East meets West: Ancient Korean text makes splash at European book fair

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East meets West: Ancient Korean text makes splash at European book fair


SEOUL, Oct. 21 (Yonhap) -- A book about Korea's Three Kingdoms period has made its international debut at an international book fair in Frankfurt, Germany, more than seven centuries after it was originally published.

The book, entitled "Samguk Yusa," or "Memorabilia of Three Kingdoms," was produced during the late Goryeo Kingdom and is now being displayed as one of 100 books the nation has presented to the Frankfurt Book Fair.

The book, also a national treasure, is a collection of myths, legends, folk tales and historical accounts. These relate to the overlapping Three Kingdoms period - Goguryeo (37 B.C.-668 A.D.), Baekje (18 B.C.-660 A.D.)and Silla (57 B.C.-935 A.D.) - as well as preceding and later periods.

It was compiled by the Buddhist monk Illyeon (1206-1289 A.D.) at the end of the 13th century.

Unlike Samguk Sagi, an official history book produced over a century earlier by court historians at the order of the king, Samguk Yusa contains various folktales, legends, and biographies from early Korean history.

Many of the founding legends of the various kingdoms in Korean history are recorded in the book, including the Gojoseon, Buyeo, Baekje, Silla, and Gaya kingdoms.

It also stands as the earliest extant record of Dangun, the founder of Gojoseon, Korea's first kingdom, and also the Korean nation. The mythical nature of the account of Dangun has led some people to believe that the existence of Gojoseon in the 24th century BC is more fiction than fact.

Some historians say the story of Dangun was already recorded by historians during the later Silla period (well before Samguk Yusa was published), but many of the Silla records were destroyed during the Mongolian invasions in the 13th and 14th centuries. If not for Samguk Yusa, the existence of Dangun might have remained a legend.

The book is the only source of the original shapes of myths and legends of old Korea and a treasure house of narrative literature. There are lots of myths and legends surrounding the founding fathers of ancient kingdoms. The value of the 14 pieces of "hyangga," a unique form of poetry popular in the Silla period, contained in Samguk Yusa is of most significance and the opulent data and descriptions on Buddhism, high priests, and folk beliefs are important materials to study the culture and social fabric of old Korea.

The exact year of the book's origin is not known, however it is generally accepted by historians that the book was published between 1281 and 1283 during the reign of King Chungryeol of Goryeo ((918-1392 A.D.).

The text was written in Classical Chinese (as used in writing by literate Koreans at that time) and published in wood block printing. It now has a German edition, the first translation into a European language. Prof. Beckers-Kim Young-ja of Regensburg University translated the book with the help of a German professor.

Samguk Yusa is comprised of five books. The first three contain historical facts, chronicles of ancient kingdoms and legends, myths and folk beliefs from Gojoseon through the Unified Silla Period.

The fourth book is about the life and activities of high priests while the last one deals with various stories about high Buddhist priests like Wongwang, Wonhyo and Euisang, stories of extraordinary and shamanic experiences and records of filial piety and good deeds.

The author, Illyeon, was born in 1206 A.D. in Gyeongsan, North Gyeongsang Province. He started his career as a monk at the age of nine and was named Great Monk at 54. Illyeon is believed to have compiled the book in his final days.

Although it was written by a monk, scholars see it as a product of the fragile, war-scarred times.

At the time, Goryeo was being heavily interfered in by China's Yuan Dynasty, and three decades of sporadic war between the two served as momentum for the Goryeo people to seek national solidarity and a firm sense of identity. Samguk Yusa was written in this historical context.

The main theme of the book is integration and creation, according to scholars. While maintaining a conventional way of describing history, it also attempts to integrate native and foreign cultures by accepting Buddhist episodes and various legends.

 

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