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Choe Chiwon

Choe Chiwon

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Choe Chiwon was a noted Korea
Korea
Korea ) is an East Asian geographic region that is currently divided into two separate sovereign states — North Korea and South Korea. Located on the Korean Peninsula, Korea is bordered by the People's Republic of China to the northwest, Russia to the northeast, and is separated from Japan to the...

n Confucian
Korean Confucianism
Korean Confucianism is the form of Confucianism developed in Korea. One of the most substantial influences in Korean intellectual history was the introduction of Confucian thought as part of the cultural influence from China...

 official, philosopher, and poet of the late Unified Silla
Unified Silla
Unified Silla or Later Silla is the name often applied to the Korean kingdom of Silla, one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, when it conquered Baekje in 660 and Goguryeo in 668, unifying the southern portion of the Korean peninsula...

 period (668-935). He studied for many years in Tang China
Tang Dynasty
The Tang Dynasty was an imperial dynasty of China preceded by the Sui Dynasty and followed by the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period. It was founded by the Li family, who seized power during the decline and collapse of the Sui Empire...

, passed the Tang imperial examination
Imperial examination
The Imperial examination was an examination system in Imperial China designed to select the best administrative officials for the state's bureaucracy. This system had a huge influence on both society and culture in Imperial China and was directly responsible for the creation of a class of...

, and rose to high office there before returning to Silla, where he made ultimately futile attempts to reform the governmental apparatus of a declining Silla state. In his final years he turned more towards Buddhism
Buddhism
Buddhism is a religion and philosophy encompassing a variety of traditions, beliefs and practices, largely based on teachings attributed to Siddhartha Gautama, commonly known as the Buddha . The Buddha lived and taught in the northeastern Indian subcontinent some time between the 6th and 4th...

 and became a hermit scholar residing in and around Korea's Haeinsa
Haeinsa
Haeinsa is a head temple of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism in the Gaya Mountains , South Gyeongsang Province South Korea...

 temple.

Choe Chiwon was also known by the literary names of "Haeun" ("Sea Cloud"), or more commonly, "Goun" ("Lonely Cloud"). He is recognized today as the progenitor of the Gyeongju
Gyeongju
Gyeongju is a coastal city in the far southeastern corner of North Gyeongsang province in South Korea. It is the second largest city by area in the province after Andong, covering with a population of 269,343 people according to the 2008 census. Gyeongju is southeast of Seoul, and east of the...

 Choe clan.

Early life and study in Tang


Choe Chiwon was born in the Saryang district of the Silla capital of Gyeongju
Gyeongju
Gyeongju is a coastal city in the far southeastern corner of North Gyeongsang province in South Korea. It is the second largest city by area in the province after Andong, covering with a population of 269,343 people according to the 2008 census. Gyeongju is southeast of Seoul, and east of the...

 in 857. He was of the so-called "head rank six" (yukdupum 六頭品) class, a hereditary class in Silla's stringent bone rank system
Bone rank system
The bone rank system was the system of aristocratic rank used in the ancient Korean kingdom of Silla. It was used to segregate society, and particularly the layers of the aristocracy, on the basis of their hereditary proximity to the throne and the level of authority they were permitted to wield...

 affixed to those of mixed aristocratic/commoner birth. As a member of head rank six, Choe was restricted in the level of office he could attain. Towards the end of Silla many in the head rank six ranks began to seek opportunities of advancement beyond the traditional confines of the Silla social-political order. One outlet was to become a Buddhist monk. Another was to take up the study of Confucianism. China's Confucian bureaucracy had been adopted to a limited degree by Silla following its unification of the peninsula in 668. Confucianism was well suited to the administration of territory and the butressing of central authority (that is, royal absolutism). The adoption of Confucian administrative norms and Silla's closer ties with Tang China demanded a highly educated corps of scholar-officials. To meet this need the Silla monarchy turned to the frustrated talents of the head rank six class. Royal support of the head rank six also gave the monarch more leverage against an increasingly hostile aristocracy.

In the early years following unification head rank six students matriculated at Silla's own "National Confucian Academy
Gukhak
The Gukhak, was the sole recorded institution of higher learning in the Silla period of medieval Korean history. It provided training in the Chinese classics. An earier institution, the Taehak, had been founded in 372....

," established in the late 7th century. By the 9th century, however, ambitious Silla students aspired to seek their education at the very source, in the Tang capital of Chang'an
Chang'an
Chang'an is an ancient capital of more than ten dynasties in Chinese history, today known as Xi'an. Chang'an literally means "Perpetual Peace" in Classical Chinese. During the short-lived Xin Dynasty, the city was renamed "Constant Peace" ; yet after its fall in AD 23, the old name was restored...

 (present day Xi'an
Xi'an
Xi'an is the capital of the Shaanxi province, and a sub-provincial city in the People's Republic of China. One of the oldest cities in China, with more than 3,100 years of history, the city was known as Chang'an before the Ming Dynasty...

). It was in the course of the 9th century that the Choe clan of Gyeongju nurtured close ties with the Silla monarchy, and as a result many of the Choe clan were sent to matriculate in China with the ultimate goal of passing the Chinese civil service exam and returning to serve the Silla court.

According to the 12th century Korean history the Samguk Sagi
Samguk Sagi
Samguk Sagi is a historical record of the Three Kingdoms of Korea: Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla. The Samguk Sagi is written in Classical Chinese and its compilation was ordered by Goryeo's King Injong Samguk Sagi (History of the Three Kingdoms) is a historical record of the Three Kingdoms of...

, when Choe was twelve years of age, in 869, his father sent him to study in Tang, seeing him off with the admonition that if he did not pass the Chinese imperial examination
Imperial examination
The Imperial examination was an examination system in Imperial China designed to select the best administrative officials for the state's bureaucracy. This system had a huge influence on both society and culture in Imperial China and was directly responsible for the creation of a class of...

 within ten years he would cease to be his son. Within the decade Choe did indeed pass the highest of China's civil service exams, the coveted jinshi (進士) degree, and was duly appointed to a prefectural office in the south. Choe went on to serve in China for nearly a decade, even becoming intimate with Emperor Xizong of Tang China (r. 873-888). Choe also won merits for his service under the Tang general Gao Ping in his struggle against the Huang Chao
Huang Chao
Huang Chao was the leader of the Huang Chao Rebellion , known in mainland China as the Huang Chao Revolution in China that seriously weakened the once mighty Tang Dynasty of China...

 rebellion, a failed uprising which nonetheless ushered in the final years of the crippled Chinese dynasty. With the rebellion put down and peace at least temporarily restored Choe's thoughts turned towards home. One surviving poem, written earlier while Choe was heading to his first official post in China ("ten years of dust" being his ten years spent in preparing for the exam), gave vent to his emotions regarding the native land and family he had not seen in a decade:
The Samguk Sagi
Samguk Sagi
Samguk Sagi is a historical record of the Three Kingdoms of Korea: Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla. The Samguk Sagi is written in Classical Chinese and its compilation was ordered by Goryeo's King Injong Samguk Sagi (History of the Three Kingdoms) is a historical record of the Three Kingdoms of...

again tells us that Choe - the consummate Confucian - was thinking of his ageing parents when he requested permission from the Tang emperor to return to Silla. This he was duly granted and he returned home in 885. He was then 28.

Attempts at reform


Soon upon his return to Silla Choe was appointed an instructor and reader at Silla's Confucian Hallim Academy. He was shuffled through various positions, including Minister of War and chief of a variety of regional prefectures. Though in 893 he was appointed chief envoy of a diplomatic mission to Tang China, famine and subsequent upheavals in Silla prevented his journey. Tang fell soon afterward and Choe was never to see China again.

As member of the yukdupum class, Choe had returned to Silla with youthful hopes of reform. Choe was not the first of the yukdupum Confucian literati to attempt to foster reform on the Silla state, however his case is one of the most prominent to come down to us in recorded Korean history. In 894 Choe submitted to Silla's Queen Jinseong
Jinseong of Silla
Queen Jinseong of Silla was the fifty-first to ruler of the Korean kingdom, Silla. She was also Silla's third and final reigning queen . Her reign saw the end of Unified Silla and the beginning of the Later Three Kingdoms period.Jinseong was the daughter of King Gyeongmun...

 (r. 887-897) his "Ten Urgent Points of Reform" for the Silla (시무십여조, 時務十餘條). As with earlier attempts by Choe's predecessors, these were ultimately to fall upon deaf ears. By the time of Choe's return Silla was in an advanced state of collapse. The central monarchy had been greatly weakened by internecine struggle, with power devolving first into the hands of the bone rank aristocracy and then - more ominously for Silla's surivial - into the hands of regional warlords who controlled the countryside outside the capital region, and in some cases commanded their own private armies.

Retirement and later life


Few records remain of Choe's middle and late years. Around the year 900 Choe retired from public life and began a period of wandering through numerous Korean locales. As the Samguk Sagi
Samguk Sagi
Samguk Sagi is a historical record of the Three Kingdoms of Korea: Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla. The Samguk Sagi is written in Classical Chinese and its compilation was ordered by Goryeo's King Injong Samguk Sagi (History of the Three Kingdoms) is a historical record of the Three Kingdoms of...

 relates, "Living in retirement, [Choe] took up the free life of a mountain sage, building pavilions along rivers and shores, planting pines and bamboo, reading books and writing history, and composing odes to nature. He is known to have dwelled in such places as Namsan in Gyeongju
Gyeongju
Gyeongju is a coastal city in the far southeastern corner of North Gyeongsang province in South Korea. It is the second largest city by area in the province after Andong, covering with a population of 269,343 people according to the 2008 census. Gyeongju is southeast of Seoul, and east of the...

, Bingsan in Gangju, Cheongnyang Temple in Habju, Ssanggye Temple in Jirisan
Jirisan
Jirisan is a mountain in the southern region of South Korea. It is often considered one of the three most important mountains in South Korea , with Hallasan and Seoraksan being the other two....

, and a cottage in Habpohyeon." The Haeundae region of modern-day Busan
Busan
Busan , formerly spelled Pusan is South Korea's second largest metropolis after Seoul, with a population of around 3.6 million. The Metropolitan area population is 4,399,515 as of 2010. It is the largest port city in South Korea and the fifth largest port in the world...

 takes its name from one of Choe's pennames (Haeun) as he purportedly was enamored of the location and so built a pavilion there overlooking the beach. A piece of Choe's calligraphy engraved on a rock still survives there. Eventually Choe settled at Haeinsa Temple where his elder brother Hyeonjun (賢俊) served as abbot. His later years are most notable for his lengthy stele inscriptions, hagiographies to Silla's most noted Buddhist priests that have proved a primary source of information on Silla Buddhism.

One well known anecdote regarding Choe in these years regards a putative piece of verse he dispatched to Wang Geon, the founder of the Goryeo Dynasty. Apparently convinced by the greatness of Wang Geon, notably by the promulgation of his Ten Injunctions, Choe came to believe that Wang Geon had inherited the mandate of heaven
Mandate of Heaven
The Mandate of Heaven is a traditional Chinese philosophical concept concerning the legitimacy of rulers. It is similar to the European concept of the divine right of kings, in that both sought to legitimaze rule from divine approval; however, unlike the divine right of kings, the Mandate of...

 to succeed the declining Silla dynasty as the ruler of the peninsula. Reflecting this, he secretly sent off a prophetic verse reflecting his support of the new dynasty: “The leaves of the Cock Forest [Silla] are yellow, the pines of Snow Goose Pass [Goryeo] are green.” (계림황엽 곡령청송, 鷄林黃葉 鵠嶺靑松). Cock Forest (Gyerim) being an ancient sobriquet for Silla and Snow Goose Pass (Gongnyeong) being the ancestral home of Wang Geon, and by association the Goryeo Dynasty. However, this anecdote first appeared in the 12th century Samguk Sagi
Samguk Sagi
Samguk Sagi is a historical record of the Three Kingdoms of Korea: Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla. The Samguk Sagi is written in Classical Chinese and its compilation was ordered by Goryeo's King Injong Samguk Sagi (History of the Three Kingdoms) is a historical record of the Three Kingdoms of...

, long after Choe had died and some modern scholars concur that Choe, a native and ardent supporter of Silla, never penned it but that it was attributed to him by a young Goryeo dynasty to buttress its legitimacy and win over the support of young Silla scholars to its enterprise.

The date of Choe's death is unknown, though he was still living as late as 924, the date of one of his surviving stele engravings. One fantastic account relates that Choe's straw slippers were discovered at the edge of the forest on Mt. Gaya (Gayasan), the location of Haeinsa, and that Choe had become a Daoist immortal and ascended into the heavens. More grounded historical theories posit that he committed suicide, but this is ultimately conjecture.

Later views


Several streams emerged from Choe in the long centuries following his death. On the one hand, as Korea became increasingly Confucianized in the late Goryeo
Goryeo
The Goryeo Dynasty or Koryŏ was a Korean dynasty established in 918 by Emperor Taejo. Korea gets its name from this kingdom which came to be pronounced Korea. It united the Later Three Kingdoms in 936 and ruled most of the Korean peninsula until it was removed by the Joseon dynasty in 1392...

 and most especially the Joseon dynasty
Joseon Dynasty
Joseon , was a Korean state founded by Taejo Yi Seong-gye that lasted for approximately five centuries. It was founded in the aftermath of the overthrow of the Goryeo at what is today the city of Kaesong. Early on, Korea was retitled and the capital was relocated to modern-day Seoul...

 period, Choe became one of the most lauded members of Korea's pantheon of Confucianists, with pride of place in the nation's Confucian temple. King Hyeonjong
Hyeonjong of Goryeo
Hyeonjong of Goryeo was the 8th ruler of the Goryeo dynasty of Korea. He was a grandson of Emperor Taejo. He was appointed by the military leader Gang Jo, whom the previous Emperor Mokjong had called upon to destroy a plot by Kim Chi-yang.In 1010, The Khitan attacked again during an internal...

 (r. 1009-1031), recognizing Choe's Confucian accomplishments, granted him the posthumous title of Marquis of Bright Culture (문창후, 文昌侯). In the early 13th century his portrait was placed in the national Confucian shrine to become an object of veneration thence forward.

On the other hand, as time passed Choe also came to be revered as a poet, due in great part to the relatively large number of his poems that have survived, all written in Chinese. Around Choe also grew up a rich body of folklore, attributing to him fantastic deeds and supernatural powers.

In the late 19th century, as Korean intellectuals began to reexamine their intellectual and historical roots in the face of increasing national weakness and foreign encroachment, there arose a rising critique of Korea's historical deference to China.

The most articulate voice of such nationalist sentiment was the journalist, historian, and philosopher Shin Chaeho (1880–1936). Shin condemned Choe Chiwon as one of the most glaring examples of Korean intellectual subservience to China, a pattern of sequacious behavior on the part of Korea's intellectual class (according to Shin) that over the long run weakened Korea's national spirit and made it a slave to "Sadae
Sadae
Sadae is a Korean historical and philosophical term.It may also refer to:* Sadae , a governmental office of Taebong* Sadaejuui , a modern Korean polemical term...

" ("serving the great") thought.

Choe Chiwon is now claimed by the Gyeongju Choe clan as their founder. The location of his home in Gyeongju is now a small temple hall dedicated to his memory.

Writings


The relatively extensive extant writings of Choe stand as witness to his importance in late Silla society while also ensuring him a degree of importance among latter generations that has escaped his contemporaries, many of whom, like him, were gifted poets, learned officials, and diligent in their attempts at reform.

Besides his lost works like Jewang yeondaeryeok (Chronological History of Monarchs) and others, Choe's surviving writings may be divided roughly into four main categories: official prose (to include memorials, dispatches, etc. during his service both in Tang China and Silla); private prose (on such topics as tea drinking and natural scenery); poetry; and stele
Stele
A stele , also stela , is a stone or wooden slab, generally taller than it is wide, erected for funerals or commemorative purposes, most usually decorated with the names and titles of the deceased or living — inscribed, carved in relief , or painted onto the slab...

 inscriptions.

Shortly following Choe's return to Silla in 885 he compiled his various writings, both official and unofficial (to include some poetry) and presented it to King Heongang
Heongang of Silla
Heongang of Silla was the 49th to rule the Korean kingdom of Silla. According to the Samguk Sagi, he excelled at civil affairs. Heongang was the eldest son of King Gyeongmun; his mother was Queen Munui...

. The preface to that compilation survives allowing us to know its original contents. However, the entire collection is no longer extant. What does survive is one part entitled the Gyeweon Pilgyeong (계원필경, 桂苑筆耕, "Plowing the Cassia Grove with a Writing Brush"), which is ten volumes made up primarily of official letters and memorials composed while in the service of Tang. This work also includes some private prose.

A sizable collection of Choe's poetry, which was presumably originally included in the work presented to King Heongang cited above, has come down to us through other Korean sources, primarily the Dongmunseon, a Joseon Dynasty
Joseon Dynasty
Joseon , was a Korean state founded by Taejo Yi Seong-gye that lasted for approximately five centuries. It was founded in the aftermath of the overthrow of the Goryeo at what is today the city of Kaesong. Early on, Korea was retitled and the capital was relocated to modern-day Seoul...

 collection of Korean poetry. Some verses of his are also included in the 12th century Samguk Sagi
Samguk Sagi
Samguk Sagi is a historical record of the Three Kingdoms of Korea: Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla. The Samguk Sagi is written in Classical Chinese and its compilation was ordered by Goryeo's King Injong Samguk Sagi (History of the Three Kingdoms) is a historical record of the Three Kingdoms of...

.

Choe's surviving stele inscriptions, the so-called Sasan bimyeong (사산비명, 四山碑銘, “Four mountain steles”) are as follows (all in present day South Korea):
  1. Jingamguksa bimyeong (진감국사비명, 眞鑑國師碑銘) Memorial Stele to Master Jingam [Hyeso] of Ssanggye Temple, 887, at Ssanggye Temple, South Gyeongsang province.
  2. Daesungboksa bimyeong (대숭복사비명, 大崇福寺碑銘) Stele of Daesungbok Temple, 885, Gyeongju
    Gyeongju
    Gyeongju is a coastal city in the far southeastern corner of North Gyeongsang province in South Korea. It is the second largest city by area in the province after Andong, covering with a population of 269,343 people according to the 2008 census. Gyeongju is southeast of Seoul, and east of the...

     (not totally extant).
  3. Nanghyehwasang bimyeong (낭혜화상비명, 朗慧和尙碑銘) Memorial Stele to Master Ranghye of Seongju Temple, 890, at Seongju Temple, South Chungcheong province.
  4. Jijeungdaesa bimyeong (지증대사비명, 智證大使碑銘) Memorial Stele to Master Jijeung of Pongam Temple, 924, at Mungyeong, North Gyeongsang province.


Choe's authorship has been conjectured for the Silla Suijeon (신라수이전, 新羅殊異傳, Silla tales of wonder), the earliest and oldest known collection of Korean Buddhist tales and popular fables. The work is no longer extant but thirteen of its original stories have survived in other works. Almost all scholars agree, however, that Choe was not the author. This seems clear by the fact that one of the tales included in the collection was a fable of Choe Chiwon, the Goun Choi Chiwon jeon (고운 최치원전, 孤雲崔致遠傳). Likewise, in the early 20th century Choe was put forward as the author of the Yuseolgyeonghak daejang (유설경학대장, 類說經學隊仗), a Confucian pedagogical work. Based upon the nature of the language and expressions employed, scholars are also fairly unanimous in denying this to be a work of Choe.

Further readings in English

  • Chang, Tok-sun. “Ch’oe Ch’i-wŏn and Legendary Literature.” Korea Journal (August 1977):56-64.http://www.ekoreajournal.net/archive/detail.jsp?BACKFLAG=Y&VOLUMENO=17&BOOKNUM=8&PAPERNUM=5&SEASON=Aug&YEAR=1977
  • Chung, Kei-won. “Biographies of Choi Chi-won and Chung Mong-chu”. Korean Research Bulletin 1 (1944):21-24.
  • Ha, Tae Hung. “The Tomb of the Twin Sisters”. In Folk Tales of Old Korea. Seoul: Yonsei University Press:100-110. [legendary tale concerning Ch’oe during his service in China, translated from the Sui chŏn]
  • Jones, George Heber. “Ch'oe Ch'i-wun: His Life and Times”. Transactions of the Korea Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 3 (1903):1-17.
  • Ryang, Key S. [Yang Ki-sŏn]. “Ch’oe Ch’i-won’s (b. 857) T’ang Poetry and its Modern Interpretation.” Journal of Korean Studies 5 (1996).
  • Ryang, Key S. [Yang Ki-sŏn]. “Ch’oe Ch’i-won, Silla Sasan pi’myŏng (四山碑銘: Silla’s Four Mount Steles)”. Review Article. Journal of Korean Studies 6 (November 1996).
  • Ryang, Key S. “Ch’oe Ch’i-won’s (b. 857) Biography and Kim Pusik’s Samguk sagi (1145)”. Journal of Korean Studies 8 (December 2005).

See also

  • Korean Confucianism
    Korean Confucianism
    Korean Confucianism is the form of Confucianism developed in Korea. One of the most substantial influences in Korean intellectual history was the introduction of Confucian thought as part of the cultural influence from China...

  • Munmyo
    Munmyo
    Munmyo is Korea's primary Confucian shrine...

  • Korean philosophy
    Korean philosophy
    Korean philosophy goes back more than two thousand years. Traditional Korean philosophy focused on a totality of world view. The emotional content of Shamanism, and the unpredictable, and some aspects of Neo-Confucianism were both integrated into it....

  • Silla
    Silla
    Silla was one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, and one of the longest sustained dynasties in...

  • List of Korea-related topics