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France to lend 8th century travelogue by Korean Buddhist to home country

By Kim Hyun, Yonhap News, June 29, 2010

SEOUL, South Korea -- An 8th-century book written by a Korean Buddhist monk after traveling in India and Central Asia will be temporarily brought home from France, where the book has been preserved since its rediscovery in 1908, a museum said Tuesday.

"Wang-o-cheon-chuk-guk-jeon," which means "memoir of the pilgrimage to the five kingdoms of India," was written in 727 by Hyecho, a monk and poet of the Unified Silla Dynasty who made a four-year pilgrimage across India and neighboring regions on foot from 723.

The book bears first-hand accounts of politics, culture, the economy and folk customs in India and Central Asia in the 8th century. It is one of the oldest known travelogues in human history along with "Si-yu-ki: Buddhist Records of the Western World" by Chinese traveler Hiuen Tsiang in the 7th century, "The Travels of Marco Polo" by the Italian explorer in the 13th century and "Ibn Battuta's Journey" in the 14th century.

The book had been lost until it was rediscovered by French adventurer Paul Pelliot in a grotto in Dunhuang, a landmark city on the ancient Silk Road, in northwest China. The following year in 1909, Pelliot officially reported the discovery of Wangohcheonchukgukjeon at the University of Paris.

Hyecho's book, like all ancient Korean classics, was written in Chinese and found with droves of Chinese documents. It was a Japanese Buddhist scholar, Junjiro Takagusu, who in 1915 identified the author as the monk of the Korean Silla dynasty.

The National Museum of Korea asked the French university to lend the book for its upcoming exhibition on the Silk Road in December, and the request was accepted last week, said Eun Hwa-su, a research scholar at the museum.

"Further arrangements have to be made, like the date of the book's arrival or lending charges. The French side has told us that it made the decision through a committee meeting," Eun said.

It is the first time Hyecho's travelogue will be made public, he added.

Hyecho (704-787) went to China to study Buddhism at age 17, and two years later set off on the journey to India.

The manuscript, of 5,893 letters in 227 lines, is a roll that is horizontally put together on nine pieces of paper, each of which is 28.5 centimeters high and 42cm wide. The first and last pages are slightly shorter at 29.35cm, making the total width of the roll 358cm. The front and end parts have been damaged.

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