- Contesting the Lost Land, New Land, and Pure Land:Buddhist Steles of Seventh-Century Korea
Among Korean Buddhist monuments is a group of steles of a similar style made during the late seventh century, all of which were found in the vicinity of Yŏn'gi Commandery in present-day South Ch'ung-ch'ŏng Province.1 These so-called Yŏn'gi pa ("School of Yŏn'gi") steles manifest the political, social, cultural, and religious landscape of seventh-century Korea. They reveal how images became powerful and meaningful sites of religious assertion and of political implications, particularly in the midst of the overall social turmoil surrounding the unification of the Three Kingdoms.
In China the use of pictorial steles to propagate Buddhism and in Buddhist ritual flourished for a relatively brief two centuries or so, during the Northern-Southern Dynasties (317-589). Buddhism did not invent the stele form, but adopted it from the long tradition of using a stele for commemorative purposes, which dated from Western Han (206 BCE-9 CE).2 It was Chinese Buddhists who made the stele format into a representative Buddhist monument, although we must acknowledge some interaction with Indian counter-parts.3
Compared with their Chinese counterparts, the Korean Yŏn'gi steles were made over an even shorter period, a couple of decades at the very beginning of Unified Silla (668-935). This brief florescence distinctly implies that they were adopted for a particular purpose at a critical time and place, and it is that very particular purpose that I shall explore in this study.
A total of seven Buddhist steles were discovered in 1960 and 1961 in the vicinity of Yŏn'gi in South Ch'ungch'ŏng Province, and since then they have drawn the attention of scholars of history, Buddhist studies, and art history. What was considered most remarkable about them was their rarity in Korean Buddhist art and their archaic style, which was reminiscent of the style that had been prevalent in Paekche (18 BCE-660 CE). In light of the Paekche restoration movement, the fact that the seven were found in South Ch'ungch'ŏng Province, which had been part of the former kingdom of Paekche, and that some Paekche surnames were among the patrons, aroused speculation that the steles figured in pious and ambitious efforts to restore Paekche's independence or, at any rate, to resist the Silla regime.4 Others argued that the steles were commemorative monuments for those killed in actions against the allied forces of Silla and Tang China, or even for Paekche individuals who had died peaceful deaths.5 Both interpretations shared an assumption that the steles evoked nostalgia for the defunct kingdom, either on a practical level as a spur to its restoration or on an emotional level as a visual memento. In other words, basing their opinions primarily on the presence of older stylistic features, all concerned scholars read the steles as retrospective monuments.
Missing from previous scholarship, however, is any assessment of the visual format of the steles and their new iconography. The stele was a fairly novel form of monument in the history of Korean Buddhist art.6 It seems oddly ironic that the dedicators/carvers would choose an entirely new form of monument depicting new cult figures, such as the Amitābha Triad or the Thousand Buddhas, to convey nostalgia for their defeated kingdom. In other words, if the intent had been to evoke "the good old days," it would seem more appropriate to have deployed a form and style that immediately recalled those of Paekche.7 A new form of a cultural entity appears mainly because its very newness engenders a new function or allows it to answer to a newly appeared social function that could not be served by the preexisting form. We need to ask, therefore, "What social meaning were such steles supposed to express?" "Who benefitted and in what way from them?" "Why were so few made, and over such a short time?" "How did the specific social environment of the time operate to further the creation of such a monument?" and "What role did the Yŏn...