21. Spies, Lies and Baduk Tiles: King Gaero

21. Spies, Lies and Baduk Tiles: King Gaero

The wars between Baekje and Goguryeo’s King Gwanggaeto changed the power dynamics of the Korean peninsula. The Baekje-Wa-Gaya alliance was subdued, and Goguryeo’s ally of Silla was forced into an unfavorable situation vis a vis its supposed savior. King Gwanggaeto died in 413 at an early age, believed to be in his mid to late thirties. Unfortunately for Baekje, Gwanggaeto’s successor, King Jangsu, not only proved to be as competent a military leader as his father, he also lived to reign for about 78 years (his posthumous name “Jangsu” means “long life”). The shadow Goguryeo cast over the southern kingdoms was strongly felt.

Jangsu moved the Goguryeo capital to Pyeongyang in 427. This location put the seat of power much closer south, and this greatly unnerved Silla and Baekje. Although still allies with Goguryeo, Silla accepted Baekje’s offer of a treaty. The Silla-Baekje alliance would last for over a hundred years,and stipulated that if one of the countries was attacked by Goguryeo, the other would offer military help.

This alliance was drafted up by King Gaero’s father, and Gaero himself tried to bolster up as much help as possible when he gained power in 455. He sent his brother Gonji to live in the Wa courts of Japan to continue their relationship. He also sent emissaries to one of the Chinese kingdoms, Northern Wei. Northern Wei, however, had no intentions of antagonizing Goguryeo- in fact they were trying to improve relations with the country- and rejected the offer. Coupled with some internal power struggles between powerful clans, King Gaero had a tense political situation to deal with. And he would retreat from the hard struggles of politics with his favorite past time, baduk.

Go_board_partBaduk Stones. Source: Wikipedia

Baduk, or Weiqi, more commonly known by its Japanese name Go, is a strategy game where two players use black and white stones respectively, and try to control as much space on the board. It is to this day incredibly popular in most Asian countries. It is not an uncommon sight to see people surrounding two baduk players in a park in the afternoon. Korea in fact has a TV channel dedicated to the game.

Like most games of strategy, playing baduk at a high level creates a close bond in the players. You play a round in anticipation of their next move; they observe your behavior and enter your spirit to find any patterns. You create a trap perfectly suited for their temperament; they know you well enough that they can fool you into believing they walked into your trap. Combined with the fact that baduk games have a staggering amount of possible games, and a round of baduk can last for hours, this kind of double guessing and strategizing creates an intimate knowledge of yourself and your opponent. Deep and intense friendships arising from playing strategy games is a common motif in East Asian literature, and  likely a common occurrence in real life as well. King Gaero found such a friend in an exiled Goguryeo monk named Dorim.

Gaero and Dorim during a game of baduk, from the Seoul Lantern Festival. Source

Dorim moved to Baekje after being exiled from Goguryeo. He was also a high ranking baduk player, and when he heard of the Baekje king’s passion for the game, approached Gaero and offered, in typical humility towards a monarch, his ‘meager skills’ to amuse and entertain the king. As an expert baduk player and a man of learning, Dorim was a perfect companion for the king. The two spent their days in discussion around the baduk board.

All this was a welcome island of peace around the tumultuous politics of Baekje. Dorim expressed how grateful he was that he, a foreigner, was so accepted by the King of Baekje. King Gaero expressed that his only regret was not meeting Dorim sooner.  But this is not t say that he neglected his kingly duties either. One of the main topics the two discussed was how to improve the standing of Baekje. Dorim suggested that Baekje would strongly benefit from some internal construction, such as public works, the reconstruction of the palace, and the restoration of the former king’s tombs. King Gaero agreed, and ordered these projects be taken out. The Baekje capital of Wieryesong was absorbed in these works until the day Goguryeo troops arrived at the city walls.

King Jangsu arrived at the Baekje capital with a force of 30,000 soldiers. It was an attack from both land and sea, an assault intending to crush the capital. Jangsu had things perfectly planned, he knew the best time to strike, and he seemed to know the best places to attack. It was as if he had knowledge of the city first hand. And the knowledge he did have came thanks to the information of his spy, Dorim.

King Jangsu had Dorim exiled on the charge of false crimes. Dorim worked to gain the trust and influence of King Gaero, gathering information to report back to Goguryeo. Playing strategy with Gaero also gave Dorim insight into the Baekje king’s mind. Dorim’s suggestion to keep the people busy in public works meant that the Goguryeo attack came as a complete surprise. King Jangsu’s spy gave him the decisive upper hand.

Gaero gravely lamented the situation. Despite his good intentions, his trust in Dorim had cost him his country. He rallied the troops and began preparations to defend against Goguryeo. He summoned his son, future king Munju, and told him “I will fight to the death to protect this country, but there is no use in you dying here too. Go, protect the royal lineage.” The prince fled to  Silla to ask for help.

Goguryeo managed to invade the capital Wieryesong in 7 days. When King Gaero tried to escape, he was spotted by a Goguryeo general. Unluckily for the king, this general was a man named Jaejunggeollu, a former Baekje general who he had been exiled and defected to Goguryeo. Jaejunggeollu gave his former king first a deep bow, and then spat in his face three times. Gaero was taken as prisoner of war. The Silla reinforcements arrived too late, and Wieryesong was destroyed. Goguryeo now had control of the Han river area.

Baekje’s history is divided into three broad categories: the Wierye, Ungjin and Sabi periods. The Wierye period, which started in the early 1st century with Baekje’s founder King Onjo, ended in 477. King Gaero was executed the same year, having lost the war by the hands of a former subject and a former friend.

Where Wieryesong would have once stood. Source: Wikipedia.

20. Expanding of Territories: King Gwanggaeto The Great


Source: Wikipedia

Korea has awarded the title “The Great” to only two kings in its history. And there is an appropriate symmetry between the two. The later Great King, Sejeong of Joseon, was the philosopher king, wise ruler and inventor, creator of the Korean alphabet. The other, Gwanggaeto of Goguryeo, the great expander of territories, the victor of many battles and one of the first to unify- however temporary- the peninsula, was the warrior king.

Gwanggaeto assumed the throne in 392. Goguryeo was already experiencing a revival thanks to the reforms of the previous king Sosurim. But the kingdom still had scores to settle with their enemies in the North, the Yan dynasty of the Murong Xianbei, and their enemies in the South, Baekje.

Almost immediately after becoming king, Gwanggaeto seized Baekje’s fortresses in a push towards the south. He took over Gwanmi fortress, an important location just north of the Han river. The loss caused turmoil within Baekje and the kingdom’s King Jinsa ended up being either deposed or killed in a hunting accident (anyone familiar with East Asian history knows that there is no contradiction between the two, and “died in a hunting accident” is usually a synonym of a coup in the palace). Baekje’s next king, Ansin, tried to take back the fortress but failed. This would be the beginning of a long series of conflicts between Ansin and Gwanggaeto, with the latter always emerging victorious.

The next big battle between Baekje and Goguryeo was in 395 at a location named Paesu river. Baekje was defeated. Not being one to give up or learn a lesson, Ansin attempted another attack in the 11th month of the year, but his troops were stopped by a snowstorm. Another year, another attack. But this time Gwanggaeto not only defeated Ansin’s troops, but forced the Baekje king to sign a treaty, a treaty heavily in the favor of Goguryeo. Things were set to be stable, until in 399 Gwanggaeto received a distress call from his only ally in the south: Silla.

Silla had been watching Baekje’s growing power with concern. The alliance between Baekje, Gaya, and the Wa of Japan was a major threat to Silla, and the king sent an emissary in 392 to Goguryeo in hopes of forming an alliance of their own. After Baekje’s humiliating defeat and treaty, the kingdom called upon its allies and attacked Silla. Gwanggaeto responded, and the joint Baekje-Wa-Gaya army lost the battle. In the year 400, Baekje and Gaya were subdued, and Gwanggaeto’s troops stayed behind in Silla. The Wa and Baekje tried successive attempts at warding Goguryeo, but it was futile at that point. The influence of Goguryeo over the peninsula meant the first time a single power occupied the region which would later be called Korea.

Gwanggaeto’s influence would reach far beyond that. While moving southward, the king was also engaged in a series of campaigns in the north, sometimes within the same year as a Baekje attack. He fought against the Yan dynasty, and at a certain point the Yan split into smaller kingdoms, one of which, Northern Yan, was ruled by a descendant of one of the Goguryeo hostages that the Murong Xianbei had taken off with earlier. The king, Go-un, recognized Goguryeo as the parent country and formed a peace treaty. Gwanggaeto then took over Eastern Buyeo- because at this point, why the hell not?- which meant that by the time Gwanggaeto died at the age of 39, no doubt from sheer exhaustion caused by all the campaigns, Goguryeo had reached a size that would never be rivaled by future Korean dynasties again.


Goguryeo after Gwanggaeto and his son Jangsu were done. Source: Wikipedia

Gwanggaeto and his campaigns are the stuff of legends. Korea today, looking to a past where the country was stronger, more powerful, still romanticizes the warrior king in a series of novels, legends and TV shows. The cult around Gwanggaeto, however, started almost immediately after his death. Spearheaded by his son, King Jangsu, a steele was built in 414 to honor Gwanggaeto’s exploits. This stele, a giant monument recounting the reign of Gwanggaeto, is located so far north outside of current Korean borders that later generations assumed it belonged to a king from another country. It was only in the 19th century that the stele was rediscovered, and with enormous consequences.

The steele starts off with the founding myths of Goguryeo- from Jumong to Daemusin– and then about the wars Gwanggaeto fought and won. The controversial line describes the state of the southern peninsula in 396, and the stele says something along the lines of “the Wa crossed the sea and occupied Baekjan (a derogatory word for Baekje) and Silla.” This gave credibility to the Imperialist project of 19th century Japan, which had claimed that Korea during the three kingdoms era was part of Japanese territory, a claim they used to justify their occupation. Scholars to this day still grapple with the inscription and the meaning behind it, They have come up with many theories in the following years.


The Stele. Source: Wikipedia

 One of the earlier response was, typically, to create a conspiracy theory. The argument was that the stele inscription concerning Wa’s invasion was a forgery, inscribed in the 19th century by Japanese archaeologists. This theory has gone into disrepute, since no evidence of tampering has been found. Another theory argues over semantics, or rather syntax. The subject of the sentence “crossed the waters,” they say, does not refer to Wa, since the phrasing of the sentence is a bit obscure and some words are missing. Instead, Goguryeo is the subject of the sentence. This is yet more proof of the epoch-making importance of grammar. Award for most imaginative justification has to go to the theory, apparently popular in North Korea, that there were actually two three kingdoms (six kingdoms?): one set on the peninsula, and the other on the Japanese islands. So, the theory says, Wa invaded Silla and Baekje of Japan, not Korea. Right.

Probably the most popular theories these days explains it this way: Jangsu engaged in a bit of hyping and myth-making. This is not entirely implausible, considering the stele itself. The monument refers to Gwanggaeto’s rule with its own era name, Yeongnak (Eternal Pleasure). Era names were the privilege of emperors, who, mostly from China, were the ones who got to name the calendar of their rule, and other countries usually followed the same era name. So, it seems that at Gwanggaeto and Jangsu’s time, Goguryeo saw itself as an empire. And empires have historically  always used stories to legitimize the expansion of their power. Imperialist Japan would ironically use the stele to engage in the same tactic in the 19th century. So, while it’s known  that the Wa did live in the peninsula, as they had trading posts around the region, it would make sense that those trading posts were seen as threats the region, and a legitimate excuse to invade. Baekje and Silla, the weaker nations, needed the strong power of the Goguryeo Empire to protect it from the Wa invaders, the stele seems to be telling us.

Who knows, maybe the army of Goguryeo expected to be greeted as liberators by the people of Baekje and Silla.

18. Baekje Triumphant: King Geunchogo

After the assassination of King Bunseo by the Han Commanderies, Baekje remained relatively stable for the next forty years under King Biryu. Biryu was a relative of King Saban, the monarch whom Go-I forced to step down. From then on the two descendants, the Go-I and Saban lines, competed for kingship. Biryu took power under circumstances similar to how Saban lost his- by claiming that Bunseo’s successor was too young to rule. Biryu died in 344, and the successor took his position as King Gye. He only reigned for two years, and was the last king to be descended from Go-I. The short and uneventful reign gave way to Baekje’s most important ruler. 346 was a monumental year for Baekje, beginning its crescendo to become the super power of the peninsula, led by King Geunchogo.

For such an influential figure, the records tell us surprisingly little about the king. The Samguk Sagi only has a few entries about his reign, but every entry is a lifetime’s worth of accomplishments.

In the second year of his rule, King Geunchogo performed the sacrifices to heaven and his ancestors, and then set out on his work. He continues King Biryu’s diplomatic efforts to ally with Silla, and by 366 Silla and Baekje were regularly sending envoys to one other. Gaya and Baekje were also on good terms.

As for Goguryeo, the situation in the northern country was not going well. Goguryeo had suffered a humiliating blow from the Murong Xianbei. Since the Xianbei were pressing down from the northern regions, Goguryeo looked south to the newly unoccupied southern regions where the Daebang commaderies were. Baekje also had sights on this new land, and the two countries fought the battle of Chiyang in 369. Baekje showed an unexpected force and the Goguryeo army retreated. King Geunchogo, in a show of immense confident, plotted a counter attack in the heart of the northern kingdom. He fitted his army with imperial yellow (a color traditionally reserved for the Emperor of China) flags and, two years after Chiyang, marched an army of three hundred thousand to Pyeongyang. Two centuries earlier an army of twenty thousand was enough to intimidate the first Chogo of Baekje. Now his successor by name (the “Geun” in Geunchogo denotes second, to show his alliance with the old family line) managed to raise an army almost ten times as big.

The army attacked the Pyeongyang fortress, forcing the Goguryeo king to lead an army to repel the invaders. King Geunchogo’s son, the succeeding King Geungusu, drew his arrow and fatally wounded the Goguryeo monarch. Although Baekje retreated soon afterwards, this battle in 371 culminated in Baekje’s dominance over the region.


Although still smaller than Goguryeo, Baekje gained significant amounts of land under Geunchogo’s reign. Source: Wikipedia.

Baekje then set sights on improving ties with its neighboring countries. First order of business: China. This was a politically tumultuous era (see King Micheon’s entry for further details), and the Jin, successors to the Cao Wei, had lost a lot of land and power to the invading northern countries. In addition, the dismantling of the Han Commanderies cut them off from prospective trading and diplomatic relations with the countries to the east. So we might suppose that the Jin court warmly greeted Geunchogo’s envoys in 372. Baekje and Jin had set up official relations, Geunchogo married a woman from the Jin court, and the Jin bestowed to Geunchogo the title of “General Stabilizing the East and Administrator General of Lelang.” This put Baekje in a favorable position to step up diplomacy with another neighboring country.

Geunchogo’s most long lasting achievement might probably be his efforts to normalize relations with the Yamato (usually referred to as the Wa in Chinese and Korean historical texts), modern day Japan. Japan’s historical texts record a few instances of their alliance. One of the most famous symbols of this relation is the Seven Branched Sword, counted among Japan’s national treasures. The sword will be very familiar to anyone interested in Japanese pop culture, since it appears in many games, movies, manga and anime as a powerful weapon (although the real sword was most likely strictly ornamental).


King Geunchogo, or one of his successors, also sent the scholars Ajiki and Wang In. They brought literacy of Chinese characters to the Yamato court, and instructed them in the Confucian classics. It’s never mentioned when Baekje gained reading and writing, but it was in use, if only by an elite few, by Geunchogo’s time. In fact, Geunchogo commissioned the scholar Goheung to write a history of Baekje. The Seogi, as it was called, was the first historical text written in Korea. Sadly no remaining copies exist today.

A lot of modern historians consider the 4th century to be the beginning of the Three Kingdoms period. They mention the legends of the three founders (Jumong, Onjo and Pak Hyeokgose) in passing, and then skip a few centuries to Baekje’s expanding power. Geunchogo’s reign was a watershed moment in early Korean history. He changed Baekje’s position in the peninsula and, if there is any truth to the “Continental Baekje” theory, it might probably be because Baekje had trading outposts on the continent at the time, showing it to be an active player in the politics of the day. King Geunchogo died in 376, leaving Baekje, Goguryeo, Silla, Gaya and Japan involved in intrigues and alliances which would very quickly become the conflicts of the three kingdoms.

King Geunchogo is one of the important figures that people learn about in schools, and is featured prominently in textbooks. Because of the lack of any entries on his personal life, Geunchogo doesn’t show up in pop culture very often. There was, however, a 2010-2011 60 episode drama about Geunchogo’s life, which incorporates the Continental Baekje theories into its plot.


(As a quick aside, the Japanese and Korean historical texts get into a rather silly argument about which country was stronger. About whether Baekje sent those gifts to the Yamato court as a show of submission, or whether the Yamato court asked Baekje for help. It would seem a bit odd that a supposedly more powerful Yamato would be importing culture from a subservient country and not vice-versa. But for the most part, the two countries seemed to be on equal terms, and the arguments are on political rather than scholarly grounds.)

16. The Wrath Of Han: King Chaekgye and Bunseo

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.

i294       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.

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.

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.

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?

Solar_eclipse_1999_4_NR (1)
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.

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.