Il Yeon Starts Writing History at Age of 75
A woman gave birth to a son in 1206 in Gyeongsan, North Gyeongsang Province. She showed signs of pregnancy after having a dream of a round sun shining above her belly for three nights in a row. Remembering the special dream, she named her son Gyeon-myeong(견명), meaning ‘Saw a bright light.’
His appearance was tidy and neat. He walked with august steps like a bull’s and had fiery eyes like a tiger’s. The boy drew special attention from the moment he was born. He wanted to become a Buddhist monk and entered Muryangsa(무량사) Temple in Jeolla Province in 1214. He became a Buddhist priest in 1219.
Afterwards, he concentrated on Buddhist learning and recorded what he saw and heard while traveling all over the country. In 1281, at the age of 75, he finally wrote a history book.
Buddhist monk Il Yeon put his life and soul into this history book entitled [Samguk Yusa] or [The Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms]. It is one of the two representative books of Korea’s ancient history, along with [Samguk Sagi] or [The History of the Three Kingdoms].
History Book Vitalizes National Identity during a Dark, Painful Period
Il Yeon won the first place in the state exam for Buddhist monks and left some 100 Buddhist scriptures. The greatest Buddhist scholar of the time was given the rank of ‘National Preceptor,’ who refers to the teacher of the king, in 1283 to ascend to the most honorable post as a Buddhist priest.
[The Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms] is a compilation of the unofficial history of the Three Kingdoms based on the collected historical materials that had been lost or survived. His decision to write this history book was greatly influenced by the domestic situation in the 13th century.
At the time, the Goryeo Dynasty went through a painful historical chapter of surrendering to Mongol forces, which Goryeo had regarded as barbarians, after 30 years of resistance. The bitter experience of the struggles and defeat was indelibly imprinted on the minds of conceited Goryeo people. They made a concerted effort to re-appreciate culture and traditions from the past in order to develop a strong spiritual foundation to help overcome the ordeal. In those times of difficulty, Il Yeon sought to inspire dignity and pride of the nation, which boasted a long history of five thousand years.
Written by Kim Bu-sik in 1145, [The History of the Three Kingdoms] simply records historical facts of the Three Kingdoms, namely, the Silla, Goguryeo and Baekje. In comparison, Il Yeon’s [ The Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms] begins with the passage, ‘Dangun set up the capital in Asadal and founded the Gojoseon nation during the same period of Emperor Yao in China.’ By mentioning the founding father of Gojoseon, the first Korean kingdom, the book declares the national identity of the Korean people. Starting with the Dangun story, the book records the birth myths of many ancient Korean kingdoms, such as Mahan, Jinhan, Five Gaya kingdoms, Goguryeo, Byeonhan(변한), Baekje, Silla, Unified Silla and the Post-Three Kingdoms. Whether those states were big or small and whether their history was long or short, Il Yeon illustrated the history of the Korean Peninsula where those ancient kingdoms were created with mysterious legends that contained gods’ message toward the human world.
A Treasure Trove of Stories
Consisting of five volumes and nine chapters, the book has chronologies of the three kingdoms, the Gaya kingdom, Post-Goguryeo and Post-Baekje. It also describes the process of introducing Buddhism to the three kingdoms as well as the stories of Buddhist monks, pagodas and the statues of the Buddha. The book explains various social and cultural aspects of the time, which previous history books had failed to notice, laying the groundwork for approaching the nation’s ancient history and culture overall.
Il Yeon traveled every corner of the country since his youth and collected legends and folktales about kings, aristocrats, Buddhist priests and nameless commoners. He vividly portrayed the stories that were well-known among the public, although the stories were not incorporated in official history.
Filled with intriguing stories and inspirations, the book doesn’t simply chronicle historical facts but also asks countless questions like ‘What is the universe?’ ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What makes life valuable?’ The book suggests the answers through its historical materials and wisdom. While reading the book, people can meet their national root, which makes them what they are today, and also seek out their own future. Il Yeon wrote this collection of Koreans’ history and lives until the last moment of his life. He entered nirvana in 1289.