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.)

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.

Interlude 3: So You Think You Can Rule A Country? Being King.

Thanks to the work of your ancestor, a dynasty has been established, and now you find yourself being next in line for the throne. This does not necessarily mean that you are the son of the previous king, since it was also quite common for the throne to go from older brother to younger brother, but in any case, there is a lot of work to do. Here are some things to expect when you’re expecting the crown.

  1. Most People Will Never Know Your Name
    His fatherly gaze graces the South Korean 10,000 won bill, and his statue welcomes people in the downtown area of Seoul. He is one of the most famous kings of Korea, inventor of Hangeul and image of national pride. He is much beloved, very revered, and widely respected, the great, magnificent, King “Do.”
    “Sejong” was never called “Sejong” in his lifetime. Like other kings, he had many names. In addition to a person’s name, there is their childhood name, their intimate name, and that’s only when they’re alive. After you, king, pass away, you will be given a posthumous name and title, and sometimes a temple name if your country is Buddhist. That is why Chinese and Korean history is full of kings named ‘Taejong’ or ‘Taejo,’ which was a title meaning ‘great ancestor’ or ‘great progenitor.’ So “Sejong” was part of the king’s posthumous title, which was 世宗莊憲英文睿武仁聖明孝大王 Sejong Jangheon Yeongmun Yemu Inseong Myeonghyo the Great. You’ll be forgiven for simply using the name “Sejong”.
    The last kings of Goguryeo, Baekje and Goryeo did not receive posthumous names, because their dynasty perished before they did. And during the Joseon dynasty, two rulers were denied the posthumous names and even the title of ‘king’ because of political intrigues.

  2. You will spend a long time in otherworldly business.
    In a way, as King, you are responsible for the safety of your people and the success of the harvest. But rather than physically toil the fields, your responsibility means being in contact with the spirit world and Heaven to keep things running smoothly. Kings occupy a position between the world of man and the world of the gods and spirits. As such, you will be heading a lot of rituals in court. The most famous example is the oracle bones of China’s Shang Dynasty (1600 BCE-1046 BCE). One of the functions of the King back then was to divine the will of Heaven by reading the bones of sacrificial animals. Though subsequent dynasties, and other countries, things were more specialized, the position of King and Emperor as liaison to the spirit world colored a lot of the rituals you will perform.Now any good Confucian will tell you that, no, of course spirits don’t exist, and even if they did, they are irrelevant. That’s not what ritual is about. Rituals are a means through which we can symbolically express our deepest desires as individuals and as a society. Rituals connect ruler and subject, bring together communities, and form a vast and profound link between past, present and future. Rituals are what make us human.
    Any good shaman will tell you to shut your mouth before a spirit overhears your blasphemy.

  3. You will be a time-keeper.
    The world may not revolve around you, but the calendar will. The way historians will record the history of your reign based on your name and the year of your rule. So if 2014 is the second year of your rule, records will be written as (Your Name) (2).
    Some kings will sometimes choose to assign ‘era names.’ An Emperor will designate a special name for his era, signifying the Emperor’s accomplishment or hopes for their rule, sometimes with great irony. Japan during World War 2, for example, had the amazingly presumptuous era name of ‘Brilliant Harmony.’ Most of the time, kings will not choose era names, instead adopting the name of the Empire that they belong to. Kings will only designate their own era names to signal their accomplishments. In Korea, only a handful of monarchs have adopted era names.
    Incidentally, Japan, the only country in the region with an  Emperor, still has era names. The current era is called Heisei, ‘achieving peace,’ and has begun since the current Emperor Akihito took the throne in 1989.

  4. You will have to take place of unpleasant business.
    A king is only as powerful as his court allows him to be. You may have recently acquired the position and may have many projects in mind to help improve the kingdom. However, the ministers, who were chosen by your predecessor, might have different ideas from you. They quite enjoy the way used to be, and will drag their heels at every turn. Worse, they might have wanted another to become king, and will be outright hostile towards you. In order to make sure you can go ahead with your plan, you will need to people the court with ministers loyal to you. What to do with the old guard?
    The humane way is to offer them a retirement package, have them leave court, probably oversee a faraway province, or just make leave them powerless to stop you. It is still common today in South Korea for a president to completely change his cabinet and let go of the previous president’s people. As you might have guessed, many rulers decided to go through more drastic means.
    In 2013, the world was shocked to hear of Kim Jong Eun ordering the execution of his uncle. Prior to that, many high ranking officials were also executed under false pretexts. What happened in 2013 was the re-enactment of a drama very common in ancient courts, the purge. That was when people suspected of being disloyal, even if that suspicion was unfounded, would be exiled or killed.
    Purges took place many times in history, but the most notorious probably took place in Korea’s Joseon dynasty and China’s Ming dynasty. History unfortunately is also full of cruelty and harshness.

7. A Match Made In Heaven: Kim Suro and Heo Hwang-Ok

It is important to remember that “The Three Kingdoms” era was named well after the kingdoms grew, prospered, and fell. At the time of their founding by Jumong, Onjo and Hyeokgeose, there was no indication that the kingdoms would become as powerful as they have. There were many other confederacies and and kingdoms around at the time that were more powerful. It was only around the 3rd or 4th century, after conquering and absorbing most other political bodies around them, that the Three Kingdoms emerged as the clear dominant powers of the region.

The Three Kingdoms were established by the end of the BCE era, but by the mid first century, around 42 CE, another would be kingdom emerged as a possible contender. It was a confederacy of six city-states, each with its own ruler, that occupied the southern regions between Baekje and Silla. Although it was absorbed into Silla before it could become a kingdom in its own right, this confederacy has left some important legacies for the peninsula and the rest of history. This was the Gaya Confederacy, divided into Daegaya, Seongsan Gaya, Ara Gaya, Goryeong Gaya,Sogay and Geumgwan Gaya. Geumgwan was the head of the confederacy, and had it’s own semi-mythological founder king.

Map_of_Gaya_-_en Gaya in relation to Baekje and Silla. Source: Wikipedia

Nine chieftains of different villages gathered to perform their annual purification rituals, when a strange sound rumbled from the mountains. This went on for a while, many people assembled to see what was going on. Then a disembodied voice called out “Is anybody here?” The chieftains called out that they were there. “Where am I?” the voice asked. “Turtle Mountain Peak!” they replied, presumably very confused. The voice told them that he was sent on a mission from heaven, and told them to dig at the peak of the mountain, singing and dancing and reciting the verse ‘Turtle, turtle, push out your head. If you do not, we will cook and eat you.” Which sounds very much like a shamanistic ritual, as these rituals usually heavily involve singing and dancing. The turtle verse is one of the oldest verses of Korea that remain intact.

The village leaders sang and danced and recited the verse as they dug into the mountain. If you’ve read the past myths the other founders, you probably know what they found at the bottom of the hole.

That’s right: an egg. Not one egg, but six. The eggs hatched and six boys emerged. They grew into adults in twelve days and became leaders of the six states of the Gaya confederacy. One of the boys, the leader of the confederacy, was Kim Suro, perhaps the first ‘Kim’ on record.

Chieftains of an older era getting a message from heaven, eggs, the number six; all of this is very similar to the founding myth of Silla about a hundred years before. The symbolism common to all these myths gives us a glimpse into the religion and beliefs of the people of ancient Korea. More than that, images like the mythical egg, heaven’s descent, and the union of man and nature are all very universal archetypes. There is also another archetype in Park Hyeokgeose’s story that will appear in King Suro’s story: the sacred marriage.

King Suro, after having ruled for a while, was met by the chiefs one day. They praised all the good work he has done, but said there was one thing missing. Wasn’t it time that the King settle down and a bride? King Suro replied, “I came down here at the command of Heaven. That I marry and have a Queen also depends on the will of Heaven; there is no need to worry.”

He ordered one of the chiefs to go to an island and another chief to stay at a nearby island. They did as they were told, not exactly knowing why. One day they saw a red sail far away in the sea. A ship was approaching, and the chiefs raced to greet the passanger, believing this is why the king had ordered them to stay on these islands. There they saw the person on board of the ship was a woman. Asked to follow them back to the palace, the woman quite sensibly said that she would not follow strangers.

So the King would have to greet the woman by himself. He left his palace and set up a regal tent close to where her ship had landed. One day, when she was resting from her long journey, she saw the tent. The King was out to greet her, and the same woman who refused to follow the chiefs now somehow willingly entered the tent with King Suro.

The ministers left the two alone, and King Suro and the woman enjoyed the night together. She told him her name was Heo Hwang-ok, and she came from the faraway land of Ayuta, which many historians think is actually Ayodha, a kingdom in India (anyone familiar with Indian mythology knows the importance of Ayodha, the birthplace of the famous hero and god, Rama.) Hwang-ok leaned in and whispered her secret to the King: Her parents had had a dream where the Emperor of Heaven told them that a man named Suro was founding a kingdom, and that they should send their daughter to marry him. So Hwang-ok departed on her journey. And as soon as she saw the regal tent and the king, she knew that she had found her king, and that’s why she followed him.

The only other records we have of Gaya are in relation to the other Three Kingdoms. The confederacy allied itself with different kingdoms at different times, and unfortunately it was usually the wrong kingdom. First the confederacy was devastated by Goguryeo in the 4th century, punishment for allying itself against Goguryeo with the other two kingdoms. But the final death blow was in the 6th century, when, after failed Gaya-Baekje assault against Silla, the rest of Gaya was absorbed into the victorious kingdom. This was perhaps the best thing that could’ve ever happened to Silla, as we shall see a man from  Gaya was instrumental in bringing about the end of the Three Kingdoms period.

Before that, the Gaya confederacy enjoyed some economic power. The reason for that is the region of the confederacy was rich in iron. The people had skill in smelting and making of iron, and traded heavily with Baekje and Japan.  An important legacy of Gaya is also the inspiration for a much beloved traditional Korean instrument, the Gayageum.

Kayagumplayer2  Source: Wikipedia

There is much interest in the 21st century in understanding more about the history of Gaya. There was a similar movement in the 20th century; one, however, which had much more sinister motives.

There was a belief that Gaya was actually a Japanese outpost named Miamana. There were two sources for this story: one was a strange inscription on the Stele in the honor of King Gwanggaeto (more later) which said that the Japanese occupied the southern regions of Korea. Japan’s own Nihonshiki, an ancient record of historical and mythological events, talked about an Empress named Jingu sailing to the Korean peninsula and conquering the shores of Gaya.

Japan and Gaya enjoyed a very good relationship, but  it was one of political alliance, not a relationship of conqueror and  conquered. The records of the Stele with the part about Japan is very dubious, some even say it was a forgery. And the name of Jingu has been removed from the list of historical Emperors and Empresses. That did not stop people in the early 1900s, where there was a movement that claimed that the story of Mimana proved that part pf the peninsula was once Japanese territory. This blatant  piece of propaganda was used as justification for the takeover of Korea. An ancient kingdom which had disappeared more than a thousand years before became a pawn in the rigged game of Imperialism.

All these troubles would come much later, for now, the Samguk Yusa will give King Suro and Queen Hwang-ok their happy ending. The King and Queen got married, they set up their new government and “Thereupon [he] ruled his country like his own household and loved his people like his own children. His instructions were not strict yet carried weight, and his rule was not harsh but fitting. Therefore, the pairing of the king and queen was like the pairing of Heaven and Earth, the sun and moon, and yin and yang.” (Sources of Korean Tradition Vol 1 p. 17)

Interlude 2: So You Think You Can Found A Dynasty?

So there you are, leader of a small clan surrounded by other city-states trying to get you to submit to their authority as well as hostile nomads raiding your storehouses of grain. Classic situation, am I right? But one day, you decide that you want something more for yourself and your clan. And, after negotiating or conquering the other tribes and city-states around you, you find yourself with a territory that extends into regions much larger than your own clan, regions you’ve probably never visited before. Congratulations, you’ve become the leader of a kingdom! What’s next?

You’ve probably founded your own dynasty. For the next years, decades or- if you’re lucky- centuries, your family members will be in charge of the place. And to help your dynasty’s odds of survival, there are a few things you need to do.

  1. Establish a Myth
    As a founder of the dynasty, you will become a god. You are the link between heaven and earth and the world of humans. Kings after you will perform ancestor rites and will have a visit to your grave for worship at least once during their reign, preferably at the beginning, to get your favor. That means you’d better have an impressive story to make people believe you’ve got a link to the supernatural world. We’ve seen the myths of Dangun, Jumong and Hyeogkeose, with their direct connection to the gods and the spirit world. The exception to this was Onjo, and that’s because Baekje worshiped Jumong as their ancestral founder.
    But your myth doesn’t have to be so explicitly otherworldly. In China, most founders of dynasties justified themselves by saying that natural disasters means Heaven was displeased with the way things were, and your success was Heaven’s sign of approval As time goes on, new founders would use more moral mythologies than anything purely supernatural.
  2. Build your court.
    You’ve built your kingdom by absorbing other tribes and city-states around you. This could involve warfare and conquest, but more often than not other means are used to achieve this goal. Sometimes village chieftains and clan leaders will submit to you in order to be part of your kingdom. Perhaps the most common way of getting people on your side is marriage. Jumong married Sosuneo to get the tribes on his side. And we shall see later that the founder of Goryeo will marry 29 women of different tribes in order to consolidate his power. Being the founder of a dynasty is a full time job.
    But once you’ve started your kingdom, you need a system to keep things running smoothly. That’s the function of your court, and the ministers in court have the privileged position of being able to advise you on what to do next. The court will have two branches: military and civil. At the beginning, a single minister will probably have to do both functions, but as your kingdom expands, the functions of court will become more complex and specialized. Beware though, the military and civil ‘literati’ court ministers do not like one another. This will have many repercussions in the future. But for now, there is a more pressing question: who should people your court?
    The leaders who submitted to your authority will expect things in return. That is to say, they want to become part of the court. Even chieftains of conquered tribes. And it is a good idea to let them. Since you’re still consolidating your kingdom, and people might be a little sore about losing their autonomy, any slights or insults could trigger rebellions or secession. A problem that most leaders will face at the beginning of their reign.
  3. Consolidating versus Expanding
    Your reign will probably start off a little rocky. There will be a lot to do. Most founders, who do things out of love of glory, will probably think that ‘doing a lot’ means expanding their kingdom and claiming as many people and territories as possible. Although expanding is an important part of the job, if you’re a little too enthusiastic about expansion, your kingdom will probably lose most of the land you’ve acquired after you pass away. Your heirs will simply not be able to keep the land without consolidation, as rebellions and revival movements (that is, people wanting to bring back the old rule) will overwhelm your kingdom that got too big too fast.
    Just because you’ve got a tribe on your side, doesn’t mean that things will be stable. There is a lot to nation building, and you need the people to become integrated into your kingdom. This will involve lots of projects, both physical and cultural.
    A common physical project that most rulers of vast territories will undertake is building roads or building canals. This seems like the most obvious thing: if people are disconnected from you and the capital, away from economic or cultural activity, frustrations arise. A more Machiavellian reason for networks is that you can send ministers loyal to your cause to preside over faraway villages, which has the double advantage of having the region under your control, and making sure a charismatic minister doesn’t have too much influence in court.
    As for cultural consolidation, this is a good time to exercise mercy. Have people loyal to your cause by granting favors and amnesties. If your kingdom has an official religion, like Buddhism will in the Goryeo or the later Three Kingdoms period, building temples and uniting the people with religious symbolism will help you a lot.
    Whatever your projects, make sure that it integrates the people both physically and symbolically, and that will drastically reduce the risks of rebellions causing strife across the land.
  4. Define the relationship
    In East Asia, the relationship between countries is a very important part of politics. The countries around you will fall under one of three kinds of relationships: tributary, equal, and barbarians. If you’re close to a strong country that has had a long lasting civilization, you might consider becoming a tributary of that state. What that means is that you will submit to the authority of that country. Which sounds crazy, why should you give up this country that you’ve fought so hard to establish? Subservience to the bigger state means that you will receive protection, help in times of need, and get connected to a larger network of countries that are also tributaries of that country. In return, you need to offer “tribute” by giving gifts (the country is obliged to return a gift much larger than what you’ve given) and visiting the emperor of that country and offering ritual submission, the infamous “kow-tow.” It’s a pretty good deal, all things considered. It goes without saying that China was the empire most countries paid tribute to for most of East Asian history, but these relationships, like many other things, was very fluid.
    Relationship of equals just means that you acknowledge the presence the other state, usually a neighbor, without offering tribute to it. This will involve a lot of trade and cultural exchange, as well as keeping up to date about the affairs of the state. Japan and Korea shared this kind of relationship. In fact, when Japan went into its period of isolation, the leaders relied on Korea to get news about the outside world.
    The rest? Barbarians. Culturally inferior people and nomads who are not worth acknowledging. Who cares about them? (Your descendants will care. A lot. Once these “Barbarians” realize they can also consolidate power and form their own states and empires.)
    What about having others be tributary to you? Then you’d want to declare yourself an empire. Tibet, Vietnam, Japan, and Korea have all declared themselves an empire at some point in history, mostly as a symbolic way of affirming their independence. Others  took up the mantle of empire, like the Jurchens, Manchurians, Khitans and Mongolians, as a way to signal their intention of invading China. The result was the Jin, Qing, Liao and Yuan dynasties. If you really want to start off your dynasty by antagonizing most of the known world, good luck. Most countries don’t even touch the ’empire’ issue until they’re well established.

With these few simple guidelines, you should ensure that your new kingdom will survive and even prosper for many years to come. Next time, let’s look at what will happen to the kings that will follow you.