[Visual History of Korea] Silla nachimban, a true north-pointing compass for navigating the seas

[Visual History of Korea] Silla nachimban, a true north-pointing compass for navigating the seas

Statue of Jang Bo-go in Wando, South Jeolla ProvincePhoto © Hyungwon Kang

In Korea’s long maritime history, ancient sailors mastered navigation on the high seas when they finally deciphered the secrets of the direction of magnetic north.

The conquest of the seas has defined great empires in history, as evidenced by the prominent presence of the Baekje Empire (18 BC-660 AD) surrounding the Sea of West (officially known as the Yellow Sea) and the reach of its sailors into lands where elephants and monkeys roam. .

“One of the reasons why Baekje dominated the high seas in the beginning was its advanced navigational technology, as evidenced by the fact that the scholar of Baekje Wang In traveled to Japan by ship at the end of the 4th century. “said Bok Gi-dae, a professor of archeology and director of the Gojoseon Research Institute at Inha University in Incheon.

“During the third and fourth centuries, Baekje sailed through the open waters of Balhae Bay and conquered the western part of Balhae Bay, establishing Yoseo (Western Liaoning) and Jinpyeong districts. The biggest island in Balhae Bay was called Baekje Island,” Bok said.

Wang, better known in Japan as Wani, is credited with introducing the Hanja writing system to Japan. Wang is from the coastal city of Yeongam, South Jeolla Province.

“Baekje ships have navigated many oceans with various ocean currents. To navigate the oceans and not just navigate along the coastline, you cannot rely solely on star constellations. You need a compass,” Bok said.

A nachimban with a sundial from the Joseon period is on display at the National Museum of Korea in Seoul.  Photo © Hyungwon Kang

A nachimban with a sundial from the Joseon period is on display at the National Museum of Korea in Seoul. Photo © Hyungwon Kang

A magnetic compass is called “the chim pan” in Hanja characters. East Asians used the word, short for “sil-la chim pan”, which means the sharp needle of Silla. The chim pan in South Korea is pronounced “nachimban”.

Lodestone is the natural magnetic stone used in making nachimban, which was naturally available on the Korean Peninsula. The word magnet comes from “magnetite”, used to describe magnetic magnetite. Magnetite is derived from the Greek myth of Magnes, the shepherd who first discovered that the nails of his shoes and the metal point of his staff were attracted to a magnetic stone on Mount Ida while he was tending his flocks.

“Samguk Sagi”, a historical document of the Three Kingdoms of Korea – Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla – documents that in January 669 “a Tang dynasty monk named Beopan came to Silla in search of lodestones”. The book also records that in May 669, “two boxes of magnetized stones were sent to the Tang dynasty” from Silla.

While early seafaring voyages on the high seas were rarely documented by scholars and aristocrats, a ninth-century Japanese monk called Ennin’s Voyager’s Notebook provides many insightful details about early sailors.

The Japanese monk Ennin (794-864), of the Tendai school of Buddhism, kept a diary of his travels in China. It was translated into English by Harvard scholar Edwin O. Reischauer as “Ennin’s Diary: The Record of a Pilgrimage to China in Search of the Law”. It has ranked among the best travelogues in world literature, chronicling the Silla people and their colonial settlements in Tang territory.

A row of 1,200-year-old wharf pilings stretch over 331 meters at Cheonghaejin Garrison, which was established in 828 by Jang Bo-go.Photo © Hyungwon Kang

A row of 1,200-year-old wharf pilings stretch over 331 meters at Cheonghaejin Garrison, which was established in 828 by Jang Bo-go.Photo © Hyungwon Kang

Ennin had traveled to the Tang dynasty on Silla ships and returned home with the help of Jang Bo-go and his fleet of “efficient and fast Silla ships”, which brought him back to the city of Fukuoka.

Jang was an international sea trader who ruled the waters of East Asia during the reign of the 42nd King of Silla, King Heungdeok (777-836).

“The Silla ships had a V-bottom design, which is suitable for fast travel compared to the flat-bottomed design of ships that sail not too far from land,” said Lee Moon-kyo, docent at Chang Po Go Memorial. Hall in Wando, South Jeolla Province. The Memorial Hall is dedicated to Jang.

“According to Ennin’s journal, Silla sailors used geographic navigation in which people navigated by calculating direction and distance. They also used observational navigation based on the stars of the night sky and navigation using a magnetic compass called nachimban on cloudy days crossing open seas,” Bok said.
According to Ennin’s diary, a Silla ship that he was on April 16, 839, “traveled on a cloudy day, looking like it was going to rain, and I could see nothing”. The next day, Ennin wrote, “The rain stopped early in the morning, but the clouds are thick.

It seems likely that Silla sailors used the Silla compass called the chim pan, which enabled them to navigate the high seas even when their visibility was compromised.

Fortress of Jang Bo-go's Cheonghaejin Garrison, established in 828 in Wando, South Jeolla ProvincePhoto © Hyungwon Kang

Fortress of Jang Bo-go’s Cheonghaejin Garrison, established in 828 in Wando, South Jeolla ProvincePhoto © Hyungwon Kang

Ennin documented that even after the Silla ship suffered damage to its hull, the ship continued to sail without sinking. The compartmentalized watertight hull design was the secret to keeping Silla’s ships afloat even when damaged.

Researchers believe that a typical Silla merchant ship with a V-bottom was capable of carrying some 150 people and 300 metric tons of cargo.
The V-bottom, a cutting-edge design at the time, was exported to Japan according to historical records.

Some 14 centuries later, the ancient Silla chimpanum has evolved into a 21st century electronic gyroscopic compass, which accurately indicates the direction of true north using the force of gravity and the Earth’s rotation.

“Compared to errors of up to 0.2 degrees in the gyrocompass, a magnetic compass can sometimes be off by up to 10 degrees, such as when you are near Cheongsando in Wando County, South Jeolla Province in southern waters of Korea, where the area is mostly iron ore,” said Captain Lim Hee-kun, who frequently sails open waters carrying fossil fuels from the United States and the Middle East to the United States. Europe and East Asia.

By Hyungwon Kang ([email protected])

Korean American photojournalist and columnist Hyungwon Kang is currently documenting Korean history and culture in pictures and words for future generations. — Ed.

By Korea Herald ([email protected])

Briana R. Cross