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.

Interlude 5: Red Devils and Chiwoo

Go to a football game when Korea’s team is playing, and expect to see part of the stadium light up with a blaze of red jerseys. These red-clad supporters will bang their drums and other percussion instruments, rhythmically chant the country’s name “Daehan Minguk,” all while rolling down a giant flag of Korea down the aisles. The supporters club will all be wearing similar shirts with messages and songs of victory. You’ve just witnessed the Korean football supporter team, the Red Devils.

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The name red devils originated in 1983.  It was the FIFA World Youth Championship in Mexico. The Korean team exceeded everyone’s expectations and were dubbed the red furies by the international media, based on their fiery red jerseys. This term reached Korea under the translation of 붉은악마, the red devils. People liked the name.

The actual birth of the Red Devils support team and their mascot took a large part of the 90s. In 1995 the official club itself opened, but it wasn’t until 1997 that they decided to adopt the older word ‘Red Devil.’  But any good club needs a logo and mascot, and after a long campaign to decide a character, the official image was chosen and, in 1999, during a Brazil-Korea match, fans unfurled the flag and introduced the world to the Heavnly King Chiwoo.

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The origins of Chiwoo go way back, before history and flies straight above prehistory into mythical times, the period of the 3 Sovereigns and Five Emperors. The name designates something of an Edenic Golden Age in Chinese mythology, when divine rulers and emperors ruled the world and introduced humans to various civilization building arts and tools. Most famous of these was the Yellow Emperor, a name that might be familiar with anyone who has read anything about ancient Chinese history, philosophy or even medicine.  This Emperor is considered the founder of Chinese civilization at around the year 2600 BCE.

But you don’t get to become founder of a long lasting civilization without making a few enemies along the way. As the Yellow Emperor was building his future Empire another group of tribes had similar dreams of grandeur. Conflict was inevitable, and these two groups fought a battle that is known in mythology as the Battle of Zhuolu. The contenders: The Yellow Emperor and his people, and the troops of the of  Chiwoo, the bull-headed horned tyrant who led the tribes outside of the Yellow Emperor’s sovereignty.

The records talk of an epic battle, where Chiwoo summoned fogs and winds to stop his enemies in their tricks. The Yellow Emperor also had his repertoire of magic, including his daughter the goddess of drought, who managed to go through his tricks. Eventually, the meteorologically charged battle ended with the Yellow Emperor’s victory.

Gone but not forgotten, Chiwoo managed to join the pantheon of divine beings. Sima Qian, one of the earliest historians in Chinese history, records that the first (non-mythical) Emperor of China, the Qin Emperor Qin Shi Huang, worshipped Chiwoo as the god of war. Liu Bang, founder of Qin’s successor dynasty, also performed sacrifices to Chiwoo before his decisive battle that led to the creation of his Han Empire. Chiwoo has held a significant position in the history of a lot of Eastern Asia for most of history.

But why would the supports of the Korea team use this god of war as their logo? It all hinges on the identity of Chiwoo’s tribe.  Many different groups regard Chiwoo as their own mythical king, the Hmong being an examples. Because the myths state that Chiwoo ruled over many different tribes,  there is a lot of speculation on who could claim mythical ancestry to the king. One of these tribes might have been the Dongyi, the mysterious people who would have been living close to the Korean peninsula at around the 26th century BCE.

The Red Devils obviously took this interpretation and ran with it. The official website informs us that Chiwoo became king in 2707 BCE, and ruled for 109 years as the 14th Heavenly King of Baedal, the successor state of the sacred city of Hwanguk, founded by the great Hwanung…

Wait. Hwanguk? Baedal? Hwanung? That’s right, this interpretation of Chiwoo comes from none other than our dear old friend, then Hwandan Gogi. The book has at least created some history now, even if it’s not that good at actually reporting it.

The iconography of the Heavenly King resembles the most prominent of Korea’s supernatural creatures, the Dokkaebi. These creatures, not unlike the fairy folk that dwell on the British isles, are the spirits of objects and plants come to life, and come in various shapes and sizes. They are usually mischievous, and only sometimes malicious, and you can be sure to see a dokkaebi in most folktales of Korea.  Gwangju  boasts ancient artifacts which show faces of dokkaebi, which presumably means they have been inhabiting Korea since at least the Silla period.

 

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Roof tiles from ancient Silla. Source

Ironically, dokkaebi are supposed to despise the color red.

So with the World Cup 2014 well under way, we shall have to wait and see how much of the heavenly king’s bellicose spirit the team will manage to summon.

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.

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.