The kingdom of Silla and the treasures of Nara

(ancient Korea kingdom; Buddhist temple in Nara, Japan)

by  Francois-Bernard Hyghe

UNESCO Courier


July 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 
            easternmost extremity. 
            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 
            Christian era. 
            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.