The Making of King Peony in Korean Literature: A Reading of “Admonition for the Flower King”


The purpose of this paper is to reconsider the problematic authorship of “Admonition for the Flower King” (“Hwawang kye” [inline-graphic 01i]) and to discuss its literary, political, and horticultural significance. The story of three flower characters is conventionally attributed to So˘l Ch’ong [inline-graphic 296i]) (ca. 670–730), and subsequently, modern Korean scholarship has interpreted the story in association with the history of the Unified Silla Dynasty (676–935). My analysis, however, shows that it remains unknown when the story was first conjured up, nor do we know how it circulated up until the twelfth century. The story was likely to have first circulated as a folk legend, which was embellished and finally textualized by the historian Kim Pusik [inline-graphic 02i] (1075–1151) in his Samguk sagi [inline-graphic 03i]. I emphasize the role of Kim who assured the subject of moral suasion, a core Confucian value, on his own taste; this might be one reason that the story is not included by the Buddhist monk Iryo˘n [inline-graphic 04i] (1206–89) in his Samguk yusa. I also would like to turn here to the Korean literary tradition of flower metaphors itself. It is easy to assume that these images and associations derive from Chinese literature, yet when one looks at the floral image, attributes, and uses of the three flowers in Sino-Korean literature in the context of ethnobotany, horticulture, and garden culture they turn out to be quite distinct from what is found in Chinese literature. The legend of So˘l Ch’ong, thus, piques one’s interest as one of the earliest examples of this distinct Korean flower imagery.