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Go in Ancient Korea

It is generally inferred that go reached Korea from China by one of two routes. The earliest possible - broadly in the time of Confucius - would be if it was brought, along with many other aspects of Chinese culture in the migration led by Qizi (Kija in Korean). Qizi had a reputation as a wise man, and he led a huge tribe of followers to avoid fighting raging in China. They settled in the Taedong Basin and called themselves the Han.

The other route was about 109 BC when the Chinese invaded and established the separate colonies. It is clear that in either case the impact on the local tribes must have been tremendous. Chinese culture became well established. There is, however, no proof that go was part of the migratory baggage. The case for inferring that it was rests largely the earliest actual reference to go in the History of the Three Kingdoms and related books which record the wars between Koguryo, Paekche and Silla who eventually merged to create modern Korea.

It is an incidental reference only. Koryon, the king of Koguryo in the north, had designs on Paekche in the centre. A priest in Koguryo called To-lim, who was reputed to be a champion of go, volunteered to act as an agent provocateur. He knew that the king of Paekche, Yogyong, loved go. Koryon therefore pretended to accuse To-lim of a serious crime. To-lim fled and sought sanctuary with Yogyong. Their shared interest in go made this a formality, especially when To-lim proved in a practice game to be a great master.

In time To-lim became a trusted servanto of Yogyong. He was soon offering advice in other areas, and urged Yogyong to spend valuable resources on dykes and other civil works. When this advice was followed, he next urged the king to build sumptuous palaces. Once he was satisfied that Paekche had spent its way into trouble, To-lim found a way to escape back to Koguryo. There he was able not just to report to Koryon that Paekche was bankrupt, but also to pinpoint the weakpoints of the various works he had helped build.

Koryon, who lived to 98 and so is better known by his epithet the "Long Life King", invaded Paekche in what is now Seoul and was able to wrap up victory easily, killing the Paekche king into the bargain. This event is dated 475 AD.

The next reference is not until a famous poem dated 737 in Silla in the south, and the first physical evidence within Korea itself is a stone board dated about 880 at Hae-in Temple (but the go sets still in the Imperial Repository in Nara, Japan, are believed to be of Korean origin and are much earlier). The stone board is famous because the great scholar Ch'oe Ch'i-weon supposedly played on it.

© London 1998
John Fairbairn

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