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Secular Transgression of Subversion as Divine Prescription: No Yông’s Painted Lacquer Revisitied

Karen Hwang (Vassar College)

My paper examines a double-sided painted lacquer screen, completed and signed by the artist No Yông in 1307. Currently in the collection of the National Museum of Korea, the screen is commonly called “Amitabha and Eight Bodhisattvas,” describing the content of its front panel. My primary concern is the reverse side, which is divided into two distinct yet connected registers. The top half features the founder of the Koryô dynasty Wang Gôn, labeled as “taejo,” prostrating before a standing image of Bodhisattva Dhamodghata with an entourage. Wang Gôn’s legendary encounter with the divine manifestation had been construed as a sign of Heavenly Mandate—as an auspicious omen foretelling Wang Gôn’s imminent rise as the ruler of a new dynasty. In the bottom half is a seated image of Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha to whom the artist No Yông, as well as an unidentified pair of a monk and a layperson, pay homage.

I offer a new reading of the composition on the reverse side as an articulation of Heaven’s Mandate for the leadership based on Kanghwa Island, to which the Koryô court moved in view of the equestrian Mongols’ ineptitude in naval battles. Arguably the greatest East Asian tradition of “religious” justification for the “secular” transgression of subversion, the Chinese notion of Heavenly Mandate was Wang Gôn’s justification for overthrowing the previous ruler whom he had served. I propose that under the Mongol domination, the Koryô leadership in exile revived a longstanding visual rhetoric of divine omen, which was inextricably tied to theories of geomancy. Reports of divine manifestations customarily underscored specific sites of miraculous events. As such, claims of divine presence on the Korean peninsula were powerful geopolitical pronouncements, defending acts of subversion as a divine-willed prescription.