8. The God of War: King Daemusin

Kingship in Goguryeo passed from the founding king Jumong to his prodigal son Yuri. When it came time for Yuri to pass the throne, however, there was a slight hiccup. The next in line for the throne had committed suicide as a result of palace intrigue. So when Yuri died in 18 CE, his third son, Muhyul, came to the throne. He was only 14 years old. Normally this situation spells hard times for a kingdom. Nonetheless, Muhyul getting the throne was perhaps the luckiest thing that could’ve happened to Goguryeo. His posthumous name, King Daemusin, tells it all. The name translates as “Great God of War,” and he was responsible for making Goguryeo a force to be reckoned with.

During his lifetime, King Daemusin conquered many states and expanded his kingdom’s territory. There are three stories that have captured the imagination of people for generations after. The most famous was a David and Goliath tale, the time when Goguryeo challenged East Buyeo.

As you may recall, Buyeo was divided into a Northern and an Eastern kingdom. And the two kingdoms were the great powers in the northern regions. Jumong himself had come from Eastern Buyeo, and it was the king of Eastern Buyeo, King Geumwa, who had brought Jumong’s mother to court. It was also King Geumwa’s sons who were responsible for forcing Jumong out of the kingdom. So when Geumwa’s eldest son took the throne as King Daeso, he set his sights on the little kingdom of Goryeo.

Near the end of Yuri’s reign King Daeso sent the following message: “Our late King was on good terms with your former ruler, King Tongmyong [another name for Jumong], but your ruler enticed our subjects away and brought them to where you are now, gathering enough people to set up his own realm. Now, among kingdoms, there are both great and less, just as among people there are elder and younger. It is proper for the less to serve the great, just as it is right for the young to serve their elders. If Your Majesty can show proper respect by serving Us, then Heaven is bound to protect you, and your kingdom could last for ever. Otherwise, you may find it hard to preserve your state, however much you want to do so.” *

King Daeso had given King Yuri an offer he couldn’t refuse. And Yuri knew that. Judging that his country was still too young to challenge a great power like Buyeo, he decided to submit. But Muhyul couldn’t let things leave without  retaliating. “My late ancestor was a descendant of the gods,” Muhyul sent in reply, “moreover, he was a worthy man with many talents. Yet, being jealous, Your Majesty injured him with slander to Your father, then King, so that my ancestor was degraded to the wretched status of stable boy. This is why he was unhappy and left. Now, without taking Your own faults of former days into account, Your Majesty is relying solely on your great multitude of troops, treating our land with contempt. I request the envoy report this to Your Majesty: that now eggs are piled up here; if Your Majesty does not upset them, then I shall be able to serve You as subject, but not otherwise.”

This reply is impressive, if we consider the fact that Muhyul would have been 5 years old when he had thought of it. Most of us at that age would’ve probably just replied with “Your face!” Muhyul was known in the court to be  something of a child prodigy, which was probably why King Yuri felt secure naming him as successor.

This kind of tit-for-that with King Daeso continued when Muhyul ascended the throne. 3 years into the rule of King Daemusin, there was a strange phenomenon in Buyeo. There was a red crow with two bodies attached to one head. One of the people told King Daeso “Crows are black, but this one has turned red. Moreover, it has one head and two bodies, it is an omen of the union of two kingdoms. Doesn’t this mean Your Majesty is going to annex Ko[Go]guryeo.” Daeso sent the crow as an elaborate warning to King Daemusin.

Daemusin, now at the ripe old age of 17, looked at this reverse Siamese crow and retorted “[…]Then again, a red crow is indeed a fortunate omen. Although Your Majesty obtained it, you no longer possess it since you have sent it to me. As to which of our two states will survive or perish, so far this cannot be known.” With this diss, war between the two countries had begun. And this is where the story turns from remotely plausible history into Lord of the Rings.

King Daemusin, on a divine horse which he found earlier, and his troops were marching towards East Buyeo when they stopped by the banks of a river. There they found a cooking vessel. The tripod was no ordinary cookware, however, since it could cook food without any fire. Soon after a man named Bujong appeared, saying that the vessel belonged to his family, and that his sister lost it. To show his gratitude, Bujong joined King Daemusin. Later one night, while camping in a forest, strange metallic sounds could be heard. The next day King Daemusin found various weapons, a sign from heaven.

Two more soldiers would join Daemusin, a master of the lance and a giant man with white face and glowing eyes named Koeyu. The giant, said to be 3 meters tall, loomed over the king and requested that he join the group. Daemusin was greatly pleased to have such a person on his side.

A year had passed, and in the spring, the army had reached the area of Eastern Buyeo. King Daemusin surveyed the land, and found the best place to build his camp. King Daeso emerged from his city, eager to finally attack the impudent king of an insignificant little country. He rode his horse to the Goguryeo camp and, to his horror, found he had fallen into a trap: King Daemusin had pithced his camp around muddy and uneven countryside. Stuck in the mire, the horse could not move any further, and King Daeso was helpless. Then a terrifying war cry was heard. Koeyu scrambled towards Daeso, and decapitated him. The Buyeo army continued to fight despite the grizzly sight, but it was clear that they had lost.

With such allies, how could King Daemusin not win against Buyeo? That’s probably what people at the time thought. The idea that a small country like Goguryeo could challenge East Buyeo was simply unthinkable. That a small country like Goguryeo not only challenged but also defeated East Buyeo could not possibly be explained without including half the cast of an epic blockbuster. The Great God of War had achieved the impossible.

The reality seems to be that the war was grim and the soldiers of Goguryeo suffered heavy losses. After the defeat of King Daeso, we find the army of Goguryeo making straw figures of soldiers outside their camp. This was to fool the enemy while Daemusin and his troops escaped back to their country. The Samguk Sagi says at this point the magical tripod and the divine horse were ‘lost,’ switching the frame back to reality: a starving and broken army that had to hunt wild animals on their way back home.

When King Daemusin arrived in the palace he arranged a banquet for his people. He told them, “It was because of my own shortcoming in attacking Puyo[Buyeo] too rashly that, although we killed their king, we still did not destroy their kingdom. Moreover, we lost many soldiers and military provisions; this is all my fault.” The king then left to personally tend to the wounded. He would not repeat the same mistake and let his kingdom suffer.

Although they did not destroy East Buyeo, after the death of King Daeso, the kingdom was living on borrowed time. Internal discord and battles of succession meant that soon the kingdom collapsed into itself. It was later absorbed into Goguryeo. Small fry no longer, Goguryeo now found itself a strong country.

That was far from the end of King Daemusin’s exploits.We find the king a couple of years later  now wizened by his experience against East Buyeo. This time, a governor from the Han Empire, looking to find a way to make a name for himself, stepped up to challenge Goguryeo. His army surrounded the  kingdom. Their plan was to lay siege. The last time an army from Han led a siege against a Korean kingdom, things did not end well.

King Daemusin gathered his ministers to find a way out of this situation. One of his ministers, Ultuji, came up with an idea. In warfare, sieges are costly and exhausting, and you only carry them out if you believe that the people walled up inside the fortress will soon run out of food and surrender. The region of Goguryeo was rocky, and the Han governor was hoping that the people will soon starve. So, Ultuji said, send the governor a carp from one of the palace ponds along with some alcohol. King Daemusin liked the plan and did so. As expected, the governor saw this meant that there was more than enough water and food in the Goguryeo fortress, and that a siege would be too costly to be worth it. He withdrew. The King was now able to win wars without even fighting.

The final tale that made King Daemusin famous involved his son. Prince Hodong was known to be handsome and charming. He went out hunting one day, where he knew that the prince would run into the leader of the Kingdom of Nangnang. This Nangnang was probably one of the Four Han Commanderies, though some historians think it was another kingdom that was loyal to China. The King of Nangnang was impressed by the prince, and the two hit it off. They hit it off so well, in fact, that the Nangnang monarch decided that Prince Hodong should marry into the family.

The princess of Nangnang was said to be equally as smitten with prince Hodong. But the prince acted distant. He went back to his country. The princess was likely confused by this, and became even more confused when she got a secret message from Prince Hodong. He told her to destroy the war drums and horns of the city. After that, he would come in at night and the two would be together forever. The drum and horn were the instruments used to warn the king of any approaching intruders.

This should’ve made the princess suspicious. But young teenagers, especially those in love, are anything but rational. She destroyed the drum and horn. The princess then waited for the embrace of her beloved. Instead, there was chaos.

King Daemusin had arranged for the meeting of the King of Nangnang and Prince Hodong. Prince Hodong was instructed to try and make his way into Nangnang’s good graces, and find a way into the city. The prince played on the princess’ love and had her bring ruin to her own country. The King of Nangnang surrendered, but not before killing his own daughter for her betrayal.

Not long after this incident, Prince Hodong committed suicide. This was probably due to court politics, but some have somehow decided that this suicide was due to the prince’s grief over losing the Princess of Nangnang. Strangely, the tale of Prince Hodong and the Princess of Nangnang, one of sorrow and betrayal for the poor princess, a cautionary tale at best, had over the years transformed into a tragic love story. The imagination of many future writers have worked in a Romeo and Juliet plot, when in reality there is nothing to indicate that Hodong had any feelings for the princess.

One person who did suffer real grief, though, was King Daemusin. He had seen his brother commit suicide because of scandals, and now his own son suffered the same fate. Some say this shock greatly weakened the king. In the year 44, at the young age of 40, the great god of war passed away. And although the Nangnang commandery was soon taken back by the Han Emperor, Goguryeo came out of King Daemusin’s reign much stronger and robust. Ready for more dynamic kings to come and expand the power of the kingdom.

2009010708150969048_1  Daemusin’s reign is a particular inspiration to Korean fantasy authors. Source: Naver News

War, political intrigue, loyal vassals of supernatural stature, adventure, romance, tragedy. It’s no wonder that King Daemusin has been the inspiration for many fantasy and martial arts novels in Korea. The story of Hodong and the Princess of Nangnang was enacted many times on screen and stage, including a ballet. In the 90’s a manhwa called The Kingdom of The Wind was released, depicting a fictitious account of the life of Daemusin and his era. This series spawned a drama and perhaps the greatest honor that computer game obsessed South Korea could bestow on King Daemusin, an MMORPG.


*All quotes come from the Academy of Korean Studies Press’ translation “The Koryo Annals of the Samguk Sagi”


Interlude 3: So You Think You Can Rule A Country? Being King.

Thanks to the work of your ancestor, a dynasty has been established, and now you find yourself being next in line for the throne. This does not necessarily mean that you are the son of the previous king, since it was also quite common for the throne to go from older brother to younger brother, but in any case, there is a lot of work to do. Here are some things to expect when you’re expecting the crown.

  1. Most People Will Never Know Your Name
    His fatherly gaze graces the South Korean 10,000 won bill, and his statue welcomes people in the downtown area of Seoul. He is one of the most famous kings of Korea, inventor of Hangeul and image of national pride. He is much beloved, very revered, and widely respected, the great, magnificent, King “Do.”
    “Sejong” was never called “Sejong” in his lifetime. Like other kings, he had many names. In addition to a person’s name, there is their childhood name, their intimate name, and that’s only when they’re alive. After you, king, pass away, you will be given a posthumous name and title, and sometimes a temple name if your country is Buddhist. That is why Chinese and Korean history is full of kings named ‘Taejong’ or ‘Taejo,’ which was a title meaning ‘great ancestor’ or ‘great progenitor.’ So “Sejong” was part of the king’s posthumous title, which was 世宗莊憲英文睿武仁聖明孝大王 Sejong Jangheon Yeongmun Yemu Inseong Myeonghyo the Great. You’ll be forgiven for simply using the name “Sejong”.
    The last kings of Goguryeo, Baekje and Goryeo did not receive posthumous names, because their dynasty perished before they did. And during the Joseon dynasty, two rulers were denied the posthumous names and even the title of ‘king’ because of political intrigues.

  2. You will spend a long time in otherworldly business.
    In a way, as King, you are responsible for the safety of your people and the success of the harvest. But rather than physically toil the fields, your responsibility means being in contact with the spirit world and Heaven to keep things running smoothly. Kings occupy a position between the world of man and the world of the gods and spirits. As such, you will be heading a lot of rituals in court. The most famous example is the oracle bones of China’s Shang Dynasty (1600 BCE-1046 BCE). One of the functions of the King back then was to divine the will of Heaven by reading the bones of sacrificial animals. Though subsequent dynasties, and other countries, things were more specialized, the position of King and Emperor as liaison to the spirit world colored a lot of the rituals you will perform.Now any good Confucian will tell you that, no, of course spirits don’t exist, and even if they did, they are irrelevant. That’s not what ritual is about. Rituals are a means through which we can symbolically express our deepest desires as individuals and as a society. Rituals connect ruler and subject, bring together communities, and form a vast and profound link between past, present and future. Rituals are what make us human.
    Any good shaman will tell you to shut your mouth before a spirit overhears your blasphemy.

  3. You will be a time-keeper.
    The world may not revolve around you, but the calendar will. The way historians will record the history of your reign based on your name and the year of your rule. So if 2014 is the second year of your rule, records will be written as (Your Name) (2).
    Some kings will sometimes choose to assign ‘era names.’ An Emperor will designate a special name for his era, signifying the Emperor’s accomplishment or hopes for their rule, sometimes with great irony. Japan during World War 2, for example, had the amazingly presumptuous era name of ‘Brilliant Harmony.’ Most of the time, kings will not choose era names, instead adopting the name of the Empire that they belong to. Kings will only designate their own era names to signal their accomplishments. In Korea, only a handful of monarchs have adopted era names.
    Incidentally, Japan, the only country in the region with an  Emperor, still has era names. The current era is called Heisei, ‘achieving peace,’ and has begun since the current Emperor Akihito took the throne in 1989.

  4. You will have to take place of unpleasant business.
    A king is only as powerful as his court allows him to be. You may have recently acquired the position and may have many projects in mind to help improve the kingdom. However, the ministers, who were chosen by your predecessor, might have different ideas from you. They quite enjoy the way used to be, and will drag their heels at every turn. Worse, they might have wanted another to become king, and will be outright hostile towards you. In order to make sure you can go ahead with your plan, you will need to people the court with ministers loyal to you. What to do with the old guard?
    The humane way is to offer them a retirement package, have them leave court, probably oversee a faraway province, or just make leave them powerless to stop you. It is still common today in South Korea for a president to completely change his cabinet and let go of the previous president’s people. As you might have guessed, many rulers decided to go through more drastic means.
    In 2013, the world was shocked to hear of Kim Jong Eun ordering the execution of his uncle. Prior to that, many high ranking officials were also executed under false pretexts. What happened in 2013 was the re-enactment of a drama very common in ancient courts, the purge. That was when people suspected of being disloyal, even if that suspicion was unfounded, would be exiled or killed.
    Purges took place many times in history, but the most notorious probably took place in Korea’s Joseon dynasty and China’s Ming dynasty. History unfortunately is also full of cruelty and harshness.

7. A Match Made In Heaven: Kim Suro and Heo Hwang-Ok

It is important to remember that “The Three Kingdoms” era was named well after the kingdoms grew, prospered, and fell. At the time of their founding by Jumong, Onjo and Hyeokgeose, there was no indication that the kingdoms would become as powerful as they have. There were many other confederacies and and kingdoms around at the time that were more powerful. It was only around the 3rd or 4th century, after conquering and absorbing most other political bodies around them, that the Three Kingdoms emerged as the clear dominant powers of the region.

The Three Kingdoms were established by the end of the BCE era, but by the mid first century, around 42 CE, another would be kingdom emerged as a possible contender. It was a confederacy of six city-states, each with its own ruler, that occupied the southern regions between Baekje and Silla. Although it was absorbed into Silla before it could become a kingdom in its own right, this confederacy has left some important legacies for the peninsula and the rest of history. This was the Gaya Confederacy, divided into Daegaya, Seongsan Gaya, Ara Gaya, Goryeong Gaya,Sogay and Geumgwan Gaya. Geumgwan was the head of the confederacy, and had it’s own semi-mythological founder king.

Map_of_Gaya_-_en Gaya in relation to Baekje and Silla. Source: Wikipedia

Nine chieftains of different villages gathered to perform their annual purification rituals, when a strange sound rumbled from the mountains. This went on for a while, many people assembled to see what was going on. Then a disembodied voice called out “Is anybody here?” The chieftains called out that they were there. “Where am I?” the voice asked. “Turtle Mountain Peak!” they replied, presumably very confused. The voice told them that he was sent on a mission from heaven, and told them to dig at the peak of the mountain, singing and dancing and reciting the verse ‘Turtle, turtle, push out your head. If you do not, we will cook and eat you.” Which sounds very much like a shamanistic ritual, as these rituals usually heavily involve singing and dancing. The turtle verse is one of the oldest verses of Korea that remain intact.

The village leaders sang and danced and recited the verse as they dug into the mountain. If you’ve read the past myths the other founders, you probably know what they found at the bottom of the hole.

That’s right: an egg. Not one egg, but six. The eggs hatched and six boys emerged. They grew into adults in twelve days and became leaders of the six states of the Gaya confederacy. One of the boys, the leader of the confederacy, was Kim Suro, perhaps the first ‘Kim’ on record.

Chieftains of an older era getting a message from heaven, eggs, the number six; all of this is very similar to the founding myth of Silla about a hundred years before. The symbolism common to all these myths gives us a glimpse into the religion and beliefs of the people of ancient Korea. More than that, images like the mythical egg, heaven’s descent, and the union of man and nature are all very universal archetypes. There is also another archetype in Park Hyeokgeose’s story that will appear in King Suro’s story: the sacred marriage.

King Suro, after having ruled for a while, was met by the chiefs one day. They praised all the good work he has done, but said there was one thing missing. Wasn’t it time that the King settle down and a bride? King Suro replied, “I came down here at the command of Heaven. That I marry and have a Queen also depends on the will of Heaven; there is no need to worry.”

He ordered one of the chiefs to go to an island and another chief to stay at a nearby island. They did as they were told, not exactly knowing why. One day they saw a red sail far away in the sea. A ship was approaching, and the chiefs raced to greet the passanger, believing this is why the king had ordered them to stay on these islands. There they saw the person on board of the ship was a woman. Asked to follow them back to the palace, the woman quite sensibly said that she would not follow strangers.

So the King would have to greet the woman by himself. He left his palace and set up a regal tent close to where her ship had landed. One day, when she was resting from her long journey, she saw the tent. The King was out to greet her, and the same woman who refused to follow the chiefs now somehow willingly entered the tent with King Suro.

The ministers left the two alone, and King Suro and the woman enjoyed the night together. She told him her name was Heo Hwang-ok, and she came from the faraway land of Ayuta, which many historians think is actually Ayodha, a kingdom in India (anyone familiar with Indian mythology knows the importance of Ayodha, the birthplace of the famous hero and god, Rama.) Hwang-ok leaned in and whispered her secret to the King: Her parents had had a dream where the Emperor of Heaven told them that a man named Suro was founding a kingdom, and that they should send their daughter to marry him. So Hwang-ok departed on her journey. And as soon as she saw the regal tent and the king, she knew that she had found her king, and that’s why she followed him.

The only other records we have of Gaya are in relation to the other Three Kingdoms. The confederacy allied itself with different kingdoms at different times, and unfortunately it was usually the wrong kingdom. First the confederacy was devastated by Goguryeo in the 4th century, punishment for allying itself against Goguryeo with the other two kingdoms. But the final death blow was in the 6th century, when, after failed Gaya-Baekje assault against Silla, the rest of Gaya was absorbed into the victorious kingdom. This was perhaps the best thing that could’ve ever happened to Silla, as we shall see a man from  Gaya was instrumental in bringing about the end of the Three Kingdoms period.

Before that, the Gaya confederacy enjoyed some economic power. The reason for that is the region of the confederacy was rich in iron. The people had skill in smelting and making of iron, and traded heavily with Baekje and Japan.  An important legacy of Gaya is also the inspiration for a much beloved traditional Korean instrument, the Gayageum.

Kayagumplayer2  Source: Wikipedia

There is much interest in the 21st century in understanding more about the history of Gaya. There was a similar movement in the 20th century; one, however, which had much more sinister motives.

There was a belief that Gaya was actually a Japanese outpost named Miamana. There were two sources for this story: one was a strange inscription on the Stele in the honor of King Gwanggaeto (more later) which said that the Japanese occupied the southern regions of Korea. Japan’s own Nihonshiki, an ancient record of historical and mythological events, talked about an Empress named Jingu sailing to the Korean peninsula and conquering the shores of Gaya.

Japan and Gaya enjoyed a very good relationship, but  it was one of political alliance, not a relationship of conqueror and  conquered. The records of the Stele with the part about Japan is very dubious, some even say it was a forgery. And the name of Jingu has been removed from the list of historical Emperors and Empresses. That did not stop people in the early 1900s, where there was a movement that claimed that the story of Mimana proved that part pf the peninsula was once Japanese territory. This blatant  piece of propaganda was used as justification for the takeover of Korea. An ancient kingdom which had disappeared more than a thousand years before became a pawn in the rigged game of Imperialism.

All these troubles would come much later, for now, the Samguk Yusa will give King Suro and Queen Hwang-ok their happy ending. The King and Queen got married, they set up their new government and “Thereupon [he] ruled his country like his own household and loved his people like his own children. His instructions were not strict yet carried weight, and his rule was not harsh but fitting. Therefore, the pairing of the king and queen was like the pairing of Heaven and Earth, the sun and moon, and yin and yang.” (Sources of Korean Tradition Vol 1 p. 17)

Interlude 2: So You Think You Can Found A Dynasty?

So there you are, leader of a small clan surrounded by other city-states trying to get you to submit to their authority as well as hostile nomads raiding your storehouses of grain. Classic situation, am I right? But one day, you decide that you want something more for yourself and your clan. And, after negotiating or conquering the other tribes and city-states around you, you find yourself with a territory that extends into regions much larger than your own clan, regions you’ve probably never visited before. Congratulations, you’ve become the leader of a kingdom! What’s next?

You’ve probably founded your own dynasty. For the next years, decades or- if you’re lucky- centuries, your family members will be in charge of the place. And to help your dynasty’s odds of survival, there are a few things you need to do.

  1. Establish a Myth
    As a founder of the dynasty, you will become a god. You are the link between heaven and earth and the world of humans. Kings after you will perform ancestor rites and will have a visit to your grave for worship at least once during their reign, preferably at the beginning, to get your favor. That means you’d better have an impressive story to make people believe you’ve got a link to the supernatural world. We’ve seen the myths of Dangun, Jumong and Hyeogkeose, with their direct connection to the gods and the spirit world. The exception to this was Onjo, and that’s because Baekje worshiped Jumong as their ancestral founder.
    But your myth doesn’t have to be so explicitly otherworldly. In China, most founders of dynasties justified themselves by saying that natural disasters means Heaven was displeased with the way things were, and your success was Heaven’s sign of approval As time goes on, new founders would use more moral mythologies than anything purely supernatural.
  2. Build your court.
    You’ve built your kingdom by absorbing other tribes and city-states around you. This could involve warfare and conquest, but more often than not other means are used to achieve this goal. Sometimes village chieftains and clan leaders will submit to you in order to be part of your kingdom. Perhaps the most common way of getting people on your side is marriage. Jumong married Sosuneo to get the tribes on his side. And we shall see later that the founder of Goryeo will marry 29 women of different tribes in order to consolidate his power. Being the founder of a dynasty is a full time job.
    But once you’ve started your kingdom, you need a system to keep things running smoothly. That’s the function of your court, and the ministers in court have the privileged position of being able to advise you on what to do next. The court will have two branches: military and civil. At the beginning, a single minister will probably have to do both functions, but as your kingdom expands, the functions of court will become more complex and specialized. Beware though, the military and civil ‘literati’ court ministers do not like one another. This will have many repercussions in the future. But for now, there is a more pressing question: who should people your court?
    The leaders who submitted to your authority will expect things in return. That is to say, they want to become part of the court. Even chieftains of conquered tribes. And it is a good idea to let them. Since you’re still consolidating your kingdom, and people might be a little sore about losing their autonomy, any slights or insults could trigger rebellions or secession. A problem that most leaders will face at the beginning of their reign.
  3. Consolidating versus Expanding
    Your reign will probably start off a little rocky. There will be a lot to do. Most founders, who do things out of love of glory, will probably think that ‘doing a lot’ means expanding their kingdom and claiming as many people and territories as possible. Although expanding is an important part of the job, if you’re a little too enthusiastic about expansion, your kingdom will probably lose most of the land you’ve acquired after you pass away. Your heirs will simply not be able to keep the land without consolidation, as rebellions and revival movements (that is, people wanting to bring back the old rule) will overwhelm your kingdom that got too big too fast.
    Just because you’ve got a tribe on your side, doesn’t mean that things will be stable. There is a lot to nation building, and you need the people to become integrated into your kingdom. This will involve lots of projects, both physical and cultural.
    A common physical project that most rulers of vast territories will undertake is building roads or building canals. This seems like the most obvious thing: if people are disconnected from you and the capital, away from economic or cultural activity, frustrations arise. A more Machiavellian reason for networks is that you can send ministers loyal to your cause to preside over faraway villages, which has the double advantage of having the region under your control, and making sure a charismatic minister doesn’t have too much influence in court.
    As for cultural consolidation, this is a good time to exercise mercy. Have people loyal to your cause by granting favors and amnesties. If your kingdom has an official religion, like Buddhism will in the Goryeo or the later Three Kingdoms period, building temples and uniting the people with religious symbolism will help you a lot.
    Whatever your projects, make sure that it integrates the people both physically and symbolically, and that will drastically reduce the risks of rebellions causing strife across the land.
  4. Define the relationship
    In East Asia, the relationship between countries is a very important part of politics. The countries around you will fall under one of three kinds of relationships: tributary, equal, and barbarians. If you’re close to a strong country that has had a long lasting civilization, you might consider becoming a tributary of that state. What that means is that you will submit to the authority of that country. Which sounds crazy, why should you give up this country that you’ve fought so hard to establish? Subservience to the bigger state means that you will receive protection, help in times of need, and get connected to a larger network of countries that are also tributaries of that country. In return, you need to offer “tribute” by giving gifts (the country is obliged to return a gift much larger than what you’ve given) and visiting the emperor of that country and offering ritual submission, the infamous “kow-tow.” It’s a pretty good deal, all things considered. It goes without saying that China was the empire most countries paid tribute to for most of East Asian history, but these relationships, like many other things, was very fluid.
    Relationship of equals just means that you acknowledge the presence the other state, usually a neighbor, without offering tribute to it. This will involve a lot of trade and cultural exchange, as well as keeping up to date about the affairs of the state. Japan and Korea shared this kind of relationship. In fact, when Japan went into its period of isolation, the leaders relied on Korea to get news about the outside world.
    The rest? Barbarians. Culturally inferior people and nomads who are not worth acknowledging. Who cares about them? (Your descendants will care. A lot. Once these “Barbarians” realize they can also consolidate power and form their own states and empires.)
    What about having others be tributary to you? Then you’d want to declare yourself an empire. Tibet, Vietnam, Japan, and Korea have all declared themselves an empire at some point in history, mostly as a symbolic way of affirming their independence. Others  took up the mantle of empire, like the Jurchens, Manchurians, Khitans and Mongolians, as a way to signal their intention of invading China. The result was the Jin, Qing, Liao and Yuan dynasties. If you really want to start off your dynasty by antagonizing most of the known world, good luck. Most countries don’t even touch the ’empire’ issue until they’re well established.

With these few simple guidelines, you should ensure that your new kingdom will survive and even prosper for many years to come. Next time, let’s look at what will happen to the kings that will follow you.

6. Over The Rainbow: King Hyeokgeose

In 108 BCE, the armies of Han China sacked the Gojoseon capital of Wanggeom and brought the dynasty to an end. This caused chaos in the region and refugees scattered all over the Korean peninsula. A large group of Gojoseon refugees seemed to have traveled all the way from Wanggeom, somewhere close to modern day Pyeongyang, to the south eastern regions of Gyeongsang province, today home of many such cities as Gyeongju, Busan and Daegu. They settled in six villages around the valleys of the province. Then, almost half a century after they saw their old home go down in flames, the chieftains had a vision of a new kingdom.

These villages decided that they had grown strong enough unify under a centralized power. This was quite common, a lot of villages found that making alliances with neighboring villages and establishing one king at the center was the best way to increase the power and prosperity of their village. Even if they were not king, the heads of a village would still have more power in court than just being the leader of a tiny population. So the leaders gathered and made plans for their new kingdom.

Once it actually came to choosing a king, however, they were stumped. So they  prayed to Heaven for a sign. Heaven answered in the most flashy  way possible: lightning struck, and a rainbow pointed the village leaders to a  forest. When they followed the rainbow, they found a white horse bowing to an egg, and -this should come as no surprise to those who have read the story of Jumong- a boy popped out. Heaven, in perhaps the most extravagant political campaign in history, had thrown its support behind the new king.

The boy, Hyeokgeose, was given the family name ‘Pak’ (Park) which meant something like “gourd” to describe the look of the egg he had hatched from. This means he was not only the founder of the Silla dynasty, but also the ancestor to the Pak, the third most common family name in Korea. In fact, Silla’s court would feature names such as Kim, Yi(Lee), Seok, Jeong, and Choe (Choi), making it a who’s who of people whose descendants populate most of the peninsula today. Hyeokgeose grew up being worshiped by the village leaders and, at the age of 13, was made king. The name of his country was not yet “Silla”, the kingdom would go through a couple of more names before getting theat title. The original name of Silla was ‘Saro’ or ‘Sorabol’. Many linguists believe that this is the origin of the modern day word ‘Seoul,’ which simply means ‘capital’ in Korean.

Around the time Hyeokgeose was born, an old woman in one of the villages saw a dragon fly out of a well. Since dragons were omens of good luck, the woman followed the dragon till she found its corpse. A little girl came out of one of the dragon’s ribs. Surprisingly calm by the turn of events, the old woman adopted the child and named her after the well the dragon came out of: Alyeong. Later on, King Hyeokgeose heard of this woman and, perhaps hoping they can exchange interesting birth stories, married her.

King Hyeokgeose and Queen Alyeong were called the Two Holy Ones. They traveled the land together, performing miracles and improving the agricultural situation. They were said to be very successful in their travel, and the reign of Hyeokgeose was a golden age where people lived in safety and with plenty to eat. However, all this richness and prosperity caught the attention of one of the Han Commanderies, Lelang. Most of the four commanderies did not survive very long, some having collapsed shortly after establishment, but Lelang would continue to be a thorn on Korea’s side until the 4th century. And they were not going to let a kingdom get too big for its own good. Lelang’s leaders sent an army to raid Sorabol. What they saw surprised them. Grain was plentiful, everyone had more than enough to eat, and the people were so moral that nobody locked the doors at night. The Lelang soldiers looked at this scene in amazement, and exclaimed that “If our troops move in and raid this country, as thieves, how can we not be ashamed?” They left the kingdom alone. A likely story, but one that shows the prosperity of this new kingdom.

Hyeokgeose died at the beginning of the Christian era, around 4 CE, and his wife would follow him into the other world shortly after. Although traditionally the founding of Silla was dated at 57 BCE, making it the oldest of the three kingdoms, it is generally accepted today that Goguryeo was the oldest, Silla being a little before, or around the time of, the founding of Baekje. In any case,  Silla would live on until 935 CE, almost a thousand years after its founding. This makes Silla one of the longest lasting kingdoms in the history of the world.

The boy born from an egg under a giant white horse at the end of the rainbow, and the woman that rose from the scars of a dragon- aside from making an amazing concept for a heavy metal album cover- represent the mystique of the early Silla. It was a society heavily immersed in myth, shamanism and much later Buddhism. The kings of Silla cultivated myth and religion to their own advantage, and thus the place evolved into a powerful centralized government with a social hierarchy based on divine right. This would prove to be a great asset in dominating the other two, much more powerful, kingdoms of Baekje and Goguryeo. It would also ultimately be the cause of Silla’s downfall.


5. The Hundred Who Crossed The Waters: King Onjo

When Jumong crossed the river to escape the wrath of the princes, he left many things behind in Buyeo. His mother, the egg-laying Yuhwa, became a respected figure in her own right, judging by the fact that she was given the same burial ceremonies as an official queen of the court. So things went well for her. But Jumong also had a wife, and his child grew up without a father back in Buyeo.

Yuri, the son, had the same prowess in archery as his father. He would go out and practice his skills with the bow and arrow, much to the chagrin of everyone who was in proximity of his shots. One day he aimed his arrow at a jar an old woman was carrying. The woman was furious, fed up of his shenanigans, and told him off, saying that he was so ill-mannered because he grew up without a father. This hurt the young boy, who went back home and asked his mother about his father. Yuri’s mother told him everything about his father, Jumong. It turned out that before escaping, Jumong told his wife that he buried half his sword and had hidden it, and that when his son comes of age, he was to find the sword. Then both mother and son should cross the river and bring the sword half so that they can live together.

Yuri was determined to complete the task his father had given him. He searched through the kingdom until he finally managed to find the sword hidden under a tree. Yuri and his mother then reunited with Jumong at his new kingdom. King Jumong welcomed his wife and son with open arms, and, re-uniting the two halves of the sword, declared Yuri to be his successor.

In most myths and fairy tales the story ends here: the son is reunited with the father, and everyone lives happily ever after. But this story asks another question: what about those who are not the prodigal son, the people who were close to the father, but not part of the fable? For King Jumong had re-married, in order to tie himself with the other leading tribes, to a woman named Soseono, and they had two sons: Onjo and Biryu. When Jumong embraced Yuri and welcomed him as his heir, Onjo Biryu and Soseono looked on nervously.

And they were right to be nervous. It didn’t take long for people to claim that Biryu, the oldest of Soseono’s sons, should be the rightful successor of Jumong. Yuri did not take that lightly. The records talk about Yuri going on hunting trips. This was normal enough for a prince or king, but Yuri’s hunting trips always had the unfortunate habit of ending with certain ministers of court “disappearing.” This was probably the first, but certainly not the last, purge in a Korean palace. The purges were so brutal that some modern day historians believe Yuri was in fact not Jumong’s son, but a usurper from Buyeo.

Yuri did eventually become second king of Goguryeo, and Jumong’s other sons knew that this was not the place for them. Along with their mother, Biryu and Onjo crossed the waters and moved southward. They reached Bukhan mountain, the mountain you can see behind the palace in downtown Seoul today. The brothers argued about where they should set up their country, and eventually split ways. Biryu moved his founded a city close to present day Incheon, while Onjo, the younger brother, took a few ministers and built a town on the other side of the Han River. Onjo named the place Sipje, “the ten vassals.”

The land around Incheon is very close to the ocean, and it is full of salt water and marshes. Not the best place to build a city. There was not a lot of land that was fertile enough for crops, and the marshes were full of diseases. It did not take long for Biryu to realize that his city was not sustainable. The city didn’t last very long, and, ashamed, Biryu moved to his younger brother’s town. He committed suicide shortly after, and Onjo welcomed his brother’s subjects. Now Onjo became the founder of the new kingdom, and with all his subjects reunited, he renamed his land Baekje, “the hundred vassals.” The traditional date of founding is 18 BCE.

One of the biggest challenges facing this new soon-to-be-kingdom was its neighbors. The southern regions of Korea was occupied by primarily the Samhan, the group of confederacies that grew out of the former Jin state. There were also the Chinese Han commanderies, especially Nangnang, which were there to frustrate the plans of any state getting a little bit too big. The biggest problem King Onjo and his little state encountered, though, were the Malgal.

The Malgal were a semi-nomadic people that crossed the Han river, raiding and pillaging villages. They set their sights on Baekje, which had grown quite prosperous, and attacked the area a few times. Onjo led his troops- this was when kings were expected to be head of the army as well as political rulers- to defend his place. And finally in 5 BCE moved his people down south to find a more secure area.

Going down south put King Onjo in dangerously close proximity to the center of the Mahan confederacies. He sent a message alerting the Mahan king about the move, and they were allowed into the area. But Onjo already had his sights on a bigger prize than just defending his small state: he wanted to absorb the Mahan confederacies under his rule. Using the threats of the Malgal to his advantage, King Onjo managed to train troops right under the unsuspecting Mahan king. And then, using a hunting trip as an excuse, King Onjo led his troops and took over many Mahan fortresses.

The Mahan king committed suicide, but not before sending a message imploring that the king of Baekje treat the Mahan people with mercy. Respecting the Mahan king’s dying wish, Onjo received the Mahan subjects and allowed them to live under his protection. This was a mighty blow to the Mahan confederacies, but not the end. Baekje would continue for many years after to absorb Mahan territory, as well as defend themselves from the relentless Malgal troops.

Onjo, the unlikeliest of Jumong’s three sons, became the founder of the new area of Baekje. He died in 28 CE, and set the stage for his land to became one of the powerful three kingdoms, a kingdom that would play an pivotal role in the formation of not only Korea, but Japan as well. Baekje’s expansionist tendencies would soon prove to be dangerous, though, as they were to clash very shortly after Onjo’s death with another expanding kingdom from the south, the Silla.