During the reign of King Taejo of Goguryeo, there were five powerful clans. These were the Sono-bu (the former ruling family), Gyeru-bu(current ruling family starting from Taejo),Gyanna-bu, Hwanna-bu and Yeonno-bu. Taejo attempted to centralize his authority by bringing the head of those family under his rule in court. This was largely successful, but also had the side effect of factionalism, a problem that would plague the courts of many dynasties.
Taejo had an incredibly long reign. So long that Taejo’s brother Suseong, was getting annoyed by his sibling’s insistence on staying alive. With the aid of the Sono, Gyanna and Hwanna families, Suseong gathered his own faction to start plotting a revolt bent on overthrowing Taejo. When the king had heard of this, he decided to abdicate the throne to Suseong. The ministers were against this idea, among them one of the highest ranking ministers, Bokjang, who warned his king that disaster would fall upon the descendants of Taejo if the king were to give up his power.
In the year 146, Taejo passed the crown down to his brother, later known as King Chadae. Chadae enacted a brutal purge. Bokjang was one of his first victims. He went to the execution ground with the lament “I only regret that our former King did not take my advice, so that matters have reached this pass… Rather than live in such an age of unrighteousness, I had better die quickly.” People were appalled at the news of the loyal minister’s death.
Next on Chadae’s list were people of the royal family, including Taejo’s sons. Taejo and Chadae’s brother, sensing the situation was getting too dangerous, secluded himself up in the mountains.
People who were ready to join Chade’s revolt were given high positions in court. And, naturally enough, the families that had not supported the king were treated unfavorably. What happened exactly is not entirely certain, but it’s safe to assume that the other families were excluded from power and generally lost a lot of status. One of these clans, the Yeonno, seemed to have been in a particularly bad situation.
From this Yeonno clan a particularly humble person stepped up to the game. Goguryeo had 10 ranks at the time, and this man was close to the bottom in the 9th rank. He had managed to make a name for himself during the reign of Taejo. But now the situation had changed and his position, perhaps even his life, was threatened. The man, whose name was Myeongnim Dap-bu, decided that something had to be done.
Myeongnim Dap-bu stated that he could not bear to see the people suffering under the unjust king. He found some ministers and clan members, who were also facing hardship under Chadae’s reign, and in 165 CE, almost twenty years after Chadae had taken power, Myeongnim Dap-bu organized a coup d’etat. He then assassinated the king. Nobody seemed to have reacted negatively to this event.
In order to avoid a power vacuum cause too many problems, the ministers had to act fast. They sought out the brother who had hidden himself up in the mountains back to court. He then became the king Sindae.
King Sindae’s power came entirely from a revolt that had overthrown his brother, and so he tried to not repeat the same mistakes as the former king. His reign started in a conciliatory tone. He issued an edict that acknowledged his debt to the ministers who called him to powers. “How could I imagine that the people would happily endorse me? Or that many ministers would urge me to accept the throne?” And so, “together with my people. I shall reform myself to bring about a great amnesty throughout the kingdom.”
This amnesty extended to those who had supported the previous king. Chadae’s son, who had already fled after the revolt fearing for his life, was forgiven, and the families who had supported Chadae’s rise to power were largely forgiven.
But Sindae knew that he owed the largest debt to Myeongnim Dap-bu. In fact, Sindae showed so much gratitude to the leader of the revolt that an entirely new position in court was created for Myeongnim Dap-bu. Earlier there was a junior and senior councilor who acted as the highest positions in court. Now Sindae merged the two into one position. The name of the position was Guk-sang which is usually translated in English as ‘Prime Minister.’
The history book that records all this, the Samguk-sagi, gets a little bizarre with the dates at this time. The ages in the text are for the most part fairly consistent, but it seems like in the 2nd century, every major figure starts living to incredibly old ages. Taejo dies at age 119, and Myeongnim Dap-bu is said to have become prime minister at 99 years old. There was either something very good in the water of Goguryeo, or the records have some inconsistencies in them. Suffice to say, Myeongnim Dap-bu was not a young man when he had taken power.
With the help of the prime minister, and thanks to Sindae’s magnanimous stance towards the factions, Goguryeo navigated a coup d’etat and government reform with very few internal difficulties.
Externally, there was a problem that had been harassing Goguryeo since Taejo’s time: the Han Empire. Conflicts arose periodically between the two countries, especially by proxy of one of the commanderies. And in 172, the armies were once again approaching Goguryeo.
Mural of a Goguryeo warrior. Source
Sindae’s ministers met in order to decide what to do. Most people there agreed that, despite the large numbers that the Han Empire could muster, they had no choice but to face their enemy in battle. Most people nervously agreed. “If we do not go out and fight, they will consider us to be cowrds and will invade repeatedly.”
The Prime Minister had another idea, though. Myeongnim Dap-bu agreed that they had to do something, but also reasoned that it would be impossible for their army to go against such a big number. He suggested another strategy to win the battle, called the “Clear Field Strategy”.
The “Clear Field Strategy”-청야전술 in Korean- was a way of weakening an advancing army before the battle even starts. Since armies needed a lot of food supplies to support their campaign, advancing troops would use the wells and fields of the land around them to keep their supplies up. Myeongnim Dap-bu and his troops were to “clear the fields”- burning any crops and blocking any wells- between the Han army’s camp and the walled fortresses of Goguryeo. The aim was to stop enemy troops from being able to refill their food supply, thereby weakening the enemy before they could even reach their target. A kind of scorched earth tactic.
The Han army was thus unable to reach their target with enough food, and was forced to retreat. At a field in the Manchurian regions named Jwa-won, the army of Myeongnim Dap-bu attacked the retreating Han army and defeated them.
What happened exactly during and after this conflict is unknown. Because Han records make no mention of any battle at Jwa-won. If the battle actually took place, then it must have been inconsequential for the Empire, since, as we shall see later, the Han had much bigger problems to deal with at the end of the 2nd century.
The victory was felt in Goguryeo. And the Clear Field Strategy would become part of Korea’s defensive repertoire in the many battles that the peninsula would face from outside enemies.
Myeongnim Dap-bu died in 179. King Sindae was so distressed to lose his prime minister and confidant that he ordered a seven day mourning period. The new position of Prime Minister, in one form or another, would also play a pivotal role in court politics. And so Myeongnim Dap-bu rose from the lowest ranks in court to completely change the face of his country.