Ji’an: The Mystery of Goguryeo

Ji’an (集安) is a small, non-descript county-level city in southwestern Jilin. Home to a population of only 230,000, Ji’an presents itself to be a typical outlier, struggling to keep up with pace and force of the bigger neighbouring cities and relying on scraps of tourism to survive. Yet this is deceiving; Ji’an lies at the heart of a historical maelstrom, the key to which remains buried in the sands of time.

Unbeknowst to many, this rather run-of-the-mill city was once the capital of Goguryeo, an ancient, martial kingdom whose territorial expanse covered much of the present Korean peninsula and northeast China/Manchuria. Those who are fans of korean dramas may recognise the name – the epic founding of Goguryeo was showcased in the highly-rated period drama Jumong.

As Goguryeo had occupied such a vast territory, there is a fierce on-going battle between Korea and China over who “owns” this heritage. Controversy began in 2002 when Chinese scholars started to claim that Goguryeo was, in fact, a tribute state to China. Korea, of course, asserts that it is the cultural descendent of the ancient people of Goguryeo. In my view, this ostentatiously academic tussle is really a political battle that will yield little result either way.

Many of the physical remnants of Goguryeo remain in Ji’an. They look rather out of place in the modern world but they are a visual reminder of the ancient kingdom that once existed, of a time with political boundaries far different from the ones that we are used to. For that reason, these  relics – mostly tombs and steeles – have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The remnants of the ancient fortress walls

The General’s tomb (将军坟)- the Chinese fancifully call it “the Pyramid of the East”

This was supposedly the tomb of King Jansu (who reigned during the peak of Goguryeo’s power). Beautifully preserved.

Some of the other tombs have disintegrated over the centuries, losing their structural integrity.

entrance to one of the smaller tombs (notice the rubble)

The famous Gwanggaeto steele

This steele was erected by King Jansu to commemorate the achievements of his father King Gwanggaeto in the early 5th century. The 7m steele was only unearthed during the late 19th century.  Since then, the interpretation of the inscriptions on the steele has been hotly contested.

Being inscribed with over 1800 chinese characters, the Chinese, of course, use the steele as evidence of the Chinese nature of the Goguryeo civilisation. The Japanese interprets one of the verses as stating that Japan had colonised ancient Korean kingdoms. As for the Koreans, they view the steele as a testament to their historical greatness and cultural advancement in antiquity. Many South Koreans visit these sites as they view Goguryeo as part of their ancestry and these monuments are an important part of their cultural heritage. My local taxi driver informed me that some Korean tourists even perform ancestral rites in front of the steele and the General’s tomb- bringing their own soju from Korea! (afterall Korean ancestors should prefer Korean stuff? no?)

Interesting place to visit when you know a bit of the history and political controversies surrounding it. Captions at the sites are a tad factual (and boring) with no hint of the tussle over Goguryeo heritage. Most (non-Korean) tourists go for the Yalu river tour, which we will cover in another post.

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