Bugs, beetles and worldviews

Having been temporarily expelled from my office because of the presence of beetles that merrily eat through the wooden ceiling beams, I had to think of an entry in the History of Koryŏ (Koryŏsa 高麗史) about a similar problem that plagued the pine trees of Kaesŏng. At first sight this entry may look obscure and hardly worth of any serious attention. But I think this passage is more than an anecdote; it offers a fascinating entry into the worldview(s) of Koryŏ. This is the concerned passage:

“In the fourth month of 1102 (the seventh year of the reign of Sukchong) insects were eating the pine trees, so Buddhist monks were mobilized to recite the Flower Garland Sutra (Hwaŏmgyŏng 華嚴經) for five days to stop this disaster. On the kyeyu day in the fifth month the king led some of his ministers in the palace in a celebration of a commemorative ritual for Sangje上帝 and the Five Emperors五帝. A prayer of repentance was directed at T’aejo 太祖, the sun and the moon and was only discontinued in the evening of the third night. On the pyŏngsul day of the sixth month, the ruler decreed that the ministers of state should perform rituals in honour of the spirits of the great mountains and streams of the east, west, south, north and the middle of the country, divided in three separate places of worship. He furthermore decreed that 2,000 monks should be gathered and split in four groups that would tour the mountains around the capital and in the provinces, while reciting the The Heart of the Prajna Paramita Sutra (panyagyŏng 般若經) to the insects to rescue them and stop disasters. In the end, 500 soldiers were mobilized to catch the insects on Pine Tree Peak (Songaksan松岳山).”

The appearance of insects in Kaesŏng’s sacred mountains, eating the pines that were considered essential to the well-being of the dynasty, was not to be taken lightly. Indeed, when this happened later in the dynasty “the people said that [the appearance of the insects in the pine trees] was the foreboding of the emergence of a new dynasty”. The significance attached to this omen, however, is perhaps of less immediate interest than the solutions that the Koryŏ court came up with in this case and in many other, comparable instances. First, it made Buddhist monks perform sutra recitations and in other instances elaborate rituals. When that did not prove to be effective, the king himself offered Daoist rituals to the Ultimate Being and the Five Emperors, to the founder of the dynasty and to the sun and the moon. Then, the spirits of the landscape, of Koryŏ’s mountains and streams were beseeched to intervene. Desperate, one can easily imagine, that the insects did not disappear, 2,000 monks were send out to preach to the pesky little bugs and when that did not work, soldiers were sent into the mountains to engage in close combat with the blasphemous insects. Other instances also record to mobilization of troops of shamans.

The wide range of solutions applied by the Koryŏ court never ceases to amaze me. Although it is easy and perhaps tempting to laugh this anecdote off as superstition, this would be a little too easy. To all appearances, these remedies were thought to be possibly effective. The destruction of the sacred pine trees, the symbol of the Koryŏ dynasty, was a serious matter; only means of proven effectiveness were considered and deployed. What then to make of this entry if we take it seriously? How to explain the ease with which effective remedies were sought in Buddhism, Daoism, worship of the landscape, shamanism and Confucianism (in other instances, Confucian rituals were also performed to make the insects disappear)? In my reading, this entry, and many like it, represent an essential part of the Koryŏ worldview(s), its plurality, its contradictions and inconsistencies and its practicality. The dominant worldview in Koryŏ (certainly until the Mongol domination) was pluralist and allowed the existence of contradictions between its constituent parts without trying to remove these or synthesizing them into one vision of relaty. In this case, pest control is the concrete manifestation of this worldview, but the Koryŏ dynasty’s officials, too, were products of this worldview, while helping to perpetuate it in many different forms; they were trained according to a classic Confucian curriculum, were for the most part Buddhists (some officials became lay monks later in life and all had brothers who entered the Buddhist clergy), were interested in Daoism, professed to believe in the significance of geomancy or the art of reading the landscape, and conducted ceremonies in honour of one’s ancestors and the spirits of mountains and streams. And, if one looks at their actions, these people could also be called rational (at least to the same extent as their modern counterparts can), able to stand back and make decisions based upon a reasonable consideration of the pros and cons. Historiography has paid most attention to those historical figures that stood out as eminent (and radical) Buddhists, Confucianists, nativists and so forth, but I would say that the majority of Koryŏ’s educated elite was in favour of pest control in the manners described above, instead of preferring one exclusive method. It certainly seems preferable to the men in white suits that expelled me from my readings in pest control.


  1. Well, I’m in favor of what works, and there’s nothing wrong with experimenting…

    One thing that I’ve noticed in my current World history textbook is that they seem to make a fetish of pointing out that the naturalistic studies and knowledge of pre-modern societies were “not truly scientific” but it is fair to say that they are rational: given the worldview in place (geomancy, animism, etc.), the steps taken were entirely rational as was the willingness to move on to different methods when one failed. (though they would have gotten more points if they’d given up the failed methods in the future…)

    But it is, indeed, an excellent example of the worldview in place, you’re right. Problem solving is a great window through which to view a culture.

  2. Very interesting post. The only question I have is why we should automatically assume that the response of the Koryo elite to the insect infestation is necessarily a manifestation of “contradictions and inconsistencies.” Or perhaps, put differently, perhaps “contradictions and inconsistencies” (which by definition imply the existence of perfect ideal types, the likes of which I have yet to actually encounter in reality) are the only really consistent element of the human experience.

  3. You are right, we should not “automatically assume that the response of the Koryo elite to the insect infestation is necessarily a manifestation of contradictions and inconsistencies.” The insect infestation case was meant as an example of a view on the world that, in my view at least, was very prevalent in Koryŏ; standing on its own, it admittedly does not immediately convey this. But if occurences such as this are seen against the background of a society which consciously educated its members in several, mutually incommensurable thought and belief systems, I believe it is possible to read such occurences as instances in which a worldview that actively acknowledges the presence of “contradictions and inconsistencies” is expressed. This, however, does not mean that such a worldview should be contrasted with “the existence of perfect ideal types”, but merely with worldviews that possess a more narrow bandwith with regard to tolerance of contradictions. I unreservedly agree that “contradictions and inconsistencies” are the only really consistent element of the human experience”, but with the caveat that this is often not considered to be desirable, correct or “as it should be”. In my opinion, at least, the conscious acknowledgement that fundamental contradiction and inconsistency were part of the Koryŏ worldview is what makes it stand out; not the presence of contradiction, but its perception.

  4. I don’t know Koryo historiography very well, but is there any possibility that this is poking fun at the Buddhists and Daoists? I can imagine a Chinese Confucian writing something like this as a dig at “backward” beliefs. Even more radical, could the whole thing be a dig at the ruling dynasty’s legitimacy/virtue? Elvin’s Retreat of the Elephants mentions some examples of Chinese suggesting that records of weird natural events were in fact editorial digs and the emperor rather than actual belief in two-headed singing calves or whatever. Most of his examples are Ming and Qing, however.

    On the other hand there is a nice bit in the old DeBarry Sources of Japanese tradition about a dying Heian aristocrat praying to every possible form of Shinto and Buddhist belief to save his life. (He died.) Do you think Koryo Koreans were more likely to be eclectic like the Japanese or cynical like the Chinese?

  5. It is an interesting point of view, but I don’t think that these instances were used to poke fun at Buddhists, Daoists etc. One difference with China was the fact that Buddhism was Koryo’s state religion; Buddhism, both institutionally and intellectually, was significantly more powerful and more present than in Ming or Qing China. And it was moreover not the exclusive domain of the Buddhist clergy.

    There are certainly instances of weird or irregular natural phenomena that threaten the legitimacy of the dynasty, but I think it is important in those cases not to dismiss these phenomena as mere excuses to push the ruler in a certain direction. These phenomena were thought to have significance and this belief in their significance gave the people who tried to interpret them room for political manoeuvre.

    I hesitate to compare Koryo with either Ming or Qing China or with Heian Japan, because despite the fact that they all borrowed from the same set of East Asian cultural resources, I am not sure to what extent a comparison is viable. For Koryo, I would say that its dominant worldview was not as much eclectic, but aggregrative; instead of taking the best bits of different thought and belief systems, I think that in Koryo the majority of the elite could more or less literally switch from one worldview to another if circumstances demanded. There is a nice bit about the human ability to do so in certain situations in a book by an anthropologist called Renato Rosaldo, Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993). It describes how some long-lasting social situations can create people who switch with considerable ease between radically differnt personae, at least when viewed from the outside, but who are nonetheless wholesome and integrated persons. To sum up, I see little evidence of syncretism or of eclecticism in Koryo, but rather of a form of pluralism, which expressed itself in aggregrating rather than dividing up or putting together different views on the world.

  6. Interesting post – the problem you raise here is central to my own research on Buddhism and the state in Koryŏ, so I kind of feel compelled to chip in. I also sometimes wonder why so much effort was spent on rituals that are – as we now know – obviously of no practical use. It is tempting to see these things as a façade and try to rationalize them so that they fit into our own worldview. All we can do is try to contextualize them as much as possible, because it’s always dangerous to look at such a statement in isolation. One thing that may help in interpreting this event is the idea of a holistic, organic universe in which everything is connected – I think Needham referred to this as ‘correlative thinking’ or something. Such a worldview doesn’t make an absolute distinction between the human sphere and nature – so events in the natural words, calamities or bountiful harvests, are linked to human behavior, and the ruler’s role in attempting to regulate that behavior. The passage quoted about the bugs in the pine trees (interestingly, this is happening again – people refer to it as ‘tree aids’ and a whole swath of pine trees on our campus has been cut and burned; I’m sure people here in Taegu would love to see this as a sign of the present ruler’s incompetence) is thus found not in the annals section of the Koryŏsa, but in the treatise on the five elements, more specifically the part on the element wood (kwŏn 54). Ensuring that these were well regulated was an integral part of rulership. So it would have been completely natural to make a link between such an event and, for example, the ruler’s competence. So besides dealing with the actual calamity, it was perhaps more important for the ruler (or those in power generally) to maintain a firm grip on the way people perceived the problem; the pine trees on Song’ak were inextricably linked to the fate of the dynasty through the founding myth, but a resourceful ruler could ‘spin’ this calamity by, for example, looking for a scapegoat, or altering the interpretation of the myth.
    Buddhism had completely absorbed this kind of correlative thinking as shown by Sharf in his Coming to Terms with Chinese Buddhism – a key concept is that of ‘sympathetic resonance’ (Ch. ganying), which is indeed mentioned in many texts Koryŏ scholars wrote on the occasion of a Buddhist rituals. So (at least in the Koyŏ period) Buddhism, Daoism, geomancy, Confucianism etc. can simply be seen as different strategies operating within the same general parameters. However, in the case of Koryŏ, Buddhism was crucial in the balance of power, so rulers naturally tried to ensure first of all that they did everything possible in Buddhist terms. Interestingly, though I have found examples of failure to produce rain showing bad on rulers or officials, there are no such examples for monks and Buddhist rituals, even though they obviously often did not produce results. I guess this shows the position of strength Buddhism occupied, which meant that any failure of a ritual could be explained as a lack of sincerity/purity/devotion… on the part of the person on behalf of whom it was organized, so that no response (ying) could be induced (gan) from a/the Buddha(s).
    Ultimately, Sukchong’s failure to get to grip with this problem ideologically probably paved the way for arguments to change the capital, culminating in Myoch’ŏng’s revolt. But how all these events dovetail (I’m sure they do) would require a whole article…

  7. A few comments:

    1. I did not quite understand the “contradictions and inconsistencies” untill I read the posts in reply. I think there is an underlying assumption of sectarian exclusiveness for all peoples at all times. I am not quite sure that is a necessary axiom. Although it would appear to be axiomatic in our own times, I have known individuals who were pious Christians, believing in the power of God to heal, who went often to the doctor; who, in their occupations, were very rigorous in their thinking application of the skills (without using any religous ritual), and who occasionaly read their horoscopes. There are those who attempt to apply very rigid doctrinaire codes to their lives, but I suspect most of us really are not that restrictive or exclusive.

    2. For Kirk W. Larson, I am not quite certain that ““contradictions and inconsistencies” (which by definition imply the existence of perfect ideal types…)” logically imply perfection.

    3. Jonathon Dresner, I concur with your observation on “science”. But I would like to make some comments.

    a. If we divide thinking into “science” and “philosphy” (I came across this duality from a physicist-I like the division, I think it is far better that “science” and “unscientific or nonscientific”, since “science” has achieved such a status in our culture that anything not science is deemed false, suspect, or ludicrous.), we will see that both are very rational and logical.

    b. The essence of “science” is the experiment, and the first experimenters were mechanics and aritsans. An elite group, but from the commoner sort of people. The Philosophers were from the educated elite group.

    c. The most significant advantage of “science” over “philosphy” was that it was quicker to disgard the inefficient and non-productive.

  8. You are right, Sem, to point out the importance of correlative thinking. The concept of “sympathetic resonance” is also of prime significance in the performance of Confucian state rituals (such as the Rould Altar ritual). It also figures prominently in ritual music theory of the time, both in Koryŏ and Song China. The significance of the pine trees here is indeed double-fold: firstly, because this abnormality points at a less than perfect virtuous ruler and secondly, because these pine trees were tied to Koryŏ’s founding myth.
    I am not sure, though, to what extent Buddhism, Daoism and so forth can be considered as different strategies operating within the same general parameters. To a certain extent, they certainly did and I think you are right to point out that in this case, they did. There seem to be cases, though, in which neither of these specific strategies could be used to replace another one, suggesting that there at least some of their underlying principles were not compatible or even incommensurable.
    This is a subject about which I have not been able to form any definitive conclusions, so I am glad to hear other points of view. Like Sem, I think that this issue is quite central to understanding Koryŏ.

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