The kingdom of Silla and the treasures of Nara
(ancient Korea kingdom; Buddhist temple in Nara, Japan)
by Francois-Bernard Hyghe
COPYRIGHT UNESCO (France) 1991
As UNESCO's Maritime Silk Roads Expedition set sail from the Chinese
port of Quanzhou on 19 February 1991, crowds of school-children gave
us a rousing send-off from the quayside, waving flowers, streamers,
and cardboard lions and dragons. Our ship the Fulk al-Salamah's two
visits to China had taken place in an atmosphere of constant
festivity. In addition to our scholarly work, the marathon seminars
and visits to historic sites, many less serious moments were still
fresh in our memory. Whole villages had turned out to greet us. We
had been entertained with firework displays (our arrival had
coincided with the Chinese New Year) and acrobats. There had been
many colourful scenes and much laughter.
Our hosts had spared no efforts to give the expedition a spectacular
welcome. They had deepened a harbour so thaty the Fulk al-Salamah
could enter, built a museum, and brought forward by several weeks
the spring parade in which thousands of people take part. In
addition to this generosity we would not soon forget the infectious
joy and vitality of the Chinese.
Thus we began the last part of our journey. We were about to follow
a branch of the maritime skill route that would lead to its
Before making for Japan, our ship sailed for Korea, where the links
between China and Japan were forged in the ancient kingdom of Silla,
once a meeting place for the peoples of central Asia and The Far
East, for ther maritime route and the land route across the steppes.
Our port of call was Kyongju, which was the capital of Silla for a
thousand years. In the last century of the pre-Christian era, this
region was settled by the Si-Ro, one of many tribes of obscure,
possibly Ural-Altaic origins, which occupied the Korean peninsula.
After a conflict which lasted several centuries and was often
arbitrated by the Chinese, Silla conquered and subjugated the rival
kingdoms of Paekche in 660 and Koguryo in 668, before driving out
Chinese troops. This kingdom, known as "Unified silla", lasted until
Sillla or the age of friendship
The golden age of Silla, from the seventh to the ninth centuries,
coincided in China with the consolidation of the political power of
the T'ang, who reunified the empire, and in Japan with the victory
of the cnetral government over the clans. This period of political
stability was also a period of intensive political, commercial and
cultural exchanges which established via the Silk Roads what a
speaker at one seminar in Japan was to call "the age of friendship"
between the three nations.
The Unified Silla kingdom sent a hundred-odd ambassadors to the
court of the T'ang, who were in theory sovereign rulers. China sent
ambassadors in return. As a result of these diplomatic missions
Silla came into possession of Chinese writings such as the Taoist
classic the Tao-te Ching and important Confucian texts, and sent
students to study in China, whence they returned with more treasures
for Korean scholars.
Korean envoys also journeyed to Maracanda (present-day Samarkand),
the capital of Sogdiana. Late-seventh-century wall paintings
discovered in Samarkand show figures dressed in the Korean style
among the delegations received by the ruler of Sogdiana. Perhaps, as
a Korean scholar suggested during a seminar held at Pusan, they were
envoys of the Koguryo kingdom who were in Maracanda to negotiate an
alliance to counterbalance that which the rival Silla kingdom was
working out with China.
By way of trade or tribute, Silla sent to China horses, artefacts
produced by ots excelent jewellers and metalworkers, silk, which had
been cultivated ever since the first tribes had settled in Korea,
and medicinal plants. To Japan it exported its own products and
merchandise which passed through its ports, including, oddly enough,
horses and camels, whose presence in seventh-century Japan is
mentioned in the "Written Chronicles of Japan".
But Silla was also in contact with the Persian and Arab world, and
traded with the Muslim merchants who travelled through China, where
some of them eventually settled. As early as the middle of the ninth
century, the writings of Arab travellers and geographers tell of a
fabulous kingdom, described by Ibn Kurdadbih who wrote that "Beyond
China is a land where gold abounds and which is named Silla. The
Muslims who have gone there have been charmed by the country and
tend to settle there and abandon all idea of leaving."
Later, the Arab geographer al-Mas' udi also penned a description of
Silla, which located behind the Great Wall which protected men from
the demoniac hordes of Gog and Magog. He wrote that the kingdom had
been founded by Alexander the Great, whose myth (which kept cropping
up throughout the maritime Silk Roads expedition) here makes a
surprising appearance. Other texts describe, with greater
credibility, how Shiites sought refuge in Korea during the Umayyad
period. Many objects discovered in Korea tombs were certainly
brought to Korea by Muslim traders.
The Physical type and dress of two of the statues we saw guarding
the tumulus of King Kwaenung at Kyongju suggest that Persian
mercenaries may have served the Silla court.
Kyongju, a city which attracted many foreigners, enjoyed great
prosperity. The court was reputed for its luxurious way of life, and
especially for its finery. The clothes people wore were determined
by their rank, and the common people were forbidden to wear silk
clothes or gold and silver jewelry. "The houses of the leading
ministers possessed boundless resources", says the Chinese
chronicle. "Some of them had as many as 3,000 slaves." A Korean
historical document, the Samguk yusa (1285; "Memorabilia of the
Three kingdoms"), says of Kyongju that "There is not a single
cottage. The houses touch, wall follows wall. Singing and music fill
the streets without ceasing day and night."
The Buddhist ferment
Two of the three Koreans on the Fulk al-Salamah were musicologists,
and the spotlight was on music during our visit to Korea. On board
ship they accompanied their demonstrations, one instrumentally, the
other with a fine baritone voice, and ashore took care that the
pieces we heard were authentic. They revealed to us a little-known
musical culture, showing the extent to which it influenced court
music in Japan and describing its origins in China, central Asia,
and in Buddhist songs. Music gradually came to symbolize for us the
cultural flowering of the Silla kingdom.
Buddhism, one of the major sources of Korean music, was brought to
Korea largely by Chinese monks. But soon Korean monks in their turn
were setting out along the Silk Roads to study the Buddhist canon.
One of them, Hye-cho, who travelled as far as India at the beginning
of the eight century, wrote a "Diary of a journey to the five
countries of India" a fragment of which was discovered in 1908 in
the famous grottos of Dun-Huang in western China. Writing in
Chinese, the Korean monk described various stages of his initiatory
journey, and gave details of the different Buddhist sects and their
monasteries, the regions through which he had travelled and the
customs of the people who lived there.
The journey, which was to take him to Kashmir and a number of
central Asian countries, provided him with opportunities to engage
in historical and political reglection, and to observe Arab
incursions into India. Like the great Chinese pilgrims who preceded
him, Hye-cho was a witness of the great movement of intercultural
contact generated by Buddhism.
This movement is also reflected in the flowering of Buddhist
architecture and sculpture, strongly influenced by T'ang China, and
by more distant India. The Korean chronicle even reports the Indian
emperor Asoka, a major figure in the spread of Buddhism, as having
sent a model of the image of the Buddha directly to Korea and
describes the installation of a reproduction of it in the temple of
Hwangyong-sa. But the influence of Buddhist art in Korea was
exercised on a culture profoundly influenced by shamanism and the
art of the steppes.
Our visit to Korea brought us into contact with another silk route,
part of which would be explored by an expedition through the Islamic
republics of the USSR between 18 April and 18 June. During a seminar
in Pusan Korean specialists described to us Korean weapons similar
to weapons discovered in Kazakhstan and Turkestan, a Korean animal
art close to that of the Scythians, and the presence of Uighurs in
This affinity with central Asia is nowhere more evident than in the
many royal burial mounds at Kyongju. The wall paintings and jewelry
such as the famous Silla gold crown with Shamanistic symbols, as
well as the weapons found there, testify to a heritage that China
would not supplant.
The Shoso-in treasures
The ocean routes extend much further, and lead firstly towards
Hakata, on the island of Kyushu, Japan. It was via this port, at
once an administrative, military and trading centre, that relations
with China and Korea were established at a very early period. Our
first visit was to the remains of the Korokan, an important
guest-house where ambassadors from Silla and China were lodged
between the seventh and the eleventh centuries. Diplomatic,
commercial and cultural missions set out from Hakata, and in the
eight century, the imperial court sent monks and students to
Chan'an, present-day Xian, in China. there is evidence that
relations with China existed as early as the first century of the
The maritime expedition ended at another symbolic place, the
Shoso-in repository of imperial treasures at Nara, which was built
after the death of emperor Shomu in 756 and is often referred to as
the eastern terminus of the silk roads. Most of the treasures were
gifts made to the Todaiji, the temple of the imperial family, in
whole precints the Shoso-in stands, and objects relating to an
important moment in the history of Buddhism in Japan, the
consecration of a giant statue known as the Daibutsu, or Great
Buddha. The immense log building was thus a storehouse of art which
reached Japan from China along the Silk Roads.
For thirteen centuries the Shoso-in has preserved these treasures in
a state comparable to that which modern technology could be expected
to achieve. The building is only open to the public once a year, and
even then only a small part of it can be visited. It is a mysterious
and, for scientists who would like to understand its secrets, a
somewhat frustrating place. Sholars who have studied the collections
have identified many works produced by T'and craftsmen with
materials brought to China from across the sea: ivory and rhinoceros
horn from India, tropical timber, pearls and tortoiseshell, wood
from Indochina, metal artefacts from Persia and Sogdiana.
The objects in the emperor Shomu's collection had a considerable
impact on Japanese society, introducing a new taste for foreign arts
and thus contributing to the opening of Japan to the outside world.
The treasures of Shosu-in possess a sumbolism which is perhaps even
more powerful than their outstanding aesthetic qualities. They
remind us that the silk roads were not only a conduit for trade in
everyday commodities, and that the travellers who for centuries
braved great risks as they wended their way in caravans across
steppe and desert of plied the oceans in their fragile craft were
also serving an inexhaustible appetite for beauty.