Bethell, Hulbert, Gale and the Epic Stories of Two Pagodas

The Wongak-sa Pagoda

Wongak-sa Pagoda is a twelve metre high ten-storey marble pagoda in the center of Seoul, South Korea.  It was constructed in 1467 to form part of Wongak-sa temple, that King Sejo had founded two years before on the site of an older Goryeo-period temple, Heungbok-sa. "Won'gak-gyeong" is the Korean name of a Buddhist sutra, 圓覺經 The Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment or Complete Enlightenment  which King Sejo had found deeply meaningful, perhaps because his conscience was tormented by having had his young nephew, the child king Danjong, deposed in 1455 and then executed (like many of his ministers) in 1457. The temple was destined to produce elaborate copies of the Wongak sutra as a work of merit in atonement for the way King Sejo had come to the throne.  The temple was closed and turned into a kisaeng house by Sejo's great-grandson, the deposed king known as Yeonsan-gun (1476 – 1506, r. 1494-1506, deposed because of madness), and under his successor, King Jungjong (1488 – 1544, r.1506–1544), the site was turned into government offices. The pagoda and a memorial stele commemorating the foundation of Wongak-sa alone survived. The site of the temple was later occupied by houses. During the Imjin War (Japanese invasion) of the 1590s, the top portion of the pagoda was pulled down and lay on the ground at the foot of the pagoda until it was replaced by American military engineers in 1947.

The Pagoda surrounded by houses, from Percival Lowell's "Choson: The Land of the Morning Calm" (1886)

The site of Wongak-sa (now Tapgol Park) after the demolition of the houses occupying the site by John McLeavy Brown in 1897

The pagoda in the 1920-30s with the topmost section standing beside it

The Wongak Pagoda in Seoul's Tapgol Park before it was enclosed in glass.

The inscribed stone recording the foundation of Wongak-sa

In 1915, the scholarly missionary James Scarth Gale published in the Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch's Transactions Vol. VI, part II:1-22  a very important paper on “The Pagoda of Seoul.” He seems to have been the first person in modern times to date correctly the pagoda and explain its relationship with another pagoda, which it resembles closely, the older Ten-Storied Pagoda of Gyeongcheon-sa. He had been given an ancient rubbing of the inscription on the by then illegible memorial stone (stele) recording the establishment of Wongak-sa (temple) by King Sejo in 1465 and his paper includes a translation of that account.

 The Ten-Storied Pagoda of Gyeongcheon-sa

The Ten-Storied Pagoda of Gyeongcheon-sa in the National Museum of Korea at present

The Ten-Storied Pagoda of Gyeongcheon-sa, which now occupies a prominent position in the hall of the National Museum of Korea, was erected in 1348 at Mt. Busosan in Gwangdeok-myeon, Gaepung-gun, Gyeonggi-do (near Gaesong, now in North Korea). It is built of white marble, carved with intricate designs, perhaps by Chinese craftsmen or following Chinese models. The Gyeongcheon-sa temple itself seems to have disappeared long ago. In March, 1907 a group of armed Japanese arrived at the site with a commission from Tanaka Mitsuaki (1843-1939), who claimed that the Korean Emperor (Gojeong) had authorized him to take the pagoda. Minister of the Imperial household, he was in Korea as the Emperor of Japan’s representative at the wedding of the Korean Crown Prince. Despite local opposition, the pagoda was duly removed and erected in his garden in Japan.

The Ten-Storied Pagoda of Gyeongcheon-sa in 1904

Tanaka Mitsuaki

Ernest T. Bethell

Ernest T. Bethell and Homer Hulbert come into the story because they wrote newspaper articles to denounce the theft of the pagoda.

Ernest T. Bethell was born in England in 1872. Still a youth, he went to work with his uncle in Japan in 1888. In 1904, at the start of the Russo-Japanese War, he moved to Korea as correspondent for a British newspaper. He denounced Japanese atrocities in his reports, and since the paper’s policy was pro-Japanese, he was dismissed. He remained in Korea, where he established the Korea Daily News and also launched a Korean-language newspaper the Daehan Maeil Sinbo. These were both strongly pro-Korean and anti-Japanese. The British government was favorable to Japan, so Bethell was tried twice by a British consular court in Seoul for sedition and violation of public order. First, he was ordered to pay a 300-pound bond as a guarantee of his good behavior. Yet he continued his attacks on the Japanese. On June 15, 1908 he was sentenced to spend three weeks in the British gaol in Shanghai. After serving his term, Bethell returned to Seoul and boldly resumed publication of the Korea Daily News. In April 1909 he fell victim to his heavy smoking and drinking life-style, dying surrounded by friends on May 1. Hundreds of Koreans accompanied his funeral. An anti-Japanese epitaph in Korean was defaced soon after it was erected, then restored after Liberation in 1945.

Bethell's grave in Seoul

The news of the theft of the Gyeongcheon-sa pagoda soon reached Seoul. Bethell wrote about it in his newspapers. Homer Hulbert (then in the US) made the facts known by articles in the Japan Chronicle, and then in the New York Post and from there the news spread across the globe. A rather garbled account even reached a newspaper in rural New Zealand. But nothing happened in the following years, while Japan completed the annexation of Korea in 1910. The episode and its sequel is covered at some length in F. A. McKenzie’s Korea’s Fight for Freedom (1920):

The organ of the Residency-General in Seoul, the Seoul Press, made the best excuse it could. "Viscount Tanaka," it said, "is a conscientious official, liked and respected by those who know him, whether foreign or Japanese, but he is an ardent virtuoso and collector, and it appears that in this instance his collector's eagerness got the better of his sober judgment and discretion." But excuses, apologies, and regrets notwithstanding, the Pagoda was not returned.

He was wrong. The pagoda had been returned to Seoul in 1918 but having been damaged in its travels, it lay in pieces in crates.  Today the National Museum of Korea and other Korean sources claim that this return was solely the direct result of Bethell’s and Hulbert’s press campaigns. This might not, however, really be the case. Ten years had passed, Bethell was dead, Hulbert had left Korea for good long before. Why was it returned at that time?

Sekino Tadashi

Sekino Tadashi

Sekino Tadashi (1867-1935) was a professor in the Architecture Department of Tokyo University. He was the first Japanese art historian and architect sent to Korea in 1902, to serve as an architectural historian and the main recorder of Korean antiquities. Hyung Il Pai has described how ancient Korean remains were carefully preserved, studied, recorded and registered as part of Japan's state cultural properties as Kokuho (imperial treasures) as part of their imperial cultural policy to incorporate the Korean peninsula, its ancient history and its people as part of their ancestral homelands (Nissen dosoron). Korea's ancient relics and remains were thus reclaimed as "Proto-Japanese".

The newly built Art Gallery / Museum

In 1913, Sekino Tadashi began work on the first volume of the "Chosen koseki zufu" (朝鮮古蹟圖譜)  series (Album of ancient sites and monuments), fifteen magnificent volumes of photos and drawings of ancient Korean objects and sites published 1915-1935. This and other publications by him were the origin of the present list of Korean National Treasures. A complete set of images of every volume can be seen here (change the final number to view each volume 1 - 15)

Then the “Chosen Sotokufu (National Treasures) Museum” (aka the Government-General Museum) was established in Gyeongbokkung in 1915. The permanent museum was originally built as an art gallery on the site of the demolished Jaseondang in the Donggung, the Crown Prince’s Compound, as part of the Chosen Product Promotion Exhibition  held September 11 to October 31st, 1915 to commemorate the fifth year of annexation. Then it became a museum when the exhibition ended and in 1918 pagodas and sculptures from abandoned palaces and temple ruins began to be exhibited in front of this museum at the recommendation of Sekino Tadashi. That would best explain why the Japanese brought the pagoda back. Another pagoda brought back from Japan for similar reasons in 1915 can still be seen in the grounds of Gyeongbok-gung behind the National Palace Museum.

The Museum with an ancient relic in front of it

As noted above, James S. Gale wrote about the Wongak-sa Pagoda in a paper that he presented at a meeting of the RASKB on February 5, 1915, published in Transactions  Volume VI, Part 2. He begins the paper by quoting words he attributes to Sekino Tadashi:

“The pagoda stood originally within the enclosure of Wun-gak Temple.  It is precisely the same in shape as the pagoda that stood on Poo-so Mountain in front of Kyung-ch’un Temple, Poo’ng-tuk County, which dates from the close of the Koryu Dynasty. Its design may be said to be the most perfect attainment of the beautiful. Not a defect is there to be found in it. As we examine the details more carefully, we find that the originality displayed is very great, and that the execution of the work has been done with the highest degree of skill. It is a monument of the past well worth the seeing. This pagoda may be said to be by far the most wonderful monument in Korea. Scarcely anything in China itself can be said to compare with it. The date of its erection and its age make no difference to the value and excellence of it.”

In his paper, Gale establishes that the Wongak-sa Pagoda was made in imitation of the Gyeongcheon-sa pagoda, and erected in 1466. Sekino Tadashi’s words (no source for them is indicated) apply equally to both the original Gyeongcheon-sa pagoda, which he has obviously seen, and the later copy. If Sekino Tadashi wrote like that about the Gyeongcheon-sa pagoda, surely he would have done everything possible to bring it back from Japan to house in the new museum? It duly returned to Korea from Japan in 1918, to be housed in the new museum, and there it remained, damaged and in fragments, until it was restored and re-erected in the garden in front of it in 1960.

The Gyeongcheon-sa pagoda was erected in Gyeongbok-gung gardens in 1960

Damaged by acid rain, it was removed and today it is safely housed inside the National Museum. There, rather than admit that the Japanese Sekino Tadashi arranged for its return, the plaque before it gives all the credit to the campaigns of Bethell and Hulbert more than ten years before. It is significant that Gale notes twice in his paper about the Wongak-sa Pagoda that the Gyeongcheon-sa pagoda had been taken to Japan a few years before. He nowhere indicates that he regrets that fact, or that he hopes for its return. There was clearly no continuing campaign for its return alive in Korea in 1915.