SPECIAL FEATURE

Baekje:
In Search of Traces of the Lost Kingdom
SPECIAL FEATURE 1 Baekje Under the Moonlight

The Baekje Kingdom, founded in 18 B.C., flourished culturally as it ruled the southwestern part of the Korean peninsula. One of the ancient Three Kingdoms along with Silla and Goguryeo, it was defeated by the allied forces of Silla and Tang China in A.D. 660, eight years before Goguryeo also fell, leading to the first unified nation of the Korean people. Though Baekje was the most active of the three kingdoms in exchanges with China and Japan and played a pivotal role in the East Asian region, after its fall much of its history was distorted and then forgotten. However, thanks to the discovery of many archaeological sites and relics in modern times, the true face of Baekje has gradually come to light. We take a trip back to the past in search of its legacy.

When night falls on the Gong Mountain Fortress on a hilly stretch overlooking the Geum River, the lights come on along the fortress walls. With a total length of 2,660 meters, the fortress was built in A.D. 475, making use of the natural terrain to great advantage, to protect Baekje’s new capital Ungjin (present-day Gongju in South Chungcheong Province).

On July 15, 2015, at its 39th session convened in Bonn, Germany, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee inscribed the “Baekje Historic Areas” on the World Heritage List, in recognition of the ancient Korean state’s contribution to the development of East Asian civilization. The World Heritage property comprises eight archaeological sites in three cities: the Gong Mountain Fortress and the royal tomb group of Songsan-ri in Gongju; the Gwanbuk-ri remains of government offices, the Buso Mountain Fortress, the royal tombs of Neungsan-ri, and the Naseong city wall in Buyeo; and the palace site at Wanggung-ri and the Mireuk Temple site in Iksan. Through seasons of sun, wind, rain, and sleet, these ancient walls, temples, and pagodas have witnessed the lives of Koreans for more than 1,300 years.

History Takes Shape
Not long ago, many of Baekje’s monuments lay buried underground. Then, in the summer of 1971, one of the ancient tombs in Songsan-ri was identified as that of King Muryeong, the 25th ruler of Baekje, and in December 1993, the Neungsan-ri tombs were confirmed as belonging to Baekje royalty when a gorgeous gilt-bronze incense burner and other relics were discovered at the nearby site of a royal temple. In 1975, excavations began on the ancient city wall of Buyeo. Being an earthen fortress, it had not been detected easily, but to this day varied relics big and small continue to be discovered in the vicinity. The location of the eastern pagoda at the Mireuk Temple site was clearly identified in 1974, but it was not until 1989 that the scale of the detached palace site in Wanggung-ri came to be properly understood.
Similar circumstances applied in the discovery of a large earthen fortress in Wiryeseong, Baekje’s first capital along the Han River in the southeastern part of Seoul. Though not included in the World Heritage designation, the fortress is a remainder of the ancient state’s first five centuries, when its foundations were laid with the development of agriculture and production of iron implements. The Pungnap Earthen Fortress, believed to have stood in the northern part of the old capital, was discovered in 1925 due to flooding, but it was not until a large number of Baekje artifacts were unearthed during an apartment construction project in 1997 that the fortress attracted the attention of scholars. The Mongchon Earthen Fortress, a similar fortification believed to have formed the southern downtown part of the capital, was found in 1980.

The walls of Gong Mountain Fortress rise and dip following the contours of the land. Its ramparts today are topped by promenades offering splendid views of the city of Gongju to visitors strolling up and down the old walls, enjoying the cool breeze from the river.

Resurfacing after all this time, these archaeological sites and relics are a testament to Baekje’s outstanding technology, its unique aesthetic based on the philosophical traditions of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism, and its exchanges with China, Japan, and other parts of East Asia during its almost 700 years in existence. Now, leaving it to the scholars to discuss the value and significance of these wonderful pieces of physical evidence, discovered largely by chance after being buried in the ground or covered in thick layers of dirt for centuries, I will attempt to explore Baekje’s influence on the psyche of the Korean people.
It is an ambitious endeavor, but admittedly my only resource is an amateur’s interest in the subject. This interest budded from the realization that, when exposed to the sunlight, things re-creating the past are always connected to vague and hazy elements that are somewhat obscure. These elements embody the past in their own ways. They neither grow old nor change, and they do not forget. Hence, they are guardians of the past.

Called Up to Heal the Wounds of Modern War
The first Baekje Festival kicked off in Buyeo on April 18, 1955, two days behind schedule. The opening ceremony had been postponed when spring rain unexpectedly turned into a storm. Buyeo was a royal capital of Baekje where six kings reigned for a combined 123 years, including the last monarch, King Uija. The festival began with a memorial rite for the past kings of Baekje and ran for five days, ending with a rite for the souls of the three thousand royal court ladies who, as legend has it, threw themselves off a cliff into the river below, mourning the fall of their country, as their king and army fell to the allied forces of Silla and Tang.

There are people who have not returned home, although the night has fallen. Those who went missing left their short lives behind, with nowhere to go because nobody has called out their names. The moonlight embraces and caresses the damaged, erased, and distorted traces of their lives, scattered through the mountains and rivers of what once was their homeland — Baekje.

The five-story stone pagoda at the Jeongnim Temple site in Buyeo (National Treasure No. 9), built in the mid-seventh century and standing 8.8 meters high, is one of two stone pagodas from the Three Kingdoms period remaining in old Baekje territory. The Baekje people developed a new type of stone pagoda built in the form of wooden pagodas, which became the prototype of the unique Korean Buddhist pagoda style perfected during the Unified Silla period.

The festival attracted 20,000 people from across the country, who filled the local inns and restaurants to bursting. Considering the social conditions and means of transportation at the time, it was a truly amazing crowd. The highlight of the festival was the enshrinement of spirit tablets memorializing three loyal subjects of Baekje — Seongchung, Heungsu, and Gyebaek — heroic figures who had tried but failed to save their kingdom from demise. It was a grand spectacle with hundreds of students and soldiers taking part in the ritual procession.
However, the success of the festival and the popularity of the Baengma River and Nakhwaam (Rock of Falling Flowers), from where the court ladies are said to have jumped to their death, as a tourist attraction 1 do not sufficiently explain why local residents were so devoted to the project, voluntarily raising funds for it. In addition, it happened before the underground remains of Baekje were brought to light, at a time when the public’s pride in their history and culture was not particularly high. Perhaps the only feasible explanation may be that the festival was an occasion to foster solidarity and reconciliation.
The Korean War (1950–1953) resulted in more than three million deaths. This figure includes those who died in massacres and acts of political retribution in both the North and the South. After the ceasefire in 1953, local communities were left with the task of soothing and healing the wounds left by national division and internecine conflict. In Buyeo, influential figures put their heads together and came up with the idea of storytelling. They proposed an event to honor the three loyal subjects of Baekje, who risked everything and eventually gave their lives to save their country from impending conquest, as well as the three thousand court ladies. The rites held to enshrine the spirits of these Baekje heroes thus stood in for rites to console the souls of the Buyeo community, whose families had been torn apart by war. Ten years later, in 1965, the event was transformed into a large-scale regional cultural festival, with generous support from the government.
Playwright Oh Tae-seok’s “Moonlit Night on the Baengma River” (1993; Baengmagang dalbame), which adopts the framework of byeolsinje, a shamanic rite handed down in the Buyeo region, proved a controversial work for the connection it drew between the Korean War and the fall of Baekje.

The ferry on the Baengma River passes the 40-meter-high Nakhwaam, “The Rock of Falling Flowers.” Legend has it that 3,000 court ladies threw themselves from the rock into the river below when Baekje fell in A.D. 660. A small temple named Gosansa, built on the mid-slope of the cliff in the 11th century to appease their souls, still survives today.

The community rite for offering prayers to the village guardian spirits originated from a folk tale. A long time ago, an epidemic raged through the local village of Eunsan. One night, a military commander riding a white horse appeared in an old man’s dream, telling him that the dead bodies of Baekje soldiers lay scattered all over the place with no one to take care of them. If the villagers gathered them up, he promised to get rid of the plague. The villagers did as instructed in the old man’s dream, retrieving the bodies and holding a rite for the souls of the dead. The plague disappeared and peace returned.
When “Moonlit Night on the Baengma River” was staged anew in the summer of 2014, the director and playwright substantially revised his original work. Critics acclaimed the new version, saying, “By focusing on reconciliation among the Baekje soldiers, King Uija, and Sundan (the daughter of the old shaman presiding over the village rite, who is also the reincarnation of a Silla spy), the narrative is clearer and more concise compared to the original.” However, in the process of revising the play, the allegorical connection between the Korean War and the fall of Baekje disappeared. Also deleted was the tantalizing comment “Whether they are Baekje soldiers or victims of a communist massacre” in the scene where the bones of 17 bodies are found at the village entrance, by the foot of the wall that stood around the old capital of Baekje. The gaps left by the removal of the subtle historical connection were filled with the author’s characteristic wordplay and humor.
Hyeon Jin-geon (1900–1943) was a brilliant writer who, in the early days of modern Korean literature, introduced a model for realist writing based on his profound exploration of social and cultural issues as well as his clear national consciousness.

While working as a journalist during the Japanese colonial rule, he was imprisoned for his involvement in airbrushing the Japanese flag out 1 of a photograph of the award ceremony when Korean marathoner Sohn Kee-chung won the gold medal at the Berlin Olympics in 1936 as a member of the Japanese team. This incident turned Hyeon’s life upside down. He had to leave his job at a newspaper, and thereafter sell his house and work all kinds of jobs to survive. His short life ended after a bout of tuberculosis.

The Neungsan-ri complex of ancient royal tombs comprises seven tombs of Baekje royalty from the period when Sabi (Buyeo) was the capital of Baekje. The cluster of tumuli sits mid-slope on the southern face of the mountain in Neungsanri, 121 meters above sea level.

Perishing and Leaving the Soul Behind
It is no coincidence that in Hyeon’s 1939 novel, “Shadowless Pagoda” (Muyeongtap), the protagonists are Asadal, the Baekje stonemason who made Muyeongtap in Gyeongju (commonly known as Seokgatap, or the Sakyamuni Pagoda), and his wife, Asanyeo. Hyeon published two more novels set in the Baekje Kingdom: “General Heukchi Sangji” (Heukchi sangji) in 1940 and “Princess Seonhwa” (Seonhwa gongju) in 1941. Before the serialization of “General Heukchi Sangji” in a newspaper, the author said, “The past is more realistic than the present because it possesses integrity that the present does not and cannot have. It has a greater power to convey reality that makes the heart beat and the blood run faster than anything gathered from present facts.” Featuring a hero who refuses to bow to foreign invaders and successfully leads a retaliatory strike by Baekje, the novel was stopped in the middle of its serialization under pressure from the Japanese government-general. “Princess Seonhwa,” based on the story of the boy who would become King Mu of Baekje, was serialized in a monthly magazine, but it too was stopped before its completion.
In “Shadowless Pagoda,” Hyeon’s adoption of a Baekje mason taken to the rival Silla may be owing to many records extant of Baekje wood and stone craftsmen who built Buddhist temples and pagodas in Silla. But Hyeon was the first writer to give one a name: Asadal. He would have been pleased with himself for coming up with the name, in view of its symbolic value to the Korean people. According to the “History of the Three Kingdoms” (Samguk sagi), it was the name Korea’s mythical founding father, Dangun, gave to his first capital; it means “land of morning sunlight.” To give an idea of its significance, “Shadowless Pagoda” is the story of conflict amongst Asadal, a mason from the fallen nation of Baekje; Juman, the daughter of an aristocratic Silla family who falls in love with him; and Asadal’s wife Asanyeo, who grows tired of waiting for her husband to return home and sets out for Gyeongju to meet him.
The work of poet Shin Dong-yeop (1930–1969), born in Buyeo during the Japanese colonial period, is rooted in the sense of place unique to the city. Lines such as “The old granny with a runny nose / selling noodles / under the sunlight at the house of the funeral biers” or “The timeless sleepiness / of the village apricot trees” are not mere lyrical memories of his hometown. Using his historical imagination, Shin jumps from ancient Baekje to the Donghak Peasant Rebellion (1894–95) and the March 1st Independence Movement (1919), and finally lands in the Korean War (1950–53) and the April 19 Revolution (1960) in modern Korea. Asadal and Asanyeo often appear in his poems as protagonists or narrators. He maintains the imaginary roles of characters created by Hyeon Jin-geon, then turns them into neighbors suffering in the midst of war and poverty as embodiments of a divided nation.
Shin’s humanist approach to history culminates in the epic poem “Geum River” (Geumgang). He regards “the simple, blameless ordinary people who have been chased for ten thousand years” with both compassion and rage, and gives structure to incidents of the past as a way to understand history. If his success lies in bringing history into the present, his failure derives from the conceptualization of history. The following lines from “Geum River,” however, can be used to refute what I have just said:

Baekje,
From long ago a place where
Things gather,
Rot,
And fall to ruin. Instead
Leaving fertilizer behind.

Geumgang,
From long ago a place where
Things gather,
Rot,
And fall to ruin. Instead
Leaving the spirit behind.

— From Chapter 23, “Geum River”

Baekje,
From long ago a place where
Things gather,
Rot,
And fall to ruin. Instead
Leaving fertilizer behind.

Geumgang,
From long ago a place where
Things gather,
Rot,
And fall to ruin. Instead
Leaving the spirit behind.

— From Chapter 23, “Geum River”

The five-story stone pagoda in Wanggung- ri in Iksan, North Jeolla Province, dating to the early Goryeo Dynasty, exhibits the form of Baekje stone pagodas as well as the stone pagoda style that further evolved during the Unified Silla period. Designated National Treasure No. 289, the pagoda stands 8.5 meters high. It is presumed that Wanggungri, which means “Village of the King's Palace,” was planned to serve as the new capital of Baekje.

A monument to the poet, who “pained for the wounded fatherland” through his own poverty and compassion, stands at the site of Naseong, Buyeo’s ancient outer city wall, stretching from the Buso Mountain Fortress to the banks of the Geum River.

Rewriting the Stories of the Defeated
“Fake news” is a problem not only of the present but also of the past. The stories of the victors are always exaggerated and spread far and wide, but the stories of the defeated are barely sustained, like the sigh-filled ramblings of old women. That is also true for the stories of Baekje. Against the ingenuity and courage of the victors, the incompetence and degradation of the losers appears all the more conspicuous. Over the ages, this simple schema has tenaciously persisted, with the past ever more internalized and fragmented depending on the perceptions and emotions of those who recalled it. The tragic story of the “rock where people fell to their deaths” in the midst of war has been turned into the “rock of falling flowers” where three thousand court ladies jumped into the river out of loyalty to their country. It would seem that a narrative based on objective facts is neither necessary nor important.
“Jeongeupsa,” the only surviving gayo (poetic song) from the Baekje period, starts with the line, “Oh, moon, up so high in the sky.” Popular through the Goryeo and Joseon periods, it was sung, according to the “History of Goryeo” (Goryeosa), by the wife of a peddler as she waited for her husband who had gone to market to sell his wares. She went up on a rock and asked the moon to shine its light around so that her husband would not come to harm on his way back home. To commemorate this song, the municipal gugak orchestra of Jeongeup city, in North Jeolla Province, holds various traditional Korean music performances every month around the time of the full moon. To be sure, popular songs today about Baekje all talk about moonlit nights, and with the moon, there is always mention of the Baengma River, waterfowl, serenity, small boats, or the sound of a distant bell.
In the preface of his epic novel, “Mountains and Rivers” (Sanha), Lee Byeong-ju (1921–1992), a journalist and novelist, writes: “If it fades in the sunlight it becomes history; if it is washed with moonlight it becomes legend.”
One could say that Baekje is washed with moonlight. When dusk gives way to night, the lights at the fortress around its ancient royal capital come on one by one, and here and there, the fortress walls bare their shoulders up against the blue-black sky, as though they are calling out to someone standing far away on the other side of the river. There are people who have not returned home, although the night has fallen. Those who went missing left their short lives behind, with nowhere to go because nobody has called out their names. The moonlight embraces and caresses the damaged, erased, and distorted traces of their lives, scattered through the mountains and rivers of what once was their homeland — Baekje.

Lee Chang-guy Poet and Literary Critic
Ahn Hong-beom Photographer

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