[KS] Samguk Yusa readership during Joseon

gkl1 at columbia.edu gkl1 at columbia.edu
Sun Sep 9 20:28:35 EDT 2012

As for the general attitude of ChosOn dynasty scholars toward the  
Samguk yusa, they were certainly aware of its Tangun and related myths  
involving the nations’s primitive history, but that was about it. The  
average Neo-Confucian scholar or official generally would have found  
it difficult to credit the average Buddhist monk’s capacity to take  
folk traditions and miracles seriously. And the average  
neo-Confucian’s disdain for Buddhism has to be borne in mind as well.  
On the other hand, there were always a few more curious and more  
broadly interested Confucian scholars who would have enjoyed  
themselves and learned from reading the Yusa’s often problematic tales.

During most of the ChosOn period it would probably not have been easy  
to find a copy of the Yusa. Its text certainly was available to the  
Korean court in the 15th century. It was cited and extensively quoted  
by King Sejong in relation to the political history of Cheju Island in  
his sillok’s geographical appendix.  In 1452, it was quoted  
extensively by King Tanjong on the Tangun story and the related  
shrines connected with it in P’yOngyang. In 1487 King SOngjong  
consulted it concerning the touchy issues related to Korea’s borrowing  
of the Chinese system for royal posthumous names for Korean kings  
(formally  called Myoho 廟號), for example, “T’aejo,” “Sejong,”  
“Hyojong,” etc., which are really the names of the deceased kings’  
designated temples even though used in historical discourse as their  
final name.

It’s likely that either the Samguk yusa was never completed by its  
author, the monk IryOn 一然 (1206-1289), or that the copies circulating  
in the 14th and 15th centuries were incomplete or textually currupt.  
(There’s a lot of Korean scholarship on these issues during the last  
10 or 20 years that I have not read—so be alert as you read  
this.) The Samguk yusa as it existed for most of the ChosOn dynasty is  
based on the woodblock edition of 1512, organized and financed by  
local officials and approved by the then governor of KyOngsang Province.

I think it likely that most of the major sirhak scholars of the 18th  
century had read or were at least generally informed on the contents  
of the Samguk yusa, as might have been many of their students. From  
1875 though the 1930s, Japanese scholars took a great interest in the  
Samguk yusa. Various Japanese academic societies collected texts and  
published them with Japanese translations, which of course also  
circulated widely in colonial Korea. There are also two highly  
informative modern texts, one by Ch’oe NamsOn (Tan’gi 4279=1946,  
4287=1954, and 4291=1958), with rich appendices containing other texts  
compiled during the Koryo dynasty . The second is the edited Chinese  
text and Korean translation by Yi PyOngdo, Tan’gi 4289=1956, an  
edition apparently never completed but I’m sure that it is still in  
print because I’ve seen it in libraries. In any event, there are much  
better ways to read the Samguk yusa than the deeply flawed English  
translation that was cited. On the other hand, one must grant that  
translating the Samguk yusa into any modern language is extremely  

One would think that there would have been a copy of the 1512 Samguk  
yusa in the Kyujanggak Library where Yu TUkkong worked. But the  
catalogue of the holdings of the Kyujanggak, published in 1965,  
contains no listing of it. That does not necessarily mean that that it  
was not in the Kyujanggak when he worked there. There is reason to  
believe that there were losses to that collection in the rough times  
of the 19th century, and there were also losses in the 20th century as  
well. I also checked in the catalogue of the Royal family’s library,  
the ChangsOgak (as opposed to the Kyujanggak, the ChosOn Royal   
government’s library), now housed at the Academy of Korean Studies,  
but all it had was the Japanese photolithographic copy (影印版, Showa 7 =  
1932) of the 1512 woodblock edition.

Gari Ledyard

Quoting Andrew <zatouichi at gmail.com>:

> Dear all,
> I'm writing to ask a couple of questions concerning the history/fate/shelf
> life of the *Samguk Yusa* during the Joseon dynasty.  Broadly:
> I  How was the *Samguk Yusa* regarded by scholars of the Joseon dynasty,
> particularly by the late 18th century?
> II  How widely available and read was the *Samguk Yusa *throughout this
> time?
> The context for these questions is related to my current research on
> scholar Yu Deuk-gong (1749-1807) associated with the Northern Learning
> school (북학파), in particular his poetry cycle *21 Capital hoegosi* (이십일도회고시)
> of which I have made a tentative translation (including the extensive
> quotes from histories accompanying each poem).
> In this work, Yu directly quotes from the *Samguk Yusa* just twice: once at
> the beginning concerning Dan'gun establishing his capital at Pyeongyang;
> the second significantly later concerning Gyeon-hwon's Later Baekje.
>  However, many of the other earlier poems also take topics found dotted
> throughout Books 1 and 2 of the *Samguk Yusa *and whilst they were no doubt
> topics recorded in other works which Yu would have also read, if he was
> reading the *Samguk Yusa* anyway, I imagine it influenced his selection for
> the poetry cycle which essentially became a chronological miscellany of
> topics picked out from conventional Joseon historiography (from Dan'gun up
> to Goryeo).
> According to the biographical information I have on Yu Deuk-gong, he was
> from an illegitimate line of descent, his father died when he was young and
> he was raised by his mother alongside two uncles who were only slightly
> older than himself.  He was widely read in history and skilled in poetry
> but essentially quite poor until being granted a position at the Gyujanggak
> royal library in 1779.  He first completed the *21 Capital hoegosi* the
> year before in 1778 (and revised it later in 1792).  So how did he come to
> read the *Samguk Yusa *early on? Was it widely available in Seoul at the
> time?
> To what degree was the *Samguk Yusa* considered a heretical Buddhist work,
> and to what degree was it regarded as a collection of folklore?  Yu was
> interested in everything from ancient history to contemporary folk customs,
> so it is no surprise he read it: but I wonder in what context was it
> available to him?
> It's not impossible that he didn't read it until joining the Gyujanggak
> library, if there was a copy kept there, and inserted the two extracts in
> the revision of 1792 (it was the extracts and structure which were revised
> rather than the 43 poems themselves).  But what makes me doubt this is, as
> said, the topics initially chosen for the cycle seem to have been
> influenced by reading the *Samguk Yusa;* and even potentially the structure
> itself was influenced as it alternates between the poems and historical
> prose extracts in a manner reminiscent to the "songs" interspersed in
> the *Samguk
> Yusa* though both points may just be coincidence* *(I've only read and have
> available the Ha Tae-Hung & Mintz translation of the *Samguk Yusa*.)
> Any thoughts related to this topic would be of much interest.
> sincerely
> Andrew Logie
> (Helsinki)

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