When King Gogukwon took that fatal arrow from Baekje’s crown prince in 371, it was the final blow in a series of unfortunate events for the monarch.
The Murong Xianbei tribe, once content to be loyal to the Jin Dynasty of a fractured China, were growing in both land and ambition. Their state of Former Yan had already clashed with Goguryeo before. Although these ended up amounting to nothing more than a few border skirmishes, the Murong staged an all out assault in 342. They invaded and pillaged the capital of Hwando. They looted the city, and took the royal family hostage. Although Gogukwon escaped, the Murong clan went to the royal tombs and dug up the remains of the king’s father,the former King Micheon, holding it for ransom. Humiliated, King Gogukwon sent his brother to the Murong Xianbei and begged them to return their mother and their father’s corpse. The insult, not to mention the damage from the actual attack, caused a major blow to the infrastructure and pride of Goguryeo.
By the 350s the leader of the Xianbei Murong Jun declared himself Emperor. Former Yan now had control over much of the northern regions of China. But the empire itself would only last about 20 years, and in 370 Yan was absorbed into another up and coming dynasty. Yet even that Empire succumbed within a few decades. Suffice the say the northern territories were undergoing profound changes. Not only on the geo-political levels, but culturally as well. Perhaps the most significant and long lasting cultural event was the introduction of a religion that had only been a minor presence in the Han Dynasty.
According to legends, Han Emperor Ming of the 1st Century AD dreamed of a mysterious foreign god. His advisers told him about a sage from the Western world. The Emperor sent his vassals to inquire about the teachings of this long deceased sage: Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. Emperor Ming ordered the construction of the White Horse Temple, the first Buddhist monastery in China.
Although the religion remained in China, it did not play a particularly significant role in the Han dynasty. The dominant ideology was Confucianism. The Confucians regarded the seemingly otherworldly ideas of Buddhism with disdain, even repulsion. The idea of leaving one’s family and renounce the world was anathema to Confucian teachings. But after the collapse of the Han, other religions, philosophies and schools of thought were allowed breathing space to develop and expand. The teachings and aesthetics of Buddhism were particularly appealing to the northern would be Chinese dynasties, as the rich art and sculpture from that era attests. Emperors and monarchs even had a particular zeal for the religion fo the Buddha. The Emperor of a dynasty called former Qin was, Fu Jian, was a particularly devout Buddhist who sent missionaries to neighboring countries. That is, when he wasn’t busy conquering them. As he did with the state of Former Yan, the Murong Xianbei state, in 370.
A year after the Murong Xianbei fell to former Qin, Goguryeo’s attempts at southward expansion were met with resistance by Baekje. In a retaliatory strike, the King Geunchogo and his son attacked the new Goguryeo capital of Pyeongyang, and King Gogukwon was killed in the battle. Such was the situation that King Sosurim found himself in when he ascended the throne in 371.
Sosurim’s plan was to transform Goguryeo. And he had perhaps as profound an impact on the country as King Taejo did when he organized the districts of the kingdom. In fact, he continued the former king’s project and further centralized power and authority. In order to achieve this, he enacted 3 major, history-changing reforms.
One of Fu Jian’s many missionaries reached the court of Goguryeo a little after the King Sosurim assumed power, In 372, a monk named Ando was sent as a sign of good will between the two countries. King Sosurim seemed particularly intrigued by the religion, as he even sent requests for more monks and teachers. He ordered the building of the first Buddhist temple. And thus Buddhism had reached the Korean peninsula for the first time. From a loose connection of myths and shamanistic practices, Goguryeo now had a universal system and metaphysics that enjoyed great popularity and inspired devotion.
The same year, another philosophy made its way to the peninsula, one that would become increasingly important in further centuries. King Sosurim ordered the building of the ‘Tae Hak’ (“Great Learning”), a Confucian academy to train the elites in both martial and literary arts. This college taught the nobles literacy in Chinese characters, the ancient Confucian classics, as well as the skills of archery and horseback. More importantly, it provided a means of giving the nobles a common education to unite them together. Since one of the chief virtues of Confucianism is loyalty, no doubt this was attractive to the court as well.
How much of a role did Confucianism play? Not much. Although the ideals and principles of the philosophy made their way into society, Buddhism was the dominant ideology in much of the Three Kingdoms. It won’t be until the 14th century Joseon that Neo-Confucianism, a 10th century variant of Confucius’ teaching, would dominate.
Finally, Sosurim introduced the first official code of law in 373. Previously, Goguryeo’s laws were a series of prescriptions and regulations, with each village loosely following their own code. The Yul-Lyeong, as the code of law was called, provided an official series of rewards and punishments that every district of Goguryeo had to follow. Not much is known of the laws themselves, but they can be considered as the prototype for other laws in the later Korean dynasties.
King Sosurim died in 384, for the rest of his rule he had to deal with attacks from Baekje and the northern tribes of the Khitan, but his ten years or so of reign were relatively stable. He managed to unite the various political and cultural ideas of the time and synthesize it into something unique, something that become a permanent part of Goguryeo’s identity. It is little wonder that most states at that time chose to centralize following a vague prototype of the Chinese Imperial system, for such centralizing was a way of boosting the strength of a kingdom. Goguryeo is a great example of this. From the walled cities of almost 400 years before, Goguryeo, thanks to King Sosurim’s project, was about to enter its Golden Age.