15. Out From The Shadows Of Obscurity: King Go-I

fd5_16_i1A model of a Baekje village. Source: Naver Encyclopedia


In the (Chinese) Records of the Three Kingdoms, there are sources from older texts which describe the kingdoms and tribes outside of China. There are many interesting accounts which give an outsider’s perspective on the different tribes and countries in the Korean peninsula and in Manchuria. Buyeo was depicted as a nation of friendly people, polite and “always singing.” The historian did note, however, the draconian nature of their laws; the punishment for murder was death and having the entire family of the murderer enslaved. Even more bizarre was the punishment for “jealousy.” The woman (it was always a woman) would be put to death and her corpse exposed to the elements. Her family would have to pay a fine to recover the corpse. Whatever Buyeo meant by jealousy, you didn’t want to be caught doing it.

The writer of the accounts noted that the people of Goguryeo had many different spirits they appeased to. They are boisterous, loving to sing and dance and get into fights. The writer did not like Goguryeo’s marriage customs, which involved the wife’s family building a hut behind their house, where the husband and wife spend the night; the husband and wife go to the husband’s home only after the kids have grown up. Oh, and they brewed great beer, apparently.

The accounts go on to depict the Okjae tribes, the Ye and even the people of Samhan. Although the records sometimes have the air of an outsider who doesn’t quite understand what is going on in a foreign country, they are a great source of history for the area. But one is struck at what the records conspicuously left out: any major account of Silla and Baekje.

Silla and Baekje occupied the areas of the Samhan confederacies. We now know how important those two kingdoms are going to be thanks to the power of historical hindsight. In the first few centuries, there was nothing to distinguish them from the other tribes, including the Gaya confederacies. They were certainly not anyone near the strength of Goguryeo, the regional power. So in the old records,  Silla and Baekje were lumped together with the other countries and chieftains. Things were about to change in the year 234 with the ascension of King Go-I of Baekje.

When Soseono and her two children, Biryu and Onjo, went deeper south to found a new state, Onjo’s Baekje was the result. For the first two centuries of its existence, Baekje fended off multiple attacks from the Han Commanderies and the Malgal, a semi-nomadic tribe around the area. Onjo himself had pulled a successful attack against the king of Mahan, and the state of Baekje was slowly absorbing the confederacies of the area. Thus Baekje was a mix of Goguryeo descendants and the local Mahan people, and two languages appear to have been spoken in the state. Despite the records of natural disasters or attacks from Lelang and Malgal, the first years of Baekje were fairly stable. As the excellent Topics in Korean History podcast points out, the first kings of Baekje had incredibly long reigns, far longer than the average, so they must have been doing something different. The average length of a rule was about 40 years.

Then came King Saban, who ruled for a grand total of less than a year. In 234 he assumed power after his father’s death, but then was removed almost immediately afterwards. The reason was he was too young to be leader, and was replaced by King Go-I. He claimed to be the younger son of an earlier king, Gaeru. However, this was most likely a fabrication to justify his usurpation. Being Gaeru’s son would’ve meant that Go-I lived to be older than 120 years. Long lived or not, this is a little too much even by Baekje standards.

The King took power in the same year Saban stepped down, in 234. Saban left  Korean history to enter the history of Japan. Meanwhile, Go-I began his project of making something out of the little Baekje he just took over. He didn’t waste any time working on his country, so that when the chaos erupted up north in 246, with the Goguryeo-Wei war, Baekje was ready.

When the commanderies of Lelang and Daifang joined the Wei to fight Goguryeo, Baekje saw this as an opportunity to strike at their northern neighbors. They attacked Lelang and took many hostages. However, for reasons unknown, King Go-I decided to send those prisoners of war back.  Daifang struck back, but they were surprised to discover that this little state had enough strength to defeat the joint power of the commanderies, even killing the Daifang governer in battle. Baekje was no longer a little walled state to be pushed around.

Having won the battle, Baekje developed a more complicated relationship with the two commanderies. Despite these conflicts, the relationship between Baekje and Daifang went smoothly afterwards, as Go-I’s son married a princess from Daifang, and Baekje would help the Commanderies in their other expeditions. This was an example of the diplomacy which Baekje was famous for. During it’s rise to power as a kingdom, Baekje was more outward looking than the other two kingdoms, eagerly entering into alliances and trade relationships with Japan and the various Chinese kingdoms. This outward looking diplomacy was the source of Baekje’s strength.

King Go-I also set up a system to centralize his state. This was the beginning of Baekje’s court system, which would eventually divide the court into sixteen posts, with three tiers each. Each tier was supposed to show up to court dressed up in full regalia, and the colors were divided by rank. The upper ranks wore purple, the middle ranks scarlet, and the lower ranks blue. Go-I enacted strict laws against corruption, and anyone caught taking bribes was severely punished. All this gave the appearance of a fresh official court ready to become its own kingdom.

The expansionist tendencies of Go-I and his successors is the subject of a controversy. Namely, did Baekje ever colonize parts of China? Some people believe Baekje had a “Greater Baekje” period, where the country had an Eastern and Western side. The Western half was across from the Korean peninsula and into parts of China. Official histories nowadays reject the idea. One of the first objections goes as far back as the 18th century, when a scholar from Joseon tried to disprove the theory that Baekje had any posts in Chinese territory. If a 18th century scholar had to reject the theory, it means that the idea has been around for a long time. Where did it come from?

Korean records like the Samguk Sagi make absolutely no mention of Greater Baekje. What little evidence we have comes from references to Baekje occupying the Laioxi region, references found in Chinese sources. This occupation would have taken place during the Jin Dynasty, so any time between 266 and 420. This would coincide with Go-I and his successors’ plans of expansionism. On the other hand, there are also other Chinese records that have no such claim, including, most tellingly of all, the records from Jin. With the absence of any conclusive evidence, the “Greater Baekje” hypothesis is one left to speculation and Internet flame wars.

For Go-I’s efforts to solidify his country, he was considered the founder of Baekje, and ancestral festivals were dedicated to him. The King set Baekje on the path to become a power of the region, a path that moved northwards, and that his descendants would quickly take up.

14. Rendez-Vous At The Banquet of Death: Mil-U and Yuyu

Map of Korea in 204 Source: Wikipedia

In the year 220, the Han Empire- the Empire that ruled China and which had subjugated most of its neighbors, engaged in the war that ultimately destroyed Gojoseon, and set up the Commanderies which were still in place in the Korean peninsula- fell. Warlords from different parts of the Empire drew their bows and  arrows at one another, trying to become heirs of the next Empire. When the Roman Empire fell, it more or less dissolved into a series of states that became their own countries. In China’s case, the philosophy that the Emperor is the ruler of all under heaven, and that Heaven’s mandate can only go to one ruler, was so strong that every time a dynasty fell another took its place. In this situation, though, it would take time for the next Empire to show up. The tumultuous series of events surrounding the fall of Han is immortalized in the novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” which has spawned countless stories, plays, movies, comics, TV shows, and several long running video game series.

For Korea, the fall of a Chinese Empire was a major event. The succession of dynasties will have a big influence on the politics of Korea, which had to decide what relation it would have with the new dynasty of China, and where to pledge their loyalty. Goguryeo was close enough to all the action to be forced to make a choice.

It is hard to imagine that Goguryeo was particularly sad to see Han go. This was the state that fought them on multiple occasions, and the Han Commanderies were still a thorn on Goguryeo’s side. The biggest Commandery, the Lelang (Nangnang in Korean) had recently undergone a radical change as well. It was  occupied by the warlord Gongsun family, who created a new Daifang Commmandery to supplement the Lelang power. and Goguryeo was still enraged that the Gongsun state had tried to interfere with the succession issue between King Sangsang and his brother Balgi. Now it was King Sasang’s son, King Dongcheon, who was ruler during the post-Han period in 227. Since he was the son of another woman, King Sasang’s wife the Lady U was ill disposed towards the young
Dongcheon. She would engage in wildly childish acts like spilling soup on his clothes and cutting off the mane of his horse. The prince learned how to stand his own against such treatment, and so Goguryeo had a strong willed and patient king when it came time to face the new world.

Two Kingdoms in particular were eager to gain Goguryeo on their side, the Wu and the Cao Wei. Wei was closest to Goguryeo, but Wu was close enough to know that Goguryeo could pose a threat if the country allied itself with Wei. In 234 Wei sent their envoys to King Dongcheon. Wu did the same two years later. Dongcheon had to make a choice, and he showed his decision by executing the Wu envoys and sending them to Wei. The Goguryeo-Wei alliance was sealed.

One of the first things the new allies did was bring down the Gongsun family. The current leader, Gongsun Yuan, had angered the Wei king, who send his general- the famous Sima Yi- to subdue the Gongsun’s state. Goguryeo was more than happy to take revenge on the the Gongsun family for their meddling. Goguryeo troops joined Sima Yi in this successful campaign. But the ambitious countries of Cao Wei and Goguryeo could not keep an alliance for long.

Sima Yi, one of the more famous figures of the (Chinese) Three Kingdoms saga.
Source: Wikipedia


King Dongcheon’s father had started a campaign of Western expansion. Before 245, the Liaodong Peninsula felt Goguryeo’s forces, which was even threatening the northern borders of Silla. Wei was not impressed. The King of Wei sent out his troops. Ten thousand men from the Commanderies marched towards Goguryeo. Dongcheon matched their forces with 20 thousand of his own troops. The year 246 saw the beginning of the Goguryeo-Wei wars.

Dongcheon and his troops attacked the Wei army. They subdued the Wei down by the Biryu River. They fought all through the Yangmaek valley. The battles went to King Dongcheon’s head. They made him overconfident. He brought his generals together and told them, “Wei’s larger forces were not as good as our smaller forces, and, although Guangqiu Jian [the commander of the Wei forces] was a well-known Wei general, isn’t his life in my hands today?” King Dongcheon led his troops to finish off the Wei army. But the course of the battle was about to change.

The Wei army surrounded King Dongcheon’s army, and Goguryeo began to feel the real threat of the war. The Wei had no intention of just subduing the Goguryeo army. Wei followed the retreating army, like a lion following its wounded prey. Wei followed King Dongcheon through the mountainous terrain of the Goguryeo to the capital, Hwando.

On the 10th month, the winter was heated with blood and fire when the Wei armed managed to penetrate the Hwando. The people were forced to escape. Those that were left behind fell under the knife of the invading Wei army. The generals dismantled the city and inscribed their victory on the wall. Wei, however, was still not satisfied. They kept their chase of King Dongcheon.

King Dongcheon and his troops headed towards South Okjeo, one of Goguryeo’s tributary states. And then Mil-U, one of those who had participated in the fighting, and kept following his king while the Wei followed them, told Dongcheon that he would go back and stop the Wei army. He gathered a few troops and went to his suicide mission.

The King escaped and managed to gather his troops. He was not ready to forget Mil-U’s sacrifice, and offered a reward to anyone who could find and rescue him. They went back to the battleground and found Mil-U, badly injured but still alive. They brought him back to the King, who personally nursed Mil-U back to health.

Once the battered Goguryeo army reached Southern Okjeo, they were pressed up against a wall. The land and gave way to the sea. If the Wei were to reach Okjeo, the King would surely be lost.

Knowing this, the Goguryeo general Yuyu went to Wei’s camp. He met with the general of the Wei army and offered his surrender. He surrendered on behalf of  the king, with presents and peace offerings. They had food and tabelware to set up a banquet, and the Wei general approached. But Yuyu reached for the offerings first. He took out a knife from within the tableware, and used it to kill the Wei general. Yuyu stabbed the general, and then stabbed himself.
“Hide a knife behind a smile,” an ancient stratagem states, and Yuyu followed this strategy literally. Although feigning surrender like that might clash with modern sensibilities, warfare was viewed differently back then. War was based on deception, and desperate situations called for desperate strategies. When Yuyu had told the king of his plan, the King was reportedly in tears, saddened that the situation had become so dire.

The chaotic scene sent the Wei army flying in confusion and panic. King Dongcheon divided his army and the Wei army eventually retreated. This wasn’t a victory that gave Goguryeo any strength or land, but its very survival survival. When the court returned to Hwando, it was too much in ruins to function as a capital anymore. So in 247, the King moved the capital and named it Pyeongyang.

The army demolished, the capital in ruins, and the geography of the country completely reconfigured, Goguryeo’s standing had greatly diminished. Although Wei was unsuccessful in destroying the country, Goguryeo had experienced its first major threat, a crisis of unprecedented proportions. When Gojoseon faced a not too dissimilar war, the country collapsed from internal strife, with ministers defecting to Han and ultimately assassinating the king. Dongcheon’s loyalty to his army, and the general strength that Goguryeo had accumulated, saved the country from total destruction. The King rewarded Mil-U and Yuyu’s family, and the two warriors would become a model for the later generals as Goguryeo attempted to reclaim its power once more.