SPECIAL FEATURE

Baekje:
In Search of Traces of the Lost Kingdom
SPECIAL FEATURE 4 Incense Burner Embodies Ideal World of the Baekje People

The Gilt-bronze Incense Burner of Baekje is striking for its size and beauty. At the Buyeo National Museum, visitors stop in front of it and fall into contemplation. The varied motifs, rendered with outstanding craftsmanship, stimulate viewers’ imagination and guide them to the ideal world of the Baekje people of 1,400 years ago.

A dragon, one of its front paws scraping the air, supports a budding lotus blossom on its mouth. Above the blossom is an imaginary Taoist paradise with a series of jagged peaks, topped by a phoenix with widespread wings. The dragon base, the lotus-shaped bowl, and the phoenix-capped lid with molded layers of mountain ranges compose the elaborate structure of the incense burner. When the lid is closed, two identical bands decorated with a honeysuckle scroll design run in parallel where the lid and the bowl meet.

Incense Burning for the Soul of the Late King
Baekje constructed a wall along the ridge of hills and mountains on the outskirts of Sabi (today’s Buyeo) during the period of 538–660, when it was the kingdom’s capital. In Neungsan-ri, just outside the assumed site of the city’s east gate, is a cluster of tombs presumed to be occupied by Baekje’s kings and queens. The narrow strip of land between the city wall and the royal cemetery, with a marsh at the bottom and terraced rice fields at the top, was awakened from a long slumber in 1993, when preliminary surveys and excavations were conducted for the development of the Baekje cultural sphere. It was the site of a typical Baekje-style Buddhist temple with the remains of an inner gate, a wooden pagoda, a main hall, and a lecture hall arranged in a row from south to north, all surrounded by corridors. The Gilt-bronze Incense Burner of Baekje, the quintessence of the ancient kingdom’s art and craft, was discovered on the site of a workshop at the back of the compound.
It looked as if the workshop had been burned down, the front part covered with tiles from the collapsed roof. In the center of two out of the three rooms comprising the workshop, oval-shaped heaps of earth were found, scorched and hardened by the strong heat from metalworking furnaces. The incense burner was discovered in the middle room, at the bottom of a puddle in what is presumed to have been a water basin built with wood.

The Gilt-bronze Incense Burner of Baekje, an exquisite artifact in the form of a dragon supporting a lotus blossom on its mouth, was unearthed in 1993 from a temple site adjacent to the ancient tombs in Neungsan-ri, Buyeo. Height: 61.8cm. Weight: 11.8kg. National Treasure No. 287. Buyeo National Museum.

With the lid slightly displaced from the body, the censer was covered with miscellaneous earthenware vessels, roof-tile fragments, small giltbronze articles, and other objects.
It seemed that the incense burner had been hidden in the basin and covered with a pile of odds and ends in some kind of emergency, and then the entire building burned down later. Astonishingly, the vessel had remained completely intact, with no corrosion at all, for almost 1,400 years. Submerged about four meters below the current ground surface, it must have been blocked from oxygen and hardly influenced by external temperature changes.
As the excavation continued, the history behind the construction of the temple was brought to light as the site of a wooden pagoda yielded the capital pillar and its foundation stone, as well as a stone sarira reliquary with an inscription about Baekje’s King Chang. The sarira casket with an arched top (National Treasure No. 288) is inscribed, on either side of its opening, with 20 characters in classical Chinese, meaning, “The sarira is a votive offering made in the 13th year of the reign of King Chang [also known as King Wideok; r. 554–598] by his sister, the princess.”
The 27th ruler of Baekje, King Chang was the son of King Seong (r. 523–554), the monarch in the kingdom’s restoration period. When Baekje invaded Silla’s Gwansan Fortress in 554, King Seong went to the battlefield to save his son but was killed in an ambush. The historical facts, the location of the temple on the narrow marsh adjacent to the royal tombs outside the city wall, and the content of the inscription on the stone reliquary demonstrate that the temple was actually a royal shrine built in tribute to the late king, and that the incense burner was a ceremonial vessel used there.

A phoenix with widespread wings is perched on top of the lid. Smoke holes are pierced on either side of the bird’s breast.

Structure and Ornamentation
The incense burner is cast in bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, and plated with gold using the amalgamation method. The irregular shape and the intricate surface must have been formed through the lost wax casting process. A full-sized model is made out of a block of beeswax and placed in a sand mold, then heat is applied, which hardens the mold and melts out the wax. Molten metal is poured into the cavity left behind, and once it has solidified, the mold is broken off. A test of the burner’s metal components showed that the casting consists of 81.3 percent copper, 14.3 percent tin, and a small amount of impurities contained in the tin, such as lead, silver, nickel, cobalt, and arsenic.
The interior of the burner is structured in such a way that the smoke from burning incense rises through the orb beneath the phoenix, up the passage between its two feet, and out of the small holes on either side of the bird’s breast. The magic bead (cintamani) under its chin is not only visually pleasing but also reinforces the structure.
Incense smoke is also let out through 10 other holes placed at even intervals on the lid where the jagged peaks are carved. Unlike the two holes on the bird’s breast, however, these holes are quite rough around the edges. It is presumed that they were smaller and smoother at first but were later enlarged by hand to allow the smoke to disperse more freely.
On the lid of the censer, figures of humans, animals, and plants are carved in relief between the small and large peaks of overlapping mountains.

In its construction, the ancient Baekje incense burner embodies Buddhist and Taoist ideals. The Buddhist connection is undeniable, given that it was a ceremonial vessel used in a royal temple during a period when Buddhism wielded strong influence. However, its association with the Taoist theory of yin, yang, and the five elements is also evident….

Up close, one figure can be seen sitting up straight on a rock in meditation, another strolling through the wood, one is shooting an arrow backwards on horseback, one is washing his hair near a waterfall, one is walking with a cane while another bows in farewell, one is angling on a rock by the lake, and yet others are riding an elephant, a horse, and so on. Some of the animal figures are real, like the bear, tiger, bird, deer, snake, and boar, but others are imaginary. There are also rocks, trees, streams, waterfalls, and lakes carved among the mountain peaks.
The main body of the incense burner is decorated with three tiers of lotus petals and various aquatic creatures between them, such as fish, waterfowl, birds, or other animals eating fish, presumably depicting the Taoist paradise under water.
Connecting the bowl-shaped body and the dragon base is a rod in the dragon’s mouth, which connects to the pipe protruding from the bottom of the bowl. An X-ray image of its cross section revealed that the bowl, the pipe, and the dragon holding the rod in its mouth were cast separately and joined together. The phoenix atop the lid and the bead under its chin were also cast separately and then joined onto the lid.
The base has an ingenious structure, with the molded dragon figure raising one leg up in the air and pressing the other three legs down on the ground. The three points of contact with the ground form a regular triangle, making the burner structurally stable. The space between the dragon’s legs and body is filled with a design of waves, clouds, and lotus blossoms, further enhancing its stability and adding to the dynamic impression of a dragon soaring up to heaven from a splendid sea of lotus flowers.
Study continues on the iconography of these various symbols. Many scholars assume that the assortment of animals represents a mythical world imagined by ancient East Asian people, possibly related to the creatures described in the “Classic of Mountains and Seas" (Shanhai jing), the Chinese book of mythology and geography dating back to the fourth century B.C. Another prevailing view is that the phoenix and the five birds that look like wild geese, each perched on a different peak, reflect ancient Chinese cosmology, represented by the Heavenly Ruler and the Five Emperors, which was widely upheld throughout East Asia.

Five musicians playing different instruments are placed between the overlapping mountain peaks on the upper part of the lid.

Ideological Background
In its construction, the ancient Baekje incense burner embodies Buddhist and Taoist ideals. The Buddhist connection is undeniable, given that it was a ceremonial vessel used in a royal temple during a period when Buddhism wielded strong influence. However, its association with the Taoist theory of yin, yang, and the five elements is also evident…. the arrangement of the phoenix (yang) at the top and the dragon (yin) at the base, as well as the five birds, the five musicians, and the five layers of mountains with the five major peaks in each layer. In addition, the iconography of the lid with the depiction of Mt. Bo (Boshan, or the Universal Mountain), the abode of immortals in the middle of the sea mentioned in a Chinese legend, also points to the influence of Taoism. These features demonstrate that the royal family and the aristocracy of the Buddhist kingdom embraced Taoism as well.
Some of the major features of the vessel — the dragon-shaped base, the lid decorated with a series of mountain ranges, and the phoenix atop the lid, among others — are obviously connected with the tradition of the hill censer (boshanlu) from the Chinese Han Dynasty. Notably, Chinese bronze hill censers, also found among the relics of Lelang (108 B.C.–A.D. 313), a Han commandery in the northern part of the Korean peninsula, started to appear in the early Western Han period (206 B.C.–A.D. 9) and declined in popularity in the Sui (581– 618) and Tang (618–907) eras. The difference in time as well as the greater size and more elaborate construction of the Baekje incense burner renders a direct connection with Chinese tradition unlikely. Even so, the iconography is not unique to Baekje as some of the motifs are also found in the “Classic of Mountains and Seas” mentioned earlier as well as in the murals of the Yungang Grottoes, the Chinese heritage site from the Northern Wei Dynasty dated to the fifth and sixth centuries. For this reason, the iconography found on the Baekje incense burner is considered to have been widely known in contemporary East Asia.

Kim Jeong-wan Archaeologist; Former Director, Daegu National Museum

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