World class Korean Heritage 2


How did Goryeo become the first to produce movable metal type print?

In 1967, Dr. Park Byeongseon, then a librarian at the National Library of France, found the second volume of Jikji in the library’s collection. Jikji consists of two volumes that contain the essence of Zen teachings, compiled by Goryeo’s Monk Baekunhwasang. It was printed in 1377 with movable metal type at Heungdoek temple in Cheongju. Dr. Park proved that Jikji was indeed printed with movable metal type and introduced it to the public at an international book exhibition in Paris in 1972. The discovery of Jikji rewrote the world’s printing history. The world’s oldest extant book printed with movable metal type was known to be Johannes Gutenberg’s 42-Line Bible, printed in 1455, but Jikji was printed 78 years earlier.

How did Goryeo (918-1392) become the first to produce movable metal type print? Goryeo possessed all the technologies that were prerequisites for movable metal type printing, such as metal casting and paper and ink making technologies. Goryeo had a long tradition of metal casting, and its paper and ink sticks were popular exports to China due to their superior quality. There is a historical record that Goryeo printed Sangjeong Gogeum Yemun with movable metal type in 1234, 143 years earlier than Jikji. Goryeo’s printing technology was further developed by Joseon. Right after its founding in 1392, Joseon created an office dedicated to movable metal type casting and printed many books with a variety of metal types.

Korea’s movable metal type technology played an important role in advancing its knowledge and culture. The development of Goryeo’s Buddhism and Joseon’s Confucianism was largely benefited by movable metal type printing. In this sense, Jikji is a treasure that proves Korea’s advanced printing technology, which was the key to Korea’

Did you know that a discovery in Korea rewrote the history of the Old Stone Age?

One day in April, 1978, Greg Bowen, a U.S. solider stationed in Korea, and his Korean girlfriend were walking around the Hantan River Resort in the town of Jeongokri, Gyeonggido. He noticed a uniquely-shaped stone and found a few more nearby. He contacted a renowned archeologist about his discovery. The four stones he found turned out to be Acheulean hand axes from the Old Stone Age. It was a milestone discovery that changed the history of the era.

The Acheulean hand axes took its name from Saint-Acheul in France where numerous Paleolithic hand axes were found. Symmetrically shaped with sharp tips, these axes are presumed to have been used for various purposes, such as hunting, gathering, and preparing food. Following the renowned American archeologist Hallam Movius’s theory, historians at the time believed that East Asia didn’t have an Old Stone Age because the Acheulean hand axes were never found in this region.

Compared to the discovery of many Acheulean hand axes in Europe and Africa, their absence in East Asia was used to diminish East Asian history and culture. Bowen’s discovery in Korea disproved Movius’s theory. Since then, many hand axes have been found across Korea, especially around Jeongokri, and China, rewriting the history of the Old Stone Age.

Have you heard of the Gaema Musa?

Goguryeo (37 BC – AD 668) is an ancient Korean kingdom. It was a power in East Asia that won many victories against China and controlled the vast territory of northern Korea and southern Manchuria. What was the secret behind its remarkable victories? Among many reasons, the key was the kingdom’s Gaema musa, armed with steel weapons, then the cutting-edge technology. Gaema means a horse in armor and Gaema Musa means a well-trained solider on that horse. At the time, arming horses and people in steel armor wasn’t easy because it required an advanced steelmaking technology and the economic strength to support it.

Goguryeo had a lot of quality iron ore on its land and an advanced metalworking technology passed down from the first Korean kingdom of Gojoseon (2333-108 BC). Goguryeo further developed the technology and armed its soldiers with powerful steel weaponry. It was almost a millennium later that ironclad cavalry like the Gaema musa appeared in the west.

Gaema musa, armed with steel armors and helmets on armored horses, triumphed in battle. With their steel armors shielding them from their enemy’s arrows and spears, they charged through enemy lines and created chaos in enemy formations, leading to victory. We can see the mighty Gaema musa in many Korean and Chinese documents and on murals in Goguryeo tombs.

In July 1971, there was an astonishing discovery in the town of Songsanri in Gongju of Chungcheongnamdo Province.

During repair work on another tomb’ drainage system, the tomb of Baekje’s King Muryeong (reign 501 ~ 523) was found. Memorial tablets at the entrance indicated that the tomb was built for King Muryeong and his queen. It is a rare example of an ancient tomb whose occupants are identified. The tomb remained intact and contained more than 2,900 pieces of over 100 kinds of artifacts. Among them, 17 items were designated as Korean national treasures. Artifacts excavated include golden coffin ornaments, a large sword with dragon and phoenix-shaped decorations, and a silver bracelet with detailed information engraved inside.

Muryeong came to the throne in a turbulent period after Baekje (18 BC-AD 660) lost its capital to Goguryeo (37 BC-AD 668) and moved to Ungjin (present-day Gongju). He made his best effort to restoring stability and the economy. He undertook many political reforms and actively engaged in trade with other countries, such as China and Japan. His tomb’s artifacts provide a glimpse of Baekje’s international relationships.

The Tomb of King Muryeong is built of stacked bricks. Its distinctive brick chamber reveals Baekje’s cultural exchange with southern Chinese dynasties. The chamber is constructed with rectangular bricks stacked in layers of four rows and one column. Its brick walls are elaborately decorated with lotus patterns. Its marvelous arched ceiling is created using trapezoid-shaped bricks in its center. Baekje’s brick masons carved words on the bricks to mark their exact locations in the wall. In addition, Chinese ceramics and coffins made of Japanese umbrella trees in the tomb are another indication of Baekje’s openness and international trade.

Seokguram is an artificial Buddhist grotto on the slopes of Mount Toham in Gyeongju.

Its construction was started in 751 under the supervision of Silla’s prime minister Kim Daeseong and completed in 774. It was originally called Seokbulsa temple. Unlike the natural cave temples commonly found in China and India, Seokguram is an artificial cave temple that shows Silla’s advanced architectural engineering.

All the statues inside the grotto, including the main statue of the Buddha, are carved from granite. Granite boasts beautiful color, but its hardness causes challenges in sculpting. The statues at Seokguram are so delicately carved that they look real. Among the 38 existing statues in the grotto, the majestic main Buddha statue in the main chamber is surrounded by other statues, including the eleven-headed bodhisattva and 10 disciples.  A pair of muscular guardians are carved on a wall at the entrance.

The ceiling of the main chamber is a dome shape. Creating a dome-ceiling with stacked rocks was unprecedented anywhere. Building a dome with heavy rocks requires a meticulous architectural design and science to create the necessary support. Silla’s master architects secured the ceiling by adding wedge stones at regular distances to spread the weight. Seokguram was built on bedrock with spring water underneath it, which helped to prevent condensation. Its superb preservation for over a millennium is attributed to its scientific architecture. Seokguram is a masterpiece that shows the height of Silla’s art, religion, and architecture.

What is the world’s oldest surviving printed document?

In October, 1966, the world’s oldest woodblock print was found in the Seokgatap pagoda of the Bulguksa temple in the Korean southern city of Gyeongju. It was the Mugujeonggwang Daedaranigyeong, a Buddhist scripture printed in the early 8th century in the ancient Korean kingdom of Silla (57 BC – AD 935). The scripture was found inside the pagoda during its restoration.

Mugujeonggwang Daedaranigyeong is on a scroll that connected 12 pieces of 52cm by 6.7cm mulberry paper. Each line contains 7~9 characters printed with woodblocks. Its presumed date of printing is sometime before 751, when the pagoda was built. It is earlier than China’s Diamond Sutra (868) and Japan’s One Million Pagoda Dharani Sutra (776). How was Silla able to print the world’s oldest existing document?

Korea had a papermaking technology from early on. Around the 6th century, it had already produced paper from paper mulberry trees. Monk Damjing of Goguryeo delivered Goguryeo’s papermaking technology to Japan in the early 7th century. Silla’s mulberry paper was widely known to China for its excellent quality. Mugujeonggwang Daedaranigyeong was also printed on mulberry paper. Silla’s papermaking technology was further developed by the later Korean kingdom of Goryeo (918 – 1392).

In the 34th year of King Munjong (1080), Goryeo officially exported 2,000 rolls of paper and 400 ink sticks to Song China. Song merchants also imported a lot of paper and ink sticks from Gogryeo. During Goryeo, Jikji was printed in 1377 at the Heungdeoksa temple in Cheongju. It is the world’s oldest extant book printed with movable metal type. Korea has many world-class documentary heritage items, including the Goryeo Daejanggyeong (Tripitaka Koreana) and the Joseon Wangjo Sillok (Annals of the Joseon Dynasty).

“This bell is the best bell in the world. If Germany had a bell like this, it would suffice to build a museum.” – Dr. Otto Kümmel, German archeologist

The Divine Bell of King Seongdeok is a large bronze bell made to honor King Seongdeok of Silla (57 BC – AD 935). It is the most beloved bell in Korea and is known for its beautiful sound. The bell weighs 18.9 tons and stands 3.66 meters high. It took 34 years until its completion in 771.

The bell consists of a dragon-head-shaped hook, an acoustic pipe, and the body. Its deep resonating sound is attributed to Korean bells’ signature pipe that is designed to minimize noise. Thanks to the pipe, the bell creates regular sound fluctuations called the beating phenomena, leading to deep and wide echoes. Its body is embellished with a delicate engraving of a pair of angelic females.

Exact hitting spots, called Dangjwa, are marked with lotus patterns. Unlike western bells whose sounds are made by shaking, Korean bells are designed to be hit by a wooden log. Modern physicists proved that the Dangjwas on the Divine Bell are ideally located to create the most resonating sound while minimizing the impact of hitting. A combination of many other factors contributes to its beautiful sound that even modern technology is unable to reproduce. The Divine Bell of King Seongdeok is a masterpiece that represents Silla’s art, technology, and science.

When was the world’s first naval gun battle?

Naval artillery battles have a significant meaning in history because the emergence of naval power shifted power from Asia to Europe. European naval fleets armed with powerful artillery dominated the sea, enabling European countries to take power. Many believe that the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 between the Venetian-Genoese-Spanish allies and the Ottoman Turks was the beginning of modern naval gun battles. However, over 190 years earlier than the Battle of Lepanto, in 1380, Goryeo’s Navy defeated Japanese forces with its artillery-mounted warships at the Battle of Jinpo under General Choi Museon’s leadership.

How did Goryeo’s Navy become the first to mount artillery on warships? Goryeo (918-1392) was plagued by Japan’s frequent invasions. To defeat Japanese raiders, Goryeo built warships and organized strong naval forces. This wasn’t enough. So, Choi Museon (1325-1395), Goryeo’s military commander and scientist, came up with the idea of installing cannons on warships. He invented Korean native gunpowder by researching China’s gunpowder technology. After the invention, he suggested to the government the establishment of an office devoted to producing artillery. In 1377, Goryeo opened a government office called Hwatong Dogam dedicated to artillery production.

Goryeosa, a series of historical records about Goryeo, describes the Battle of Jinpo like the following: “Naval cannons burned down enemy ships … Smoke and flames covered the sky, and enemy soldiers went down in flames or drowned after jumping off their ships.” General Choi marked a turning point in naval history by adopting artillery for naval battles. Goryeo’s naval artillery technology was further developed by Joseon, contributing to Joseon’s victories against Japan during the Imjin War (1592-98) under Admiral Yi Sun-sin’s leadership.

Korea has the world’s second-oldest existing astronomical chart.

In 1395 during early Joseon (1392-1910), Cheonsang Yeolcha Bunyajido (star map) was created. The map was carved on a flat black stone of 122cm width and 211cm height. A total of 1,467 stars are engraved on it. Nearly all the constellations visible to the naked eye in the northern hemisphere at the time are reflected on the map. The map includes four large concentric circles. On the most inner circle are constellations like the Big Dipper that are visible throughout the year. On the most outer circle are the boundary lines of the Milky Way. In the middle are ecliptic and equatorial circles, showing the sun’s path and the equator between the South Pole and the North Pole. Astronomical changes, including the movement of the sun and the moon, are intricately depicted.

Cheonsang Yeolcha Bunyajido, representing the Eastern constellation systems, share many similarities with China’s Suzhou Star Chart made in the 13th century. However, there are also distinctive characteristics. It includes constellations that are not in the Suzhou Star Chart or are shaped slightly different. The most remarkable difference is that it marked the size of stars differently, reflecting their varying brightness. Based on the carved text on the stone, it is a reproduction of Goguryeo’s astronomical chart. Cheonsang Yeolcha Bunyajido shows Korea’s long tradition of astronomy and its advanced astronomical technology.

“Cheonsang Yeolcha Bunyajido is a detailed and accurate astronomical chart that integrated the East’s astronomical view.” – W.C. Rufus, “Korean Astronomy” (1396)

Every day, the King and crown prince discussed a native calendar system with Jeong Cho and other officials at the Ganuidae royal observatory – A record of August 11, 1433, from the Sejong Sillok

Chiljeongsan is the Korean native calendar system created in 1443, the 15th year of King Sejong’s reign, during Joseon. Chiljeong in the title refers to the seven components that govern the calendar system, including the sun, the moon, Jupiter, Mars, Saturn, Venus, and Mercury. Chiljeongsan consists of two volumes. One volume used the Chinese calendar systems to calculate the positions of the seven celestial determinants relative to Joseon. The other used the Islamic calendar system.

In the 15th century, creating its own calendar system was a large-scale national project. It required talented astronomers and astronomical tools. King Sejong took steady steps. First, he encouraged his scholars to research the existing calendar systems of East Asia. Then, he had them research the calendar system of Arabia, then the world leader of astronomy. Once he had trained astronomers, he developed the infrastructure for astronomical observations by building the royal observatory of Ganuidae in 1434 and developing astronomical tools, such as Honcheonui (celestial globe) and Ganui (simplified version of Honcheonui).

By 1437, Joseon devised numerous astronomical tools, including Honsang (celestial globe), Gyupyo (gnomon), Jagyeongnu (water clock), Soganui (mini version of Ganui), Angbuilgu (sundial), Cheonpyeongilgu (portable sundial), and Hyeonjuilgu (portable sundial). Using these devices, Joseon was able to predict solar and lunar eclipses and astronomical changes much more accurately than before. Chiljeongsan (1443) was the culmination of Joseon’s astronomical advancement.

Joseon developed its calendar system by applying its knowledge of the Chinese and Islamic calendar systems to its own astronomical observations. The creation of an independent calendar system was a remarkable achievement.

“Looking at my painting of Mt. Geumgang will give a better sense of the mountain than hiking it on your own feet.” – From Geumgang Jeondo by Jeong Seon

Jeong Seon (1676-1759), one of the most respected painters during Joseon, expressed his confidence in his painting. Geumgang Jeondo, a Korean-brush painting of Mt. Geumgang on 130.7cm by 94.1cm paper, is considered the best painting of the mountain. He depicted a bird’s eye view of the mountain to show its numerous peaks, while creating an S-shaped contrast between woody mountains and rocky mountains. The strong contrast between soft and sharp brush strokes shows a masterful balance between tension and harmony. This style seems to represent the Eastern philosophy of yin-yang harmony in the state of the supreme ultimate called Taegeuk.

Besides its philosophical implication, Geumgang Jeondo also holds special significance in eastern art history because it represents the Korean native style of realistic landscape painting called Jingyeong Sansuhwa. Invented by Jeong Seon, this style pursues a depiction of what you see in actual locations. During his time, Joseon’s landscape paintings were usually imitations of Chinese paintings or imaginary landscapes. Korean landscapes were neglected. Painter Jeong decided to challenge this old tradition and started to paint Korean landscapes by exploring nature in Korea. His new style of landscape painting inspired many other painters.

On September 8, 1945, a lost treasure was found in a storage at Seoul Station. It was the manuscript of Joseonmal Keunsajeon (The Comprehensive Korean Language Dictionary) that had been lost since its confiscation by police during the Japanese Occupation Period (1910-1945). The manuscript consisted of 26,500 pages. After two years of sorting and editing, the first volume of the dictionary was published in 1947, and the final sixth volume was published in 1957. The long journey of creating the first Korean language dictionary, starting in 1929, finally came to fruition. It was a part of efforts to preserve the Korean national identity against Japan’s attempt to destroy the Korean language and culture.

Koreans were forced to abandon their language after Japan took over Korea in 1910. Despite Japan’s surveillance and suppression, dedicated Korean linguists continued their efforts to protect the Korean language of Hangeul. In October 1929, they organized the Korean language dictionary editorial board and launched an ambitious dictionary compilation project. In 1933, they released Korean language standards by collecting Korean vocabulary, standardizing loanword adaptations, and revising the Japanese colonial government’s Korean spelling system.

Japan intensified its suppression of the Korean language. In 1938, Japan abolished the Korean language class and forced Koreans to use Japanese in Korean school. In 1940, it discontinued the publication of all Korean-language newspapers and magazines and forced Koreans to adopt Japanese family names. In 1942, Japan destroyed the Korean Language Society that was leading the effort to publish the Korean language dictionary by arresting all its members and confiscating the dictionary’s manuscript. Sixteen Korean linguists were arrested, two of whom were tortured to death in prison. In 1945, the surviving linguists were released after Korea regained its independence. The manuscript was also miraculously found in the same year. The Joseonmal Keunsajeon manuscript is a treasure that shows Koreans’ determination to protect their language during their darkest period in history.