'Silk Roads' tracks Buddhism's spread to Korea

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'Silk Roads' tracks Buddhism's spread to Korea

By Jin Yu-young

Cover of "The Silk Roads" by Peter Frankopan
Koreans are taught that Buddhism came to the Korean Peninsula through a Chinese monk in 372 CE when King Sosurim of Goguryeo was in power.

Since then, Korean monks have gone to China to learn and bring back the teachings of various Chinese schools of Buddhism. Through the ancient cultural exchange, Buddhism became one of the three major religions in this country today, along with Protestantism and Catholicism.

However, little is known about how Buddhism, which originated in India, reached China, from where it would eventually come to be part of Korean culture. Peter Frankopan's "The Silk Roads" (2017) gives an explanation of this.

In the second chapter titled "The Road of Faiths," the author discusses the expansion of different religions such as Judaism, Christianity and Buddhism. Focusing on Buddhism, he mentions how the surge of Buddhists also led to an increase in "suptas," or places of worship on the travel route often taken by these religious practitioners. It is through the Silk Road that Buddhism would also reach Korea during the Three Kingdoms period. Through foreign artifacts and architectural structures found in ancient Korean temples, archeologists have been able to confirm Korea's involvement in the Silk Road.

The Silk Road not only facilitated trade in goods between the East and the West but also ideas, the author said.

"Buddhist ideas and practices were spreading east through the Pamir mountains and into China. By the start of the fourth century CE, there were sacred Buddhist sites all over Xinjiang province in north-western China …," it reads. "By the 460s, Buddhist thought, practices, art and imagery had become part of the mainstream in China, robustly competing with traditional Confucianism…"

The author observes rulers took the advantage of religion to solidify their legitimacy and this ultimately paved the way for the spread of Buddhism into other parts of China as well as other East Asian countries.

"The Northern Wei had much to gain by promoting the new at the expense of the old (Confucianism) and championing concepts that underlined their legitimacy. Huge statues of the Buddha were erected at Pincheng and Luoyang, far into the east of the country," the book reads.

In the ambitious and extensive overview of the history behind the Silk Road, Frankopan covers a timeline that stretches from the early 21st century all the way back to the onset of the Persian Empire. He not only focuses on the development of the Silk Road itself, but also highlights the impact it has had as an enduring and global spectacle of cultural exchanges in terms of ideologies, power dynamics and items of trade.

In the chapters "The Wheat Road" and "The Road to Genocide," Frankopan briefly outlines the Nazi Germany-Soviet Union relationship prior to and throughout Germany's invasion in the 1940s. He not only touches upon this, but also the strain it placed on other countries including Great Britain and Iran. With German troops having effectively diminished the food supply into the USSR, London and Washington provided aid for the civilians and the soldiers. In this way, the Silk Road played a role in delivering necessities not only to the front lines, but also to the masses whose lives were at stake.

The author concludes the book by mentioning that the Silk Road still exists, albeit in a modernized version. The advanced infrastructure of today has allowed pipelines to be built cross-regionally and high-tech transportation has made possible traveling across the globe in a matter of hours. He also makes note of the increasing popularity of high fashion (in particular Western brands such as Louis Vuitton and Prada) and its international cultural spread.

In his book, Frankopan does not compartmentalize the Silk Road as one exclusive path with a singular purpose, but rather highlights its development as a growing phenomenon, from the earliest traces of human existence to the modern-day world. It is through incorporating so many aspects that the readers are able to gain insight into a huge portion of the world's history.

Jin Yu-young is a Korea Times intern.


By Jin Yu-young

Cover of "The Silk Roads" by Peter Frankopan
Koreans are taught that Buddhism came to the Korean Peninsula through a Chinese monk in 372 CE when King Sosurim of Goguryeo was in power.

Since then, Korean monks have gone to China to learn and bring back the teachings of various Chinese schools of Buddhism. Through the ancient cultural exchange, Buddhism became one of the three major religions in this country today, along with Protestantism and Catholicism.

However, little is known about how Buddhism, which originated in India, reached China, from where it would eventually come to be part of Korean culture. Peter Frankopan's "The Silk Roads" (2017) gives an explanation of this.

In the second chapter titled "The Road of Faiths," the author discusses the expansion of different religions such as Judaism, Christianity and Buddhism. Focusing on Buddhism, he mentions how the surge of Buddhists also led to an increase in "suptas," or places of worship on the travel route often taken by these religious practitioners. It is through the Silk Road that Buddhism would also reach Korea during the Three Kingdoms period. Through foreign artifacts and architectural structures found in ancient Korean temples, archeologists have been able to confirm Korea's involvement in the Silk Road.

The Silk Road not only facilitated trade in goods between the East and the West but also ideas, the author said.

"Buddhist ideas and practices were spreading east through the Pamir mountains and into China. By the start of the fourth century CE, there were sacred Buddhist sites all over Xinjiang province in north-western China …," it reads. "By the 460s, Buddhist thought, practices, art and imagery had become part of the mainstream in China, robustly competing with traditional Confucianism…"

The author observes rulers took the advantage of religion to solidify their legitimacy and this ultimately paved the way for the spread of Buddhism into other parts of China as well as other East Asian countries.

"The Northern Wei had much to gain by promoting the new at the expense of the old (Confucianism) and championing concepts that underlined their legitimacy. Huge statues of the Buddha were erected at Pincheng and Luoyang, far into the east of the country," the book reads.

In the ambitious and extensive overview of the history behind the Silk Road, Frankopan covers a timeline that stretches from the early 21st century all the way back to the onset of the Persian Empire. He not only focuses on the development of the Silk Road itself, but also highlights the impact it has had as an enduring and global spectacle of cultural exchanges in terms of ideologies, power dynamics and items of trade.

In the chapters "The Wheat Road" and "The Road to Genocide," Frankopan briefly outlines the Nazi Germany-Soviet Union relationship prior to and throughout Germany's invasion in the 1940s. He not only touches upon this, but also the strain it placed on other countries including Great Britain and Iran. With German troops having effectively diminished the food supply into the USSR, London and Washington provided aid for the civilians and the soldiers. In this way, the Silk Road played a role in delivering necessities not only to the front lines, but also to the masses whose lives were at stake.

The author concludes the book by mentioning that the Silk Road still exists, albeit in a modernized version. The advanced infrastructure of today has allowed pipelines to be built cross-regionally and high-tech transportation has made possible traveling across the globe in a matter of hours. He also makes note of the increasing popularity of high fashion (in particular Western brands such as Louis Vuitton and Prada) and its international cultural spread.

In his book, Frankopan does not compartmentalize the Silk Road as one exclusive path with a singular purpose, but rather highlights its development as a growing phenomenon, from the earliest traces of human existence to the modern-day world. It is through incorporating so many aspects that the readers are able to gain insight into a huge portion of the world's history.

Jin Yu-young is a Korea Times intern.




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