Colonial Korea,  Gyeongju

Colonial Korea – Bulguksa Temple

Bulguksa Temple in 1914. (Picture Courtesy of the National Museum of Korea).

Temple History

Bulguksa Temple is located at the western foot of Mt. Tohamsan (745 m) in eastern Gyeongju. Bulguksa Temple means “Buddha Kingdom Temple” in English. The name of Bulguksa Temple can have two possible meanings. The first is that traveling through the architectural landscape is like taking a journey through the spiritual realm of the Buddhas. So in a way, it’s an architectural manifestation of the celestial realm of the Buddhas on earth. And the second meaning is in reference to the Unified Silla (668-935 A.D.). More specifically, it’s a reference to the Unified Silla Kingdom building itself as a “Kingdom of Buddha.” In turn, this would help validate the Unified Silla Kingdom claim that it was a legitimate Buddhist nation.

Bulguksa Temple was first constructed in 528 A.D., which was also the first year that Buddhism was officially adopted by the Silla Kingdom (57 B.C – 935 A.D.) during the reign of King Beopheung of Silla (r. 514-540 A.D.). The temple was built to appease the wishes of King Beopheung’s mother, Queen Yeongje, and his wife, Queen Kim. Originally, the temple was named Beopryusa Temple or Hwaeom Bulguksa Temple. Later, the temple was rebuilt by King Jinheung of Silla’s mother, Queen Jiso (?-574 A.D.).

Then nearly two hundred years later, the construction of the Bulguksa Temple that we know today was started in 742 A.D. The design and financial backing of the newly built Bulguksa Temple came from Prime Minster Kim Daeseong (700-774 A.D.). However, before the temple could be completed, Kim Daeseong died in 774 A.D., and Bulguksa Temple was completed during the reign of King Hyegong of Silla (r. 765 – 780 A.D.). It was at this time that Bulguksa Temple was given its current name.

Throughout its long history, and prominent location in the former capital of Silla, Bulguksa Temple was destroyed several times; the first of which occurred in the late 13th century by the invading Mongols. During the temple’s destruction at this time, monks were also killed; however, the great temple artwork was hidden to preserve it, and the stonework also survived this sacking. Later, the temple was reconstructed and renovated several times during the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) and the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). However, Bulguksa Temple was again destroyed; this time, however, by the invading Japanese during the Imjin War (1592-1598). All of the wooden structures, including temple shrine halls and pavilions, were destroyed at Bulguksa Temple.

After the destruction of the temple in 1593, another major reconstruction and expansion took place at Bulguksa Temple in 1604. And in 1700, the original layout of the temple was completely restored. In about a 200 year period, over 40 renovations took place up until 1805 at Bulguksa Temple. It was in 1805 that the temple started to fall into disrepair and was looted by robbers.

Bulguksa Temple was then initially repaired during the early part of Japanese Colonial Rule (1910-1945) from 1918 to 1925. And it was further renovated between 1934 and 1935. Then after the Japanese Colonial Rule came to an end, an extensive restoration took place from 1963 to 1973 under President Park Chung-hee (1917-1979). In total, some 24 buildings were renovated and rebuilt. During the 1980s and 1990s, Bulguksa Temple simply acted as a major tourist attraction. However, in the year 2000, the management of Bulguksa Temple was transferred over to the Jogye-jong Order, and the temple resumed its central role in Korean Buddhism, once more.

Bulguksa Temple, along with the neighbouring Seokguram Hermitage, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. Also, Bulguksa Temple is home to 7 National Treasures (the most at any Korean Buddhist temple), and an additional 6 Korean Treasures. Also, Bulguksa Temple is a Historic Site.

Colonial Era Photography

It should be noted that one of the reasons that the Japanese took so many pictures of Korean Buddhist temples during Japanese Colonial Rule (1910-1945) was to provide images for tourist photos and illustrations in guidebooks, postcards, and photo albums for Japanese consumption. They would then juxtapose these images of “old Korea” with “now” images of Korea. The former category identified the old Korea with old customs and traditions through grainy black-and-white photos.

These “old Korea” images were then contrasted with “new” Korea images featuring recently constructed modern colonial structures built by the Japanese. This was especially true for archaeological or temple work that contrasted the dilapidated former structures with the recently renovated or rebuilt Japanese efforts on the old Korean structures contrasting Japan’s efforts with the way that Korea had long neglected their most treasured of structures and/or sites.

This visual methodology was a tried and true method of contrasting the old (bad) with the new (good). All of this was done to show the success of Japan’s “civilizing mission” on the rest of the world and especially on the Korean Peninsula. Furthering this visual propaganda was supplemental material that explained the inseparable nature found between Koreans and the Japanese from the beginning of time. 

To further reinforce this point, the archaeological “rediscovery” of Japan’s antiquity in the form of excavated sites of beautifully restored Silla temples and tombs found in Japanese photography was the most tangible evidence for the supposed common ancestry both racially and culturally. As such, the colonial travel industry played a large part in promoting this “nostalgic” image of Korea as a lost and poor country, whose shared cultural and ethnic past was being restored to prominence once more through the superior Japanese and their “enlightened” government. And Bulguksa Temple played a large part in the the propagation of this propaganda, especially since it played such a prominent role in Korean Buddhist history and culture. Here are a collection of Colonial era pictures of Bulguksa Temple through the years.

Pictures of Colonial Era Bulguksa Temple


Dabo-tap Pagoda at Bulguksa Temple. (All pictures courtesy of the National Museum of Korea).
The Daeung-jeon Hall.

Pictures of Colonial Era Bulguksa Temple


A look at the front facade of Bulguksa Temple looking eastward.
And another look at the neglected Bulguksa Temple.
Seokga-tap Pagoda at Bulguksa Temple.
And Dabo-tap Pagoda, again.
The only remaining lion from Dabo-tap Pagoda. There used to be four.
The Gilt-Bronze Seated Amitabha Buddha of Bulguksa Temple.
And a different angle of the Gilt-Bronze Seated Amitabha Buddha of Bulguksa Temple.
The Gilt-Bronze Seated Vairocana Buddha of Bulguksa Temple.
And the Gilt-Bronze Seated Vairocana Buddha of Bulguksa Temple from a different angle.
And the seokjo (water basin) at Bulguksa Temple.

Pictures of Colonial Era Bulguksa Temple


The view of the temple grounds looking eastward.

Pictures of Colonial Era Bulguksa Temple


A look along the front facade of Bulguksa Temple.
And the view from the west of the front facade.
The Cheongungyo and Baegungyo Bridges of Bulguksa Temple.
The Yeonhwagyo and Chilbogyo Bridges of Bulguksa Temple.
Dabo-tap Pagoda.

Pictures of Colonial Era Bulguksa Temple


The front facade after repairs.
The dilapidated Daeung-jeon Hall from the front.
And the Daeung-jeon Hall from the back.
The Geukrak-jeon Hall at Bulguksa Temple.
Remnants of the Stone Elevation of Bulguksa Temple.
Even more of the remnants of the Stone Elevation of Bulguksa Temple.
And the temple from a distance.

Pictures of Colonial Era Bulguksa Temple


Bulguksa Temple in 1935 with Japanese dignitaries on the Cheongungyo and Baegungyo Bridges of Bulguksa Temple.
The remaining lion that adorns Dabo-tap Pagoda in 1936.

Pictures of Colonial Era Bulguksa Temple

Specific Dates Unknown (1909-1945)

Repairs on the Cheongungyo and Baegungyo Bridges of Bulguksa Temple.
Completed work on the Cheongungyo and Baegungyo Bridges of Bulguksa Temple.
A closer look at the Cheongungyo and Baegungyo Bridges of Bulguksa Temple after repair work was completed.
Repair work on the front facade.
Completed repairs.
Dabo-tap Pagoda before repairs.
Dabo-tap Pagoda after repairs.
At a different angle after repairs.
A look towards Dabo-tap Pagoda from the eastern side of the Daeung-jeon Hall.
The seokdeung (stone lantern) in front of the Daeung-jeon Hall.
Seokga-tap Pagoda after being repaired.
A look towards Seokga-tap Pagoda from the western side of the Daeung-jeon Hall.
A view from the Daeung-jeon Hall down towards the Geukrak-jeon Hall after being repaired.
The Stupa of Bulguksa Temple before repairs.
The capstone being placed on top of the Stupa of Bulguksa Temple.
The Stupa of Bulguksa Temple after repairs were completed on it.
And a budo (stupa) at Bulguksa Temple.

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