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 affirmation of the Joseon dynasty and its ancestral heritage. The Songs, in the form of 125 cantos, were composed through the efforts of a committee of Confucian philologists and literati. This compilation was the first Korean writing to depart from a long history of reliance on Chinese characters and to be recorded in hangul, the first and official alphabet of Korea. Several important themes in addition to that of the establishment of the Joseon dynasty reflect the events that gave rise to the creation of these poems: historical events that took place in China, the apotheosis of virtuous Kings preceding the fall of the Goryeo dynasty in Korea, and the Confucian political and philosophical ideologies of an era that rejected Buddhism.
In 1259, following years of natural disasters and conflict in East Asia, a peace treaty was signed between the Goryeo King and the Mongol empire, immediately resulting in a one hundred-year period of Mongol influence over Korea. The Korean community suffered grave injustices as Mongolian customs were forcibly imposed, corruption overwhelmed the nobility, and political insurgences broke out. During this period, Buddhism, which had been the national religion for nearly eight hundred years, began to wane and would eventually be replaced by Confucianism. There was desperate need of a leader who could address these increasing problems and strengthen Korea's threatened national identity.
Yi Seong-gye was born in 1335. He had come from a long line of men who had served as government officials familiar with Mongolian customs, he and would later prove to be one of Korea’s greatest army generals and kings. In a series of military successes, Yi rose to the position of a commanding general in the army. Among his numerous victories, three battles are best known and most emphasized in Korean history: the recapture of the old Korean capital Kaesong from the Red Turbans in 1362, the defeat of Japanese pirates at Mt. Hwangsan in 1382, and the rebellion in 1388 against pro-Mongol government officials after Yi refused a command to march his troops to Liaotung in order to capture Ming strongholds. Subsequent to these and other successes, Yi Seong-gye made himself a dominant force in determining the fate of the Korean people. With the help of his sons and neo-Confucianist supporters, Yi fought for an independent Korea by eradicating all advocates and previous rulers of the weakening Goryeo dynasty. This was finally accomplished with the execution of Goryeo’s last minister Jeong Mong-ju in 1392 and the exile of Goryeo’s last king. Not long after this, Yi Seong-gye became 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 presented in the songs celebrating the history of a new Korea.
In 1418, the throne passed to Sejong the Great, third son of Yi Bangwon. It was under Sejong 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 the generation of scholars that gave rise to an era of cultural and political enlightenment. 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 represent the six ancestors of the Joseon dynasty: Mokjo, Ikjo, Dojo, Hwanjo, Taejo (Yi Seonggye), and Taejong (Yi Bangwon). The flight of the dragons, Yongbieocheonga,is the Joseon dynasty's rise in accordance with "the Mandate of Heaven." This identifies the Joseon ancestry as morally and politically virtuous and also sets out an ideological foundation for future 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.|
- Brief information about Yongbieocheonga at Cultural Heritage Administration of South Korea
- (in Korean) The complete texts and analysis on Yongbieocheonga
- (in Korean) The complete texts of Yongbieocheonga in Ancient and Modern Korean