Religion played a significant role in the life of Goguryeo people. They not only held memorial rites for ancestors frequently but also worshipped them as supernatural beings, or gods. King Chumo, the founder of the kingdom, and his mother, Lady Yuhwa, were examples in point. They were anointed respectively as the "God of Godeung" and the "Goddess of Buyeo" after their deaths and were subsequently remembered and revered at the Dongmaeng Festival, the kingdom's largest annual festive event. The people at the time believed that the king was an offspring of God of Heaven, the god of the highest standing among the people. That the kingdom was founded by the son of the highest god meant that their country was the most divine of all, a belief that was the key source of national pride for the people. It was in this context that the people of Goguryeo kept performing rituals during the Dongmaeng festivals, which were designed to confirm and deepen the faith that King Chumo had indeed been a god's descendent who was born on the land of their kingdom.
In their (religious) belief, the citizens of Goguryeo thought that the deceased would continue his or her life in an afterlife; this belief apparently was the reason that more than ten thousand gigantic tumuli were built in Gungnaeseong, once the old capital. Also, people at the time considered a long, leisurely hermitic life with the pleasure of riding dragons, cranes and giraffes to be the most ideal form. In addition to worshipping the God of Heaven and the God of Ancestors, they also worshipped a variety of gods, including the god of the sun, god of the moon and 'gods of functions,' like the god of agriculture and god of fire. Shamans and ritual masters performed religious (sacrificial) rites, and shrines were constructed where god-worshiping activities took place frequently. Kings would never be absent from these ceremonial rites for the God of Heaven and the God of Ancestors, as well as the Dongmaeng Festival.
What brought a new wave of change to the religious life in the kingdom was Buddhism, which was recognized by the government as a religion in A.D. 372. It presented itself as a full-fledged religion that featured specific images of Buddha and a formal organization of practitioners. Supported by kings and their royal families, Buddhism began flourishing, building temples at numerous locations and setting up huge pagodas and gold-plated Buddhist statues (inside the temples). The Buddhist monks of the kingdom spread the religion to its neighbor, the Silla Kingdom, while also playing a vital role in disseminating the Buddhist region and culture to other parts of the region, including Japan.
Festivals, Games and Lifestyle
People of Goguryeo were fond of dancing and singing. Because they lived in a tense society, which had to fight wars constantly, and whose rules and laws were stringent, the citizens understandably found a relaxing pastime they needed in festive activities, such as drinking, singing and dancing. Come every October, the kingdom held various events, ceremonies and festive activities, including the Dongmaeng Festival (whose main purpose was to worship the gods of heaven and ancestors), where citizens of all levels gathered and enjoyed the event together. Unlike the memorial services of the Chinese, characterized by rigid formalities and solemn appearances (so as to stir up the fear of gods among viewers), Goguryeo's events and ceremonies (the Dongmaeng Festival, in particular) provided a forum of festivity where people mingled with one another, engaging in drinking, singing and dancing activities (in celebration of the "gods' descent to this world").
In the beginning of each year, as was the custom, many village people would join in the festive events held at riverside locations. Kings also used to come and watch citizens enjoying entertainment activities, which included 'stone-throw games,' a custom that has been handed down to the mid-20th century.
Other popular pastime activities the Goguryeo people enjoyed included games like "baduk" ("go"), "jang-gi" (Chinese chess), "chukguk" (soccer), dice-play, "yut-nori" (the four-stick game), "tuho" (throwing-arrows-in-jar), ssireum ("sumo") and a bare-hand duel called "subak." Subak eventually evolved into Taekwondo, Korea's most well known martial art, as the sport passed through the Goryeo and Joseon Kingdoms. Ssireum, which has become a very popular sport today, is a game of wrestling in which two players compete to wrestle the other to the ground using cloth-sashes, which are tied around the waists and thighs of the players. People also enjoyed circuses brought from Central Asia, listening to musical performances, or playing musical instruments like the six-string Korean zither or flute.
Hunting was also an important pastime. Interested individuals would form large-scale hunting squads, and run up and down mountains and across open fields. They would set up shooting targets and hold archery-shooting contests. Those with outstanding archery skills were named "Jumong," the nickname of King Chumo who founded the kingdom, a tag of honor. Meanwhile, young people would take academic as well as archery lessons at "gyeongdang," an educational institution, receiving a balanced training that eventually paved the way for the kingdom to foster strong military power.
In terms of marriage customs, the kingdom had a practice called "seo-ok-je," in which the bride's family would build an annex ("Seo-ok') to their house and have the new couple live there and rear children until they fully grew up. This custom would disappear toward the late period of the kingdom, when it was replaced by a more liberal concept of marriage, allowing young ones in love to marry without undue delays.
Funerals also carried particular significance. Large-scale funerals were favored and hefty sums of money were paid for them. The objects that the deceased had used during his/her lifetime were buried together with the dead. This custom was modified during the late period of the kingdom, when the belongings of the dead were placed at the side of the grave, so that funeral guests could take them. The Goguryeo people would deeply mourn with sorrow and tears at the loss of their loved ones; but as was the custom at the funerals, they would 'send off' the deceased with dances, songs and music.
World Cultural Heritage: Goguryeo's Walls, Monuments and Tomb Murals
Many Goguryeo-era cultural assets have been recognized as world-class cultural heritage. Examples of these assets include tomb murals that are widely known for their sense of using bright colors and a variety of painted images, the 1,500-year-old fortresses and walls that still stand high in grandeur, as well as oversized, monolithic monuments.
The kingdom had an abundant supply of mountain rocks. Taking advantage of this, they built robust bulwarks at strategically important defensive points and transportation crossroads. Its fortresses retained the best of its architectural technology. The "chi" around the fortress was the protruding sections of the walls that enabled soldiers to launch an effective three-front defense, which of course enhanced the defense capabilities of the bulwarks. To ensure that these defense structures would not crumble easily, they deployed solid, large rocks at the bottom and smaller rocks for the upper parts of the structures. Angles of the walls were carefully laid to ensure maximum stability. Rather than chip off cliffs or rocks, they took advantage of natural dispositions as they were; and when they built defensive walls they laid the rocks in an interlocking way, a technique to build the walls as defensively strong as possible. The superiority of Goguryeo's architectural techniques was widely known to neighboring countries and influenced their culture as well. Knowing that Goguryeo fortresses were hard to breach, regional powers would hold back from challenging Goguryeo. The 1,500-year-old Goguryeo ramparts are still extant all over the old Goguryeo territory.
Knowing how to work with rocks, the people of Goguryeo used to build gigantic stone tombs. The royal mausoleum of King Jangsu (r. A.D. 413-491) is the prime example. It stands like a pyramid that measures 31 meters each side and stands 13 meters high, a reason that it is dubbed the 'Pyramid of the East.' There are over 10,000 stone tombs of this style and others (stone chambers covered with dirt on top) still extant; one of them measures 71 meters each side. Tomb guards used to take care of the mausoleums of kings and aristocrats and ceremonial services have taken place on a regular basis.
Then, there is King Gwangaeto's Monument that stands in front of the king's mausoleum. Built by his son, King Jangsu, in A.D. 414, this rectangular monolith stands 6.39 meters high and weighs 37 metric tons. A total of 1,775 Chinese characters were engraved on all four sides of the monument, which is widely recognized for its historographical value today. The Chinese inscriptions describe the "rules of care" for tomb guardians, a brief history of the kingdom, and the genealogy of royal families, as well as the great achievements of King Gwangaeto. Another Goguryeo-era monument, called "Jungwon-Goguryeo-bi (the central region monument)," was excavated in 1979 in Chungju, South Korea. About 2,000 words were engraved on it. Although scholars were so far able to read only one-tenth of the inscriptions, about 200 words, it nevertheless provided invaluable information about how the kingdom governed its southern territories.
Finally, the representative works that epitomize Goguryeo art are those tomb murals inside more than 100 tumuli. Their purpose was to wish the dead a peaceful rest and they were portrayed in various images and contents. Popular images were decorative patterns, mostly to decorate the tomb's interior (or sometimes to convey particular meanings), the portraits of lifetime events of the deceased, deities of protection to chase off evil spirits and to lead the soul of the dead to the afterworld, paintings of brave gate guards, goblins, some of heavenly features, and various constellations. These murals vividly portray the lifestyle of the time as well as its complex spiritual worlds, not to mention the outstanding artistic painting skills. For these reasons, they have won recognition as a " world cultural heritage."
Of these tomb paintings, those found inside Anak No. 3 Tumulus (featuring a long procession of 250 participants), the Tomb of the Dancers (hunting scenes), the Large Gangseo Tumulus (a tortoise), and the Middle Gangseo Tumulus (a phoenix) well deserve to be honored as excellent examples of the world's best artworks among their contemporaries, given the exceptional techniques deployed in the handling of colors and brush strokes. Also, the paintings in the Fourth of the Five Tombs (portraying deities and hermitic figures) still retain much of their magnificent colors, and continue to mesmerize viewers.