Rediscovering the Lost Kingdom of Baekje

by Matthew Jackson on 3 August, 2011

in Baekje, Crafts, Historical

History, according to the saying, is written by the victors. The unification of the three kingdoms of Korea under Silla in 668 AD solved the problem of constant war in the peninsula, but created a significant problem for modern day historians, in that very little of the culture and heritage of Baekje (BC 18~AD 660) has survived in records to us today. It is hence known as ‘the lost kingdom’.

6th century AD, H 61.8cm, National Treasure No. 287, Buyeo National Museum

6th century AD, H 61.8cm, National Treasure No. 287, Buyeo National Museum

This incense burner was discovered in the site of a planned car park in 1993. The good condition in which the lid and main body were discovered is the first remarkable thing about the incense burner. It is surmised that it was stored in a hurry, probably in time of trouble, as no accompanying store of incense was found nearby.

In contrast with the Sarira Reliquary of the Silla kingdom, also dating from this time, the burner is large is size. But its chief value lies in the story that it tells of Baekje culture, embodied in its beauty and design.

The burner has three sections: the main body (a lotus flower), the pedestal stand (a dragon), and the lid (the mythological Taoist mountain).

In the dozens of human figures and animals we find on the lid, we learn about the daily life of the Baekje people. The meditating ascetic, the farmer washing his hair, the man strolling with his dog.

The dragon at the base of the censer has three of its legs arranged in an even triangular pattern, with the fourth raised in the air. This was a deliberate arrangement to preserve the visual equilibrium of the piece as a whole.

Also in equilibrium is the symbology of the artwork. The images evoke Taoist cosmology in the form of the mountain, and Buddhism in the form of the lotus flower base. The counterparts of nature and humankind, real world and ideal world, and the harmony of opposites, all serve to reflect the paradise that the people of Baekje hope to achieve in reality.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

kimmogun November 26, 2011 at 7:20 am

Korean think Gaya (AD.42–562) as ‘the lost kingdom’ which is confederacy of territorial polities and located in Gyeongsangnamdo

Philip Gowman November 27, 2011 at 1:53 pm

Yes, you’re probably right – “neglected” or “forgotten” might have been better. Baekje is the least known of the “Three” Kingdoms, but it’s certainly not “lost”

I visited a Kaya royal tomb when I was in Sancheong County last year (http://londonkoreanlinks.net/2010/08/27/the-last-king-of-kaya/). Well worth a visit.

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