The Goryeo Dynasty: Buddhist Unifier of the Korean Peninsula
The Goryeo dynasty was a Korean dynasty that existed between the 10 th and 14 th centuries. The Goryeo dynasty was established following the unification of Korea’s Later Three Kingdoms and ended when it was overthrown by the Joseon dynasty. The history of the Goryeo dynasty is closely intertwined with events that took place in neighboring China. This is visible in the way Goryeo was treated each time a new dynasty came to power.
Apart from that, the Goryeo dynasty is considered to be the “golden age of Buddhism in Korea,” as Buddhism was the kingdom’s national religion. The Tripitaka Koreana, a collection of Buddhist scriptures carved onto 81,258 wooden printing blocks, is one of the most significant achievements of Korean Buddhism during this period.
He volumes of Tripitaka Koreana, Haeinsa, South Korea. (Ken Eckert, CC BY-SA 4.0)
The Beginnings of the Goryeo Dynasty
Goryeo is the shortened form of Goguryeo, and this dynasty derived its name from an earlier kingdom that existed from the 1 st century BC to the 7 th century AD. This earlier Korean kingdom is normally referred to as Goguryeo, and was one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, the other two being Baekje and Silla. Goguryeo occupied the northern and central parts of the Korean Peninsula, as well as present-day northeastern China, and the southern part of Primorsky Krai, Russia. Incidentally, it is from Goryeo that the English name Korea is derived.
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The Three Kingdoms period was followed by the Northern Southern States period, during which the Korean Peninsula was divided between two kingdoms. By the end of the 9 th century AD, however, the peninsula was once again dominated by three kingdoms, hence this period is known as the Later Three Kingdoms period.
The founder of the Goryeo dynasty was Wang Geon, known also as the Taejo of Goryeo. (Public domain)
The founder of the Goryeo dynasty was Wang Geon, known also as the Taejo of Goryeo. Wang Geon is said to have been born in 877 AD in Songak, known today as Kaesong. He was the son of Wang Yung, the head of a merchant clan that made its fortune through trade with China. Due to his wealth, Wang Yung was considered a powerful local leader.
During the late 9 th century AD, in the Later Silla period (known also as United Silla), which ruled over much of the southern and central parts of the Korean Peninsula, the Silla kingdom was losing its grip over its domains. Rebellions broke out, and one of the most powerful rebel leaders was Gung Ye, who dominated the northeastern areas of the Later Silla territories.
Many local clans surrendered to Gung Ye, including Wang Yung. Additionally, Wang Yung entered into the service of Gung Ye, and Wang Geon followed in his footsteps. Wang Geon soon distinguished himself as a capable military leader and was promoted by Gung Ye to the rank of general.
In 901 AD, Gung Ye established the Later Goguryeo kingdom, and proclaimed himself ruler of this new kingdom. Wang Geon continued to serve Gung Ye as a general and conducted military campaigns against the kingdom’s enemies. In 913 AD, Wang Geon was appointed by Gung Ye as his prime minister.
A painting from the Amitayurdhyana sutra showing a palace exemplifying the architecture of the Goryeo dynasty. (Goryeo-Dynasty artist / Public domain)
The Taejo Rises to the Top and Forms the Goryeo Dynasty
As the years went by, Gung Ye became increasingly tyrannical, and his subjects suffered severely under his despotic rule. Consequently, four of the king’s tops generals plotted to overthrow Gung Ye, and to replace him with Wang Geon. The prime minister is said to have initially been opposed to the conspiracy, though he soon changed his mind, and threw his support behind the generals.
In 918 AD, the four generals overthrew Gung Ye, and killed him near the capital, Cheorwon. Subsequently, Wang Yung was placed on the throne by the conspirators. The kingdom, which was called Taebong at that time, was renamed as Goryeo, thus marking the beginning of Goryeo dynasty.
As the ruler of Goryeo, Wang Geon became known as Taejo. At the time when Taejo became king, the Korean Peninsula was still divided between the three kingdoms. In addition to Goryeo, the two other kingdoms were the Later Silla and Later Baekje kingdoms. The former occupied the southeastern part of the peninsula, whereas the latter occupied the southwestern part of the peninsula, and was founded by another rebel leader, Gyeon Hwon. Thus, in the years that followed, Taejo strove to unite the whole Korean Peninsula under his rule.
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In 927 AD, the Later Silla capital, Gyeongju, was attacked and captured by Gyeon Hwon. The king of Later Silla, Gyeongjae, was caught, and executed. A puppet, Gyeongsun, was left by Gyeon Hwon on the throne.
Taejo saw this as an opportunity to seize both rival kingdoms and attacked the forces of Later Baekje as they were marching home. Taejo, however, lost the battle, but managed to recover quickly, and therefore was able to defend his kingdom when Gyeon Hwon launched a retaliatory attack. Although Taejo was not successful this time round, he was not entirely defeated, and waited patiently for another opportunity to present itself.
In 935 AD, Gyeongsun, the puppet placed by Gyeon Hwon on the throne of Later Silla, decided to surrender his kingdom to Taejo, as he realized that it was impossible for him to revive the fortunes of Later Silla.
Naturally, Taejo was happy to accept Gyeongsun’s surrender. He rewarded the former king by giving him the title of prince. Moreover, he married one of Gyeongsun’s daughters, so as to cement their relations, as well as to ensure Geongsun’s support and loyalty. This marriage also helped Taejo gain the support of the Later Silla nobles.
The territories of the Later Three Kingdoms and China to the north. (KJS615 / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Gyeon Hwon Overthrown To the Taejo’s Advantage
In the meantime, trouble was brewing for Gyeon Hwon in his kingdom. In the same year that Gyeongsun surrendered his kingdom to Taejo, Gyeon Hwon’s own father defected to Goryeo. Taejo received him courteously and treated him as his own father.
Gyeon Hwon, however, had even greater problems awaiting him. In that same year, his eldest son, Singeom, overthrew his father in a coup. This was because Gyeon Hwon favored another son, one of Singeom’s half-brothers, as heir to the throne. Gyeon Hwon was imprisoned in a Buddhist temple, but managed to escape, and fled to Goryeo. Despite being his enemy, Gyeon Hwon too was treated kindly by Taejo.
The unification of Korea was completed in 936 AD. In that year, Taejo launched his last campaign against Later Baekje, which was now ruled by Singeom. Although Singeom resisted, he soon realized that it was futile to go on fighting and surrendered to Taejo.
Thus, following the conquest of Later Baekje, Taejo finally achieved his goal of unifying Korea. It should be noted that this was a pivotal point in the history of Korea, and that the country remained united until 1948, when it was divided into North and South Korea.
Taejo continued to rule over Goryeo until his death in 943 AD. The dynasty established by Taejo lasted until 1392, when it was replaced by the Joseon dynasty. In the intervening period, Goryeo experienced both good fortune and misfortune.
The historic Janggieupseong site built by the Goryeo dynasty, located in the Janggi-myeon, Pohang, Gyeongsangbuk-do, South Korea. (Yeongsik Im / Adobe Stock)
One of the first serious challenges faced by the kingdom occurred in 993 AD. In that year, the nomadic Khitans, who ruled the Liao Empire, invaded the northwestern border of Goryeo with a force of 800000 men. The Liao Empire was a powerful state that ruled over a vast stretch of northern Asia and was hostile towards China’s Song dynasty. Therefore, when Goryeo agreed to break its alliance with the Chinese, the Khitans withdrew their forces, and ceded the area east of the Yalu River to Goryeo. Nevertheless, the kingdom continued its communications with the Song dynasty, and began to build fortresses to strengthen its newly gained northern territories.
In 1010, the Khitans took advantage of Goryeo’s internal struggles to attack the kingdom again. In the previous year, the king, Mokjong, was overthrown and killed by one of his generals, Gang Jo. Although a new king, Hyeonjong, was placed on the throne actual power was in the hands of Gang Jo, who ruled as a military dictator.
Although Gang Jo was able to defend Goryeo against the Khitan forces for some time, he was eventually defeated and killed. Following Gang Jo’s defeat, Hyeonjong was forced to flee the capital. This, however, was only temporary, as the Khitans failed to establish a foothold in Goryeo and were worried about a counterattack. Consequently, the Khitans withdrew in 1011.
The Khitans returned to Goryeo for the third and last time in 1018. Although the Khitans started the campaign with 100000 men, things went so badly for them that, by the end of it, they were left with only several thousand men.
Four years after this disastrous campaign, the Liao Empire succeeded in reaching a peace agreement with Goryeo, and the two countries enjoyed a period of peace.
About a century later, the Jurchens, whose lands bordered both the Liao Empire and Goryeo, began to grow in power, and established the Jin dynasty in 1115. The Jurchens launched attacks on both the Khitans and Goryeo, destroying the former, and vassalizing the latter. As Goryeo obediently paid tribute to the Jin dynasty, the kingdom was able to maintain peaceful relations with the Jurchens.
The coronation of Ogodei Khan in 1229 AD. The Mongol khan soon became a big player in Goryeo dynasty politics. (Rashid al-Din / Public domain)
Goryeo Eventually Aligns Itself With the Mongols
In 1231, Goryeo faced another threat, the Mongol Empire. Ogedei Khan, the second great Mongol khan, invaded the kingdom, as part of his campaign to conquer China. Although Goryeo resisted for almost 30 years, they eventually sued for peace. This shift in policy occurred as a result of the assassination of Choe Ui, the military dictator. The military regime was replaced by a faction of scholars who favored peace with the Mongols. Following this peace settlement, the Mongols tried to invade Japan, once in 1274, and again in 1281. On both occasions, Goryeo provided troops to the invading Mongol army.
The Mongol Yuan dynasty was replaced by the Ming dynasty in 1368. By this time, Goryeo too was in decline. Nevertheless, it managed to retain power for another few decades. Even in its final years, Goryeo was entangle with events in China.
When the Yuan dynasty fell, the Goryeo court was divided between those who supported the new Ming dynasty, and those in favor of the overthrown Yuan dynasty. The Ming dynasty left Goryeo alone for some time, but in 1388, sent an envoy to demand the return of a significant portion of the kingdom’s northern region. The anti-Ming faction prevailed, and an invasion of the Liaodong Peninsula was launched.
Ironically, General Yi Seonggye, a staunch supporter of the Ming dynasty, was chosen to lead the invasion. Instead of attacking the Ming, however, Yi revolted, and attacked the Goryeo capital instead. Finally, in 1392, the last king of Goryeo, Gongyang, was overthrown, and Yi established the Joseon dynasty.
A copy of a Tripitaka Koreana woodblock, of which there are over 80,000 in total, used to allow visitors to make an inked print of the woodblock on the Haeinsa complex grounds. (Steve46814 / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Buddhism was the State Ideology of Goryeo
Unlike the Joseon dynasty, which subscribed to Confucianism as its state ideology, the Goryeo dynasty was a Buddhist one. As mentioned earlier, this dynasty ushered in the “golden age of Buddhism in Korea.”
The most notable Buddhist product by the Goryeo dynasty is undoubtedly the Tripitaka Koreana, which has been described as the “most complete collection of Buddhist texts, laws and treaties extant.” These were carved onto double-sided wooden printing blocks and numbered over 80000 in total. The original blocks were first carved in 1011, when Goryeo and the Liao Empire were in conflict. The blocks were commissioned by the king to evoke the Buddha’s protection against the invading Khitans.
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Subsequently, the original woodblocks were destroyed by the Mongols. Therefore, in 1236, the king ordered another copy of the Tripitaka Koreana to be carved. This undertaking consumed 16 years, and the work was finally completed in 1251. The Hanja characters on the blocks were carved so consistently that it was once believed that the Tripitaka Koreana was the work of a single man.
It is now believed, however, that a team of 30 men were involved in its creation. In 1398, six years after the fall of the Goryeo dynasty, the Tripitaka Koreana was moved to the Haeinsa Temple Janggyeong Panjeon, on Mount Gaya, where they still reside today. The Tripitaka Koreana has been designated as a National Treasure of South Korea, whilst the Haeinsa Temple Janggyeong Panjeon, which houses this treasure, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
To conclude, the Goryeo dynasty was an important Korean dynasty for a number of reasons. For instance, it is from this dynasty that the English name Korea is derived. Additionally, it was this dynasty that succeeded in unifying the entire Korean Peninsula, thereby ending the Later Three Kingdoms period.
Moreover, the Goryeo dynasty was a period when Buddhism flourished in Korea. This is most evident in the Tripitaka Koreana, which is considered a national treasure by South Korea today, and is housed in a temple that has been inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage Site list.
Top image: Monks going down to their rooms after evening worship at Haeinsa, most notable for being the home of the Tripitaka Koreana, created during the Goryeo dynasty, which it has housed since 1398. Source: CC BY 2.0
By Wu Mingren
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