20. Expanding of Territories: King Gwanggaeto The Great

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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.

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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.

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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.

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19. The Roots of Learning: King Sosurim

When King Gogukwon took that fatal arrow from Baekje’s crown prince in 371, it was the final blow in a series of unfortunate events for the monarch.

The Murong Xianbei tribe, once content to be loyal to the Jin Dynasty of a fractured China, were growing in both land and ambition. Their state of Former Yan had already clashed with Goguryeo before. Although these ended up amounting to nothing more than a few border skirmishes, the Murong staged an all out assault in 342. They invaded and pillaged the capital of Hwando. They looted the city, and took the royal family hostage. Although Gogukwon escaped, the Murong clan went to the royal tombs and dug up the remains of the king’s father,the former King Micheon, holding it for ransom. Humiliated, King Gogukwon sent his brother to the Murong Xianbei and begged them to return their mother and their father’s corpse. The insult, not to mention the damage from the actual attack, caused a major blow to the infrastructure and pride of Goguryeo.

By the 350s the leader of the Xianbei Murong Jun declared himself Emperor. Former Yan now had control over much of the northern regions of China. But the empire itself would only last about 20 years, and in 370 Yan was absorbed into another up and coming dynasty. Yet even that Empire succumbed within a few decades. Suffice the say the northern territories were undergoing profound changes. Not only on the geo-political levels, but culturally as well. Perhaps the most significant and long lasting cultural event was the introduction of a religion that had only been a minor presence in the Han Dynasty.

According to legends, Han Emperor Ming of the 1st Century AD dreamed of a mysterious foreign god. His advisers told him about a sage from the Western world. The Emperor sent his vassals to inquire about the teachings of this long deceased sage: Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. Emperor Ming ordered the construction of the White Horse Temple, the first Buddhist monastery in China.

Although the religion remained in China, it did not play a particularly significant role in the Han dynasty. The dominant ideology was Confucianism. The Confucians regarded the seemingly otherworldly ideas of Buddhism with disdain, even repulsion. The idea of leaving one’s family and renounce the world was anathema to Confucian teachings. But after the collapse of the Han, other religions, philosophies and schools of thought were allowed breathing space to develop and expand. The teachings and aesthetics of Buddhism were particularly appealing to the northern would be Chinese dynasties, as the rich art and sculpture from that era attests. Emperors and monarchs even had a particular zeal for the religion fo the Buddha. The Emperor of a dynasty called former Qin was, Fu Jian, was a particularly devout Buddhist who sent missionaries to  neighboring countries. That is, when he wasn’t busy conquering them. As he did with the state of Former Yan, the Murong Xianbei state, in 370.

A year after the Murong Xianbei fell to former Qin, Goguryeo’s attempts at southward expansion were met with resistance by Baekje. In a retaliatory strike, the King Geunchogo and his son attacked the new Goguryeo capital of Pyeongyang, and King Gogukwon was killed in the battle. Such was the situation that King Sosurim found himself in when he ascended the throne in 371.

Sosurim’s plan was to transform Goguryeo. And he had perhaps as profound an impact on the country as King Taejo did when he organized the districts of the kingdom. In fact, he continued the former king’s project and further centralized power and authority. In order to achieve this, he enacted 3 major, history-changing reforms.

One of Fu Jian’s many missionaries reached the court of Goguryeo a little after the King Sosurim assumed power, In 372, a monk named Ando was sent as a sign of good will between the two countries. King Sosurim seemed particularly intrigued by the religion, as he even sent requests for more monks and teachers. He ordered the building of the first Buddhist temple. And thus Buddhism had reached the Korean peninsula for the first time. From a loose connection of myths and shamanistic practices, Goguryeo now had a universal system and metaphysics that enjoyed great popularity and inspired devotion.

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The same year, another philosophy made its way to the peninsula, one that would become increasingly important in further centuries. King Sosurim ordered the building of the ‘Tae Hak’ (“Great Learning”), a Confucian academy to train the elites in both martial and literary arts. This college taught the nobles literacy in Chinese characters, the ancient Confucian classics, as well as the skills of archery and horseback. More importantly, it provided a means of giving the nobles a common education to unite them together. Since one of the chief virtues of Confucianism is loyalty, no doubt this was attractive to the court as well.

How much of a role did Confucianism play? Not much. Although the ideals and principles of the philosophy made their way into society, Buddhism was the dominant ideology in much of the Three Kingdoms. It won’t be until the 14th century Joseon that Neo-Confucianism, a 10th century variant of Confucius’ teaching, would dominate.

Finally, Sosurim introduced the first official code of law in 373. Previously, Goguryeo’s laws were a series of prescriptions and regulations, with each village loosely following their own code. The Yul-Lyeong, as the code of law was called, provided an official series of rewards and punishments that every district of Goguryeo had to follow. Not much is known of the laws themselves, but they can be considered as the prototype for other laws in the later Korean dynasties.

King Sosurim died in 384, for the rest of his rule he had to deal with attacks from Baekje and the northern tribes of the Khitan, but his ten years or so of reign were relatively stable. He managed to unite the various political and cultural ideas of the time and synthesize it into something unique, something that become a permanent part of Goguryeo’s identity. It is little wonder that most states at that time chose to centralize following a vague prototype of the Chinese Imperial system, for such centralizing was a way of boosting the strength of a kingdom. Goguryeo is a great example of this. From the walled cities of almost 400 years before, Goguryeo, thanks to King Sosurim’s project, was about to enter its Golden Age.

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.

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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).

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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.

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(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.)

17. Riches To Rags and Back Again: King Micheon

In 293, a young boy named Eulbol had to make the tough decision of leaving his old life behind. This wasn’t a decision made lightly, since he was fleeing for his life. His uncle, the Goguryeo king Bongsang, had Eulbol’s father executed under false charges of treason. A year before, Bongsang had his uncle executed under similar pretenses, an act that made the king very unpopular. With all these family members suddenly turning traitors despite themselves, Eulbol knew he couldn’t stay in the palace.

Hi self-imposed exile did save his life, but Eulbo fell from one misfortune into another. He got a job working for a local lord named Eummo. The man, known for his bad temper, had no idea who the young prince was and had the boy work without rest. Eulbol spent his days performing errands and at night he camped near the pond outside of Eummo’s house, throwing stones in the pond to keep frogs from waking his master up. After a year Eulbo had had enough and escaped.

The boy then went on to become a salt merchant. Salt was an important commodity for the community and the provisions had to be well taken care of.  So when an old woman went to Eulbo and asked for double portions, he turned her down. Infuriated, she put a shoe in the salt merchant’s bag, and he left without knowing what he was carrying. The old woman called the local lord and accused Eulbo of stealing her shoes, who was lashed and forced to pay the woman in salt the value of her shoes.

Things didn’t get better. Eulbol’s clothes ragged, his skin dried form the sun, the stress of poverty making him completely unrecognizable, he lived seven years in this way, forgetting himself and his old life. In the year 300, he a visitor found him and changed the course of his life.

During the years of Eulbol’s exile, King Bongsang continued to kindle the resentment of his subjects. Already unpopular enough, the King seemed completely oblivious to this fact when he ordered every man and woman over fifteen to repair and decorate his palace. The prime minister Changjori pointed out that there was a famine in the country, and that the king’s orders were putting too much strain on the people. The King replied that, on the contrary, he was building a palace because seeing the ruler in such a beautiful place would inspire the people, and this whole endeavor was completely altruistic. Heaven forbid that the king would actually enjoy the noble sacrifice he was making.

Unimpressed, Changjori retorted, “If a ruler does not cherish his people, he cannot be worthy. If an official does not admonish you, he is not loyal. While I am Prime Minister of State, I must speak out, how would I dare deny you praise?”

“Do you want to die for the people?” The King scoffed. “I hope you will not mention this again.” Just like Myeongnim Dappu before him, Changjori started a plot to overthrow the unworthy king.

The first thing a successful revolt needs to do is to avoid a power vacuum, so Changjori had to make sure there was someone to replace Bongsang. The problem was that the best potential candidate had disappeared seven years earlier. So the Prime Minister sent two loyal ministers to search for Eulbol. One of the ministers stopped in front of the Biryu river, where he spotted a boat drifting by. Although the man in the boat was older and more wizened, the minister recognized him as Eulbo. The minister bowed and said, “now as the king is without principles, the Prime Minister of State and high officials secretly plot to remove him. Because you are a royal grandson and your deportment is restrained and humane and you love the people, you ought to inherit the dynastic throne. Therefore we have been sent to respectfully welcome you.”

Eulbol was still suspicious of anyone from court. “I am an ordinary person and not a king’s grandson. Please go search again.”

“The present king has lost the people’s trust for a long time,” the minister insisted. “And clearly is not of the caliber to be king. Therefore most officials sincerely hope you will become King. Please do not harbor any doubts.”

Eulbol agreed and hid in a house by orders of the Prime Minister. In Autumn of that year, the King and his ministers went on a hunting trip. In the forest Changjori placed a reed in his hat and turned to the others. “All those who have the same mind as me, do as I do.” Every minister followed suit. The coup was over, and the ministers placed the King under house arrest. Knowing his time was over, King Bongsang and his sons committed suicide. And so in the year 300 Eulbol  became fifteenth king of Goguryeo, known in history as King Micheon.

After Goguryeo lost the war against Wei, the country was slowly recovering. The two kings before Bongsang- Jungcheon and Seocheon- kept the country running steadily after the devastating defeat. Across from Goguryeo in China the Jin dynasty had been keeping things relatively stable in the post-Han Empire collapse, but an intense conflict called the War of the 8 Princes significantly weakened the dynasty. Tribes and smaller countries vying for power were now free to pursue their own agenda, starting the massively confusing Six Dynasties and Sixteen Kingdoms period in China.  King Micheon would be one of those people engaged in the world politics of the time.

Two years after he took the throne, King Micheon led an army of 30,000 to attack Xuantu/Hyeondo, one of he Han Commanderies. The Commandery stood only in name for about a decade till it was completely invaded. In 313, King Micheon annexed the Lelang/Nangnang Commandery. After the two campaigns, and the culture and economy of the Commanderies were absorbed into Goguryeo. Most importantly, it ended almost 400 years of Chinese (Han and post-Han) presence in the peninsula. No other Chinese dynasties would occupy land there again, though not for lack of trying.

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A painting from the Anak Tomb, believed to be either King Gogukwon (another Goguryeo King), the last governer of Lelang who lived in Goguryeo afterwards, or King Micheon himself.

 

The Sixteen Kingdoms were predominantly from the northern tribes collectively known as the Wu Hu, counted amongst them were the steppe people who were one of the Han Dynasty’s major enemies, and believed to be distant relatives to the Huns who were ravaging Europe at roughly the same time, the Xiongnu. Another major player were the Xianbei. They were an ancient group occupying the regions of Inner Mongolia who had branched off into groups, like the Murong, Tuoba, Shiwei, Rouran and Khitan (look out for this name again, in about six hundred years time). The Murong Xianbei joined Cao Wei and Goguryeo in their attack against the Gongsun family, and again joined Cao Wei in the war against Goguryeo. In 285, Murong Hui took power, and his many campaigns involved a crippling attack against Buyeo, Goguryeo and Baekje’s ancestral lands. Goguryeo was quite familiar with the Murong Xianbei.

Although not part of the Sixteen Kingdoms, Goguryeo as a major power of the region, was intricately involved with the politics. The Murong were also seen as a possible threat. And so, according to the Samguk Sagi, when a Chinese official named Cui Bi and the other Xianbei had a secret meeting to overthrow the Murong, Goguryeo joined the plot. They formed an alliance to attack the Murong stronghold.  But Murong Hui had his own plan, and he had a banquet prepared for the Rouran at the exclusion of the others. Thinking they were double crossed,  Goguryeo and the other troops withdrew.

Cao Bi fled to Goguryeo but was soon captured.  Murong Hui sent his sons to attack Goguryeo, but the two countries managed to arrive at a truce.  The war between Goguryeo and the Xianbei was momentarily averted.

From a young boy who spent his childhood selling salt and keeping frogs away, King Micheon grew up to change the fate and geography of his region. He died in 331, and was buried by a land called the Beautiful (Mi) Stream (Cheon), where his posthumous name comes from. But even though he was dead and buried, it wouldn’t be the last time King Micheon would meet the Xianbei.

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Another picture from the Anak Tombs.

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.