Kim Pu-sik Writes Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

In 1145, the Koryŏ statesman and scholar Kim Pu-sik wrote Samguk sagi, a history of the three kingdoms. As the oldest extant history of Korea and practically the only source of information for the first millennium of Korean history, it is an invaluable work.

Summary of Event

In the mid-twelfth century, the Koryŏ Koryŏ Dynasty[Koryo Dynasty] Dynasty Koryŏ Dynasty[Koryo Dynasty] (918-1392) seemed to have overcome the contradictions that had beset it since its founding. Though laying claim to the inheritance of the ancient state of Koguryŏ Koryŏ Dynasty[Koryo Dynasty] , including its heartland in what is now northeast China, in fact, Koryŏ Koryŏ Dynasty[Koryo Dynasty] mainly followed in the footsteps of the Silla Dynasty (668-935), from which its core officials derived. In 1135, under the leadership of the monk Myoch’ŏng Koryŏ Dynasty[Koryo Dynasty] Myoch’ŏng[Myochong] , the Koguryŏ Koryŏ Dynasty[Koryo Dynasty] faction within the Koryŏ Koryŏ Dynasty[Koryo Dynasty] Dynasty made a last stand. Occupying the ancient Koguryŏ Koryŏ Dynasty[Koryo Dynasty] capital of P’yŏ Koryŏ Dynasty[Koryo Dynasty] ngyang, they tried to sway King Injong Injong toward a military conquest of the ancient Koguryŏ Koryŏ Dynasty[Koryo Dynasty] heartland. However, they were defeated the following year by Kim Pu-sik Kim Pu-sik , who represented the Silla loyalist faction. His victory sealed the supremacy of the Silla tradition and dissipated any illusions that Koryŏ Koryŏ Dynasty[Koryo Dynasty] would ever break out of its peninsular confines. It also marked the culmination of a trend toward civil domination over the military. Furthermore, renouncing the Koguryŏ Koryŏ Dynasty[Koryo Dynasty] heartland ensured a stable and peaceful relationship with the neighboring Jurchen Jin Dynasty Jin Dynasty (Chin; 1115-1234) that occupied this territory. It is against this background that the writing of the Samguk sagi (1145; history of the Three Kingdoms) should be understood: Its author, Kim Pu-sik, was not a neutral historian but someone with a clear ideological agenda. Historiography;Korea Korea;historiography [kw]Kim Pu-sik Writes Samguk Sagi[Kim Pusik] (1145) [kw]Samguk Sagi, Kim Pu-sik Writes (1145) Koryŏ Dynasty[KoryoDynasty] Kim Pu-sik Samguk Sagi (Kim) Korea;1145: Kim Pu-sik Writes Samguk Sagi[1880] Historiography;1145: Kim Pu-sik Writes Samguk Sagi[1880] Koryŏ Dynasty[Koryo Dynasty] Kim Pu-sik Wang Hae

Kim Pu-sik was a descendant of the royal dynasty of Silla. He was the third of four brothers, all of whom passed the civil service examination and thus cemented their status as part of the capital elite. However, his was undoubtedly the most illustrious career: He not only attained high office and a reputation for scholarship and writing but also gained the trust of rulers as a royal tutor. An able military strategist, he retired from active government duties in 1142 because of his age and also because he felt isolated after all his brothers and close colleagues had died and a political rival had been reinstated in office.

Kim Pu-sik, however, still had the ear of King Injong, in whom he had inculcated the value of the Confucian classics and history. Kim was a staunch defender of Confucian values: In one famous instance, he rebuked Injong for giving too much power to his father-in-law, arguing that this would violate the cardinal relationship between ruler and subject. The emulation of Confucian Confucianism;Korea values is a recurring theme in some of his other writings, including his poetry and memorials, in which he also shows a profound grasp of Chinese history. Undoubtedly, this expertise led to his involvement in the compilation of the official records of Injong’s predecessor, King Yejong Yejong (r. 1105-1122), and he was in charge of the national history compilation of the Koryŏ Koryŏ Dynasty[Koryo Dynasty] Dynasty. He was therefore uniquely qualified to write a history of the three kingdoms period preceding Koryŏ Koryŏ Dynasty[Koryo Dynasty] . Given his background and the circumstances in which the work emerged, it is likely that Kim had suggested the work in the first place, but the royal commission gave it the status of official historiography.

Although compilations of Korean history had been made before his time, Kim Pu-sik’s work was the first to be written in complete conformity with the Chinese historiographic tradition. The Samguk sagi follows the format established by Sima Qian’s Shiji (first century b.c.e.; Records of the Grand Historian of China, 1960, rev. ed. 1993), dividing the material into four categories: annals, tables, monographs, and biographies. The annals are a chronological account of main events arranged by reign. They consist of twenty-eight chapters: The first twelve deal with Silla (57 b.c.e.-668 c.e.) and unified Silla (668-935), the next ten chapters cover Koguryŏ Koryŏ Dynasty[Koryo Dynasty] (37 b.c.e.-668 c.e.), and the last six are dedicated to Paekche (18 b.c.e.-660 c.e.). The tables (chapters 29 to 31) are year-by-year lists of reigns, offering no new information. The monographs describe the basic institutions of the state and its main areas of concern, such as geography or ritual (chapters 32 to 40). The last ten chapters of this fifty-chapter work contain biographies of important personalities.

One of the reasons Chinese historians organized their material in this way was to make a large amount of information more readily accessible. However, in the case of the Samguk sagi, the reverse is true: Kim Pu-sik seems to have used it to make a limited amount of information look more impressive. There is a considerable amount of overlap between the different sections: The biographies contain mostly material that can also be found in the annals section, and within the annals section, there is also considerable duplication. For instance, battles that occurred between Silla and Paekche are described in exactly the same terms in the respective chapters of each kingdom. It is obvious that by the time Kim compiled his work, a lot of sources had been irretrievably lost. Although each of the three kingdoms had once compiled its own national history, most of these seem to have been lost by the twelfth century. Kim Pu-sik thus had to rely on a few general histories of Korea (now lost), accounts from Chinese sources, and some fragmentary records and biographies. This lack of sources is especially evident in his coverage of the first centuries. It is generally agreed that the founding dates of the three states are fictitious, and his work becomes reliable only from the fourth century.

Besides borrowing the framework of the Chinese histories, Kim Pu-sik was also indebted to the methodology and mental universe of the Chinese historians. Thus, he worked with a team of ten compilers to gather sources, compare them critically, and use the most reliable parts. He refrained from using his own voice in the text, inserting instead his comments at places where he felt the source material needed to be criticized. These comments reveal that he saw history in moralistic terms and wanted to use precedents as warnings or instructions for present rulers. He was also keen to edit out any legendary narratives or miraculous events. Despite the influence of Chinese models and the fact that he wrote in classical Chinese (Korean officialdom’s preferred language for written communication until the end of the Yi Dynasty (Chosŏ Koryŏ Dynasty[Koryo Dynasty] n; 1392-1910), Kim Pu-sik succeeded in his main aim: to compile an authoritative account of his country’s ancient history and thereby justify its status in the world order of the time.

Despite his objectivist methodology, Kim Pu-sik has been taken to task by late Yi and modern Korean historians for his bias toward Silla and his attempts to represent it as the sole rightful source of Koryŏ Koryŏ Dynasty[Koryo Dynasty] culture and political legitimacy. Perhaps the main criticism leveled at this work is that it excludes the state of Parhae (698-926), a successor state to Koguryŏ Koryŏ Dynasty[Koryo Dynasty] in northeast China, thereby forfeiting any Korean claims to that territory. This is attributed to Kim Pu-sik’s excessive respect for Chinese culture and his resultant subservience to China. However, by bringing Korean history in line with the Chinese world order, he also ensured that the peninsula had a clearer and less ambiguous identity within that order, restricted to the peninsula but also firmly implanted on it. Koryŏ Dynasty[Koryo Dynasty]


Despite Kim Pu-sik’s preference for Silla, his work is umistakably a painstaking search to recover the facts of history. Although Kim relied heavily on Chinese sources for the first centuries of the common era, he did not hesitate to reject these in favor of Korean sources when he felt these were more reliable. Thus, he evidently relied heavily on a Koguryŏ Koryŏ Dynasty[Koryo Dynasty] source when writing about the first three centuries of that kingdom’s history, making his work an invaluable resource for Koguryŏ Koryŏ Dynasty[Koryo Dynasty] history. The list of Koguryŏ Koryŏ Dynasty[Koryo Dynasty] place-names in the Monographs section allows readers to reconstruct elements of the Koguryŏ Koryŏ Dynasty[Koryo Dynasty] language. The Paekche annals are undoubtedly the most meager of the three, but it is not sure whether Kim is to blame for this—the accuracy of the basic facts is confirmed in Japanese sources, and the mistakes may be present in his sources. In the Silla annals, the author shows even-handedness by including material that cast a negative light on his ancestral dynasty, such as the practice of endogamy by some Silla rulers. Even though this work may have been intended to unify the peninsula under a Silla identity, its plurality of voices betrays the inherently pluralist worldview of Koryŏ Koryŏ Dynasty[Koryo Dynasty] intellectuals.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Best, Jonathan W. “Redating the Earliest Silla-Related Entries in the ’Paekche Annals’s of the Samguk Sagi.” Han’guk sanggosa hakpo 21, no. 4 (1996): 147-171. Shows how some events in the Paekche annals have been antedated to embellish Paekche’s early history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gardiner, Kenneth H. J. “The Samguk-sagi and Its Sources.” Papers on Far Eastern History 2 (1970): 1-42. A brief but authoritative introduction to the sources at Kim Pu-sik’s disposal and how he used them.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kim Pu-sik. Samguk sagi. Translated and edited by Yi Pyŏng-do. Seoul: Uŏryu Munhwasa, 1977. In Korean. Still the standard edition and modern Korean translation of Kim Pu-sik’s work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sin, Hyong-sik. Samguk sagi yŏn’gu. Seoul: Ilchogak, 1981. In Korean, with summary in English. Offers a thorough statistical analysis of all parts of the Samguk sagi, and seeks to redeem Kim Pu-sik as a proto-nationalist historian.

Categories: History