Unified Silla (668–935) was prosperous. Its capital, Kyongju, was a crossroads of trade between China and Japan (Farris 1996, 1). Silla was mentioned both in Arabic sources of the time and in the famous Japanese book Tale of Genji. There were reportedly 35 mansions in Kyongju, some with separate quarters for each of the four seasons.
A late ninth-century census records more than 175,000 households. One report states that there were no thatched-roof houses in the city—all were tile-roofed. That report may have been exaggerated, but Kyongju clearly was an opulent city. One Tang source tells of the wealth of the ruling class and says that the highest officials had as many as 3,000 personal slaves.
Another measure of the glory of Silla is the art, architecture, stone carvings, and Buddhist temples that survive. Only a small fraction of the 203 temples that archaeologists say existed in the Kyongju area at the height of Silla rule remain, but they do suggest how wealthy the kingdom was.
One of the Buddhist remnants of note is the Emille Bell, created in the mid-eighth century, one of the largest bells in East Asia. The bell is rung by a wooden battering ram from the outside, not by a clapper inside the bell, as in the West. Its sound reverberates over and over for several seconds and carries a long distance.
The bell’s purpose is to call all sentient beings to worship the Buddha. The Emille Bell gets its name from an old Korean word that means “mother” or “mommy,” because the reverberations of the bell suggest the sound of a small child calling its mother. This haunting sound gave rise to a legend about the difficul-ties the metalworkers had in pouring the bell from molten bronze: After several failures, one of the foundry workers offered his young daughter as a human sacrifice.
Then the bell worked. But the haunting voice of the young girl can be heard each time the bell is rung. The legend raises the question of whether human sacrifice was practiced in early Korean history. The legend is an isolated case, however. Because there is no other evidence of such practice from early history, scholars conclude that human sacrifice was not practiced and that the legend represents merely a folktale explaining the haunting sound of the bell.
Some of the best art pieces of the time were stone carvings, which still survive. The granite Buddha sitting in a man-made cave high on the hills east of Kyongju overlooking the East Sea was carved at this time (751). The Buddha figure, known as Sokkuram (“the Buddha in the stone cave”) was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.
The image apparently was inspired by travelers and artisans from Central Asia. The walls surrounding the Buddha contain bas-relief sculptures of the disciples of the Buddha, many of whom have Caucasian features, long faces, and big noses. There is some evidence that artisans from Central Asia posed for the sculptures. There are also clearly non-Korean guardian figures at some of the tombs of kings, again attesting to the cosmopolitan nature of Silla society.
Silla monks and others traveled to Chang’an, the Tang capital. Some even journeyed to India. A notable example was a monk named Hyecho (704–787), who made at least two pilgrimages to India. We know his story because his diary was discovered in the 1930s behind a false wall in one of the Tunhwan caves in western China along the silk route. The diary gives details of visits to the various kingdoms of India and some kingdoms in the territory west of India. He made one trip by land through China and one by sea through Southeast Asia.
One of the most important travelers was a monk who never made the trip to China or India. In fact, he could not even get beyond the borders of Silla, yet he became one of Korea’s most important figures in Buddhism. His name was Wonhyo (617–686). Wonhyo tried to go to China once by land through the northern territory but was stopped at the border by Chinese guards, who said his description matched that of a criminal, a smuggler they were looking for. He tried again later to go by sea. He traveled across the Korean Peninsula from Kyongju on the east coast by land to the west coast to book passage on a ship in a port city.
As the travelers neared the coast a storm blew in, and they had to take refuge in a cave in the hills overlooking the port. Thirsty and tired, they fumbled in the darkness and found broken pottery pieces that were large enough to catch rainwater dripping at the mouth of the cave. When they awoke the next morning, they found that they were in a crypt and that the “pottery” was a skull. Wonhyo took this as an omen that he should not make the journey to China. His decision to stay home proved providential for him.
Whereas other monks would go and return to advocate the teachings of one school and one master, Wonhyo combined the teachings of several travelers and synthesized the various beliefs into a common belief system that became the core of Korean Buddhism. Wonhyo became known as the “Father of Korean Buddhism.”Though a Buddhist monk, Wonhyo was also the father of another important historical figure. Through a brief relationship with a prin-cess, Wonhyo became the father of Sol Chong (660–730), who became one of the first Confucian scholars in Korea.
In fact, he was the first to be enshrined in the National Confucian Shrine, and some refer to him as the “Father of Korean Confucianism.” Consequently, Wonhyo was not only the father of Korean Buddhism but also the grandfather of Korean Confucianism.Sol Chong was an important historical figure for an additional rea-son. Although his scholarly work was mostly in classical Chinese, he also saw the need to write in Korean.
Since the Korean alphabet was not invented until 1446, Koreans at the time modified Chinese charac-ters to reflect uniquely Korean aspects of language, such as grammati-cal particles and inflections. It was a cumbersome system, given that Chinese and Korean were so different. Before Sol Chong many different and inconsistent systems existed side by side. Sol Chong’s contribution was his proposal for a uniform and systematic use of specific characters for specific usages.
The system of using Chinese characters for writing Korean, called idu, literally “clerical readings,” was used by government clerks for daily record keeping. Classical Chinese was the lingua franca of most of Asia, and Korean scholars were as proficient in the language as the Chinese. The situation was not unlike that of medieval Europe, where the educated used Latin, whether they lived in England or on the Continent.