AT THE end of class, a professor wearing a notable T-shirt is standing in front of the classroom. The T-shirt has a golden print image of a person praying. He explains that it is Bi-cheon-sang* from the E-mil-le bell** cast during the Shilla Dynasty. In the midst of society’s indifference towards history, Professor Jo is full of passion and energy to revive Korean history and heritage. The Yonsei Annals met Professor Jo, who is not only a fervent professor teaching the class Korean Cultural Heritage, but also a director of the History Institute for the Appellation of Nations.
Annals: What are you interested in the most in Korean history?
Jo: Currently, I am interested in the Go-gu-ryeo Dynasty, particularly in the names of countries. The kingdoms of Korean history were greatly aware of succession, especially in the names of the countries. When a new state was founded, it would be named after the former realm. I call it “Awareness of Guk-ho*** Succession.” For example, the Go-ryeo Dynasty was named after Go-gu-ryeo, which changed its name into Go-ryeo after it transferred its capital to Pyong-yang. Its descendants used Go-gu-ryeo to distinguish it from Wang-gun****’s Go-ryeo, however. Therefore, I call this kingdom the Go-gu-ryeo Jeon-Go-ryeo, which means pre-Go-ryeo.
Annals: If you could go back to a specific era of Korean history, which time period would you choose?
Jo: I would go back to the time of the Wi-hwa-do Retreat*****. When Yi Seong-gye, later the first king and the founder of the Joseon Dynasty, saw the *Gwang-gae-to* Stele, he just ignored it because he thought it was only a tombstone from China. In fact, that stele was a monument to our history: a record of how King Gwang-gae-to the Great****** had conquered the Yo-dong peninsula in China. If Yi had looked thoroughly into what the stele said, he would have changed his mind and the Wi-hwa-do Retreat would not have happened. If so, many things in our history would definitely have changed.
Annals: What do you think is the most important cultural heritage (or asset) of Korea? Is there any cultural asset, not yet famous, that you would like to introduce to the world?
Jo: The most important cultural heritage of Korea is Han-geul, the Korean writing system. History and culture is something that needs to be made by us, but language is definitely the most important factor. Until now, we were able to express our thoughts and dreams through our own language, with Han-geul. These thoughts and dreams are, and will, eventually become our history.
Another heritage that I would like to introduce is: Gwi-gyo, which means “Ghost Bridge.” Although this bridge no longer exists, the story tells about star-crossed lovers, therefore the bridge acts as a linkage that wishes for people’s love to come true.
My personal favorite Korean cultural asset, though, is the Gilt-bronze Maitreya in Meditation. What do you think is the most beautiful face of a person? I think it is the face of a person in love. Imagine a scene where your loved one is waiting with a smile on his face for you to come, delighted to see you soon. The Gilt-bronze Maitreya in Meditation is also waiting for us, thinking about ways to lead us to enlightenment, for more than a thousand years. Whenever a foreigner asks me if there is anything special in Korea, I always tell them to go to the National Museum of Korea because on the third floor there is someone who has been waiting for them to come for the past thousand years!
Annals: Then what are some ways we can make our history and cultural heritage more widely renowned?
Jo: One of the ways that I am currently thinking of is through a “wearing our cultural heritage campaign.” The aim of this campaign would be to learn about our cultural heritage not just inside the classroom but to practice and apply it in our daily lives. Instead of common greetings, like “how was your day?” I am looking forward to starting a conversation with the question “what heritage are you wearing today?” and continue with an introduction of our cultural relics. Then our lives will be much more worthwhile.
Annals: Currently, you have replaced a midterm exam with an overnight fieldtrip. Is there any special reason for that?
Jo: What do you think is the best way for strangers to become acquainted and intimate with each other? The best way is to share a secret. What I mean by this is nothing special, but rather to do something together. I think that an overnight trip with classmates is the best and quickest way to create a secret. This way, students will be able to communicate more easily than in the classroom. Active communication will help them understand each other better, which would bring the class closer together as well.
Annals: Are there any features of Korean history that we may consider with pride?
Jo: Although the *Jeon*-Go-ryeo and Baek-je Dynasties collapsed, Jeon-Go-ryeo had its high pride, and Baek-je was very open to accepting new cultures from abroad. This allowed Jeon-Go-ryeo to have a strong spirit and Baek-je to achieve prosperity within Korean culture. Silla was too dependent on other countries but was also exceptional in diplomacy and, in the end, it unified the three kingdoms. In the future, Korea should live along with the world on the basis of high spirit and creativity, just like the three kingdoms did in history.
Another point of pride for our country is the Joseon Dynasty. Joseon was a small and weak country compared to other East Asian countries. I still think very highly of Joseon, however, because Joseon maintained its Yi Dynasty, governing the country through the Seong-li-hak philosophy of morality and ethics influenced by Confucius that was considered as the governing system of thought and values of Joseon for 500 years. There are no other countries in the world that have retained 500 years of a Dynasty with a unified surname and one consistent religion. Korea should therefore be very proud of its history and our ancestors.
Annals: These days, people are losing interest in learning history. Could you tell us why it is necessary to study history?
Jo: People say the start of human civilization was illustrated through stoneware. Stoneware is important because pottery contains humans’ thoughts. Nonetheless, these days, it seems as though people are not trying to think anymore. Maybe it is due to their tight schedules and intense lifestyles. Even if they are financially stable, they do not have time to think deeply.
Learning history can bring an abundance of thoughts. I would like to tell you that what exists in the present actually is the product of a thousand years of history. In order to understand today, we must learn about yesterday. The Gwang-gae-to Stele lets us know that carelessness in history brings about consequences. While we were indifferent to the Gwang-gae-to Stele, Japan had discovered it first and used it to invade Korea. We will have to pay the price in the future for today’s disregard of history.
*Bi-cheon-sang: image of a flying fairy that appears in Buddhist stories
**E-mil-le bell: Shilla’s representative bell made by King *Sung-duk*
***Guk-ho: name of a country
****Wang-gun: the founder and the first king of the Go-ryeo Dynasty
****Wi-hwa-do Retreat: Go-ryeo’s General Yi Seong-gye’s retreat back to Go-ryeo, disobeying an order to conquer China, an event that was the beginning of Yi’s founding of a new dynasty: Jo-seon
*****Gwang-gae-to the Great: 19th king of Go-gu-ryeo, who is praised for his great achievements