The Samguk Yusa and Samguk Sagi

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Photo by Cody McLain on Unsplash

The Samguk Yusa and the Samguk Sagi are the great historical records of ancient Korea: in both titles “samguk” refers to the long-ago “three kingdoms” era of Korean history. Of the two texts, the one more cheaply and readily available to English speakers is definitely the ancient text Samguk Yusa, apparently compiled by a 13th century monk named Iryeon (Ilyon), after which it was expanded by some of his disciples. Yonsei University Press published Tae-Hung Ha and Grafton Minz’s translation in 1972, though my softcover copy is a printing from 2007. (In contrast, the Samguk Sagi is longer, and will cost you more, since it’s mostly available in English in three separate volumes.)

The subtitle of Ha’s English translation of the Samguk Yusa is “Legends and History of the Three Kingdoms of Ancient Korea” which should make clear its usefulness to those interested in Korea-inspired fantastical gaming or storytelling: as histories go, this has more in common with the writings of Herotodus than with modern historians, by which I mean that accounts of magical cosmogonic eggs descending from the sky, and Buddhist miracles coexist with the texts of legal documents and occasionally straightforward accounts of how this or that temple was founded or its location chosen.

Samguk Yusa

To be quite clear, this isn’t necessarily a book that I recommend GMs pick up and hand to their players as “homework,” nor is it even one I think prospective GMs need to read from cover to cover. However, having a copy of the book available to you would be handy in a different way: I think its chief purpose for a GM would be to serve as a kind of wellspring of semi-random inspiration, like a drop table or random encounter chart, but in book form.

Consider, for example, that last will and testament I mentioned above (on page 268 of my copy of the book): it’s the last will and testament of a Prime Minister who directed a donation of farmland to a “dilapidated” temple as a way of ensuring virtuous succession among the monastic leadership. That in itself could serve as a springboard for an adventure. Of course, battles over the “rightful successor” are the stuff of legend, and a will directing the donation of land to a temple is something that could disappear and need recovery (by, say, a group of adventurers).

However, it's the preface to the will that is attention grabbing: after his death, we are told, the Prime Minister’s will was deposited at the temple, and the Prime Minister “became a guardian deity of the temple and worked many wonders.” This is something that can happen in such a milieu—or at least can appear to happen. The truth is, of course, subject to the imagination of the GM and the group: it could be that the Prime Minister actually did become a guardian deity. However, it’s just as possible and potentially more interesting if that Prime Minister’s ghost is long departed, and instead dokkaebi or evil wizards, or some other monster could have infiltrated the temple with the purpose of manipulating the monks through magic and trickery to some unknown end.

One could also use the book as a way of generating campaign world events, especially if one doesn't have access to a set of random kingdom-scale events tables. In the absence of tables like those, one could use a book like the Samguk Yusa as a kind of random events generator.

As one more example, when I just opened my copy of the book, it was to page 192, which contains an account of the reign of King Peop (Pŏp), a figure apparently remembered primarily for the not-terribly-exciting act of ordering his subjects to set free their hunting falcons and destroy their fishing tackle. While the book presents this act as a token of Buddhist devotion, if they were literally followed, these orders would wreak havoc on the economy of fishing villages or hunting communities, not to mention seriously challenging rangers or spellcasters with animal companions or familiars in animal form.

If you selected this as a campaign event, for some monarch in your game, it would be fun to have news of the edict spread by word of mouth slowly throughout the setting, sometimes reaching communities before the player characters, and sometimes arriving only a day or two after their arrival. For those looking for a way of building interesting and unusual kingdom-wide events, one could do worse than to draw upon actual courtly records—in a way, it’s even better than a random table, since events are fleshed out a little bit, and the events in these historical records events have a particularly Korean flavor and resonance.

Meanwhile, the Samguk Sagi could, in theory, be more useful for this latter purpose of generating courtly and kingdom-wide events: it is apparently more down-to-earth and “fact-oriented,” which is to say that it’s less prone to citing legends and myths as “history.” However, for those who are either on a budget, or lack the interest to dig into both sets of annals, the Samguk Yusa should prove more than sufficient for, and likely more suited to, both purposes.

Note: There is also a more recent (2006) English translation of the Samguk Yusa available, translated by Kim Dal-Yong and published under the title Overlooked Historical Records of the Three Korean Kingdoms. Ironically, it seems to be far less readily available than the 1972 translation, and I suspect it was mainly produced for university libraries to purchase. (Its WorldCat page suggests as much.) In any case, I haven’t managed to get my hands on it, but it’s probably just as good as, if not better than, the earlier translation.

Print editions are very hard to come by, though the book is available in many libraries worldwide: here is the WorldCat listing for the text.

You can find the digital versions of The Samguk Yusa and Samguk Sagi on Amazonbook cover and on Barnes and Noblesbook cover.

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Gord Sellar is a writer and musician who has lived in South Korea since 2002, and contributed energetically to the cross-pollination between its local SF scene and the English-speaking world. In addition to academic work on Korean SF, he has blogged extensively on the subject, and has served as a co-translator, editor, and support person for multiple major efforts to translate Korean SF to Western audiences (such as Kaya Books’ anthology Readymade Bodhisattva and Clarkesworld’s 2019 Korean SF translation series). He wrote the screenplay and musical score for the first Korean-language adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft story, the award-winning “The Music of Jo Hyeja” (dir. Jihyun Park, 2012), and his adventure Fermentum Nigrum Dei Sepulti is now available from Lamentations of the Flame Princess.

Twitter (X): @gordsellar