우물 안 개구리


Why octopuses are good at archaeology and Yonsama is the son of God

Filed under: — Owen @ 12:11 pm Print

A brief news round-up. I meant to blog on the story of the octopus that ‘discovered’ a treasure trove of twelfth century pottery off the coast of Korea when it first hit the headlines a couple of months back. Now it seems that the acquisitive cephalopod’s find was considerably more spectacular than first thought and some 10,000 pieces of celadon pottery await excavation from the site. There is a bit more detail in another article on the find in the Hankyoreh, which informs us that the ship carrying the pottery was probably on its way from kilns in Kangjin in Cholla Province to Kaesong, capital of Koryo, when it sunk over 700 years ago.

Meanwhile, on my other favourite subject – historical TV dramas – I see that Bae Yong-jun’s new opus on the life of King Kwanggaeto, ‘Taewang sasin’gi’, will finally be hitting Korean TV screens this autumn. With great modesty Bae (AKA ‘Yonsama’) will be playing Jumong, founder of the Koguryo kingdom, King Kwanggaeto himself and the son of God (no, not that son of God, but rather Hwanung, father of Tan’gun). I wonder how a drama aimed at rectifying China’s mistaken attitude toward Korean history will play in Japan, where anything involving Yonsama seems to be marketed heavily.


History news round-up (brought to you by the Korea Times)

For some reason the Korea Times seems to be quite a decent source of history news these days, so in the absence of a more heavyweight post, here’s a round up of articles I’ve come across in the last week or so:

A couple of weeks ago the Korean Supreme Court released a bundle of court rulings from the early colonial period for the first time. The rulings date from 1912-1914 and the article notes how at that time custom still had an important influence on how the law was executed:

The court acknowledged concubines and gave supreme rights to the eldest sons of families. A person’s legal capacity was decided not by his or her age but by whether he or she had the intelligence to determine gains and losses.

Last week it was announced that a number of Chosŏn royal seals are missing, having been lost by various Korean museums. This is really not good for Korean museum PR:

The Board of Audit and Inspection also said that the surface of a royal seal made for the concubine of King Sonjo rusted away and a turtle-shaped seal, made of jade for the wife of King Sonjo, had been destroyed.

They said that every one of the of 316 seals owned by the National Palace Museum of Korea had been damaged in some way.

Two wooden ships found off the coast of China last year have turned out to be extremely rare examples of Koryŏ flat-bottomed wooden ships.

“It provides evidence that flat-bottom ships could sail as far as Shandong Province. Flat-bottom is a unique feature of ancient Korean ships unlike Chinese ships that had relatively pointy-shaped bottoms,” Choi Hang-soon, professor at the Department of Naval Architecture and Ocean Engineering at Seoul National University, told The Korea Times.

“It seems the Koryo ships arrived in the Chinese port, and had some big repairs there,” said Choi, who participated in the international academic conference on the ancient ships last week in Penglai.

And finally… A KT student guest columnist lauds the philanthropic attitude of Chosŏn dynasty sŏnbi (Confucian scholar-officials). This is something that interests me a lot as I’m planning to do some research on the ‘gift economy’ in Chosŏn Korea. However, I must admit that I can’t help being a bit put off an article when I see empty catchphrases like ‘sŏnbi spirit’ being thrown around and I’m not entirely convinced about the idea of seeing members of the exclusive and exploitative yangban class as moral models for our age, however philanthropic they may have been. Actually I could criticise numerous aspects of that column, but that would seem rather misanthropic of me…


Finding historical riches

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 9:17 pm Print

A few items from the news, blogs, etc.


Feuding clans

Filed under: — Owen @ 7:28 pm Print

There is a fascinating article in today’s International Herald Tribune on Korean family grave sites, feng shui and the long-running feud between the Yoon and Shim clans. Recommended reading with an interesting twist in the tale for people who are interested in the whole issue of what constitutes history, tradition, heritage etc and what preserving these things actually means. Here’s a taster:

In ancient Korea, grave site disputes were the most common cause of lawsuits. Among those disputes, the Shim- Yoon quarrel is the most famous unresolved case, partly because it involved families that each produced several queens and numerous ministers at the royal court.

Yoon Gwan, who expanded Korea’s northern territories, died in 1111 and was buried in this hill. But the tomb was lost as continuous wars ravaged the country and his family’s power declined. When Shim Ji Won, the prime minister, died in 1662, his family buried him in the same hill.

The feud erupted in the mid-18th century when the Yoon clan, with its influence on the rise again, rediscovered the general’s grave – as it turned out, only meters downhill from Shim’s.

Petitions and clashes followed. King Young Jo presided over a hearing in 1764 and ordered the clans to respect the two graves as they were. But the families continued to bicker, vandalizing each other’s tombs, and the irate king punished the 70-year-old patriarchs of the rival factions by flogging and exiling them. One of them, a Yoon, died from the effects of the beating. Animosity only deepened.


Bugs, beetles and worldviews

Filed under: — Remco Breuker @ 8:57 am Print

Having been temporarily expelled from my office because of the presence of beetles that merrily eat through the wooden ceiling beams, I had to think of an entry in the History of Koryŏ (Koryŏsa 高麗史) about a similar problem that plagued the pine trees of Kaesŏng. At first sight this entry may look obscure and hardly worth of any serious attention. But I think this passage is more than an anecdote; it offers a fascinating entry into the worldview(s) of Koryŏ. This is the concerned passage:

“In the fourth month of 1102 (the seventh year of the reign of Sukchong) insects were eating the pine trees, so Buddhist monks were mobilized to recite the Flower Garland Sutra (Hwaŏmgyŏng 華嚴經) for five days to stop this disaster. On the kyeyu day in the fifth month the king led some of his ministers in the palace in a celebration of a commemorative ritual for Sangje上帝 and the Five Emperors五帝. A prayer of repentance was directed at T’aejo 太祖, the sun and the moon and was only discontinued in the evening of the third night. On the pyŏngsul day of the sixth month, the ruler decreed that the ministers of state should perform rituals in honour of the spirits of the great mountains and streams of the east, west, south, north and the middle of the country, divided in three separate places of worship. He furthermore decreed that 2,000 monks should be gathered and split in four groups that would tour the mountains around the capital and in the provinces, while reciting the The Heart of the Prajna Paramita Sutra (panyagyŏng 般若經) to the insects to rescue them and stop disasters. In the end, 500 soldiers were mobilized to catch the insects on Pine Tree Peak (Songaksan松岳山).”

The appearance of insects in Kaesŏng’s sacred mountains, eating the pines that were considered essential to the well-being of the dynasty, was not to be taken lightly. Indeed, when this happened later in the dynasty “the people said that [the appearance of the insects in the pine trees] was the foreboding of the emergence of a new dynasty”. The significance attached to this omen, however, is perhaps of less immediate interest than the solutions that the Koryŏ court came up with in this case and in many other, comparable instances. First, it made Buddhist monks perform sutra recitations and in other instances elaborate rituals. When that did not prove to be effective, the king himself offered Daoist rituals to the Ultimate Being and the Five Emperors, to the founder of the dynasty and to the sun and the moon. Then, the spirits of the landscape, of Koryŏ’s mountains and streams were beseeched to intervene. Desperate, one can easily imagine, that the insects did not disappear, 2,000 monks were send out to preach to the pesky little bugs and when that did not work, soldiers were sent into the mountains to engage in close combat with the blasphemous insects. Other instances also record to mobilization of troops of shamans. (more…)

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