The Mural Paintings of the Susan-ri Tomb: Aspiring To an Open Culture
One of the Goguryeo tombs excavated in North Korea in 1971 caught the attention of scholars. This was the Susan-ri Tomb. Though seriously damaged, the remaining mural paintings in this tomb show the vivid life and living conditions in Goguryeo.
When the Susan-ri Tomb was constructed in the fifth century, Goguryeo truly was the center of Northeast Asia. Why was Goguryeo the center of Northeast Asia? As is well known, Goguryeo was militarily powerful. But would it have been possible to maintain this position only with military power for many centuries? Let us look at another reason why Goguryeo was the center of Northeast Asia: the mural paintings of Susan-ri Tomb, now restored based upon their original forms.
The Mural Paintings of the Susan-ri Tomb: Aspiring To an Open Culture
The Susan-ri Tomb is located at the foot of Mt. Gojeong, four kilometers southwest of Susan-ri, in South Pyeongan Province, North Korea. This tomb is a mounded stone chamber tomb with mural paintings illustrating customs of Goguryeo society. It has an entrance passage, and the chamber is deeper inside the tomb. Upon reaching the chamber after proceeding through the entrance passage protected by two guards, you will see mural paintings depicting the life of the tomb’s master on the four walls to the north, south, east, and west.
The Goguryeo people who left these mural paintings decorated four walls with splendid patterns, including lotuses, and depicted pillars, a type of bracket set called gongpo, and crossbeams to make the inside of the tomb resemble a wood-frame building.
The Entrance Passage
Stepping into the tomb, you first see a guard standing and holding a large sword with a round ring in his right hand and a long spear with a flag in his left hand. Goguryeo people prayed that the tomb would be protected for a long time, and painted a guard holding a sword and a spear.
The Northern Wall
Stepping into the chamber, you face the severely damaged northern wall. The indoors lives of the master and his wife are illustrated on all the walls. Originally, on the northern wall the master, who wears red clothes, sits looking to the west over a flat bench in the center of the building. His wife turns her head toward him sitting on the east side while three male servants holding fans stand near the master. The images of the couple and the three male servants are damaged, and thus they are not visible.
Maids on the right side of the northern wall wear black and red-colored long-sleeve jackets and skirts with folds, and wear their hair tied up. On the left, male servants wearing black caps on their heads stand politely as if waiting for the master’s orders. Among the figures on the northern wall, a man of great strength who supports the roof catches our eyes. The appearance of this strong man also seen on the western wall cannot be observed in detail because his face and body are obscured by damage to the mural paintings. These men look different than the strong men in mural paintings in other Goguryeo tombs, but they may be seen as figures from western areas due to their big bright eyes and large noses. How did western people far from Goguryeo appear in this tomb? This tells us that Goguryeo’s culture was open and international enough to interact with countries to the west.
The Eastern Wall
The eastern wall was divided into two sides with two long lines drawn by repeating diamond shapes. Two persons facing each other were depicted on the upper side and a musical band playing drums and horns is shown on the lower side. On the upper side of the screen, two persons facing each other were drawn, one is standing and the other is sitting down. The painting seems to be a scene of someone greeting a figure thought to be the tomb’s master. The sizes of the two figures are interesting, and suggest that the figure kneeling down was drawn to be much smaller. This was because the sizes of figures were depicted differently depending upon their social position in Goguryeo. People who play shoulder drums, or melbuk, and those who follow playing horns are shown at the bottom. This drum is commonly found in other Goguryeo mural paintings. Differing from the shape of today’s drums, it is unique.
The Southern Wall
On the southern wall of the entry to the chamber, men raised parasols to block the sun. They wear yellow outer garments and stand on both sides of the entry to the tomb as if greeting the tomb’s master. Splendid cloud patterns are drawn around these figures. The cloud patterns are shown in several places inside the tomb. This shows that the inside of the tomb is not a space in this world but rather a fantastic world in the future life after death, and that it bears an auspicious spirit.
The Western Wall
Let us look now at the western wall, which best shows life in Goguryeo among the mural paintings in the Susan-ri Tomb. The western wall was divided into two sides with two long lines drawn by repeating black and white squares. A couple seemingly the master and his wife watches acrobatics and leaves in a procession.
The master of the tomb expresses dignity. He wears an outer coat with a black collar line, a waist front, a hem, sleeve cuffs, and a black cap. His wife displays the splendid fashion style and refined flair of an elite lady in Goguryeo, with rouge-colored makeup on her cheeks. She is wearing a long-sleeve embroidered jacket made of luxurious silk and a skirt of different colors connected by colorful pieces of fabric. The master and his wife under parasols held by male and female servants are followed by men and women dressed in splendid clothing. Compared to the elites, the maids look somewhat artless. In Goguryeo, clothing and decorations differed depending upon one’s social position.
In front of the procession, acrobats perform a variety of feats as if they are competing with one another. Acrobatics is known to have originated in the western region and to have entered through Central Asia. Together with the images of foreign strong men described above, these depictions show that Goguryeo interacted not only with East Asia but also with Central Asian countries, and that its culture was rich. Unlike the clothing seen in murals in Anak Tomb No. 3 and in the Deokheung-ri Tomb, the sophisticated clothing and decorations of the figures in the mural paintings of the Susan-ri Tomb clearly depict characteristics of elite society in Goguryeo. They reveal aspects of the lives of people in Goguryeo. The Susan-ri Tomb is included in the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage list together with other Goguryeo tombs in recognition of its cultural value.
The Takamatsuzuka Tomb is located in Japan’s Nara Prefecture. The women in the mural paintings in this tomb wear skirts with folds and many colors. The women’s clothes resemble the clothing of the wife of the master of the Susan-ri Tomb. This valuable site shows the influences of Goguryeo’s culture on nearby countries. Unlike extant written texts, the mural paintings in Goguryeo tombs vividly show life at that time. These images show that Goguryeo was at the center of Northeast Asia not only in terms of military power, but also through the higher cultural level seen in the mural paintings. The newly restored mural paintings of the Susan-ri Tomb prove this.