049：EPISODE 49 - Korean Roof Tile
Korean roof tile (made eighth century AD). Ceramic; from South Korea
If, in the course of today, you use a mobile phone, drive a car or watch TV, or if you find your children playing with their robot pet, the chances are that at least one of these objects will have been made in Korea. As we all know, Korea is one of Asia's "tiger" economies, provider of high technology to the world. We tend to think of it as a new player on the global stage - but that of course is not how Koreans see themselves, for Korea has always been pivotal in relations between China and Japan, and it has a long tradition of technological inventions. It was Korea, for example, that pioneered moveable metal type, and it did it so well before it was invented in Europe. Besides its technology, the other thing that we all know about Korea today is that, since the end of the Second World War in 1945, it has been bitterly and dangerously divided between a communist north and a capitalist south.
Today's object takes us to Korea around the year 700 AD, to a state, newly unified, that was enjoying great prosperity. To a moment in its history that is inevitably now read differently by north and south, but is still central to any modern definition of Korean identity.
By 700, Korea was already a rich, urbanised country, a major trade player at the end of the famous Silk Road. But this programme's object isn't made of precious silk; it's earthy clay - but clay that tells us a great deal about Korea's "golden age".
"Looking at this Korean roof tile, I think it's great that it represents Korean culture." (Jane Portal)
"The culture of Silla is the best well preserved . . . it was the first time when all aspects of Korean culture merged together." (translated words of Choe Kwang Shik)
This week, we're looking at the world of the Silk Road, around the years between 600 and 700, when silk produced in China travelled to the furthest edges of the known world - east to Korea and Japan, west to the England of Sutton Hoo. One of the things I find fascinating about this period, is that on both edges of the Eurasian landmass, similar political developments are underway. Tribes and little kingdoms are coalescing into larger units, ones that will eventually become the nation states that we know today. England, Scotland and Denmark on one side, Japan and Korea on the other. For all these countries, these are the critical centuries.
Lying between north-east China and Japan, the Korean peninsula was, like England at the same date, fragmented by competing kingdoms. In 668, the southernmost kingdom, Silla, with the backing of China - then, as now, the regional superpower - conquered its neighbours and imposed its rule from the far south to quite a bit north of what is now Pyongyang. It never controlled the far north, but the unified Silla kingdom for the next three hundred years ruled most of what is now Korea from its imperial capital in the south, Kyongju, a city splendidly adorned with grand new buildings.
The object in this programme is a roof tile that comes from one of those new buildings, in this case a temple, and it tells us a great deal about the achievements and the apprehensions of the young Silla state.
I've got the tile in my hand now. It's about the size of a large old-fashioned roof slate, so just under a foot (30 cm) square, and it's made of heavy cream-coloured clay. The top and the sides are edged with a roughly decorated border, and in the middle of the tile is a fearsome face looking straight out at me. It's got a squashed nose, bulging eyes, small horns, and abundant whiskers. In fact, the face looks like a cross between a Chinese dragon and a Pekingese dog, and not friendly at all! It looks a bit like an oriental gargoyle, and that is pretty well what it was. It would have had a similar position to a gargoyle, high up on a temple or a grand house. The features of the face when you look at them closely are pretty rough, and it's obvious that it's been made by pushing the wet clay into a fairly simple mould. This is clearly a mass-produced object. But that is why it's so interesting, because this is just one of tens of thousands designed to cover roofs that would once have been thatched, but in prosperous Silla Korea, were tiled with objects like this.
Why did the Silla want to build such a grand capital, and why did they need so many new houses? The Korean specialist Jane Portal explains:
"The city of Kyongju was based on the Chinese capital Chang'an, which was at the time the biggest city in the world, and Kyongju developed hugely once Silla had unified the Korean peninsula, or most of it. A lot of the aristocrats from the kingdoms which were defeated by Silla had to come and live in Kyongju, and they had magnificent houses with tiled roofs. And this was a new thing, to have tiled roofs, so this tile would have been a sort of status symbol for them."
Tiles like this were sought after not only because they were expensive to make but, above all, because they didn't catch fire like traditional thatch, and burning thatch was probably the greatest threat to any ancient city. By contrast, a tiled city was a safe city, and so it's perfectly understandable that a ninth-century Korean commentator, singing the splendours of the city at the height of its prosperity, should dwell lyrically on its roofs:
"The capital Kyongju consisted of 178,936 houses . . . There was a villa and pleasure garden for each of the four seasons, to which the aristocrats resorted. Houses with tiled roofs stood in rows in the capital, and not a thatched roof was to be seen. Gentle rain came with harmonious blessings and all the harvests were plentiful."
This tile, though, wasn't intended merely to protect you against the "gentle rain". That was the job of the more prosaic, undecorated tiles covering the whole roof. Sitting at the decorated end of a ridge, glaring out across the city, our dragon tile was meant to ward off a teeming invisible army of hostile spirits and ghosts - protecting you not just against the weather but against the forces of evil.
The dragon on our roof tile was, in a sense, just a humble foot-soldier in the great battle of the spirits that was being perpetually fought out at roof level, high above the streets of Kyongju. And it was only one of 40 different classes of protective beings, that formed a kind of defensive shield against spirit missiles, and that could be deployed at all times to protect the people and the state. But, at ground level, there were other threats. There were always potential rebels within the state, the aristocrats who had been forced to live in Kyongju for example, and on the coast there were Japanese pirates. Here again, as on our tile, a dragon would provide security, but every Silla king had to negotiate one great and ongoing political predicament - how to maintain freedom of action in the lowering shadow of his mighty neighbour, Tang China.
The Chinese had supported the Silla in their campaign to unify Korea, but only as a preliminary to China taking over the new kingdom itself, so the Silla had to be both nimble and resolute in holding the Chinese emperor at bay while maintaining his political alliance. In cultural terms, the same subtle balancing act between dependence and autonomy has been going on for centuries, and continues to this day, and we can see it in our tile.
The tile is very similar to ones made in Tang China at the same time, but this is emphatically not a Chinese object. Unlike the broad grin of a Chinese dragon, the mouth here is small and aggressive, and the modelling of the tile has a rough vigour that's very un-Chinese.
And it's this robust energetic engagement with the clay that made Korean ceramics so appealing to twentieth-century Europeans, and especially to potters. Here's Jane Portal again:
"All throughout Korean history, Korean ceramics tend to be lumpier, less perfect, more sort of spontaneous, whereas Chinese ceramics are perfect - and dead, in a way. And this is what attracted people in the twentieth century - folk potters, such as Bernard Leach - and they copied them, made studio pots which were very influenced by Korean ceramics."
The united Silla kingdom, prosperous and secure at the end of the Silk Road, stands as one of the great periods of creativity and learning in Korean history, a "golden age" of architecture and literature, astronomy and mathematics. Fearsome dragon roof tiles like the one here at the British Museum long continued to be a feature of the roofscape in Kyongju and beyond. And the legacy of the Silla is apparent in Korea even today, as Choe Kwang Shik, Director General of the National Museum of Korea, tells us, via an interpreter:
"The cultural aspect of the roof tile still remains in Korean culture . . . and even if you go to the city of Kyongju now, you can see in the streets that the patterns still remain on the road, for instance. So, in that aspect, the artefact has now become ancient, but it survives through the culture. And, in a sense, I think Koreans feel that it is an entity, as if it's a mother figure. So I think in that sense Silla is one of the most important in Korean history."
But in spite of surviving street patterns and strong cultural continuities, not everyone in Korea today will read the Silla legacy in the same way, or indeed claim the Silla as their mother culture. Here's Jane Portal again:
"It depends where you live in Korea, what people think about Silla today. If you live in South Korea, the Silla represents this proud moment when the Silla were able to repel aggression from China, and it meant that the Korean peninsula could develop independently from China. But if you live in the north of Korea, they feel that Silla has been over-emphasised historically, because actually Silla only unified two-thirds of the peninsula, the southern two thirds of the peninsula, so in the north it wasn't Silla. So, actually, what Silla means today depends on which side of the DMZ you live."
So among the questions at issue between North and South Korea today, not the least is what really was going on 1,300 years ago, and, as so often, how you read history depends on where you're reading it from. All through this week, we've been considering the world of the Silk Road, and in England and Korea we've visited its outer edges to west and to east. In the next programme, we're at its heart. For thousands of years the secret of silk was a Chinese monopoly and, as always, with a highly lucrative technology like that, there was a race on to steal it. Eventually, as we know, the Chinese monopoly was broken. How the secret first escaped from China became the subject of legend and myth, and tomorrow we'll be talking about one particularly popular legend - an exotic fairy tale with the obligatory princess. And then, my Best Beloveds, you will hear a 'Just-So' story . . . of how the oasis kingdom of Khotan got its silk.