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Silla travelogue gets brief Seoul showing

By Claire Lee, The Korea Times, Dec 21, 2010

Seoul, South Korea -- A travel diary by an 8th-century Korean monk is in Korea for the first time, a full 1,282 years after it was penned. Currently owned by the National Library of France, the manuscript is exhibited on temporary loan to the National Museum of Korea.

“Wangocheonchukgukjeon,” or “Memoir of the Pilgrimage to the Five Kingdoms of India” by Hyecho, a monk from Silla Kingdom during the 8th century. (The National Museum of Korea)

The exhibition of Korea’s national museum, “Silk Road and Dunhuang,” features some 220 relics related to the Silk Road, from those at ten museums in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Regions and Gansu Province, along with the 8th century travel journal.

The travelogue, “Wangocheonchukgukjeon,” or “Memoir of the Pilgrimage to the Five Kingdoms of India,” was written by Hyecho, a Buddhist monk from Korea’s Silla Kingdom (B.C. 57-A.D. 935). Born in 704, Hyecho moved to Tang Dynasty China when he was 16 years old. In China, he studied esoteric Buddhism under Vajrabodhi, a famous Indian monk who was teaching his religious theories there. Following Vajrabodhi’s advice, Hyecho traveled to India, which he considered the “land of Buddha.”

During his four-year journey, Hyecho wrote a travelogue in classical Chinese, which was the lingua franca of Asia at the time. In very concise yet vivid language, he describes the cultural customs, local climate, languages and even political situations of India, the Middle East, Persia and other states of Central Asia.

Hyecho also offers very personal, nostalgic accounts of his homeland Silla, as well as an extremely colorful depiction of the people he runs into. He writes about naked religious exercisers in India; how people in Tibet catch the lice in their fur clothes and eat them; the way people in Western India sing lyrically; and how Arabs do not bow the way people in Silla do.

Subtitled “A Trip through the Western Region with Hyecho,” the “Silk Road and Dunhuang” exhibition features such journey of Hyecho along with the Silk Road.

An extensive interconnected network of trade routes across the Asian continent connecting east, south, and western Asia with the Mediterranean region, as well as Africa and Europe, the Silk Road served as a vital link between Eastern and Western Civilizations. The exhibition, in four parts, features different routes of the Silk Road, and exquisite relics found in its well-known regions, following Hyecho’s journey from Tang Dynasty China to India and other Central Asian countries.

The first part of the exhibition, “Cities along the Silk Road,” introduces oases such as Kashgar, Kucha, and Turfan on the Northern Route; Hotan and Loulan on the Southern Route; and Urumqi on the Tian Shan Northern Silk Road. Among the displayed relics, a gold belt clasp unearthed in Karashar is a notable item as a similar belt was discovered in Pyongyang of North Korea.

The second part, “Life and Culture in the Silk Road,” talks about the lives of people of European extraction who used to live in oasis cities on the Southern Route of the Silk Road about 4,000 years ago. The exhibition shows relics of their distinctive culture that resulted from cultivating wheat and other crops.

The third part, “Dunhuwang and Wangocheonchukgukjeon” features the caves and murals of Dunhuang in Jiuquan in China’s Gansu province, where the manuscript of Hyecho was discovered.

Finally, the fourth part, “Route Connects to the East” presents cultural items from Gansu and Ningxia, the Chinese regions connecting Dunhuang and Xian. While the relics reflect the region’s unique culture which combines traditional Chinese values and qualities of nomadic people, items such as an Eastern Roman gold piece show that trade activities through the Silk Road between East and West also took place in this region of China.
Eastern Roman gold piece from the 6th century, found in Guyuan, Ningxia Hui Autonomous region in China. (The National Museum of Korea)

Hyecho died in China at the age of 83, after a lifetime of studying and teaching esoteric Buddhism abroad.

The exhibition runs through April 3. For more information, call (02) 2077-9000.

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