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Silla’s Geomungo Master Baek Gyeol

2010-09-24

Silla’s Geomungo Master <b>Baek Gyeol</b>
The abundant sound of autumn
In Korea, autumn is the time of harvesting and also when the pleasant sound of mills grinding grains can be heard everywhere. In ancient times, the sound of a mill symbolized rich harvest to farmers who had worked hard in the summer. It is also associated with a Silla musician who mesmerized people by playing the traditional musical instrument “geomungo.”

Great master who lived in poverty
Music began spreading in Korea during the reign of King Nulji, the 19th king of the ancient kingdom of Silla. By the time the next king, King Jabi, came to power, music was already a part of people’s everyday lives. That is also when a great geomungo master lived in Seorabeol, which is known today as Gyeongju. His name was Park Mun-ryang, but he is better known as Master Baek Gyeol.

Baek Gyeol was born in 411. His father died in Japan after he was detained by the Japanese for helping Silla’s royal servants escape back to Silla, while his mother spent her entire life waiting for her husband. Instead of becoming an official, Baek Gyeol chose to dedicate his life to the musical instrument geomungo, which was introduced to Silla in the 4th century from Goguryeo.

The name “Baek Gyeol” is the abbreviation of the expression “hyeonsun-baekgyeol,” which means “shabby clothes worn out by poverty.” Living in dire straits, Baek Gyeol wore the same clothes more than a hundred times. But despite his poverty, he never once stopped playing the geomungo and expressed all his joys and sorrows through his music. His geomungo-playing skills became so sophisticated with time that one day he was able to reproduce the sound of a mill, which offered him solace in difficult times.

Taking solace in the sound of a mill
Even before the Unified Three Kingdoms period, Koreans already used rice, millet, broomcorn and sorghum to make rice cakes. During the Unified Three Kingdoms period, when Korea officially became an agricultural society, rice cakes were produced in great variety. On the last day of the lunar year, each household marked the end of the year by grinding grains and making rice cakes. But Master Baek Gyeol was too poor to buy rice. His wife cried when she heard the sound of a mill in their neighbors’ house. Seeing how sad his wife was, Master Baek Gyeol wrote a song:

“The pounding sound of a mill to the east
The pounding sound to the west
The pounding sound everywhere
Everyone is preparing to celebrate the New Year
But our rice jar is empty
Our closet is empty
We wear rags and eat bean sprouts
But we are happy
My dear poor wife, don’t be worried
Wealth is beyond our reach
But even when your head rests on my arm instead of a pillow
We are still happy


Amazingly enough, Baek Gyeol’s geomungo produced the exact sound of a mill when he was performing the song. The master’s wife became so excited that she began dancing in the yard. Later, the entire town was dancing to the master’s exciting music. He became famous in other regions as well, especially among poor people who took solace in his music.

Thinking of music
There are many instances of music healing people’s souls and helping them regain hope in challenging times. But finding music that inspires people even when they struggle financially and teaches them that there is more to life than just material wealth is not easy. That is why it is not difficult to guess why Master Baek Gyeol’s music captivated the hearts of so many people.

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