Reflections of a much forgotten kingdom on an autumn afternoon
In his masterpiece of travel literature The Road to Oxiana, Robert Byron describes the history of Cyprus as ‘…almost too profuse. It gives one a sort of mental indigestion’. Byron then proceeds to give a short but dizzying account of the island’s history tracing its inhabitants, largely out of chronological order, through their relationships to each other and shared heritage on the island. Medieval Britons, Catholic warrior monks, Galilean Apostles, Egyptians, Turks, Venetians, and Greeks, British colonials, all came to Cyprus. For better and for worse, their histories are closely intertwined – both intimately and inimically, as usually is the case of people.
Byron could have wrote a similar account of China’s Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, a region which has has been home to a diversity of different peoples and cultures throughout the centuries. In no particular order: the Jurchens, medieval Koreans, Manchus, Khitans, Japanese, and Chinese and Korean migrants all settled in the area, sometimes concurrently, each leaving their own traces behind. As a result, like Cyprus today, the area’s histories (and interpretation of these) can be controversial to the point of Byron’s ‘mental indigestion’.
At the centre of some of these controversies is the old kingdom of Palhae (698-928 AD) also know as Bohai, Pohai, or Parhae, depending on what language and what Romanisation system you prefer. The general story goes that the former aristocracy of the Koguryo Kingdom, once located in the northern Korean peninsula and destroyed by an alliance of Tang Dynasty China and the southern Korean kingdom of Silla in 668 AD, went into exile to the northeast (always the direction of exile) in the lands beyond the Yalu and Tumen rivers. There they established Palhae in what is today Yanbian. The new kingdom of Palhae, its ruling culture from the Korean peninsula, came to govern and live closely a range of semi-nomadic tribes who had previously lived at the frontiers of the Koguryo Kingdom. It is the conflicting modern interpretations of this history that would give Byron’s brain heartburn.
Scholars in North Korea emphasize the role of Palhae has a ‘successor state’ to Koguryo and thus continuation of political power in northern Korea. At the Koryo Museum in Kaesong, dedicated to the Koryo Dynasty (918-1392 AD), there is a small picture depicting the refugees from Palhae, their own kingdom destroyed by the Khitan in 926 AD, finding refuge in Koryo Korea. In China scholars emphasize that the kingdom of Palhae fell under the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) sphere of influence as well its multi-cultural aspects, a rough parallel to China’s diversity (of today). Which is true? Well, both really, although in this day and age such nuance is easily lost.
I encountered this first hand searching for a group of ancient Palhae tombs located near the city of Dunhua, one and a half hours northwest of Yanji by car. My Chinese-Muslim (Huizu) driver was curious why someone would want to visit Dunhua and, rather simply, I had said I wanted to visit some old Korean tombs there since he already knew I work in Korea. The driver, unfamiliar with the location and called various relatives in the area asking about Korean tombs. None had heard of any Korean tombs (there was, however, a Korean wall to the south). Finally when we reached the area, the driver exclaimed, ‘Oh you are searching for Bohai tombs!’. The implication was that these tombs were not Korean. In typical Chinese fashion, perhaps reflecting the country’s inherent diversity, the driver did not dwell on the point as we imminently arrived at our destination of Mount Liuding.
On the mountain today a giant Buddha faces south perpendicular to a long, branching valley. The Buddha is one of the largest in the world, but a recent creation built in 1993, so perhaps not of much historic interest. Yet its presence points to the importance of the area to generations of different peoples. Thousands of Chinese Buddhists flock to Liuding Mountain each year, and n the same valley is an ancestral shrine of the Manchu Qing Dynasty.
The place must have meant something too to the people of Palhae for there are over 100 tombs concentrated here dating back to the 8th century. Refugees of the fallen Koguryo Kingdom, the founders of Palhae came to the region of Dunhua in 698 AD where they made their first capital. ‘Can one move an empire as if it were a horse?’ asks author Ismail Kadare of a land and empire separated in time and space. The Palhae’s Koguryo ancestors had made a similar trek two and a half centuries before when the capital of Ji’an was abandoned and a new capital established at Pyongyang.
All three locations – Ji’an, Pyongyang, and Dunhua – share some geographic similarities: a river flowing through agricultural lowlands leading into valley hemmed in by steep hills. On the hills they built fortresses, in the valley’s palaces, and the lowlands their cities. Nearby they built complexes of elaborate tombs for their dead. Perhaps when the Palhae lords reached Dunhua they imagined a new Pyongyang. Perhaps Liuding Mountain was to be, to borrow a later term, their ‘shinning city upon a hill’ – a new start in more rugged and unfamiliar land.
This group of Palhae tombs (there are many more in the region) is located on a small hillock in a valley beneath Liuding Mountain. These rounded mounds of soil and stone are today weathered and covered in grass. Only the largest still show masonry foundations. The smaller ones just appear as gentle undulations in the ground. The tombs are much smaller than their Koguryo predecessors, perhaps reflecting a society conscious of its recent losses at the hands of its neighbors or almost represent a transition to the more modest tombs of the subsequent Koryo. Some Palhae tombs in the region have (or had) elaborate murals like those found in Koguryo as well as neighboring Khitan and Tang tombs. Although living at the frontiers of their former kingdom, the culture flourished and left behind a significant historic and cultural legacy, holding onto their past and heritage and developing it in new ways.
Despite making it to the 21st century, the culture associated with these tombs remains relatively unknown even in the region itself and is more often caught up in political narratives than appreciated in their own right. Walking through this old graveyard of a largely forgotten kingdom on a later autumn afternoon one can’t help but think of what might remain of our own civilization more than a thousand years from today. Might our most intimate objects and places, passed down through the ages, end up as fodder in the disputes of a future era?
The town, the churchyard, and the setting sun,
The clouds, the trees, the rounded hills all seem,
Though beautiful, cold- strange- as in a dream
I dreamed long ago, now new begun.
The short-liv'd, paly summer is but won
From winter's ague for one hour's gleam;
Through sapphire warm their stars do never beam:
All is cold Beauty; pain is never done.
For who has mind to relish, Minos-wise,
The real of Beauty, free from that dead hue
Sickly imagination and sick pride
Cast wan upon it? Burns! with honour due
I oft have honour'd thee. Great shadow, hide
Thy face; I sin against thy native skies.
- 'On visiting the Tomb of Burns' by John Keats