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.

 

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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.

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11. A Revolt in Goguryeo: Myeongnim Dap-Bu

During the reign of King Taejo of Goguryeo, there were five powerful clans. These were the Sono-bu (the former ruling family), Gyeru-bu(current ruling family starting from Taejo),Gyanna-bu, Hwanna-bu and Yeonno-bu. Taejo attempted to centralize his authority by bringing the head of those family under his rule in court. This was largely successful, but also had the side effect of factionalism, a problem that would plague the courts of many dynasties.

Taejo had an incredibly long reign. So long that Taejo’s brother Suseong, was getting annoyed by his sibling’s insistence on staying alive. With the aid of the Sono, Gyanna and Hwanna families, Suseong gathered his own faction to start plotting a revolt bent on overthrowing Taejo. When the king had heard of this, he decided to abdicate the throne to Suseong. The ministers were against this idea, among them one of the highest ranking ministers, Bokjang, who warned his king that disaster would fall upon the descendants of Taejo if the king were to give up his power.

In the year 146, Taejo passed the crown down to his brother, later known as King Chadae. Chadae enacted a brutal purge. Bokjang was one of his first victims. He went to the execution ground with the lament “I only regret that our former King did not take my advice, so that matters have reached this pass… Rather than live in such an age of unrighteousness, I had better die quickly.” People were appalled at the news of the loyal minister’s death.

Next on Chadae’s list were people of the royal family, including Taejo’s sons. Taejo and Chadae’s brother, sensing the situation was getting too dangerous, secluded himself up in the mountains.

People who were ready to join Chade’s revolt were given high positions in court. And, naturally enough, the families that had not supported the king were treated unfavorably. What happened exactly is not entirely certain, but it’s safe to assume that the other families were excluded from power and generally lost a lot of status. One of these clans, the Yeonno, seemed to have been in a particularly bad situation.

From this Yeonno clan a particularly humble person stepped up to the game. Goguryeo had 10 ranks at the time, and this man was close to the bottom in the 9th rank. He had managed to make a name for himself during the reign of Taejo. But now the situation had changed and his position, perhaps even his life, was threatened. The man, whose name was Myeongnim Dap-bu, decided that something had to be done.

Myeongnim Dap-bu stated that he could not bear to see the people suffering under the unjust king. He found some ministers and clan members, who were also facing hardship under Chadae’s reign, and in 165 CE, almost twenty years after Chadae had taken power, Myeongnim Dap-bu organized a coup d’etat. He then assassinated the king. Nobody seemed to have reacted negatively to this event.

In order to avoid a power vacuum cause too many problems, the ministers had to act fast. They sought out the brother who had hidden himself up in the mountains back to court. He then became the king Sindae.

King Sindae’s power came entirely from a revolt that had overthrown his brother, and so he tried to not repeat the same mistakes as the former king. His reign started in a conciliatory tone. He issued an edict that acknowledged his debt to the ministers who called him to powers. “How could I imagine that the people would happily endorse me? Or that many ministers would urge me to accept the throne?” And so, “together with my people. I shall reform myself to bring about a great amnesty throughout the kingdom.”

This amnesty extended to those who had supported the previous king. Chadae’s son, who had already fled after the revolt fearing for his life, was forgiven, and the families who had supported Chadae’s rise to power were largely forgiven.

But Sindae knew that he owed the largest debt to Myeongnim Dap-bu. In fact, Sindae showed so much gratitude to the leader of the revolt that an entirely new position in court was created for Myeongnim Dap-bu. Earlier there was a junior and senior councilor who acted as the highest positions in court. Now Sindae merged the two into one position. The name of the position was Guk-sang which is usually translated in English as ‘Prime Minister.’

The history book that records all this, the Samguk-sagi, gets a little bizarre with the dates at this time. The ages in the text are for the most part fairly consistent, but it seems like in the 2nd century, every major figure starts living to incredibly old ages. Taejo dies at age 119, and Myeongnim Dap-bu is said to have become prime minister at 99 years old. There was either something very good in the water of Goguryeo, or the records have some inconsistencies in them. Suffice to say, Myeongnim Dap-bu was not a young man when he had taken power.

With the help of the prime minister, and thanks to Sindae’s magnanimous stance towards the factions, Goguryeo navigated a coup d’etat and government reform with very few internal difficulties.

Externally, there was a problem that had been harassing Goguryeo since Taejo’s time: the Han Empire. Conflicts arose periodically between the two countries, especially by proxy of one of the commanderies. And in 172, the armies were once again approaching Goguryeo.

 

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Mural of a Goguryeo warrior. Source

Sindae’s ministers met in order to decide what to do. Most people there agreed that, despite the large numbers that the Han Empire could muster, they had no choice but to face their enemy in battle. Most people nervously agreed. “If we do not go out and fight, they will consider us to be cowrds and will invade repeatedly.”

The Prime Minister had another idea, though. Myeongnim Dap-bu agreed that they had to do something, but also reasoned that it would be impossible for their army to go against such a big number. He suggested another strategy to win the battle, called the “Clear Field Strategy”.

The “Clear Field Strategy”-청야전술 in Korean- was a way of weakening an advancing army before the battle even starts. Since armies needed a lot of food supplies to support their campaign, advancing troops would use the wells and fields of the land around them to keep their supplies up. Myeongnim Dap-bu and his troops were to “clear the fields”- burning any crops and blocking any wells- between the Han army’s camp and the walled fortresses of Goguryeo. The aim was to stop enemy troops from being able to refill their food supply, thereby weakening the enemy before they could even reach their target. A kind of scorched earth tactic.

The Han army was thus unable to reach their target with enough food, and was forced to retreat. At a field in the Manchurian regions named Jwa-won, the army of Myeongnim Dap-bu attacked the retreating Han army and defeated them.

What happened exactly during and after this conflict is unknown. Because Han records make no mention of any battle at Jwa-won. If the battle actually took place, then it must have been inconsequential for the Empire, since, as we shall see later, the Han had much bigger problems to deal with at the end of the 2nd century.

The victory was felt in Goguryeo. And the Clear Field Strategy would become part of Korea’s defensive repertoire in the many battles that the peninsula would face from outside enemies.

Myeongnim Dap-bu died in 179. King Sindae was so distressed to lose his prime minister and confidant that he ordered a seven day mourning period. The new position of Prime Minister, in one form or another, would also play a pivotal role in court politics. And so Myeongnim Dap-bu rose from the lowest ranks in court to completely change the face of his country.

3. Gojoseon Falls: King Ugeo

By the 4th century BCE, Gojoseon had reached its height of power, pushing its way north into Manchuria, thanks to a new super weapon that was about to shake the ancient world: iron. Although still not completely developed, it allowed not only new modes of fighting and improved weapons, but also changed society at home. The rulers of Gojoseon adopted the title of “king” which proved their political power at the time. The Chinese state of Yan got fed up with what they perceived to be Gojoseon’s arrogance, and they attacked, greatly weakening the country. It would take a few hundred years, but in the 2nd century BCE, King Ugeo found himself ruling a country that was regaining its lost power, thanks to the work of his grandfather and old enemies.

Although Yan managed to defeat Gojoseon, the state itself was part of a time of great upheval, and was eventually absorbed into the greater empire of Qin (where the word ‘China’ comes from). Great Empire that it was, it didn’t manage to hold power for more than a few decades, when it was overthrown by the Han. All this political turmoil meant that a lot of people were caught in intrigue, and scores of refugees were escaping the new Han Empire.

One such person observing the state of affairs was Gojoseon’s King Jun. He accepted a lot of these refugees into his kingdom as his subjects. He sent a general, Wiman, to fortify the borders against all this chaos. Wiman is said to have been a refugee from Yan, who had assimilated into Gojoseon, adopting the traditional dresses and top-knot style, but like most biographies of this era it is up for debate. Either way, Wiman’s power base of refugees had given him the opportunity to overthrow King Jun, who escaped at the southernmost parts of the Korean peninsula to a people called the Jin (not to be confused with Jin of China…or Jin of China again…or Jin of the Jurchens…or Later Jin of the Manchurians…Jin was an awfully popular name for a country). King Jun would have an important role to play in that country, but more on that later. For now, Wiman was in charge.

With his military capabilities and economic strength, Wiman invaded the tribes surrounding Gojoseon and began expanding right by the Han borders. By now iron became a mainstay in his power. The relationship between Gojoseon and Han was tense, to say the least, as the two did not enjoy being so close to one another. And this was the situation that Ugeo inherited when he became king.

Things continued on thier way, Wiman and his son ruled without much incidence, and then when King Ugeo reached the throne, his kingdom had grown so powerful that it blocked other tribes and countries from being able to trade with the Han Empire. The Emperor of Han, Wu, tried to find a way to appease this bothersome country, and sent an envoy called She-He to request an audience with King Ugeo. This audience would not happen, and She-He was escorted back to Han. He did go back, but not before killing his Gojoseon escort in frustration, a move that is generally frowned upon by most schools of diplomacy.

Emperor Wu showed similar lack of diplomatic skills when Gojoseon demanded that She-He be brought to justice. Instead, Wu gave She-He rewards and titles. This was too much, and King Ugeo would show just how he felt about this by sending troops to go and kill She-He. The situation had reached its end point, and the conflict between Han and Gojoseon, many decades in the making, had begun.

Emperor Wu’s plan was to overwhelm the Gojoseon forces from land and sea. 50,000 sailed towards the country, while another group were advancing through land. They were both led by two of Emperor Wu’s generals with a similar objective: to capture the Gojoseon capital of Wanggeom. King Ugeo sent his army to the mountains to stop the troops from reaching the country. Meanwhile, the ships had landed, and the troops marched towards the capital. They were quickly repelled and admiral fled. The first wave of attacks had failed.

The two countries attempted peace negotiations, but looking back at the She-He incident, its obvious that diplomacy was not the strong point of these two monarchs. The battle resumed, and Wanggeom was now under siege. Frustrated by the lack of progress, Emperor Wu sent another general to take command of the army and attacks became more powerful and more concentrated. King Ugeo and his soldiers were able to repel attack after attack, but things were already starting to crumble- politically speaking- on the inside. Some ministers in court suggested that surrender was the best option. The strain of a siege, and such a long war, no doubt had some terrible consequences to the people and the land. What’s more, Emperor Wu was a capable military leader who had expanded his empire and fought successfully many wars already. How much longer could they hold out?

Four ministers presented their case for giving up.Perhaps it was due to stubbornness, perhaps because he thought things had gone too far to turn back now, or perhaps because he believed they actually had a chance of winning the battle, King Ugeo refused surrender. The attacks on Wanggeom the king managed to fend off, but he ignored this new pro-Han faction at his peril. Because in 108 BCE, one of the pro-Han ministers had defected, and went back to Gojoseon in order to have the king assassinated.

King Ugeo was dead, but his ambitions lingered on. A minister named Seong gi took controls and continued the war. It was already too late by then. Seonggi was also assassinated and Wanggeom, the city named after Dangun Wanggeom, had fallen. In the year 108 BCE, Gojoseon was no more.

Emperor Wu did not invade the country. Instead, he set up four commanderies around the former lands of Gojoseon. These commanderies were major towns run by Han ministers who would report back tot he Emperor and keep an eye out on the activities of over tribes. One of the reasons they were set up was to make sure no other tribe or city would grow too powerful. They would eventually fail. But for now, the commanderies were part of the Korean peninsula, something the people of the land greatly resented.

With Gojoseon gone, other kingdoms in the peninsula were about to flourish. Jin, the country that housed King Jun after he escaped Wiman, had grown considerable in economic power, and transformed into the Samhan (Three Hans): Mahan, Jinhan and Byeohan. There was also the kingdom of Buyeo to the north as well as various other tribes and city states around these bigger political entities.

So with the four Han Commanderies, the Samhan, Buyeo, Okje and Ye in place, the land was ripe and ready for the next phase of Korean history known as the Three Kingdoms Period.