Posted : 2013-05-03 17:15
Updated : 2013-05-03 17:15

Tracing ancient roots of hallyu

Above is a scene from television epic drama "The Great King's Dream," which portrays Silla's "hwarang" (flower knights). / Courtesy of KBS

'Hwarang' linked traditions with imported culture

Pankaj Mohan is the dean of the faculty of International Korean Studies at the Academy of Korean Studies.
/ Courtesy of Academy of Korean Studies
By Pankaj Mohan

"Hallyuwood," along with Hollywood and Bollywood, constitute the three major pillars of the contemporary world entertainment industry. Hallyu (the Korean Wave), a generic term for television dramas, Korean cinema and K-pop and their representative icons such as Girls' Generation and Psy, has reached even the remotest parts of the world and refashioned the image of Korea as a land of innate cultural dynamism and innovative art-forms.

The Western world noticed Korean culture only in the late 20th century and it was barely a decade ago that Korean culture was able to achieve global reach. Chinese awareness of the inherent cultural strength and resilience of the people on the Korean Peninsula may, however, be traced to the times of Confucius in the 6th century BCE. It is also remarkable that close and constant interface with China enabled early Korean states to achieve such cultural robustness in the early Christian centuries that they became the conduit through which new knowledge was transmitted to the Japanese archipelago.

Confucius, apparently unhappy at the failure of the Chinese rulers of his times to patronize his ideas, expressed a desire to live in peace among the residents of the Korean Peninsula, whom he called "gentlemen." This understanding about Korea got consolidated when historian Ban Gu (32-92 CE) wrote that foreigners to the east of China were inherently soft and resilient in character.

The desire of Confucius to cross over to the Korean Peninsula played a significant role in shaping the subsequent Chinese perception of the Korean people as "gentlemen," open to China's civilizing influence. In the fifth century, a famous Confucian scholar and historian Fan Ye argued that the ancient Korean states were known for their vibrant, humane, tender and (culturally) resilient character.

A famous Chinese historian and philosopher, Yan Shigu (581-645), wrote that Confucius wished to dwell amongst Eastern barbarians, because civilization of the benevolent ancient sages flourished in that land and he could practice the Way there.

Accounts of the ancient Korean states, recorded in numerous Chinese historical texts, are consistently effusive. In the early seventh century the great Tang Dynasty, which achieved renown as the most cosmopolitan and culturally advanced state in the contemporary world, respected the Korean state of Silla as a "Homeland of Gentlemen," and "the most civilized state."

Tang accorded Silla the highest place in diplomatic protocol and accordingly the visiting Silla envoys were given priority over their Japanese counterparts in the order of Imperial audience. Silla was able to achieve this status by skillfully weaving advanced continental civilization within its cultural fabric and forging a coherent and cohesive culture through fusion of imported ideas and innate traditions. This interface is most remarkably evident in the Order of Hwarang (Flower Knights).

Silla literary figure Choe Chi-won (857-?), who possessed extensive cultural experience of Tang China, described Hwarang, the order of aristocratic youth of Silla, as "pungnyu," a symbol of the wave of elegance. Choe defined the term pungnyu as a wonderful and mysterious way of the country and an amalgam of the three teachings, Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism. In the Japanese context the term pungnyu (pronounced as furyu) connoted the ideas and ideals of refinement or elegance. Choe believed the members of the Hwarang order symbolized cosmopolitan cultural values and their sensibility was nourished at the intersection of native traditions and imported cultural and religious thoughts from China.

Cultural finesse of the Hwarang members is also evident in the employment of the words "hwa", meaning flower and the suffix "rang/lang," which in early and medieval China was used as a term for gentlemen/court attendants.

Literary evidence and epigraphy also suggest that the members of Hwarang were regarded by their contemporaries as incarnations of Maitreya, the Future Buddha. A 13th-century text, the "Samguk Yusa," records that a Silla monk named Chinja spent his days worshipping the image of Maitreya, praying that if Maitreya was reborn as one of the Hwarang youth, he would serve him.

It is also interesting to note that the group of Hwarang under the leadership of Kim Yusin, the formidable general of the Silla army whose strategy led to Silla's success in the war of peninsular conquest in 668, was called the "Yonghwa hyangdo," the Society of the dragon flower tree, an obvious reference to the belief that Maitreya will preach under the dragon flower tree. Hwarang youth were given training in shamanistic singing and dancing, and they distinguished themselves in various walks of life, including politics, religion and culture.

Silla overcame the constraints of its geographical location on the east coast which had rendered it a cultural backwater by energetically importing advanced continental civilization to meet its political and cultural requirements. Hwarang represented an order of youth bound by common shamanistic practices, involving song and dance, and nurtured on sophisticated Chinese ideas and ideals. Contemporary hallyu groups have also established a wonderful equilibrium between foreign and indigenous art forms, expressions and traditions.

The writer is dean of faculty of international Korean Studies at the Academy of Korean Studies.

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