Cover of "Solitary Sage" by David Mason, which covers the life and legacy of ninth-century scholar Choi Chi-won
By Jon Dunbar
Thousands of books have been written on him in Korean, hundreds in Chinese. But until David Mason came along, there were no English-language books on Choi Chi-won, Korea's famous "Solitary Sage."
Mason, an American professor at Chung-Ang University, recently published "Solitary Sage: The Profound Life, Wisdom and Legacy of Korea's Go-un Choi Chi-won," his tenth book.
Choi, a legendary scholar, poet and civil servant, was born in 857 at the end of the Silla Dynasty (57 BC - 935 AD), a figure of recorded history as well as myth and legend. He is an influential figure in Korean Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism. His descendants, the Gyeongju Choi clan, number 2.1 million today, the fourth-largest family in Korea. He was also known by his penname, Go-un, or "lonely cloud," after a youth spent in China led to a lifetime of alienation.
"Back in my early years (in Korea) I really identified with Choi Chi-won when reading his poetry," Mason said in an interview with The Korea Times.
Mason, who's lived in Korea 33 years, first heard folk tales about Choi while living in Gyeongju in the mid-'80s, but took a serious interest in January 1987 after discovering a monument to the man at Sanggye Temple.
"I've been collecting information about him since January 1987," said Mason.
"If you ask any Korean person at least above nine years old, they know his name," he said during a lecture for the Royal Asiatic Society on April 26. "He's in the school textbooks. He's been widely known and very much scholarship has been done on him for centuries. Folktales are told about him and he's very famous in the Korean context. And yet nobody had ever written a book about him in English."
Mason identified Choi as a key influence on Korea's education obsession; Choi's father sent him to China to study at age 12, threatening to disown him if he couldn't pass the civil service exam in 10 years. It took him six.
To this day, China has three shrines to him. "Chinese people line up and bow to him," said Mason. "Koreans aren't even aware that the Chinese have such regard for him."
He added that when President Park Geun-hye paid her first state visit to President Xi Jinping of China, he welcomed her with a quote from Choi.
But after finally returning home, Choi was no longer accepted by his countrymen, who treated him as an outsider, according to Mason. Working as a civil servant, he saw the corruption in the capital of Gyeongju, and wrote how to save the kingdom from collapse but after being ignored, he wandered off into the mountains.
"This is the last we hear about him in official records. The rest is legend," said Mason.
According to those legends, Choi became a Daoist sage, wandering Korea's countryside for 30 more years.
"This is unconfirmed," said Mason. "Choi's writings that survive never mention he was a convert or a student or a master, any such claim."
Those running spiritual and tourist sites across the country claim he visited them. Across the southern part of the peninsula are almost 100 places believed to have been visited by this solitary sage, 73 of which are now sacred sites.
Mason estimated Choi died around 935, the year Silla expired and the next dynasty, Goryeo, was founded. According to legend, he climbed a mountain and became a "spirit immortal."
Mason admitted in the interview that he doesn't believe all the legends. "I study the religions of the world but I don't really believe in supernatural events," he said. I believe in science and reality. I think a lot of those stories are symbolic."
That symbolism was powerful, though, and future kings cashed in on his influence to legitimize their rule. In 1023, Goryeo's King Hyeonjong declared Choi one of Korea's greatest figures, a date whose millennial anniversary Mason pointed out is only seven years away.
Visit Mason's website san-shin.org to learn about Choi.