21. Spies, Lies and Baduk Tiles: King Gaero

21. Spies, Lies and Baduk Tiles: King Gaero

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

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

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

Go_board_partBaduk Stones. Source: Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pungnap_Toseong
Where Wieryesong would have once stood. Source: Wikipedia.

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20. Expanding of Territories: King Gwanggaeto The Great

Damdeok

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.

Gwanggaeto_Stele

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.

Interlude 4: Shamanism in the Ancient Kingdoms

Dressed in colorful, almost androgynous garbs reminiscent of older days, surrounded by the smiling images of ancient guardian deities over the mounds of offerings dedicated to them, moved by the ecstatic clanging of drums and chants, the mudang is ready to enter into a trance. She (the majority of shamans in Korea these days are female)  will change costumes many times during the drama of gut, invoking various gods, ancient generals, and spirits while reciting old legends of resentful spirits.

Mudang_performing_a_ritual_placating_the_angry_spirits_of_the_deadA Mudang Shamaness Source: Wikipedia

  There are variations depending on region and ritual. But they all inhabit a world where humans, spirits and divinities share a common space, influencing one another for good or bad. The most common kind of exorcism the mudangs perform deals with people afflicted by spirits who have died violently or has some lingering resentment towards the world. Through the drama of suffering and singing songs that give voice to these resentments, the mudang offers  therapeutic relief to the spirit who in turn leaves the tormented person alone.

The system of shamanism that exists in Korea today has had many transformations, absorbing beliefs, historical figures and rituals as it goes through a path of suppression and revival, suppression again and revival once more. But the worldview of the shaman offers us a rare glimpse into the world inhabited by the people of the ancient kingdoms of Korea.

Two stories from Goguryeo illustrate this:

In the fourteenth year of Goguryeo’s second king (Yuri), while preparing sacrifices to Heaven, the sacrificial pig escaped into the woods.  Two ministers chased the pig, tied it down, and brought it back to the king. Yuri, furious that the ministers hurt the sacrificial pig, had them executed. Later, the King fell ill, and the shamans declared that his illness was a result of the two ministers haunting him. We’re told that he “apologized to the two men,” but the nature- or ritual- of this apology is unknown.

In 234, Lady U was on her deathbed. She was so afraid of meeting her first husband in the afterlife that she asked the people to bury her next to King Sasang, her second husband. After her death  a shaman went into  trance and said he had a vision of King Gogukcheon. The deceased king said, “Yesterday, when seeing Lady U go to King Sansang, I was not able to contain my anger and so we fought…I cannot bare facing the people. Please report to the court and block me with something.” So the people of the court planted seven rows of pine trees between King Gogukcheon and King Sansang and Lady U’s tombs. Even death couldn’t stop King Sindae’s sons from causing a whole lot of drama.

Various folk tales and songs also talk about spirits full of resentment wrecking havoc on the human world. This is a common belief all over East Asia and quite possibly might be an ancient prototype and basis of   modern horror movies and ghost stories.

Local beliefs in these spirits was not the only form of supernatural beings inhabiting the world. There was a larger belief in gods and ancestors as well. The people of the ancient kingdoms were thought to be under the influence of Heaven. This Heaven was a cosmos, the natural order of things. The kings and their subjects offered sacrifices and prayers up to heaven to keep their country in harmony with the cosmos. More personal gods existed as well, most notably the founders of the old kingdoms- Dangun of Gojoseon Jumong of Goguryeo, Suro of Gaya, and Hyeokgeose of Silla- who were all sons of gods coming to earth in order to reign over people. The states all had festivals to these founders, and kings- as the descendants of these demi-gods- were expected to offer sacrifices to their ancestor’s shrines. Most notably, the second king of Silla, Namhae set up the shrine to his father, had his sister perform rituals at the place, and  gave himself the title of “Chachaung,” which we’re told was an old Sillan word for shaman. Kings, as descendants of these gods, thus had the shaman’s role of intermediary between this world and the divine world.

Like many of the old civilizations- Egypt comes to mind- there seems to have been some continuity between life and death. The idea of a connection between this life and the afterlife is evidenced by very ancient burial practices. Archaeological findings dating back even before the ancient kingdoms show dolmens and burial mounds for the tribal leaders and nobility.  Goguryeo’s wall paints fill the tombs of their leaders, and Baekje and Silla buried their kings and his family with many objects and jewelry. More gruesomely, in the 5th century, the king of Silla banned the practice of burying people alive with the deceased nobility, implying that it was common practice.

Nature also plays a massive role in shamanistic beliefs. Mountains especially are thought to be sacred, and it is no coincidence that most legendary founders are found or related to mountains. Trees are important, and if you hike mountains in Korea you might find altars under- or little papers stuck to- trees. It was under a tree, after all, that Dangun’s mother prayed and entered into holy marriage. The name Dangun means something like ‘Lord of the Cedar.’ Moving up the great chain of being, animals were also a manifestation of the cosmic order of Heaven, and many of them had a totemistic importance to the people, being sacred guardian spirits. The turtle was one  animal that was revered (see King Suro of Gaya), but so were ravens, horses and – somewhat surprising to modern ears- chicken.

Some people have called the ancient kingdoms a Theocracy, since they were ruled by divine or semi-divine kings that brought order to the universe. Theocracy might be a little misleading, in my opinion, since it implies a division between the natural and the supernatural world. There doesn’t seem to have been that kind of distinction in the thought of the people back then.

After the 5th century, the separation of sacred and profane would enter the consciousness of the people as the kingdoms convert to Buddhism. This did not mean that shamanism and shamanistic beliefs disappeared entirely. One of the reasons that Buddhism was so successful was its expansive worldview. Buddhists measure time in millions and billions of years, and experience reality as a massive multiverse with various worlds, each divided into various subrealms people with a myriad of beings. Buddhism had thus no problems integrating local beliefs into its cosmology. But the introduction of the religion caused the ancient shamans to become more differentiated, outside the status quo, and initiated a  search for its own identity.

12. The Perils of Ruling: Adalla Isageum

Perhaps the most common form of historical writing in the ancient East Asia was the annals. Daily events in a king’s life were recorded in these annals, from ceremonies performed to any diplomatic or internal affairs conducted, both good and bad. What might surprise a reader who just happened to get a hold of one of these texts is the meticulous recording of the weather.  One might despair at the thought of ancient historians being so obsessed with making small talk, but the records of weather patterns  were very significant, and it is no coincidence that they are noted down alongside political activities.

Kings played an intermediary role connecting heaven and earth. This is not a completely foreign idea, since almost every culture in the world has a notion of a leader who is more than human, or at the very least having some supernatural entity backing them up. Europe had the divine rights of kings idea in its early modern period, for example. What thing that makes this connection to heaven slightly different, however, is that heaven can- and will- withdraw its favors from rulers.

So how do you know that heaven disapproves of the current king? The human world and nature were said to work with one another, each according to their own principles. It’s a well oiled machine, if the affairs of the human world are in disharmony, then nature would start acting strangely as well. A king who behaves immorally or doesn’t rule as he should, then, will be visited with a series of phenomena like floods, eclipses, earthquakes, and unseasonable temperatures.

Opportunists were always waiting for such signs from heaven in order to rally enough support for a coup d’etat, or even outright revolution. Though Myeongnim Dapbu’s decision to oust King Chadae had political motives behind it, the end of Chadae’s rule also coincided with reports of earthquakes and other natural disasters.

Contemporaneously to the revolt against Chadae in 165 CE, another revolt was about to happen down in Gyerim (Silla). There was nothing particularly immoral or tyrannical about the 8th monarch of Silla, Adalla Isageum. His reign started with amnesties and  updating the political and military branches of the country. But nature itself seemed to have gone against the king. He was said to be unnaturally tall for the day and age- about 7 feet- and had disproportionate features. This was omen enough for superstitious people. But what made it worse was that during his reign, frost appeared in the summer, floods destroyed many houses, and a plague of locusts ravaged the countryside. Even the fish were planning their own revolt by jumping out of the water and dying on the shore. This no doubt made the people of Gyerim very uncomfortable. Was heaven angry at them and their ruler?

Solar_eclipse_1999_4_NR (1)
Source: Wikipedia 

In 164, the records talk about a dragon appearing in the capital. Although it’s not sure what really happened, the rumors of the dragon appearing in the capital was enough to encourage some to go against the king. So a year later, a minister named Gilseon, much like Myeongnim Dapbu, started a coup in an attempt to overthrow Adalla. Unlike the fellow conspirator in the north, though, Gilseon failed.

The would-be revolutionary had to escape. He found refuge in a neighboring state, Baekje. Relations between Baekje and Silla had calmed significantly after Talhae’s successor and the king of Baekje signed a treaty. But tensions were to mount again as Gaeru of Baekje granted asylum to the Sillan traitor. Adalla sent a message requesting that  Gilseon be returned. Gaeru refused.

Infuriated, Adalla resorted to the old tactic of laying siege to a fortress. This was not very successful, and the Sillan troops just went back home. The people of Baekje were willing to drop the matter too. It seemed like things were going to go back to normal.

But in 166, King Gaeru died, and his successor, Chogo, was less forgiving. A year after he took the throne, Chogo captured two castles that belonged to Silla. The troops then took a thousand hostages back to Baekje. Adalla Isaegeum probably saw that Chogo was much more bellicose than the king before him, and decided that drastic measures were needed.

Adalla raised an army of twenty thousand soldiers, and personally led eight thousand horsemen. They got to the Han river with the intention of crossing and attacking the Baekje troops. It must be remembered that Silla was a small country at the time, and to have an army of that many soldiers means that Adalla decided to go all out. Not to mention that crossing the Han river was no easy feat. Anyone who has been to Seoul knows that the river is quite large, and in that era there were no bridges to help the troops cross.

 Bridges_over_the_river_Han_(South_Korea)
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.

9. Dawn Across The Rooster Forest: Talhae Isageum

Goguryeo saw an increase in strength under the reign of King Daemusin and by the middle to late period of the first century CE, was already established in the peninsula as a power. Their influence resided in the north, where they were largely unchallenged by the other two, southern, kingdoms of Baekje and Silla. The latter two were also starting their expansion, and, since they bordered one another, it was inevitable that the two powers would clash.

The second king of Baekje after the death of Onjo was Daru. This king is presented as a ruler who cared for his subjects. When the country was facing famine, he banned the fermenting of grains and distributed the would’ve-been alcohol to the people instead. Back then as now, the lack of alcohol was quite a big deal. Aside from internal issues, Daru also had to contend with the other tribes and nomads surrounding the area. This was settled with a combination of wars and diplomacy. There were also troubles brewing from the struggling Mahan. The king needed help, and so he sent an envoy to the king of Silla, Talhae.

At that time Saro (for the sake of convenience the country will be referred to as Silla, though it did not adopt the title until centuries later) was undergoing some internal changes. Hyeokgeose’s eldest son became the second king of Silla in 4CE, the same time that Daemusin would’ve been born.

Around the time of his reign, there was a man making his way up in the court. He was born in a land said to be close to the Japanese islands, and was abandoned as a baby. This was sadly something very common in the ancient world, where there were no institutions like orphanages to take care of abandoned children. The Spartans, for example, took the offspring they considered weak and unhealthy and left them to die. Not all of these children died, though, as some babies were sometimes picked up by people of other city-states and raised as their own.

This is what happened to Talhae. Left to drift upon the sea, his box landed on the coast not far from Gyeonggju, where he was found by a fisherman and raised in the Korean peninsula. He was named Talhae and given the family name of Seok.

By the way, the baby was abandoned because he was born from an egg. I promise this shall be the last monarch to enter this world in such an omlettic manner.

Details are sketchy after that, but it seems like his adopted family raised ranks in court. And Seok Talhae ended up marrying King Namhae’s sister. Talhae was so well liked that when it came time to pick a successor, Namhae favored Talhae over the king’s own son.

At first Talhae refused, saying that the son of Namhae, Yuri (not to be confused with Yuri the second king of Goguryeo. Before you complain about all the similar names, think about how many Frederics and Charleses populate the history books of Europe) was the rightful heir. Talhae’s solution to the issue of succession was unique, if not downright bizarre. He said that the wisest should rule the land. Reasonable enough. But, he continued, it is said that wise people are those with the most teeth. So he brought a tteok, a Korean rice cake, and both he and Yuri bit into it. Yuri’s side of the rice cake showed more teeth marks and he was established as king. From then on the title of king in Silla was ‘Isageum’ which meant ‘many teeth,’ somehow signifying wisdom.

Korean.food-teok-01 A kind of Tteok. Source: Wikipedia

The issue wouldn’t go away so easily. After Yuri passed away, Talhae, now presumably an old man, was asked to take the throne again. He accepted this time.

When Daru sent his envoy to Talhae, the latter king for unknown reasons ignored the mission. Baekje was not too happy with this and in the year 64, the first battle between the three kingdoms began.

Since the kingdoms at that time were basically a series of walled cities. Raids and attacks followed a logic that is familiar to anyone who has played strategy games. Each country had a series of fortified castles and fortresses, and the attacking country would want to take over these fortresses in order to establish its dominance over the land. It was never so simple though, since the country could take back their lost castles if they win another battle. As a result, borders were constantly expanding and contracting.

And that is was happened in this case. The first war between the two kingdoms involved Baekje conquering a Sillan fortress. The two powers seemed to have been equally matched at the time, since Silla managed to defeat the Baekje troops at another battle, and reclaimed some of their fortresses back. The two countries went on in this way for at least 2 years during the reign of Talhae and Daru.

But Silla had another problem to contend with: Gaya. The new confederacy flexed its military might, thanks to its land rich in iron, by attacking Silla. With both Baekje and Gaya on its heels, Silla’s beginning was a not very auspicious. Unlike Goguryeo’s early triumphs, Silla’s very existence was on shaky grounds. It had many enemies around it and had to stand in constant vigilance. And although Baekje and Silla signed a peace treaty a little after Talhae and Daru’s death, the two countries were in each others’ sights.

As mentioned earlier, Silla was undergoing some transformation during this time. First of all, the line of succession was now divided. Instead of the Pak clan being the sole rulers of the kingdom, kingship could go either from the Pak or Seok family. Silla had a third family that would become the sole rulers. The founder of that family was born during Talhae’s time.

Deep in a forest west of Gyeongju, the king heard a rooster crowing. It kept going on for a long while, and it was suspicious enough for the king to send someone to investigate. They found that the source of the sound was a white rooster standing over a golden box. Inside the box was a boy. Perhaps the boy’s circumstances reminded Talhae of his own birth, and so the king showed sympathy for this abandoned child. Talhae took the boy to court and named him Alji. Because of the box he was discovered in, Alji was given the family name meaning gold, the Chinese character , pronounced ‘Kim.’ Kim Alji was thus the ancestral founder of the ever ubiquitous Kim family. And from Talhae’s reign until the time when Silla was finally given the name ‘Silla,’ Saro was known as Gyerim, the rooster forest.

kyerim

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)

6. Over The Rainbow: King Hyeokgeose

In 108 BCE, the armies of Han China sacked the Gojoseon capital of Wanggeom and brought the dynasty to an end. This caused chaos in the region and refugees scattered all over the Korean peninsula. A large group of Gojoseon refugees seemed to have traveled all the way from Wanggeom, somewhere close to modern day Pyeongyang, to the south eastern regions of Gyeongsang province, today home of many such cities as Gyeongju, Busan and Daegu. They settled in six villages around the valleys of the province. Then, almost half a century after they saw their old home go down in flames, the chieftains had a vision of a new kingdom.

These villages decided that they had grown strong enough unify under a centralized power. This was quite common, a lot of villages found that making alliances with neighboring villages and establishing one king at the center was the best way to increase the power and prosperity of their village. Even if they were not king, the heads of a village would still have more power in court than just being the leader of a tiny population. So the leaders gathered and made plans for their new kingdom.

Once it actually came to choosing a king, however, they were stumped. So they  prayed to Heaven for a sign. Heaven answered in the most flashy  way possible: lightning struck, and a rainbow pointed the village leaders to a  forest. When they followed the rainbow, they found a white horse bowing to an egg, and -this should come as no surprise to those who have read the story of Jumong- a boy popped out. Heaven, in perhaps the most extravagant political campaign in history, had thrown its support behind the new king.

The boy, Hyeokgeose, was given the family name ‘Pak’ (Park) which meant something like “gourd” to describe the look of the egg he had hatched from. This means he was not only the founder of the Silla dynasty, but also the ancestor to the Pak, the third most common family name in Korea. In fact, Silla’s court would feature names such as Kim, Yi(Lee), Seok, Jeong, and Choe (Choi), making it a who’s who of people whose descendants populate most of the peninsula today. Hyeokgeose grew up being worshiped by the village leaders and, at the age of 13, was made king. The name of his country was not yet “Silla”, the kingdom would go through a couple of more names before getting theat title. The original name of Silla was ‘Saro’ or ‘Sorabol’. Many linguists believe that this is the origin of the modern day word ‘Seoul,’ which simply means ‘capital’ in Korean.

Around the time Hyeokgeose was born, an old woman in one of the villages saw a dragon fly out of a well. Since dragons were omens of good luck, the woman followed the dragon till she found its corpse. A little girl came out of one of the dragon’s ribs. Surprisingly calm by the turn of events, the old woman adopted the child and named her after the well the dragon came out of: Alyeong. Later on, King Hyeokgeose heard of this woman and, perhaps hoping they can exchange interesting birth stories, married her.

King Hyeokgeose and Queen Alyeong were called the Two Holy Ones. They traveled the land together, performing miracles and improving the agricultural situation. They were said to be very successful in their travel, and the reign of Hyeokgeose was a golden age where people lived in safety and with plenty to eat. However, all this richness and prosperity caught the attention of one of the Han Commanderies, Lelang. Most of the four commanderies did not survive very long, some having collapsed shortly after establishment, but Lelang would continue to be a thorn on Korea’s side until the 4th century. And they were not going to let a kingdom get too big for its own good. Lelang’s leaders sent an army to raid Sorabol. What they saw surprised them. Grain was plentiful, everyone had more than enough to eat, and the people were so moral that nobody locked the doors at night. The Lelang soldiers looked at this scene in amazement, and exclaimed that “If our troops move in and raid this country, as thieves, how can we not be ashamed?” They left the kingdom alone. A likely story, but one that shows the prosperity of this new kingdom.

Hyeokgeose died at the beginning of the Christian era, around 4 CE, and his wife would follow him into the other world shortly after. Although traditionally the founding of Silla was dated at 57 BCE, making it the oldest of the three kingdoms, it is generally accepted today that Goguryeo was the oldest, Silla being a little before, or around the time of, the founding of Baekje. In any case,  Silla would live on until 935 CE, almost a thousand years after its founding. This makes Silla one of the longest lasting kingdoms in the history of the world.

The boy born from an egg under a giant white horse at the end of the rainbow, and the woman that rose from the scars of a dragon- aside from making an amazing concept for a heavy metal album cover- represent the mystique of the early Silla. It was a society heavily immersed in myth, shamanism and much later Buddhism. The kings of Silla cultivated myth and religion to their own advantage, and thus the place evolved into a powerful centralized government with a social hierarchy based on divine right. This would prove to be a great asset in dominating the other two, much more powerful, kingdoms of Baekje and Goguryeo. It would also ultimately be the cause of Silla’s downfall.