Samguk Sagi (Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms) is a historical record of the Three Kingdoms of Korea: Goguryeo ( 고구려 高句麗), Baekje (Paekche 백제 百濟) and Silla ( 신라 新羅). The Samguk Sagi is written in Classical Chinese (the written language of the literati in traditional Korea) and its compilation was ordered by Goryeo's ( 고려왕조 高麗王朝) King Injong (인종 仁宗, r. 1122-1146) and undertaken by the government official and historian Kim Busik (金富軾, 1075 1151) and a team of junior scholars. It was completed in 1145. It is well known in Korea as the oldest extant Korean history.
Like the Chinese dynastic histories on which it was modeled, Samguk Saki was intended to promote the Silla Dynasty as the orthodox ruling kingdom of Korea, and legitimize the Goryeo state as Silla’s rightful successor. Kim Busik also wanted to educate Korean scholars about their native history, and to establish Korean historical figures as exemplars of Confucian values. Samguk Saki is a treasure of information, especially about the Silla Dynasty which established many of the cultural and artistic traditions of Korea. It also preserved precious historical and cultural material from sources which were later lost.
The work's 50 volumes (or gwon 卷, originally meaning "scroll") are composed of:
- Records of Silla (Nagi; 나기 羅紀, or Silla bongi 新羅本紀) (16 volumes)
- Records of Goguryeo (Yeogi; 여기 麗紀/Goguryeo bongi 高句麗本紀) (10 volumes)
- Records of Baekje (Jegi; 제기 濟紀/Baekje bongi 百濟本紀) (6 volumes)
- Chronological tables (nyeonpyo 년표 年表) (3 volumes)
- Monographs (also translated as Treatises) (ji 지 志) (9 volumes): ceremonies and music (the two were intimately connected), transport and housing, geography, and official offices and ranks
- Biographies (yeoljeon 열전 列傳) (10 volumes)
In compiling (this term is more accurate than "writing" because much of the history is taken from earlier historical records) the Samguk Sagi, Kim Busik was consciously following the Chinese Imperial tradition of creating dynastic histories. As a historian, he followed the format of his Chinese forebears, and adopted the title of the work of the Han Dynasty “Grand Historian” Sima Qian ( 司馬遷 ca. 145-90 B.C.E.) Shi ji (Korean sagi) for his own work. He also adopted the classic four-part division of the standard Chinese dynastic history into Annals (bongi 本紀), Tables (pyo 表), Monographs (ji 志), and Biographies (yeoljeon 列傳).
The Samguk Sagi was compiled during the twelfth century for both ideological and political reasons. In the work's preface, Kim Busik states:
"Of today’s scholars and high-ranking officials, there are those who are well-versed and can discuss in detail the Five Classics 五經 and the other philosophical treatises...as well as the histories of Qin and Han, but as to the events of our country, they are utterly ignorant from beginning to end. This is truly lamentable."
Samguk Sagi was intended to fill in the vast gaps in knowledge about Korea's Three Kingdom Era. Though each of the three kingdoms of Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla had apparently produced their own histories, these had largely been lost during the wars of unification, the annihilation of Goguryeo and Baekje and the dispersal of their populace. Another motive was to produce a history that would educate Korean scholars about native history, and provide them with Korean exemplars of Confucian virtues. This was especially important in early Goryeo, as that dynasty became increasingly Confucianized.
Solidifying the Legitimacy and Prestige of the Goryeo
In Chinese tradition, a history of the previous dynasty was written by the succeeding dynasty, and the very act of writing it illustrated that the succeeding dynasty had inherited the mandate to rule (Mandate of Heaven) from its predecessor. The compilation of the Samguk Sagi was officially commissioned by the Goryeo king, and the members of its compilation staff approved by the central bureaucracy. One of its purposes was to educate scholars and officials of the Confucianized Korean bureaucracy about their native heritage, but that "native heritage" was primarily interpreted by the Samguk Sagi to mean "Silla heritage." The Samguk Sagi promoted Silla as the orthodox ruling kingdom of the peninsula, and thus affirmed the legitimacy and prestige of the Goryeo state as Silla’s rightful successor. In this way it helped confer the idea of zhengtong (正統), or "orthodox line of succession," upon the new dynasty. Though this objective was not stated in the memorial Kim Busik submitted in 1145, the intent was clearly understood. Goryeo's King Injong commissioned Kim Busik to compile the history of the Three Kingdoms and of Unified Silla in order to secure Goryeo’s legitimacy in carrying on the "mantle of authority" (or Mandate of Heaven) from Silla.
The compilers of the Samguk Sagi emphasized the moral excellence, if not superiority, of Silla, and therefore its rightful place as unifier and ruler of the peninsula. This aspect of the work is clearly evident in the pages of the history. In the Biographies portion, for instance, not only are an overwhelming majority of the subjects Sillanese (86 percent), but the Silla biographies are filled with glorious exemplars of loyalty and bravery. Nonetheless, the formal mechanism of the Samguk Sagi was to treat the Three Kingdoms equally. For example, the term "Ahgook" (아국 我國, “our nation”) was used to refer to all three Kingdoms of Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla; and the term "Ahbyeong" (아병 我兵, “our troops”) was used in reference to all of their forces. Furthermore, in the Samguk Sagi, Kim Busik praised a castellan of Goguryeo who defeated The Emperor Taizong of Tang at the Siege of Fortress Ansi, and represented him as a hero.
Sources of the Samguk Sagi
The Samguk Sagi was written on the basis of the Gu Samguksa 舊三國史 (Old history of the Three Kingdoms), and other earlier historical records such as the Hwarang Segi 花郞世記 (Annals of Hwarang) , most of which are no longer extant. Though Kim Busik was apparently ignorant of, or scoffed at quoting, Japanese histories, he lifted generously from the Chinese dynastic chronicles and even unofficial Chinese records, most prominently the Wei shu ( 魏書, Book of Wei), Sanguo Zhi (三國志), Jin Shu (晉書), Jiu Tangshu (舊唐書, “Old History of Tang”), Xin Tangshu (新唐書, “New History of Tang”), and the Zizhi Tongjian (資治通鑑, “Comprehensive Mirror for Aid in Government”).
Some modern historians are critical of the Samguk Sagi, citing a bias towards China and the Silla-centered view of the Three Kingdoms period. Kim Busik was a patrician of Silla origin, and though he himself was a practicing Buddhist, he supported Confucianism over Buddhism as the guiding principle of governance and favored presenting tributes to the Chinese emperor to prevent a conflict with China and in deference to the lofty (sadae).
However, all historians agree that Kim Busik's history is a treasure of knowledge, critical to the study of Korean history during the Three Kingdoms and Unified Silla periods. It is Korea’s oldest extant historical source. Recently-discovered archaeological evidence, verification of astronomical events, and comparison with Chinese and Japanese records have shown the Samguk Sagi to be surprisingly accurate. The book provides an excellent view of the social values and the historical understanding of that era. It contains a great deal of information about the Silla Kingdom, which as the first unifier of the Korean peninsula, shaped the culture and heritage of Korea in many ways. The art of Silla largely defined the basic styles of Korean art, and the heroes of the Silla Dynasty are still regarded as some of Korea’s greatest heroes. Of the Three Kingdoms, Silla was the farthest from China and therefore produced a culture having more native elements, less dominated by Chinese culture.
The Samguk Sagi is also a valuable record of legends and songs from the earlier Paekche, Goguryeo and Silla Kingdoms, which have otherwise been lost. An example, “Chongupsa” (“Song of Chongup”)—in which the wife of an itinerant merchant asks the Moon to protect her husband, was passed down from Paekche through the Koryo and Yi dynasties and is still appreciated today. Though Kim Busik appeared unaware of Japanese historical chronicles and did not use them as sources, certain myths and legends in them have common elements with the myths in Samguk Sagi, which indicate that at some time a cultural relationship existed between Korea and Japan. The stories concerning the origins of the first rulers of each nation have many similarities, and the myth of Amaterasu has elements resembling the Korean legend of Yonorang and Syeonyo.  This book is to be distinguished from the Chinese Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms by Chen Shou.
Translations in Western Languages
The only full Western language translation of the Samguk Sagi to appear to date is a Russian edition that appeared in two parts, 1959 and 2001.
However, portions of the work have appeared in various English language studies, notably:
- Best, Jonathan. A History of the Early Korean Kingdom of Paekche [Baekje], together with an annotated translation of The Paekche Annals of the Samguk sagi. [A complete translation of the Baekje bongi]. Harvard East Asian Monographs, 2007.
- Byington, Mark E. "Samguk Sagi Volume 48 Biographies Book 8." Transactions of the Korea Branch, Royal Asiatic Society, 67 (1992):71-81.
- Gardiner, Kenneth H.J. "Legends of Koguryǒ (I): Samguk sagi, Annals of Koguryǒ." Korea Journal, 22 (1) (January 1982): 60-69. [part one of a translation of book one of the Goguryeo bongi].
- Gardiner, Kenneth H.J. "Legends of Koguryǒ (II)." Korea Journal, 22 (2) (February 1982): 31-48. [part two of a translation of book one of the Goguryeo bongi].
- Jamieson, John Charles. “The Samguk sagi and the Unification Wars.” Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 1969. [Translation of books 6 and 7 of the Silla bongi and eleven of the biographies, mostly of men of Silla].
- Peter H. Lee (ed.), Sourcebook of Korean Civilization, New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. 464.
- Samguk Sagi (Korean). Retrieved September 15, 2007.
- Joo-Young Yoo. Foundation and Creation Myths in Korea and Japan: Patterns and Connections. Metareligion. Retrieved September 15, 2007.
- Best, Jonathan W. 2006. A history of the early Korean kingdom of Paekche: together with an annotated translation of the Paekche annals of the Samguk sagi. Harvard East Asian monographs, 256. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Asia Center. ISBN 0674019571 ISBN 9780674019577
- Gardiner, K.H.J. “Samguk sagi and its Sources.” Papers on Far Eastern History, 2 (September 1970): 1-41.
- Grayson, J. H. 2001. Myths and legends from Korea: an annotated compendium of ancient and modern materials. Richmond, Surrey, Curzon. ISBN 0700712410 ISBN 9780700712410
- Kim, Kichung. 1996. "Notes on the Samguk sagi and Samguk yusa." in An introduction to classical Korean literature: from hyangga to pʻansori. New studies in Asian culture. Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe. ISBN 1563247852 ISBN 9781563247859 ISBN 1563247860 ISBN 9781563247866
- Lee, Hai-soon. "Kim Pu-sik's View of Women and Confucianism: An Analytic Study of the Lives of Women in the Samguk sagi." Seoul Journal of Korean Studies, Vol. 10 (1997):45-64.
- McBride, Richard D. II. "Hidden Agendas in the Life Writings of Kim Yusin." Acta Koreana 1 (August 1998): 101-142.
- Shim, Seungja. "Plants and Animals in the Place Names of Samguk Sagi." in Proceedings of the 9th Annual Conference, 10-15 April 1985, Association for Korean Studies in Europe. Le Havre: Association for Korean Studies in Europe, 1985.
- Shultz, Edward J. "An Introduction to the Samguk sagi." Korean Studies 28 (2004):1–13.
- Soloviov, Alexander V. "Kim Busik's Samguk Sagi: the 12th Century Man Viewpoint on Korean Culture." Major Issues in History of Korean Culture: Proceedings of the 3rd International Conference on Korean Studies, Moscow, December 17-20, 1996. Moscow: International Center for Korean Studies, 1997: 71-74.
- Yi, Chong-hang. "On the True Nature of 'Wae' in Samguk sagi." Korea Journal, 17:11 (November 1977): 51-59.
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