Sources: “Looking at Goryeo History through the Personages” – forward and contents

Goryeo Personages 720

Song Eun-myeong 송은명. 2010: 인물로 보는 고려사 (Looking at Goryeo History through the Personages). Seoul: SIAA 시아출판사.

In the following all hanja characters and dates are added by me.  Comments in parenthesis are also mine, not the original author’s.  I think this book is good popular history writing!


Recently, with the production of television dramas dealing with Goryeo history, such as Taejo Wanggeon (태조 왕건), Jeguk’ui achim (제국의 아침 ‘Empire’s Morning’) and Muin-sidae (무인시대 ‘Age of the Military’), interest in Goryeo is steadily increasing. Actually, compared to the history of the Three Kingdoms and [later] Joseon period, it is not only the wider public, but to researchers also that [Goryeo history] is an unknown terra incognita (the double “unknown” is present in the original Korean 알려지지 않은 미지). Whilst possessing five hundred years of history similar to Joseon, owing to a lack of surviving relics and sources, the period of our [Korean] history most enveloped in a dark veil is none other than Goryeo; what is worse, [Goryeo] history is understood [only] as [having had] a society less developed than Joseon and as having been [nothing more than] a period of transition.

Well then, what kind of country was Goryeo? What sort of events were unfolding in this land (referring to modern Korea) one thousand years ago? To find the answer there is first a need to examine the relationship between history and [its] personages. This kind of investigation (고민 lit. ‘troubled anguish of thought’ – but used to mean “thinking hard about something”) which was presented in the previous volume [of this series] Looking at Joseon History through Personages, continues in a similar manner in this book as well.

If, as it is said, the importance of history is [in allowing us to] reflect on the present through records of the past, then there is no more effective medium than [through] the lives of personages. This book tries to shine new light on the historical characteristics and significance of Goryeo through [looking at] the lives of personages from the Goryeo period. [I] hope that [the reader] can feel the vitality (생동감) and immediacy (현장감) of history through the energetic (생생하다 lit. ‘lively’) lives of the personages included in this book.

Well then, what kind of historical characteristics does Goryeo, [a country which so] embellished the medieval era of Korea, possess? Before beginning the main text, let us consider some characteristics of the Goryeo period.

First of all, except for the period of stability under King Munjong (文宗 r.1046-83) the majority of the [Goryeo] period experienced [continuous] states of disorder, both internally and externally. Externally there were continuous invasions; this was because [Goryeo] was unable to actively deal with the state of constantly changing power on the Chinese continent where, following the Tang, [came] the [Khitan] Liao, the Song, the [Jurchen] Jin and the [Mongol] Yuan. [Goryeo’s] northern expansion policy (北進政策) advocated from the foundation of the dynasty also played a role in the friction with the Chinese dynasties. Except for the Song, Goryeo was a number of times at war or military confrontation with Liao, Jin and Yuan. Through this process, it was impossible for [Goryeo’s] national strength not to be spent and the land exhausted. Internally the country was impeded by both large and small disturbances. In particular, beginning with the Yi Jagyeom (李資謙 d.1126) rebellion (1122) during the middle period, [followed by] Myocheong’s (妙淸 d.1135) rebellion (1135) and then the military uprising, social disturbances intensified as the ruling class changed and eventually [Goryeo] came under the rule of the Yuan.

Surviving for more than five hundred years whilst experiencing these internal and external trials, Goryeo possessed the following historical characteristics. Firstly, Goryeo was an ‘aristocratic country’ [meaning] a class maintaining special rights, the aristocracy, controlled the country. The aristocratic class that ruled Goryeo changed slightly (in fact significantly) as a result of repeated sudden rises and falls; the ruling class was transformed [from] the powerful clans (豪族) who participated in the unification of the Later Three Kingdoms (後三國) and founding [of Goryeo; then] as royal authority and a system of governance was established, [there were first] the maternal relatives (外戚) who married into the royal clan and the hereditary aristocracy (門閥貴族) bureaucratized through the state examination system [who were, in turn, to experience] military coup d’état and, later, the Mongol invasion and period of [Mongol] Yuan rule [from which time] until the end of the dynasty the influential clans [that collaborated with the Mongols] (權門勢族 lit. ‘influential houses’) were the dominant ruling class.

The aristocracy led Goryeo politics, economics, society and culture and left many achievements, but with a monopoly on power and wealth, there was despotism giving birth to many abuses which ultimately caused the weakening of national strength and [finally] its downfall.

Secondly, Goryeo was a ‘Buddhist country’ making Buddhism the state religion. Following the initiation of the state examination system there emerged as bureaucrats scholars who had studied Confucianism, but just as it appeared in Wang Geon’s Ten Injunctions (訓要十條), Buddhism remained the fundamental ideology of the country. During the early period, the scripture focused doctrinal school (敎宗) which had received the support of the king and hereditary nobles, namely the Hwa’eom-jong (華嚴宗) and Cheontae-jong (天台宗) sects became the intellectual basis for leading the country; following the military coup, the meditation centered Seon-jong sect (禪宗) which had the support of the military regime and pro-Mongol clans (權門勢族), and the Jogye-jong sect (曹溪宗) which united the Nine Mountain seon temples (九山禪門), [together] led the Buddhist establishment. There was an inseparably intimate relationship between those in power and Buddhism; high monks were invariably at the centre of national reform and restoration. However, due to various abuses and side effects of excessively preferential policies [towards] Buddhism, during the later period Buddhism was completely rejected by the new [class of] sadaebu (士大夫) scholar-officials.

Thirdly, during the Goryeo period sahak private academies (私學) greatly developed. With the initiation of the Confucian based gwageo (科擧) civil service examination, [sons of] regional clans (土豪) and commoners (良民) such as provincial officials (鄕吏) [all] sought social advancement through this [system]. As a result the national Gukja-gam (國子監) academy [took on a] nominal [position] whilst private schools established by Confucian scholars, starting with the Gujae-hakdang academy (九齋學堂) of Choe Chung (崔沖 984-1068), became prevalent. These Confucian scholars were mostly of bureaucratic backgrounds having emerged from the jigonggeo (知貢擧) offices which supervised the gwageo examination, as such there was nothing more effective [for them] than the private academies.

Fourthly, for a period military officials seized control of the government. This is an anomaly of [Korean] dynastic history where, uniquely, governance was controlled by the military. Following the initiation of the gwageo system, civil officials including the hereditary nobility dominated (총괄) state governance; the civil officials also had command over the military. On account of this the military officials were completely excluded from power resulting in the 1170 coup d’état. The military leaders Yi Uibang (李義方 d.1174), Jeong Jungbu (鄭仲夫 1106-79), Gyeong Daeseung (慶大升 1154-1183), Yi Uimin (李義旼 d.1196) and Choe Chungheon (崔忠獻 1149-1219) ruled Goryeo for around eighty years until the kingship was restored during the Yuan dynasty.

Together with these characteristics, in order to approach the five hundred years of the Goryeo dynasty in a more interesting way, [I] have tried to narrate Goryeo history through twenty-eight lives that were at the centre of the era. Looking into history through the life of an individual is an extremely interesting task, and [I] believe this is precisely the attraction of the ‘Looking at History through Personages’ series. Of course, seeing this is only one person’s writing (talking about himself), the individual’s bias and lack of historical awareness will likely be revealed. I request much whipping.

Song Eun-myeong


Part 1 – A new era begins

Wang Geon (王建 r.918-943) – Opening the gates of Goryeo’s 500 years.

Gwang-jong (光宗 r.949-975) – Centralization of power towards the strengthening of royal authority; preparing the foundation of centralized authority.

Gyun’yeo (均如 923-973) – Taking the lead in the unification and popularization of Buddhism.

Seong-jong (成宗 r.981-997) – Receiving the title of “sagacious ruler” (聖君).

Seo Hui (徐熙 942-98) – A master diplomat who repelled the Khitan army with a single word.

Gang Jo (康兆 ?-1010) – A traitor [but who] maintained his allegiance to [his] country.

Yang Gyu (楊規 ?-1011) – Leave the Khitan army to me!

Gang Gamchan (姜邯贊 948-1031)  The famous general of the Great Victory of Gwiju (龜州大捷).

Part 2 – Achieving the flourishing of culture on a [now] stable foundation

Mun-jong (文宗 r.1046-1083) – Leading the highest golden age of Goryeo.

Choe Chung (崔沖 984-1068) – Establishing the craze for sahak private academies (私學).

Yi Jayeon (李子淵 1003-1061) – The glory of a family attained through intermarriage with the royal house.

Uicheon (義天 1055-1101) – The prince who became a monk.

Yun Gwan (尹瓘 ?-1111) – An eternity of anguish; a moment of glory.

Part 3 – Dominance of the queens’ relatives and period of military [rule]

Yi Jagyeom (李資謙 ?-1126) – Dreaming of a usurption of the thrown [by] the queen’s clan.

Myocheong (妙淸 ?-1135) – The Dream of a [truly] independent [from the Khitan Liao] country that vanished together with the failure of a revolution.

Kim Busik (金富軾 1075-1151) – Author of Samguk-sagi, a perfect example of sadae-juui [‘serving the greater’ toadyism towards China] (事大主義)

Jeong Jungbu (鄭仲夫 1106-1179) – Opening the doors to the period of military [rule] through coup d’état.

Choe Chungheon (崔忠獻 1149-1219) – The longest ruling dictatorship in the history of the military regime.

Yi Gyubo (李奎報 1168-1241) – The great writer [and poet] who established the revival of Goryeo literature.

Jinul (知訥 1158-1210) – Creating the Jogye-jong sect (曹溪宗) and [thus] contributing to the unification of [Korean] Buddhism.

Part 4 – The Mongol invasions and final writhing for restoration

Kim Yunhu (金允侯) – [From] origins of [being] a monk, rising to the [highest military] position of sangjanggun (上將軍).

Bae Jungson (裵仲孫 ?-1271) – Leading the Goryeo partisans, the Sambyeolcho (三別抄), and resisting against the Mongols.

Il’yeon (一然 1206-1289) – Writer of the Samguk-yusa, valued [by Choe Namseon 1890-1957] higher than the Samguk-sagi.

An Hyang (安珦 1243-1306) – The Zhu Xi (朱熹) of the East who tried to rearm Goryeo with Neo-Confucianism (性理學 seongni-hak).

Yi Jehyeon (李齊賢 1287-1367) – A realist in an age of chaos.

Gongmin-wang (恭愍王 r.1351-1374) – Writhing [struggle] for the restoration of Goryeo.

Choe Yeong (崔瑩 1316-1388) – The failed dream of a Liaodong conquest [campaign].

Jeong Mongju (鄭夢周 1337-1392) – Sharing the fate of the Goryeo dynasty.


One thought on “Sources: “Looking at Goryeo History through the Personages” – forward and contents

  1. Pingback: Sources: “Looking at Goryeo History through the Personages” – forward and contents | Goryeo Dreams

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