History and mythology make waves in Frankfurt

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History and mythology make waves in Frankfurt

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The German edition of a 700-year-old book on Korea’s Three Kingdoms period made headlines after its international debut at the Frankfurt Book Fair. The book, titled “Samguk Yusa,” or “Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms,” was compiled during the late Goryeo Dynasty by the Buddhist monk Ilyeon, and was one of 100 Korean books on display at the fair.
The book, also a national treasure, is a collection of myths, legends, folk tales and historical accounts relating to the overlapping kingdoms of Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla (37 B.C.-935 A.D.), as well as preceding and later periods.
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 existing 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 B.C. 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”), 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 myths and legends of old Korea and is a treasure trove 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 data and descriptions on Buddhism, high priests and folk beliefs are important in the study of old Korea’s culture and social fabric.
The exact year of the book’s origin is not known, however, it is generally accepted by historians that it 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. Prof. Beckers-Kim Young-ja of Regensburg University translated the book with the help of a German professor.
The author, Ilyeon, 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. He 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 with by China’s Yuan Dynasty, and three decades of sporadic war between the two served the Goryeo people in their quest for national solidarity and a 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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