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May 3, 2019

Having fun on C Floor.
This morning I requested some primary source material that I found in Princeton's Rare Books collection via the library's online catalogue.
Among the items I ordered was the French Jesuit Jean-Baptiste du Halde's four-volume work, Description Géographique, Historique, Chronologique, Politique, et Physique de l'Empire de la Chine et de la Tartarie Chinoise, published in 1735. These encyclopaedic books were widely read in Europe during the eighteenth century, and served as the basis for European knowledge of China and its neighbouring nations. Now, Du Halde himself had never set foot in China—he spent his entire life in France, if I'm not mistaken. How did he produce what became the most authoritative work on the 'far east' across Europe? Du Halde had good contacts. The Society of Jesus had been a salient presence in the east decades before the Qing dynasty was even founded. Du Halde compiled reports from over 17 missionaries who were actually in China.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Du Halde's series is its inclusion of geographic and historical accounts of 'la royaume de la Coree.' What I found in the 'abridged history of Korea' section of Volume 4 was Du Halde’s treatment of the founding myth ('origin fantastique') of the Korean kingdom of 'Kao kouli' (Goguryeo). Besides the fact that Du Halde, his Jesuit informants and their Qing interlocutors all considered ‘Kao kouli’ a Korean kingdom (contra recent attempts by Chinese nationalists to claim it as their own history by literally redrawIn maps and building fake archaeological sites), this chapter introduces how the people of this nation descended from the 'Pu yi' believed that the daughter of a river god had married an unnamed ‘holy man,’ and laid a massive egg, from which her son 'Chumong,' the first king and founder of Kao kouli was born. Instead of ridiculing this story, Du Halde reminds the reader that the ancient Romans also had their own fanciful myth of origin: Romulus and Remus reared by a she-wolf. It should not come as a surprise, wrote Du Halde, that an equally ancient people on the eastern edge of the world believed in such fantasies as the Romans did.

Du Halde would have found yet more striking parallels had he heard the founding myth of neighbouring Baekje, which shared borders with Goguryeo during the Three Kingdoms Period. This seafaring power on the western coast of the peninsula claimed descent from two sons of Chumong. The older brother, Biryu, chose the coastal stronghold of Michuhol (now Incheon) as his capital, while the younger brother Onjo settled along the fertile valley of the Han (today’s Seoul). They eventually went to war, and Onjo triumphed. So the fratricidal myth of Remus and Romulus found its eastern counterpart, told over two generations.