The opening of every episode of the drama King Gwanggaeto centered on a massive upright boulder-like object. The credits would appear on smaller broken bits of this huge rock. This rock structure plays such a central role in the opening introduction, but what is it? What does it mean?
This rock formation is called “The Gwanggaeto Stele” 광개토왕릉비 also known as HoTae Wang Bi 호태왕비. OK I will admit, I had no idea what a “stele” even was, so I’ll start with that. A “stele” is an upright stone slab or pillar bearing an inscription or design and serving as a monument, marker, or the like (thank you Dictionary.com). Putting two and two together, the Gwanggaeto Stele is a monument dedicated to King Gwanggaeto the Great 광개토대왕.
The stele was erected by Gwanggaeto’s son, King Jangsu 장수왕 in 414 AD. The reasons he did this was three-fold:
- Honor his father
- Commemorate King Gwanggaeto’s military triumphs and expansion of Goguryeo
- Serve as a reminder to the rest of the world that it was his intent to continue in his father’s footsteps by continuing the expansion of Goguryeo.
The stele is made from granite and stands at 7 meters (nearly 23 feet) with writing on all four sides. The writing gives an account of Gwanggaeto’s reign – it begins with the history of Goguryeo and then goes on to highlight Gwanggaeto’s accomplishments. The stele was accidentally rediscovered under a mound of dirt in 1875 in the present day city оf Ji’an 集安市 in the Jilan Provence. Ji’an sits along the Yalu River and wаs the capital оf Goguryeo when the stele was built.
From a historical perspective, it is the oldest writing we have from Goguryeo and it provides insights into the founding of Goguryeo; it is considered the primary “go-to” reference for the history of Goguryeo.
Because the stele is considered as a primary reference for Goguryeo, there are doubts that Hae MoSu was actually the father of Jumong. As a matter of fact, if you go to the English version of Wkipedia, it states Hae MoSu as the father of Jumong; however in the Korean version, it says father is: “Unknown.” (BTW – this discrepancy can be another article in itself so I’ll just leave it here.)
As you can see in the picture below, there are a lot of blank spaces. Improper cleaning methods and the use of lime back when it was excavated, led to some of the inscriptions to become worn down. They were able to make a copy by covering each side with paper and rubbing ink on the paper. The first rubbed copy was made by a Japanese scholar in 1881. The only original rubbed copies are in Japan and China. Korea has never had an original copy of the rubbings and the stele itself is in what is now China. Therefore, Korea never had full access to the content.
The following is a translation of all four side of the Gwanggaeto Stele from the Tokyo National Museum, where one of the original rubbings resides. Before reading the translation, its important to keep in mind that over the years a lot of the gaps have become mysteriously filled. The Japanese had a habit of taking liberties when it came to Korean history in order to suit its own agenda, so there are some parts of this which need to be taken with a grain of salt. The lines where some of the more questionable items have been added are in purple font. Another thing to point out is that in the 400’s, the state of Wa, now Japan wasn’t even a major player and were still viewed as barbarians. Yet they somehow appear throughout this stele a dozen times. Not even the Jin dynasty was mentioned, but yet the Wa were – a lot. Just sayin.
The following are some explanatory notes to make reading the translated version more understandable.
Original inscription in archaic Chinese
- 字* = variant or defective characters which are most likely identified by instances.
- 字^ = partly missing characters.
- [字] = variant, unclear or possibly misused characters that other characters are also suggested by some scholars. On this webpage, these characters are mostly based on a rubbing copy owned by the Institute for Research in Humanities of Kyoto University and partly on Sakawa’s copy owned by the Tokyo National Museum.
- [(字)] = characters that do not appear on these rubbing copies but suggested by several scholars based on examinations. On this webpage, these characters are chosen that coincide among several scholars, not just one or two.
- □ = eroded and completely unreadable characters.
- ■ = areas which the stele itself is crumbled.
- & 2. All readable and clearly identified parts are written in a plain font.
- Some parts that have a few different decodings and interpretations are put [in brackets].
- Some parts that don’t appear on rubbing copies are indicated in [Italic in brackets].
- Disappeared characters are indicated as [xxx] or [. . .].
- Crumbled areas are indicates as [: : : : :].
Long time ago, the first king Chumo (鄒牟王) established the country. He was born in North Buyeo (北夫餘). His father is the Emperor of the Heavens and mother’s name is Habaek (河伯女郎). He cracked the eggshell and [stepped down to this world]. He was innately the monarch [of virtue who]… . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . (He) went [a round in the country riding on a carriage], through Buyeo (夫餘) and Eomri Daesu River (奄利大水), to the south. At a bank of the Bullyu Cave (沸流谷), he said, “I am the King Chumo. My father is the Emperor of the Heavens and mother is Habaek. Turtles, float and form a line for me!” In the answer to his voice, innumerable turtles floated in a row to let him cross the river. He built the capital on the Seongsan Mountain (城山) in the west of Holbon (忽本).
[Since] the country seemed [stable and tranquil for a long time], a messenger (of the God), a golden dragon came down to invite him to the Heavens. On a hill in the east of Holbon, the king ascended to the heaven [on] the [golden] dragon’s [back of the neck]. According to Chumo’s will, King Yuryu (儒留王) ruled the country thereafter, and then King Daejuryu (大朱留王) succeeded.
The 17th King is the Gukgangsang Gwanggaeto Gyeongpyeongan Hotae Wang (國岡上廣開土境平安好太王). He ascended the throne at age of 18 and his throne title is the “King Yeongrak of the Great” (永樂太王). His merciful heart [was like] the Emperor of the Heavens, and his dignity and bravery swayed the four oceans. He swept away [all the anxieties] and securely ruled the country. The nation was wealthy, people were prosperous, the harvest was abundant, and the sky was clear without calamities.
NB: Gukgangsang Gwanggaeto Gyeongpyeongan Hotae Wang is his full posthumous name that means “The great king on the capital hill, great expander of the territory in tranquil borders.” The commonly known name,Gwanggaeto means the “Great expander of the territory.” His throne name Youngrak means the “Eternal peace.”
He [abdicated the throne] at age of 39 [by his death]. As of Eul’yu day (乙酉) September 29, Gap’in year (甲寅; CE 411), this stone monument is set up for his mountain tomb with inscription of his achievements to pass it [eternally] down to posterity:
Eul’yu day (乙酉): Yin Wood Chicken; Sexagemary day 22.
Gap’in year (甲寅): Yang Wood Tiger; Sexagenary year (干支) 51 ; CE 411.
Year of Youngrak 5 (永樂; CE 395), Eulmi (乙未):
Since Paryeo tribe (碑麗) did not [stop xxx-ing], the King led troops to subjugate them [again]. Passing through Bu (富山) and [Dap] (沓山) mountains, the King’s troops reached by the Yeomsu River (鹽水) and defeated Paryeo’s [military] fort with troops of 600-700 strong. There were countless cows, horses and sheep. On his return trip, the King inspected through the states passing through [Gok]pyeong-do (咢平道), Dongrae[hu Castle] (東來候城), Ryeok Castle (力城), Bukping (北豐) and [Obihae] (五備海), and did a hunting before returning in triumph.
Youngrak is Goguryeo’s era of CE 391-413; Youngrak 5 is CE 395.
Eulmi year ((乙未): Yin Wood Sheep; Sexagenary year 32; CE 395.
Paryeo tribe (碑麗) is believed to be a Khitan tribe.
Since Baekjan (百殘) and Silla (新羅) are originally subservient states (of Goguryeo), they paid tributes (to Goguryeo). And since the Sinmyo year (辛卯年; CE 391), the Wa (倭; Japan) came across the sea, defeated Baekjan, [(then xxx-ed Sil]la and made them subjects.
Baekjan (百殘): a derogative name of Baekje (百濟) by Goguryeo.
Sinmyo year (辛卯年): Yin Metal Rabbit; Sexagenary year 28; CE 391.
In Yeongrak 6, Hyeongsin year (丙申; CE 396), the King led [navy] troops to [punish] Baekjan. The troops conquered [(Baekjae’s) provincial] castles of Ilpal (壹八城), Gumono (臼模盧城), [Gak]mono (各模盧城), Gandaeri (幹弖利城), [xxx], Gakmi (閣彌城), Mono (牟盧城), Misa (彌沙城), [Gosa]yeon (古舎蔦城), Adan (阿旦城), Gori (古利城), [xx]-ri (□利城), Jap[jin] (雜珍城), Ori (奥利城), Homo (勾牟城), Go[mo]yara (古模耶羅城), [Makchu] (莫鄒城), [xxx], [Bu]niyara (分而耶羅城), [Yeon] (瑑城), [Eori] (於利城), [Nongmae] (農賣城), Duno (豆奴城), Bul[palbi]-
NB: Hyeongsin year (丙申): Yang Fire Monkey; Sexagenary year 33; CE 396.
-ri (沸八比利城), Michu (彌鄒城), Yari (也利城), [Dae]sanhan (大山韓城), Soga (掃加城), Donbal (敦抜城), [xxx], [Rumai] (婁賣城), [San’na] (散那城), [Naru] (那婁城), Se (細城), Moru (牟婁城), Uru (于婁城), Sohoe (蘇灰城), Yeonru (燕婁城), [Seo]jiri (析支利城), Am-mun[ji] (巖門至城), Lim (林城), [xxx], [xxx], [xx-ri] (□利城), Chwichu (就鄒城), [xx]bal (□拔城), Gomoru (古牟婁城), Yun’no (閏奴城), Gwan’no (貫奴城), Pungyang (豐穰城), [Bobal] (普拔城), [Jon’go]ra (宗古羅城), Gucheon (仇天城), [xxx].
The rebels (Baekje) still disobeyed and defied to have a [total] war. It made the king enraged. He led troops crossing the Arisu moat (阿利水) and closed in on the castle. They [made an attack from the flank, destroyed castle walls], and quickly [besieged] the castle. [Now] (Baek)jan [king] was driven into a corner and offered 1,000 people [as captives] and 1,000 pil (匹) of fabrics, then himself swore to be obedient to become a subject (of Goguryeo) forever. The King Gwanggaetto granted amnesty to the (Baekjae King’s) frenzied blunders in the past and wrote down the (Beakje King’s) oath as the “Faith of submission” (後順之誠). Accordingly, the Great King [acquired] 58 castles, 700 village towns and returned to the capital in triumph with (Baek)jan [king’s] younger brother and 10 nobles (as hostages).
NB: Pil (匹): 1 pil is about 20m/65ft
Youngrak 8, Musul year (戊戌; CE 398):
King sent a troop to scout a tribe of Sushen (肅慎). It resulted to have a tiny profit of capturing the Maksilla Castle (莫新羅城) and seizing the 300 Taera-gok Cave (太羅谷) people. Since then, they have sent tribute (to Goguryeo).
NB: Musul year (戊戌): Yang Earth Dog; Sexagenary year 35; CE 398.
Youngrak 9, Gihae year (己亥; CE 399):
Baekjan broke the pervious promise and allied with Wa. The King advanced to Pyongyang (平穰). There he saw Silla’s messengers telling him, “There were full of the Wa troops around the border and the castle’s moat was filled in. Since we are servants of Your Majesty, we pledge our allegiance to you and cordially ask your help.” The King mercifully [praised] their allegiance and let the messengers return (to Silla) [with his secret] message [of a stratagem].
NB: Gihae year (己亥): Yin Earth Pig; Sexagenary year 36; CE 399.
Youngrak 10, Gyeongja year (庚子; CE 400):
The King sent 50,000 troops to save Silla. From the Namgeo Castle (男居城) to the Silla Castle (新羅城; Silla capital), these castles were [full up with] the Wa troops. When Goguryeo [soldiers] arrived, the Wa troops retreated. : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . …(the Goguryeo troops) [hurried] to chase after (the Wa troops) to Imna Gara (任那加羅). When they assaulted the castle, the castle yielded immediately. (Meanwhile), the Alla defense soldiers (安羅人戍兵) [attacked] the Silla [Castle being full up with] the Wa troops. The Wa annihilated the castle and greatly… : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : …[although the 90 percent in the castle] were killed, [they rejected to surrender and these Alla soldiers were seized in the (Sil)la Castle]… . . . . . . . . …the [castle town was especially]… . . . . . . . . . . . .
- The edge of the stele is crambled and many characters are completeley unreadable.
NB: Gyeongja year (庚子): Yang Metal Rat; Sexagenary year 37; CE400.
. . . …[a correspondence of]… . . . . . . …[at the dawn]… . . …[the Wa soldiers]… . . …[small]… . . . . . . . . . . . …[occurred]… . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . …declined… . . . . . …[the (Baek)jan and the Wa]… . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . …annihilated, the Alla soldiers [of the Castle were also]…
Until that time, [the Prince] of Silla never appeared (to Goguryeo) by himself to [discuss on matters. The King Gukgangsang Gwang]gaeto Gyeongpyeongan Hotae [xxx-ed Silla so that the Prince] Bokho (僕勾) [of the xxxx house petitioned] to pay [a thousand of xxxx for] tribute (to Goguryeo).
Youngrak 14, Gapjin year (甲辰; CE 404):
The Wa unexpectedly invaded the southern border at Daifang (帶方). [The Wa allying with the (Baek)jan soldiers reached] the Seok Castle (石城). Their [xxx] fleet… . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . [The King himself led troops from] Pyongyang (平穰) [to defeat them]. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . …[colliding] each other. The (Goguryeo) swordsmen with the King’s flag slashed at the enemies and the Wa pirate (倭寇) collapsed with enormous casualties.
NB: Gapjin year (甲辰): Yang Wood Dragon; Sexagenary year 41; CE 404.
Youngrak 17, Jeongmi year (丁未; CE 407):
The King sent 50,000 troops to (defeat ???). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . [the King’s army] battled [all around], and entirely killed the troops. The triumphant force [acquired] over 10,000 armors and enormous amount of military equipment with recapturing six castles of Sagu (沙溝城), Ru (婁城), [Hwanju] (還住城), [xxx], [xxx], [xxnaxx] (□那□城).
NB: Jeongmi year (丁未): Yin Fire Sheep; Sexagenary year 44; CE 407.
Youngrak 20, Gyeongsul year (庚戌; CE 410):
Among subservient states since the time of the King Chumo (鄒牟王), only East Buyeo (東夫餘) was disobedient and did not pay tribute (to Goguryeo). The King led troops to subjugate them. When the troops arrived at the Yeo Castle (餘城), they [were surprised and became obedient, and]… . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . …, the King mercifully decided to refrain from [overthrowing them] and he returned home. There were also (five) nobles (鴨盧), Miguru (味仇婁), Bisama (卑斯麻), [Danrip]ru (端立婁), Suksasa (粛斯舎) and [xxx] following after the King (to Goguryeo) as they submitted to the King’s august virtue. The number of conquered castles are 64 and villages are 1,400.
Gyeongsul year (庚戌): Yang Metal Dog; Sexagenary year 47; CE 410.
Yeo Castle (餘城): the garrison capital of East Buyeo.
List of tomb keeper families:
Maihoyeo (賣勾余) [subjects] (民): 2 State Tomb Keepers & 3 Regular Tomb Keepers; Donhaemai (東海賈): 3 state keepers & 5 regular keepers; Don Castle (敦城) subjects: 4 families serve for Regular; Gan Castle (干城): 1 family for Regular; Biri Castle (碑利城): 2 families for State Keepers; Pyongyang Castle (平穰城) subjects: 1 State & 10 Regular; [Ji]ryeon (呰連): 2 families for Regular; [Bae]ru (俳婁) people: 1 State &  Regular; [Gye]gok (溪谷): 2 families for Regular; [Gye] Castle (溪城): 2 families for Regular; An[bu]ryeon (安夫連): 22 families for Regular; [Gae]gok (改谷): 3 families for Regular; Sin Castle (新城): 3 families for Regular; Namso Castle (南蘇城): 1 family for State.
State tomb keeper, Gukyeon (國煙)
Capital tomb keeper, Doyeon (都煙)
Regular tomb keeper, Ganyeon (看煙)
New tomb keepers of Han (韓) and Ye (穢)
Sasu Castle (沙水城): 1 State & 1 Regular; Churu Castle (牟婁城): 2 families for Regular; Dubiapgeum Han (豆比鴨岑韓): 5 families for Regular; Gumo Gaekdu (句牟客頭): 2 families for Regular; Gujeo Han (求底韓): 1 family for Regular; Sayeon Castle (舎蔦城) Han Yeon: 21 Regular; Gomoyara Castle (古模耶羅城): 1 family for Regular; Makgo Castle (炅古城): 1 State & 3 Regular; Gaekhyeon Han (客賢韓): 1 family for Regular; Adan Castle (阿旦城) & Japjin Castle (雜珍城): 10 families for Regular; Pano Castle (巴奴城) Han: 9 families for Regular; [Gu]mono Castle (臼模廬城): 4 families for Regular; Gakmono Castle (各模盧城): 2 families for Regular; Mono Castle (牟水城): 3 families for Regular; Gandaegri Castle (幹弖利城): 1 State & 3 Regular; [Miya] Castle (彌耶城): [6 Gukyeon], [xx] Regular
& [7 xxxx; Yari (也利城)]: 3 families for Regular; Duno (豆奴城): 1 State & 2 Regular; Ori (奥利城): 2 State & 8 Regular; [Suya] (須耶城): 2 State & 5 Regular; Baekjan Namgeo Han (百殘南居韓): 1 State & 5 Regular; [Dae]sanhan Castle (大山韓城): 6 families for Regular; Nongmae (農賣城): 1 State &  Regular; Yun’no (閏奴城): 2 State & 22 [Capital Tomb Keepers]; Gomoru (古牟婁城): 2 State & 8 Regular; [Yeon] (瑑城): 1 State & 8 Regular; Mi (味城): 6 families for Regular; [Chwija] (就咨城): 5 families for Regular; Pungyang (豐穰城): 24 families for Regular; San’na (散那城): 1 family for State; Nadan (那旦城): 1 family for Regular; Homo (勾牟城): 1 family for Regular; Eori (於利城): 8 families for Regular; Biri (比利城): 3 families for Regular; Se (細城):  families for Regular.
When the King Gwanggaeto of the Great was in life, he said, “The Grand-King and the Former King appointed the people within the original territory of Goguryeo to tomb keepers to guard and maintain tombs of ancestral kings. I am anxious that people would become lazy five thousand years later. For tomb keepers who retain tombs reposeful, collect people from Han (韓) and Ye (穢) that (subject states) myself [led troops] to subjugate. Order them to be prepared!”
This is his words so we hence regard it as his instruction. Accordingly, 220 families of the Han and the Ye have been appointed. By a consideration that these people are not familiar with the regulation (of Goguryeo), the 110 Goguryeo families have been also assigned. Altogether with Silla’s tomb keepers, there are total 330 families of 30 Gukyeon (國煙 State Tomb Keepers) and 300 Ganyeon (看煙 Regular Tomb Keepers).
Since there were no tombstones on ancestral kings’ tombs, it made tomb keepers confused. Gwanggaeto of the Great [is the king who] had tombstones built for ancestral kings in order not to make tomb keepers confused any longer. Moreover, (these tombstones have been set) to prevent tomb keepers to resell hereafter. Even the people who are wealthy enough are not able to purchase [arbitrarily]. Thus, unlawful sellers are subject to be punished, and buyers are obligated to become tomb keepers.
Han (韓): the south part of the Korean Peninsula, current South Korea.
Ye (穢): the northeast part of the Korean Peninsula including the eastern part of North Korea and the northeast part of South Korea.
For more reading on the topic, here are some other places worth checking out: