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

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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.

SimaYi
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.

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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.

Interlude 4: Shamanism in the Ancient Kingdoms

Dressed in colorful, almost androgynous garbs reminiscent of older days, surrounded by the smiling images of ancient guardian deities over the mounds of offerings dedicated to them, moved by the ecstatic clanging of drums and chants, the mudang is ready to enter into a trance. She (the majority of shamans in Korea these days are female)  will change costumes many times during the drama of gut, invoking various gods, ancient generals, and spirits while reciting old legends of resentful spirits.

Mudang_performing_a_ritual_placating_the_angry_spirits_of_the_deadA Mudang Shamaness Source: Wikipedia

  There are variations depending on region and ritual. But they all inhabit a world where humans, spirits and divinities share a common space, influencing one another for good or bad. The most common kind of exorcism the mudangs perform deals with people afflicted by spirits who have died violently or has some lingering resentment towards the world. Through the drama of suffering and singing songs that give voice to these resentments, the mudang offers  therapeutic relief to the spirit who in turn leaves the tormented person alone.

The system of shamanism that exists in Korea today has had many transformations, absorbing beliefs, historical figures and rituals as it goes through a path of suppression and revival, suppression again and revival once more. But the worldview of the shaman offers us a rare glimpse into the world inhabited by the people of the ancient kingdoms of Korea.

Two stories from Goguryeo illustrate this:

In the fourteenth year of Goguryeo’s second king (Yuri), while preparing sacrifices to Heaven, the sacrificial pig escaped into the woods.  Two ministers chased the pig, tied it down, and brought it back to the king. Yuri, furious that the ministers hurt the sacrificial pig, had them executed. Later, the King fell ill, and the shamans declared that his illness was a result of the two ministers haunting him. We’re told that he “apologized to the two men,” but the nature- or ritual- of this apology is unknown.

In 234, Lady U was on her deathbed. She was so afraid of meeting her first husband in the afterlife that she asked the people to bury her next to King Sasang, her second husband. After her death  a shaman went into  trance and said he had a vision of King Gogukcheon. The deceased king said, “Yesterday, when seeing Lady U go to King Sansang, I was not able to contain my anger and so we fought…I cannot bare facing the people. Please report to the court and block me with something.” So the people of the court planted seven rows of pine trees between King Gogukcheon and King Sansang and Lady U’s tombs. Even death couldn’t stop King Sindae’s sons from causing a whole lot of drama.

Various folk tales and songs also talk about spirits full of resentment wrecking havoc on the human world. This is a common belief all over East Asia and quite possibly might be an ancient prototype and basis of   modern horror movies and ghost stories.

Local beliefs in these spirits was not the only form of supernatural beings inhabiting the world. There was a larger belief in gods and ancestors as well. The people of the ancient kingdoms were thought to be under the influence of Heaven. This Heaven was a cosmos, the natural order of things. The kings and their subjects offered sacrifices and prayers up to heaven to keep their country in harmony with the cosmos. More personal gods existed as well, most notably the founders of the old kingdoms- Dangun of Gojoseon Jumong of Goguryeo, Suro of Gaya, and Hyeokgeose of Silla- who were all sons of gods coming to earth in order to reign over people. The states all had festivals to these founders, and kings- as the descendants of these demi-gods- were expected to offer sacrifices to their ancestor’s shrines. Most notably, the second king of Silla, Namhae set up the shrine to his father, had his sister perform rituals at the place, and  gave himself the title of “Chachaung,” which we’re told was an old Sillan word for shaman. Kings, as descendants of these gods, thus had the shaman’s role of intermediary between this world and the divine world.

Like many of the old civilizations- Egypt comes to mind- there seems to have been some continuity between life and death. The idea of a connection between this life and the afterlife is evidenced by very ancient burial practices. Archaeological findings dating back even before the ancient kingdoms show dolmens and burial mounds for the tribal leaders and nobility.  Goguryeo’s wall paints fill the tombs of their leaders, and Baekje and Silla buried their kings and his family with many objects and jewelry. More gruesomely, in the 5th century, the king of Silla banned the practice of burying people alive with the deceased nobility, implying that it was common practice.

Nature also plays a massive role in shamanistic beliefs. Mountains especially are thought to be sacred, and it is no coincidence that most legendary founders are found or related to mountains. Trees are important, and if you hike mountains in Korea you might find altars under- or little papers stuck to- trees. It was under a tree, after all, that Dangun’s mother prayed and entered into holy marriage. The name Dangun means something like ‘Lord of the Cedar.’ Moving up the great chain of being, animals were also a manifestation of the cosmic order of Heaven, and many of them had a totemistic importance to the people, being sacred guardian spirits. The turtle was one  animal that was revered (see King Suro of Gaya), but so were ravens, horses and – somewhat surprising to modern ears- chicken.

Some people have called the ancient kingdoms a Theocracy, since they were ruled by divine or semi-divine kings that brought order to the universe. Theocracy might be a little misleading, in my opinion, since it implies a division between the natural and the supernatural world. There doesn’t seem to have been that kind of distinction in the thought of the people back then.

After the 5th century, the separation of sacred and profane would enter the consciousness of the people as the kingdoms convert to Buddhism. This did not mean that shamanism and shamanistic beliefs disappeared entirely. One of the reasons that Buddhism was so successful was its expansive worldview. Buddhists measure time in millions and billions of years, and experience reality as a massive multiverse with various worlds, each divided into various subrealms people with a myriad of beings. Buddhism had thus no problems integrating local beliefs into its cosmology. But the introduction of the religion caused the ancient shamans to become more differentiated, outside the status quo, and initiated a  search for its own identity.

13. Each Unhappy Family: King Sasang

 

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raditional Goguryeo clothing: An exhibition held in North Korea in 2013. Sources: 1 2

 

There was a custom in the ancient kingdoms that kingship passed from brother to brother much more frequently than father to son. This was the source of many battles and intrigues, as ministers rallied behind different people they thought should be the next on the throne. This was the cause of many factions and internal strife. Although King Taejo tried to enact a law to make the kingship solely hereditary, his successors did not seem to get the message. His brother took over, and then when that brother was overthrown, a third brother ruled. That was King Sindae, and when he passed away he had enough sons that the whole drama would be reenacted in the following generation.

Sindae’s second son was chosen to be king. He tried his best to wrest power away from the five powerful families, and had a meritocratic streak that would fill the records. When he was about to appoint someone as the next prime minister, that man declined, saying that another was much more qualified. The king listened to his advice and chose Ulpaso to be the prime minister. The king and his minister were especially beloved by the people

A story recounts the king on a hunting expedition. On his way back he saw a person on the road crying. Asked about his troubles, the man said that he was from a poor family who would hire himself out to support his family. But the harvest was bad that year so he and his mother were left to starve. The king then implemented one of the most important reforms in society. He distributed food and clothes to the suffering people. A special agency was established to help people during the toughest times of the year, from the third to the seventh month. The agency was to lend out grains from the royal house to the people, which the people were to pay back on the 10th month after the harvest. It was a good safety net for the tough years, and the system worked so well that it was imitated in one form or another in the later dynasties of Korea as well.

The king died and was given the posthumous name of King Gogukcheon. On the night of the monarch’s death, his queen, the Lady U, was at a loss. Since she was not ready to relinquish power, she had to think of a way to make sure the succession would work to her advantage.

She did not tell anyone about the king’s death, and secretly visited the king’s older brother that night. The elder brother, Balgi, didn’t know that his brother had died. He refused to see his sister-in-law. He even went so far as to rebuke her for going into men’s homes so late at night. Needless to say, Lady U was not impressed.

When she visited her late husband’s second brother, Yonu, the reception was quite different. He got dressed up and invited her in. While having dinner, Lady U told the man everything, even the way Balgi had treated her. Yonu listened intently, so much so that while slicing pieces of meat, Yonu’s knife slipped and he cut his finger. Lady U tore off a bit of her skirt, grabbed his bleeding finger, and wrapped the cloth around his finger. The night went on, and she asked him to escort her back to the palace. The two spent the night together; Lady U had found her new king.

The next day the two made their union official and Yonu became king. Suddenly there was a great clamor and soldiers surrounded the palace. It was Balgi. “Come out quickly,” he roared, “and if you do not then I will exterminate even your wife and children.” Yonu and Lady U shut themselves in the palace. It took three days before Balgi relented.

Down but not out for the count, Balgi left Goguryeo and went to the Liaodong Peninsula. This was land occupied by Han China, the place where the commanderies were stationed. By 197, the peninsula and commanderies had become semi-autonomous from the rest of the Empire. A warlord family named the Gong, taking advantage of the chaos that was happening in Han, had taken over. Balgi visited the current warlord, Gongsun Du, and requested thirty thousand soldiers to aid him conquer his former land. Gongsun saw this was a great opportunity to expand his power, and so agreed.

Thus began a battle between Goguryeo and the army led by Balgi. Keeping it all in the family, Yonu had their third brother Gyesu personally deal with the matter. After Balgi’s army was defeated, Gyesu approached his older brother personally. Gyesu himself was conflicted about the whole situation. On the one hand, Balgi should have been made king, on the other hand, going to an enemy country to attack your own country was unforgivable.

Still, when Balgi appealed to his younger brother- “Can you bear harm your aging older brother?”- Gyesu couldn’t bring himself to execute his older brother. The Samguk Sagi* records the conversations that would follow the tragedy: Instead of a sword, Gyesu penetrated his older brother’s heart with an appeal: “Yonu, by not refusing to become King, committed an unrighteous act. But what sort of idea is this that because of your ephemeral anger you wanted to destroy your country? After you die, how can you face your deceased ancestors?”

The two brothers stood face to face. Hearing those words, Balgi’s anger dissipated. But when he snapped back to consciousness he had realized all the damage his actions had done. He was so overcome with shame that he took a knife and ended his life. Gyesu buried his brother in a makeshift tomb of grass, and returned home full of grief.

The King received his younger brother with a welcoming reception. He asked about the situation, and was quite offended that his brother still had doubts about Balgi’s crimes. He was especially not happy about the burial of their older brother.

Gyesu couldn’t restrain himself, and, tears in his eyes, he said “I would like to say one thing and then die.”

“What?” The King asked.

“Although the Queen adhered to the former King’s will and enthroned Your Majesty, that you did not follow precedent by declining is because there was no sense of brotherly respect… how could I know that this [burying their older brother] would cause Your Majesty to be angry? If Your Majesty can embrace humanity, forget your hatred, and follow mourning rituals to bury your older brother, who can accuse you of impropriety? Since I have said all that I wanted to say, even if I die, I will live on. I request that the state execute me.”

Just as his words earlier had pacified Balgi, Gyesu had now managed to appease his other brother. King and brother found the corpse of Balgi, and buried him according to royal rituals. Just like many family tragedies and civil wars, brotherly bonds came back too late.

This would not be the end of Yonu- later known as King Sansang-‘s dramatic life. In the twelfth year of his rule, in 208, and he and his queen had no heir. It was one winter that the king and his ministers were preparing a sacrificial ritual. The pig that was meant to be sacrificed escaped. Ministers followed the pig into the forest. There, they found a beautiful woman who had managed to outrun both of them and capture the animal herself. They were enthralled by her beauty and grace, and couldn’t stop talking about her. The King was naturally intrigued.

He managed to track down the woman in her village. They then started a secret romantic meeting. Lady U heard of this, and she was not pleased at all. She sent soldiers to kill the woman. The woman tried to escape by dressing up as a man. But when the soldiers caught her, they saw something that made them stop their mission right away. “You may kill me, but do you dare kill a prince?” She showed them her current state, pregnant with King Sansang’s child. The King was delighted when he heard this, and had the woman be his second wife back at the palace. Lady U was unable to harm the woman or her child, but the Lady was not pleased. She made the child- the future king-‘s life as miserable as she could, in fine wicked stepmother tradition.

Brotherly conflict, secret romances, and scandalous babies. The life of King Sansang was something out of a melodrama. His reign swelled with internal conflict, but when King Sansang passed away in 227, Goguryeo looked outward. It saw the landscape of the world around them had changed completely. This was a turning point, where the kingdom would be forced to redefine its own identity and its relationship to the countries around them. Goguryeo rushed towards great opportunities, but also danger that would be one of Goguryeo’s first great threats.

12. The Perils of Ruling: Adalla Isageum

Perhaps the most common form of historical writing in the ancient East Asia was the annals. Daily events in a king’s life were recorded in these annals, from ceremonies performed to any diplomatic or internal affairs conducted, both good and bad. What might surprise a reader who just happened to get a hold of one of these texts is the meticulous recording of the weather.  One might despair at the thought of ancient historians being so obsessed with making small talk, but the records of weather patterns  were very significant, and it is no coincidence that they are noted down alongside political activities.

Kings played an intermediary role connecting heaven and earth. This is not a completely foreign idea, since almost every culture in the world has a notion of a leader who is more than human, or at the very least having some supernatural entity backing them up. Europe had the divine rights of kings idea in its early modern period, for example. What thing that makes this connection to heaven slightly different, however, is that heaven can- and will- withdraw its favors from rulers.

So how do you know that heaven disapproves of the current king? The human world and nature were said to work with one another, each according to their own principles. It’s a well oiled machine, if the affairs of the human world are in disharmony, then nature would start acting strangely as well. A king who behaves immorally or doesn’t rule as he should, then, will be visited with a series of phenomena like floods, eclipses, earthquakes, and unseasonable temperatures.

Opportunists were always waiting for such signs from heaven in order to rally enough support for a coup d’etat, or even outright revolution. Though Myeongnim Dapbu’s decision to oust King Chadae had political motives behind it, the end of Chadae’s rule also coincided with reports of earthquakes and other natural disasters.

Contemporaneously to the revolt against Chadae in 165 CE, another revolt was about to happen down in Gyerim (Silla). There was nothing particularly immoral or tyrannical about the 8th monarch of Silla, Adalla Isageum. His reign started with amnesties and  updating the political and military branches of the country. But nature itself seemed to have gone against the king. He was said to be unnaturally tall for the day and age- about 7 feet- and had disproportionate features. This was omen enough for superstitious people. But what made it worse was that during his reign, frost appeared in the summer, floods destroyed many houses, and a plague of locusts ravaged the countryside. Even the fish were planning their own revolt by jumping out of the water and dying on the shore. This no doubt made the people of Gyerim very uncomfortable. Was heaven angry at them and their ruler?

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Source: Wikipedia 

In 164, the records talk about a dragon appearing in the capital. Although it’s not sure what really happened, the rumors of the dragon appearing in the capital was enough to encourage some to go against the king. So a year later, a minister named Gilseon, much like Myeongnim Dapbu, started a coup in an attempt to overthrow Adalla. Unlike the fellow conspirator in the north, though, Gilseon failed.

The would-be revolutionary had to escape. He found refuge in a neighboring state, Baekje. Relations between Baekje and Silla had calmed significantly after Talhae’s successor and the king of Baekje signed a treaty. But tensions were to mount again as Gaeru of Baekje granted asylum to the Sillan traitor. Adalla sent a message requesting that  Gilseon be returned. Gaeru refused.

Infuriated, Adalla resorted to the old tactic of laying siege to a fortress. This was not very successful, and the Sillan troops just went back home. The people of Baekje were willing to drop the matter too. It seemed like things were going to go back to normal.

But in 166, King Gaeru died, and his successor, Chogo, was less forgiving. A year after he took the throne, Chogo captured two castles that belonged to Silla. The troops then took a thousand hostages back to Baekje. Adalla Isaegeum probably saw that Chogo was much more bellicose than the king before him, and decided that drastic measures were needed.

Adalla raised an army of twenty thousand soldiers, and personally led eight thousand horsemen. They got to the Han river with the intention of crossing and attacking the Baekje troops. It must be remembered that Silla was a small country at the time, and to have an army of that many soldiers means that Adalla decided to go all out. Not to mention that crossing the Han river was no easy feat. Anyone who has been to Seoul knows that the river is quite large, and in that era there were no bridges to help the troops cross.

 Bridges_over_the_river_Han_(South_Korea)
Source: Wikipedia

 

If Adalla and his troops confronted the Baekje armies, it would not have been an ordinary castle siege. I would have meant an all out war. A war that might’ve resulted in one of the budding three kingdoms being destroyed before reaching full bloom. It was quite a reckless move.

A reckless move that paid off. Chogo sued for peace, and a conflict was averted. The ruler whom people feared had lost heaven’s favor managed to safely navigate  two crises. But Baekje and Silla relation would never be the same again. And it wouldn’t take too long before more conflicts would arise. From the other side of the sea, however, Adalla also was engaged in a political relationship with another country. But this time it was more of a diplomatic one. The records show that Silla and the people of “Wa” were regularly sending envoys to each other.

The word Wa was a term that the ancient Chinese sources used to describe the people of the island nation. The original character for Wa 倭 (Wei in Chinese and Wae in Korean) meant something like a person stooping, which could signify humility and the people’s customs of bowing, but it could also mean a dwarf or a petty person. The later scholars in Wa took the latter interpretation, and-in an act of positive appropriation- changed the character of Wa to 和, “harmony, peace.”

The Wa, known to us today as “Japan,” were active in the peninsula for a long time. Usually alternating between  coastal raids,  trade and diplomacy. Jima, sixth ruler of Silla, began a peaceful relationship with Japan and Adalla continued this diplomacy. He forged ties with the legendary Queen Himiko, who sent an envoy to Silla. Himiko, the shamaness queen who is a staple figure in Japanese high and pop culture, was famous enough to be recorded in Japanese, Chinese, and Korean sources. (The problem is that all sources give different dates of her reign, so her identity is still a mystery). Japan would be allied with the different kingdoms and play a role in the conflicts between Baekje and Silla.

When Adalla Isaegeum died, it was the end of an era for Silla. The founder of Silla, Hyeokgeose, was from the Pak (Park) family. The fourth king, Talhae, was from the Seok clan. Kingship went back to the Pak after Talhae passed away. But Adalla would be the last of the Pak rulers. He died with no heirs, and so the Seok family became the sole ruling family from then on.

Sources and Further Readings For The Three Kingdoms Era

In this blog I aim primarily to focus on the narrative of history. In order to keep this narrative as clear as possible, the more scholarly details of the different sources will sometimes be ignored. For anyone interested in reading more in detail about the scholarship and archaeology of the Three Kingdom era, here are the sources I am drawing from.

 

In English

Annals of the Three Kingdoms: Silla and Koguryo. (Pekche edition out of print) A translation of the Samguk Sagi, written by Kim Pusik, the major source for most of our information on the Three Kingdoms era and where most of the stories come from. Unfortunately, although the annals were written after the Three Kingdoms era, they are the closest thing to a primary source that we have. So some of the accounts need to be taken with a grain of salt.

Samguk Yusa This is a collection of stories gathered by a monk named Iryeon. Iryeon decided to compile this book because he didn’t how like Kim Pusik ignored all the miracles and magical powers in the history of the Three Kingdoms. Suffice to say that most of the stories here are considered legends, although the book does provide information on the more ancient kingdoms like Gojoseon.

A New History of Korea by Ki-Baik Lee  An incredibly comprehensive look at the history of the country.  The book does not focus much on narrative, but is a great source for describing the politics, culture, religion and institutions of the land.  The book is still in university reading lists.

The Land of Scholars by Kang Jae-Eun A look at the history of Confucianism in Korea. A good source to look at the philosophical and ideological debates that shaped the country in the past.

History And Structure of Korean Shamanism A scholarly look at the development of shamanism, and an examination of  the symbolism behind the myths and rites of ancient Korea.

A History of Korea (Palgrave Essential Series) by Kyung Hwang. A great introduction to the history of the peninsula.

Sources of Korean Tradition Volume 1  A collection of translations from various sources, great for going in depth.

Korea Journal An incredibly in-depth collection of articles for just about everything related to Korea. It can take days to look at the whole thing.

The Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch’s Annual Journal Transactions A long running publication with articles on various aspects of history.

 

In Korean

한권으로 읽는왕조실록: 백제 고구려 신라 박영규  The story stands as a commentary on the Samguk Sagi. It compares the stories of the text to other texts of the same era, as well as archaeological evidence. The whole series is five books in total (including Joseon and Goryeo).

우리 역사의 수수께끼 1  2  3  이덕일 A delightful and intriguing series that explores the various mysteries and controversies of history. A great source that chronicles such debates as Gija’s existence.

한국민중사 (volume 1) A book that explores the lives of the people during the early era. Great exploration of the culture and political structure of the earlier kingdoms.

이야기 한국사 The first book on Korean history I’ve read, and the one that’s got me interested in the subject. A great overview.

한국사를 움직인 100인 윤제운  A look at the hundred most influential people in the history of Korea, their lives and accomplishments.

왕의역사 박영현 This book details the lives of the most important kings of every era, giving details into the political situation around them as well as relations with other countries.

이슬람과 한국문화  이회수 An intriguing look at the relationship between Korea and the Islamic countries, starting from the 7th century.

Naver Encyclopedia  Gigantic collection of articles, some written by prominent professors or historians, covering just about everything you want to know.

 

11. A Revolt in Goguryeo: Myeongnim Dap-Bu

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.

 

  z2_cp02080094000

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.