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2016 travel diary 8: Buyeo’s Jeongnimsa Temple Site

Buyeo-gun, Chungcheongnam-do, 16 May 2016, 4:45pm.

The site of Jeongnimsa Temple, with the pagoda that is National Treasure #9
The site of Jeongnimsa Temple, with the pagoda that is National Treasure #9

The sun is still hot as we arrive at our destination. We walk slowly, as there is little shade, past the ticket office to where is a wide, flat open space in the middle of which is National Treasure #9: the five storey stone pagoda of Jeongnimsa Temple.

Is one allowed to be a little sacrilegious? I’d kind of overdosed on stone pagodas in Unjusa a couple of years previously. Unjusa is known as the temple of a thousand pagodas, so I had become a bit blasé about them.

What was different about this one? Well, to look at it, not much. But it is of importance because it is one of only two stone pagodas from the Baekje period that survive – the other one being the bigger (though very damaged) pagoda at Mireuksa, Iksan (National Treasure #11) which has six surviving storeys; no-one knows how many further levels there were on top of that. Further, these two pagodas are among the earliest stone pagodas on the Korean peninsula (pagodas used to be wooden and thus prone to fire) so they can be considered the ancestors of the thousand pagodas of Unjusa.

Jeongnimsa Temple Pagoda, National Treasure #9
Jeongnimsa Temple Pagoda, National Treasure #9

Jeongnimsa’s pagoda is difficult to date. King Seong moved Baekje’s capital to Sabi (modern Buyeo) in 538 and many of the city’s important buildings must have been completed in advance of the move. But according to the materials supporting Baekje’s UNESCO listing, Jeongnimsa’s stone pagoda comes after the stone pagoda in Mireuksa, in Baekje’s secondary capital in Iksan, and that pagoda can be dated precisely to 639 CE.

The stone pagoda at Mireuksa Temple Site, Iksan (National Treasure #11)
The stone pagoda at Mireuksa Temple Site, Iksan (National Treasure #11). Photo: Cultural Heritage Administration)

So the Jeongnimsa pagoda was erected some time after 639, but before 660. In that year the victorious Tang general Su Dingfang, having defeated Baekje with the help of Silla’s Kim Yu-shin, decided to rub Baekje’s noses in the mud by defacing the pagoda with an inscription amounting to “We Won You Lost”. For a while the pagoda was known as Pyeongjetap, which roughly means “Pagoda Celebrating the Destruction of Baekje.”

The proportions of the Jeongnimsa pagoda (Source: UNESCO submission p63. )
The proportions of the Jeongnimsa pagoda (Source: UNESCO submission p63. )

Despite being one of the earliest examples of a stone pagoda on the peninsula it is surprisingly elegant. The five roof stones turn up at the corners, just as if they were traditional wood and tile roofs. And when the site was documented by the Japanese in the colonial period the Japanese surveyor analysed its proportions thus:

both [the] height and width of [the] first story are 7 cheok [1 cheok ≅ 30cm] and the height of the platform is 3.5 cheok. The stone pagoda was built according to the proportion of 7 cheok all around according to the principle of equal partition (Source: UNESCO submission p62).

According to the Cultural Heritage Administration website, the pillars at the corner of each level of the pagoda are slightly narrower at the top and bottom, having a slight bulge in the middle. They call this the Baeeullim style, but it’s very difficult to notice unless you were to get out a tape measure.

The pagoda stands on its own in the centre of a big flat open space. Originally there would have been a prayer hall just to its north – the classic layout for a temple from this period. And further north beyond that, a lecture hall has been reconstructed, housing a huge but very simple stone Buddha statue – again perhaps forming a model for the humble Buddhas you find in Unjusa. This seated Buddha however is from the Goryeo dynasty, not Baekje.

Beside the temple site is a museum which among other things contains a model of what the temple could have looked like in its heyday – the pagoda and prayer hall are surrounded by corridors and halls containing refectories and living accommodation, with the lecture hall at the far end of the site.

Jeongnimsa Temple Site is Historic Site #301. Its Five-storey Stone Pagoda is National Treasure #9. Its Stone Seated Buddha is Treasure #108.


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