One of the challenges of writing about ancient history is finding the balance between giving too much and not enough information. Too many names and dates and the main points get bogged down, but leave out too many details and the history ends up having too many gaps to form a coherent picture. So for the sake of building up a more coherent picture of the situation at the end of the 3rd century, we’ll take a detour to have a brief, if somewhat name heavy, look at a group I’ve mentioned many times as secondary players thus far. Namely, the Han Commanderies.
Source: Naver Encyclopedia
Emperor Wu in 108 BC built four Commanderies in the area of Gojoseon, which he had just conquered. His purpose was to both expand his territory and keep an eye out on the activities of people outside the Empire, intervening when problems arise. The four Commanderies were called Lelang, Lintun, Xuantu and Zhenfan. You might see them written differently in Korean based on the Korean language’s pronunciation of the Chinese names. Lelang and Xuantu, for example, are 낙랑 and 현도, Nangnang and Heondo. There is still some dispute about the exact location of the Commanderies, but they seemed to have settled somewhere around the Han river, where modern day Seoul lies. In 82 BC Lintun and Zhenfan were abolished, and their land was absorbed into Lelang. Xuantu was moved west in 75 BC.
Each Commandery was ruled by a governor and composed mostly of merchants. Lelang continued as a political entity in relative stability until it was taken over by the Gongsun family, who separated Lelang and created another Commandery, Daifeng. The Han Empire fell in 220, and one of the kingdoms that emerged from the ruins, the very short-lived Cao Wei, enlisted the help of Goguryeo to attack and overthrow the Gongsun family. Lelang and Daifeng then came under the control of Wei, and Jin straight after that. Although the Empire was long gone, the Commanderies were a specter of Han, fulfilling the mission that they were given hundreds of years earlier.
The Commanderies were mostly content with keeping to their administration. Most of their incursions into neighboring states was either to raid resources or as retaliation for other attacks. The biggest social issue recorded was the merchants’ nighttime activities. Chinese sources expressed surprise by how people in the Peninsula did not lock their doors at night, and had a weak sense of personal property in general. A custom that the Han merchants took full advantage of by walking into homes at night and helping themselves to whatever they wanted. The merchants also no doubt also tried to exploit the iron-rich southern regions.
And, since no political relationship is ever 100% antagonistic, there was a lot of exchange between the Commanderies and the neighboring states. Technology and cultural practices were introduced including, some historians speculate, Goguryeo adopting the Chinese writing system. Since there are no extant records that go back that far, we are still unsure of when writing was completely adopted.
Source: Naver Encyclopedia
Lelang kept their eyes on Baekje ever since Onjo first set up his little walled city state. Many kings after Onjo had to deal with Lelang’s constant raids. The fight between Lelang and Baekje in 246, then, must’ve seemed pretty routine. But Lelang did not expect that the country they had fought many times before to have turned into a powerful state. Thanks to the work of King Go-I, Baekje was strong enough to defeat the Commandery.
Go-I died in 286, leaving his country more centralized and efficient than before. His son took over as King, who was given the posthumous name of Chaekgye. The new king enjoyed a more positive relationship with the Commanderies. Defang sought an alliance with Baekje in order to fight Goguryeo. Chaekgye agreed, making it perhaps the first conflict between the two kingdoms. Chaekgye then married the Defang governor’s daughter, Bogwa, to seal their alliance. Things were fine with Defang, but in the 13th year of Chaekgye’s reign, in 298, the relationship with Lelang soured.
The Samguk Sagi ends its entry on Chaekgye with the words, “9th month, Han and the Maek joined forces and attacked Baekje.” The Maek were probably from a country located north. But Han?
Its mostly assumed that this refers to the Lelang commandery, but there is a theory that this might also be the work of a northern nomadic tribe by the name of Xiongnu. In 304, admist extreme turmoil on the Asian continent, the Xiangnu founded their own dynasty called Zhao Han. Some think that in 298, this might have been the beginning of their new dynasty.
Chaekgye led his army into battle. The army stopped the advancing enemy from invading Baekje. The King did not survive the battle. And in 298, King Bunseo inherited his father’s kingdom and his enmity towards Lelang.
Bunseo was described as being wise from a very early age, and that he was his father’s favorite. Baekje had had a good run of long lived kings, and maybe under different circumstances, Bunseo might have had a long reign as well. But one of the problems of being a state growing in power is that this power attracts the attention of others. And, more dangerously, once in a position of power, you have to make a show of it. So Bunseo decided that he had to take revenge on Lelang for the attack that killed his father. The year was 304, and the Baekje army secretly made its way into the western regions of Lelang. Bunseo successfully took over the region of Seohyeon. The king wasn’t able to celebrate too long, because the governor of Lelang quickly dispatched an assassin. Two kings of Baekje were thus undone by Lelang.
So the conflict between Lelang and Baekje went on up until the 4th century. The conflict between Baekje and Lelang ended somewhat anticlimactically when Goguryeo annexed the Commandery in 313. This means Bunseo and Chaekgye were the last Baekje kings to have to deal with the old remains of the Han Empire. And despite their defeat, Go-I’s project still lived on. Baekje seemed to have suffered only a minor set back, and the nation kept growing after King Bunseo’s death. Goguryeo and Baekje were left standing face to face.