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Introduction to Goguryeo Mural Tombs
  • Introduction of Tomb Murals
  • Distribution and Categories of Goguryeo Mural Tombs
  • Goguryeo Tomb Mural Gallery
  • Understanding the Tomb Murals of the Goguryeo Kingdom
  • Preface
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Understanding the Tomb Murals of the Goguryeo Kingdom
Understanding the Tomb Murals of the Goguryeo Kingdom Choe Gwang-sik (Professor, Department of Korean History, Korea University)

  1. Introduction

Although the term 'tomb mural' generally refers to murals that employ pigments to depict concrete imagery, in some cases, it also encompasses line etchings (線刻畵, seongakhwa), reliefs (浮彫, bujo), and paintings which contain only decorative patterns. Tomb murals were usually painted on the walls or ceilings of tombs that contained burial chambers. Because these murals depict scenes of life, they serve as crucial references documenting the conditions qand customs of their era. Portraits and scenes of daily life usually served as their main subjects, although religion and the afterlife were sometimes depicted as well. Accordingly, the contents depicted in tomb murals operate as crucial data regarding details of daily life and views on the afterlife that were prevalent during the time. In fact, the vivid images portrayed in these tomb murals are valuable historical resources for periods on which written records are scarce. Thus, tomb murals serve as archives preserving visual information from a time long before photographic images were available.

  In Korea, the history of tomb murals spans a thousand years, from the kingdom of Goguryeo to the early Joseon Dynasty (37 BCE ~ 1506 CE). Similar to other murals, Goguryeo tomb murals offer a window into the mental and social circumstances of the Goguryeo people, and the form and content of the murals serve as invaluable art historical data. The kingdom of Goguryeo, erected by Jumong in 37 BCE, flourished until 668 CE when it was destroyed by the Silla-Tang alliance. Initially, Goguryeo ruled the northern part of the Korean Peninsula and part of the Manchu area surrounding Hwanin and Jian, regions surrounding the middle portion of the Yalu River; however, by the fifth century, Goguryeo had moved its capital to Pyeongyang on the banks of the Daedong River, thereby expanding its territory to the central region of the Korean Peninsula. Territorial expansion was particularly notable during the reign of King Gwanggaeto, the eighteenth ruler of Goguryeo, upon whose achievements his successor, King Jangsu, transferred the capital to Pyeongyang. Along with Silla and Baekje, Goguryeo was one of the major states of the Three Kingdoms Period and ruled over the largest territory among the three, playing a significant role in ancient Korean history. The study of the history of the Three Kingdoms Period has depended largely on the History of the Three Kingdoms (Samguk Sagi), Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms (Samguk Yusa), and epigraphs; however, due to the dearth of documentary records available for understanding ancient Korean society, Goguryeo tomb murals have proved to be a type of historical repository comprehensively depicting the customs, mental, and religion of Goguryeo. Benefitting from its strategic location, Goguryeo forged direct and close relationships with the diverse peoples of Northeast Asia as well as China, and thus was able to develop its tomb murals into a unique art form combining North Asian style and Chinese elements. In terms of style and form, Goguryeo tomb murals stand at the forefront of the art of the Three Kingdoms.

  2. Current State of the Goguryeo Tomb Murals

Goguryeo tomb murals were unveiled around 1902, when the Magistrate of Gangseo County in South Pyeongan Province and his retinue found the murals inside Gangseodaemyo (Large Tomb of Gangseo) and Gangseojungmyo (Middle Tomb of Gangseo) - two of the three great Goguryeo tombs in Gangseo County. After the French scholar Edouard Chavannes examined Sanyeonhwachong and reported his findings, Japanese scholars took the lead in studying the murals.

  Goguryeo tomb murals can be found not only in stone-filled tombs with built-in burial chambers but also in stone-mound tombs with burial chambers. To date, Goguryeo tomb murals have been found in areas such as Fushun, Hwanin, and Jian in China, Pyeongyang and its environs, and Anak County in Hwanghae Province. From the fourth century to the mid-seventh century, Goguryeo continued to produce tomb murals in the aforementioned areas as the main centers, and the murals' contents, format, and techniques of expression have changed over time.

  Sixty-three Goguryeo tombs situated in present-day North Korea have been registered as Cultural Properties on the World Heritage List. Of these sixty-three tombs, sixteen are mural tombs: Yonggangdaechong, Anak nos. 1, 2, and 3, Deokheungli mural tomb, Susanli mural tomb, King Dongmyeong's tomb, Yaksuri mural tomb, Ssangyeongchong, Deokhwari 1 and 2, Jinpari 1 and 4, Honamli Sashinchon, Gangseojungmyo, and Gangseodaemyo. So far, approximately eighty Goguryeo mural tombs have been identified in North Korea and thirty-eight in China. As such, a total of 120 some odd Goguryeo mural tombs have been identified, a number that will most likely increase as more investigation gets underway.

  3. Form and Content of the Goguryeo Tomb Murals

In early Goguryeo, the internal structure of the mural tombs consisted of multiple chambers, but in the middle period, the structure was modified to house either double or single chambers. By late Goguryeo, however, most were single-chamber tombs. Such a transition demonstrates that the internal structure of the Goguryeo mural tombs became simplified over time; interestingly, this transition is intricately tied to the actual content of the murals themselves. When the subject of the murals dealt mainly with customs and everyday life, many rooms were built to accommodate the diverse array of scenes depicted, but as the subjects diverged from everyday life and veered heavily toward decorative patterns and the depiction of the Four Deities of Direction (sashindo, 四神圖), only single chambers were needed.

  In terms of content, Goguryeo tomb murals can be largely divided into three types: those mainly portraying everyday life and customs, those concentrating on decorative patterns, and those centered on the depiction of the Four Deities. These categories are pertinent not only in terms of content but also in regard to chronological change. In other words, the main subject in the early Goguryeo period was everyday life and customs, the subjects gradually shifted to the depiction of the Four Deities by late Goguryeo.

  1) Murals Focusing on Portraits and Everyday life

  A great number of extant tomb murals feature portraits and scenes of everyday life as subjects in either part or all of the mural, recording the lives of Goguryeo people between the fourth and seventh centuries. In general, these murals belong to the first phase of Goguryeo mural painting, a phase analogous to the period between the end of the third century and the start of the fifth.

  The portraits and scenes of everyday life portray the lives of the tomb occupants in a photorealistic manner; such efforts to create accurate depictions extend even to the design of burial chamber structures that literally re-create or symbolically reflect the residences once inhabited by the tombs' occupants. By recording the notable aspects of the tomb occupants' public lives and portraying the abundance enjoyed in their private retreats, such murals embody the wish to maintain such earthly prosperity in the afterlife.

  Since the main subject of these murals is the everyday lives of the Goguryeo aristocrats, the contents regularly feature single portraits of tomb occupants, double portraits of the tomb occupants and their wives, processions, hunting scenes, dancing and singing, banquets, portrayals of quotidian surroundings, recreational activities, and the sun, moon, and stars. Depictions of such subjects can be found in Anak Tomb no. 3, Muyongchong, Suryeopchong, Gakjeochong, Deokheung-ri Mural Tomb, Sasan-ri Mural Tomb, and Jangcheon Tomb no. 1. Through murals tombs such as these, the people of Goguryeo sought to recreate earthly life inside the tombs by constructing the tombs so as to reflect the lives of the occupants. In other words, the people of Goguryeo seem to have believed that the most ideal afterlife was one in which the earthly life was transposed completely intact.

  2) Murals Featuring Decorative Patterns as Main Subjects

  Some time in the fifth century, decorative patterns-most commonly of concentric circles, the Chinese character for "king" (王), lotus flowers, flames, other flowers, and clouds-began to appear as major elements in the composition and contents of murals. Though more research is needed to decipher the exact meaning of each of the patterns used, it is certain that they all contain symbolic significance.

  Of all the patterns, the lotus flower pattern has been painted most often. Since lotus flower patterns varied over time, they can be categorized into numerous types based on their shapes. Though lotus flowers have always been understood as containing Buddhist significance, they were in use long before the dissemination of Buddhism, and celestial beings that have no connection to Buddhism were often portrayed as standing on lotus petals. As such, the meanings conveyed by lotus flower patterns are tremendously diverse. In fact, lotus flower patterns have been used in numerous cultures; in Egypt, they signified the sun and regeneration, while in China they symbolized the heavenly ruler and the sun. In Buddhism, lotus flowers symbolize the Buddha and have also been understood as the entities that give birth to different beings in Pure Land, the Buddhist paradise; thus, lotus flower patterns painted inside a burial chamber are the expressions of longing for rebirth in Pure Land. The lotus flower patterns in Sanyeonhwachong and Yeonhwachong, where no other patterns were painted, and in the burial chamber of Jangcheon Tomb no. 1, appear to be concrete expressions of the Buddhist wish for rebirth in the Pure Land. The murals of this period, represented by those in Sanyeonhwachong, Yeonhwachong, Hwanmunchong, and Jeon Dongmyeongwangreung, were painted after the dissemination and acceptance of Buddhism in Goguryeo and therefore expressed the Buddhist view on the afterlife. However, by the beginning of the late Goguryeo period, lotus flower patterns had begun to lose their Buddhist significance and thus can be seen as embodying a broader type of sacredness.

  3) Murals Centered on the Four Deities of Direction

  The Four Deities of Direction are the gods of the North, South, East, and West, symbolized by a tortoise-snake, red phoenix, blue dragon, and white tiger, respectively. Interestingly, all of these animal figures are imaginary. Representing seven constellations each (out of the twenty-eight constellations), the Four Deities in a burial chamber are painted in the following order: the blue dragon to the West, the white tiger to the East, the red phoenix to the South, and the tortoise-snake to the North.

  In the early Goguryeo murals, the Four Deities of Direction were depicted on only a small portion of a ceiling. As the murals approached the late period, however, the Four Deities became the entire subject of murals in some tombs, with one wall dedicated to each deity. The Four Deities of Direction in the late Goguryeo murals were painted in vibrant color and are renowned for their exceptional artistic value.

  The people of Goguryeo appear to have believed that the Four Deities either served as guardian spirits along one's way to the afterlife or protected the burial chamber. For those who considered the tomb as a place in which spirits dwelt and souls prepared to enter the afterlife, the painting of murals dedicated to the Four Deities served as a protective measure against the evil spirits. Though currently available documents reveal that the Four Deities began to appear in Chinese records even before the beginning of the Common Era, it would be inaccurate to conclude that the Four Deities were purely a product of Chinese culture. Indeed, the Four Deities were depicted in stone reliefs and copper mirrors of the Han Dynasty excavated in a region formerly occupied by the Lelang Commandery, but they were never the primary subjects of any Chinese mural tombs. In Chinese tombs, the depiction of the Four Deities comprised only a small part of the murals, and the quality of the paintings was far below that of Goguryeo depictions of the Four Deities.

  On the other hand, the Four Deities were key subjects in many of the mural tombs in Gogureyo, as exemplified by the magnitude of the depiction of the Four Deities in Gangseodaemyo. Such treatment of the Four Deities as the chief subjects is characteristic of Goguryeo, which began after the sixth century, as represented by several mural tombs in particular: Gangseodaemyo, Gangseojungmyo, Ohoebun Tomb nos. 4 and 5, and Tonggusasinchong. The murals in said these mostly express the Taoist view of the afterlife held by the Goguryeo people but also display some elements of Buddhism.

  4. Technique of Mural Production

Goguryeo tomb murals were painted either on walls and ceilings that had been treated with lime to even them out or directly on untreated surfaces. In general, murals employing the former method are called 'lime-plastered surface murals', and those using the latter method are called 'stone surface murals'. The lime-treated surface method was commonly used in the early and mid-Goguryeo periods, whereas the direct stone surface method was used in the late Goguryeo period.

  The lime-plastered method is divided into fresco (i.e., painting on wet plaster) and secco (i.e., painting on dry plaster). The advantage of the fresco technique is that it enables the pigments to seep into the lime, which lessens the oxidization and discoloration, thereby maintaining the chroma and intensity of the pigments over the long run. Murals painted on a lime-plastered surface erode easily because they are vulnerable to fluctuations in temperature and humidity. Most Goguryeo tomb murals painted on such surfaces have either already eroded, with the lime surface falling off, or are in the process of erosion. Many of these murals are difficult to conserve because of dew condensation caused by the diurnal and annual temperature fluctuations or changes in the environment within the tomb brought on by robberies.

  For the secco technique to be used, watery slaked lime composed mainly of high-viscosity red clay must be applied to create a thin first layer. To create the second layer, lime mixed with finely chopped rice straw or copepods and sand must be applied two or three times. Then, for the final layer, high-purity slaked lime is applied. The actual painting process begins as patterns are placed on the final layer of slaked lime and traced with Chinese ink or wood chips. These sketches are then coated with color.

  In contrast, Stone surface murals are painted directly on the stone surface after the surface has been carefully polished. The extant murals painted using this latter method still remain vivid. Compared to the lime-plastered painting method, painting directly on the surface of the stone enables the original artwork to last longer regardless of whether the environment within the tomb is unfavorable; however, the quality of the environment does indeed affect these murals too; prolonged exposure to outside air causes discoloration and oxidization as well as microbiological penetration of the pigments.

  The pigments used in the murals were mixed with adhesive pine-soot ink, pulverized cuprite (to produce ultramarine blue or Prussian blue), pulverized malachite (dark green), orpiment (bright yellow), verdigris (pale green), cinnabar (vermilion), kaolin, gold, and hydrocerussite (white). Against a pale brownish background, these pigments produced black, yellow, purple, blue, and green.

  5. Conservation of Tomb Murals

Murals painted on lime-plastered walls, they are vulnerable to changes in temperature and humidity, tend to suffer from exfoliation of the lime or the pigments. Even when the tombs are hermetically sealed, the natural dew condensation caused by seasonal and diurnal temperature fluctuations can damage murals painted on lime-plastered surfaces. Moreover, robberies and destruction of many tombs can cause damage by allowing outside air to enter the tombs, hence triggering some vacillation in temperature and humidity. In contrast, murals painted directly on stone surfaces are less susceptible to erosion because the pigments permeate the surface layer by seeping into the uneven surface, causing the pigments to adhere completely to the background; however, even these murals can be damaged if exposed for a prolonged period to outside air or fluctuations in temperature and humidity. The best conservation method, therefore, is to maintain the environment inside the tombs in a state akin to when the tombs were constructed. Thus, most tombs are currently sealed for conservation purposes. When tombs remain open to the public for tourism, the murals inside can suffer irreparable damage. Ohoebun Tomb nos. 4 and 5 in Jian, China clearly exemplify the danger involved in opening tombs for public viewing; after these tombs were opened, the murals began to erode and now are beyond repair, having lost their original form.

  At the moment, efforts to conserve tomb murals continue. Particularly notable is the Yaksu-ri tomb mural in North Korea, for which UNESCO has formed a conservation team of scholars and experts from all over the world. Moreover, in the spirit of inter-Korean reconciliation, committees from the two Korea's Inter-Korea Historian Association and North Korea's Cultural Preservation Administration - have collaborated in mural conservation efforts for Jinpa-ri Tomb nos. 1 and 4, as well as on the investigation of conditions inside ten tombs located in or near Pyeongyang. These collaborative efforts succeeded in the conservation and installation of equipment for maintaining constant temperature and humidity, thereby ensuring long-term care and monitoring for the murals concerned. In addition, the two sides discussed the possibility of sealing the tombs and constructing models instead, though the discussion came to naught.

  Excessive restoration efforts must be undertaken in order to conserve tomb murals. Instead, efforts must be put toward returning the conditions inside tombs as closely as possible to the state they were in when constructed. Results from experiments also need to be accumulated over the long term and analyzed. Moreover, efforts must focus on developing the technology and skills necessary for manufacturing pigments, conserving the internal environment of tombs, and overall conservation of murals.

  6. Significance of Tomb Murals

As a key player in the Northeast Asian cultural landscape, Goguryeo actively engaged in invaluable cultural exchanges not only with its immediate neighbors Baekje, Silla, Gaya, and Balhae, but also with the states on the western border of China, as well as Japan. Through such extensive networks of cultural exchanges, Goguryeo continued its development, at once influenced by and influencing all of the states involved. Though tomb murals were not the cultural properties solely of Goguryeo, Goguryeo developed a unique style incomparable with those seen in other states. An examination of the tomb murals of neighboring states, manufactured at the same time as Goguryeo tomb murals, reveals the origin and characteristics of Goguryeo murals as well as the sphere of influence existing among the diverse tomb murals in the region.

  The most notable characteristic of Goguryeo art, beginning with tomb murals, is its unique combination strength, dynamism, elegance and sophistication. Through the Goguryeo tomb murals, we can still see its people's dispositions, spirit, and aesthetic tendencies, as well as the gradual transformations of their art, customs, clothing and accessories, architecture, views of the universe, burial practices, religion and ideology, exchanges with neighboring states, and culture over time. Limited to the Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms (Samguk Yusa), History of the Three Kingdoms (Samguk Sagi), and epigraphs of primary sources, the study of Goguryeo can only benefit from a close examination of these tomb murals which provide both an important gateway into various aspects of Goguryeo culture and invaluable historical documentation of their cultural heritage. Not only are tomb murals crucial relics by which to depict the lives and ideologies of the Goguryeo people, but they are also documentary evidence of the harmonious combination of the local and international values of the era. As the murals developed and transformed in step with the historical development of Goguryeo, they provide a window into the realities of Goguryeo that is not available through written records. Through these colorful tomb murals, the history and culture of Goguryeo come alive.

Jeon Ho-tae, Goguryeo Gobunbyeokhwa-ui Segye [The World of Goguryeo Tomb Murals] Seoul: Seoul National University Publishing, 2003.

Inter-Korea Historian Association, Nambuk Gongdong Goguryeo Byeokhwagobun Siltaejosa Bogoseo [Report on the Inter-Korean Collaboration on Investigation of the Conditions of Mural Tombs], 2006.

An Hwi-jun, Goguryeo Hoehwa [Paintings of Goguryeo] Kyeonggi-do Paju-si: Hyohyeong Chulpan, 2007.

Jeong Ho-seop, Goguryeo Gobun-ui Joyeong-gwa Jeui [Construction of Goguryeo Tombs and Rituals of Ancestral Worship] Seoul: Seogyeong Munhwasa, 2011.

Goguryeo tomb murals are famous for their diverse contents and subjects that clearly express the integrity and sophistication of the Goguryeo people. Let us examine the characteristics of these murals. First, the subjects are diverse and the contents rich. Goguryeo tomb murals depict subjects as diverse as politics, economy, military, culture, arts, science and technology, history, and religion, portraying nature, society, and customs of a given era.

Anak Tomb no. 3

Second, the internal structure of the mural tombs was constructed to re-create the architectural forms of the periods during which the tombs' occupants were alive. Such re-creation can be seen in Anak Tomb no. 3, for example. In the corridor from the entrance to the burial chamber is painted a path inside the main gate of a house, in the antechamber a garden, in the western side room a space in which to carry out political duties, in the burial chamber the main space for quotidian life, in the cloister a backyard, and in the eastern side room a stable for various animals including cattle as well as storage space. Third, the methods particular to the Korean paintings, namely the line drawing method, chroma harmonizing method, and no-outline drawing method, are clearly demonstrated in Goguryeo tomb murals. The line drawing method utilizes lines to express the emotions, forms, and diverse movements of the subjects. The chroma harmonizing method at once maintains the original colors of the subjects and harmoniously unifies the color scheme of the entire painting. The no-outline drawing method figuratively symbolizes the subjects. The last method can be easily seen in the paintings of pines and the mane and tail of the galloping horse in Jinpa-ri Tomb no. 1. In addition, elements of fiction and hyperbole can be found in the horse riders leaping over the limbs of a wrestler or a mountain.

Understanding the Tombs' Structure
Anak Tomb no. 3
1. Early Period: Transposing the Real World into Mural Tombs
Boksa-ri mural Tomb

In the early period of the Goguryeo mural tombs, the people of Goguryeo believed that the tombs' occupants would enjoy in the after life the exact lives they enjoyed here on earth. As such, they constructed the inside of the tombs and painted the murals to replicate the real-life residences of the tombs' occupants. Anak Tomb no. 3 and Deokheung-ri Mural Tomb are representative of such trend.

2. Middle Period: Simplification of Tomb Murals under the Influence of Buddhism
Yeonhwachong cross-cross-sectional diagram and floor plan

The people of Goguryeo accepted the Buddhist doctrine of samsara or reincarnation in the early fifth century and believed that the status and lives enjoyed here on earth could be continued in the afterlife. As such, they desired to be born into the Pure Land, the Buddhist Elysium, by doing good deeds according Buddha's teachings. Fittingly, lotus flowers, which symbolize Buddhism, appear frequently throughout the tomb murals of this time period.

3. Late Period: Construction of Sasinchong under the Influence of the Yin-Yang Five-Elements School

Gangsedaemyo cross-sectioal diagram and floor plan

In the early sixth century, tomb murals began to be heavily influenced by Taoist philosophy. Consequently, painting the Four Deities of Direction (blue dragon, white tiger, red phoenix, and tortoise-snake) on the northern, southern, eastern, and western walls of the burial chamber according to the Yin-Yang Five-Elements philosophy of Taoism became popularized. Such depiction was chosen with the hope that the Four Deities surrounding the coffin would protect its occupant. Because only the Four Deities needed to be painted on the four walls, single-chamber tombs became widespread during this period

Understanding the Murals
1. Large Depictions of People with High Status
Deokheung-ri Mural Tomb

In Goguryeo murals, the higher the status of the subject, the larger the depiction, and lower the status, the smaller the portrayal. Since most who were buried in the tombs were either royalty or aristocrats, the tombs' occupants were the largest figures among all those in the murals.

2. Re-birth as Lotus Flowers
Deokheung-ri Mural Tomb

In Buddhism, lotus flowers symbolize enlightenment as well as the Pure Land, a Buddhist Elysium into which those who have reached enlightenment are re-born. Some of the murals feature people inside the lotus flowers, demonstrating the hope of the descendants that their ancestors would be reincarnated through lotus flowers.

3. Sacred Animals that Protect the Tomb-The Four Deities of Direction

The mural tombs built in the sixth century feature the four sacred animals (blue dragon, white tiger, red phoenix, and tortoise-snake) that surround the coffin in the middle. In Taoist philosophy, these animals were believed to protect the tombs the bad energy emanating from the four directions (north, south, east, west). The blue dragon symbolizes the east, the white tiger the west, the red phoenix the south, and the tortoise-snake the north. The red phoenix is a representation of the phoenix, the symbol of peace, and the tortoise-snake is an imaginary animal combining a tortoise and a snake.

4. Yellow Dragon in the Middle of the Mural Tombs, Symbolizing the King

Yellow dragons were mostly drawn in the center of ceilings in Goguryeo mural tombs. Located in the middle of the Four Deities of Direction (blue dragon, white tiger, red phoenix, and tortoise-snake), the yellow dragon symbolizes the king with its yellow hue that represents the energy of the earth as well as the center of everything. The Joseon palaces Gyeongbok-gung, Changdeok-gung, and Gyeonghui-gung also feature yellow dragons on the ceilings of the buildings in which the Joseon monarchs resided.

5. Ilweolseongsin--The Gods of the Sun, the Moon, and the Stars

"Ilweolseongsin" are the gods of the sun, the moon, and the stars. The sun is represented by a circle that ensconces a three-legged crow, and the moon is represented by a circle in which are a toad and a white rabbit making medicine using a mortar and pestle. The medicine the rabbit is making is the elixir of life; it was believed that Taoist hermits secretly made elixirs of life. "Ilweolseongsin" is part of an ancient folk religion of the people of Korea.

6. World of the Taoist Hermits

In examining the murals in detail, one finds celestial beings and Taoist hermits flying through clouds, usually on sacred birds and animals such as imaginary birds called "nanjo (鸞鳥)," cranes, peacocks, and dragons. The Taoist hermits can usually be seen holding something in their hands; it is in fact the elixir of life they are holding.