Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Hyech’o's Travel Diary comes to Korea

From Wang Kon's Weblog

One of the main cultural stories this year was certainly the return of treasures to the homeland: Japan promised to return some court ritual books (uigwe), while France has promised to return… more ritual books! In the case of France – French troops looted the books in 1866 during a brief raid on Kanghwa island – it is a “permanently renewable” five year loan, so not a complete restitution. Other temporary cultural visitors were the Buddhist paintings from the Koryo period on display in the National Museum this autumn, and now we get to see the famous travel diary written by the monk Hyecho, who went to China at a young age and from there traveled to India; after returning to China, he wrote the diary in 727 – it was discovered in the library cave of Dunhuang in 1908 by…the French scholar Pelliot! It is now on loan from the Bibliotheque Nationale for an exhbition on ‘Dunhuang and the Silk Road’ at the National Museum of Korea. Hyech’o's voyage will serve as a kind of read thread to connect the other objects found along the silk road. According to the museum website (oddly, the English site has better information than the Korean site – and it is well written! I also noticed during my last visit that the quality of English explanations has vastly improved – finally!):

The museum borrowed a total of 214 relics from 12 foreign institutions for the exhibition. These are comprised of the following: Wang ocheonchukguk jeon kept by the National Library of France (Bibliotheque nationale de France) and those kept by ten institutions in China, which include the National Museum of China, the Uygur Autonomous Region of Sinkiang, Kansu Province, and the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region of China.

This exhibition is arranged in a way that follows the path of Hyecho’s travel in the early 8th century. Hyecho, a Silla Buddhist priest, was the first Korean to travel and keep a record of the Silk Road. He arrived in an eastern region of India in a boat and made a pilgrimage to Buddhist eight holy sites. Then, he traveled to the west, Central Asia and returned to Changan 장안 (now Xian) in China through the Pamir Mountains 파미르 고원, Saiwik 서역, and Dunhuang 둔황. Saiwik, which corresponds to the present day Uygur Autonomous Region of Sinkiang 신장위구르자치구, used to be a crucial part of the Silk Road that linked Rome with Changan.

I suppose the exhibition will also use items from the Otani collection – the legacy of a Japanese baron who was one of those adventurers in the ‘great game’ for treasures of the Silk Road. After liberation, his collection was left behind in Korea and is now part of the National Museum. Oddly, this is one area where Korea could become the defendant in a case of cultural reconstitution: since most come from areas along the silk road now occupied by China, China could lay claim to most of these collections. Apparently it is holding back, but it is claiming something else: Koguryo murals that were looted from Ji’an between 1997-2000 (one of them pictured above). The tomb raiders were caught, and apparently executed, but according to their statements, the murals were sent to South Korea. Apparently this was the subject of a recent MBC program (MBC 수첩), and the Chinese must have seen the program, because they have now asked the Cultural Heritage Bureau to cooperate in returning the murals. So why these objects and not the Otani collection? According to the cynical interpretation of this commenter, because most of the Otani collection comes from Turfan in the Uighur region, and China is not keen in giving the Uighurs any incentive for cultural pride in these items. Not so sure about that; you could argue the same for the Korean minority living in Northeastern China… moreover, I am not sure if the Muslim Uighur would be interested in this Buddhist heritage. It seems simply a case of following through a criminal investigation into the people who ordered the theft or received the stolen goods.

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