[Inkstone] Samguk yusa: The Living (Hi)story

  • onDecember 3, 2019
  • Vol.46 Winter 2019
  • byMiriam Löwensteinová


The Korean medieval chronicle Samguk yusa (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms, traditionally dated to ca. 1281) is a collection of narratives that have been retold based on textual sources of varying levels of reliability, from official histories to local legends. The text is already the result of re-reading previously existing histories, decoding them, and then recoding and composing them in such a way that they would be comprehensible to a thirteenth-century readership. In other words, using the terminology of Paul Ricoeur, the chronicle underwent prefiguration and refiguration. The substantial part of the chronicle was compiled toward the end of the Goryeo dynasty and presents approximately one thousand years of Korean history from the Three Kingdoms to Unified Silla periods. Its authorship is attributed to the Buddhist monk Iryeon, who claims that the stories of the events and heroes he has compiled must be embedded in the national memory and therefore passed down to future generations. It is in this way I also understand the word “yusa.” However, the tradition established by the Samguk yusa was not central to the society and culture of the subsequent ruling dynasties; it was a work of peripheral value for a relatively long time also for its unofficial character. The chronicle started to be important—and canonical—only in the modern era.


The Sacred Book of National History

In the early twentieth century and especially after the fall of the Joseon dynasty in 1910 when Korea lost its independence, ancient Korean history acquired new significance, and the term “tradition” took on new meaning. Tradition has since that time been closely associated with the perception of the “national.” The new “national” history (minjok sahak) started by Sin Chaeho’s works focused on both a blood-based concept of nation and state (Dangun as forefather suited this purpose) and a shared national space (which included Manchuria, a part of Dangun’s legendary Gojoseon Kingdom). For the new “national history,” the Samguk yusa, together with the Samguk sagi, seemed to be an ideal source for popularizing the idea that Korea had always been a glorious, independent, and ambitious country. In the historical context of Japanese annexation, it was one of the most influential concepts.

Since the Samguk yusa was originally created, it has been reconceptualized several times. Some of the legends it contains have more or less retained their original meanings, whereas the meanings of others have been reinterpreted, particularly to strengthen the Korean national identity. During the Japanese era, Korean myths and legends were also reworked to recontextualize them within the greater framework of East Asian history and Korea’s relations with its neighbors.


Ways of Recoding Stories

Not all stories from the Samguk yusa maintained their relevance for later societies, not even tales that had acquired some level of local significance. The current coding of stories contained in the Samguk yusa is the result of two phenomena: continuous coding, in which various levels of code transfer have occurred over the centuries; and discontinuous coding, in which the stories’ contents have been changed in central or local lore during the past century. Naturally, these two processes also interact to create an infinite spectrum of variants on the tales. Thus, the Samguk yusa has been recoded, its codes updated. Updating old stories to meet the needs of the present is nothing new as this approach has long been applied in folklore and the novel tradition. New stories can be created by further developing basic motifs from ancient histories; story titles as well as hero or place names can also serve as inspiration. When this happens, the original is substantially transformed. The old legends have been exploited in Korean literature and culture on a large scale since the early twentieth century.

A fundamental criterion for a myth, legend, or story to become productive is continuity. Narratives that can be described as continuous are typically transmitted as a whole. When only parts of such works are passed down, decoding may become impossible and discontinuity may occur. Discontinuity is also the result of a single motif being selected and developed. Updating discontinuous narratives from the Samguk yusa results in recoded stories in which we can find sculpture, landscape compositions, a single motif or detail. Recoding can give birth to a new iteration of an old story by taking an old motif and imbuing it with a modern meaning.

Literature has “legs” and can “travel.” An eight-hundred-year-old work can “travel far”— that is, several versions of it may exist or it may have been reworked in various genres. Take, for example, the modern and postmodern adaptions of ancient stories in comics, film, and so forth. But not all modern traces of old stories reflect the coding of the original. Some reflect an ancient motif as it was developed in a local version of the story or in an already recoded story that proved to be viable or successful.

This process has also occurred beyond the confines of literature. The Samguk yusa has also been recoded in the visual arts. Updating a narrative for modern times does not just mean geographically anchoring it in a specific place and basing it on reliable sources. Some stories in the Samguk yusa have been coded into dummy symbols that represent the entire narrative. Hence, tales can be expressed in the form of pictures, which often adorn the outer walls of monasteries, or in the form of sculptures placed in a landscape. Legends can be “re-established” in places that roughly correspond with the spaces mentioned in the original sources. They can also be condensed into metaphors or symbols or established in a new place. Some old narratives have been updated to promote regional identities, economies, and tourism, though such objectives are often hidden behind slogans about educating young people. In short, Samguk yusa is visible in many forms and no Korean can overlook it.


Still Necessary, Still Viable 

From a global perspective, the Samguk yusa is not a unique historical record. It is one of many medieval chronicles produced throughout the world that were later employed during nation- building processes and in the post-war era. Ancient legends and stories have been used to legitimize the existence of every nation based on shared “blood” (ethnicity) and a common territory. Since the medieval era, ancient stories have been the most convenient means for communicating and teaching history to the broader public. Hence, the transcoding of history for political and ideological purposes is not novel to Korea. For example, the mythology was exploited to support the idea of the nation state throughout Enlightenment-era Europe.

This kind of history, in which the sacred history of the nation, that is, its essence, is told through ancient stories, conceptually meshes with notions held by the modern Korean state as well. The Samguk yusa’s stories have been continually recoded to make them relevant, comprehensible, and accessible for everybody, irrespective of age and educational level. However, the stories from the Samguk yusa that have proven to be constantly viable forces in Korean culture have not lost their original meanings. Their codes have only been modified to accommodate modern audiences and global trends.

In conclusion, the stories contained in the Samguk yusa live a “natural life” in modern Korean society, as documented by their broad understanding, the continuous recoding of some of their narrative elements, and, more generally, in the continuous nature of the Samguk yusa tradition, which is visible in such recodings and reconceptualizations.


This text is a part of a paper that will be published in: Marion Eggert, Florian Pölking, eds., Cultural Transmutations in Korea’s Past and Present. Transcoding, Code-Switching and Other Cultural Practices (Peter Lang, 2020).


by Miriam Löwensteinová
Professor, Faculty of Arts
Charles University in Prague