The Lives of Eminent Korean Monks is a compilation of biographies of Buddhist monks from the Three Kingdoms period of Korean history (first century BCE through the tenth century CE). It promotes Buddhist piety by stressing the (often supernatural) deeds of these monks, and it is also a valuable source for Korean history. In spite of its importance, the work was long thought lost until portions of it were found at a Buddhist temple in the early twentieth century. This passage of the Lives deals with the introduction of Buddhism as the national faith of the Silla Kingdom in 527 CE, under King Pŏpkong.
“Pŏpkong Declares Buddhism the National Faith,” in Peter H. Lee, ed. Sourcebook of Korean Civilization, vol. 1, From Early Times to the Sixteenth Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 75–77.
By the era of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), the prevailing orthodox philosophy was Neo-Confucianism, and its master was Chu Hsi (1130–1200). Neo-Confucianism held that there was an underlying, immaterial principle (li) inherent in all things, which gave all things (including human beings) their essence, form, and meaning. Chu Hsi taught that knowledge of this principle could be achieved through a critical analysis of nature and the classic texts, using the powers of observation, analysis, and reflection. Known as the “School of Principle,” Chu Hsi’s philosophy became the official interpretation of Confucianism in China, and its precepts were a central component on the imperial civil service examinations.
A radically different interpretation of li was proposed by Wang Yang-ming (1472–1529), whose philosophy became known as the “School of the Mind.” Born in the village of Yu-yao in the Chekiang province, Wang Yang-ming shocked his tutor at age eleven by declaring that the purpose of learning was not to pass an exam or to win an official government post but to become a sage. Wang was initially a fervent believer in the teachings of Chu Hsi, but his faith was broken when he attempted to follow Chu’s methods of investigation. According to legend, Wang sat down in a bamboo grove determined to discover the li (essence) of bamboo, but after seven days and nights of observation and thought, he only succeeded in making himself ill through exhaustion. This defeat threw him into a deep spiritual crisis, which continued until he experienced a sudden flash of insight into the cause of his failure. Because the immaterial essence of li is found in humans as well as in all things, it was this essence that united mankind to all of nature. Moreover, Wang realized that this essence was best recognized and understood not from the study of bamboo or other objects in the external world but in one’s awareness of one’s jen (humanness) that resided within each person. An awareness of jen was the ultimate key to understanding the unity of all things, an awareness that created a “clear character” and a code of ethical behavior based on one’s innate knowledge of right and wrong. Consequently, the path to knowledge and self-perfection was attainable by all, for it was based entirely on self-awareness without the need for external study or rational thought. Although Wang Yangming’s teachings never gained official status in China, they were important in the philosophical development of Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism in China and Japan.
Wang Yang-ming, “Inquiry on The Great Learning,” in Sources of Chinese Tradition, ed. William de Bary, Wing-tsit Chan, and Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press (1960): 571–81.
Marco Polo (1254–1324) was a member of a clan of Venetian merchants, who had been active in trade in the Middle East for some decades. Polo claims to have accompanied his father and uncle on an extensive trade and diplomatic excursion to China in 1271, and in this account he describes the voyage as well as the people and places he has seen. He further claims to have lived 17 years in China and to have met with, and even served as an official for, Kublai Khan (1215–1294), Genghis Khan’s grandson. While some historians have suggested that the account may not be reliable, it demonstrates, at the very least, Western curiosity about Asia and the catalyst of trade in driving some Europeans into hitherto unknown parts of the world.
Marco Polo, The Travels of Marco Polo, trans. Ronald Latham (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1958), 115–118.
Many foundation myths around the world link a dynasty or nation’s founder to the divine or magical. The foundation myth of Korea is no exception. Korean mythology dates Tangun to the year 2333 B.C.E., when it is said he became the first ruler of Korea, known then as Choson. Chronologically, this was before the peninsula was divided into the “Three Kingdoms” and thus refers to a unified Korean kingdom. Records from Zhou China refer to this state, although Chinese records enable us to date it to only 1000 B.C.E. Because there was at that time (c. 1000 B.C.E.) no written Korean language, historians have to rely on either Korean myths such as this one or on records from neighboring states, particularly China. However, the Chinese sources have inherent problems, as the relationship between China and Korea has often been fraught with tension. The version here is from the thirteenth century.
“Tangun: Founder of Choson,” from Anthology of Korean Literature: From Early Times to the Nineteenth Century, ed. Peter H. Lee. (Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1981), 4
Su Hsün and Wang An-shih
The two documents presented here provide insight into a debate with a long history in China: land reform. The fiscal health of the government depended on the existence of a large class of independent farmers. But periodically, especially in times of economic prosperity from which some benefited more than others, the power of great landowners threatened both the livelihoods of independent farmers and state tax revenues.
The first source offers a viewpoint on the feasibility of well-field-style land reform under the Song dynasty. Su Hsün (1009–1066) was a government official famous for his writings that defend the Song system against charges of overtaxation and attempts to prove the well-field system infeasible. In doing so he gives a summary of the views of other reformers who advocated the reestablishment of the well-field system.
Second, Wang An-shih (1021–1086) was in effect the prime minister of China under the Emperor Shen-tsung (r. 1068–1085). He instituted, with the emperor’s support, a wide-ranging set of reforms more ambitious than any before the rule of the Communists, reforms that touched on the organization of landholding and tax assessment, the civil service exams, and many other areas of governance. In this edict he proposes expanding an experimental reform measure already tried in one province. Although he took his inspiration from the Confucian classics, his interpretation of Confucianism, which stressed the authority of the central government to impose changes for the good of society, aroused significant opposition among other Confucian scholars, as well as those whose vested interests came under attack. Eventually, almost all his reform measures were repealed.
DeBary, et al., eds., Sources of Chinese Tradition, vol. 1. New York: Columbia University Press (1960): 406–08. Copyright © 1960 Columbia University Press.
The Nihon Shoki is the first official history of Japan. It draws on numerous sources, including Chinese histories, clan histories, and the accounts of religious authorities. While it parallels the Kojiki in describing the ancient and mythological origins of Japan, it continues the narrative far beyond the Kojiki into the recent past, specifically the reign of the Empress Jitō (686–697). This particular story concerns the eleventh emperor of Japan, Suinin, but it differs from the Kojiki in certain key details, and probably reflects the values of the eighth century rather than its ostensible setting (the first century CE).
“The Empress and Her Brother Prince Sahobiko,” from Traditional Japanese Literature: An Anthology, Beginnings to 1600, ed. Haruo Shirane (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 47–49.
Around 500 CE, a wave of immigrants and cultural influence from the Korean kingdom of Paekche entered Japan from the southwest, bringing with it new technology for metal weapons. The influx stimulated the rise of a new Japanese state, the Kingdom of Yamato, centered on modern-day Osaka, and further militarized the aristocratic clans. The key elements of this wave of cultural borrowing were Chinese writing, Confucianism (the first Confucian scholar came to Yamato in 513), and Buddhism. Buddhism arrived in force in 552 when Paekche sent an image of the Buddha, some scriptures, and a Buddhist priest to the Yamato court with which it was allied. All these elements entered at the instigation of the Yamato kings, who sought to use them as tools to strengthen and centralize their rule against the resistance of the clan-based aristocracy.
This process heightened in the reign of the Empress Suiko (r. 592–628) and her regent Prince Shotoku (573–621). Prince Shotoku was a devout Buddhist who consciously imported T’ang Chinese models of government in reaction to the breakdown of the Paekche alliance and growing armed aristocratic resistance. He wrote a constitution for the Japanese government that was largely Confucian in its principles but the second article of which required devotion to Buddhism on the part of Japan’s rulers. Finally, a coup against Shotoku and his Soga clan brought to power Kotoku Tenno, or “The Divine Emperor” Kotoku, in 645. His reforms, sponsored by Confucians and Buddhists at the Imperial Court, represent the true birth of the Japanese imperial government and the incorporation of the clans and their aristocrats into centralized rule.
This history is recounted in the Nihongi, a semiofficial history of Yamato Japan completed in 720. It emphasized both the divine origins of the imperial family and the part of Buddhism in the construction of the imperial system. The establishment of Buddhism in Japan, then, was inseparable from the emergence of centralized, imperial authority, and the following source deals with the twinned processes by which imperial authority and Buddhism were promoted. Moreover, it demonstrates that Buddhism and Shintoism could coexist, each contributing to the authority and legitimacy of the emperor, as Shinto elements appear in the text in the references to gods, plagues, and demons.
W. G. Ashton, “Nihongi: Chronicle of Japan from the Earliest Times to AD 697,” Transactions and Proceedings of the Japan Society, London, supplement i (1896).
The author of this personal essay was Yi Kyu-bo (1168 – 1241), a poet, essayist, and critic in the Koryo kingdom of Korea. He was also a high-ranking civil servant, who passed the civil-service examination required for government service. The life of Yi Kyu-bo reflects the extent to which Koryo modeled itself on Tang / Song China. Yi Kyu-bo studied and wrote in Chinese, worked in a state organized along Confucian principles, and created literary works that were infused with both Confucian and Daoist principles.
Yi Kyu-bo. “On Demolishing the Earthen Chamber,” from Anthology of Korean Literature: From Early Times to the Nineteenth Century, ed. Peter H. Lee. (Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1981), 61-62.
Du Fu; Li Bo
The Tang period (618–960) witnessed a renaissance of poetry, oftentimes compressing vivid natural imagery and poignant emotion into short pieces of only a few verses. The poetry of Li Bo (or Li Bai, 701–762) was particularly influential in the West when his verses on drinking and the pleasures of life were rendered in translation. However, there is also a strong undercurrent of pacifism, drawing on Confucian philosophy, in Tang poetry, and the poems below address war and its consequences. A poem by Du Fu (ca. 721–770), who was also Li Bo’s friend, reflects the same sentiment.
“A Drawing of a Horse by General Cao at Secretary Wei Feng’s House” adapted from http://wengu.tartarie.com/wg/wengu.php?no=60&l=Tangshi Li Bo poem adapted from Bright Moon, White Clouds: Selected Poems of Li Po, ed. and trans. J. P. Seaton (Boston: Shambhala, 2012), 113–115.
The daughter of a minor noble in the court at Heian-Kyo in central Japan, Murasaki Shikibu (ca. 973–1025) created Japan’s most popular work of fiction and one of the world’s great literary masterpieces. The Genji Monagatori is composed of acute observations of the subtleties of court life, and Murasaki focused particularly on the lives of women at court. Although the tale is ostensibly fictional, it reflects the era in which it was written, as the novelist strove to make the action in it plausible to the reader. In the process, she also crafted a compelling and compulsively readable story.
Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji, trans. Royall Tyler (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 2001), “Heart-to-Heart” (Aoi), 178–179.
Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji is a product of Japan’s Heian period (794–1185). In that era, Japan was greatly influenced by Chinese governmental and cultural forms, which were nativized and adapted to fit the Japanese environment. For example, the extreme centralization and imperial power of the Chinese system were never replicated in Japan. Because Japan consists of islands and faced no great foreign threat at that time, the emperor and the central government ruled in concert with a powerful aristocracy organized along clan lines. In fact, over time a branch of one of the leading aristocratic clans, the northern Fujiwara, succeeded in dominating the emperors and effectively ruling Japan in their place (866–1068). Ultimately, the Fujiwara were outmaneuvered and some imperial autonomy was restored, but nothing approaching the Chinese system ever existed. Similarly, Chinese culture in the forms of written language, the Buddhist religion, and art and architecture exercised a powerful attraction for the Japanese. In the seventh century, the Chinese system of writing was adopted as the first written language in Japan, used for government, laws, records, and histories. Around 900 CE a written, phonetic Japanese script (hiragana) was devised, and a lively literary culture evolved.
As in most other societies before modern times, the aristocratic elite, especially the court notables, dominated Japan politically and culturally. One remarkable feature of Japanese elite culture in this era is the prominent position occupied by a couple of extraordinary women. Although knowledge and use of written Chinese had been largely restricted to men and to male-dominated fields, such as government and law, hiragana was more accessible to aristocratic women, and it was more suitable to the intimate and personal issues—especially marital politics—that played a central role in their lives.
The Tale of Genji is a remarkable work written by a remarkable woman, Murasaki Shikibu, who is so completely identified with this work that she actually earned the name “Murasaki” as a nickname based on the name of the leading female character in Genji. She was born around 973 into a minor branch of the Fujiwara clan, the powerful aristocratic family that dominated politics in Heian Japan from 866 to 1068 CE, and she died sometime after 1031.
The Tale of Genji has been called with some justification the world’s first novel. It is the story of an especially gifted son of an emperor, Genji. In the course of the story, Genji evolves from a sort of courtly playboy who is most concerned with court conquests and politics to a man who finds his greatest pleasure with his wife and who understands the impermanence of this world. For most of the novel, though, he exists in the rarified atmosphere of the higher realms of Heian aristocratic and court life.
Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji, trans. Arthur Waley. New York: The Modern Library, (1960): 331, 332–34, 336–37, 338–39, 341–42.
The Tale of the Heike is the most famous of a whole set of medieval Japanese war tales. It tells the story of the Gempei War (1180–1185), the culmination of a civil war that split Japan between 1156 and 1185. It takes its name from the Chinese name of the losing side, a coalition of families led by the Heike (or Taira, in Japanese)—the Japanese war tales often focus on heroic losers rather than winners. Though initially successful, the Taira eventually met defeat at the hand of a set of clans led by the Genji (Minamoto in Japanese), whose leader, Minamoto Yoritomo, became Japan’s first shogun in 1185. Even on the winning side, however, the emphasis is on tragic heroes, for the central figure of the tale is the Genji general Yoshitsune, Yoritomo’s cousin, a brilliant general but naïve politician. After leading the Genji forces to victory, he is eliminated by Yoritomo as a potential rival.
From The Tale of the Heike, trans. Helen Craig McCullough. Stanford: Stanford University Press (1988): 317, 333–35. Copyright © 1988 Stanford University Press.
By 1260 the Mongol Empire in the west stopped expanding; in the east the conquest of southern Song China in 1278 by Genghis Khan’s grandson Kubilai effectively ended Mongol expansion. Even before this time, however, the Mongols had shifted from being brutal plundering conquerors to clever administrators. They employed subjects from all over their lands to assist them in the task, always difficult for nomads, of ruling settled territories, drawing Persian administrators to China and vice versa. The second half of the thirteenth century has sometimes been called the “Pax Mongolica,” the Mongol peace, as their rule secured the safety of the trade routes across the steppes and encouraged the exchange of goods and ideas throughout their vast empire and beyond.
It was in this setting that the most famous visitor to the world of the steppe nomads, the Venetian Marco Polo (c. 1253–1324), made his career. Marco’s father and uncle were merchants who had visited the court of Kubilai Khan, grandson of Ghengis Khan and emperor of China, between about 1260 and 1269, returning with a request from the Great Khan for Christian missionaries. They set out again in 1271 with two Dominican friars (who gave up almost immediately) and young Marco. They arrived at Kubilai’s capital in northern China in 1274 or 1275, and Marco entered into service in the Mongol government, traveling widely through the empire for nearly twenty years. Although doubts have been raised about whether Marco actually did travel to China (or even existed), none of the doubts are well founded, and we can accept the picture he paints of his travels as largely accurate. He and the elder Polos left in the early 1290s, reaching Venice again in 1295.
While in a Genoese prison, Marco told his account to a romance writer named Rustichello of Pisa, who tried to shape Marco’s largely utilitarian accounts of cities, goods, and travel routes into a tale of adventure and strange lands. The stylistic result is far from successful, but the book was nonetheless hugely popular in a Europe at the height of its medieval prosperity and eager for more information about the largely mysterious world around it. The text enjoyed widespread readership for several centuries, influencing explorers (including Christopher Columbus).
Selections from The Book of Ser Marco Polo, trans. Henry Yule (London, 1874), i, 241–60.