SILLA DYNASTY (57 B.C. - A.D. 936)

The Silla (Shilla) Kingdom evolved in the southeast during the Three Kingdom Period (57 B.C.-A.D. 668). Silla historians traced the kingdom's origin to 57 B.C., but contemporary historians regard King Naemul (A.D. 356-402) as having been the earliest ruler. Coming into its own around A.D. 700, the Silla Kingdom of Korea established an enduring culture and built outstanding palaces, Buddhist temples and gardens. Silla Unification Period (668-892) marked by cultural borrowing from China and the establishment of a rich Korean culture. Korea prospered and the arts flourished; Buddhism, which had entered Korea in the 4th century, became dominant in this period.

The historical period after the Three Kingdom Period is known as the Unified Silla Dynasty period (A.D. 668–935). In the seventh century, the Silla Kingdom united Korea south of the Taedong River and successfully resisted repeated campaigns by the rulers of Sui (581-617) and Tang (618-907) China to conquer all of Korea. Under Silla rule, the king placed military commanders in charge of civil and military affairs in all of the country's local districts. A military academy was established in the capital city of Gyeongju and was open to young men of aristocratic birth. Upon completion of their training, these young men were given the title hwarang, meaning Flower Knight. Most of the great military leaders of Silla trained at this academy and dedicated their lives to military service. [Source: Library of Congress]

Silla was influenced by China but also stubbornly resisted Chinese attempts to turn it into a colony. While Silla and subsequent dynasties were obliged to pay tribute to the various Chinese, Mongol, and Jurchen dynasties, and although Korea was subjected to direct overlordship by the Mongols for a century, the Korean kingdoms were able to survive as independent entities, enabling their citizens to maintain an identity as a separate people.

Despite the fact that Korea would undergo numerous reforms, palace coups, and two dynastic changes after the Silla period, many of the political and social systems and practices instituted during the Silla Dynasty persisted until the nineteenth century. Their Chinese inspiration, of course, had much to do with the durability of these systems. One lasting principle was that of centralized rule. From the time of the Koguryo, Paekche, and Silla states of the Three Kingdoms period, royal houses always governed their domains directly, without granting autonomous powers to local administrators. The effectiveness of the central government varied from dynasty to dynasty and from period to period, but the principle of centralization — involving a system of provinces, districts, towns, and villages — was never modified.

Silla was an important repository of a rich and cultured ruling elite, with its capital at Gyeongju in the southeast, north of the port of Pusan. In fact, the men who ruled South Korea beginning in 1961 all came from this region. It has been the southwestern Paekche legacy that suffered in divided Korea, as Koreans of other regions and historians in both North Korea and South Korea have discriminated against the people of the present- day Chlla provinces. But taken together, all three kingdoms continue to influence Korean history and political culture. Koreans often assume that regional traits that they like or dislike go back to the Three Kingdoms period. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

Three Kingdoms Period (57 B.C.-A.D. 668)

The earliest recognized historical period in Korea is the Three Kingdoms Period (57 B.C.-A.D. 668). Korea was strongly influenced by China at this time, and Chinese in fact occupied much of the Korean peninsula until around A.D. 400. Confucianism, Chinese writing, and other aspects of Chinese culture were introduced from China during this period.

The Three Kingdoms refers to the early Silla culture (traditionally founded 57 B.C., but significant beginning c. A.D. 350 to A.D. 668), the Paekche culture (traditionally founded 18 B.C., but significant beginning c. A.D. 250 to A.D. 660) and the Kokuryo (Koguryo) culture (37 B.C.-A.D. 668). Beginning about the A.D. fifth century, the original tribes in the south — the Mahan, the Chinchan, and the Pynhan — coalesced into two competing kingdoms — the Silla and Paekche. The Koguryo stayed in the colder north and established an empire there.

With the rise of the power and expansion of the Han empire in China (206 B.C.–A.D. 220), Old Chosun declined. A new iron culture gradually emerged on the Korean Peninsula, and in the first three centuries A.D. a large number of walled-town states developed in southern Korea. Among them, the state of Paekche was the most important as it conquered its southern neighboring states and expanded northward to the area around present-day Seoul. To the north, near the Amokgang (Yalu), the state of Koguryo had emerged by the first century A.D. and expanded in all directions up through 313 A.D. A third state — Silla — developed in the central part of the peninsula. These three states give name to the Three Kingdoms Period (first– seventh centuries A.D.). Eventually Silla, allied with China, defeated both Paekche and Koguryo to unify the peninsula by 668.

During the Three Kingdoms Period, Confucian statecraft and Buddhism were introduced to the Korean Peninsula and served as unifying factors. By 671 Silla had seized Chinese-held territories in the south and pushed the remnants of Koguryo farther northward; Chinese commandaries (which dated back at least to the second century B.C.) had been driven off the peninsula by 676, thereby guaranteeing that the Korean people would develop independently, largely without outside influences. [Source: Library of Congress, May 2005 **]

The militaristic Koguryo was made up of fierce horsemen from Manchuria. The Silla evolved out of a loose federation of tribes into a powerful dynasty centered in present-day Kjongju. The Paekche dynasty was dominated the agricultural regions of western and southwestern Korea. Japanese culture was influenced by the Paekche dynasty who passed on ceramic techniques and decoration, architectural design, sculpture, handicrafts and tomb construction to Japan. The most well known event from the Three Kingdom Period involved 3000 women of the Paekche court who leapt to their death to avoid dishonorable death at the hands of enemies from another kingdom.

Early Silla

The Silla Dynasty evolved in southeast Korea out of a loose federation of tribes into a powerful dynasty centered in present-day Kjongju. Silla historians traced the kingdom's origin to 57 B.C., but contemporary historians regard King Naemul (ruled A.D. 356-402) as having been the earliest ruler. King Naemul first consolidated a large confederated kingdom and established a hereditary kingship. His domain was east of the Naktong River in present-day North Kyngsang Province, South Korea.

Some of the tribal states in the area of the lower Naktong River, along the south central coast of the peninsula, did not join either of these kingdoms. Under the name Gaya, they formed a league of walled city-states that conducted extensive coastal trade and also maintained close ties with the tribal states in western Japan. Sandwiched between the more powerful Silla and Paekche, Gaya eventually was absorbed by its neighbors during the sixth century.

The first 215 years of the Silla Dynasty were marked by the establishment of new political, legal, and education institutions of considerable vigor. Domestic and foreign trade (with Tang China and Japan) prospered. Scholarship in Confucian learning, mathematics, astronomy, and medicine also flourished. Buddhism, introduced to the peninsula in A.D. 372, reached its zenith. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990]

Centralized government probably emerged in Silla in the last half of the fifth century, when the capital became both an administrative and a marketing center. In the early sixth century, Silla's leaders introduced plowing by oxen and built extensive irrigation facilities. Increased agricultural output presumably ensued, allowing further political and cultural development that included an administrative code in 520, a class system of hereditary "bone-ranks" for choosing elites, and the adoption of Buddhism as the state religion around 535. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

Silla developed in the central part of the Korean peninsula. Eventually Silla, allied with China, defeated both Paekche and Koguryo to unify the peninsula by 668. Buddhism was introduced to Korea from China in A.D. 372 and spread into Japan from Korea in the sixth century A.D. The religion originated in India and made its may to China before reaching Korea. Buddhism had a profound influence on culture during the Three Kingdoms Period.

Fighting and Alliances Between Paekche, Silla and Koguryo at the End of the Three Kingdoms Period

Koguryo moved its capital to Pyongyang in 427 and ruled the territory north of the Han River. But Koguryo's expansion caused it to come into conflict with the Sui Dynasty of China (581-617) in the west and Silla, which was beginning to expand northward, in the south. Although Koguryo had been strong enough to repulse the forces of the Sui Dynasty, combined attacks by Silla and the Tang Dynasty of China (618-907) proved too formidable. Koguryo's ally in the southwest, Paekche, fell before Tang and Silla in 660; the victorious allies continued their assault on Koguryo for the next eight years and eventually vanquished the weary kingdom, which had been suffering from a series of famines and internal strife.

Militarily weaker than Koguryo, Silla sought to fend the former off through an alliance with Paekche. By the beginning of the fifth century, however, Koguryo had achieved undisputed control of all of Manchuria east of the Liao River as well as the northern and central regions of the Korean Peninsula. At this time, Koguryo had a famous leader appropriately named King Kwanggaet'o (r. 391-412), a name that translates as "broad expander of territory." Reigning from the age of eighteen, he conquered sixty-five walled towns and 1,400 villages, in addition to assisting Silla when the Wa forces attacked. As Koguryo's domain increased, it confronted China's Sui Dynasty (581-617) in the west and Silla and Paekche to the south. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

Silla attacked Koguryo in 551 in concert with King Sng (r. 523-54) of Paekche. After conquering the upper reaches of the Han River, Silla turned on the Paekche forces and drove them out of the lower Han area. While a tattered Paekche kingdom nursed its wounds in the southwest, Silla allied with Chinese forces of the Sui and the successor Tang Dynasty (618-907) in combined attacks against Koguryo. The Sui emperor Yang Di launched an invasion of Koguryo in 612, marshaling more than 1 million soldiers only to be lured by the revered Koguryo commander lchi Mundk into a trap, where Sui forces virtually were destroyed. Perhaps as few as 3,000 Sui soldiers survived; the massacre contributed to the fall of the dynasty in 617. Newly risen Tang emperor Tai Zong launched another huge invasion in 645, but Koguryo forces won another striking victory in the siege of the An Si Fortress in western Koguryo, forcing Tai Zong's forces to withdraw.

Koreans have always viewed these victories as sterling examples of resistance to foreign aggression. Had Koguryo not beaten back the invaders, all the states of the peninsula might have fallen under extended Chinese domination. Thus commanders like lchi Mundk later became models for emulation, especially during the Korean War (1950-53).

Paekche could not hold out under combined Silla and Tang attack, however. The latter landed an invasion fleet in 660, and Paekche quickly fell under their assaults. Tang pressure also had weakened Koguryo, and after eight years of battle it gave way because of pressure from both external attack and internal strife exacerbated by several famines. Koguryo forces retreated to the north, enabling Silla forces to advance and consolidate their control up to the Taedong River, which flows through Pyongyang.

Silla Becomes the Main Korean Kingdom

Silla and Paekche had sought to use Chinese power against Koguryo, inaugurating another tradition of involving foreign powers in internal Korean disputes. But Silla's reliance on Tang forces to consolidate its control had its price. Because Silla had to resist encroaching Tang forces, its sway was limited to the area south of the Taedong River. Nevertheless, Silla's military power, bolstered by an ideal of the youthful warrior (hwarang), was formidable. It seized Tang-occupied Paekche territories, pushed Koguryo still further northward. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993*]

By 671 Silla had seized Chinese-held territories in the south and pushed the remnants of Koguryo farther northward; Chinese commandaries (which dated back at least to the second century B.C.) had been driven off the peninsula by 676, thereby guaranteeing that the Korean people would develop independently, largely without outside influences. [Source: Library of Congress, May 2005]

After forming an alliance with T'ang China, Silla conquered Paekche and Koguryo by 668, and then expelled the Chinese and unified much of the peninsula. Although Koguryo had been strong enough to repulse the forces of the Sui Dynasty, combined attacks by Silla and the Tang Dynasty of China (618-907) proved too formidable. Koguryo's ally in the southwest, Paekche, fell before Tang and Silla in 660; the victorious allies continued their assault on Koguryo for the next eight years and eventually vanquished the weary kingdom, which had been suffering from a series of famines and internal strife. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990*]

Silla thus unified Korea in 668, but the kingdom's reliance on China's Tang Dynasty had its price. Eventually Silla had to forcibly resist the imposition of Chinese rule over the entire peninsula, which Silla's rulers did, but their strength did not extend beyond the Taedong River. Much of the former Koguryo territory was given up to the Chinese and to other tribal states. It remained for later dynasties to push the border northward to the Yalu and Tumen rivers.

The broad territories of Koguryo, however, were not conquered, and in 698 a Koguryo general named Tae Cho-yng established a successor state called Parhae above and below the Yalu and Tumen boundaries. Parhae forced Silla to build a northern wall in 721, and kept Silla forces below a line running from present-day Pyongyang to Wnsan. By the eighth century, Parhae controlled the northern part of Korea, all of northeastern Manchuria, and the Liaodong Peninsula. Both Silla and Parhae continued to be heavily influenced by Tang Chinese civilization. *

Silla, the Golden Age of Korea

From 668, the year of Silla’s victory, South Korean historians speak of a unified Korea. By defeating its two rivals — the Paekche and Koguryo kingdoms — with Chinese help, Korea was unified for the first time and ushering in Korea's Buddhist-inspired golden age. While Europe wallowed in the Dark Ages in Europe, Silla-era Korea generated great art and scientific research, and ideas flowed from China to Japan through Korea. The Silla kingdom was so rich that, according to one Chinese chronicler, every single one of the 170,000 houses in the capital of Kjongju had a tile roof with rafters tipped in gold.

At the height of the Silla Dynasty in the 8th century, Gyeongju was the center of one of the largest kingdoms in Asia, and home to possibly a million people. Ancient historians who visiting the city described Chinese, Muslim and Korean merchants doing business side by side and kings that had four palaces — one for each season — with treasures from the four corners of known world: tortoise shell from the Philippines, glass from Persia and pearls from Japan. Items produced in Gyeongju that were coveted by other kingdoms included bronze temple bells and smooth silk paper.

Muslim traders carried the name "Silla" to the world outside the East Asia via the Silk Road. Geographers of the Arab and Persian world, including ibn Khurdadhbih, al-Masudi, Dimashiki, Al-Nuwayri, and al-Maqrizi, left records about Silla. An ancient Persian epic poem, the Kushnameh, contains detailed descriptions of Silla. Korea's and Iran's long-standing ties go back 1,600 years to the Three Kingdoms of Korea era. A dark blue glass found in the Cheonmachong Tomb, one of Silla's royal tombs, and an exotic golden sword found in Gyerim-ro, a silver bowl engraved with an image of the Persian goddess Anahita; a golden dagger from Persia; clay busts; and figurines portraying Middle Eastern merchants are all artifacts from Persia that made their way to Silla. [Source: Wikipedia]

The history of kites in Korea can be traced back to the reign of Queen Chindok of Silla in A.D. 637 when the military launched a burning kite at night to trick the superstitious population into believing a falling star would bring good fortune to the city of Gyeongju.

Silla Monarchs

According to tradition, Silla was founded by Hyokkose in 57 B.C. During the reign of King Naemul (the seventeenth ruler, 356-402), the Kim family established a hereditary monarchy, state laws and decrees, and the eastern half of the Gaya state on the eastern tip of the peninsula was annexed. During the reign of King Beopheung (Pophung, the 23rd monarch, ruled 514-540), Silla emerged as a kingdom with a privileged aristocracy. During the reign of King Jinheung (Chinhung, the 24th monarch, ruled 540–576) the military system was reorganized and a unique military corps, called the Hwarang, was organized, which incorporated spiritual training, intellectual enhancement and artistic pursuits with martial arts training. [Source: New World Encyclopedia]

Silla Monarchs (Pre-unification): 1) Hyeokgeose 57 BCE – 4 CE; 2) Namhae 4–24; 3) Yuri 24–57; 4) Talhae 57–80; 5) Pasa 80–112; 6) Jima 112–134; 7) Ilseong 134–154; 8) Adalla 154–184; 9) Beolhyu 184–196; 10) Naehae 196–230; 11) Jobun 230–247; 12) Cheomhae 247–261; 13) Michu 262–284; 14) Yurye 284–298; 15) Girim 298–310; 16) Heulhae 310–356; 17) Naemul 356–402; 18) Silseong 402–417; 19) Nulji 417–458; 20) Jabi 458–479; 21) Soji 479–500; 22) Jijeung 500–514; 23) Beopheung 514–540; 24) Jinheung 540–576; 25) Jinji 576–579; 26) Jinpyeong 579–632; 27) Seondeok 632–647; 28) Jindeok 647–654; 29) Muyeol 654–661 [Source: Wikipedia]

Silla Monarchs(Post-unification); 30) Munmu 661–681; 31) Sinmun 681–691; 32) Hyoso 692–702; 33) Seongdeok 702–737; 34) Hyoseong 737–742; 35) Gyeongdeok 742–765; 36) Hyegong 765–780; 37) Seondeok 780–785; 38) Wonseong 785–798; 39) Soseong 798–800; 40) Aejang 800–809; 41) Heondeok 809–826; 42) Heungdeok 826–836; 43) Huigang 836–838; 44) Minae 838–839; 45) Sinmu 839; 46) Munseong 839–857; 47) Heonan 857–861; 48) Gyeongmun 861–875; 49) Heongang 875–886; 50) Jeonggang 886–887; 51) Jinseong 887–897; 52) Hyogong 897–912; 53) Sindeok 912–917; 54) Gyeongmyeong 917–924; 55) Gyeongae 924–927; 56) Gyeongsun 927–935 [Source: Wikipedia]

"Bone Rank" System

Another feature that endured for centuries was the existence of a stratified social system characterized by a clear distinction between the rulers and the ruled. Under the Silla Dynasty, society was rigidly organized into a hereditary caste system. The Koryo Dynasty instituted a system of social classes according to which the rest of the population was subordinate to an elite composed of scholar-officials. By passing the higher civil service examination and becoming a government official a commoner could become a member of the elite, but since examinations presupposed both the time and wealth for education, upward mobility was not the rule. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990*]

Silla society was dominated by hereditary status in the form of the “bone rank” system, and in general, the historical importance of hereditary status is one of the pronounced features of Korea relative to its East Asian neighbors. The bone rank system grouped people, based on birth, into royal/aristocratic “hallowed bone” and “true bone” categories or into six “head ranks” with everything, from the government office one was able to hold to the clothes one could wear, being governed by this rank. Under the “bone rank” system, initially only a seonggol (a descendant of two parents of royal blood) could ruler. Kim Chunchu ascended the throne as a jinggol (a royal relative with only one parent of royal blood).

Sol Kyedu, a descendant of a Silla official who lived in the seventh century, was one person who was dissatisfied with this system. In the fourth year, sinsa, of Wu.te [621], Sol stealthily boarded an oceangoing ship and went to T’ang China. He is recorded in the Samguk sagi.

Once Sol went drinking with his fourfriends, each of whom revealed his wishes. Sol said, “In Silla the bone rank is the key to employment. If one is not of the nobility, no matter what his talents, he cannot achieve a high rank. I wish to travel west to China, display rare resources and perfect meritorious deeds, and thereby open a path to glory and splendor that I might wear the robes and sword of an official and serve closely the Son of Heaven.” [Source: “Sourcebook of Korean Civilization”, edited by Peter H. Lee, vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 49.

King Jinpyeong the Great of Silla

Jinpyeong of Silla (ruled 579-632) was the 26th king of Silla. During his reign he strengthened the ties between Silla and the Chinese Tang dynasty, gaining the Chinese support which later allowed Silla to conquer the other two Kingdoms of Paekche and Koguryo, and unite the Korean Peninsula. He encouraged the promulgation of Buddhist teachings. In 585, he sent a venerable monk, Jimiyon, to study Buddhism under the Chen Dynasty; and in 589, Wangwan, was sent to the Sui dynasty to study Confucianism, but converted to a Buddhist monk after hearing Buddhist teachings. He became a monk Wangwan educated the Hwarang, an elite group of Silla. Silluk-sa Temple, located southeast of Seoul, was founded by Wonhyo during the reign of King Jinpyeong. [Source: New World Encyclopedia]

Jinpyeong succeeded his cousin, King Jinji (ruled 576–579) and since he had no sons, was succeeded by his oldest daughter Queen Seondeok. (See Below). His second daughter, Chonmyoung, was the mother of Kim Chun Chu, who became King Muyeol of Silla, the 29th ruler of Silla. His third daughter, Seonhwa, may have married King Mu, the 30th King of Paekche.

Jinpyeong of Silla was a member of the Kim dynasty. The twenty-fourth monarch, King Jinheung was succeeded by his second son, Prince Sa-Ryun, who became King Jinji ( ), the twenty-fifty monarch of Silla in 576, but lived for only three years after ascending the throne. Jinpyeong's father was the first son of King Jinheung, and his mother was a sister of King Jinheung.

During Jinpyeong’s reign, many conflicts with Paekche and Koguryo arose, and Jinpyeong sent emissaries to Tang to improve relations with China and put pressure on Koguryo and Paekche. Silla's relations with the other Korean nations deteriorated, but he secured more support from China, which later contributed to the unification of Korea under the Silla. Along with this foreign policy, Jinpyeong tried to organize his central government and strengthen his domestic rule in order to pursue territorial ambitions.

Jinpyeong was a patron of Buddhism, and supported sending students to study Buddhism in China. In 589, Wangwan was sent to the Sui dynasty to study Confucianism; after hearing Buddhist teachings, he became a monk. After Jinpyeong called Wangwan to return to Silla in 600 , he served as a simple monk, reserving his talents especially for a crisis. He was also a political advisor; on one occasion Jinpyeong asked Wangwan to write a letter to the Sui dynasty, asking them to send reinforcements to defend Silla against a Koguryo raid. Wangwan valued loyalty and fidelity to King Jinpyeong and had an ardent commitment to the defense of his country. When two warriors asked Wangwan what were the important commandments for the life of a warrior, he gave them “The five commandments of worldly matters,” which were rules for Buddhist laypeople:

The first commandment is that you should attend with loyalty and fidelity on our King (sovereign or lord).The second commandment is that you should devote yourself with filial piety to your parents.The third commandment is that you should keep good company and put your trust in your friends. The fourth commandment is that in the face of the war, you should not move backward.The fifth commandment is that you have a choice to shed blood or not to shed it.

Queen Seon Deok

Queen Seondeok of Silla (ruled A.D. 632-647) is the first female ruler of Silla Kingdom and the second female sovereign in recorded East Asian history. Reigning during Three Kingdoms period, she was Silla's twenty-seventh ruler and is famed for encouraging a renaissance in thought, literature, and the arts in Silla. In the Samguksagi, she was described as "generous, benevolent, wise, and smart". [Source: Wikipedia]

Princess Deokman (Queen Seondeok) was the daughter of King Jinpyeong and Queen Maya of Silla. She is believed to be have had two sisters, Princess Cheonmyeong and Princess Seonhwa. It is not certain who was born first. It is widely believed that Princess Cheonmyeong was older than Princess Deokman. Because King Jinpyeong had no son whom he could pass the crown to, he began to consider his son-in-law, Kim Yongsu (husband of Princess Cheonmyeong) as his successor. Princess Deokman plead with her father to also be considered. It was not unprecedented for women to hold power in Silla (Queen Sado had served a regent for King Jinpyeong) but a female ruler sitting on the throne was still generally frowned upon.

Women in the Silla era had a certain degree of influence as advisors, dowager queens, and regents. Within ordinary families, women were often the heads of households since matrilineal lines of descent existed alongside patrilineal ones. The Confucian model, which placed women in a subordinate position within the family, was not to have a major impact in Korea until the mid Joseon period in the fifteenth century. During the Silla kingdom, women's status remained relatively high, but they were expected to do their duties and not try to do activities that were considered to be unwomanly.

Early in her life, Seondeok had displayed an unusually quick mind. Once the king received a box of peony seeds from the emperor of China, accompanied by a painting of what the flowers looked like. Looking at the picture, unmarried Seondeok remarked that while the flower was pretty it was too bad that it did not smell. "If it did, there would be butterflies and bees around the flower in the painting." Her observation about the peonies' lack of smell proved correct, a demonstration of her intelligence, and thus her ability to rule. After she was named as King Jinpyeong's successor, some officials — including Ichan Chilsuk and Achan Seokpum planned an uprising in order to stop her from being crowned in May 631, but the plan was discovered and Chilsuk and his entire family were beheaded as punishment in the market. Seokpum escaped to Paekche but missed his wife and returned disguised as a woodcutter. Upon his return he was arrested and later executed.

In January, 632, Seondeok, became the first queen of Silla. In 634, she became the sole ruler of Silla. She was the first of three female rulers of the kingdom, and was immediately succeeded by her cousin Jindeok, who ruled until 654. Among Queen Seondeok’s first orders of business was sending royal inspectors throughout the Silla kingdom to oversee the care and needs of the widows, widowers, orphans, poor and elderly and sending a tribute to the Tang Dynasty Emperor in of China however the Tang Emperor, Taizong, Tang refused to acknowledge Seondeok as a ruler because she was a woman. In the second year of Queen Seondeok's reign Cheomseongdae astronomical observatory was built to help the farmers and taxes on peasants and the middle class were reduced.

According to Samguk Sagi, in March, 636, the queen became ill and no amount of prayers and medicine worked. In March, 638, a large stone on the south side of the mountain moved on its own, and seven months later, Koguryo attacked the mountain valley. The next year, the sea water on the eastern part of the Silla kingdom turned red, which caused all of the fish living in it to die. These events made the people anxious, and some of them considered them as bad omens portending the Silla kingdom's downfall. In 642, Paekche attacked Silla and captured 40 fortresses in the western part of Silla. In 643, Paekche and Koguryo took Danghang Fortress, blocking an important sea route to the Tang dynasty Queen Seondeok was able to fend off a Tang request to install a male royal of Tang descent as king of Silla as form an alliance with the Tang to defeat Paekche and Koguryo. Queen Seondeok also presided over the construction of a nine-story pagoda, called Hwangnyongsa (meaning "Imperial Dragon Temple"), considered one of the tallest temples in East Asia at that time.

“The Great Queen Seondeok”: The Korean Drama

▪“The Great Queen Seondeok” (2009) was Directed by Geun-hong Kim and Hong Kyun Park and stars Woong-in Jeong, Jeong-hyeon Kim, Dam Ryu and Yo-won Lee. This drama dominated the ratings and continues to win fans in a story of action, humor, intrigue and romance set in the ancient Korean kingdom of Silla. Deokman is torn from her family at birth and reared in exile in the remote deserts of China. There she learns the wisdom and love she'll need on her long road back to Korea and the twin sister she lost. In a sweeping saga of humor and pathos, Deokman earns the loyalty of refugees, con men and the greatest Hwarang warriors of the age. Together they battle the enemies of her homeland-but can they defeat the enemies within? Ancient mysticism, political intrigue and thrilling action sequences combine in a human drama perfect for the whole family. Go Hyun-jung, Lee Yo-won and Eom Tae-ung lead an all-star cast in another powerful series from the director of Jumong and the writer of Dae Jang Geum.

“The Great Queen Seondeok” is a highly fictionalized interpretation of her life. While the story itself is largely made up, many of the people and leading characters were real. The drama depicts her as a beautiful and skillful queen who face many adversities to rise to her position and keep it. In the story, Deokman was born a twin but was sent to a place far away by her father, King Jinpyung in order to protect her from the royal court lady, Mishil who tries to snatch away the throne from the royal successor. Deokman was later brought back to the Silla palace, where she joined forces with her twin sister Princess Chunmyung to oppose Mishil. However, Mishil devised sinister plans to have the two Silla princesses exiled from the kingdom, and in a secretive battle, Princess Chunmyung was accidentally killed. But Princess Deokman shrewdly enlisted the help of General Kim Yusin and eliminated her archenemy Mishil.

“The Great Queen Seondeok” (native title: Seondeok Yeowang) is set in the early A.D. 600s. It was broadcast by MBC and has 62 episodes. bibimgirl wrote: “This is the drama that started it all for me! Read more about her in my Badass Mammas of The Three Kingdoms Period Page.” [Source: bibimgirl, February 3, 2016]

King Muyeol of Silla

King Taejong Muyeol (602 – 661; born Kim Chunchu) was the 29th monarch of the Silla Dynasty. Ruling from 654 to 661, he is credited with creating the foundation for the unification of the Three Kingdoms of Korea. Before ascending to the throne, Kim Chunchu paid visits to Koguryo, Wa (Japan) and the Tang dynasty in China, seeking reinforcements to defend against the incursions of the Paekche kingdom. [Source: New World Encyclopedia]

Though not considered a seonggol (in Silla’s “bone rank” system, a descendant of two parents of royal blood), Kim Chunchu ascended the throne as a jinggol (a royal relative with only one parent of royal blood) when Queen Seondeok, the last seonggol, died in 654. During his short rule from 654 to 661, he established a centralized government based on a legal code, defeated the rival Paekche kingdom, and forged an alliance with the Tang dynasty which later enabled his son, King Munmu, to unify the Korean peninsula for the first time.

Kim Chunchu was born in 602, with the "sacred blood" and the rank of seonggol. His father was Kim Youngchun, son of King Jinji, the twenty-fifty monarch of Silla., one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea. King Jinji was overthrown from his throne, making Kim Youngchun unable to succeed to the throne. However, he still was one of the few seonggols. He married a princess who was a daughter of King Jinpyeong of Silla (ruled 579-632).

Before his accession to the throne Kim Chunchu worked energetically to confront Paekche and establish international relations for Silla. In August of 642, when Paekche invaded part of Silla’s territory, Kim Chunchu went to Koguryo to ask for reinforcements. There he was arrested and put into prison, but some sympathetic Koguryo retainers helped him to escape just as Kim Yusin was preparing to take the field near the border of Koguryo with 3,000 soldiers to rescue him. After failing to get reinforcements from Koguryo, Kim Chunchu went to Wa ( present-day Japan) in 647. The Nihon Shoki (The Chronicles of Japan) documents Kim Chunchu’s visit to Wa, but Samguk Sagi (Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms), a historical record of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, never mentioned the journey. In 648, Kim Chunchu went with his son to appeal to the Tang dynasty in China for support in conquering Paekche. Although they could not get a precise date for the arrival of the Tang reinforcements, Emperor Taizong of Tang ( ) issued an order to dispatch Tang’s military forces. At the same time Kim Chunchu asked Emperor Taizong of Tang for permission to change Silla’s formal dress from the style of Silla to that of Tang.

After the death of Queen Jindeok,Silla's 28th ruler, in March of 654, there were no seonggol. Kim Chunchu’s father, Kim Youngchun, had been the son of the deposed King Jinji ( ; ); his mother, Chonmyoung, was the sister of Queen Seondeok and the second daughter of King Jinpyeong, and therefore also a seonggol. Kim Youngchun had been one of the most powerful figures in the government, but had been deposed. In order to survive, he had accepted the lower rank of jinggol, just below seonggol, and forfeited his right to the throne. Because no seonggol was available, Kim Chunchu ascended the Silla throne with support a high-ranking general, bringing to an end the seonggol class of Silla.

Soon after his accession to the throne as King Taejong Muyeol, the Tang dynasty sent an official letter addressed to “King Shilla”. Because of his previous friendship with the Emperor of the Tang Dynasty, King Taejong Muyeol maintained good relationships with Tang, and he and the Emperor offered each other mutual support. This support was essential to the later unification of Korea by Muyeol’s son, King Munmu. In May, 654, King Taejong Muyeol ordered his chief administrator to research in detail the available legal codes, and enacted approximately 60 laws aimed at establishing a centralized government in Silla based on the legal system. The new legal code attempted to strengthen the royal prerogative.

In January of 655, Paekche and Koguryo combined forces to attack Silla's northern border. In 660, the Tang finally acquiesced to King Taejong Muyeol’s constant pleas for reinforcements to destroy Paekche, and sent 130,000 troops under General So Jungbang. Paekche's navy was defeated by the Tang navy, and Kim Yusin set out from Silla with 50,000 soldiers and fought a bloody battle at Hwang San Bul, defeating the Paekche army led by Gye Baek. The Paekche capital Sabi (in present-day Buyeo, Chungcheongnam-do) was surrounded by the Silla-Tang allied forces. Uija and the crown prince escaped to Ungjin (in present-day Gongju), but surrendered when Sabi fell. King Uija’s surrender left only Koguryo to face Silla as an adversary on the Korean peninsula. In June of the following year, 661, King Muyeol died, leaving his son Kim Beopmin to assume the throne as King Munmu.

Munmu of Silla

Munmu of Silla (626–681) (ruled 661–681) was the 30th king of Silla. He is usually considered to have been the first ruler of the Unified Silla period. Munmu was the son of King Muyeol and presided over the defeat of Koguryo, which brought the Three Kingdoms period (57 B.C. - A.D. 668) an end and marked the beginning of the Unified Silla period (668-935). [Source: Wikipedia]

During his father's rule, Munmu held the office of pajinchan, responsible for maritime affairs, and played a key role in developing the country's diplomatic links with Tang China. He was born Prince Beopmin, and took the name Munmu when he succeeded his father to the throne. After his death, he was known by the title of Dragon King.

King Munmu took the throne in the midst of a long conflict against Paekche and Koguryo, shortly after General Gyebaek and Paekche had been defeated at Sabi by Silla General Kim Yu-shin in 660. In these struggles, Silla was heavily aided by the Tang. The first years of his reign were spent trying to defeat Koguryo, following an abortive attempt in 661. Finally, in 667, he ordered another attack which led to the defeat of Koguryo in 668. After the small isolated pockets of resistance were eliminated, Munmu was the first ruler ever to see the Korean peninsula completely unified.

Sinmun of Silla

Sinmun of Silla (ruled 681 – 692) was the 31st king of Silla and the eldest son of King Munmu and Queen Ja-eui. Sinmun's rule was characterized by his attempts to consolidate royal authority following unification and to reorganize and systematize the governing apparatus of the newly enlarged Silla state. He faced the challenges of merging the administration of three formerly separate states into one, as well as the adjustments in administration and influence that accompany the transition from a country long at war now entering a period of peace. [Source: New World Encyclopedia]

After Sinmun came to power he had to check Tang ambitions to establish its hegemony over the Korean peninsula and deal with a serious revolt by high-ranking aristocratic Silla officials in a serious challenge against royal authority. Named after its leader the Kim Heumdol Revolt gave Sinmun an opportunity to solidify his power through a purge of the aristocrats involved. To further strengthen royal authority, Sinmun eliminated the official salary system, called the nogeup. Under the nogeup system, officials did not receive a salary, but rather were alloted large areas of land, along with the people living on them, and the gained their living expenses by taxing the residents of their plots of land. In place of the nogeup, Sinmun instituted a system wherein officials were allotted only "office land" or jikjeon, from which they were allowed to procure only taxes on grain. This was clearly meant to sever the landed power base of aristocratic officialdom. In time, however, the aristocracy, who were united in their determination to protect the old system, won out against this royal decree, and eventually (though not in Sinmun's reign) the old stipend village system would be revived.

Relations Between Yamato (Japan), Silla and China

Aileen Kawagoe wrote: Yamato (Japan) “invaded Silla at the turn of the 5th century." This “served to harden the divisions and alliances on the Korean peninsula. Koguryo allied with Silla, sent tributary missions and sought support from the courts of north China. Paekche and Yamato allied themselves with the courts of south China. Between 421 and 478, Yamato Japan is reported in the Southern Sung history to have sent ten tributary missions to the Southern Sung court of China. The ten missions were reportedly sent by five Yamato kings. Scholars generally agree that the first three missions were despatched by either Ojin or Richu, the fourth by Hanzei, the next three (in 443, 451 and 460) were by Ingyo, the eighth (462) by Anko and the last two (477 and 478) by King Yuryaku. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, |||]

“With the last of the missions by King Yuryaku, Japan ceased its expansions into Korea, with Yuryaku falling ill and dying, succession issues turned the country's focus inward. During the following 6th century, kings of Yamato, Emperor Keitai and Kimmei are both noted for their military failures in Korea. By 562, the whole Mimana federation of small states had been absorbed by Silla. Right after Yamato had sent an army against Silla, Koguryo and Silla standing allied together faced Paekche and Yamato. Yamato seems to have offered weak military resistance to Silla's advances at the time. |||

“Silla had made an alliance with Emperor Ganzong of Tang China, with the strategy of defeating Paekche and then attacking Koguryo simultaneously from both north and south in order to unify the Korean peninsula. Paekche was defeated in 660 by a combination of Chinese forces and Silla forces despite a strong last minute resistance by Paekche Prince Pung, who had returned from Japan. In 667, Tang China supported by Silla successfully invaded Koguryo. Silla then met the Chinese army in a series of battles in the region of the Han river basis and eventually drove back the Chinese in 676. The success of Silla against the Chinese allowed the independent development of the unified Korean kingdoms. |||

“Both Japanese chronicles and Korean sources suggest that Yamato's maritime contacts with Silla continued, reporting of items of tribute being sent for Mimana districts after 750. After independence from China, Silla established peaceful diplomatic relations with the Tang period Chinese bringing an end to armed conflict so that many monks and students were able to travel to Tang China to study Buddhism or Confucian scholarship. The Silla capital, the layout of which was based on Tang Dynasty Changan grew in splendor after unification. Many new temples and pleasure grounds for aristocrats and courtiers were built. These developments had a deep impact on Japan. Artefacts from the tomb mound No. 126 at Niizawa Senzuka Kofun in Nara prefecture (including exotic Persian glass items thought to be of Parthian or Sassanian manufacture) are said to show the strong influence of Silla. “

Silla Decline

Towards the end of the 8th century, turmoil began to tear the Silla dynasty apart. Of the last 20 Silla kings, more than half died violently. Silla began to decline in the latter part of the eighth century when rebellions began to shake its foundations. By the latter half of the ninth century, two rivals had emerged. The chaotic situation eventually led to the emergence of a new Koryo Dynasty in 918 under a former officer, Wang Kon (King Taejo).

Ethnic differences between Koguryo and the Malgal people native to Manchuria weakened Parhae by the early tenth century, just as Silla's power had begun to dissipate a century earlier when regional castle lords splintered central power and rebellions shook Silla's foundations. Parhae, coming under severe pressure from the Kitan warriors who ruled parts of northern China, Manchuria, and Mongolia, eventually fell in 926. Silla's decline encouraged a restorationist named Kynhwn to found Later Paekche at Chnju in 892 and another restorationist, named Kungye, to found Later Koguryo at Kaesng in central Korea. Wang Kn, the son of Kungye who succeeded to the throne in 918, shortened the dynastic name to Kory and became the founder of a new dynasty by that name, from which came the modern term Korea. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

According to the “Columbia Encyclopedia”: In 935 the Silla dynasty, which had been in decline for a century, was overthrown by Wang Kon, who had established (918) the Koryo dynasty (the name was selected as an abbreviated form of Koguryo and is the source of the name Korea). During the Koryo period, literature was cultivated, and although Buddhism remained the state religion, Confucianism — introduced from China during the Silla years and adapted to Korean customs — controlled the pattern of government. A coup in 1170 led to a period of military rule. In 1231, Mongol forces invaded from China, initiating a war that was waged intermittently for some 30 years. Peace came when Koryo accepted Mongol suzerainty, and a long period of Koryo-Mongol alliance followed. In 1392, Yi Songgye, a general who favored the Ming dynasty (which had replaced the Mongols in China), seized the throne and established the Chosun dynasty. [Source: “Columbia Encyclopedia”, 6th ed., The Columbia University Press]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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