06 March 2011

North South States Period: Unified Silla (668 - 892)

The story of Unified Silla picks up right where the story of the Three Kingdoms ends.  Silla succeeded in conquering Baekje in 660 and Goguryeo in 668 with the help of their Tang allies.  How will Silla deal with this newly acquired power?  Will Tang overstay their welcome on the Korean peninsula?  Will the bone rank system continue to be a viable method of running a country?  What will be Silla's lasting impact on the Korean peninsula?

It should be noted that the term "Unified Silla" isn't completely accurate because Silla did not control the entire Korean peninsula, but rather only controlled slightly more land than modern-day South Korea.  Korea is currently divided at the 38th parallel and Silla's northernmost point was only slightly above the 39th parallel and it didn't include Pyongyang.  The Kingdom of Balhae controlled the northern portion of the peninsula and Balhae will be the topic of my next post.  The term "Unified Silla" arose after World War II with the division of the Korean peninsula.  Historians have recently begun to label the time period as the "North South States Period", which I feel is more accurate, but I also like "Unified Silla" because Silla did in fact conquer the other two kingdoms in Korea.  Hence, I have decided to use both terms in the title of this post.

Silla Crown
Foreign Relations

Protectorate General to Pacify the East

It turns out that the Tang Dynasty did not help Silla to conquer the other two kingdoms in Korea simply out of generosity.  They had the intention of ultimately bringing the entire Korean peninsula under Tang control.  Tang attempted to accomplish this task by first establishing five commanderies in the area of the former Baekje Kingdom after its fall and then subsequently placing nine commanderies in the territory of the former Goguryeo Kingdom after the unification was complete.  Tang also established the Protectorate General to Pacify the East ( 안동 도호부, or Andong Dohobu ) at Pyongyang in 668, with intention of controlling the peninsula from this location.  How did Silla respond to this act of subjugation by Tang?  By allying with the people they just conquered of course.

Silla Supports Goguryeo Revival
King Munmu ( 문무왕 ) supported the Goguryeo restoration forces, who were led by Geom Mojam ( 검모잠 ) and desired to appoint Anseung ( 안승 ) as the King of Goguryeo.  Geum Mojam was a military leader in Goguryeo prior to its fall and Anseung was supposedly the illegitimate son (or nephew) of King Bojang ( 보장왕 ), who was the last ruler of Goguryeo.  The two men sought permission from Silla to reestablish the Goguryeo state in 668 and Silla consented in 670 due to the ever-increasing pressure from Tang.  Silla presented Anseung with a small portion of land near modern-day Iksan (which was actually part of Baekje's old territory) and named him King of Bodeok.  Unfortunately, Geum Mojam's relationship with Anseung quickly deteriorated and Geum Mojam was assassinated in 672.  This revival movement ultimately proved to be short-lived as the kingdom was disbanded in 683 and Anseung went to reside in the Silla capital of Gyeongju.

Fighting Their Former Allies
Silla first sought to wrestle the southern portion of the peninsula from Tang control and accomplished this in 671 with the fall of Sabi fortress.  By conquering this fortress, Silla had successfully gained control of the area previously under the domain of the Baekje Kingdom.  Silla continued the arduous task of repelling Tang influence for 5 more years until Tang finally conceded and removed the Protectorate General to Pacify the East from Pyongyang.  Silla's forceful removal of Tang influence is considered one of the most important events in Korean history because it allowed Korean culture to evolve independently of Chinese control.

Realigned With Tang
The newly founded Kingdom of Balhae controlled the northern portion of Korea and southern parts of Manchuria, so naturally both Silla and Tang experienced confrontations with Balhae.  An alliance was formed between Silla and Tang in 733 to counter the growing threat of Balhae.  However, Balhae succeeded in forming diplomatic ties with people in northern China and Japan, thereby providing a deterrent to an attack by either Silla or Tang. 

The expulsion of Tang forces from the Korean peninsula marked the last major conflict during this time period.  Therefore, with the exception of the first few years of its existence, Unified Silla ruled over a time period of peaceful foreign relations.  This is a marked difference from the constant warfare during the Three Kingdoms Period and must have been a welcome relief for the citizens of these kingdoms.  Relations continued with Tang, Balhae, and Japan, but these were all in the context of trade rather than war. 

Power Shift

The Aristocrats Rebel
Apparently life was a little too peaceful on the Korean peninsula because in 768, almost 100 years after Silla's last major foreign battle, members of the aristocracy hatched a scheme to decrease the power of the throne and subsequently increase the power of the aristocracy.  The success of the coup was certainly aided by the fact that King Hyegong ( 혜공왕 ) was only 11 years old when the rebellion began.

What Actually Happened?
I came across two completely different accounts of the next couple years, so to be honest I am not sure what is in fact the true story.  Both stories claim that a man named Kim Yang-sang (later to be known as King Seondeok) held the position of sangdaedeung ( 상대등 ) under King Hyegong.  Sangdaedeung was the leader of the Hwabaek Council and considered to be the most powerful position in Silla other than King.  The story that I believe to be true states that Kim Yang-sang seized power in 774 before finally killing King Hyegong in 780 and taking the throne.  However, I did find an account which states that Kim Yang-sang actually led the royal forces against the rebels when they stormed the palace in 780, but then proceeded to take the throne after the rebels killed the king.  So in short, it is definitely true that Kim Yang-sang served as sangdaedeung and that he became king in 780, but the details under which he rose to power are unknown.

I Just Can't Wait to be King
This event was the beginning of what is traditionally known as "Late Silla", which is marked by a decrease in royal authority.  The shift of power to the aristocracy created an extremely chaotic atmosphere that ultimately led to Silla's downfall.  Silla descended into a society in which military might, rather than lineage, determined the right to rule.  The last 150 years of the Silla Dynasty witnessed 20 kings rise to the throne, none of which lasted more than 20 years and very few of which even made it to the double digits.

Late Silla

Well it seems that while the aristocrats were busy feuding amongst themselves in the capital city, they completely forgot about the fact that there was an entire country that needed to be governed.  Private trade with China and Japan had begun to flourish, and as a result wealthy merchants arose as powerful regional leaders around the country.  The rise of regional power finally united the aristocracy in a common goal, which was to maintain power over the country (honestly, I think the only reason for the coup that occurred earlier was because they hadn't had an enemy for so long and decided to create one).  The dispersion of power from the capital eventually resulted in regional power holders called "castle lords", who had their own military and exercised control over various areas of the country.  They even taxed the villages under their control, so they had in effect become separate entities and the ruling elite in Gyeongju held no real power over these areas.  

The Peasants Rebel

The dawn of taxes imposed by castle lords put quite a strain on the peasant population, as they were now responsible for taxes to the state and to their respective castle lord.  The lack of central control originally resulted in the government being unable to collect taxes from peasants in the regions controlled by castle lords, but in 889 the government attempted to forcefully collect the taxes.  This led to peasant revolts, which began in the Sangju area, located almost directly in the center of modern-day South Korea, and spread to virtually every other area of the country.  These rebellions eventually led to the founding of Later Baekje in 892 and Later Goguryeo in 901, which officially ended Silla's unification of the Korean peninsula.  


Political Structure
The early years of Unified Silla witnessed a growth in the power of throne and therefore also a decrease in the power of the aristocracy.  The fight to increase royal authority was not easy and it even led to the deaths of many aristocrats who opposed the strengthening authority during the rule of King Sinmun ( 신문왕 ).  However, its ultimate result was a period of unprecedented peace during the first half of the 8th century.  This peace of course came to an end when aristocrats conspired against the throne in 768 and eventually succeeded in swinging the balance of power in their favor.  Although the eventual end would not come for another 150 years, this event ultimately led to the decentralization of power and the end of the Silla Kingdom.

Problems with Bone Rank
The advent of Confucianism exposed many faults in Silla's bone rank system.  Confucianism was centered around the idea that men of talent should be promoted within government based upon state examinations, which stood directly opposed to a bone rank system that promoted based upon lineage.  The members of head rank six, who were prevented from holding important government jobs because of their blood line, but had been allowed to attend the Confucian College, were the primary supporters of the Confucian movement.  These men were in fact given important jobs during the period of decreasing aristocratic power, but the break with the tradition of the bone rank system ended up being too radical of change for members of the upper class to accept.  Although the idea of promoting based on talent seems like an obvious policy today, Silla would ultimately end up living and dying by the bone rank system.

Prior to unification, government officials had been paid with "stipend villages", which allowed the officials to collect taxes and also control labor forces for their land.  However, this policy was changed in 689 and the officials instead began receiving "office land", which could only be taxed.  The original policy was later restored as the aristocracy began to gather more power.  There is actually an account which states that government officials owned as many as 3,000 slaves.  Unified Silla witnessed an amazingly large disparity between the rich and poor.  As has been the case throughout history, the greed of the aristocracy resulted in their downfall when they attempted to forcefully tax the peasants in 889 in order to maintain their own extravagant lifestyles.


Despite Silla's original reluctance to accept Buddhism as its formal religion, this mode of thought caught fire during Unified Silla and was the most popular religion among both the aristocracy and the common people.  There were many monks who made pilgrimages to India and China during this time, and as a result many different schools of thought emerged within Korea.  The most dominant of these among the aristocracy was the Avatamsaka, or Hwaeom as it is called in Korea, while the most popular amongst the common people was Pure Land Buddhism.  The most well known teacher from this time period was named Wonhyo, and his influence was widespread within Korea and even spread to neighboring countries.

So why was this sutra so popular with the ruling class?  More than likely it was due to the teaching that the one contains the multitude and the multitude is as one.  This seems like a pretty nice concept for a group of people attempting rule the country under one central authority. 

Pure Land
This doctrine taught that people did not need to understand the complicated doctrines and sutras in the Buddhist religion, but rather that it was enough to simply profess one's faith.  I'm sure that this came as a welcome teaching to a largely illiterate and uneducated populous.  Pure Land Buddhism also preached about the torment on earth and that people could be reborn into paradise.  

Wonhyo ( 워효 )
Wonhyo was a Buddhist teacher who lived in Silla during the seventh century.  He did not travel to either India or China like many of his contemporaries, but was still considered to be one of the most respected thinkers of his time period.  There is actually a story that states that Wonhyo was on his way to China with his friend, Uisang, when they were forced to take shelter in a tomb (although they did not know it was a tomb) during a storm.  Wonhyo became extremely thirsty during the night and found what he thought was a water source, so he took a drink.  He awoke in the morning to find that he had actually drank from a human skull and he became fascinated with the ability of the mind to alter reality.  Thereafter he abandoned the priesthood and his plans to go to China in order to spread the dharma.  Wonhyo's message primarily concentrated on condemning the animosity that existed between the various sects of Buddhism and focusing on the common beliefs between each school of thought.

Confucianism arrived in Silla during the seventh century and steadily evolved into a widespread thought process that would eventually challenge Buddhism and even the bedrock of Silla's society.  The first Confucian college was opened in 682 was primarily attended by members of head rank six within the bone rank system.  A state examination, which tested knowledge of the texts taught at the college, began in 788 and placement in certain government positions was determined by this test.  Supporters of Confucianism argued that this examination, rather than lineage, should be used to determine government placements.  The development of this test would ultimately challenge the bone rank system's method of government placement and create a rift in Silla's society.    

The best examples of Silla architecture are found at Bulguksa (temple) and Seokguram grotto.  Although the original Bulguksa was destroyed during the Imjin war at the end of the sixteenth century, both of these locations are very well known historical sites in Korea.

Bulguksa - Completed 774 AD
Silla was actually very well known for their bronze temple bells.  The largest of these is rumored to have weighed over 300 tons, but it has not survived.  The largest surviving bell was cast in 711 AD and called the Emile Bell.  It can currently be found at the Gyeongju National Museum.  Silla's bells are generally considered to be unparalleled in either China or Japan.

Emile Bell
As was the case in Silla prior to unification, the hyangga was the most popular mode of expression during this time.  Hyangga poems were written about religious practices (specifically Buddhism) with the purpose of bringing peace or wisdom to the state.  There was actually a compilation of hyangga called Sam Dae Mok ( 삼대목 ), which was produced at the end of the ninth century, but it has not survived.

Woodblock Printing
Texts began to be recorded using the woodblock printing process during this time period.  Korea is actually home to the world's oldest extant woodblock print, which is a copy of the Dharani sutra and was created earlier than 751.

No comments:

Post a Comment