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.
The wide range of solutions applied by the Koryŏ court never ceases to amaze me. Although it is easy and perhaps tempting to laugh this anecdote off as superstition, this would be a little too easy. To all appearances, these remedies were thought to be possibly effective. The destruction of the sacred pine trees, the symbol of the Koryŏ dynasty, was a serious matter; only means of proven effectiveness were considered and deployed. What then to make of this entry if we take it seriously? How to explain the ease with which effective remedies were sought in Buddhism, Daoism, worship of the landscape, shamanism and Confucianism (in other instances, Confucian rituals were also performed to make the insects disappear)? In my reading, this entry, and many like it, represent an essential part of the Koryŏ worldview(s), its plurality, its contradictions and inconsistencies and its practicality. The dominant worldview in Koryŏ (certainly until the Mongol domination) was pluralist and allowed the existence of contradictions between its constituent parts without trying to remove these or synthesizing them into one vision of relaty. In this case, pest control is the concrete manifestation of this worldview, but the Koryŏ dynasty’s officials, too, were products of this worldview, while helping to perpetuate it in many different forms; they were trained according to a classic Confucian curriculum, were for the most part Buddhists (some officials became lay monks later in life and all had brothers who entered the Buddhist clergy), were interested in Daoism, professed to believe in the significance of geomancy or the art of reading the landscape, and conducted ceremonies in honour of one’s ancestors and the spirits of mountains and streams. And, if one looks at their actions, these people could also be called rational (at least to the same extent as their modern counterparts can), able to stand back and make decisions based upon a reasonable consideration of the pros and cons. Historiography has paid most attention to those historical figures that stood out as eminent (and radical) Buddhists, Confucianists, nativists and so forth, but I would say that the majority of Koryŏ’s educated elite was in favour of pest control in the manners described above, instead of preferring one exclusive method. It certainly seems preferable to the men in white suits that expelled me from my readings in pest control.