Posted : 2013-07-26 16:50
Updated : 2013-07-26 16:50

Goguryeo open to different cultures

Diverse forms of dancing are depicted in Goguryeo mural paintings. The most characteristic scene of Goguryeo dance is found at Dance Tomb (fifth century A.D.) in Jian, Jilin Province of China.
/ Courtesy of Academy of Korean Studies

By Woo Jung-youn

Professor Woo Jung-youn of International Korean Studies at the Academy of Korean Studies
Wearing a hat decorated with golden ornaments,
A white horse is slowly circling.
As it flutters its wide sleeves,
It now looks like a bird from the east.

The above is the poem "Goguryeo" written by Chinese poet Li Po (702~762 AD) after watching a Goguryeo dance performance in the Tang dynasty. This dance genre, called Goryeo Dance, constituted an important part of music and dance genres performed at a royal banquet in the Sui and Tang dynasties. It was named so because Goguryeo was also called Goryeo in contemporary societies.

Written and material evidence suggest that Goguryeo music and dance developed in close relation to Chinese and Xiyu music and dance. In particular, it is Goguryeo mural paintings that provide us with detailed information of Goguryeo culture. While diverse forms of dancing are depicted in Goguryeo mural paintings, the most characteristic scene of Goguryeo dance is found at Dance Tomb (5th century AD) in Jian, Jilin Province of China.

On the lower left corner of the photo, a noble man on a horse is watching a group of dancers dancing. We can see that the dancers wearing long sleeves are dancing in a similar way to the dancer described in Li Po's poem. Another group of people on the lower right of the photo appears to be singers.

Here, it is important to note that the Goguryeo people were not only willing to learn advanced cultures but also able to reinvent them for their own purposes. This is why Goryeo dance was acknowledged and performed as an independent dance genre at a royal banquet in the Sui and Tang dynasties. The openness of Goguryeo people to different cultures and their ability to learn and reinvent advanced cultures is also well illustrated by the creation of a Korean six-stringed lute ("geomungo") based upon a seven-stringed lute from Eastern Chin.

Moreover, Goguryeo music played a significant role in the development of Baekje, Silla, and Japanese music. In the eighth century, Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla music were called, as a whole, Goryeo Music. It constituted a central part of ancient Japanese music, together with Tang music. Aside from Goguryeo music and dance, Goguryeo culture in general had a great influence on Baekje, Silla, and Japanese cultures, in such diverse areas as architectural structures, grave types, paintings, sculptures, crafts, and plays. One well-known case of this is the mural painting at the main hall of Horyu Temple which is believed to have been created by Goguryeo painter and Buddhist monk Damjing (579~631 A.D.) in the seventh century. He is also famous for teaching Japanese people how to make paper, ink sticks, and colored paints.

Goguryeo in its heyday had a territory over the northern and central parts of the Korean Peninsula, Manchuria, and southern reaches of Russia. This means that Goguryeo was located adjacent to the territories of diverse ethnic groups, including Chinese people to its west and nomadic people to its northwest. As much as this geopolitical location of Goguryeo served as a major challenge against its sociopolitical growth, it provided Goguryeo people with an opportunity to experience diverse cultures.

While Goguryeo as a militarily well-organized and powerful country has already been acknowledged, the crucial part Goguryeo culture played in the formation of international cultures in ancient Northeast Asia has not been highlighted enough. In order to enhance our competitiveness in this globalized world, we can learn from Goguryeo people their openness to different cultures, willingness to learn advanced cultures, and effort to use their creativity to reinvent imported cultures in unique ways.

The writer is a professor of International Korean Studies at the Academy of Korean Studies.

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