2. The King That Never Was: Gija

While we’re finding more and more archaeological evidence about the ancient society, most of Gojoseon remains unknown to us. And glimpses under the shroud of mystery reveal mostly myths and speculation. Last time we saw the mythical founder Dangun retiring from ruling after an impressive 1,500 years. The reason that Dangun left the throne, the myth continues, was that he gave the helm to another. This new ruler was supposed to have introduced the laws of society, including the 8 Prohibitions, the earliest known laws in the peninsula. The parts of the 8 Prohibitions that still remain are simple outlines prohibiting things like stealing and killing. This second phase of Gojoseon was considered the second half of the founding myth for a very long time. And yet this king has disappeared from public consciousness.

The ruler’s name was Gija. Mention that name to people and their reaction will be dismissive, angry, or they will just shrug. References to the king vanished from textbooks, and there is not going to be any TV series or dramas recounting his life anytime soon. What happened? There is no historical evidence for Gija and his rule, and research since the early 20th century has cast doubt upon the story. But Dangun’s fantastic 1,500 year rule is still part of the official narrative, even if in a more symbolic reinterpretation. So why has Gija disappeared? The reason lies in ideology as much as it does in history, because Gija, original name title Jizi, had come to the peninsula as a ruler of the people all the way from China.

The story begins in the 11th century BCE, where the last king of the Chinese Shang kingdom had imprisoned his uncle Gija. The king of a rival kingdom overthrew the Shang king, eventually bringing about the Zhou dynasty. The King of Zhou freed Jizi, who moved east and started his own kingdom. He became Gija, and traditional history divided old Joseon into three parts: Dangun Joseon, Gija Joseon, and the third Joseon which will be part of our next chapter. Gija introduced cultural and political practices to his kingdom, including the 8 Prohibitions mentioned above.

The court of Joseon (the later one) considered the story of Gija to be an important part of its cultural heritage. But why were the earlier Koreans so eager to adopt Gija as part of their founding myth? It wasn’t because of subservience, as some people interpret it, but because of ‘Culture.’ The concept of culture was very conservative, and people looked to the past for guidance. China prided itself on its culture because it considered its early dynasties, the above mentioned Shang, the earlier Xia, and the mythical ‘Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors’ to be peopled with sages and demigods. Jizi, the ‘Viscount of Ji’ was one of those people. In fact, he was called a sage by none other than Confucius himself. For the people of Joseon, heavily influenced by Confucian philosophy, having such a figure as part of their cultural ancestry came with an incredible amount of prestige.

These days the idea of culture is not so conservative, and people aren’t as Confucian as they used to be. Coupled with a growing nationalistic consciousness in the early 20th century, and Gija’s importance is suddenly diminished. The idea of a Chinese king coming and introducing culture to the Korean peninsula does not fit well with national identity, which is why Dangun’s status has been raised while Gija’s eventually disappeared.

Ideology aside, what does the history say? It is impossible to have any conclusive proof. Older records, both in China and Korea, do mention the ‘Viscount of Ji’ establishing a kingdom in Joseon, but even those records were written centuries after the event. There are some historians, instead of dismissing the story altogether, argue that Gija Joseon and Dangun Joseon were two completely different kingdoms that occupied different parts of north and north-east Asia. What’s interesting is that some families, like the SeonWoo of Taewon clan (which is a rare family name that has two syllables instead of one, like Park or Lee), count Gija as their ancestor, so the legend still continues, even if  in a smaller way.

Whether or not the Viscount of Ji was a real historical figure is still up for debate, but China’s growing influence will take us out of mythological time and move history along, to the rise and fall of the final phase of Gojoseon.


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