A Man Called Sea Guest
The ancient Korean kingdom of Balhae made great efforts to promote exchanges with neighboring states. According to Chinese history book
In Pursuit of Tao
Yi was born into a merchant family of vast wealth in Balhae. It is said that he lost his parents when he was little and lived with his siblings and servants in charge of household chores.
Yi started trade business in earnest when he was 20 years old. He would cross the Yellow Sea to travel to the Shandong Peninsula, and Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces in China.
At the time, people of Balhae conducted active trade with China’s Tang Dynasty, the southern Korean kingdom of Silla and Japan. Unlike ordinary merchants who only pursued profit through trade, Yi sought to walk the path to the truth, or Tao.
While he was returning to Balhae after finishing his business in Tang, he happened to meet an ascetic who was over 100 years old on a ship. Yi was 24 years old at the time. Yi talked with the old man about his experience in different countries. When the old man asked him why he had traveled to many countries, Yi answered that he wanted to find people who attained Tao and people who realized the truth so they were not bound by worldly things.
The old ascetic noticed that Yi was absorbed in Taoism and was seeking enlightenment. He taught a few secrets of training to Yi, who spent the next ten years performing the methods on the Undo(운도) Island.
He became a completely changed man after the training, and people began to call him “the sea guest.” Still, Yi didn’t think he could be a Taoist hermit with his training, although it might be helpful for long life.
Being aware of the limit of his training, Yi left for China and spent 20 years wandering around famous mountains there. In the meantime, he came across another ascetic, who conveyed to him the teachings of Chinese Taoist philosopher Ge Hong known for his compilation of the theory and history of Taoist hermits.
According to Ge Hong’s book titled
Yi wrote a book titled [Geumaekhwandanbaekmungyeol] (금액환단백문결), in which he recorded his dialogue with the ascetic.
The book describes how to make the medicine needed for becoming a Taoist hermit and where to do it. The book was later published in a summarized version with the title
Yi was the first Balhae man who left his own record. However, he only became known after the 1990s when the academic community in China began to research Taoist scriptures. Without a doubt, this figure merits more attention and research.
Yi left the oldest writing in the history of Korean Taoism and filled the void in the Taoism history of Balhae. But not only that, through his life, we can also learn about the brisk overseas trade activities of Balhae merchants in the 9th century.