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Preserving the Legacy of the Goguryeo People

‘Goguryeo: In Search of its Culture and History’
Im Ki-hwan
Professor, Seoul National University of Education.
Goguryeo is not just the history of an ancient kingdom of 1,500 years ago. To Koreans, it is a source of national and cultural pride. Accordingly, there have been mounting calls for people to focus their attention on the importance of properly preserving the history of Goguryeo. Documentary materials on Goguryeo, however, are not readily available due to the passage of numerous centuries. Under these circumstances, Goguryeo tomb murals, which have remained hidden underground and only recently are being discovered, vividly depict the everyday life of the Goguryeo people, like a pictorial record. This is particularly fortuitous for present-day Koreans who seek to keep alive the legacy of Goguryeo.

Viewing a Goguryeo tomb mural is a truly wonderful experience. A majority of historical materials are in written form, such as mundane journals and texts. Therefore, it is truly memorable and exciting to observe the past, of more than 1,000 years ago, through vividly portrayed scenes of people going about their daily activities in brilliant and subdued colors, like the pictures of a photo album. Beyond their value as historical records, Goguryeo tomb murals are also noteworthy as works of art, which provide a glimpse into the richness of this ancient people’s cultural achievements. The real-life scenes of Goguryeo society depict customs that would be familiar to Koreans today.
However, an in-depth interpretation of the Goguryeo tomb murals is only possible through the application of scholarly expertise. A number of the recently uncovered tombs with mural works have yet to be carefully researched and documented. The time-consuming efforts to bring the history of Gogoryeo to life can be attributed, in large part, to Professor Jeon Ho-tae, who has dedicated himself to the research of Goguryeo tomb murals for more than two decades. Therefore, his recently published book on the ancient Goguryeo Kingdom is the direct result of his meticulous observation of the details portrayed in the tomb murals, along with the systematic documentation of his various findings.

Entitled “Goguryeo: In Search of its Culture and History,” Jeon’s publication includes two parts. In the first section, Jeon provides detailed descriptions of the Goguryeo people’s everyday life, spiritual world, and various cultural aspects, on 17 subjects. As for daily life, the book covers various aspects of Goguryeo society, including clothing, food, housing, performing arts, dancing and singing, and hunting. It unveils the spiritual world of the Goguryeo people through their myths, the celestial world, constellations, Buddhist thought, and various other matters. The cultural artifacts left by the people of Goguryeo include the tombs and mural works, as well as the remains of fortresses.
Of particular note, there are comprehensive explanations of the mural works found in more than 90 Goguryeo tombs, by various themes. The foremost value of this book is the author’s vivid accounts of the Gogoryeo people through his interpretations of the scenes depicted in the murals. His longtime dedication to the study of Goguryeo tomb murals is clearly evident from his ability to bring to life the rich legacy of the Goguryeo people, even after all these centuries, despite a lack of historical documents.
The second part includes informative summaries of Goguryeo’s historical highlights, such as its foundation, development, and ultimate collapse. Details of Goguryeo’s 700-year existence are difficult to verify due to the limited historical records still available. While the first part presents a panoramic overview of Goguryeo culture, the second focuses on matters related to its historical and political development, thereby presenting a well-rounded portrayal of this ancient kingdom.
Above all, Jeon’s scholarly expertise is revealed in his attention to the details of the tomb murals. When viewing the images of tomb murals in a photo catalogue, minute details cannot be clearly discerned. However, Jeon’s careful observation of the actual murals enables him to provide insightful accounts based on minor details and his personal interpretations.
Recently, the Goguryeo tomb areas have benefited from added protection, so that systematic research can be undertaken for any new discoveries. Thanks to the “Goguryeo: In Search of its Culture and History” publication of Professor Jeon Ho-tae,continued research efforts can build on his foundation, and further preserve the history of Goguryeo.

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