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Baekje, first international state on Korean Peninsula

Sophisticated Baekje culture a candidate for recognition by UNESCO

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Published : 2013-01-23 20:34
Updated : 2013-01-23 20:36

The Korea Herald is publishing “Korea’s Cultural Pride,” a 10-part series on the country’s cultural and natural heritage. A total of nine tangible and 14 intangible examples of heritage have been designated UNESCO World Heritage for international preservation. This year 15 cultural properties are on the tentative list, awaiting designation. This installment explores the Baekje historic sites in the central part of the Korean Peninsula. ― Ed.


Baekje Kingdom (B.C. 18-A.D. 660), in what is now Gongju and Buyeo in South Chungcheong Province as well as Iksan of North Jeolla Province and the surrounding areas, was an international state.

People from the kingdom traveled as far as India and China for economic and cultural exchanges, blending these influences into a unique culture of their own, which then spread to Japan.

The Baekje culture was perhaps the most sophisticated among the three kingdoms of the time ― Silla and Goguryeo being the other two. This is evidenced by the fact that Baekje workers built the nine-story wooden stupa of the Hwangryongsa Temple in Silla, while painter Ajwataeja drew a portrait of Prince Shotoku, who is considered the ancestor of the current Japanese royal family. Buddhism and other cultures also spread to the archipelago, all through the people of Baekje. The Japanese royal family in 2001 announced that their ancestry is rooted in Baekje.

“Baekje was in a way the father of hallyu, or the Korean cultural fever,” said Lee Dong-ju, managing director of Buyeo Cultural Heritage Center.

And the historic sites of Gongju, Buyeo and Iksan, home to the remains of the Baekje, are now on the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List. From old tombs to fortresses and temples, which are considered elements for an ancient capital, the cities are qualified to be appreciated by the world, the international organization said.

“Gongju and Buyeo are a vivid testimony to the active exchanges and trade during ancient times among China, Korea and Japan. There are a number of historic places and properties that share similar architectural characteristics with China and Japan,” UNESCO said.

“The Iksan Historic Site proves how unique and refined the Baekje people from the seventh century and their culture were. Many of the sites are all mentioned or alluded to in historical or oral narratives. The entire site is designated as a National Historic Site and benefits from legal protection to maintain its original state,” it noted.

Gongju and Buyeo sites

The important remains of Baekje in Gongju and Buyeo are: groups of tombs in Gongsan-ri; the Suchon-ri tombs and Goma Ferry area; Busosanseong Fortress; Jeonglimsa Temple site; Naseong Fortress; tombs and temple sites in Neungsan-ri; Cheongsan Fortress; Cheongmasanseong Fortress; Yongjeong-ri Temple site; and the Gudrae area.

The crème de la crème is the tomb of King Muryeong (462-523; reigned 501-523) at the foot of Songsan-ri, which was discovered in 1971 after a group of maintenance workers tried to repair another tomb nearby. Never having been touched, the tomb keeps the original atmosphere of impending prosperity in the kingdom. 
Interior of King Muryeong’s tomb in Gongju, South Chungcheong Province. (Buyeo Cultural Heritage Center)

“King Muryeong paved the way for Baekje to prosper. When Baekje had to relocate the country’s capital to the Gongju area from near the Han River, the country was threatened by Goguryeo, its northern neighbor. However, he reinforced the royal prerogative and weakened other people’s voices. He also sought diplomatic relations with China, which strengthened his power. Thanks to him, his son King Seong and his offspring were able to see the country prosper,” said Lee Sang-mi, curator at the National Museum.

The tomb was composed of bricks, a style in vogue in China in the 6th century, suggesting Chinese builders contributed to the construction. Inside the tomb were more than 1,500 relics including the golden crown, ornaments and others showing the rich Baekje culture.

“The coffin of the king was made with Japanese gold pine tree, which suggests that the creation of Muryeongwangneung, or King Muryeong’s tomb, is a collaboration of Korea, Japan and China, but holds the very essence of Baekje culture,” Lee Dong-ju said.

The most significant part of the discovery was the fact that the tomb had a stone signboard describing the owner of the tomb. “The oldest remaining history books about Baekje is Samguksagi, a tale of three countries, written in 1145, centuries after the countries have disappeared. Therefore, there had been doubts about the accuracy of the book. However, with the milestone, we have managed to understand that the book contained the exact dateline and other information about King Muryeong, which enhanced the credibility of the book and all historic information stemmed from it,” said Lee Sang-mi.

Another remarkable heritage item is the Jeongrimsaji Seoktap (stone pagoda), National Treasure No. 9.

“Much of Baekje heritage was destroyed because many of them were made with wood. The stone pagoda is one of a handful of masonry heritage pieces left in the era,” the scholar said. The tip of the rooftop tiles is lifted upward ever so slightly, attesting to the articulation of the kingdom.

Iksan site

Notable sites of Iksan are Wanggung-ni Palace, Iksan Twin Royal Tombs, Jaeseoksa Temple, Mireuksa Temple, Sajasa Temple, Yeongdeung-ri, Triple Stone Buddha from Taebongsa Temple, Iksantoseong Earthen Fortress, Jeotoseong Earthen Fortress, Mireuksansseong Fortress, Yonghwasanseong Fortress, Nangsansanseong Fortress, dwelling sites, and Baekje earthenware kiln sites.

Among them, Wanggung-ni is the home of a romantic story. Seodong, a man from Baekje, had a crush on Princess Seonhwa, daughter of King Jinpyeong (579-632) of Silla. He spread a rumor that the princess came out to see him every day. The enraged father sent his daughter into exile but Seodong captured her as she was on her way and wooed her, only to marry her later in Baekje.

Seodong later became King Mu (600-641) of Baekje and the couple established the old palace site in Wanggung-ni, where the princess, now the queen, built Mireuksa Temple to honor her religious beliefs. The stone pagoda in the temple is believed to have been erected in 693 in a prayer for peace in Baekje. In 2009, an urn said to contain a bone of Buddha was found in it.

By Bae Ji-sook (baejisook@heraldcorp.com)

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