Chapter IVThe history of the Three Kingdoms period is certainly one of failure. The cause of unification was shattered, hopes of cultural advances were dashed, what had to grow and mature was aborted. Failure in training to be a nation led to the path of pain, but this nation was not meant to plod, in silent despair, the path of ruin. If duty is enjoined by heaven, it does not stand to reason that an order was given but the opportunity for its execution was denied. History which poses a problem must offer opportunities to answer it.
THE NORTH: PRIZE AND PERIL
The Koreans of the Three Kingdoms period had tried but failed to reach a summit. The road for the next five centuries of the succeeding Koryeo period was downhill. If the people of Koryeo had realized the meaning of history and advanced steadily toward an ideal which inspired them, they might have brought the aborted history of the Three Kingdoms back to life, much as the morning sun suffuses the tombstones of the fallen heroes in full glory. There have been several such opportunities. If Koryeo had seized any one of them the course of Korean history would have been quite different.
Opportunities for a leap forward came but each time Koryeo was cowed. Koryeo was afflicted with the same malaise that crippled the Three Kingdoms period: losing sight of self, not trying to recover self. The literati, who made Koryeo what it was, were not as they were in earlier times. The spirit was flagging and petty conformity to rigid rules was what now exercised their minds. Neither Confucianism nor Buddhism worked, simply because the Confucian with knotted hairdo took the place of the Buddhist monk with his head shaved. In the meantime, the soul of Korea, abandoned in some remote corner, kept wailing alone. The country was sold, the parents, even one's self-all for the privilege of playing servant to the Middle Kingdom of China. Koryeo was not learning to be Confucianist but to be a slave of China.
Once you lose your own self, even the wisdom of the sages is to no avail, for it turns into empty words. With empty words you cannot build a nation anywhere. The failure was not of Koryeo alone. The basic root of our history of suffering lies in the failure to probe deeply for selfhood, individual or national.
The era of Koryeo may be divided into three periods, each with its high point and low point. In the last days of Silla, political corruption reachedits limits, popular sentiments went lax, and society was coming apart. It was a time, in oriental tradition, for a hero to emerge; there were stirrings in the popular mind and hopes rising for a new order. A few would-be heroes appeared and civil strife ensued. It was a repetition of the picture of the Three Kingdoms. Centuries had gone by since the three countries had supposedly come together as one, but real unity had yet to be achieved.
By now the scope of economic development had reached a stage which called for one Korea. It was a critical period in oriental history. In Manchuria, the Parhae period was on the way out, and in China proper, it was a troubled time known as the period of the Five Dynasties. Storm clouds were gathering over eastern Asia, and a chance came for Korea to settle her politics at home, and beyond her borders. The time was ripe for Korea to awake to its historic mission, to strike out in a daring new move. A tide of reawakening began welling up in Korean hearts. Calls for marching north were being heard again, and Kungye was in the midst of those who listened.
An illegitimate royal scion, Kungye grew up in adversity. He wandered from place to place, from one monastery to another. When he saw what was looming ahead, he quit the monastery. In time he became overly arrogant and uncontrollably fierce until he ended in failure. But he is too often dismissed with harsh strictures out of proportion to his faults. It must be said in fairness that he meant well, that he deserved sympathy. Although it was for lack of popular support that he bungled the job, he bore the historical burden of sin, nevertheless. The sin of Silla's decadence created a wave of protest against palace life, and his fierceness was a spray from this rolling wave. The merit we should look for in him, therefore, is not in his being a king but in that the national elan, which he forcefully embodied, soared high. Kungye chose for his country the name of Later Koguryoee to vindicate the fallen Koguryoe, while condemning Silla as the "doomed capital." It was all intended, no doubt, to whip up the patriotism of the descendants of Koguryoe. But that is not the whole story. In his plans for government reorganization he rejected all Silla institutions smacking of China in favor of older traditional institutions. In his choice of capital he contemplated Pyongyang. In his vision of the future he set up a facility for instruction of foreign languages. All this points to the fact that Manchuria, the old site of Koguryoe, was strongly in his mind. As the name adopted for his new country shows, his intention was to revive the spirit of Koguryoe. He was doomed by the judgment of a fate of his own making, a hero aborted.
Wang Kon inherited the aspirations of Kungye. Rising from military ranks, Wang Kon demonstrated talent and character that made him worthy of ascending a throne. He started as lieutenant to Kungye, and when he realized that Kungye had gone too far in his willful, intolerant ways, he saved himself by adroitness and earned popular support by his generous and accommodating attitude.
Wang Kon was not the man to think his work was done when he came to the throne of Korea. His vision reached north beyond the peninsula, once he had finished the work of containing a southern state, Chin Hwon, and taming Silla. Although he made Songdo (now Kaesong), his capital, he also established Pyongyang as a capital for the future. He kept the city wall in repair, set up schools, and returned there annually for a personal inspection. This, needless to say, was in anticipation of his northward push later.
He saw to it that people drifting in from the former country of Parhae across the Yalu were looked, after. When an emissary offering amity and trade arrived from the Khitan regime with gifts of camels, he sent the envoy into exile, while starving the camels to death by keeping them tethered under a bridge. Thus he showed his determination to his people to prepare them.
Commenting on Wang Kon's actions, certain so-called official historians in the later Yi period claimed that all he did was to antagonize Khitan and that Khitan's defeat of Parhae had nothing to do with Korea and so there was no need to avenge Parhae. These Yi officials say that Wang Kon was wrong simply because they were afraid that their own king might embrace the idea of keeping in step with popular sentiment and might think of reaching over into Manchuria. Such a move, they feared, would strain relations with China and place their own posts in peril. In order to perpetuate their posts they tried to nip any such thought that might be budding in the king's mind. Some may think that the people forget themselves; the fact is that they have never forgotten themselves nor will they ever. What happens is that privileged classes deceive the people and sell them to the oppressor and enjoy high office. In every age and among any people it is the privileged classes that sell out. One cannot gain power without selling out. The people are without power for they do not sell themselves.
Wang Kon's grand design was reflected in his policies. To do away with the habits of borrowing from China which had become pronounced from the middle of the Silla period onward, he sought to restore traditional Korean institutions. Item 4 of his Precepts reads: "From antiquity, ways of Tang (China) received great admiration in our Land of the East, and Chinese institutions have been copied in all matters of civic art, rites and music. But tempers differ in different lands. There is no reason, then, that one and the same way should prevail in two different lands! Again: "Since Khitan is a land of barbarians with different customs and language, none of their customs or institutions should ever be imitated! Again invoking the spirit of Korea in firm rejection of the cult of China, he unswervingly committed himself to the policy to go north. Going beyond his merely passive policy, he positively endeavored to invigorate the Korean spirit: control of Buddhism and institution of a Korean religious rite, p'algwanhoe.
Yi Korea historians were critical of the founder Wang Kon for tilting too far toward Buddhism. This was nothing but their way of discouraging their own king from embracing Buddhism so as to secure their own position as Confucianists. Even if these Yi officials had been honest in their criticism of Wang Kon, and not acting from any ulterior motives, their position would still have been inexcusable as recorders of history. If they really believed in what they said, they were very superficial in their views.
Wang Kon erected new temples and repaired existing ones. Item 1 of his Precepts says that the founding of Koryo was possible under the Buddha's tutelage; references to Buddhism recur in subsequent items. A closer investigation will show, however, that his position was one of restricting, not promoting, Buddhism. He banned further construction of temples. We have no reason to suppose that he was unaware of the overabundance of temples in Silla, which led to waste, tax evasion and downright exploitation and eventually to a ruined economy. So Wang Kon must have adopted a policy of checking Buddhism. Yet he claimed that he was favoring the promotion of Buddhism, and with good reason.
Choe Ung, a Confucian counselor, submitted a proposal for rejecting Buddhism. Wang Kon counseled caution on the grounds that drastic banning would bring about reactions from the people of Silla who were deeply steeped in Buddhism. But that was not all. Choe Ung's anti-Buddhist policy suggested the existence of a rivalry between Confucians and Buddhists. Wang Kon's intention was to curb the rise of the Confucian group in the name of keeping public sentiment calm and content.
As to the p'algwanhoe itself, the record is not clear except that the rite was performed, at the request of officials, in the first year of Wang Kon's reign, following the example of Silla, when it was held in the month of the winter solstice. The Precepts merely state that p'algwanhoe was for the purpose of worshipping "the spirit of heaven, the five mountain peaks, other noted hills and streams, and the god of rain and waters." Interpretations vary among historians; some guess that it was a Buddhist ceremony, while others believe it to be a Korean ritual preceding the arrival of Buddhism. From the deities to which the ceremony was addressed one may rightfully infer that p'algwanhoe had its origins in a cult of heaven going back to antiquity. The fact that it was practiced in the Silla court would lead one to surmise that something from Buddhism may have been incorporated; it may have been a compromise struck between the traditional cult and Buddhist rituals. Even today one finds in a Buddhist temple shrines dedicated to mountain spirits and other folk deities entirely unrelated to Buddhism. P'algwanhoe may perhaps have been something of this kind, a festivity held in the court from olden times, and, as it continued beyond the introduction of Buddhism, it may have adopted some Buddhist rituals, just as Christmas today incorporates folk customs.
In reinstituting the p'algwanhoe Wang Kon was circumspect far-seeing. Nothing definite is to be found about traditional thought or original cults native to Korea if you go by the histories penned by Confucian scholars, whose views were stultified by addiction to Chinese philosophy. There is circumstantial evidence enough from which the following may be deduced.
Although Buddhism as a state religion lost much of its life-enhancing efficacy in the closing years of Silla, its influence, ingrained if enfeebled, still endured. With the Tang culture of China gaining ever firmer g there emerged a class of Confucians to challenge the forces of Buddhism. As readiness for the revolution was gathering, interest was reawaken in traditional thought and institutions. This was in reaction to the heavy borrowings from foreign thought. In this new mood, those favoring reform and renovation, who were unhappy with the established order, naturally looked toward the revival of old Korean cults. In his Precepts enunciating the philosophy of the new state and providing guidelines, an aspiring as Wang Kon wrote: act with reverence. To probe his inner thoughts, you may gather that he proposed to bring stability to society by using Buddhism which was close to the people's heart, strengthen government organization by invoking the teachings of Confucianism which predominated as educational philosophy, and revitalize traditional sentiment in preparation for a heightened national spirit in a renewed dedication to his grand design on Manchuria. In this light, the founding of Koryo assumes special meaning in Korean history. For this reason, the task given to Koryo was of utmost importance. But again, the founder's policies somehow failed. Wang Kon nurtured what his predecessor Kungye had helped to sprout, but not to the point of bringing fruit.
The tide of history was ebbing out. By the reign of King Kwangjong the Confucians had gained ascendancy. The king was so enamored of Chinese institutions that be brought the scholar Shuang Chi all the way from China, and on his recommendation, introduced the civil service examination system. He went so far as to evict his retainers to provide room for naturalized Chinese. The adoption of the government recruiting system was significant, for it helped advance the position of the Confucian school. The next king, Seongjong, approving the idea of a principal minister, officially came out against Buddhism, in a move which gave a total victory to the Confucian literati. Confucianism was elevated to the status of state religion. Following practices in China, an ancestral temple and a shrine of the gods of land and grain were erected. A portrait of Confucius was imported, and a royal academy was opened for instruction in Confucianism. In bureaucracy, education and religion, a sustained effort got under way to become Chinese on the outside as well as on the inside. Reorientation toward China went apace, and subservience to China was set as a matter of policy. Maintenance of the status quo, above all else, was not the moving spirit, the status quo being the perpetuation of the status of the ruling classes: getting the full measure of power and perquisites indefinitely, leaving the populace to shift for themselves.
At this time, when the national spirit was at an ebb, and the ruling classes were drunk with a false sense of security, a blow was dealt right between the eyes. The Khitan invaded. It was they who had arisen from Manchuria about the time of KoryUs founding and succeeded in overthrowing Parhae, successor to Koguryoe. The founder of Koguryoe had spurned offers of friendship from the Khitan, condemning the country as the enemy of Parhae, as he nurtured his dreams of a northern expedition. If the successive kings of Koguryoe had launched a northward expedition in accordance with the founder's wishes, the Khitan would not have grown so strong. Preoccupied with the notion of playing the role of a land of Confucian gentlemen, Koguryoe pursued the easy line of preserving the status quo, rejecting all adventures. This was precisely the kind of opportunity the Khitan hoped for; they lost no time strengthening their position until they were firmly entrenched in the north. During the reign of King Seongjong, the ceremony of p'algwanhoe was abolished and the sword was beaten into a plow, all in the name of ushering in an "era of peace and tranquility under the sage-king Ironically, it was at this time that the Khitan increased raids into Koguryoe, building up every year until the time of King Hyeongjong when they attacked in force. Koguryoe, influenced by would-be Confucianists, panicked. Singlehanded and with nothing but eloquent tongue and indomitable courage, a Koguryoe official, Seo Heui, made bold to enter into the enemy's field headquarters; he managed to conclude an armistice and so saved the prestige of his country for a time.
It was a miserable expedient. There were other brave souls, who kept on battling, with only a handful of soldiers, against great odds until all their arrows were exhausted and they themselves fell. The founder's ambition had vanished in thin air.
The Khitan invasion was an alarm to rouse the people of Koguryoe. Losing all sense of self and wallowing in a false sense of safety and deceptive peace, they let a heaven-sent opportunity slip by, choosing the easy way of laziness and inaction. The alarm seemed to ask: How much longer can you continue in loyalty to China and go on living a life of ease? The Khitan now withdrew from the scene as if they had completed their role, and history began to prepare for a new period. Did Koguryoe people heed the warning? In the following decades peace prevailed; Koguryoe was able to heal her wounds and achieve some cultural advance and prosperity. This period saw so notable a Buddhist monk as Taegak-kuksa, and a Confucian scholar of virtue and erudition, Ch'oe Ch'ung, who achieved renown as a "Confucius of the East."
History now was at a high point again. It was an order to right what had gone wrong. While Koguryoe was gaining in strength, preparations were under way in Manchuria for a new period. The Khitan dynasty, past its heyday, was on the decline and with this, there were stirrings anew in Manchuria, awaiting a new master. It was a time for statesmen to bring out a map and hang it on the wall, for heroes to hear their swords rattle in their scabbards in the night. The Han Chinese, subdued by the Khitan, were lying low in the safety of the southern bank of the Yangtze. Two heroes were to appear on the stage of Manchuria with the promise of a lively drama to unfold - Koryo and Juchen. In prevailing conditions, Juchen appeared to be no match for Koguryoe. A branch of the Mo-ho tribes, Juchen submitted first to Koguryoe, then to Parhae, and then came under Khitan rule after Parhae was overthrown.
With Khitan now weakening, the Juchen regrouped themselves in the eastern part of Manchuria and came occasionally to violate the north-eastern frontier of Koguryoe. They were behind in culture and had held Koryoe in esteem as a "parental country" because the ancestors of their chieftain were Korean. It was plain to see that Koguryoe was by far the superior. The people of Koguryoe must have heard the call of history if they had ears to hear, Manchuria was where Koguryoe cavalrymen had earlier galloped their horses as they strove to realize unification, until they were laid low on the battlefield. Manchuria was calling again, as it did a century before, and sure enough, the soul of Korea responded.
Voices were raised in the time of King Sukchong calling for a northern expedition to put an end, once and for all, to the frequent raids of the Juchen tribes on the northeast. The king ordered General Yuri Kwan to repel the Juchen, but the attempts failed. The king thereupon offered prayers to the "gods that they may grant success to renewed efforts to stamp out the brigands" and contemplated a plan to raise an army with sustained food supplies, only to die the following year with his dream unfulfilled. His successor, Yejong, followed through with a force of one hundred and seventy thousand men under command of General Yun Kwan. The expedition, on which the destiny of the nation was staked, was crowned initially with illustrious success. General Yun advanced as far north as present-day Chientao (Kando), set up nine fortresses in Hamgy6ng province; sixty thousand households migrated from the south. It seemed as if history was pointing again to the north where a greater Korea loomed. That was not to be.
The court was filled with corrupt Confucian literati who were wracked by jealousy over enterprising minds, like General Yun Kwan, determined on a northern course. They argued for staying south of the Yalu, clinging to what they had at all cost and invoking the need for deference to China. Word arrived that the Juchen had again raided the northeastern frontier; they had little choice but to move south if only to survive. A Juchen emissary arrived to implore the return of the nine fortresses, with the pledge of tribute, and swearing that they would not even throw a piece of tile across the border. At this time General Yun Kwan was still away in the frontier camp. When the king sought counsel, the whole court of Confucians was of the opinion that surrendering the fortresses would be the proper thing to do. The courtiers went even further and vigorously pushed for the general's ouster. They claimed that the general had launched a campaign which was in no way justifiable. An embarrassed Yejong, whose design it was to attack the Juchen in the first place, tried to vindicate Yun Kwan's as well as his own position. He attempted to reason with his ministers, but they remained adamant. After the king retired to his private quarters, these courtiers followed, sat outside the door and pleaded with the king until sunset. Then they went on strike, absenting themselves from the court for days. One wonders how these fellows, so fearful and weak-kneed in the cause of a northern expedition, suddenly proved so daring and persistent in calling for the ouster of a worthy servant of the state. General Yun Kwan was recalled. He was not even allowed to report to the king in person, who was forced to relieve him of his duties and hand over the fortresses of the Juchen. So the moves for advancing northward were effectively dropped.
How would King Yejong have felt surrounded as he was with rotten elements, who temporized with the status quo? What would have stopped Koguryoe and what risks would have been involved if it had pressed ahead with the original plan for the north, and whom would it have antagonized? One of the royal decrees stated: "Civil and military arts should be pursued evenhandedly. It is noted that in the face of frequent invasions from across the border, commanders and ministers counseling the throne are alike engaged full-time in making armor and training soldiers. But would be ill-advised to devote himself exclusively to military affairs." Evidently this decree was forged by the Confucian ministers in order to discourage the ascendancy of the military officers.
A sense of crisis was in the air but it was played down by the Confucians in power. Soon thereafter, an official letter arrived from the Chin court (the Juchen named their country Chin and their ruler emperor): "The emperor of the great Chin-Juchen, as elder brother, sends a letter to his younger brother, king of Koguryoe. From times of our ancestors our country has been pushed off into a remote corner where we had to uphold Khitan as a greater country, and has deemed Koguryoe as our parental country, treating it with deference and reverence. Khitan wantonly trampled over our land, made our people their slaves, and repeatedly attacked us in unprovoked war. We were obliged to resist and with the help of heaven we overthrew them. The king of Koguryoe is hereby advised to enter into friendly relations so that we two countries will be brothers from generation to generation. Together with this letter, we send you a fine steed."
So ended the dream. Had Koguryoe had the resoluteness to push north, to scatter the roaming Juchen before they had the chance to realize unification, and to snuff out the Khitan who were on their last legs, possession of Manchuria and even Mongolia would have posed no serious difficulty. A similar letter could have been addressed to China. Amid vacillation and inaction, the dreams vaporized. The people of Koguryoe could not help being amazed as well as aggrieved at the sight of the Juchen rising to full height, realizing for themselves the dreams of Koryoe.
King Yejong spent his remaining days writing verse and reading books of the Chinese canon. Presumably he had no other way to beguile his empty feelings after he was disabused of his dreams. After his death, King Injong came to the throne at the tender age of fifteen. History's tide was receding. Just as Korean history reached a high tide earlier at the time of the Three Kingdoms, so the history of Koguryoe had been on the rise until the reign of Injong and then began heading down. Yet the situation was too provocative for Koguryoe to go down meekly to ruin, without uttering a sound.
A great drama of the age was being played out and the people of Koguryoe must have felt as if the world was leaving them behind. Were there no talents? Did their courage fail them altogether? Were the literi without a modicum of soul? Jealous of their power and privilege, they may well have been so, realist though they were, and yet how can they have been so spineless and so blind? There were a few who dared to take a last plunge across the dark chasm that threatened to engulf one and all; such was the Myoch'eong rebellion in the thirteenth year of Injong's reign.
The failure of the northern expedition, while highly welcome in the sight of the sinophile literati with conservative leanings, was a rankling wound for nationalists with a more enterprising outlook. It was only yesterday that the Juchen wanderers came foraying across the border. Today their leader pretended to be emperor. The very thought was revolting. Not just that the Juchen were beneath contempt, but that Koguryoe was just as capable of what these Juchen had done. Taking advantage of the young king, the Koguryoe officials kept the people quiet, hands tied, to use them and have them do their bidding, when the neighing of the northern horses bore down on them on north winds. There were a few persons who thought that affairs of state could no longer be safely left in the hands Of the literati who only knew how to presume upon their dignity. They proposed that the king of Koguryoe also declare himself emperor and the use of the name of the Chinese reign he discontinued. More important, they came out with a demand for resumption of the northern expedition. Popular response was immediate and keen; feelings ran high. It was evident that the people were quiet but not at all happy with the way things. The court Confucians naturally objected. In their judgment, what the Chin-Juchen were up to were so many barbarian follies; pretension to being emperor was an act of insolence, well deserving heavenly retribution, when the Son of Heaven of the Central Kingdom alone had the right to that title; the ruler of an outlying country like Koguryoe would not dare entertain such a presumption. These soldiers would never know any better, the literati complained. The two opposing schools soon came to a showdown. This development had been long in surfacing, and was not something that broke out suddenly under King Injong.
While the conservatives wanted to defend what they had and be content to stay within the peninsula, the dissidents argued for marching into Manchuria. The conservatives' argument was that as long as the Son of Heaven was created by heavenly mandate, serving him with deference was the proper thing to do, while the dissidents' contention was that, as descendants of the legendary Tan'gun, Koreans had a life of their own to live and that Manchuria was the land of their ancestors, after all. If the conservatives paraded the way of Confucius and Mencius9, the assidents matched them by invoking heaven and the traditional gods of the hills and streams. As a matter of fact, the Confucians found it satisfactory that they were well-off, well-educated and well-placed in the seat of power, whereas the nationalists felt a need for change, as they were left without power under pressures from Confucianism and Buddhism and as the were despised for being common and illiterate.
If the Confucians counted on the power of China, the nationalists trusted popular support. This rivalry, which had been hidden from view, was now brought out into the open. What precipitated it was a controversy over the moving of the capital to Pyongyang. In support of the move was the belief that Pyongyang was a highly auspicious site and establishing the capital there would entail thirty-six countries coming with tribute to the Koguryoe court, or, in modern parlance, Koryoe would gain so many new colonies. This theory harks back to the latter period of Silla; it was the dregs, as it were, of superstitions common during the period; it was an utter absurdity. Yet in historic perspective, there were conditions in society that gave rise to such superstition. Given the kind of science and religion known then, this belief was in the guise of the yin-yang theory of China.
What should be noted is that the popular mood was fully behind this belief. Dissatisfaction with corruption in the Silla government, a yearning for an ancestral home, a grievance over the withering away of national fortunes, vague hopes for a better future-all these and more came together to form the superstition. People's minds were in ferment. Rumors floated around like foam that rises from the fermenting brew-bubbles now appeared, now burst. What counts here is what is underneath the bubbling surface; popular sentiments are aroused, which may be carried to the point of revolution. Revolutionary it was indeed that Silla was overthrown and Koguryoe stood, but only to a point. It was not revolutionary enough to satisfy popular hearts.
One can imagine the scene. When a few villagers get together by the roadside or in a tavern, they talk in whispers: "D'you hear they're going to move the capital to Pyongyang?'' or "Say, there's going to be a war" or "Why, the spirits wouldn't just sit by" or "I don't know for sure but I hear a great man has been training to be an immortal" or "A dragon-steed turned up"or "A strange sound was heard coming from the tomb of the great king Tongmyeong" or "Our country is in for a really big thing. "
The advocates of northern expedition tried to turn these stirrings among the people to account. With the Buddhist priest Myoch'oeng leading, this group rallied the people by making use of the predictions going back to the time of Silla, and urged on the king the virtue of reestablishing Pyongyang as the capital-all in order to campaign for a northward push. King Injong was quite sympathetic to the cause and went as far as to build a palace near Pyongyang. But the whole endeavor met with stiff resistance from the Confucian ministers, who felt that not only their positions but even their lives were threatened. Led by Kim Pu-sik, author of the Samguk sagi, they fought desperately to block the moving of the capital. The Myoch'oeng group in turn persisted in prevailing upon the king to move to Pyongyang. Excessive resort to trickery, particularly of a superstitious nature, drew criticism from the Confucians, so that the king himself was hesitant.
At this time word came to the capital that Myoch'oeng had staged a rebellion. A new country under his leadership was proclaimed with the name of Taewi, which covered for a time nine provinces, including Hwanghae-do and P'yoengan-do. This attempt was ended when it was overthrown under the command of Kim Pu-sik. Choeng Chi-sang, Paek Su-han and other leaders were speedily executed in the capital upon receipt of the news of rebellion.
The Myochoeng rebellion was, according to historian Sin Ch'ae-ho, an event of foremost importance during the first ten centuries of history. Be that as it may, it was an event out of the ordinary. It is a perceptive observation to regard it as a confrontation between Confucians and Buddhists, between scholars of China-oriented outlook and Korean traditionalists. It is equally true to ascribe Kim Pu-sik's victory to the ascendancy of conservative thought favoring regimentation. Myoch'oeng's rebellion, be it noted , was too late, twenty years after the defeat of the Liao dynasty in China by Chin-Juchen. So even if the followers of Myoch'oeng had had their way and had shifted the capital to Pyongyang, it is highly doubtful that they could have carried through the cherished plan of invading Manchuria.
One could expect, nevertheless, that the Koreans would have saved themselves intellectual servitude or, at least, have had some relief from it, if Myoch'oeng had carried the day. Tradition has it that Kim Pu-sik, a stylist of undisputed reputation, was surprised one day by a verse written by Choeng Chi-sang and that Kim asked Choeng for the verse but was refused, and Kim held it against Choeng until he had him executed. There is no way to verify the story, nor can we learn what Cheong Chi-sang or Myoch'oeng had in mind. History has puzzles which remain puzzles forever. What we do know from the story, however, is what was the public judgment, and who the public thought was on its side. It is not at all clear whether Myoch'oeng acted from motives of seeking the good of the country and the people or was driven by personal ambitions. All we can do is to draw the historical significance of the event in its broader perspective.
From what we have seen, it is little wonder that history takes a turn for the worse at the landmark of Injong's reign. Living ideals make an individual or national life shine. So it was when the ideal of national growth yet lived in the hearts of the Koguryoe people. King Hyoenjong welcomed the triumphal return of General Kang Kam-ch'an with his verse:
In this year the barbarians warred
This, of course, refers to the invasion of Khitan and to the general's successful campaign which contained the advance. A grateful king went out to the field to meet him, decorated his hair with golden flowers, and personally poured wine into the general's cup. Such was the heightened ideal that stirred the entire nation as one spirit, and before it the Khitan were forced to retreat.
But what happens when a national ideal is lost? Ch'oe Ch'ung taught Confucian doctrine and it has been said: "The height of instruction in the teaching began with Ch'oe Ch'ung, and from that time on there appeared a brilliant succession of scholars who put affairs in proper order so that the Chinese themselves referred to ours as a country functioning according to the classics. None of this achievement could have been possible had it not been for him." But the fact is that Confucianism was a bramble that choked off the growth of the country.
What followed the loss of ideals was civil war that lasted off and on for the next century, a period that came in the wake of the ill-starred attempts at a northward push and the compromise of national interests at the hands of the Confucian courtiers. The Yi Cha-gyoem rebellion came in the fourteenth year of Injong's reign, the Myoch`oeng rebellion thirteen years thereafter, followed thirty-four years later by another revolt staged by Choeng Chung-bu, a military commander, to name a few. Yi Cha-gyoem protested against the corrupt ways at the court, which was modeled on the Chinese institution; Choeng Chung-bu came out against the policy of favoring the civil over military officialdom, another imitation of China. In former times, when the archer Chumong became King Tongmyoeng of Koguryoe, when Uelchi Mundoek and Kae So-mun administered the country, no such philosophy prevailed. It is since Korea began learning Chinese lore and customs and adopting the policy of "civil rule" that the habit of despising military officers took hold. Koguryoe, whose duty it was to rally the national destiny, had every reason to foster fortitude and unbending spirit, but chose an insubstantial formalism which pretended to apply the rule of the sages. An effete ineptness was all it earned.
The reigning king Uijong loved merry-making, preferred luxurious -living, and delighted in poetry. True, the superb ceramic art of Koguryoe celadon10 was perfected thanks to him, but the populace languished. People make such a great deal out of Koguryoe celadon that even a cracked dish or a misshapen jar fetches an enormous price, in the name of love of art. But how many can appreciate the true nature of Koguryoe ceramic art? Do you know what its lines and colors represent? The lines mean undernourished stomachs, souls in agony; its colors, the sad twilight of the declining fortune of a nation, the bluish tint history's shimmering horizon. Know this, before you call it the pride of Korean culture.
King Ueigong had a new house built for his pleasure. When he found a scenic spot, he would lead his civil ministers there, hold a drinking bout, punctuated with verse-making, and hardly notice the day far spent. While the party was in progress the military retinue had to look after the horses and wait around with empty stomachs. The upshot of it was the revolt of Choeng Chung-bu. The king's favorites were beheaded in front of the king, and those hiding nearby were not spared, even down to the lowliest clerk "so long as he wears the civilian headgear." The civilian wing of the court was deposed and even the king himself was sent away in exile where he died soon after.
There followed a series of military coups until Ch'oe Ch`ung-hoen seized power, which his descendants held for three more generations. Government was thrown into a state of disorganization; official positions were bought and sold, people's properties were seized at pleasure; ethical standards and all semblance of order collapsed. Former civil officials now had to beg for food at the doorways of the Ch'oe clan; the government operated out of the parlors of the Ch'oe households. If the civil official behaves like a viper, the military officer is wild and fierce like a beast. That is how it turns out once the guiding spirit is gone.
A gale raged from the Gobi Desert. Koguryoe was too busy with civil war within her own borders to heed the warnings of the age. But Koguryoe could no longer ignore the alarm when the victorious Mongol army mounted an attack in force. The Mongol invaders proved far more brutal and ruthless than the Khitan. One description will suffice. "Once Mongol soldiers passed through no more was the sound of a dog or a rooster to be heard' During the invasion in the forty-first year of Kojong alone, three hundred and six thousand were taken captive and carried away. Those encamped in the capital city, according to legend, made a meal of women's carved out breasts. As the writer of history dries his tears, he holds his pen, but this is a history he has to write.
No one can say that this trial imposed on Koguryoe was by accident. Be it remembered of provincial commander Kim Kyoeng-son that with only twelve men he resisted a swarm of enemy soldiers; until he managed to repulse the enemy, he refused to slacken the beating of his war drum even after an arrow lodged in his arm. In another battle he never flinched even as his soldiers behind him were felled by bullets. There was another hero, Pak Soe, who was defending a fortress in the mountain. The enemy dug an underground passage and he burned them by pouring in molten iron; when the enemy set a fire moving toward the fortress, he put it out; when the enemy opened up with artillery he matched it with his own. The enemy general was amazed: "In all the battles I have been in I have yet to see a man refuse to surrender against such fierce attacks and against such odds." Pak Soe turned a deaf ear to the urgings of an emissary from king who, he explained, had already made the decision to surrender. The emissary was so upset that he was about to commit suicide. Only then did Pak Soe obey the court order; he retired to the country.
There were a few like these two warriors but those in the government were cowardly and shiftless in everything they did. The capital had retreated to the safety of the island of Kanghwa leaving the populace to fend for itself. While there the court spent its time mostly holding parties every day, and there was civil disturbance into the bargain. The Mongols, not satisfied with military occupation alone, began to meddle in internal affairs. They went beyond inflicting physical pain by applying mental pressure. Each Koguryoe king was made to take a Mongol princess as awife and the crown prince was held in Mongolia as a hostage. Every decision at court was taken on the pleasure of the resident Mongol princess. All Koguryoe officials adopted the Mongol style in hair and dress. Many preferred to stay in Mongolia, without giving any thought to regaining of independence.
As I think it over, I lose all interest in the thirteen-tiered stone pagoda in Seoul or in admiring the printing blocks of the Tripitaka which are stored in the temple of Haein-sa. The stone pagoda was erected after the loss of independence. As for the printing blocks, they were made by royal order during the king's stay on Kanghwa Island to invoke the Buddha's intercession to save the country. At this writing, you will find in the Hain-sa the entire set of some eighty thousand blocks of meticulously inscribed characters without a single error, a work that took sixteen years to complete. While the court was given over to its daily party-giving and merry-making, safe from a suffering populace, orders went out requiring commoners to produce wood and money for the printing block project. Does it not vividly tell the story of government by rhetoric, of a lifeless faith? But then as I recall the fact that the pagoda and the blocks have survived these past seven centuries, I begin to wonder if they are not the crystallization of the strength of broad-based toils and sorrows of the populace, if the delicate workmanship may not reflect the spiritual force of the multitudes to which they were dedicated. May not even the solid square blocks, I wonder, embody the everlasting life of a nation? If that is the case, let the pagoda and the printing blocks stay for all time. As the deep ravine existed that sheltered the blocks from war and destruction through the ages, so there must be some spiritual haven that keeps religion for the nation. Just as the pagoda withstood the weather so long, so there must be divinity that will keep this history going.
Back to Queen of Suffering Table of Contents On to Chapter V. The Broken Axle of History