Essay by Kim Jaehong
This stele, designated as National Treasure 3, was erected on Mt. Bukhansan by the order of King Jinheung (who ruled 540–76 C.E.), the twenty-fourth king of Silla. The first part of the stele’s inscription includes the term “soonsu” (巡狩), which means to “embark on an inspection.”
Thus, the stele is believed to have been erected to commemorate King Jinheung’s inspection of the Han River region.
Originally located on the summit of Bibong (Monument Peak) on Mt Bukhansan in Gugi-ri, Eunpyeong-myeon, Goyang-gun, Gyeonggi Province, the stele was later moved to the National Museum of Korea, where it is now displayed in the Silla Kingdom Room of the Prehistory and Ancient History Gallery.
Made from granite, the main stone of the monument is approximately 155.5 cm tall, 71.5 cm wide, and 16.6 cm thick. At one time, the upper part of the main stone broke off, but it was later reattached. The break is evidenced by the diagonal crack that begins approximately 25.1 cm down from the upper left corner, and extends to approximately 45.4cm down from the upper right corner.
The monument originally consisted of three parts: the main stele, the capstone, and the base stone. The capstone, which has now been lost, was originally placed atop the main stone, fitting into a protrusion that is 69.0 cm wide and 6.7 cm thick. The base stone remains in its original location on the mountain. The inscription on the stele has twelve lines, each containing twenty-one or twenty-two characters, but much of the text is indecipherable.
Important record of local administration and military institutions
The inscription can be divided into three sections: the title, the description of King Jinheung’s inspection, and a list of related facts, such as the names of those who accompanied King Jinheung. Again, many of the characters are indecipherable, but it is still possible to ascertain some important details about the social conditions of the time.
Firstly, the inscription includes the phrase “Great King Jinheung” (眞興太王), which is the first time that a Silla monarch was referred to by this title. In all earlier records, Silla kings are referred to as either “Maripgan,” “Maegeumwang,” or “Taewang.” Thus, the inscription indicates that the Silla king had acquired an elevated status. Notably, this title is also known to have been used by Goguryeo, and thus suggests some influence or exchange between the two kingdoms.
As mentioned, another key title from the inscription is “Military Governor of Namcheon” (南川軍主), shedding light on the local administrative and military institutions of King Jinheung’s reign. Significantly, the inscription also includes the name “Japgan Muryeok of Sadolbu,” referring to Kim Muryeok, a general who had played a key role in conquering the Han River region and the grandfather of Kim Yusin, the famous general who led Silla’s unification of the Korean peninsula in the seventh century. “Japgan” was the third-highest ranking in the Silla Kingdom. According to other records, as of 550, Kim Muryeok’s ranking was “Aganji” (fifth-ranked), but the inscription on the Changryeong Monument reveals that he had been elevated to “Japgan” by 561.
Finally, the inscription mentions a “doin” (道人) who is residing in a grotto. A “doin” is an enlightened monk with vast knowledge of the Buddhist scriptures. In this case, the term seems to refer to a monk who was sent to proselytize in territories that Silla had recently conquered. Thus, it seems that King Jinheung actively sought to convert the people of his newly acquired territories to Buddhism, the official religion of Silla.
As part of his tour to inspect the borders of Silla, King Jinheung had several monuments erected to delineate the expanded territory. These monuments served not only to emphasize the achievements of the king, who had been victorious in multiple territorial wars, but also to demonstrate his philosophy of governance. Hence, Mt. Bukhansan Monument for King Jinheung’s Inspection is an invaluable artifact for understanding the expansion of territory and social development of Silla during the reign of King Jinheung.
Deciphering the monument for King Jinheung’s inspection in the late Joseon Period
This stele was originally known as “Great Monk Muhak’s Observation Stele” (無學大師枉尋碑) or the “Stele of Erased Characters” (沒字碑), because it was covered with moss and the inscription could not be read. In the late Joseon period, however, ten characters were deciphered by Seo Yoogu, who thus named it the “Stele of King Jinheung’s Inspection.”
The association with King Jinheung was confirmed in 1816 (sixteenth year of the reign of King Sunjo), when Kim Jeonghui saw the stele while going to Seunggasa Temple with his friend Kim Gyeongyeon, and identified the character “jin” (眞) from the name of King Jinheung. The following year, Kim Jeonghui and Cho Inyeong deciphered an additional sixty-eight characters.
All of this information is recorded in inscriptions that appear on the side of the stele. The first inscription reads (from right to left):
This stele was erected to commemorate the inspection by Silla’s King Jinheung. Kim Jeonghui and Kim Gyeongyeon came and read the inscription during the seventh month of the byeongja year (1816).
(此新羅眞興大王巡狩之碑 丙子七月 金正喜 金敬淵來讀).
Next to this is another inscription that reads: “Lee Jaehyeun of Yongin on the twentieth day of the eighth month of the gimi year (1859)” (己未八月二十日 李濟鉉 龍仁人). An additional inscription (written in yeseo script) reads: “Kim Jeonghui and Cho Inyeong deciphered sixty-eight of the remaining characters on the eighth day of the sixth month of the jeongchuk year (1817)” (丁丑六月八日 金正喜 趙寅永同來 審定殘字六十八字).
Kim Jeonghui sent a rubbing of the stele to the Qing scholar Liu Yanting (劉燕庭), which became widely known after appearing in the latter’s Haidong jinshi yuan (海東金石苑, Epigraphy Collection of Korea). During the Japanese colonial period, the stele was re-examined by Imanishi Ryu (今西龍) and others, who published the results in Report of the Investigation of Ancient Properties in 1916.
None of the characters in the inscription refer to the sexagenary calendar cycle or the name of the era, making it difficult to determine the exact date that the stele was erected. According to Samguk Sagi, King Jinheung inspected Mt. Bukhansan in the sixteenth year of his reign (555 C.E.). However, other stone monuments commemorating the king’s inspection were found on Mawoonryeong Pass and Hwangchoryeong Pass, and they are known to have been erected in the twenty-ninth year of King Jinheung’s reign, or 568 C.E. Moreover, the stele’s inscription includes the phrase “Military Governor of Namcheon”(南川軍主), and Samguk Sagi records that “in the tenth month of the twenty-ninth year of his reign (568 C.E.), King Jinheung deposed the Governor of Mt. Bukhansan and replaced him with the Military Governor of Namcheon.”
Thus, based on this evidence, it is generally believed that the stele was erected in either the sixteenth or the twenty-ninth year of King Jinheung’s reign (either 555 or 568 C.E.).
Read this essay and learn more on The National Museum of Korea’s website.