19 February 2011

The Three Kingdoms Period: Silla ( 신라 )

We have now arrived at the longest lasting of the Three Kingdoms.  Silla's claim to fame is its defeat of both Baekje and Goguryeo and the unification of the southern part of Korea (although the area of its land wasn't even close to as large as Goguryeo).  However, this post will only cover the Silla Kingdom prior to this unification.  So the story for this post spans the length of a little over 700 years.

The Other Powerful Samhan State - Saro : 57 BC - 356 AD

Yet Another Founding Legend
King Park Hyeokgeose ( 박혁거세거서간, the last three symbols are "Geoseogan" and this was the title used by leaders in Jinhan) was the founder of the Saro city-state.  According to legend, the leaders of six villages in the southeast portion of the peninsula gathered together to select a king in 69 BC.  It was at this point that a bright light shone from the sky and a white horse laid an egg.  Park Hyeokgeose was born out of this egg and it is told that birds and beasts danced when he was born.  The six village leaders appointed him to be king when he was 13, at which point he married Lady Alyeong ( 알영 ), who was supposedly born from the rib of a dragon. 

Hyeokgeose's Reign
I couldn't find any legitimate information on his reign, but the Samguk Sagi certainly provides some nice stories.

Note: Keep in mind that Kim Busik, the author of the Samguk Sagi, was appointed by Goryeo to assert Goryeo's right to rule following the Silla Dynasty.  For this reason, Silla's history is presented in a much more positive light than the other two kingdoms.  The founding date for Silla of 57 BC (prior to both Goguryeo and Baekje) has also come under much scrutiny and it is believed that Kim Busik fabricated this date in an attempt to assert Silla's superiority over the other two kingdoms.  Silla was most likely the last of the Three Kingdoms to be formed. 

The Samguk Sagi claims that Hyeokgeose and his wife traveled around Saro helping the people with their harvests and that the people referred to them as Iseong (이송, which means the "Two Holies").  There is another interesting story in which the Lelang commandery invades Saro, but upon seeing that the people had huge piles of grain and did not lock their doors they deem the people of Saro to be moral and decide to retreat.  Nothing is really known for sure about Hyeokgeose, but the Samguk Sagi makes him out to be a wise and generous king.

Carousel of Power
The early years of Saro witnessed multiple changes of the royal lineage between the three strongest clans in the state.  Saro was founded by King Park Hyeokgeose and the Park ( 박 ) clan was able to retain control of the state for over 200 years, with the exception of the fourth king, King Talhae ( 탈해이사금, the last 3 symbols are "Isageum", which was the title for rulers in the early years of Silla and meant "successor prince"), who was a member of the Seok ( 석 ) clan.  The Seok clan then took control in 184 AD with the reign of King Beolhyu ( 벌휴이사금 ) and maintained control for the next 172 years.  King Girim, of the Seok clan, changed the state's name to Silla in 308.  However, a notable exception to the Seok clan's superiority during this time period was King Michu ( 미추이사금 ), who ruled from 262-284 and was from the Kim ( 김 ) clan.  The Kim clan finally took control in 356 and ruled for most of the remaining years of the Silla Dynasty.

Expanding Power : 356 - 500

Hereditary Rule
After 400 years of power shifts between the three major clans, King Naemul ( 내물마립간 ) finally solidified hereditary rule in Silla.  The shifts in power were detrimental to the long-term goals of Silla and this move was necessary for the eventual of evolution of the small state of Saro into the Silla Dynasty.  From this point forward, the Kim clan would be the ruling house of Silla.  King Naemul was also the first king to take the title of "maripgan", which means "elevation".  King Nulji ( 눌지마입간 ) was the son of King Naemul (even though King Silseong ruled in between the two kings) and he officially established the practice of patriarchal ascent to the throne.

Silla crown
Allied with Goguryeo : 377 - 427
Conflicts with Baekje, Gaya, and Wa (Japan) forced Silla to seek help from its powerful neighbor, Goguryeo.  Goguryeo had just lost a large amount of its territory to Baekje and was thus eager to help in any struggle against its enemy.  This alliance became particularly helpful in the year 400, when Silla was pressured by all three of the conflicting states.  Gwanggaeto the Great of Goguryeo led a campaign to "help" in which he defeated Gaya and Wa forces, but proceeded to also exert considerable influence on Silla after ridding the kingdom of invaders.  Goguryeo's interference slowed Silla's development, but the fledgling state was eventually able to overcome this obstacle.

The Enemy of My Enemy
King Jangsu of Goguryeo moved the capital of his kingdom to Pyongyang in 427.  Given the expansionistic tendencies of Goguryeo in the past, it is understandable that both Baekje and Silla saw this move southward as a legitimate threat.  For this reason, Baekje and Silla, who had been at war just a quarter century earlier, formed an alliance against Goguryeo in 433.  This alliance was solidified when Goguryeo attacked Baekje in 474 and Silla sent troops to rescue the kingdom from northern invasion.  This alliance would ultimately end up favoring Silla and serve as one of the building blocks for Silla's unification of the Korean peninsula.

Centralized Kingdom : 500 - 654

Bunhwangsa - 634 AD
The acceptance of Buddhism came about much later in Silla in comparison to Goguryeo and Baekje.  Silla actually did not formally accept the religion until 527 (Goguryeo converted in 372 and Baekje converted in 384), even though Buddhism had been introduced to the region approximately 100 years earlier.  The chief opponent to Buddhism was the aristocracy.  Buddhism only came to be accepted following the martyrdom of a minister named Ichadon.  The Samguk Yusa (remember, this is the history of legends and folklore in Korea) claims that Ichadon prophesied about a wonderful miracle that would occur following his death.  Following his execution (by decapitation) the earth shook, the sun became dark, flowers fell from the sky, his head flew to the mountains, and his blood was turned to milk.  This display apparently frightened the ruling class so much that they immediately converted to the new religion (although some sources say that official acceptance of Buddhism did not take place until 535).

Monument of Ichadon's Martyrdom
Han River Valley
King Jinheung ( 진흥왕 ) of Silla aided King Seoung of Baekje in his attempt to regain the Han river valley, which had been conquered by Goguryeo in the year 475.  This battle occurred in 551 and resulted in the recovery of of Baekje's old territory.  However, King Jinheung decided to take advantage of the weakened state of the Baekje army and seize the territory for himself.  Silla was victorious in the fight and this led to the end of an alliance that had lasted for over 100 years.  King Seoung attempted to retaliate against Silla in 554, but to no avail as he was killed in battle along with 30,000 of his troops.

Annexation of Gaya
The annexation of the Gaya confederacy began in 532 when Geumgwan Gaya ( 금관가야 ) willingly submitted to Silla authority.  However, most of the Gaya confederacy was taken over as punishment for providing aid to Baekje in their battle against Silla in 554.  Ara Gaya ( 아라가야 ) was the first to fall in 559 and this was followed by the defeats of Daegaya ( 대가야 ) and Goryeong Gaya ( 고령가야 ) in 562.  Little is known about the other two states in the Gaya confederacy, Seongsan Gaya ( 성산가야 ) and Sogaya ( 소가야 ), but I did discover that Seongsan Gaya had good relations with Silla and that Sogaya was conquered by Silla.  Therefore, it seems reasonable to assume that Seongsan Gaya may have submitted in a similar manner as Geumgwan Gaya and that Sogaya was probably conquered around the same time as the other states.

The hwarang ( 화랑 ) was an elite military unit of young men in Silla that formed in 576.  These warriors were guided by the "five secular injunctions" which include: loyally serving the king, honoring and respecting one's parents and teachers, practicing fidelity amongst friends, never retreating in battle, and never killing without just cause.  The hwarang also had a religious purpose, as they made pilgrimages to pray for Silla's prosperity.  However, their main purpose was to fight and they ended up serving an extremely important role in the unification of the Korean peninsula.  Kim Yushin ( 김유신 ) was one of the most famous members and he served as a general during Silla's victories over Baekje and Goguryeo.  Yushin is actually one of most famous historical figures in Korean history.  Some other famous members include Kim Wonsul, Sadaham, and Gwanchang.

Cheomseongdae - Oldest extant astronomical observatory in East Asia
Unification : 654 - 668

Silla-Tang Alliance
Silla sought military assistance in repelling the attacks of King Uija of Baekje, who reigned from 641 to 660.  Silla first looked to Goguryeo, but Yeon Gaesomun, who was in power at the time, demanded the return of the Han river valley as payment for his help.  Silla was unwilling to concede this territory and therefore proceeded to ask the Tang Dynasty in China for help.  Relations with Tang improved tremendously during the reigns of Queen Seondeok ( 선덕여왕 ) and Queen Jindeok ( 진덕여왕 ), who were two of only three women to control the Silla Dynasty.  King Taejong Muyeol ( 태종 무열왕 ), who was childhood friends with Emperor Gaozong of Tang, ruled from 654 to 661 and it was during this time that Tang finally came to the aid of Silla.

Conquering Baekje
Silla and Tang decided that best method for conquering Baekje and Goguryeo would be to attack Baekje first and then move on to their northern neighbor.  Emperor Gaozong sent 130,000 troops across the Yellow Sea in 660, while Kim Yushin led 50,000 Silla troops across land.  King Uija of Baekje had already lost much of his support in the Baekje government, but he managed to rally 5,000 troops to face Silla in the battle of Hwangsanbeol ( 황산벌 전투 ).  Baekje's small force was apparently able to repel Silla at first, but the martyrdom of Gwanchang raised Silla's spirits and they were eventually able to overcome the entrenched Baekje troops.

The story of Gwanchang claims that he rode bravely into battle against the Baekje forces, but after killing multiple men he was captured.  General Gyebaek of Baekje planned to kill him, but allowed him to return to the Silla ranks after remarking upon the valor of the young man.  Gwanchang returned to Silla's camp, drank some water, and then promptly rushed back into battle.  He was again caught alive, but this time Gyebaek beheaded him and sent the head back to Silla on the saddle of his horse.  The courage of this man inspired the other Silla troops and it is said that they proceeded to route the Baekje army.

The Silla forces marched on after the battle to the Baekje capitol of Sabi and combined with the Tang soldiers to take the capitol.  King Uija had fled to Ungjin, but the king surrendered when the Silla and Tang forces arrived.  Revival movements took place for the next three years, but they were eventually squashed by the Silla-Tang forces and the Baekje people finally came to accept their fate.

Conquering Goguryeo
Goguryeo did not fall as easily as Baekje.  After all, this was the kingdom that had repelled wave after wave of Chinese attacks throughout its entire existence.  Tang began the assault in 661 with an attack on Pyongyang.  Tang was defeated in this attempt, but the attack served to severely weaken the Goguryeo military.  Internal conflict broke out in Goguryeo following the death of Yeon Gaesomun, who was in power at the time, and this strife led to Goguryeo's eventual downfall.  The Tang-Silla alliance invaded again in 667 and the Goguryeo Kingdom finally fell in 668.

Looking Ahead
Silla has finally united the Three Kingdoms of Korea, but they now have to worry about the presence of the Tang Dynasty on the Korean peninsula.  They of course appreciated Tang's assistance in conquering Baekje and Goguryeo, but they now need to make sure that their friends don't overstay their welcome.  They also have to deal with the inherent problems of ruling their newly acquired citizens.  The rest of Silla's existence, which continued until 935, will be covered in a post on Unified Silla.

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