Nationalism and the Samguk sagi’s Problematic Representation of Early Korean History—another largely unacknowledged elephant in the rooms of power

Jonathan Best, Professor Emeritus
Wesleyan University

It is becoming increasingly apparent to historians and archaeologists alike that the twelfth-century Samguk sagi’s datings for many of its early entries, especially in the Paekche Annals and the Silla Annals, are problematic. The problematic character of the dates ascribed to these entries is primarily due to the combined effect of two factors: the appropriation of the official imperial Chinese historiographic model by the Samguk sagi’s editors coupled with their acceptance of the impossibly early first-century BCE foundation dates that tradition credited to Silla and Paekche in particular. This combination of factors resulted in the creation of a chronologically grossly inflated, and therefore ahistoric, representation of the early Korean past. The Samguk sagi’s representation of Korea’s ancient history has, however, become essentially regarded as sacrosanct by both postwar Korean governments, and this manifestation of officially endorsed and underwritten nationalism has become even more pronounced in recent years as is regrettably evident from such things as the current textbook controversy in South Korea.

I will begin my presentation by briefly demonstrating how the employment of the historiographic model used in China’s so-called “dynastic histories” in the compiling of the Samguk sagi as a royally ordered history of the three previous dynasties necessitated the extensive antedating of accounts from the few peninsular records that survived from the Three Kingdoms and Unified Silla periods. I will then turn to my understanding of the causes and endemic structural supports for—and the deleterious effects of—the persistence in postwar Korea of a largely literal acceptance of the Samguk sagi’s representation of early peninsular history. I intend to illustrate this point with, in part, the example of the interpretation of some archaeological finds included in the exhibition, “Silla, Korea’s Golden Kingdom,” recently held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (November 2013–February 2014).

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