the problem of [what] the dominant ethnic group of Balhae [was] for future research. Since then twenty years have passed but absolutely nothing has changed concerning this issue.

As noted above, the Chinese have completely ignored researching (or ‘research on’) this matter. Consequently it cannot but be our responsibility (몫). Concerning the problem of ethnicity, neither us [Korea] nor China will retreat an inch, but if we research this problem with a sense of historical mission (사명감), the assertions of the Chinese can be changed. This author heard a potentially shocking hint from ethnic Korean [Chinese] scholars who participated in the international conference on Balhae history. They themselves acknowledged that Balhae had been established with the remnants of Goguryeo as the central [people], but they were under pressure by Chinese authorities not to express this in words or writing.

Everyone has the hope that at sometime, even in China, academic freedom will be realized such that the history of Balhae, too, could be researched in a rational manner, but this may be an unrealizable fantasy. Since time immemorial the Chinese have regarded, as if [a matter] of ethnic pride, the complacent comfort [안주하는] [found in their] Hua-Yi historical perspective (華夷史觀 lit. ‘Chinese civilization [vs] barbarians’) which always views the history of the surrounding ethnic groups through a Sinocentric [outlook] (lit. ‘with their own country as the centre) and as a consequence even if in the future academic freedom is achieved, it is difficult to expect that the previous distortions of Balhae’s history will be correctly addressed (정립하다 lit. ‘to establish a [correct] thesis’).

That the sources on the Chinese side concerning the dominant (주체) [ethnic group of] Balhae are false has its very origin in the Hua-Yi historical perspective. Tang was absorbed in this historical outlook and so treated Balhae as a yidi barbarian (夷狄 Korean: ijeok) [entity]; whereupon Balhae became transformed into a country established by the Malgal (靺鞨 Chinese: Mohe) who for a long time had been the representative yidi people of Northeast Asian.

Tang [Chinese] viewed Balhae as a yidi [entity] and so would have been satisfied with [their] particular spiritual self-importance (자존), but what do Chinese people feel today? Different to their ancestors they point out the territorial satisfaction they feel. The Tang regarded the northeastern region of Goguryeo as useless land and so relinquished [thoughts of conquering] it but, through a sense of moral duty that the region is exclusive territory which must on no account be conceded to non-Han (漢) peoples, Chinese today are wiping away any remaining trace of the Goguryeo lineage. This is the byproduct of a modern version of the Hua-Yi historiographic perspective.

That Chinese scholars today pull Balhae into the history of their own country is a concrete expression of behaviour of this. On the question of which ethnic group the dominant power of Balhae emerged from, to say whether it was Goguryeo or Malgal based on a conclusion arrived at through pure research would be the academic approach. However, ignoring research and speaking from the dimension of national interest is not an academic approach. Here Chinese scholars’ research on Balhae history cannot be said to be free.

However it may be, recently there are people amongst ourselves, too, who are under the illusion (착각) that understanding Chinese people’s historical view of Balhae is [simply] a new research trend in [the study of] Balhae history. This is irresponsible behaviour, abandoning oneself in the distorted Hua-Yi historiographic perspective. If the results of research carried out with a serious attitude said that it were so, an understanding [for the Chinese perspective] could be found, but if they are words issued in a shallow manner without [having done that research] they then will be rejected.

When participating in the conference on Balhae history and directly coming into contact with the actual Chinese [scholars’] exclusionary historical view of Balhae, this author could not contain his indignation. But at the same time it gave him a new sense of mission. The result is this book.

Japanese sources on Balhae, too, unanimously say that the dominant power of Balhae was Goguryeo. But that Chinese people, in spite of this, inevitably insist it was Malgal is because the Hua-Yi historiographic perspective which refuses change continues to exist. Only when the Hua-Yi perspective changes will their view of Balhae history [start to] change. Unfortunately it is difficult to expect of Chinese people that [their] Hua-Yi perspective, viewing all nearby peoples as yidi barbarians, will change. But if we [Koreans] correctly establish a historical view of Balhae history, then the day will come when the twisted Hua-Yi perspective of the Chinese will change too.

This author’s comprehensive (종합적) research into the dominant power of Balhae is with the sole aim of trying to rectify the distorted view of Balhae history which is [itself] the dark side (이면) of the biased Hua-Yi perspective. As much as it is now the 21st century in which a new millenium has begun, we must no longer accept twisted views of history. Only rational views of history acknowledged by all, will guarantee peace and equality between countries.

In order to demonstrate the historical fact that the dominant power of Balhae was of Goguryeo lineage, this author will devote his whole energies (심혈 lit. ‘heart and blood’) to finding relations between the two. In concrete terms he will try to form connections between whether facts and events appearing in each topic [related to] Balhae also appear in Goguryeo. That is to say, he will focus on proving that the roots of historical facts which can be seen in Balhae, [can be traced to] Goguryeo. Because resolving this problem is the emphasis of this book, criticism and refutations of the twisted assertions and opinions of Chinese [scholars] cannot be neglected.

The uniqueness of this book is in its new method of research which has not until now been attempted. That is to divide the connections between Balhae and Goguryeo into thirty-four categories such as politics, diplomacy and culture and to take pains that the reader has no difficult in understanding [the discourse]. [The author] believes that anyone who knows [no more than] the name Balhae, should have no problems in understanding [this book].

August 2010
Seo Byeong-guk


1 Dae Joyeong (大祚榮), establishing Balhae
2 The name of the country established by Dae Joyeong was Balhae
3 Balhae was an empire
4 Balhae and Jin-guk (振國/震國) were different
5 The majority of Balhae’s inhabitants were of Goguryeo lineage
6 Criticizing sources which write Balhae as Malgal
7 Examining the meaning of the expansion of anti-Balhae power in Tang
8 Silla acknowledged Balhae as the successor to Goguryeo
9 Goryeo acknowledged Balhae as the successor to Goguryeo
10 Japan viewed Balhae as the same as Goguryeo
11 Examining Gung’ye’s (弓裔) view of Balhae
12 Finding out the world view of Balhae’s people
13 Goguryeo and Malgal lineages coexisted in Balhae
14 Balhae was the successor to Goguryeo
15 Balhae inherited Goguryeo’s policy [towards the] Tujue (突厥 돌궐) people
16 Balhae utilized Goguryeo’s knowledge of foreign countries
17 Balhae customs were Goguryeo type
18 The culture level of Balhae was the same as Goguryeo’s
19 The artist technology of Balhae was the same as Goguryeo’s
20 Balhae developed Goguryeo music
21 Balhae developed Goguryeo literature
22 On the front of [archaeological] remains and relics, Balhae was the successor to Goguryeo
23 The roots of Balhae polo (擊毬 격구) was Goguryeo
24 The roots of Balhae’s agriculture was Goguryeo
25 The roots of Balhae falconry was Goguryeo
26 The remnants of Balhae were acknowledged as the same ethnicity as Goryeo
27 The remnants of Balhae participated in the governments of the Khitan and Jurchen
28 The Liaoyang (遼陽) remnants of Goguryeo were the ancestors of Balhae people
29 The Khitans Balhae imperial guard (儀仗) were of Goguryeo lineage
30 Liaoyang is the homeland of both Goguryeo and Balhae people
31 Balhae and the Jurchen were not the same people
32 The Balhae of the Five Dynasties means Goguryeo lineage
33 Hwang Uidon (黃義敦 1890-1964) regarded Balhae as the same ethnic identity as Silla
34 Correct understanding of the Southern and Northern states (南北國 aka Silla and Balhae) period



Even though we [Koreans] are the protagonists of Balhae’s history, the Chinese do not acknowledge this. Much of the cause is due to us. It is because we have not made it clear through scholarly research that we are the masters (주인) of Balhae history. Until now we have only said in words that Balhae history belongs to us without any academic evidence (뒷받침). As a result who [do we expect] Chinese would consider Balhae history to belong to? Currently they insist that Balhae history belongs to them, but previously they asserted that it belonged to the Malgal people. That the [perceived] ownership of Balhae history has changed from the Malgal to the Chinese [themselves] is set against the context of an exclusionary Chinese view of history that pulls in the histories of all the ethnic groups that were [previously] inside the territory of present day China.

The Chinese are going to great lengths to make Balhae history Chinese history based on the fact that the former rulers of Manchuria – the Goguryeo, Balhae and Manchs (descendants of the Malgal) – have since been assimilated as Chinese. There are twenty-five official Chinese histories (正史); they include the histories of northern ethnic groups, namely the Liao, Jin, Yuan and Qing. These states voluntarily entered into the Chinese mainland and governed the Chinese people for extended periods of time and so it is natural that their histories should be included (편입) as Chinese history.

However, should that make it okay to, in this way, [also] artificially pull the histories of Goguryeo and Balhae into Chinese history when they had [previously] existed with solemn dignity (엄연히) outside of Chinese history?! Chinese would say that it is okay but they would not find it easy to gain acceptance [for this idea] from people of other countries. But in spite of that we cannot afford to stand idly by. The Chinese claims shake up rational recognition (인식) of Balhae history face on and so we, as Koreans, must establish a counter logic (대응논리).

This author believes that he established a counter logic with his Goguryeo-jeguksa (고구려제국사 History of the Goguryeo Empire), published in 1997. And in his Balhae Balhae’in (발해 발해인 Balhae, Balhae People), published in 1990, he brought into clear relief [the idea] that Balhae history is the history of the remnants of Goguryeo through [examining] the way of life of the remnants of the Balhae people.

The accounts (열전) of the remnant people of Balhae recorded in the Liaoshi (遼史) and Jinshi (金史) are valuable written sources clearly showing the real identity (정체) of Balhae. In spite of that, Chinese do not take notice of these sections and pretend not to know about them. This is because they well know that there are no other written sources showing the identity of Balhae as accurately as these.

When discussing the identity of Balhae, the history of the remnants of Balhae recorded in the Liaoshi and Jinshi must not be ignored. As has been pointed out, it is regrettable that Chinese [scholars] ignore these sections and only make obstinate claims running counter to reason. They only talk about the identity of Balhae in a manner convenient [to themselves].

Although the [former] territory of Balhae is now inside the present day territory of China, it [can only be considered] appropriate and reasonable to say that the dominant (주체적) ethnic group (종족) of Balhae was of Goguryeo lineage. Anyone with even a modicum of basic common sense about history would be able to think like this, so why do only the Chinese think differently? The cause [of this] is filled up with the Chinese people’s traditional Hua-Yi historical perspective and so it is here that the answer must be found.

What forms the basis of this Hua-Yi historical perspective is the Chinese people’s traditional sense of history. Their sense and view of history is self-righteous, exclusionary and uncompromising. But it was the northern peoples who opposed this Hua-Yi historical perspective. In order to render it impotent they established a Yi-Hua historical perspective (夷華史觀) [in its place]. It was not an absolutely stubborn (무조건) opposing [view], but a rational one. The central content of the Yi-Hua historical perspective is to say that the Chinese mainland cannot only be governed always by Chinese Han, but that it can be governed also by non-Han (northern) peoples. That is to say, non-Han ethnic groups can also be the owners of the Chinese mainland.

The fate of this Yi-Hua historical perspective followed that of the northern peoples’ states. Whereupon the Hua-Yi historical perspective which had been suppressed by the Yi-Hua perspective, was revived and [since then we have been in a situation where the Chinese] have been asserting with free abandon that Goguryeo and Balhae history are all [a part of] Chinese history. In the past, the Chinese did not say that Goguryeo and Balhae history are Chinese. That presently the Chinese government is even saying that Balhae history is Chinese shows that the Hua-Yi view of history has become still more exclusionary [than before].

In this maelstrom of [confused] historic awareness, the [only] thing we can do is to discover multi-angled approaches which can prove the fact that Balhae history is the history of the remnant people of Goguryeo, and to secure rational evidence. Owing to our overly devoted confrontation [inherited from Silla against Goguryeo/Balhae; or simply against modern Chinese historiography], we have forgotten the true value of Goguryeo and Balhae history, but the Chinese who, with their uncompromising Hua-Yi perspective, are familiar with debasing the history of neighbouring countries, have been silently progressing in their government supported project to pull Goguryeo and Balhae history into Chinese history.

If the history of Goguryeo and Balhae becomes that of China, we will receive an indescribable wound. That is to say, we will become a people without history and so lose [our] ethnic dignity and experience the fate of the disappearance of the Korean people’s existence. Therefore we must absolutely defend Goguryeo and Balhae history with our own strength. With what method shall we protect it?

The defence of Goguryeo and Balhae history is a matter of the survival of a people which cannot be relaxed. Consequently we must search for the method through history. The most certain method is to disarm (무력화시키다) the forced logic of the Chinese. In Goguryeo history [we must] demonstrate that Goguryeo was not a minority regional government (정권) of China but that it was an empire; in Balhae history, [we must] prove from many angles that Balhae was the successor empire to Goguryeo.

The case of the latter was the objective in writing this book. The accounts in Chinese written sources concerning Balhae which mention Balhae being the successor to Goguryeo are fragmentary, but they are not few. Based on these sources, this author has minutely examined the nature of inheritance (계승성) as thirty-four [separate] items. The conclusion reached from this is the fact that Balhae was jointly established by [people of] Goguryeo and Malgal lineage but those who led its development were clearly of Goguryeo lineage.

There has been a limit to the methods previously employed [to develop] the [most] certain counter logic which can turn around the forced logic of the Chinese and so [this author] introduced a new research method which has never been tested until now. This is a method to demonstrate the correlations focusing on the records related to Goguryeo from amongst the fragmentary records concerning Balhae in Chinese and our own Korean historical literature.

Up until now, concerning the question of [which] ethnic group was dominant in the foundation and development of Balhae, opinions and assertions have in actuality been at loggerheads according to the national interests of the involved parties [Korea and China], saying it was either of Goguryeo or Malgal lineage. As long as this kind of research continues, the explication of this problem cannot but remain unresolved. But China suddenly came out from its previous approach (태도) and forcibly pulled Balhae history into Chinese history. A part of Balhae’s [former] territory is inside present day Russian Primorsky Krai but Russia does not claim Balhae as Russian history. They simply say it was the history of the Malgal.

When looked at from this position, it cannot be that the Chinese claims [of Malgal over Goguryeo lineage] are not convincing. As a result we must not let go [of the matter]. [This author] has tried to make clear the connections between Goguryeo and Balhae [working] from the conviction that we must deeply investigate through scholarly [research] the unreasonable Chinese claims and create a perfect counter logic [to them]. In the final evaluation, [he] confidently believes that he has obtained the effect of [showing] the dominant ethnic group [involved] in Balhae’s foundation and development was of Goguryeo lineage. He hopes for nothing more than if a better research method than this emerges hereafter.

Sources: Samguk-sagi 三國史記 (1145) – contents

Below is a translated contents of the Samguk-sagi (History of the Three Kingdoms) compiled by Kim Bu-sik (金富軾 1075-1151).

NB: ‘Upper,’ ‘middle’ and ‘lower’ are equivalent to first, second and third parts, or with just ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ parts one and two.

Samguk-sagi 三國史記

Book 1 – Basic annals of Silla 1 卷第一 新羅本紀 第一

Founder Hyeokgeose-geoseogan 始祖 赫居世居西干 시조 혁거세거거산
Namhae-chacha’ung 南解次次雄 남해차차웅
Yuri-isageum 儒理尼師今 유리이사금
Talhae-isageum 脫解尼師今 탈해이사금
Pisa-isageum 婆娑尼師今 피사이사금
Jima-isageum 祗摩尼師今 지마이사금
Ilseong-isageum 逸聖尼師今 일성이사금

Book 2 – Basic annals of Silla 2

Adalla-isageum 阿達羅尼師今 아달라이사금
Beolhyu-isageum 伐休尼師今 벌휴이사금
Naehae-isageum 奈解尼師今 내해이사금
Jobun-isageum 助賁尼師今 조분이사금
Cheomhae-isageum 沾解尼師今 첨해이사금
Michu-isageum 味鄒尼師今 미추이사금
Yurye-isageum 儒禮尼師今 유례이사금
Girim-isageum 基臨尼斯今 기림이사금
Heulhae-isageum 訖解尼師今 흘해이사금 

Book 3 – Basic annals of Silla 3

Naemul-isageum 奈勿尼師今 내물이사금
Silseong-isageum 實聖尼師今 실성이사금
Nulji-maripgan 訥祗痲立干 눌지마립간
Jabi-maripgan 慈悲麻立干 자비마립간
Soji-maripgan 炤知麻立干 소지마립간

Book 4 – Basic annals of Silla 4

Jijeung-maripgan 智證麻立干 지증마립간
Beopheung-wang 法興王 법흥왕
Jinheung-wang 眞興王 진흥왕
Jinji-wang 眞智王 진지왕
Jinpyeong-wang 眞平王 진평왕

Book 5 – Basic annals of Silla 5

Seondeok-wang 善德王 선덕왕
Jindeok-wang 眞德王 진덕왕
Taejong Muyeol-wang 太宗武烈王 태종무열왕 

Book 6 – Basic annals of Silla 6

Munmu-wang – upper 文武王·上 문무왕·상

Book 7 – Basic annals of Silla 7

Munmu-wang – lower 文武王·下 문무왕·하 

Book 8 – Basic annals of Silla 8

Sinmun-wang 神文王 신문왕
Hyoso-wang 孝昭王 효소왕
Seongdeokwang 聖德王 성덕왕

Book 9 – Basic annals of Silla 9

Hyoseong-wang 孝成王 효성왕
Gyeongdeok-wang 景德王 경덕왕
Hyegong-wang 惠恭王 혜공왕
Seondeok-wang 宣德王 선덕왕

Book 10 – Basic annals of Silla 10

Wonseong-wang 元聖王 원성왕
Soseong-wang 昭聖王 소성왕
Aejang-wang 哀莊王 애장왕
Heondeok-wang 憲德王 헌덕왕
Heungdeok-wang 興德王 흥덕왕
Hwigang-wang 僖康王 희강왕
Min’ae-wang 閔哀王 민애왕
Sinmu-wang 神武王 신무왕

Book 11 – Basic annals of Silla 11

Munseong-wang 文聖王 문성왕
Heon’an-wang 憲安王 헌안왕
Gyeongmun-wang 景文王 경문왕
Heon’gang-wang 憲康王 헌강왕
Heungdeok-wang 興德王 흥덕왕
Jeonggang-wang 定康王 정강왕
Jinseong-wang 眞聖王 진성왕

Book 12 – Basic annals of Silla 12

Hyogong-wang 孝恭王 효공왕
Sindeok-wang 神德王 신덕왕
Gyeongmyeong-wang 景明王 경명왕
Gyeong’ae-wang 景哀王 경애왕
Gyeongsun-wang 敬順王 경순왕

Book 13 – Basic annals of Goguryeo 1 高句麗本紀 第一

Founder Deongmyeong-seongwang 始祖 東明聖王 동명성왕
Yuri-myeongwang 瑠璃明王

Book 14 – Basic annals of Goguryeo 2

Daemusin-wang 大武神王 대무신왕
Minjung-wang 閔中王 민중왕
Mobon-wang 慕本王 모본왕 

Book 15 – Basic annals of Goguryeo 3

Taejo Daewang 太祖大王 태조대왕
Chadae-wang 次大王 차대왕 

Book 16 – Basic annals of Goguryeo 4

Sindae-wang 新大王 신대왕
Gogukcheon-wang 故國川王 고국천왕
Sansang-wang 山上王 산상왕 

Book 17 – Basic annals of Goguryeo 5

Dongcheon-wang 東川王 동천왕
Jungcheon-wang 中川王 중천왕
Seocheon-wang 西川王 서천왕
Bongsang-wang 烽上王 봉상왕
Micheon-wang 美川王 미천왕

Book 18 – Basic annals of Goguryeo 6

Goguk’won-wang 故國原王 고국원왕
Sosurim-wang 小獸林王 소수림왕
Goguk’yang-wang 故國壤王 고국양왕
Gwanggaeto-wang 廣開土王 광개토왕
Jangsu-wang 長壽王 장수왕

Book 19 – Basic annals of Goguryeo 7

Munja-myeongwang 文咨明王 문자명왕
Anjang-wang 安藏王 안장왕
Anwon-wang 安原王 안원왕
Yang’won-wang 陽原王 양원왕
Pyeong’won-wang 平原王 평원왕

Book 20 – Basic annals of Goguryeo 8

Yeong’yang-wang 嬰陽王 영양왕
Yeongnyu-wang 榮留王 영류왕 

Book 21 – Basic annals of Goguryeo 9

Bojang-wang – upper 寶藏王·上 보장왕·상

Book 22 – Basic annals of Goguryeo 10

Bojang-wang – lower 寶藏王·下 보장왕·하

Book 23 – Basic annals of Baekje 1 百濟本紀 第一

Founder Onjo-wang 始祖 溫祚王 시조 온조왕
Daru-wang 多婁王 다루왕
Giru-wang 己婁王 기루왕
Gaeru-wang 蓋婁王 개루왕
Chogo-wang 肖古王 초고왕

Book 24 – Basic annals of Baekje 2

Gusu-wang 仇首王 구수왕
Go’i-wang 古爾王 고이왕
Chaekgye-wang 責稽王 책계왕
Bunseo-wang 汾西王 분서왕
Biryu-wang 比流王 비류왕
Gye-wang 契王 계왕
Geunchogo-wang 近肖古王 근초고왕
Geungusu-wang 近仇首王 근구수왕
Chimnyu-wang 枕流王 침류왕

Book 25 – Basic annals of Baekje 3

Jinsa-wang 辰斯王 진사왕
Asin-wang 阿莘王 아신왕
Jeonji-wang 腆支王 전지왕
Gu’isin-wang 久爾辛王 구이신왕
Biyu-wang 毘有王 비유왕
Gaero-wang 蓋鹵王 개로왕 

Book 26 – Basic annals of Baekje 4

Munju-wang 文周王 문주왕
Samgeun-wang 三斤王 삼근왕
Deongseong-wang 東城王 동성왕
Muryeong-wang 武寧王 무령왕
Seong-wang 聖王 성왕

Book 27 – Basic annals of Baekje 5

Wideok-wang 威德王 위덕왕
Hye-wang 惠王 혜왕
Beop-wang 法王 법왕
Mu-wang 武王 무왕

Book 28 – Basic annals of Baekje 6

Uija-wang 義慈王 의자왕

Book 29 – Chronological tables – upper 年表·上

Book 30 – Chronological tables – middle 年表·中

Book 31 – Chronological tables – lower 年表·下

Book 32 – Miscellaneous treaties 1 雜志 第一

Rites 祭祀 제사
Music 音樂 음악

Book 33 – Miscellaneous treaties 2

Colour of robes 服色 복색
Vehicles 車騎 거기
Utensils 器用 기용
Housing 屋舍 옥사 

Book 34 – Miscellaneous treaties 3

Geography 1 – Silla 地理 一 新羅 

Book 35 – Miscellaneous treaties 4

Geography 2 – Silla 地理 二 新羅

Book 36 – Miscellaneous treaties 5

Geography 3 – Silla 地理 三 新羅

Book 37 – Miscellaneous treaties 6

Geography 4 – Goguryeo and Baekje 地理 四 高句麗 – 地理 四 百濟

Book 38 – Miscellaneous treaties 7

Official positions and ranks – upper 職官·上 직관·상

Book 39 – Miscellaneous treaties 8

Official positions and ranks – middle 職官·中 직관·중

Book 40 – Miscellaneous treaties 9

Official positions and ranks – lower 職官·下 직관·하

Book 41 – Biographies 1 列傳 第一

Kim Yusin – upper 金庾信·上 김유신·상

Book 42 – Biographies 2

Kim Yusin – middle 金庾信·中 김유신·중

Book 43 – Biographies 3

Kim Yusin – lower 金庾信·下 김유신·하

Book 44 – Biographies 4

Eulji Mundeok 乙支文德 을지문덕
Geochilbu 居柒夫 거칠부
Geodo 居道 거도
Isabu 異斯夫 이사부
Kim Inmun 金仁問 김인문
Kim Yang 金陽 김양
Heukchi Sangji 黑齒常之 흑치상지
Jang Bogo [and Jeongnyeon] 張保皐 [鄭年] 장보고[와 정년]
Sadaham 斯多含 사다함

Book 45 – Biographies 5

Eulpaso 乙巴素 을파소
Kim Hujik 金后稷 김후직
Nokjin 祿眞 녹진
Mir’u [and] Nyuyu 密友 紐由 밀우[와] 뉴유
Myeongnim-dapbu 明臨答夫 명림답부
Seok Uro 昔于老 석우로
Bak Jesang 朴堤上 박제상
Gwisan 貴山 귀산
Ondal 溫達 온달

Book 46 – Biographies 6

Gangsu 强首 강수
Choe Chiwon 崔致遠 최치원
Seolchong 薛聰 설총 

Book 47 – Biographies 7

Haeron 奚論 해론
Sona 素那 소나
Chwido 驟徒 취도
Nulchoe 訥催 눌최
Seol Gyedu 薛罽頭 설계두
Kim Yeong-yun 金令胤 김영윤
Gwanchang 官昌 관창
Kim Heum-un 金歆運 김흠운
Yeolgi 裂起 열기
Bi’nyeongja 丕寧子 비녕자
Jukjuk 竹竹 죽죽
Pilbu 匹夫 필부
Gyebaek 階伯 계백 

Book 48 – Biographies 8

Sangdeok 尙德 상덕
Seonggak 聖覺 성각
Silhye 實兮 실혜
Mulgyeja 勿稽子 물계자
Baekgyeol-seonsaeng 百結先生 백결선생
Geomgun 劍君 검순
Kim Saeng 金生 김생
Solgeo 率居 솔거
Filial daughter Ji’eun 孝女知恩 효녀지은
Miss Seol 薛氏女 설씨녀
Do-mi 都彌 도미

Book 49 – Biographies 9

Chang Jori 倉租利 창조리
Gaesomun 蓋蘇文 개소문

Book 50 – Biographies 10

Gung’ye 弓裔 궁예
Gyeonhwon 甄萱 원훤

Introduction to Yu Deukgong’s “Nostalgic Reflections of the Twenty-One Capitals” 二十一都懷古詩 (1792)

Nostalgic Reflections of the Twenty-One Capitals (二十一都懷古詩 Isib’ildo-hoegosi ) is a cycle of forty-three poems, seven character lined ‘heptasyllabic’ Chinese quatrains (七言絶句), describing a personal selection of ancient landscapes and monuments which in turn evoke the memory of various events and characters from some of the earliest recorded kingdoms and dynasties associated with Korean history. Poet-historian Yu Deukgong (1748-1807) initially completed the work in 1778, he added a preface in 1785 and subsequently revised it in 1792.  Each of the twenty-one subdivisions and individual poems is accompanied by lengthier prose quotes taken from some forty-three different historical sources.

What’s in the title?

The first four characters, isib’il-do (二十一都 ‘twenty-one capitals,’) in the title refer to the revised work’s subdivision into twenty-one separately titled kingdoms and smaller states.  However, in the poems themselves, though often mentioned, there is no overt emphasis placed on the notion of capitals or fortified urban centres.  Any stricter adherence to poetically representing each capital, as the title implies, is further diminished in the case of kingdoms such as Goguryeo and Baekje who’s capitals changed location several times but are each treated in the cycle still as a single do (都).  The ambiguous usage in the title is thus best understood as more loosely delineating the kingdoms themselves.  Perhaps this is because whilst it may have been considered misleading to term all of the twenty-one states included as fully fledged kingdoms or dynasties, they were all assumed to at least have had a seat of power in the form of a fortress or palace where the ruler was based and which could be designated a ‘capital,’ however minor the kingdom itself.

During the process of revision, it also seems Nostalgic Reflections evolved away from an initially stronger concept of structuring the cycle around the motif of capitals.  Originally the first edition, though still covering the same twenty-one kingdoms, was subdivided into sixteen do with some of the kingdoms from different periods treated as having shared the same capital locations.  The cycle was thus referred to by Jeong Yak-yong (丁若鏞1762-1836) in a letter to his son as the Sixteen Capital Heogo-si (十六都懷古詩).  The locations hosting more than one kingdom were Pyeong’yang-bu (for Dan’gun Joseon, Gi Ja Joseon, Wi Man Joseon and Goguryeo), Iksan-gun (for Mahan and Bodeok) and Gangneung-bu (for Ye and Myeongju).

The last three characters of the title, hoego-si (懷古詩 lit. ‘poems thinking of/cherishing the old’), in my translation rendered as “nostalgic reflections,” was a genre of Chinese verse developed during the Tang dynasty.  A Beijing friend and early champion of the work, Pan Tingyun (潘庭筠), observed that Yu’s hoego-si incorporates aspects of several related genres of Chinese poem including yeongsa-si (詠史詩) ‘poems reciting history,’ jukji (竹枝 lit. ‘bamboo branch’) typically discussing local scenery and customs, and gung-sa (宮詞 lit. ‘palace lyrics’) which take as their subject the intrigues and tales of palace life.  Like Yu’s hoego-si – which also shares much in terms of subject matter – both the latter jukji and gung-sa are composed of seven character lines, whilst yeongsa-si are slightly freer in form.

Yeongsa-si are ‘poems reciting history’ and as expected recount past events. Though famously being the first poetry cycle written in the new vernacular hangul alongside Classical Chinese, in terms of content and style, perhaps the most representative yeongsa-si known to Korean literature today is Yongbi Eocheon-ga (龍飛御天歌 Songs of Flying Dragons ) whilst a more archetypal Korean yeongsa-si in Classical Chinese is the earlier Jewang-un’gi (帝王韻紀 1287) by Yi Seung-hyu (1224-1300). What distinguishes Yu’s Nostalgic Reflections most from other yeongsa-si or prose histories, such as the dynastic chronicles, is that as a hoego-si it does not attempt to recite or recount a historical narrative but only recalls episodes from it. In contrast to official histories there is no underlying didacticism, Yu neither eulogizes nor overtly moralizes.

It could also be noted that in content and motivation Yu’s individual quatrains are highly reminiscent of Anglo-Saxon elegiac verse; they do not overtly ponder death but are keenly aware of the passing of ages and ruination of ancient civilization.

In what form does the work survive?

Currently eight known variant editions of Nostalgic Reflections have survived to the present. They are chiefly divided into the first version of 1778 and the revised version of 1792. The latter is the dominant version whilst extant copies of the former were only recently rediscovered.

Aside from changing the classification of the capitals, the main difference between the first and revised versions is the greater detail of the quotations taken from historical sources.  In the first edition, the quotes following the poems apparently do not always indicate their source and sometimes do not even directly relate to the contents of the poem.  By contrast, the quotations used in the revised version are chosen to explain only specific names, phrases or words in the text and their sources are explicitly stated.  Previously absent, introductions composed of further quotes were also added for each of the twenty-one kingdoms inserted before their associated poems.

In the final revision then, the forty-three quatrains are in total accompanied by some 196 separate quotations including from one paeseung (稗乘), from two poems by Jeong Mong-ju (鄭夢周 1337-92) and one byeolgok song (別曲) by Jeong Cheol (鄭澈1536-93).  The remaining 192 quotations are from the aforementioned forty-three sources twenty of which are Korean, the other twenty-three Chinese of various dynasties including the classic histories.

Of the twenty Korean sources, three now only exist in fragmentary form quoted in other books whilst two are entirely unknown outside of Elegies.  Only one of the quoted Chinese sources is no longer extant.  Throughout the cycle, the most frequently referred to source is the Sinjeung Dongguk Yeojiseungnam (新增東國輿地勝覽Newly Augmented Complete Korean Geography, 1530), quoted from some forty-six times, followed by the Samguk-sagi (三國史記History of the Three Kingdoms, 1145) quoted thirty-two times and the Dongguk Munheon (東國文獻備考bigoEncyclopedia of Korean Writings, 1770) twenty times.

Significance of the revision

The enhanced academic rigour of the revised version no doubt reflects the experience Yu had subsequently gained working at the Gyujanggak royal library combined with a more fully developed interest in historical research as well as greater appreciation for toponymy derived from his travels.

Whilst the quatrains themselves retain the characteristics of a hoegosi, the effect of augmenting the quotations to such a degree is that, taken as a whole, Nostalgic Reflections becomes as much a prose work of historical survey as it does one of poetic rumination.

As the poems themselves did not greatly change in content, Yu’s somewhat idiosyncratic choice of historical personages and scenes chosen for the cycle were preserved throughout the revision.  The final result is best appreciated then as an ‘alternative history’ or even, simply a miscellany of topics which interested Yu most at the initial time of composition.  In this former sense, the work bears some similarity with the Samgukyusa (三國遺事), though Yu was not trying in any way to supplement or revise the orthodox histories from which he was inspired as is thought to have been Il Yeon’s (1206-89) motivation.  Thus, even though during the intervening period of revising Nostalgic Reflections he had compiled Balhae-go, in which he lamented the kingdom having been omitted from Kim Bu-sik’s Samguk-sagi, he still chose not to add a new Balhae ‘capital’ to the cycle despite its importance over some of the more minor kingdoms already included.

Aside from Balhae, much else could be made of what and who Yu left out of the cycle but the selection process is better understood by considering the content that was included.  What becomes apparent is that each poem was composed in order to reference at least one cultural, anecdotal, literary or archaeological point of interest.  The latter often includes the monuments and landscapes Yu observed on his early travels, the others were culled from his extensive reading.  Nostalgic Reflections is not a panegyric and so Yu was under no obligation to include names of historic figures and major events, unless they served a further purpose in linking to the other points of lesser known interest.

Sources: Biographies of Famous Korean Generals 海東名將傳 (1794) – contents and preface

I Gye Hong Yangho 1724-1802

                          Hong Yangho 1724-1802

Haedong-myeongjang-jeon (海東名將傳 ‘Biographies of Famous Korean Generals’) is a work compiled by I Gye Hong Yangho (耳溪 洪良浩 1724-1802) in 1794. It’s noteworthy as being one of the very few works of the later Joseon dynasty to focus on military heroes which, as Hong explains in his preface, was the very purpose of the endeavor.

Below is a translation of the contents and preface. The only readily available near-complete edition of Haedong-myeongjang-jeon in South Korean bookshops is a 1996 facsimile reprint of a 1956 North Korean translation (from Classical Chinese to contemporary Korean hangul) by Gang Byeongdo. The translation of the preface I’ve made is from this edition so the language is clearly couched in the vocabulary of the time and place. As described in Lankov’s From Stalin to Kim Il Sung, 1956 was a dramatic year in North Korea when Kim Il Sung put down the last significant challenge to his totalitarian grip on power and went onto enact purges against the remaining Chinese and Soviet factions within the Party. As the Pyongyang edition keeps the use of Chinese characters to a bare minimum there is no hanja available for Gang Byeongdo’s name to help identify him.

Comparing Gang’s translation to the original Chinese text, it still successfully translates Hong’s general meaning even if there is some change of nuance.

More than the translation it is worth noting that two generals, highlighted below, were entirely omitted from the Pyongyang edition.

Dates given in the contents are culled from the internet. Where they are unknown, the ‘flourished’ (fl.) dates are taken from the source text or Samguk-sagi where indicated (SS).


Book 1 一券
[Silla 新羅]

Kim Yusin  金庾信  김유신 595~673
Jang Bogo  張保皐  장보고 ?~846
Jeong Nyeon  鄭年  정년 fl.828 (SS)
Simna 沈那 심나 fl.634~647 (Inpyeong 仁平 reign era of Queen Seondeok)
Sona  素那  소나 ?~675

[Goguryeo 高句麗]

Bubunno 扶芬奴 부분노 fl.32~6BCE (SS, legendary)
Eulji Mundeok 乙支文德 을지문덕 fl.611 (SS)
Ansi-seongju (Ansi fortress chief) 안시성주(安市城主) 안시성주 fl.645 (SS) (named elsewhere as Yang Manchun 楊萬春)

[Baekje 百濟]

Heukchi Sangji 黑齒常之 흑치상지 ?630~689

[Goryeo 高麗]

Yu Geumpil 庾黔弼 유금필 ?~941
Gang Gamchan 姜邯贊 강감찬 948~1031
Yang Gyu 楊規 양규 ?~1011
Yun Gwan 尹瓘 윤관 ?~1111

Book 2 二券

O Yeonchong 吳延寵 오연총 1055~116
Kim Busik 金富軾 김부식 1075~1151
Jo Chung 趙冲 조충 1171~1220
Kim Chwiryeo 金就礪 김취려 1172~1234
Bak Seo 朴犀 박서
Song Munju 宋文胄 송문주
Kim Gyeongson 金慶孫 김경손 ?~1251
I Jaseong 李子晟 이자성 ?~1251

Book 3 三券

Kim Banggyeong 金方慶 김방경 1212~1300
Han Huiyu 韓希愈 한희유 ?~1306
Won Chunggap 元冲甲 원충갑
An U 安祐 안우 ?~1362
Kim Deukbae 金得培 김득배 1312~1362
I Bangsil 李芳實 이방실 ?~1362
Jeong Seun 鄭世雲 정세울 ?~1362
An U’gyeong 安遇慶 안우경 ?~1372
Jeong Ji 鄭地 정지 1347~1391

Book 4 四券

Choe Yeong 崔瑩 최영 1316~1388

[Joseon 朝鮮]

I Ji’ran 李之蘭 이지란 1331~1402
Choe Yundeok 崔潤德 최윤덕 1376~1445
I Jongsaeng 李從生 이종생 1423~1495
Eo Yuso 魚有沼 어유소 1434~1489
I Sunsin 李舜臣 이순신 1545~1598
Gwon Yul 權慄 권율 1537~1599

Book 5 五券

Gwak Jae’u 郭再祐 곽재우 1552~1617
Jeong Munbu 鄭文孚 정문부 1565~1624
Hwang Jin 黃進 황진 1550~1593
Hyu Jeong 休靜 휴정 1520~1604
Yu Jyeong 惟政 유정 1544~1610
Yeong Gyu 靈圭 영규 ?~1592
Jeong Giryong 鄭起龍 정기룡 1562~1622
Kim Si’min 金時敏 김시민 1554~1592

Book 6 六券

I Jeong’am 李廷馣 이정암 1541~1600
Im Jung-ryang 林仲樑 임중량
Kim Deok-ryeong 金德齡 김덕령 1567~1596
Jeong Chungsin 鄭忠信 정충신 1576~1636
Kim Eungha 金應河 김응하 1580~1619
Kim Eunghae 金應海 김응해 1588~1666
Im Gyeong’eop 林慶業 임경업 1594~1646
Jeong Bongsu 鄭鳳壽 정봉수 1572~1645
Yu Hyeong 柳珩 유형 1566~1615
Yu Rim 柳琳 유림 1581~1643

Preface 序
(sourced from the 1956 translation by Gang Byeongdo)

If one is to broadly distinguish the two most important tasks of a country, it would be concluded that they are culture and national defence. According to the Spring and Autumn Annals (春秋傳), culture is what makes the masses obedient (lit. ‘follow’) whilst national defence is what makes enemies fearful. According to the Cixi commentary on the Book of Changes (周易繫辭), “The Yellow Emperor (黃帝) and emperors Yao (堯) and Shun (舜) administered their countries through culture.” And it continues, “Through military preparation they demonstrated their majesty.”

The tasks of culture and national defence must go side by side; either one must not be stopped. The prosperous Three Dynasties (the Xia 夏, Yin/Shang 殷/商 and Zhou 周) implemented this policy and so over a long period were able to maintain levels of peace and stability which were hard to find in subsequent eras. Since [or ‘except for’] the Han (漢) and Tang (唐), I have not heard of a country that abandoned these two policies but maintained itself.

Even though [our] territory and talent could not compare with that of China, our ancestors imported Chinese culture and received much help. During the period of the Three Han (三韓) [our] culture was not very high, but from Silla and Goguryeo onwards, [we] became skillful in methods of national administration and accordingly [our] national defence [also] strengthened and [our] art of war became developed. As a consequence when repulsing invasions and faced with unexpected mishap, [our country] has not been short of talented men. Kim Gakgan (金角干 – refers to Kim Yusin 金庾信) of Silla and Eulji Mundeok (乙支文德) of Goguryeo [both] suppressed great national disturbances and so their exploits occupy the highest position in the [history of the] Three Kingdoms (三國). Even famous Chinese generals could not match them.

Afterwards, during the five hundred years of Goryeo, Korean territory (국토) was invaded and the Korean people massacred almost every year by such foreign enemies as the Khitan, Mongols and Red Turbans (紅巾賊). But each time illustrious generals (령장) would come forward who would surmount difficulties and overthrow the enemies. Generals such as Gang Gamchan and Kim Sangnak (金上洛) were particularly outstanding; their soldiers never once surrendered and never lost territory. On account of this foreigners feared Goryeo and called it a strong country.

Entering the Joseon dynasty, history remained long and the people did not lessen, but military strength and exploits have been greatly diminished than in previous times. Because of this when experiencing the Imjin [Japanese] invasion, the nation could not help but fall into a dangerous position. If at that time [we] had not had the assistance of China, it cannot be known what would have become of [us]. During the Byeongja [Manchu] invasion, intruders with no strength poured in as though it was uninhabited territory and for a time [Korea] was in a gruesome situation.

On what account was this? It was because [we] only esteemed culture whilst neglecting national defence and military preparedness was extremely poor.

Further, how pathetic is it that even after the disturbances had been calmed, [our] warriors carried on nonchalantly just as though nothing had happened?!

Worried about this situation, I have compiled the biographies of famous generals from Silla and Goguryeo up until the Joseon dynasty and aim to raise the [level of our] caution by showing the experiences of the past. Another objective is for the administrators within the country to all realise that the tasks of culture and national defence are originally of equal importance [but] that according to [times of] peace or war [we] must pay attention with [appropriate] balance.

Looking back, such famous Joseon dynasty generals as Prince Chungmu [aka Yi Sunsin], Gwon Wonsu and Gwak Hong’ui (郭紅衣) appear with such heroism and distinguished deeds (공훈) that they do not fall behind [even] the famous generals of Silla and Goguryeo.

In that case it cannot be said that the country domestically lacks men of talent (인물). [But] to experience war without any preparation or training and [yet] successfully handle [such a] difficult task, this has only been possible through luck. Of course, this cannot be said [to be the same as] repelling [potential] invaders outside of the nation’s borders and raising the country’s prestige [such that] they will be fearful and not dare to consider [attacking].

Truly, it can be said that the talented men of the Joseon dynasty have accomplished prosperous circumstances. In learning, literature and loyalty they are comparable to the Tang and Song dynasty whilst no other country would dare rival (lit. ‘follow’) them. On this front, [we] can stand proud in the world and future historians will have no need to be ashamed.

However, only in national defence, it is a fact that [we] have fallen behind the Three Kingdoms period. On what account? Is it because the topography (lit. ‘mountains and streams’) or climate has changed? Or is it because at that time heaven’s will was vast but now is miserly?

That [Joseon] has fortunately grown strong alongside the Qing and Japan and maintained peace for several centuries without war represents (lit. ‘is’) the accumulated virtue (적덕) of our ancestors and happiness of the nation. However, [we] cannot sleep peacefully believing in only this as the nation’s hundred year plan. Confucius said that in the task of peace there must definitely be military preparedness, are the sage’s words not profound in meaning?

I hope that those who read this text will understand my intentions.

Third month of the Gab’in year (甲寅年, 1794)

I Gye Hong Yangho (耳溪 洪良浩)

Understanding the Enigma of Korean Culture

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Traditional culture is a mask fashioned by the present 
onto which features believed to represent the past are painted.  This article identifies and attempts to reconcile some of the key conflicts arising in the popular notion of “traditional Korean culture.” 

From early on, human culture has been wired into concepts of dualism: complementary phenomena where one half cannot exist or be described without reference to the other.  The root examples are life and death and the two genders.  In East Asian culture, dualism was early on made explicit through the Taoist notion of yin and yang.  By coincidence, Chinese cultural make-up now lends itself to a yin and yang interpretation reflecting a dynastic historiography alternating between ethnic Han and foreign periods of rule; in this case the dualism is given another layer of nuance by Barfield’s observation that nomadic steppe cultures tended to rise and fall in tandem with their agrarian Han neighbours forming their own bipolar yin and yang patterns of interaction.[1]  The foreign conquest dynasties of Manchuria relied on the ethnic Han bureaucracy whilst the territory of the expansionist Qing dynasty has come to define the modern concept of a once more Han controlled China and the scope of its historiography.

Dualist interpretations of foreign cultures are popular because they appear simplistic and through their own generalizing nature become self-fulfilling axioms.  Thus the notion of Japanese culture was equally summed up by Benedict in her enduring “Chrysanthemum and Sword” formula.  Such “greedy reductionism,” however, is regarded by today’s Orientalists as the epitome of Orientalist cliché.

In this brief and under-researched examination of what the current notion of Korean traditional culture encompasses, I unintentionally find myself describing another broad dualism though trying to introduce a formulaic label for Korea is not the motivation of my discourse.  The following observations I believe, help to make explicit an almost schizophrenic sense of unacknowledged divisions, or polarizations, inherent in the discourse of Korean cultural identity implied when and wherever the word “Korean” is used.  Designating language, sovereignty, ethnicity and plenty besides, the words “Korean” and “traditional Korean” are in constant use and, indeed, the discipline of Korean Studies would not exist without them.  This paper is not a comprehensive exposition but only a starting point to aid my own research.

With raced based nationalist historiography having become the mainstay of the two modern rival regimes, the homogeneity of the Korean people and their culture has become a self-professed and oft celebrated defining feature.  This trait of homogeneity is widely perceived and continues to be propagated amongst Koreans and those with an interest in Korea today. It has become a self-fulfilling prophecy as features considered to represent Koreanness – language, dynastic history, kimchi, ondol underfloor heating, traditional hanbok dress etc – have been emphasized over any other historical or cultural details which might otherwise detract from the brand image of traditional Korea.

The desire to create a nationalist cultural identity is nothing unusual and arguably quite necessary given thirty-six years under Japanese colonization (1910-45) which in its final decade included the infamous Naisen Ittai program of cultural assimilation aiming to eradicate any separate notion of Korean identity, including even the language itself.

In the West, the homogeneity of the Korean people has gone largely unquestioned as the notion undoubtedly merged with lingering stereotypes of neatly classifiable oriental cultures.  As the Korean peninsula was arbitrarily divided into opposing halves in August 1945 and the still today unresolved internal confrontation ensued, it became in the interests of both regimes to claim a culture and clearly definable Koreanness in order to legitimize themselves in the eyes of their citizenry as well as, for the South, in the allied West’s imagination.  While North Korea made its own consequent beeline from internationalist Communism to Stalinist inspired ethnic nationalism, a similarly crude cultural nationalism quickly took shape in the South from which a more nuanced view of Korean identity, although now emerged, has yet to be fully untangled.

Tracing further back, Korea’s avoidance of historical conquest and the celebrated tradition of popular resistance to invasions are important factors giving credence to modern claims of homogeneity.  During the premodern historical era, the Korean peninsula was invaded several times and made subject to long term occupation on two separate occasions;[2] it was subjugated both by the Mongol Yuan Dynasty and later the Jurchen Qing but crucially has never experienced any permanent conquest or associated wholesale inward migration comparable, for example, to the 1066 Norman conquest of Anglo-Saxon England.[3]

Korean homogeneity is therefore not entirely a myth and its discourse remains valid to some degree.  However this characteristic has been overemphasized or at best, left unchallenged leading to continued presumptions about cultural, ethnic and linguistic insularity.  Often overlooked both in the past and present, Korean culture and society has in fact played host to a series of internal divisions which are characterized by a tendency towards extreme polarization.  It is consequently only when these often opposing phenomena are treated as constituent parts of a greater whole that a more accurate description of Korea and what is popularly identified as “Korean” can be achieved.

In the broadest case of traditional Korean culture itself, polarization has occurred between popular notions of “indigenous folk” and “Classical Chinese learning.”[4]  The chief characteristic of Korean folk culture is its strong association with Korean shamanism, musok, alongside oral and music traditions embodied in folk song and performance arts.  Perhaps unexpected for a country with such a propensity for education exhibited in both the premodern Neo-Confucian examination system and the high level of university entrance rates of South Koreans today, folk culture remains, or rather has reemerged as, a compellingly prominent feature of contemporary Korean identity.  By contrast, “Classical Chinese learning” refers to literacy in Chinese and is now chiefly associated with Neo-Confucianism which became the male preserve of the yangban literati elite from early on in the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910).  This cultural divide was not just between the educated, landowning elite and peasant farmers but included, for example, female patronage of musok all the way up to palace ladies and queens owing to their own blanket exclusion from participation in the Neo-Confucian ritual practice of ancestor worship.

If the contemporary popular notion of “traditional culture” is assumed to refer to the culture of the Korean peninsula as it had evolved by the latter centuries of the Joseon Dynasty, then Buddhism falls on the folk side of the divide as it similarly faced official discrimination from relatively early on in the long lived dynasty in spite of having originally been introduced to the peninsula, together with Confucianism, through writings in Classical Chinese and itself having served as the dominant religious ideology of the elite until the overthrow of the preceding Goryeo Dynasty (936-1392).

An inaccurate but popularly imagined model of Korean cultural history therefore assumes an indigenous, Old Korean speaking musok substratum culture upon which the Chinese language and Buddhism were first introduced before in turn being supplanted by Neo-Confucianism which relegated musok and Buddhism to the lower classes and women.  The extension of this assumption is that if the Neo-Confucian layer were peeled away from Korean culture, a more indigenous substratum of folk culture would be recoverable beneath.  This was something actively attempted during the left-wing Minjung people’s movement which, coming to prominence in South Korea during the 1980s, sought to reinvigorate and, where necessary reconstruct traditional folk culture with the emphasis firmly on ideals of indigenous folk arts and musok actively downplaying the earlier cultural heritage of Chinese learning.

A key aspect influencing popular perceptions of the “folk versus Classical Chinese learning” divide is found in what can be termed the “Joseon Dynasty effect” created by the impressive longevity of a dynastic period throughout which the idiosyncrasies of Neo-Confucianism dominated the ruling stratum and those who aspired to it.  This half millennium persistence of strictly exclusionary Neo-Confucian orthodoxy, itself a contemporary neo-traditionalist movement,[5] strongly contributed to, if not created, the antagonisms between musok and Chinese language erudition.

Meanwhile in contemporary Korea a potent symbol of the “indigenous folk culture versus Classical Chinese learning” divide is the relationship between the use of the vernacular hangeul alphabet and hanja Chinese characters.  Hangeul, from the outset of its historic promulgation in the mid-fifteenth century, was very much conceived of as a writing system for the common people.  Infamously rejected by court officials, it was until the modern era chiefly used by educated women and poets for composing Sino-Korean sijo poems, personal letters and translating popular works from Classical Chinese; wider spread official usage and explicit association with Korean nationalist sentiment did not begin in any earnest sense until the late nineteenth century.  Throughout the same period Classical Chinese rendered in hanja continued to maintain a firm monopoly as the official written language of the Joseon court, Neo-Confucian yangban intelligentsia and Buddhist monks.[6]  In both Korean states today, hanja is consequently perceived as an elitist script and viewed as a borrowed item of foreign “Chinese” origin.

However, since the introduction of hangeul, and until recently when hanja was systematically phased out by both the North and South regimes, the modern Sino-Korean language was written naturally enough with an appropriate combination of hangeul and hanja.  This had the effect of making visible pure Korean vocabulary and distinguishing it from Sino-Korean words in the vernacular Korean language.  In South Korea today, those with a neo-traditionalist interest in reviving indigenous Korean culture and who attempt to reduce the volume of loanwords (both modern English and ancient Sino-Korean) in their usage of the modern Korean language naturally profess allegiance to hangeul.[7]

The pure Korean term for “pure Korean language” is uri mal, literally meaning “our speech” and in its strongest connotation, for which it is regularly employed, it distinguishes pure Korean from Sino-Korean vocabulary.[8]  The uri mal movement is thus associated with hangeul nationalism and treats hanja vocabulary as an occupying foreign entity where the continued study and usage of hanja is essentially only tolerated as a necessary evil in acknowledgement that so much of the peninsula’s historical heritage was, up until the end of the nineteenth century, recorded in Classical Chinese.

Otherwise the movement for the exclusive use of hangeul in the modern Korean language, that is Sino-Korean, has been highly successful,[9] though writing Sino-Korean exclusively in hangeul has subsequently had the converse effect of renaturalizing hanja loanwords which continue to account for a significant portion of daily vocabulary and this has further reinforced popular perceptions of homogeneity.

In a more nuanced contrast to immediate nationalism, the uri mal movement is simultaneously one aspect of what might be termed the “Altaic Theory effect” which sees some Koreans actively seeking cultural and linguistic connections with other ethnic groups in Northeast Asia based on the premise of a shared northeast Asian shamanic heritage.  Musok is thus associated with Siberian shamanism whilst Old Korean, the ancestor of uri mal, is treated as an “Altaic language,” albeit based on etymologies now widely regarded by comparative linguists to be false reconstructions.  Even if not linguistically correct, the Altaic Theory remains compelling because it supports the quest for an influential Korean regional identity outside of the Chinese cultural sphere.  The Altaic Theory effect can thus be understood in large part as a reaction to the Joseon Dynasty effect: it is anti-Sinocentric and through its active omitting or downplaying of Chinese learning, presents itself as a solidarity movement against Asian imperialism.  By locating Korean culture in the wider nexus of Northeast Asia, it also attempts to liberate its identification from the straightjacket of East Asia in which the peninsula is still widely treated as a passive conduit for Chinese learning to have reached Japan.[10]

Hangeul and hanja are thus representative extremities of the contemporary “indigenous folk versus Classical Chinese learning” divide, however it would be incorrect to believe that beneath the cultural layer of imported Classical Chinese lies a recoverable substratum of “pure” indigenous Korean folk culture because the introduction of Classical Chinese to the peninsula significantly predates the emergence of any pan-peninsula culture identifiable as specifically Korean.

On the premise that an indigenous Old Korean was the dynastic and likely dominant language of Silla during the Three Kingdoms period, it would not have begun to spread widely across the peninsula until following the Silla conquests over Baekje (660) and Goguryeo (668).  Classical Chinese however was introduced to Silla at the very latest with the official adoption of Buddhism in 527 but undoubtedly earlier given hanja terms used to designate native institutions such as the youthful order of hwarang (花郞) knights, the hwabaek (和白) council and golpum (骨品) hereditary status system, as well as names and titles.[11]  In the case of hwabaek and other recorded Old Korean, or Silla, words where the characters have been employed for their phonetic value, rather than their meaning in Chinese, there still had to be sufficient knowledge of Chinese in order to utilize their sound value and choose characters with attractive meanings.[12]  It is most likely therefore that the vernacular language of Silla was already Sino-Korean before its expansion in the late seventh century.

However, the hypothesis that Old Korean was only spoken in the homeland region of Silla and not the much vaster territory of the two modern Korean states, is not widely promoted or accepted amongst Koreans today because it undermines said claims of homogeneity.  In particular the implication that the dominant language of Goguryeo was genetically something other than Koreanic, possibly Tungusic (para-Jurchenic) or para-Japonic,[13] would be particularly grave for North Korean ethnic nationalism as well as South Korean irredentists who make at least cultural claims on Goguryeo’s former continental territory in southern Manchuria.[14]

The preferred assumption is that variants of Old Korean were spoken in all of the Three Kingdoms’ territories from time immemorial.  However, whilst it is possible that Old Korean was widespread on the peninsula as a relatively indigenous language prior to the Silla expansion it almost certainly was not spoken in the ancestral territory of Goguryeo and would not have begun to spread there until following the kingdom’s demise.[15]

By contrast, hanja was fully established across the whole of the Three Kingdoms’ combined territory by the sixth century at the very latest, whilst in the territory of Goguryeo the population would have been familiar with hanja and associated Classical Chinese learning – Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism – up to half a millennium before they were exposed to Old Korean which, by the time they were and as concluded above, would already itself have been Sino-Old Korean.[16]

Pure Koreanists or folk nationalists, might respond that the vast majority of the Three Kingdoms’ populations were in any event illiterate and Classical Chinese learning remained the preserve of the elite aristocracies: this would likely be correct but describes essentially the same circumstances as persisted all the way up until the modern era and so cannot prove that Classical Chinese learning was any less influential in more distant times than recent past.

Turning to historiography, the Old Joseon foundation myth of Dan’gun is comfortably interpreted as principally being of northeast Asian shamanic origin.[17]  In the established orthodox scheme Gi Ja later arrives from the Shang introducing Chinese learning, an event notably occurring before the establishment of the Chinese Han commanderies.  Both the Dan’gun myth, later historicized by the modern North and South regimes, together with the historical legend of Gi Ja are played out in the northern half of the peninsula and southern Manchurian mainland.

When Wi Man then arrives and usurps the kingdom, the ruling descendant of Gi Ja, Gi Jun, is forced south where he takes control of Mahan thus bringing Chinese learning to the southwest and by subsequent diffusion the wider area of the southern Three Han, the territory of which was later consolidated under Baekje and ultimately Silla.  This orthodox narrative created an unbroken lineage of Chinese learning which was actively celebrated throughout the Joseon dynasty providing the basis for its presumptions of Confucian moral superiority over the Manchu Qing.  At the same time, however, Dan’gun remained a recognized folk deity.[18]

The legend of Gi Ja has played a key role in allowing Koreans to accept Chinese learning as a near indigenous part of Korea’s formative heritage and not just an early foreign import received under the perceived duress of Chinese Han occupation.  By contrast, debate over the ethnic identity of Wi Man, recorded in the Siji as tying his hair in a topknot and wearing eastern barbarian dress, today provides material for an active “Altaic” interpretation, i.e. that he was a Murong Xianbei.[19]

What becomes evident in both linguistic and historiographic lines of enquiry, then, is how the “folk versus Classical Chinese learning” divide was existent from the most formative period of Korea’s cultural and historical origins.  To reach a point where an indigenous culture associated with only pure Old Korean and hypothesized primitive musok could be conjectured requires going back still centuries further, but in relation to any practical description of the modern Koreas’ traditional culture this would simply be too early and Chinese learning transmitted through hanja should be understood as being as indigenous to Korea’s traditional heritage as the illiterate “folk” element.

It should further be recognized that whilst, since at least the Three Kingdoms period, oral folk traditions, including songs and storytelling, may have been performed and enjoyed by those illiterate in Classical Chinese, the language employed would still have been Sino-Korean and stories told heavily influenced by Chinese learning.[20]  In this regard the solo operatic chantefable art of pansori can be considered as a representative example of “traditional Korean culture” and has indeed been designated as Important Intangible Cultural Property Number 5 by the South Korean government in 1964.[21]  Native to the Jeolla provinces in the southwest region of the peninsula and with its surviving repertoire first written down by the provincial yangban, Shin Jae-hyo (1812-84), pansori enjoyed its heyday from the late eighteenth through to nineteenth centuries.[22]

Given the enduring strength of the tradition and uniqueness of its vocal technique, Pansori remains relatively understudied in the West and underappreciated in South Korea in part because it so epitomizes the perceived “folk culture versus Chinese learning” divide and thus remains difficult to approach for those of either inclination.  To an anthropologist or ethnomusicologist the length of plays and large volume of Classical Chinese is intimidating whilst to scholars of premodern literature, pansori is equally difficult to study for a lack of familiarity with performance tradition and the limited availability of authentic texts.[23]

In spite of Shin Jae-hyo’s contribution which involved editing texts and coaching singers, pansori remained a genuinely oral tradition with variations of the plays being passed down through generations from master to pupil and as such has avoided being committed to paper until recent decades.  Pansori performers were drawn from the lower classes of hereditary mudang shamans and itinerant entertainers, and, though able to achieve recognition for their talents, were consequently denied status in the Neo-Confucian dictated social hierarchy which placed them at the bottom.  These facts taken together, pansori would appear to be firmly on the “folk” side of traditional Korean culture.[24]

The content of the pansori plays, however, is heavily influenced by Classical Chinese with a high volume of hanja and allusions to Chinese learning.  These are commonly explained as being the result of increased yangban patronage from the late eighteenth century onwards with pansori performers presumed to have begun including highbrow Classical Chinese references to satisfy the tastes of their audience when performing, for example, at the parties held to celebrate a yangban scholar’s success in the civil service examinations.  The implication of this, however, is that the pansori performers would have to have been sufficiently literate and knowledgeable in Classical Chinese in order to have made, or at least to have understood, the appropriate changes and embellishments: an idea which fails to tally with the hangeul nationalist ideal of shaman-descended, illiterate folk performers.  Yangban patronage may have influenced the selection of repertoire leading to an emphasis of Confucian themes within existing tales and songs but it would not have paid for a complete education in Classical Chinese literature and nor, notably, did it lead to any severe censorship of, for example, Buddhist references.

The sole explanation of Neo-Confucian yangban patronage is consequently unable to account for the depth of Classical Chinese learning inherent in pansori texts which were maintained almost exclusively as an oral tradition.  Even the Confucian themes of loyalty and filial piety present in the remaining five plays[25] are not explicitly Neo-Confucian, but rather are based around the more fundamental Three Bonds and Five Codes defining human relations inherent in original Confucian doctrine, and are fully integrated with equally blatant Buddhist and Taoist thematic devices.[26]

Pansori, as well as the substantial repertoire of preserved folk songs, are therefore better understood not as the direct results of an indigenous folk item having been altered and refined to suit the tastes of eighteenth century Neo-Confucian yangban but as the product of an already indigenous Sino-Korean heritage which the performers were equally in possession of in spite of their low social status.  It might be further postulated that pansori, although heavily embellished, was not so much adjusted to match the tastes of the yangban literati but that its inherent Sino-Koreanness appealed as much to some provincial yangban as it did to more common folk and consequently attracted their patronage.  After all, not all yangban were lofty Neo-Confucians and though the ideology they were encouraged to aspire to may have been exclusionary, Sino-Korean folk culture including the older Chinese transmitted traditions of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism, were not.

In conclusion, both claims of homogeneity as well as the polarization between the folk and Classical Chinese learning elements present in the modern Koreas’ traditional heritage can be explained as results of the Joseon Dynasty effect which through its longevity sustaining an exclusionist ideology and the invention of hangeul led to a distillation of a Sino-Korean culture long indigenous to the peninsula.  The perception of division is most evident in the polarization exhibited between hangeul and hanja.  Where hanja itself has historically been the medium for both Buddhism and subsequently Neo-Confucianism, hangeul today is similarly utilized at once as a vehicle for cultural nationalism as well as in the search for a pan-northeast Asian “Altaic” identity.

However, when examining concrete examples of what is commonly referred to as “traditional Korean culture,” such as pansori, it becomes evident that Korean heritage and identity has been from its most formative period a product of both folk and Classical Chinese learning.


Barfield, Thomas. 1989: Perilous Frontiers: Nomadic Empires in China. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd.

Beckwith, Christopher. 2005: The Ethnolinguistic History of the Early Korean Peninsula Region: Japanese-Koguryŏic and other Languages in the Koguryŏ, Paekche, and Silla kingdoms. – Journal of Inner and East Asian Studies, volume 2-2: 34.

Deuchler, Martina. 1992: The Confucian Transformation of Korea: A Study of Society and Ideology. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University.

Caprio, Mark. 2009: Japanese Assimilation Policies in Colonial Korea, 1910-1945.  Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Grayson, James. 2002: Korea – A Religious History: Revised edition. Abingdon: RoutledgeCurzon.

Hong, Wontack. 2010: East Asian History: A Tripolar Approach. Seoul: Kudara International.

Howard, Keith. 2006: Preserving Korean Music: Intangible Cultural Properties as Icons of Identity.  London, Ashgate Publishing Limited.

Hwang, Jurie. 2010: Ko indifferent to ‘Western yardstick.’ – The Korea Herald, 1 November 2010.

<; 1 September 2011.

Janhunen, Juha. 2003: Tracing the Bear Myth in Northeast Asia. – Acta Slavica Iaponica, 20: 1-24.

Sapporo: The Slavic Research Center, Hokkaido University.

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Janhunen, Juha. 2005: The Lost Languages of Koguryŏ. – Journal of Inner and East Asian Studies, volume 2-2: 84.

Kang, Jae-eun. 2006: The Land of Scholars: Two Thousand Years of Korean Confucianism. Translated by Suzanne Lee. Paramus, New Jersey: Homa & Sekey Books.

Pai, Hyung Il. 2000: Constructing “Korean” Origins: A Critical Review of Archaeology, Historiography, and Racial Myth in Korean State-Formation Theories.  Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Asia Center.

Park, Chan. 2003: Voices from the Straw Mat: Toward an Ethnography of Korean Story Singing. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Pentikäinen, Juha. 1999: Kalevala Mythology: Expanded Edition.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Pihl, Marshall. 1994: The Korean Singer of Tales. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Asia Center.

Song Gi-jung 송기중. 2004: 역사비교언어학과국어계통론 (Historical comparative linguistics and theories on the genealogy of the Korean language). Seoul: 집문당 (Jimmundang).

[1] Barfield 1989:9

[2] The Han Lelang Commandery (108BC-c.313) and the Mongol Yuan’s Eastern Expedition Field Headquarters (1280-1356).

[3] In cultural terms, the closest watershed event was the 1392 coup d’état led by Yi Seong-gye (1335-1408) which although ushering in the Joseon Dynasty, in fact confirmed the complete expulsion of foreign interference (both Mongol Yuan and Han Ming) and furthered the consolidation of power under the previous Goryeo landed elite who effectively utilized the ideology of Neo-Confucianism to dissolve the power of the Buddhist temples.

[4] “Traditional culture” as a vague but frequently used term, in official as well as colloquial contexts, can be considered to typically refer to the documented cultural milieu as it had evolved by the end of the 18th century before exposure to distinctly foreign notions such as Christianity or industrialization.  Origins of traditional cultural items are assumed to be at least several centuries old and will often be traceable to the Goryeo Dynasty (936-1392) or beyond.

[5] In Joseon Dynasty Korea the Neo-Confucian movement attempted to recreate what was imagined to be the ritual practice and lifestyle of ancient Han China.  See Deuchler 1992:107

[6] It was occasionally learnt by women such as the poet Heo Nanseolheon (1563-89).

[7] For example the former Buddhist monk, democracy activist and celebrated poet Go Un (b.1933) has declared, “King Se-jong is my god. I have no other gods but Se-jong. I am so thankful for Hangeul, and I will do anything to guard it…”   See Hwang 2010.

[8] Ironically there is no pure Korean word for “pure.”  It can only be implied by the “our” of “our language,” though for absolute clarity the hanja sun (純,순) must be incorporated to make sun uri mal (純 우리 말).

[9] Just as the nationalist association with Korea’s folk identity was born out of the independence movement and search for identity during the Japanese colonial era, it can be speculated that hanja has been purged from modern Korean not just for its Chinese origin but because Sino-Korean written with a combination of hanguel and hanja too closely resembles the appearance of modern Sino-Japanese which had been the language of occupation.  The claim that hanja is simply cumbersome to the written language would otherwise be countered by the consistently stellar literacy rates displayed in Japan where the usage of Chinese characters has evolved in a far more complicated fashion than when used in Korean.  There is nothing either to imply the South Korean education system has significantly moved away from the cumbersome method of rote learning that was inherited from the study of hanja and has in large part subsequently been transferred to English.

[10] Where hanja is felt to be a regressive, even oppressive, influence recalling Joseon’s suzerainty to China, hangeul has become an active and positive identifier of Korean cultural identity.  Its association with the Altaic Theory in turn provides a legitimizer for Koreans to project their recently gained economic and “soft power” influence over weaker “Altaic” countries such as Mongolia and the Central Asian states; though this represents a nascent and relatively benign form of economic imperialism, if scaled up, the justification of shared ethno-cultural roots for the choice of countries Korea acts upon would soon echo similar claims made by Japanese scholars to support the annexation of Korea.   See Caprio 2009:102, 121 and Pai 2000:39.

[11] See Song 2004:179.

[12] Song 2004:152.

[13] Suggested by Janhunen (2005) and Beckwith (2005) respectively.

[14] For discussion of North Korean scholars professing a single Three Kingdoms’ Korean language, see Song 2004:181, notes 7,8 and 9.

[15] Though at some point significantly earlier, Old Korean would originally have had to have entered the peninsula from the continental mainland.

[16] Early use of hanja in Goguryeo is evinced by inscriptions found in fourth century tombs and on the Gwanggaeto Stele (erected c.414).  At the latest, hanja would have been first introduced to the peninsula by the Han commandery of Lelang (established in the Daedong River basin 108BC) if not nearly a century earlier: either first by Gi Ja or with the arrival of refugees led by Wi Man, though this depends both on whether either historical legend is true and whether either of them were ethnic Han Chinese or not.

[17] Grayson 2002:241, Janhunen 2003:5 and Pai 2000:93.

[18] Pai 2000:116-9.

[19] Hong 2010:121.

[20] The raw literary talent of illiterate oral storytellers should not be underestimated: both the biwa hōshi tradition of blind storytellers in premodern Japan, as well as current day singers of the Tibetan Gesar epic attest to this.

[21] Howard 2006:xi-xii

[22] There is perhaps an argument that pansori should not be considered representative of Korean culture owing to its distinct regional association, but all traditions have to have some place of origin and it could equally be noted that the Kalevala tradition forming the bases of Finnish national identity was based on oral poems collected in the remote White Sea Karelia region outside of Finland proper. See Pentikäinen 1999:228.

[23] Pihl (1994) and Park (2003) are the two seminal English language treatments of pansori.  It should be noted pansori enjoys significantly higher recognition in France than other Western countries.

[24] Its continued association with the politically discriminated Jeolla provinces further secured its Minjung credentials following the May 1980 massacre of citizens by government troops which occurred in the South Jeolla capital of Gwangju.

[25] The five pansori plays still performed are Song of Chunhyang, Song of Simcheong, Song of Heungbo, Song of the Water Palace and Song of Red Cliff.  The Confucian themes presented in the first four plays respectively are a wife’s faithfulness, filial piety (notably of a daughter), behaviour of brothers and loyalty to one’s sovereign whilst the fifth play is an adaption of the historic Chinese episode Battle of Red Cliffs.

[26] A Confucian academy (not to be confused with a Confucius Institute) was recorded in the Samguk Sagi (History of the Three Kingdoms) to have been first established in Goguryeo in 372, the same year as the official adoption of Buddhism; another was established under Unified Silla in 682: see Kang 2006:37 and 61.