World's largest inscribed stele: politics and polemics in Northeast Asia

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About ten years ago, I stood next to this gigantic granite stele which is situated in the present-day city of Ji'an (coordinates of city center:  41°07′31″N 126°11′38″E) on the bank of the Yalu River in Jilin Province of Northeast China, directly across from North Korea:

The sheer scale of the massive monolith (approximately 6.4 meters tall and with a girth of almost 4 meters!) overwhelms anyone who approaches it.  Even more astonishing than the enormous size of the stele is the fact that its entire surface is covered with an inscription consisting of approximately 1,800 characters / Sinographs (hanja 한자 / kanji かんじ / hànzì 漢字 / 汉字)  This is the Gwanggaeto Stele.

It was erected to commemorate the achievements of Gwanggaeto the Great (374–413, r. 391–413), the nineteenth monarch of Goguryeo.

The following is a brief essay about the Gwanggaeto Stele by Bob Ramsey:

An Ancient Korean Monument

The discovery of  in the late 19th century came as a welcome surprise for historians. But it almost immediately stirred up a lot of nationalistic infighting and controversy, too.

The enormous stone was found in Manchuria, but it had been erected there long before there was a Manchuria, in 414, as a marker for the tomb of Gwanggaeto the Great, the powerful monarch of the Goguryeo Kingdom. Under that legendary Korean king, Goguryeo had been one of the great powers of East Asia, ruling over an empire extending from eastern Mongolia, through Manchuria, and over two thirds of the Korean Peninsula. (Some Korean ultranationalists would have him conquering lands all the way into Europe, but that’s a story for another day!)

What was most important about the stone was the text written on it. Although the Gwanggaeto Stele was, and still is, the largest engraved stele in the world, every surface of the monument is covered by a narrative about the legendary king and the northeastern part of East Asia where he was a force. In short, it is an extant, first-hand account of the king’s exploits—when, where, and how. There is no other historical record like it.

From the beginning, however, bitter feuds have been waged over this text, much of which is a long description of wars King Gwanggaeto waged against the “Wa”—that is, against the Japanese. The text clearly states that the king destroyed all the Wa armies he came up against, but a controversy arose immediately over just where he did this fighting. Was it on the Korean peninsula? (That idea of Wa on their soil again infuriates Koreans.) Or did the king cross the seas and fight them in Japan? (Japanese find this counter suggestion laughable.) In an additional descent into pettiness, Koreans accused a Japanese military officer of deliberately altering the text.

But an even pettier feud has arisen quite recently about the broader topic of who owns history. In premodern China, Goguryeo had always been viewed as a Korean kingdom. But now, in the 21st century, Chinese partisans have extended their modern claims of historical ownership back in time to Goguryeo, claiming it as part of their own Chinese history. In other words, in the Xi Jinping era, Chinese would extend their contemporary vision of China as an all-encompassing, unified state into the ancient past, an idea that has enraged Koreans for whom the Goguryeo king has long been a historical icon. Ancient history has become a serious diplomatic issue in modern East Asia.

Politics and polemics complicate the study of history, culture, and language in most unwelcome ways.  The day I travelled to the Gwanggaeto Stele, all the other visitors were South Koreans, who beheld it with awe, veneration, and admiration.  I wondered what the local Chinese thought of the stele, what the North Koreans on the other side of the river made of it, and what the positions of the regional and national Chinese authorities were concerning it.

Selected readings


  1. murawaki said,

    December 27, 2021 @ 7:45 pm

    > In premodern China, Goguryeo had always been viewed as a Korean kingdom.

    Not really, if you consider the Jurchens/Manchus part of Chinese history (I don't, BTW). The Jurchens saw themselves as the successor of Gaogouli (or Gaoli in the historical sources). After all, Gaogouli was a Manchurian power that had a long-lasting impact on peoples living in Manchuria.

  2. BM said,

    January 2, 2022 @ 6:56 am

    LOL, this reminds me of the role the Bitola inscription (there's a Wikipedia page) plays in the nationalistic arguments between Bulgaria and (North) Macedonia whether medieval Macedonia "was Bulgarian". The question is not just academic – Bulgaria has blocked Macedonia's negotiations for entry in the EU over the number of historical and linguistic controversies between the two countries. It's somewhat reassuring to know that "we are not the only idiots who are like that".

  3. Victor Mair said,

    January 2, 2022 @ 12:01 pm

    From a Bulgarian citizen:

    Yes, indeed, the relations between us and Macedonia have reached the highest level of animosity…and I don't see them as resolvable in the near future. This is an extremely complicated issue which predates WW2 and the inscription mentioned is the smallest of the numerous problems that exist, or shall I say, which the other party causes for themselves. In fact, the inscription is no longer even an "issue" that anyone talks about, as there are enough issues that the other party loves creating for themselves, such as appropriating revolutionary figures from the Ottoman era.

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