|Go-un Choi Chi-won
고운 최치원 孤雲 崔致遠
Korea's great Confucian-Daoist
"Lone Cloud" Sage-Hero
his life, achievements and legacy
|two of the various modern portraits of Master Lonely-Cloud
|Great scholar, writer and spiritual sage Choi Chi-won (857-?) is one of my favorite figures of all
Korea's cultural history, displaying so many virtues & talents and symbolizing many key themes. I
think that he exemplifies the spirit of the Unified Shilla Dynasty’s waning days, and the incipient
harmony among Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism -- a general "culture hero" of Korean tradition.
He was born in 857 in what is now Inwang-dong village on the northern-most slope of highly sacred
Nam-san [South Mountain] in the Unified Shilla Dynasty's capital Gyeongju, near the end of that
fabled kingdom. The noble Gyeongju Choe family, now a multi-branched clan of more than two
million, considers him to be their effective progenitor, although it existed for centuries before him (as an
aristocratic caste of administrators called yukdupum (六頭品, “sixth head rank”). His scholar-names
are known to be both Go-un [孤雲, Lonely Cloud or Solitary Cloud] and Hae-un [海雲, Ocean Cloud].
One old tradition holds that in 856 Choi's mother prayed to the Sanshin [Mountain-spirit] for his
conception in a high valley now called Sangyeon-dae [上蓮臺, Above-Lotus Platform], reputed
since ancient times to be a highly-sacred site of strong energy conducive to spiritual disciplines,
about 900m high on the southeast slope of Baegun-san [White Clouds Mountain, summit 1279m, a part
of the Baekdu-daegan Range]. It is recorded that she was rewarded for her piety with a vision of
Gwanse-eum-bosal [Avalokitesvara the Bodhisattva of Compassion] manifesting as sitting on a
lotus-flower, hence the name. A sign now on that site says that in 924 Choi Chi-won himself built
a Buddhist temple dedicated to that deity on the prayer-site to commemorate this auspicious event
that led to his birth.
Above Left: myself (in January 1987!) respectfully
studying the Choi Chi-won biseok monument at
Jiri-san Ssanggye-sa -- see this page for much more.
Above Right: the Choi Chi-won biseok monument at the
ruins-site of Boryeong City's Seongju Temple; see this page.
Left: the Choi Chi-won biseok monument at Mungyeong
City's Bongam-sa Temple; see this page.
Two portraits of Go-un that are in the Seongbo
Bakmul-gwan [Monastic Tresures Museum] of the
great Jiri-san Ssanggye-sa monastery, age unknown
but definitely from the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910).
I'm sorry for the bad photo of the one above, but i
had to shoot it through a very reflective glass case!
The one on the right shows him in a truly Daoist
mode, similar to that of Sanshin paintings.
Choi grew up as a prodigy during Shilla's steep decline from a world-class trading, military and
religious power into utter civil and political collapse. He was sent to Chang-an [now Xian], the capital
of the also-declining Tang Dynasty of China, to further his studies in Confucianism in 867 at just 12
years old (by Korean-style counting; 10 by ours). His father reportedly strictly admonished him to diligently
excel in his studies so as to become the pride of his nation and family-lineage, threatening to disown
him if he did not. He took this advice to heart, passing the advanced exams in just six years (873),
earning the invaluable Jinshi [進士] degree qualifying him for government service, and the favorable
notice of Tang Emperor Xizong. Choi was so obviously talented that Xizong ordered him to stay
there, employing him as a middle-ranking imperial official for nearly a decade.
At first he served as a Court Chamberlain for Xizong; it is recorded that he was granted a fish-
shaped pouch decorated in purple and gold (紫金魚袋), presumably a bag in which to carry official
documents and seals. However, in 874 widespread famine caused the dire Huangchao Rebellion
(874-884) to begin ravaging the nation, killing millions and destroying the economy and social order.
Choi served as Secretary-Attendant under Generals Gao Pián and Li Keh-yung in their struggle
to suppress it, contributing brilliant strategic advice. In 879 when Huang Chao had captured and
sacked the capital Changan and pro-Tang forces were rallying to retake it, Choi wrote a essay
called Dotong-sungwan criticizing the rebel leader that was so sharply poignant that Huang Chao
fainted off his chair when he read it, and subsequently his leadership potency and military fortunes
declined. Emperor Xizong recognized Choi's virtuous assistance in the eventual defeat of the
rebel forces, rewarding him with a promotion to the War Ministry, and then as Magistrate of Lishui
County of Xuanzhou Province (now southeastern Anhui Province). In his collected works survives his
earliest known poem, speaking of the lonely feelings of this young man so far from home for so
long, as he crossed the Yellow River on his way to Lishui:
"Who is there within China to sympathize with him from without?
I ask only for the ferry that will take me across the river.
Originally I sought only food and salary, not the benefits of office;
Only honor for my parents, not my own reputation.
On this traveler's road, rain is falling upon the river;
In my former home that I dream of returning-to, it is springtime beneath the sun.
Crossing the river, I accept my fortune upon the broad waves;
I wash ten years of dust from my humble cap-strings.
("ten years of dust" refers to his lonely stints of study and service since he had left Gyeongju for Changan;
compare this with how he "washed his ears" of corruption-dust in the Daeseong-gyegok, as told below).
It is recorded in the Tang Annals that he was then appointed to serve as Magistrate of wealthy
Yangju City (揚州, Yángzhōu) in Jiangsu Province, the peak of his Chinese career; Yangju still
remembers him as honest, brilliant and highly capable; it still preserves a shrine for him, within
the Dangseong Yujeok fortress-park. Memorial ceremonies are still held there.
|paintings and relics of Choi-Chiwon in the Jeongeup County Museum, 2013
|Choi steadily devoted himself to learning, practicing and teaching "Seondo" Daoist techniques
of longevity / immortality, including yogic meditations, herbal medicines and natural wisdom. The
contemporary Jiri-san Cheonghak-dong Samseong-gung claims that he learned and refined the
Seondo-Daoist philosophy and practices on the site that is now their spectacular compound.
He enjoyed periods of residence at some of Korea's greatest Buddhist temples, "paying for his
stay" by researching and composing their historical records; he is known to have studied, wrote
about and practiced both the Seon [Chan, Zen] and Hwaeom [華嚴宗, Huayan, Avatamsaka or Flower-
Garland] Schools, and wrote biographies of both Chinese Hwaeom Master Fazang and his friend
Korean Hwaeom Founder Uisang. In at least five cases he carved the resulting historical essays
and hagiographies of famous Korean Buddhist masters of the 9th Century (that have proved primary
sources of accurate information on Shilla Buddhism) as inscriptions on biseok [碑石, stone steles with
turtle base and dragon cap], considered some of the greatest ancient Korean literary works
(along with his poetry). Three of them are now designated as National Treasures -- those at
Boryeong Seongju-saji, Huiyang-san Bongam-sa and Jiri-san Ssanggye-sa (see photos below).
A part of a 4th, named the Daesungbok-sa Bimyeong [대숭복사비명, 大崇福寺碑銘, Stele of
Mahayana Treasure Temple], is preserved at the Gyeongju National Museum; it is now dated
at 885, and so may have been done while Choi stayed in Gyeongju just after his return from
Tang. The one at Ssanggye-sa is now dated at 887 and that at Seongju-saji at 890, which is
confusing because he was then Magistrate of Jeongeup at that time (though may have travelled
around some?), and popular belief has always envisioned him writing those during his wandering
years after 895. The one at Bongam-sa is now dated at 924, which would certainly have been
near the end of his days (he would have been 67 years old then).
In his last years he lived near or in Mt. Gaya-san Haein-sa Temple (伽倻山 海印寺) forming close
ties with two eminent monks, Master Hyeonjun (賢俊) and his elder brother and fellow Master
Jeonghyeon (定玄), both serving under the famous Hwaeom Sect Master and Abbot Huirang
(Heuirang-daesa, 希朗大師), and writing its history (it was closely associated with the victory of
Taejo Wang Geon and establishment of the Goryeo Dynasty). Cheongnyang-sa, a smaller temple
on the steep slope facing Gaya-san on its south, claims that it was his residence (this 청량사 should
not be confused with the temple of the same name north of Andong, mentioned above).
Some modern scholars of the Naepo Region (northwestern South Chungcheong Province), however,
claim that this has been an error of confusion with the Gaya-san mountain-complex in the center
of their region -- they say he finished his years as Magistrate of Naepo County, built a pavilion
and gave lectures (the school was called Ganghak) on Gaya-san's northern slope, left many
carvings of his poetry or sayings in his calligraphy on local stones (especially in Deoksan-myeon
Okgye-ri, eastern Gaya-san), died at Bowon-sa Temple (a.k.a. Gangdang-sa, a once-large-and-important
monastery of the Hwaeom School, the ruined site of which is on Gaya-san's northern slope near where Choi's
pavilion stood), and his body is buried in a heretofore-obscure tomb there, now in Janggok-myeon
District of southern Hongseong-gun County (this theory is very interesting, but unverified).
The date of Choi Chi-won's death is unknown, although he was certainly still living as late as 924,
the date of one of his surviving stele engravings; and he is thought to have still been alive when
the Goryeo Dynasty formally succeeded Shilla in 935 -- he would have been 78 years old by then.
Many people believe that he never actually died, but rather achieved shinseon [spiritual immortality]
status at Gaya-san's summit in the 930s~940s -- intuiting and saddened that Shilla was at its end,
he bid the others at the temple farewell and went off hiking. Days later monks went up to search
for him, but they only found his straw sandals, hat and walking-staff on the peak -- they assumed
that he had become a Daoist Immortal [shinseon] and either remained in spiritual existence on
those crags or had ascended to Heaven. One tale is that he recovered or conjured the magical
jade or bamboo flute called Monposik-juk of Shilla's Great King Munmu, probably a kind of
daegeum, and by playing it beautifully on Gaya-san drove away all forces of misfortune and
death, thereby becoming a shinseon.
The searchers brought his gnarled hiking-staff (commonly a symbol of an oriental spiritual master's powers
& attainment) back to Haein-sa and stuck it in the ground, where it supposedly sprouted to life and
grew into an ancient tree still venerated there (see the similar legends at Jiri-san Daeseong-gyegok, the
Taebaek-san Buseok-sa Josa-dang, and other such sites around Korea). Cynics might think that he
committed suicide or was eaten by a tiger, but this is all ultimately nothing but conjecture.
Choi may have been traditionally enshrined in a "Guksa-dang" [National Master Shrine, for a
powerful guardian-spirit] before Haein-sa's front gateway, as a local guardian-spirit similar to
a Sanshin; see this page.
One well-known story claims that at the end of his wandering years, realizing that Shilla was
utterly failed beyond hope and had lost the "mandate of heaven", wrote two lines of verse and
dispatched them to Wang Geon, already the founder of the Goryeo Dynasty, convinced of his
greatness and auspicious fitness to rule, especially by the promulgation of his "Ten Injunctions".
Choi apparently came to believe that Wang Geon had inherited the "mandate of heaven" to
succeed the collapsing Shilla dynasty as the ruler of the peninsula, and so he secretly sent off
a prophetic couplet reflecting his support of the new dynasty: “The leaves of the Rooster Forest
are yellow; the pines of Snow Goose Pass are green.” (계림황엽 곡령청송, 鷄林黃葉 鵠嶺靑松)
-- Gyerim [Rooster Forest] being an ancient sobriquet for Shilla's capital city Gyeongju and
Gok-ryeong [Snow Goose Pass] being the ancestral home of Wang Geon on Mt. Songak-san
of Gaeseong City, and by association the just-forming Goryeo Dynasty; "yellow" indicates the
withering of late autumn, while "green" means freshly burgeoning. However, scholars note that
this anecdote first appeared in the historical chronicle Samguk Sagi (published in 1145), long after
Choi had died, and now believe that Choi, a native and once-ardent supporter of Shilla, did not
write it. It may have been attributed to him by scholars backing the young Goryeo Dynasty to
buttress its legitimacy and win support for it from elder Shilla aristocrats.
Choi is thought to have adopted the scholar-name Go-un [Lonely Cloud] to reflect his feelings
about his life in effective internal exile. Many southern Korean cities, counties and sites continue
to boost their prestige by claiming that they he visited and performed spiritual practices there,
such as the Shinseon-dae [Platform of a Spiritual Immortal] bluff on the south coast of Busan City
(just east of the main port), Jiri-san's Hadong-gun and Andong's Goun-sa, or that he served as a
local official there, such as Seosan-gun County of South Chungcheong Province. Many of these
localities enshrined Choi in their Seodang or Seowon schools, and those shrines are still proudly
maintained, and ceremonies are still held at them. The intensity with which such claims are made,
and the extent to which the localities employ them in tourism promotions of all kinds, testifies to
the strength of his reputation as one of the primary Korean cultural heroes.
Choi Chi-won heard that his homeland Shilla was declining into ruin (as was the Tang itself), and
asked Emperor Xizong for permission to return home, which was granted by imperial edict in 885;
the Samguk Sagi, however, states the pure-Confucian notion that he was moved to return by
concern to visit his elderly parents, but assisting them and assisting his homeland are both worthy
Confucian concerns, and can be seen as interlinked rather than contradictory.
He was received with great honor in Gyeongju by the court of King Heon-gang (憲康王, r. 875–886),
and then he was appointed as a mid-level official in various palace offices by King Jeonggang
(定康王, 886–887). However, as the Samguk Sagi states, he "had obtained much knowledge and
skill through studying in Tang, and upon return he was going to act according to his own intentions,
but the political situation had deteriorated; there were many who were suspicious and envious,
and so he was not accepted. Leaving the Shilla capital (we don't know if this was voluntary or not)
he became the Chief Magistrate (太守) of Taesan-gun (太山郡, Grand Mountain County)".
Taesan County was of Jeolla-do Province (currently Jeong-eup, Taein-myeon & Chilbo-myeon Districts
of Jeongeup City in North Jeolla Province), and he ruled there for seven years (887-93) -- the Museong
Seowon (Neo-Confucian Academy) was built there to honor him 800 years later. During this period
he may have visited at least 2 famous Buddhist temples and written historical inscriptions for stele
monuments [biseok], as they are now dated as within the 887-890 period (see below). He is also
credited with establishing a few pavilions and gardens in the Jeongeup area for scholars to discuss
ethics, philosophy and government at inspired leisure.
One of those was the Yusang-dae garden where a bending stream of water would float a wine-
glass, a design copied at the Gyeongju Nam-san Poseok-jeong (where the Shilla Dynasty tragically
ended), modeled after the Yusang-goksu banquet-site in Nanjing, China (famously visited by ancient
calligrapher Wang Cizi) -- this was washed away in a flood during the early Joseon era, and a pavilion
named Gamun-jeong was built to mark the site. Another was the Pihyang Pavilion and its "realm
of the immortals" pond.
|poster for a 2013 exhibit on Choi
in the Jeongeup City Museum,
and a photo in it of a bust of Choi
enshrined in Lishui County, China
Shilla was by then in an advanced state of collapse, with the central monarchy greatly weakened
by internecine struggle and refusal of the aristocracy to pay taxes, with power devolving into the
hands of regional warlords who controlled the countryside outside the capital region with their
own private armies. Upon his second triumphant return from Tang Choi did his Confucian best
to save the kingdom from collapse by advocating needed reforms, writing the still-famous essay
"Ten Points of Restoration" [시무십여조, 時務十餘條] and presenting it to Queen Jinseong in 895.
However, the infamous corruption of her court was too deeply entrenched, and while his excellent
proposals were praised they ultimately were ignored.
Despairing that the necessary reformist measures could ever be implemented and becoming
pessimistic towards the troubled times, he left the capital and "washed his ears" of its corruptions
in the pure waters of the deep remote gorge of Jiri-san north of Ssanggye-sa & east of Chilbul-sa
which thereafter became named Daeseong-gyegok [Great Sage Scenic-Gorge] in his honor.
He spent his later years wandering the southern third of the peninsula, occasionally working as a
local official for a few years (or so various counties now claim). He visited many beautiful and
sacred sites, and held philosophical discussions with their monastic residents, while also writing
many excellent poems. His wanderings began just two years before the death of the other Great
Sage of those times, Doseon-guksa, Buddhist Master of Pungsu-jiri Geomancy, but there is no
record that they ever met or corresponded.
The Samguk Sagi biography of Choi does not mention his disappointment in having his Ten
Points of Refoprm rejected, but describes his despair and self-exile in more general terms:
"Having (again?) served in the great Tang to the west, Choi Chi-won returned to his homeland
in the east (Shilla). However, he found there only a nation suffering from chaotic rebellions;
his feet were restrained and to make any move would easily meet with disaster (this is a metaphor
for the deadly political corruption in the capital). Pained that he could not meet with better fortune after
his reception, he did not again seek a career in officialdom."
"He wandered in self-abandon; below the mountain forests beside the sea, he built a platform-
tower (臺, dae) or pavilion (榭, sa) and planted pine and bamboo around it. He used history
books as his pillow, and composed poems aloud, inspired by the wind and moon." This refers
to his residence on Busan City's Dongbaek-seom Island (now a peninsula), overlooking lovely
Haeundae Beach (now Korea's most famous and popular recreational beach), and giving it that
name by carving "Hae-un-dae" [Sea-Clouds Platform] onto a cliff-stone beneath his pavilion (the
carving still exists).
It continues with a short listing of places he visited for extended stays (all comments are mine):
Nam-san [南山, South Mountain] in Gyeongju (a.k.a, Geumo-san, at the front of which he had been born).
Bing-san [氷山, Cold Mountain] said to have been in Gangju (剛州, Strong Prefecture, now Yeongju City
although it is now found well south of there in southern Uiseong-gun County; this could be a simple mistake); this
was actually Bingsan-sa Temple, now a ruined site with only a Shilla stone pagoda standing, now
in the Binggye-gyegok County Park in Chunsan-myeon District of southern Uiseong-gun County,
North Gyeongsang Province. This area has Korea's largest concentration of "punghyeol", small
caves from which streams of cold air flow, very refreshing in the summer heat of humid Korea;
see also this page. It is believed that Choi stayed at Bingsan-sa and enjoyed the punghyeol
there for at least one summer.
Cheongnyang-sa Temple (淸涼寺) in Hapju (陜州, now Bonghwa-gun County just north of Andong City).
This famous temple founded by Great Master Wonhyo (the largest temple he is credited with starting)
is now in the center of the Mt. Cheongnyang-san Provincial Park. There is now a site named
"Goun-dae" and "Chiwon-dae" that overlooks the temple and its valley, on a long terrace between
steep cliffs on Geumtap-bong Peak (646m), also known as Chiwon-bong Peak; the terrace is
along a popular trailway designated as the "Old Wonhyo Path" in 2011, running from Cheongryang-sa past
Chiwon-dae and Eungjin-jeon Hall (Shrine for Goryeo Queen Noguk) to the Ipseok Trailhead. The first site
along the pathway is called "Eo-pung-dae" due to an old myth that an ancient Chinese Daoist
Sage named Yeol Eo-gu came there by riding on the wind (pung) and was entranced by the
beauty for one moon-cycle. Further along is the site now called Chiwon-am, Chiwon-dae or
Goun-dae, with a shallow cave known as Goun-gul (Go-un's Cave); it is said that Choi enjoyed
the beautiful views, played baduk, read books and wrote poems on this scenic site. Yet further
along the pathway is a spring that Choi named Chongmyeong-su (총명수, 了解水, Intellegence /
Understanding Water) and loved to drink from, as he found that this water made his mind more
alert and thinking deeper; Seonbi scholars and Buddhist monks used to visit here to drink this
water before taking an examination or writing a new essay; Korean tourists still also do so. Just
after the spring, getting near the Eungjin-jeon, is Punghyeol-dae, a hollow in the rocky cliff from
which a cool wind blows; Choi is said to have enjoyed sitting here to cool-off and enhance his
vitality on hot days. Choi is also associated with another "punghyeol" [wind-energy-point, a concept
of pungsu-jiri / feng-shui geomancy] site, Bingsan as descibed above, and there are other such ones
around Korea, such as on Jeju and Ulleung islands, and at Sogni-san, Daedu-san and Gaji-san.
Ssanggye-sa Temple (雙溪寺) on Mt. Jiri-san (智異山), thoroughly covered in these pages.
and a retreat-villa (別墅) in Happo-hyeon County (合浦縣); this site is down on the south
coast in what is now Masan City.
Choi also visited Go-un-sa Temple south of Andong, which later took his pen-name for its own.
He is credited with designing the unique Ga-un-ru [Floating Over Clouds] bridge-hall Pavilion,
construction being accomplished under masters Yeoji and Yeosa, which was rebuilt in 1835 after a
disastrous fire. The Gaun-ru stands seemingly precariously on thin poles straddling a small stream
that runs through the temple grounds near its front, as if it were defying gravity, said to look like a
man standing on long legs. The three of them are said to have designed and built another pavilion,
plainer but two-storied, named Uhwaru, which sits beside Gaun-ru in the lower courtyard.
|portrait and tablet of Choi Chi-won now enshrined in the Museong Seowon (Neo-Confucian Academy) of Jeongeup City
|a portrait of Choi Chi-won with empty background,
now in the Central National Museum of Korea
In the two subsequent dynasties, Choi Chi-won was honored as highly as a non-royal citizen could be.
The eighth Goryeo monarch Hyeonjong (顯宗 , r. 1009-31) had it recorded that, as the Samguk Sagi
rather enigmatically says, Choi had "secretly helped with the jo-eop [祖業, royal-progenitor work or
business, king's karma] (probably referring to the "yellow-green" poem he supposedly sent to Wang Geon, as
discussed above), and that the king was "unable to forget this meritorious service", and so posthumously
conferred the higher rank of Naesaryeong (內史令) upon him. In 1023, the same king further granted
him the posthumous high noble title Munchang-hu [文昌侯, Cultural-Beauty Lord, Marquis of Bright
Culture, or Lord of Beautiful Writing], and turned his birthplace and home on the northeastern corner
of Gyeongju Nam-san into a Confucian shrine named Sangso-jang [House where a Writing was
Presented, referring to the verses Choi was said to have sent to Wang Geon], featuring a royal stele named
the "Munchang-hu Choi Chiwon Sangso-jang Yuho-bi".
This shrine was enlarged and refurbished several times by the decrees of later kings, and has
been nicely rebuilt by the Choi descendants in the late 20th Century; it still features the stele and
a portrait-shrine for the sage named Yongcheon-gak [Dragon-heavenly-deity Shrine], which title
implies posthumous royal status for Choi. The restored Choi Clan aristocratic mansion sits just
across Gyeongju's South Stream and a bit to the west.
As Korea became increasingly committed to Neo-Confucianism in the 14th Century and subsequent
Joseon Dynasty, Choi became one of the most lauded members of Korea's pantheon of Confucian
sages, with pride of place in the nation's royal Confucian temple, the Seonggyun-gwan Mun-myo
[Culture Shrine] or Daeseong-jeon [Great Sages Hall]. His memorial tablet and portrait were
enshrined there in the historically-second position (after Scholar Seol Cheong (son of Master Wonhyo),
out of Korea's 18 most-honored Confucianists.
|the Dangseong Yujeok compound poster that contains a Shrine for Choi (inset left) in Yangzhou City, China
|model of theYusang-dae garden designed by Choi, in the Jeongeup City Museum
|On the lower eastern slope of Gyeongju's western sacred mountain, Seondo-san, a noted Neo-
Confucian scholar named Yi Jeong (李楨, 1578 - 1607) established the Seo-ak Seowon [West Peak
Private Confucian Academy] in 1651, which enshrines the three most accomplished personages
of the Shilla Kingdom who were not kings or monks -- Kim Yu-shin, Seol Cheong and Choi.
Choi has also came to be revered as a poet, due in great part to the relatively large number of his
poems that have survived, all written in classical Chinese; together with his historical essays on
steles, these are regarded as some of the best of traditional Korean literature.
In the early 20th Century, however, as Korean intellectuals began to re-examine their intellectual
and historical roots in the face of increasing national weakness and foreign encroachment, there
arose a critique of Korea's historical deference to China that targeted Choi Chi-won among others.
The most articulate voice of such nationalist sentiment was the historian and philosopher Shin
Chae-ho (1880–1936), who condemned Choi as one of the most glaring examples of Korean
intellectual subservience to China, a pattern of sequacious behavior on the part of Korea's
intellectual class that (according to Shin) over the long-run weakened Korea's national spirit and
exemplified sadae [serving the great") ideology (slavish subservience to great powers like China,
Japan or the USA).
On the other hand, since the early 20th Century cultural nationalists and Seondo [Korean Daoism]
adherents have credited Master Go-un with discovering the "original version" of the Cheonbu-
gyeong [Celestial Amulet Scripture] carved on a cliff at Myohyang-san, in an "ancient Korean
script" they call "deer-hoofprints characters", and translating its 81 words into classical Chinese
characters. He thereby is credited with producing the version that is today regarded as the
fundamental Korean Daoist sacred-text, with obscure meanings but mainly interpreted as a
cosmological treatise in the same tradition as China's I Ching. However, there is no hard extant
evidence of existence of this scripture or any association of Choi with it before the 20th Century,
and this story seems to be an apocryphal attempt to link Choi's credibility and profound spiritual
reputation with it.
Choi Chi-won continues to symbolically personify the noblest levels of Korean spirit, in a striking
combination of Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism and nationalist patriotism. He remains as one
of Korea's primary heroes of its traditional culture.
|Joseon Dynasty copies of Sage Go-un's writings and essays about him, now in the Jeongeup City History Museum
|portrait of Choi in the collection of the Museong Seowon
|an amulet of Choi sold at the Jiri-san Cheonghak-dong
Samseong-gung Seondo-Daoist compound
In the section on King Jinheung in the Samguk Sagi [三國史記, History of the Three Kingdoms],
Year 37 (576 CE; section 4:40.10-13), Choi Chi-won is introduced as writing in his “Preface to the
Stele of Hwarang Leader Nallang” (the Nallang-biseok, no longer extant):
“Our country has a (tradition, principle, way; 道) called pungnyu,
which is profound, mysterious and sublime.
Its source is described in detail in the Seonsa [仙史, Immortals' History,
thought to be a Chronicle of the Hwarang Corps, no longer extant].
In fact it combines the Three Doctrines (Confucianism, Daoism & Buddhism),
and grafts them together so as to transform the people into sages.
To practice filial piety in the family and loyalty to the nation outside was taught by Confucius.
To practice non-doing [muwi; wu-wei] and instruction-without-words was taught by Lao-tzu.
To practice good deeds and avoid all evil (thus improving karma towards enlightenment)
was taught by the Buddha.”
This is the first known mention of the term pungnyu [風流; wind-flowing], and the only time it is
used in the Samguk Sagi. Choi apparently coined this term to mean 'refined, elegant, noble tastes'
(especially in music, singing & dancing) as a unique aspect of Shilla culture practiced by Hwarang
elite soldiers, and then handed down as indigenous Korean culture that integrates the three imported
Chinese religions in a way that preserves native spiritual practices -- beyond mere Shamanism.
Pungnyu continues to be a key concept in discussing traditional Korean culture, meaning an aesthetic
expression of devotion to nature and serene naturalness, seamlessly integrating them with lifestyle
and the arts; particularly in the musical arts (especially associated with the gayageum and geomungo
stringed zither instruments, which Choi is said to have been an enthusiastic master of), and singing.
Pungryu-do is a way (道, 도, dao) of life incorporating and expressing China's "Three Teachings"
(Confucianism, Daoism & Buddhism) through contemplation of beauty, scholarship and artistic endeavors
that unify enjoyment of nature with mindful self-control into self-cultivation to sagehood. Some
scholars even posit it as the key underlying spirit of all Korean religions, even Korean Christianity.
The creation and explication of this term is one of Choi's profound legacies.
|an ink-rubbing of a Joseon-era stele about Sage Go-un in Jeongeup, and a rubbing of his great stele in Jiri-san Ssanggye-sa
|Choi transferred to serve as magistrate of what are now Gunsan City, Hamyang County and Masan
City in the early 890s -- claims are made and supposed relics & records were left, but there is no real
definitive evidence. However, he seems to have been quickly promoted to the Achan [阿湌, Sixth-degree
bureaucratic rank] post of Hajeongsa [賀正使, Emissary, Envoy] in 894 by ruling Queen Jinseong (眞聖王, r. 887–97),
although his ambassadorial trip was aborted due to civil disorder. According to the Samguk Sagi, he
finally made the long journey in 895 or so, following the traveling Emperor all the way from Yangzhou to
present-day Sichuan Province -- however, the dates of and even reality of this trip remain unknown and disputed
The collection of his writings contains a Missive (狀) he addressed to the Taishi Shizhong [太師侍中;
Great Master Palace Attendant, name unknown, reception of this missive unknown] in which he introduces him-
self with Confucian humility as "I, this shallow scholar of a certain Confucian college, a foreigner of
mediocre talent, do impertinently deliver up this Memorial, having come to the court of the joyful land
(樂土; Tang China); with utmost sincerity (誠懇) and in accordance with correct etiquette I hope to
make a humble statement." His essay then succinctly reviewed the 500 years of relationship between
the various Chinese and Korean states, and finally concludes: "Since that time until today, it has
been more than 300 years, but there has not been a single improper or hostile incident, and the blue
sea between Shilla and Tang has been peaceful. This is the fulfillment of the achievement of our
Great King Taejong Muyeol [태종 무열왕, 太宗 武烈王, r.654-61] (credited along with General Kim Yu-shin
and subsequent King Munmu with unifying the Three Korean Kingdoms and repelling Tang forces from the Buyeo
region). Most of the text of this excellently written formal essay is preserved in the Samguk Sagi, and
establishes the ensuing friendly relationship between the subsequent Korean and China Chinese
dynasties that lasted for 900 years, another aspect of Choi's illustrious legacy.
It is also recorded in the Samguk Sagi that during his first 16 years in Tang China he became good
friends with a famous poet of the same age named Go Yun (顧雲), along with other cultural luminaries.
When he was leaving to return to Shilla, Go Yun bade him farewell with this laudatory poem:
I have heard there are three golden turtles on the ocean;
and resting on the turtles’ heads is a lofty mountain.
At the top of the mountain is a pearl palace with seashell halls and golden shrines.
Below the mountain, the waves stretch for tens of thousands of miles.
The azure palace atop the massif is Gyerim [Shilla Kingdom].
Turtle mountain conceived a precocious talent, giving birth to a marvelous man.
Aged just twelve, he boarded a ship and came across the sea;
now his writings have moved China deeply.
Aged just eighteen, he freely competed in a poetry contest (the civil service examination);
firing a single arrow, he shattered the Golden Horse Palace Gate.
This further demonstrates the high esteem in which Chinese scholars held Shilla, and subsequent
Korean kingdoms, due to Choi's lofty accomplishments and manifest character, and his legacy of
maintaining such a grand reputation for his nation, down to the Great Ming Emperor Hóngwǔ-dì
(洪武帝, r. 1368-98) proclaiming it to be an ideal land for cultivating enlightened Sages [Joseon].
The Samguk Sagi biography of Choi concludes with a listing of his thirty extant volumes of collected
writings that continued to be influential in China, Japan and Korea for the millennium after him,
including vivid scholarly poetry; official prose (memorials, dispatches, etc, during his service both
in Tang and Shilla); private prose (on such topics as tea drinking and natural scenery); and the
afore-mentioned stele inscriptions. Known books include the twenty-volume Gyeweon Pilgyeong
[계원필경, 桂苑筆耕, Plowing the Cassia Grove with a Writing Brush] of official letters / memorials
composed while in the service of Tang, with some private prose; the single-volume Saryuk-jip
四六集, Forty-six Collection) and other fragments that continue to be keystones of ancient NE-Asian
literature. Choi has long been popularly credited with authorship of the Shilla Suijeon (신라수이전,
新羅殊異傳, Tales of Wonder from Shilla), the earliest and oldest known collection of Korean
Buddhist tales and popular fables (no longer extant but thirteen of its stories, including one about Choi himself,
have survived in other works) and the Yuseol Gyeonghak Daejang [유설경학대장, 類說經學隊仗), a
Confucian pedagogical work, but scholars are now unanimous in denying these to be Choi's works.
|a Confucian portrait of Sage Go-un with elaborate background,
originally from Gyeongju but now in the Jinju National Museum