Sources: the Samguk-yusa “Hwan’ung-Dan’gun” 桓雄·壇君 account

The following is a direct translation of the Hwan’ung-Dan’gun (桓雄·壇君) myth as found in the Samguk-yusa (『三國遺事』’Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms’ c.1283) where it is included at the start of the first “Gi’i” (紀異 ‘Records of wondrous/supernatural [events]’) chapter; the section is titled ‘Old Joseon’ and subtitled ‘Wanggeom Joseon’ (古朝鮮:王儉朝鮮).

This is the longer of the two earliest surviving Hwan’ung-Dan’gun variant texts. The other is found as an annotation in Jewang-un’gi (『帝王韻紀』’Rhyming record of emperors and kings’ completed 1287) by Yi Seunghyu (李承休).

English translations of the SY variant are available in various books; I’m uploading this version for convenience and in anticipation of following posts.

In the original Chinese, the Old Joseon section contains no subdivisions; here I have divided it into five. The middle sections are based on the three part structural analysis by Choe Namseon (崔南善 1890-1957) – this is now convention and seems quite obvious, but he was the first person to do this.

Curved parenthesis () are original to the text; in the original Chinese there is no such punctuation but instead the parenthetical text is smaller sized than the main text.

Old Joseon (Wanggeom Joseon)

According to the Weishu 魏書, 2,000 years ago there was Dan’gun Wanggeom 壇君王儉, [he] established the capital of Asadal 阿斯達 (the classic {i.e. Shanhaijing 山海經} says this was either Muyeop-san 無葉山 or Baeg’ak 白岳 in Baek-ju 白州; it also says it was to the east of Gaeseong 開城, now Baeg’ak-gung palace白岳宮). Founding {lit. opening} the kingdom [it] was called Joseon 朝鮮; [this was] the same time as {legendary} [Emperor] Yao 高 {堯}.


{Hwan’ung descension myth}
According to old records 古記, a long time ago there was Hwan’in 桓因 (called Śakra 帝釋 {Kor. Jeseok}). [One of his] sons [was] Hwan’ung 桓雄 [who] had much intention [for] earth [and] coveted the human world. The father knew [his] son’s intentions; looking over the Samwi-Taebaek 三危太伯 [peaks], it was possible for humans to be widely prosperous 弘益人間. Thereupon bestowing the three celestial seals, he sent [his son] to rule it. [Hwan’]ung led 3,000 [followers], [and] descended to the summit of Taebaek-san mountain (Taebaek is present day Myohyang-san 妙香山{modern North Pyeong’an-do province in North Korea}) below the sindan-su 神壇樹 {lit. ‘divine altar’} tree; calling [the place] Sinsi 神市 {lit. ‘divine market’}, they called Hwan’ung ‘celestial king’. Commanding the wind earl and masters of rain and cloud, [they] managed cereals, life, disease, punishment, good and evil, and the more than 360 matters of humans; [these things] in the world they ruled and cultivated/enlightened.


{Bear and tiger story}
At [this] time, there was a bear [and] a tiger [who both] lived in the same hole. Always they prayed to the divine [Hwan’]ung, wishing to become human. Then, the god sent them one sprig of mugwort 艾 and twenty stems of garlic 蒜, saying, “You, eat these, do not see the sun for 100 days, then you will be able to achieve human form.”

The bear and tiger took and ate them, [observing the] prohibition/taboo [of sunlight] for twenty-one days. The bear gained a woman’s body; the tiger was unable to [observe the] prohibition and so did not gain a human body. The bear woman had no one with [whom] to marry. Therefore she always went to beneath the dan-su tree, [and] prayed to become pregnant. [Hwan’]ung temporarily changed [to human form] and married her; becoming pregnant she gave birth to a son [who was] named Dan’gun-Wanggeom.


{Dan’gun’s reign}
In the Gyeong’in 庚寅 year [of the sexagonary calendar], 50 years after [emperor] Tang Yao 唐高 had ascended the throne (the first year of Tang Yao’s reign was Mujin 戊辰, so the 50th year would be Jeongsa 丁巳, not Gyeong’in. Probably it is wrong) [Dan’gun Wanggeom] established the capital Pyeongyang-seong 平壤城 (current day Seogyeong 西京 {‘western capital’ aka modern Pyeongyang}) and for the first time called [the country] Joseon. Again the capital was moved to Baek’ak-san mountain Asadal. Again, [it was] named Gung- 弓(or Bang)-hol-san 忽山, or/again Geummidal 今彌達; [he] governed the country for 1,500 years. In the year that King Wu of Zhou 周虎王{aka 周武} ascended the throne, [sexagonary] Gimyo 己卯 [year], Gi Ja 箕子 was enfeoffed to Joseon; Dan’gun thereupon moved to Jangdang-gyeong 藏唐京 [and] later returned to Asadal-san becoming a sansin 山神 mountain god. [He] was aged 1,908.


{Gi Ja and Han Commanderies}
According to Tang [dynasty era] Peiju-zhuan 裵矩傳, Goryeo 高麗 was originally Gojuk-guk 孤竹國 (current day Haeju 海州). By enfeoffing Gi Ja 箕子 [they] made Joseon. Han [China] divided [Joseon] establishing three commanderies 郡, called Xuantu [K. Hyeondo] 玄菟, Lelang [K. Nangnang] 樂浪 and Daifang [K. Daebang] 帶方(North Daifang). The Tongdian 通典 {by Du You 杜佑 (735-812)}, also has a similar account to this. (The Hanshu 漢書 has four commanderies Zhen[pan-jun] 眞{番}, Lin[tun-jun] 臨{屯}, Le[lang-jun] and Xuan[tu-jun];  now [here] it says three commanderies, the names also are not the same, why would this be?)

唐裵矩傳云高麗本孤竹國(今海州)周以封箕子爲朝鮮漢分置三郡謂玄菟 樂浪帶方(北帶方)通典亦同此說(漢書則眞臨樂玄四郡今云三郡名又不同何耶)


Sources: Yu Deukgong’s “Nostalgic Reflections of the Twenty-One Capitals” 二十一都懷古詩 (1792) – part 6 of 6

See Introductionpart 1part 2part 3, part 4 and part 5.

高麗  Goryeo

In the Wudaishi (History of the Five Dynasties 五代史) it is written, “In the 3rd Changxing (長興 930-3) year of Later Tang emperor Mingzong (明宗), emissaries came sent from the Goryeo gwonjiguksa (權知國事, a title used before rulers were ‘enfeoffed’ by Chinese emperors) Wang Geon (王建). Mingzong appointed Wang Geon as high magistrate of Hyeondo-ju (玄菟州), supplied (充) him with dayi-junshi military messengers (大義軍使) and enfeoffed him as king of Goryeo-guk.”

In the Goryeo-sa (高麗史) it is written, “The surname of Divine and Sagacious Great King Taejo (太祖神聖大王) was Wang (王) and his first name Geon (建). His style name (字) was Yakcheon (若天) and he was from Song’ak-gun (松岳郡). When the administration of Silla began to decline, Gung-ye (弓裔) took control of the former territory of Goguryeo and, establishing his capital at Cheorwon (鐵原), named the country Taebong (泰封). Taejo (太祖 ie Wang Geon) was received as jeonggi-daegam (精騎大監) and owing to his many deeds accumulated further ranks becoming both pajinchang (波珍澯) and sijung (侍中). In the 4th Zhenming (貞明 정명 915-20) year of Later Liang (後粱 후량), gijang marshalls (騎將) Hong Yu (洪儒), Bae Hyeon-Gyeong (裵玄慶 d.936), Sin Sung-gyeom (申崇謙 d.927) and Bok Ji-gyeom (卜智謙) met in secret and inaugurated [Wang Geon as king]. They called the country Goryeo and revised the era name (年號) to Cheonsu (天授 ‘receiving heaven’). In the 2nd year of Taejo’s reign they established the capital to the south of Mount Song’ak (松岳山).”

In the Munheon-bigo (文獻備考) it is written, “Gaeseong-bu (開城府) is the former capital of Goryeo-guk.”

荒凉二十八王陵  황량이십팔왕릉  平平去入入平平(蒸)
風雨年年暗漆燈  풍우년년암칠등  平上平平去入平
進鳳山中紅躑躅  진봉산중홍척촉  去去平平平
春來猶自發層層  춘래유자발층층  平平平去入平平

hwang ryang i sip pal wang reung
pung u nyeon nyeon am chil deung
jin bong san jung hong cheok chok
chun rae yu ja bal cheung cheung

The twenty-eight royal burial mounds [stand] forlorn and desolate.
[Weathered by] wind and rain year upon year, the lacquer lamps [a term for graves n.116] grow dim.
[Yet] the red royal azaleas at Mount Jinbong
In spring will spontaneously bloom layer upon layer.

the twenty-eight royal burial mounds (二十八王陵): according to the Munheon-bigo (文獻備考), “Starting with Goryeo Taejo (太祖), there are twenty-eight royal tombs located in Gaeseong-bu around Mount Song’ak (松岳山), Mount Jinbong (進鳳山), Byeokgot-dong (碧串洞 벽곶동) and Mount Bongmyeong (鳳鳴山).”

the royal azaleas at Mount Jinbong (進鳳躑躅): according to the Yeoji-seungnam (輿地勝覽), “Mount Jinbong is nine li to the east of Gaeseong-bu. Many azaleas (杜鵑花 두견화) bloom there so they are known as Jinbong azaleas (進鳳躑躅).”

鳳輦逶遲降帝姬  봉연위지강제희  去上 平去去平(支)
春寒氈帳祓羊脂  춘한전장불양지  平平平去平平平
浮生白眼應難較  부생백안응난교  平平入上平平去
紅淚先沾勺藥枝  홍누선첨작약지  平去平平入入平

bong yeon wi ji gang je hwi
chun han jeon jang bul yang ji
bu saeng baek an eung nan gyo
hong nu seon cheom jak yak ji

The emperor’s daughter slowly travels down [from the Yuan capital Beijing] in the Phoenix [i.e. royal] palanquin.
In the spring cold, [her] ger tent [has already been] erected and an exorcism performed with sheep fat.
In this fleeting life it is difficult to vie with white eyes;
Red tears fell first on the peony branch.

the emperor’s daughter (帝姬): according to the Goryeo-sa (高麗史), “King Chungnyeol’s (忠烈王) queen (后) was the Great Princess of Qi [aka the Mongol Empire] (齊國大長公主 1259-97 n.117). Her [Mongol] name [in Korean] was Holdo’rogerimisil (忽都魯揭里迷失) and she was the daughter of Yuan Shizu (元世祖 aka Kublai Khan). In the 15th year of King Wonjong’s (元宗 r.1259–1274) reign, King Chungnyeol whilst [residing as] a crown prince in Yuan, married the princess.”

an exorcism performed with sheep fat (祓禳脂 불양지): according to the Goryeo-sa (高麗史), “When King Chungnyeol ascended to the throne and returned to the east [ie to Goryeo] with the princess, they entered the capital [Gaeseong] together on a palanquin (輦) and the older men of the capital congratulated one another. The emperor had sent Tuohu (脫忽) to [serve] the princess and, arriving first he set up a ger tent (穹廬 궁려 n.118) and performed an exorcism (祓) using white sheep fat.”

white eyes (白眼): according to the Goryeo-sa (高麗史), “After the princess gave birth to a boy a feast was held during which Palace Madam, Queen Jeonghwa (貞和宮主 d.1319, Chungnyeol’s first Korean queen n.119), poured wine [for the princess] to congratulate [her]. When the king looked back at the princess, the princess said, ‘How can you look at me with white eyes? Is it because the Palace Madam (宮主) has knelt [before] me?’ So saying [she] ordered the banquet to stop and descending from the palace building cried bitterly.”

the branch of a peony (芍藥枝 작약지): according to the Goryeo-sa (高麗史), “In the 5th month of the 22nd year of King Chungnyeol’s reign, when the peonies were in full bloom at Su’nyeong-gung palace (壽寧宮 n.120), the princess ordered a flower to be brought to her. Holding it for a good while her emotions gave way to tears. She became sick and died at the age of thirty-nine.”

結識中朝趙子昻  결식중조조자앙  入入平平上上平(陽)
風流都尉瀋陽王  풍류도위심양왕  平平平去上平平
敎人提擧征東省  교인제거정동성  平平平上平平上
留醉盧溝萬卷堂  유취노구만권당  平去平平去上平

gyeol sil jung jo jo ja ang
pung ryu do wi sim yang wang
gyo in je geo jeong dong seong
yu chwi no gu man gwon dang

[King Chungseon] formed a close friendship with [painter/calligrapher] Zhao Zi Ang of the Chinese [Yuan] court.
Enjoying music and arts, he was the imperial son-in-law and the Shenyang king.
He entrusted the Eastern Expedition Field Headquarters [by now only an institute used for controlling Goryeo’s affairs] to others [Chungseon handed power to his son Chungsuk in 1313],
And spent his time drunk at the Ten-thousand Volume Library in Lugou [southeast district of Beijing].

the Shenyang king (瀋陽王 심양왕): according to the Yuanshi (History of the Yuan 元史), “The Goryeo king Won (言+原 원, aka King Chungseon 忠宣王) was the son of Geo (昛, aka King Chungnyeol) and succeeded him to the throne. In the first year of Emperor Chengzong (成宗 r.1294-1307) he was married to Princess Bodasiri (寶塔實燐公主 d.1315 n.124) and in the 11th year he was enfeoffed as king of Shenyang (瀋陽 심양, a Yuan title for the Goryeo kings, referring to the region of Liaoyang 遼陽 요양 where many Goryeo people had been displaced during the Mongol invasions. n.125).”

the Eastern Expedition Field Headquarters (征東省): according to the Yuanshi (元史), “In the 21st Zhiyuan (至元 c.1284) year, the Eastern Expedition Field Headquarters (征東行中書省 n.126) was established in Goryeo.”

the Ten-thousand Volume Library (萬卷堂): according to the Goryeo-sa (高麗史), “King Chungseon’s (忠宣王) name before death (諱 휘) was Jang (璋), his earlier name was Won (言+原) and his Mongol name was Ijireubuka (益知禮普花). After around ten years residing in Yuan, he assisted Emperor Renzong (仁宗 r.1311-20) in suppressing an internal rebellion and welcomed the enthronement of Emperor Wuzong (武宗 r.1307-11).  As dawei Great Lieutenant (大尉) he resided in a mansion in [the southeast district, Lugou 盧溝 노구, of] Beijing (燕京) and there constructed the Man’gwon-dang library (萬卷堂 ‘ten thousand volume hall’ est.1314 n.127) where he entertained himself (自娛) with history books. Yao Sui (姚燧 1239-1314 n.128), Yan Fu (閻復 염복 1236-1312 n.129), Yuan Mingshan (元明善 1269-1332 n.130) and Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322 趙孟頫, aka Zhao Zi Ang n.121) all used to meet (遊) in the king’s courtyard.”

銀燭如星照禁扃  은촉여성조금경  平入平平去平
題詩多上牧丹亭  제시다상목단정  平平平上入平平(靑)
如今破瓦嵩山在  여금파와숭산재  平平去上平平上
不復三呼繞殿靑  불복삼호요전청  入入平平去去平

eung chok yeo seong jo geum gyeong
je si da sang mok dan jeong
yeo geum pa wa sung sang jae
bul bok san ho yo jeon cheong

Like star[light], silver candlelight illuminates the crossbar of the palace [gate].
Many [people] climb up to the Peony Pavilion to compose poems.
Just as there are now [only] broken tiles [to be found] on Mount Sung,
So too will the three calls never again echo around [lit. “surround”] the palace paintwork.

Peony Pavilion (牧丹停 목란정): according to the Yi-sang-gukjip (Collected Works of Minister Yi 李相國集), “When the peonies bloom around Sanho-jeong pavilion (山呼亭 n.132) the number of people there composing poems reaches a hundred.” According to the Yeoji-seungnam (輿地勝覽), “Sanho-jeong is inside Yeon’gyeong-gung palace (延慶宮 n.133).”

Mount Sung (嵩山): according to the Yeoji-seungnam (輿地勝覽), “Song’ak (松岳) is five li to the north of Gaeseong-bu. It was originally called both Buso (扶蘇) and Gongnyeong (鵠嶺 곡령); it is also known as Sung-san (崧山) and Sinsung (神嵩)”

the three calls surround (echo around) the palace paintwork (三呼繞殿靑 삼호요전청): according to the Goryeo-sa (高麗史), “During the time of King Chunghye (忠惠王 r.1330-32, 1339-44), Song’ak mountain would call (鳴) during the night. Thinking it strange, he asked about it and Jinmujak-geum (陣無作金 n.339) told him, ‘It is nothing to worry about. In an old poem is a line saying, Seong’ak calls thrice enveloping the palace paintwork.’ The king rejoiced.”

指點前朝宰相家  지점전조재상가  上上平平上去平(麻)
廢園風雨土牆斜  폐원풍우토장사  去平平上上平平
牧丹孔雀凋零盡  목단공작조영진  入平上入平平上
黃蝶雙雙飛采花  황접쌍쌍비채화  平入平平平

ji jeom jeon jo jae sang ga
pye won pung u to jang sa
mok dan gong jak jo yeong jin
hwang jeop ssang ssang bi chae hwa

[One can] point with their finger to the prime minister’s house of the previous dynasty [ie Goryeo];
[Battered by] wind and rain, the earthen walls of the overgrown garden are leaning over.
The peonies have withered and the peacocks are gone;
[Only] pairs of yellow butterflies flit amongst the herbs and flowers.

peonies and peacocks (牧丹孔雀): according to the Goryeo-sa (高麗史), “At the beginning of [King] Sinjong’s (神宗 r.1197-1204) reign chamji-jeongsa (參知政事) Cha Yak-song (車若松 n.134) and teukjin (特進) Gi Hong-su (奇洪壽 1148-1209, n.135) together entered the Chungseo-seong (中書省 Chancellery for Internal Affairs). Yak-song asked Hong-su, ‘How is [your] peacock?’ To which Hong-su answered, ‘It died after eating a fish and getting a bone stuck in its throat.’ Hong-su then asked about cultivating peonies to which Yak-song gave a detailed explanation. Those who heard this mocked them for it.”

潮落潮生急水門  조락조생급수문  平入平平入上平(元)
年年商舶到江村  연년상박도강촌  平平平入去平平
攢峯十二巫山似  찬봉십이무산사  平入去平平上
只少三聲墮淚猿  지소삼성타누원  上上平平上去平

jo rak jo saeng geup su mun
yeon nyeon sang bak do gang chon
chan bong sip i mu san sa
ji so sam seong ta nu won

The tide ebbs and flows at Swift Water Gate;
Each year trade ships arrived at the river village.
The twelve peaks [were said to] resemble the Wu mountains [巫山, on the Yangtze River by Wu Xia],
Only the three voices of monkeys crying are missing. [Both Li Bai and Du Fu wrote poems about the monkeys of the Wu mountains n.136.]

Swift Water Gate, Geupsu-mun (急水門): according to the Songshi (History of Song 宋史), “The Yeseong River (禮成江) is between two mountains and is bound together as a stone ravine. The water swirls and violently flows downwards. The place where it is most dangerous is called Geupsu-mun (Swift Water Gate).” According to the Damingyitongzhi (Complete Records of the Great Ming 大明一統志), “Geupsu-mun is in the sea to the south of Gaeseong. It resembles Wu-xia gorge (巫峽) [on the Yangtze River].”

trade ships (商舶): according to the Goryeo-sa (高麗史), “Song merchants gathered at the Yeseong River.”

天壽南門春暮時  천수남문춘모시  平去平平平去平(支)
丹樓碧閣影參差  단누벽각영참차  平平入入上平平(麻)
風蓑雨笠何村客  풍사우립하촌객  入平平入
終日沈吟看鷺鷥  종일침음간로사  平入平平去去

cheon su nam mun chun mo si
dan nu byeok gak yeong cham cha
pung sa u rip ha chon gaek
jong il chim eum gan ro sa

On a spring evening as light fades by the south gate of Cheonsu Temple
Shadows cast by the red and green pavilions become indistinguishable.
A rustic traveller wearing a straw coat and hat to protect himself from wind and rain,
Has spent the day reciting poetry watching a white heron.

Cheonsu-won academy (天壽院): according to Yeoji-seungnam (輿地勝覽), “Cheonsu-won is to the east of the fortress (城) and is the former site of Cheonsu-sa temple (天壽寺).”

watching a white heron (看鷺鷥 간로사): according to the Goryeo-sa (高麗史), “In order to write the poem White Heron (鷺鷥), Gang Il-yong (康日用 n.138) would brave the rain each time and go to the stream south of Cheonsu-sa Temple to watch them.”

紫霞洞裏艸霏霏  자하동리초비비  上平去上上
不見宮姬並馬歸  불견궁희병마귀  入去平平上上平(微)
爲是辛王行樂地  위시신왕행락지  平上平平平入去
至今猶有燕雙飛  지금유유연쌍비  去平平上去平平

ja ha dong ri cho bi bi
bul gyeon gung hwi byeong ma gwi
wi si sin wang haeng rak ji
ji geum yu yu yeon ssang bi

The vegetation grows densely in Purple Afterglow Valley;
The palace lady returning on her horse beside [King Sin] is [nowhere] to be seen.
This was once the playground of King Sin,
However now only swallows [remain] flying together with their mates.

Purple Afterglow Valley, Jaha-dong (紫霞洞): according to Yeoji-seungnam (輿地勝覽), “Jaha-dong valley is beneath Mount Song’ak (松岳山). The valley (洞府) is deep and dangerous. The stream water is clear and flows gently. It is the most scenic of places.”

King Sin (辛王 r.1374-1388): according to the Mingshi (History of Ming 明史), “Goryeo king Jeon (顓 aka 恭愍王 r.1330-74) had no son and so he adopted U (禑 aka King Sin n.139), the son of Chongsin Sin Don (寵臣 辛旽 d.1371 n.140).” According to the Goryeo-sa (高麗史), “When he was young, Sin U’s (辛禑) name was Monino (牟尼奴). He was the child of Sin Don and his slave concubine (婢妾) Ban’ya (般若).”

swallows fly together with their mates, yeon-ssang-bi (燕雙飛 연쌍비): according to the Goryeo-sa (高麗史), “Sin Don had the gisaeng Yeon Ssang Bi (Flying Pair of Swallows 燕雙飛) carry a bow and play a flute. Dressing her in a dragon embroidered dress, they would ride with their reins adjacent to one another.”

可憐靑木未藏龍  가련청목미장룡  上平平入去平平(冬)
蕭瑟千年鵠嶺松  소슬천년곡령송  平入平平入上平
鐵犬寥寥東向吠  철견요요동향폐  入上平平平去去
白雲飛盡見三峯  백운비진견삼봉  入平平上去平平

ga ryeon cheong mok mi jang ryong
sol seul cheon nyeon gok ryeong song
cheol gyeon yo yo dong hyang pye
baek un bi jin gyeon sam bong

It is pitiful that a dragon cannot hide in a green tree [Refers to the prophecy of Taebong in poem 34];
Cold and sad, [only] the pines of Tundra Swan Pass (Gong-nyeong 鵠嶺, another name for Song’ak Mountain n.141)* [survive] a thousand years.
Iron dogs [were placed] to silently bark at the east,
For only when the white clouds blew away was Three Peak Mountain seen.

* [Refers to the message sent by Choe Chiwon to Wang Geon when he first established Goryeo “鵠嶺靑松 鷄林黃葉 (곡령청송 계림황엽)” mentioned in poem 24.]

iron dogs (鐵犬): according to the Songgyeong-japgi (Miscellaneous Records of the Pine Capital aka Gaeseong 松京雜記 n.142), “It is said that, ‘Holy monk Doseon (道詵 n.143) determined the site south of Mount Song’ak for the [new Goryeo] capital. A little later, the clouds lifted revealing to the southeast the three peaks, Samgak-san, of Hanyang (漢陽 三角山) which reached the sky. Seeing this, Doseon collapsed in surprise and lamented. They made twelve iron dogs and had them bark in that direction. This is because Samgak was a gyubong (窺峰 n.144) mountain that effected the auspiciousness of Mount Song’ak. (They also placed on a large rock the Sangmyeong-deung (Ever Shining Lantern 常明橙), a type of lantern used to ward away robbers n.145).'” Now to the east of Gaeseong is Jwa’gyeon-ni (座犬里 Sitting Dog Village, referenced in a poem by Kim Yuk (金堉 1580-1658) n.146).

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.