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Mireuksa: When Fact Meets Fable

Part One of a three part series. Also see Part Two | Part Three

I had plans to see an acquaintance last night and we spent most of our evening chatting over dinner at a chicken joint near Kyung Hee University (경희대). The owner had the television set to American wrestling before eventually switching over to the news. There was a short preview of the Obama inauguration, but what really caught my eye was a lengthier piece on a recently-discovered collection of artifacts down in Jeollabuk-do. The finding occured at Mireuksa (彌勒寺) in the south of Korea and involves a tale from the Samguk Yusa and intra-Korean relations - in particular those between Baekje and Silla - during the Three Kingdoms period.

[ From the 20 January 2009 edition of the Chosun Ilbo ]

The general outline of the story (which I'll include in full at the end of this entry) is that Prince Seongdong (성동) of Baekje, who will later go on to reign as King Mu (武王; r. 600-641) spreads a song about himself and Princess Seonhwa (선화) of Silla that leads to her exile. He introduces himself during her exile, they fall in love, and then marry with the blessings of Seonhwa's father, King Jinpyeong of Silla. Scholars have doubted the veracity of this story given the frequent fighting that took place between Baekje and Silla during that period but haven't come across any supporting evidence pointing one way or the other. Until the discovery at Mireuksa, anyway.

Mireuksa contains the oldest extant stone pagoda in the world, which the Cultural Heritage Administration designated as National Treasure no. 11 in 1962. I've come across two English-language articles describing recent events at the temple and both have brought up the discovery of 500 artifacts during a project to "dismantle" the pagoda -- which I hope is only part of reconstruction efforts and not a suggestion that the temple will soon no longer exist. (Being fluent in Korean sure would come in handy right about now!) Getting back to the matter at hand, a bongangi (봉안기; golden plate) was found that confirms that the temple was built in 639 AD and goes on to mention the identity of King Mu's wife:

The discovery gives a concrete historic date to the construction of both the temple and the pagoda, the grandest of its kind built during the Baekje Kingdom. It also clarifies the identity of King Mu's queen - the bongangi states she was a high-level Baekje official's daughter, not Princess Seonhwa from Silla as written in the Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms. [ed: the Samguk Yusa]

Queen Seonhwa of Silla, from the SBS broadcast Seo Dong Yo (서동요) - image from Naver. Check out those Gogok:

Between the two English-language articles the more informative one is available here from the Korea Times, while number two is this piece from the Chosun Ilbo. For those of you with decent Korean abilities there are bound to be a lot of sources to check out. Some that look a little more informative are this lengthy article from Naver news, this offering from Hankyung that talks about an X-ray scan of a gold sarira and other metalwork, and Joodeokjae has a write-up that includes the Hanja (漢子; Chinese characters) from the bongangi along with a Korean translation. I turned up a really nice collection of photos on a cafe.daum site but it's no longer accessible by using the same web address as before. Go figure. Some other sets have been posted by scmunhwawon and manbulsunwon. The official Mireuksa site has a map and hours in the English language version for anyone interested in paying a visit. I wouldn't mind making the trip myself one day.

[ Left image from 빈구름 노니는 곳 | Right image from Daum/Yonhap ]

And now it's story time. From the Samguk Yusa: Legends and History of the Three Kingdoms of Ancient Korea by Ilyon, translated by Ha Tae-Hung and Grafton K. Mintz, pp 142-144.

The thirtieth sovereign of Baekje ws King Mu, whose personal name was Chang. His mother was a young widow who lived in a cottage beside a large pond. A dragon fell in love with her, and she conceived and bore a son. The boy grew up strong in physique and majestic in manner, worthy to be the son of a dragon. But he was so poor that he had to dig wild potatoes from the fields to feed his mother and himself, so his neighbors called him Seodong, Potato Boy.

Seodong heard that Seonhwa, the third daughter of King Jinpyeong of Silla (579-632) was very beautiful. So he shaved his head and visited Gyeongju, the capital of Silla, with a large sack of potatoes slung over his back. He made friends with the children by giving them his sweet potatoes to eat, and at the same time taught them a song which he had composed:

Princess Seonhwa likes sweet potatoes gray --
She married the Potato Boy while he looked the other way;
Every night she comes to meet her swain
And sleeps in his arms with kisses sweet.

Soon this song was heard in every quarter of the city and even in the palace. The courtiers who were received in royal audience persuaded the king to send the princess into exile in order to quiet the scandal. The Queen gave her daughter a bushel of pure gold to pay her expenses with and bid her a tearful farewell.

When she had set out on her journey, the Potato Boy appeared and offered to be her bodyguard and guide. She did not know who he was or where he came from, but in her extremity she was glad of anyone's companionship. And as they travelled throughout the wild forests she fell in love with him, and at length slept in his arms.

The lovers travelled happily together for many days, climbing hills and crossing streams, until they arrived in Baekje. Then Seonhwa said, "My husband, here is a sack of shining gold. With it we can make a comfortable home."

"What is this?" asked Seodong, laughing.

"Don't you know gold?" Seonhwa said. "It will make us rich for a hundred years."

"Since my childhood," Seodong told her, "I have buried gold in the holes from which I dug the wild potatoes."

Seonhwa was amazed. "If that is so," she said, "you have a larger quantity of the most precious treasure under heaven. If you remember where you buried it, why don't you dig it up and send it to the palace of my mother and father?"

Sedong agreed. He dug up all the gold nuggets from the hundreds of holes he made, and piled them mountain high. Then he went to the famous monk Chimyeong Peopsa at Saja Temple on Mt. Yonghwa and sought his advice on how to transport his treasure to Gyeongju.

"Bring the gold to me," the monk said. "I will send it on the wings of a spirit by my magic word."

When Seonhwa heard this she danced for joy and wrote a letter to her royal parents informing them of her happy marriage to the Potato Boy and of the shipment of gold as a present to them. The mountain of gold was moved into the courtyard of Saja Temple with the letter at sunset, and sure enough, it rose into the air and was transported to the Silla palace that very night.

When he received this gift and read his daughter's letter King Jinpyeong wondered at the magic power of the Baekje monk and expressed his joy by sending a reply to Princess Seonhwa, with whom he frequently corresponded thereafter. Seodong was so much loved by the people of Baekje for his princely deeds, loving and giving, that in due course he was raised to the throne amidst the acclamations of the whole nation.

One day as the new King and Queen were returning from a visit to Saja Temple, followed by a long train of servants, three images of the Maitreya (the Buddha of the future) rose above the surface of a pond. They immediately halted their procession and worshipped the mysterious images, and the Queen said, "My husband, I wish to have a beautiful temple built on this pond, where these three Maitreyas arose to meet us."

"Very well, it shall be done," the King replied. He again sought the help of the Monk Chimyeong, asking him to fill the pond and prepare it for a building.

Obedient to the royal command, the old monk performed the task in one night by moving a distant mountain and dropping it upside down into the pond. Soon a magnificent temple called Mireuksa had been erected. ("Mireuk" is the Korean pronunciation of "Maitreya".) In the main hall stood the three Maitreya images and in the courtyard was a pagoda built with the assistance of hundreds of architects and sculptors sent by King Jinpyeong. This great ediface, weather-beaten and moss-covered, is still standing. (Ilyon notes that the Samguk Sagi designates this temple Wangheungsa.)

(This traditional tale obviously has nothing to do with Kin Mu, who was probably the son of his predecessor King Peop, who rules briefly in 599. Indeed, this is the account given by the Samguk Sagi. The tale belongs properly to the reign of Baekje King Dongseong (479-501), who, it is recorded, asked to marry a Silla princess in 493 and had his request granted. Our story is a bit of romantic embroidery on this event. Why it was attributed to King Mu is a mystery, but the details have been worked out with some care. King Jinpyeong was a contemporary of King Mu and Wangheung Temple was built during King Mu's reign. The temple in the story is a much older one.)

It's five hours after I started this entry and I'm definitely ready to go to bed. Let's hope I don't fall asleep in Korean class later this morning!


Jan. 23rd, 2009 08:37 pm (UTC)
I'll see if I can find more on the topic to post about in the future. It's definitely interesting to read about the history and folklore associated with some of the locations here.