Copy of Yongbieocheonga displayed at the Sejong Story exhibition hall in Seoul
Yongbieocheonga literally means Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven and was the first work written in hangul. It was compiled during the reign of Sejong the Great as an official recognition of the Joseon dynasty and its ancestral heritage as the forerunners of Joseon. The Songs were composed through the efforts of a committee of Confucian philologists and literati in the form of 125 cantos. This compilation was the first piece of Korean text to depart from a long history reliant on Chinese characters and be recorded in hangul, the first and official alphabet of Korea. There are several underlying themes in addition to the establishment of the Joseon dynasty which are of significant importance to understanding the events that provoked the creation of these poems: linear events that took place in China, the apotheosis of virtuous Kings proceeding the fall of the Goryeo dynasty, and Confucian political and philosophical ideologies of the era in rejection to Buddhism.
In 1259, following years of natural disasters and conflict erupting in East Asia, a peace treaty was signed between the Goryeo King and Mongol empire, immediately resulting in a one hundred year period of Mongol influence over Korea. Under Mongol influence, the Korean community suffered contemptible injustices as Mongolian customs were forcibly adopted, corruption overwhelmed the nobility, and political insurgences fruitlessly were thwarted. Around this same time Buddhism, which had been the national religion for nearly eight hundred years, began to wane and would eventually be replaced by Confucianism. Korea was in desperate need of a figure that could alleviate the cumulating dilemmas and reestablish its blurring national identity.
In the year 1335 Yi Seong-gye was born among such chaos. He had come from a long line of men that had served as government officials familiar with Mongolian customs, and would later prove to be one of Korea’s greatest army generals and kings. There were a string of successful attacks and counter attacks that led to Yi’s position in the army as a commanding general. Among his numerous victories, there are perhaps three battles that Yi is most well known for and are given particular emphasis in Korean history: recapturing the old Korean capital Kaesong from the Red Turbans in 1362, defeating Japanese pirates at Mt. Hwangsan in 1382, and his rebellion against pro-Mongol government officials after refusing a command to march his troops to Liaotung to capture Ming strongholds in 1388. Subsequent to these and many other successful battles, Yi Seong-gye was able to substantiate himself as a dominant force in the fate of the Korean people. With the help of his sons and neo-Confucianist supporters, Yi continued his pursuit of an independent Korea through eradicating all advocates and previous rulers of the weakening Goryeo dynasty. This was finally accomplished with the execution of Goryeo’s said last minister Jeong Mong-ju in 1392, and exile of Goryeo’s last king. Not long after the completion of these tasks, Yi Seong-gye rose to the throne as the first king of a new dynasty. In 1393 Korea received a new name and for the next 520 years would be known as Joseon (brightness of the morning sun). All of these events, and many more, are captured in the songs portraying the history of a new Korea.
It wasn’t until 1418 that the throne was abdicated to Sejong the Great, the third son of Yi Bangwon. It was under Sejong’s kingship that Korea began to experience a significant shift in academics and Confucian philosophical ideologies. Through the establishment of the Academy of Worthies in 1420, Sejong cultivated a generation of scholars who inspired an era of cultural and political enlightenment in Korea. They were primarily responsible for the spread of Confucianism, the creation of hangul, and a number of literary works including the Songs.
Implications of the Songs
The dragons spoken of in the title the Songs are a representation of the six ancestors of the Joseon dynasty: Mokjo, Ikjo, Dojo, Hwanjo, Taejo (Yi Seonggye), and Taejong (Yi Bangwon). Yongbieocheonga signifies the Joseon dynasty acting accordingly to "the Mandate of Heaven", in which they are imparted with divine support. This not only substantiates the Joseon ancestry as morally and politically virtuous dynasty, but lays the ideological foundation for generations of Joseon rulers to follow.
|Pre-modern Korean||Modern Korean||Translation by James Hoyt|
|불휘 기픈 남ᄀᆞᆫ||뿌리가 깊은 나무는||A tree with deep roots,|
|ᄇᆞᄅᆞ매 아니 뮐ᄊᆡ||바람에도 흔들리지 아니하므로||Because the wind sways it not,|
|곶 됴코||꽃이 좋고||Blossoms Abundantly|
|여름 하ᄂᆞ니||열매도 많으니.||And bears fruit.|
|ᄉᆡ미 기픈 므른||샘이 깊은 물은||The water from a deep spring,|
|ᄀᆞᄆᆞ래 아니 그츨ᄊᆡ||가뭄에도 그치지 않고 솟아나므로||Because a drought dries it not,|
|내히 이러||냇물이 되어서||Becomes a stream|
|바ᄅᆞ래 가ᄂᆞ니||바다에 이르니||And flows to the sea.|
- (Korean) * 용비어천가 (龍飛御天歌)
- Brief information about Yongbieocheonga at Cultural Heritage Administration of South Korea
- (Korean) The complete texts and analysis on Yongbieocheonga
- (Korean) The complete texts of Yongbieocheonga in Ancient and Modern Korean