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ENIGMA IN STONE Koguryo’s King Changsu, was rightly proud of his father’s achievements, and filial the way a good son should be. Shortly after his father’s death in battle, in 412, Changsu erected a monumental stone stela to honor the fallen King’s military accomplishments. The Kwanggaet’o stela remains Ji’an’s most controversial and popular attraction. Ever since the stela’s rediscovery by Chinese officials in the late 19th century, the interpretation of its text has been a source of dispute between Chinese, Korean and Japanese scholars. The Japanese claim that the carefully etched script in classical Chinese is confirmation of their 4th century presence on the peninsula, something that doesn’t sit well with Koreans, especially in light of Japan’s more recent history of Korean colonization.

The stela is of daunting dimensions: nearly eight meters high and of equal girth. Each of its almost 1,800 Chinese characters is larger than a human hand. Despite its imposing size, this immense bone of contention is not easy to find. So I turn to a local resident for guidance. She directs me to the stela’s resting place-an open, peak-roofed pavilion hidden behind a high wall only a few paces from her home. “The taiwangbei,” she pronounces, with a flourish. “The stela of the great King.” That’s how the locals know it. Which King and of what kingdom she is not entirely sure. “An ancient kingdom,” she explains with a dismissive brush of her hand. She tells me instead how she works during the week in Shenyang at her sister’s restaurant to make ends meet, and would like to know if I would be interested in using her husband’s private taxi service while I’m in Ji’an, or if I would speak a few words in English to her young son. It seems the contingencies of everyday life in a rapidly modernizing China have left the Kwanggaet’o stela to brood alone over its heavy past.

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