27 February 2011

The Three Kingdoms Period: Anything Besides War?

I have primarily focused my posts on the constant state of flux during the Three Kingdoms Period.  Each of the kingdoms was constantly trying to expand its influence, which led to numerous changes in the boundaries of each kingdom.  However, there was obviously a much more complex societal structure that existed within these boundaries.  My personal interest is mainly focused on wars and foreign relations (hence the reason I've focused my articles on these areas), but I would like to take at least one post to discuss the internal workings of these societies.



Ancestor worship was the most important aspect of religion during the early period of Goguryeo's existence.  The people of Goguryeo worshiped their ancestors as gods and the most important of these ancestors were Goguryeo's founder, Jumong, and his mother, Yuhwa, who were worshiped annually during the Dongmaeng Festival, which was a harvest festival held in the tenth lunar month.  The citizens of Goguryeo believed in an afterlife consisting of a leisurely lifestyle and frequent rides upon dragons, cranes and giraffes.  In addition to ancestor worship, shamanism was also present during this time and Goguryeo's citizens worshiped numerous gods and participated in sacrifices and festivals in honor of these gods.  The religious landscape changed dramatically in 372 with the acceptance of Buddhism.  Goguryeo was the first of the Three Kingdoms to adhere to the religion and Buddhism continued to serve as the state religion until Goguryeo's demise in 668.

Baekje was part of the Samhan in its early days, which believed in ancestor worship and shamanism.  The most unique part of the beliefs in the Samhan were the masters of ritual, who were called "Heaven princes", and had authority over a settlement called a sodo ( 소도 ).  The masters of ritual were responsible for seeking the favor of the gods and bringing good fortune to the Samhan states.  The sodo was a holy place and a criminal could not be apprehended if he entered the confines of the sodo.  Baekje proceeded to accept Buddhism shortly after Goguryeo in the year 384. 

Silla was originally part of the Samhan, and therefore had many of the same rituals and beliefs as Baekje.  The main difference between Silla and the other two kingdoms is that it accepted Buddhism about 150 years after its neighbors.  This seems strange considering the close proximity of the Three Kingdoms, but it was apparently the aristocracy that prevented the official adherence to the religion.  It should be noted that Buddhism had existed in Silla for about 100 years prior to its adoption in 527, but it wasn't until the martyrdom of Ichadon that Buddhism was finally named the state religion.

A popular legend about Gaya's history claims that a princess named Heo from India married Gaya's first king, King Suro.  If this legend is in fact true, it is possible that Buddhism existed in Gaya from as early as 48 AD.  However, this legend is more than likely false, and even if it is true, there isn't any evidence suggesting widespread acceptance of Buddhism during this time period.  Buddhism more than likely came to Gaya through Silla, perhaps in the year 452 AD.  Buddhism still did not gain popularity during this time and it wouldn't succeed in winning over the public until shortly before Gaya's downfall.

Music and Poetry

Song and dance were essential elements of worship during the early years of Goguryeo and festivals, such as the Dongmaeng Festival, included these elements for the purpose of ancestor worship.  Not very much is known about the specifics of Goguryeo's music, but a noteworthy instrument that comes from this period is the hyeonhakgeum ( 현학금 ), known as the "black crane zither", which was developed by Wang Sanak ( 왕사낙 ).

Not much information has survived on Baekje's music, but there are records of Baekje musicians being sent to China and Japan, which indicates that Baekje probably had a sufficiently advanced musical culture.

The most famous poetry from Silla during this time period were the hyangga ( 향가 ), or "native songs", which were composed by the Hwarang.  The Hwarang were elite warriors who also participated in an extensive study of Buddhism.  For this reason, many hyangga songs have a religious message and show a transition from the shamanistic incantations of old to the new Buddhist belief system.  Unfortunately, very few of these poems have survived, but the ones that have lasted capture the essence of the war-torn time period.  The music in Silla was also deeply rooted in religion, as was the case with the other kingdoms. 

Gaya's most well known cultural contribution to Korean society was the gayageum, which was supposedly made by King Gasil of Dae Gaya during the sixth century.  It is generally considered to be the most well known traditional Korean instrument.  After inventing the instrument, King Gasil enlisted the help of a musician named U Reuk to compose twelve original works.  Unfortunately, the musical scores of these works have been lost, but the record of their existence survives to this day. 

Art and Architecture

**Goguryeo (Painting)**
Most of the surviving paintings from Goguryeo exist on the walls of tombs.  Paintings from the early days of Goguryeo consist of simple portraits of the deceased, but tombs uncovered from the later years show a unique dynamic element to the paintings.  The lines and bold colors used in these paintings bring the images to life.
The only architectural pieces that exist from this time period are tombs (probably because all of the free-standing architecture was made of wood).  Goguryeo constructed two types of tombs: pyramidal stone tombs and earthen tombs that consisted of mounds of dirt piled on top of stone slabs.
The most famous sculpture from Goguryeo is a gilt bronze standing Buddha that is dated to 539.

Baekje (Sculpture)
The practice of painting tombs spread to Baekje from Goguryeo, but Baekje murals are considered to be more refined than those of their northern neighbors. 
Stone pagodas are the only remaining freestanding structures from Baekje and the two best examples can be found in Buyeo and Iksan.
Baekje sculptures have been highly praised and are known to have a more naturalistic style than the sculptures found in Goguryeo.  The most well known sculpture from Baekje is the gilt bronze meditating half-seated Maitreya.

**Silla (Jewelry)**
Unfortunately, very few paintings from Silla have survived, but the few that have suggest that Silla painters were as capable as the artists from neighboring states.
All of the wooden structures from Silla have been destroyed, but some of the best remaining stonework can be found in Silla's ancient capital of Gyeongju.
Silla sculptures are similar to those found in Baekje, but are considered to be more static and conservative.  Silla's seated gilt bronze Maitreya is housed in the National Museum of Korea in Seoul and is therefore the most well known piece.
The design of Goguryeo and Baekje tombs made them very easy to rob and for this reason very few artifacts from within the tombs exist today.  However, Silla's tomb design made grave robbing practically impossible, so many pieces have been recovered from the ancient tombs.  Some of the objects are made of pure gold and include crowns, shoes, earrings, rings and bracelets.  Many of these also incorporate gemstones and truly symbolize the powerful royal authority that was held by the ruling family. 

Gaya (Metalwork)
Very few pieces of Gaya's art have survived to this day.  Some jewelry has been discovered and the findings include many gold ornaments.  However, Gaya's true claim to fame was its iron-working skill.  Gaya exported its ironwork around the entire region and this one very important skill was the primary reason that Gaya was able to maintain its independence for so many years.

Society and Politics

Language and Writing

Very few words from Goguryeo's language are known today, but the few that do exist suggest that it was very similar to Silla's language.  It was also influenced Tungusic languages spoken by people in Siberia and Manchuria.  There has been a lot of debate about the actual classification of the language, but most linguists label it as part of the Altaic language family, which includes Turkic, Mongolic and Tungusic languages.  As was the case with all of the kingdoms, Goguryeo used the Hanja writing system, which consisted of Chinese characters.

Baekje's language is thought to have been similar to Goguryeo's.  There has actually been an effort to establish the Buyeo language family, which would consist of the languages of Buyeo, Goguryeo, Dongye, Okjeo, and Baekje.  The close relationship to Goguryeo's language probably resulted from the fact that Baekje was founded by a Goguryeo prince. 

Silla is the only one of the Three Kingdoms that has left behind a considerable amount of writing.  For this reason, much more is known about Silla's language than the languages of the other kingdoms and researchers have actually used Silla's language in an attempt to understand the languages of Baekje and Goguryeo.  Silla's language would more than likely be placed in Buyeo language family.

Not very much information on this, but since Gaya was positioned between Baekje and Silla, I would say it is fair to assume that the language was rather similar.  There may have been a substantial amount of Japanese influence on Gaya's language due to their consistent trade with Wa.


As stated in previous articles, Goguryeo existed on a barren landscape that was for the most part unsuitable for farming.  This was Goguryeo's primary reason for expansion and the state eventually transformed into an agriculturally based economy once it acquired new lands.  A particularly significant aspect of Goguryeo's agricultural system was the policy called jindae-beop ( 진대법 ), which allowed farmers to borrow grain in the spring and then repay it in the fall after the harvest.  This policy was very popular and attracted many farmers from neighboring states.  Trade, ironworking and tribute were also important for Goguryeo's economy.

The Rest
Agriculture was the most important industry in all of the kingdoms.  Irrigation systems were created in Baekje and Silla in order to support rice farming, while Goguryeo grew dry crops such as millet and soybeans.  There were obviously other sources of income such as fishing, ironworking and tributary payments, but agriculture represented the most important source of wealth in each of the kingdoms.

Social Structure

The social structure in Goguryeo consisted of four classes, which included the king, aristocrats, commoners and slaves.  The royal line was controlled by the Go ( 고 ) house and the aristocrats were made up of powerful families in the capital.  Of course, commoners made up a majority of the population and the slaves consisted primarily of prisoners of war.

The same basic classes existed in Baekje, but there are in fact records of the most powerful families in Baekje.  The royal line was passed down through the Buyeo ( 부여 ) clan and there were apparently eight very powerful families that controlled the aristocracy.

Silla has the most historical documentation regarding social status.  Silla again consisted of the four main social classes, but the most interesting aspect of Silla's society was the bone rank system (golpum jedo or 골품제도 ), which separated different levels of the aristocracy.  The highest level of this system was originally seonggol ( 성골 ), or "hallowed bone", which consisted only of people within the royal line who could become king.  However, this rank was eliminated by King Muyeol in 654, just prior to the Silla unification.  The next highest rank was jingol ( 진골 ), or "true bone", which was made up of the rest of the royal house of Kim, the Bak family, the Seok family, and later a separate Kim lineage from Geumgwan Gaya was awarded the rank as well.  Prior to King Muyeol's reign, true bone aristocrats could hold any position other king, and after the reign of King Muyeol even the kingship was open to them.  The next three ranks were called dupum ( 두품 ), or head ranks, with head rank six holding the highest position and head rank four being the lowest level of the aristocracy.  Head ranks three, two and one are not documented, but more than likely made up the common people in Silla's society.  The bone rank system controlled virtually all parts of Silla's society, from the job that a person was permitted to have, to the size of someone's house, and even extended to the color of robes worn by officials.

Kingdoms within Gaya never developed a fully centralized authority.  Prior to Silla's annexation of Gaya, some of the more powerful states were beginning to develop central power, but Silla's interference occurred before this could fully develop.  An interesting aspect of the class system within Gaya was the existence of a religious class called cheongun ( 천군 ), which performed rituals necessary to appease deities. 

Political Systems

There were twelve aristocratic office ranks in Goguryeo, the most powerful of which was daedaero ( 대대로 ), or chief minister.  The chief minister was elected by a council consisting of members of the high aristocracy.  There were also five hyong ( 횽 ), or elder brother, ranks, which consisted of chieftains from the states that had previously made up the kingdom of Goguryeo. 

Baekje had sixteen political ranks and these were separated into three distinct groups.  The highest group consisted of the top six ranks and members within this group wore purple robes.  The highest position in this group was jwapyeong ( 좝영 ) and an election was held every three years in which members of this group would vote on the position.  The next group consisted of ranks seven through eleven and people in this group wore scarlet robes.  The final group was made up of the rest of the ranks and members of these ranks wore blue robes.

Silla had seventeen office ranks, which corresponded to the bone rank system presented above.  The bone rank system was based on lineage, so the family into which a person was born determined how high they could rise in government.  All seventeen positions were open to members of true bone rank, while only twelve positions were open to those born as head rank 6, only eight positions were open to head rank 5 and six positions were open to head rank 4.  This was a very rigid system in which no one, regardless of merit, was permitted to rise above their social standing.

Lots of debate on this one, because if Gaya did in fact have hierarchical system it would provide a good deal of evidence suggesting that Gaya was in fact a kingdom during this time period.  It is fairly obvious that during the early Gaya period the confederation did not have a central state.  However, there has been evidence to suggest that Dae Gaya constructed a Bu (부) system in the late Gaya period that resembled the system in Silla.  If this was in fact the case, it would mean that Dae Gaya had become powerful enough to control the other states in the confederation and in effect form a kingdom. 


Laws in each of the Three Kingdoms appear to be extremely strict.  The only definitive laws I could find from the time period actually came from Buyeo, but it is generally assumed that the laws of the Three Kingdoms were similar during the early years of their existence.  The four laws that have survived from Buyeo are as follows:
  1. Anyone who kills another will be put to death and his family will be enslaved
  2. Anyone who steals will be forced to repay their victims twelve times over
  3. Women who commit adultery will be put to death
  4. A jealous wife will be put to death and her body will be left to rot in the mountains
Similar laws probably existed in the Three Kingdoms until the introduction of Buddhism.  The laws were rewritten in the fourth and fifth centuries to reflect the impact of Buddhism on these societies.

Foreign Relations

Relations With China

Not very good to say the least.  Seeing as how Goguryeo was the largest of the Three Kingdoms and situated right next to China, it's not surprising that Goguryeo was constantly competing with various Chinese kingdoms for regional supremacy.  Goguryeo fought against the Wei Dynasty, the Chinese Commanderies in Korea, the Yan Dynasty and the Sui Dynasty before finally falling to an alliance between Silla and the Tang Dynasty.

Baekje was a frequent trade partner with China and also occasionally paid tribute to China.  Baekje also sought an alliance with China after it was betrayed by Silla in the sixth century.  Some historians also support the idea that Baekje may have controlled portions of modern-day China during the peak of its expansion at the end of the fourth century and beginning of the fifth century.

Silla was positioned farther away from China than the other two kingdoms and for this reason it did not have much interaction with China until Silla was able to conquer the Han river valley in 551.  Relations with the Tang dynasty improved to the point that Silla and Tang became allies and were able to conquer the Baekje and Goguryeo kingdoms.

Gaya's advanced metallurgy techniques and location allowed it to participate in frequent trade with China.

Relations With Japan

Goguryeo was not in close proximity to Japan and the only significant conflict between the two nations occurred in the year 400 when an alliance of Baekje, Gaya and Wa (Japan) forces threatened to invade Silla.  Silla called upon Goguryeo for help and Gwanggaetto the Great responded with 50,000 troops and easily defeated the Wa forces.  Japan returned to Korea in 404 and fought Goguryeo near Pyongyang, but Goguryeo was again victorious.  

Baekje had extremely close relations with Japan.  Many members of the royal family went to live in Japan and the two countries participated in frequent trade.  Japan even participated in the attempted revival of Baekje after its fall to the Silla-Tang alliance, but were unsuccessful in their quest.

Silla participated in frequent trade with Japan, but the two countries had uneasy relations for most of the Three Kingdoms Period.  Wa seems to have maintained closer relations with Baekje and Gaya than with Silla, so the frequent clashes between the various kingdoms hurt relations between Silla and Japan.

As was the case with China, Gaya frequently traded with Japan.  Gaya even allied with Japan in the year 400, but this ended in defeat for both nations.


Goguryeo - Silla ( 377 - 427 )
This alliance developed due to the increasing power of the alliance between Baekje, Gaya and Wa.  Silla felt threatened felt threatened by the growing power of these forces and called upon Goguryeo for assistance.  The most significant event in this relationship took place when Goguryeo sent 50,000 troops to aid Silla in the year 400.

**Baekje - Silla ( 433 - 551 )**
This relationship arose due to Goguryeo's unceasing desire to expand its territory.  Goguryeo moved its capital to Pyongyang in 427, which alerted Baekje and Silla to the threat of Goguryeo's southern expansion.  In order to thwart any southern movement by Goguryeo, the two southern states formed an alliance.  The most important battle that took place during this alliance occurred in 474 when Goguryeo invaded Baekje and Silla sent troops to rescue the Baekje kingdom. 

Goguryeo - Baekje ( 551 - 660 )
All good things must come to an end.  The Baekje-Silla alliance ended after 127 years when Silla betrayed Baekje after a battle with Goguryeo.  The Baekje-Silla alliance was able to defeat Goguryeo and take over the Han river valley in 551, but after the battle Silla turned against their ally and took the land for itself.  Goguryeo and Baekje now had a common cause in defeating Silla and therefore banded together, but the alliance would ultimately end in failure when Silla succeeded in uniting the Korean peninsula.


A New History of Korea by Ki-baik Lee
Gaya's Social Structure by Taesik Kim

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