The Ancient Complex of Koguryo Tombs in North Korea
The Complex of Koguryo Tombs is a spectacular ancient site, which became the first UNESCO World Heritage Site to be listed in North Korea when it was inscribed in July 2004. The complex consists of several group and individual tombs, dating to the later period of the Koguryo Kingdom, and are the most well-known cultural heritage remains of the Kingdom. Many of the Koguryo (Gorguyeo) tombs contain beautiful wall paintings, which offer us a glimpse into the lives of the people living in the ancient Koguryo Kingdom
The Koguryo Kingdom was one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, and existed between the 3rd century B.C. and the 7th century A.D. At its height of power in the 5th century A.D., its territory included northeast China and the northern half of the Korean peninsula. The Koguryo Tombs are located in the cities of Pyongyang and Nampho.
The tombs are built of stone and covered by earthen mounds or more stone. Many of the Koguryo tombs in the World Heritage Site contain beautiful wall paintings, most of which are produced with Chinese ink and pigments painted onto the plastered interior walls of the burial chambers. The paintings cover a wide range of subjects, which include portraits of the tomb owner, activities of everyday life, mythical beings and supernatural creatures, as well as decorative designs, such as the lotus flower. Thus, these images allow some understanding of this people’s daily life, aesthetic appreciation, and even religious beliefs.
Engraving of Hyonmu (tortoise and snake), one of the four gods. Image source.
Koguryo Tomb murals. Photo source.
The portraits of the tomb owners bring to life the faces of many of the ancient inhabitants of the Koguryo Kingdom. For instance, in the Anak Tomb No. 3, there is a portrait of its owner, Dong Shou, who was the last ruler of the Daifang Commandery of Han China. In the painting, Dong Shou is depicted as wearing Chinese costume and sitting upon a throne of state under a canopy, where he attends to the reports of his subordinate officials. Despite the presence of Dong Shou’s name, biography, and dates, there are alternative theories regarding the actual owner of the tomb, which are still being argued even today.
Figure: Portrait of Dong Shou. Source.
It has generally been agreed that the Koguryo Kingdom was proto-Korean in nature. In 2002, however, this view was re-evaluated when the Chinese Academy of Social Science, which is a government-backed think tank, established the ‘Northeast Project’, whose goal was to recast the pre-modern histories of Manchuria and Korea. The project came to a conclusion that the Koguryo was not an autonomous political entity, but a vassal of China. It is no wonder that the Project has been accused of distorting Koguryo history, as it is an attack right at the core of Korean identity. China’s attempt to claim the Koguryo Kingdom as its own, however, is far from over. A Koguryo stele, or memorial stone, unearthed last year, is being investigated by a closed team of Chinese scholars. Unsurprisingly, South Korea has claimed that this is another attempt by China to incorporate the kingdom into its own history.
I suppose the past is never really dead, and is often resurrected to serve the present. Staking a claim on the past is not restricted to the realm of academia, but has real, tangible effects on a region’s political stage, as demonstrated by the case of the Koguryo Tombs. To some extent then, history is as dangerous a force as politics, and has the power to stir up trouble.
Featured image: Koguryo Tombs. Photo source.
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