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.

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