3,000 years of East Asian history in Korea, China, Japan, Mongolia, and Russia
Ride the Whirlwind Trouble in Paradise

 

Ch 3 - Paekche and Silla


Unified Silla

General Tae Cho-yong established the independent state of Parhae in Manchuria. Tang China, despite its grave economic problems at home, became the model for cultural development in Parhae and Silla, which became a virtual miniature replica of the Tang dynasty.

Following the collapse of Koguryo, Tang China resettled thousands of Koguryo prisoners in the southwest Manchurian city of Yingzhou, west of the Liao River near modern Chaoyang. Although the Liao River basin, the Liaodong peninsula and the vast northern territories once dominated by Koguryo were under Tang China's sphere of influence, the Chinese actually had very little governmental control over the quite mixed, very fluid, and frequently volatile frontier population living in the area. In 696 AD, Khitan nomads living in Yingzhou rebelled against local Chinese authority. Former Koguryo General Tae Cho-yong and a group led by the Malgal chief Kolsabiu took advantage of the confusion and seized the leadership of the insurrection. General Tae and his supporters, including many former members of Koguryo's aristocracy, fled to the northeast and settled in the town of Dongmoushan near modern Dunhua, Manchuria.

General Tae Cho-yong gradually strengthened his ruling power over the scattered semi-nomadic Malgal tribes in Manchuria and the northeast region of the Korean Peninsula. Despite strong external military and diplomatic pressure from Tang China to prevent major alliances among the Manchurian nomads, Tae Cho-yong proclaimed himself king of the new independent state of Chin in 698 AD. Koguryo's former aristocracy held the ruling power, clearly believing their state represented a revival of Koguryo. Manchuria's Malgal nomads, who once lived under the rule of Koguryo, found it not out of the question to follow the leadership of one of its generals. In 698, Tang Empress Wu recognized the fait accompli and proclaimed Tae Cho-yong the Duke of Chin. Fifteen years later Emperor Xuanzong invested Tae Cho-yong as King of Parhae, ruler of the ancient lands of the Puyo kingdom.

The rise of powerful Tujue tribes in the region blocked all attempts by Tang China to suppress General Tae's new kingdom, which straddled a major crossroads for Turkic-Mongol, Khitan, and other steppe nomads. Although numerous Malgal tribes lived within the territory of Parhae, they never amounted to more than a small percentage of the elite ruling class and no Malgal ever rose above the rank of tribal chief. Parhae treated the majority of the Malgal as subject people and forced some into manual labor or slave status. Parhae's social class structure, sharply split along ethnic lines, prohibited the formation of indigenous alliances.

China's wealth, grandeur and cultural brilliance began showing the signs of decay during the reign of Tang Emperor Xuanzong (712-756), the "Mysterious Ancestor." The cost of maintaining the imperial family and the government far outpaced China's ability to generate the needed revenue. The burgeoning government had become less efficient and was beginning to break down in the vital areas of taxation and military defense. China's rapid population growth and the habit of emperors of rewarding ministers with land grants and slaves made it next to impossible to assign adequate shares of land to the peasants under the "Equal Field System." As a result, the tax burden and peasant draft for labor and military service fell on a dwindling peasant population, whose own land holdings were steadily shrinking. Once the burden became too great, peasants abandoned their land or transferred control to some wealthy land owner and paid rent to escape mounting government tax demands. This only aggravated the situation for the remaining free peasants.

The gradual collapse of the "Equal Field System" eventually eliminated the use of draft labor to transport tax grain up the Grand Canal to the north. It also had a debilitating effect on China's armed forces. The decreasing number of draftees entering the militia and the capital guards forced the government to actively recruit replacements from among the dregs of society or from northern "barbarian" tribes. By 723, nearly 120,000 of these paid mercenaries had replaced draftees in the militia, particularly in the frontier armies, and due to their long term of service, these professional soldiers more often felt a greater loyalty to their generals than to the Tang Dynasty.

Without a first class military force in the region to control the population, Tang China based its early relations with Parhae on the old policy of pitting the nomads against themselves, a reasonable approach given the nature of Parhae's population. The policy proved only marginally successful however, and few nomadic tribes accepted Tang offers of prestigious titles and rank. Those tribes that did accept the offer broke their allegiance with Parhae and became border armies directed by Chinese commanders.

Parhae remained quite hostile to China for decades. Weakened by its internal social structure, Parhae found itself in a genuinely delicate position, but the young kingdom could still strike out if provoked. In 732, after King Mu uncovered a Chinese plot to assassinate him, Parhae conducted a naval raid against the busy Tang seaport of Dengzhou, located on the northern side of the Shandong peninsula. Silla and Tang China retaliated the following winter with a combined assault against Parhae from the west and south. Incapable of withstanding such a massive two-front attack, Parhae reached outward for help. King Mu established formal diplomatic ties with the Tujue tribes of Inner Mongolia. He even sent his emissaries south across the East Sea to establish diplomatic relations with the Japanese. Parhae's greatest ally however, proved to be the harsh Asian winter weather. Deep snow drifts made the northern mountain roads and trails impassable. Unable to cross the high mountain passes, Silla's forces never reached Parhae to join the battle. Trapped by icy blizzards far from the warmer plains of the Naktong River, over half the Silla army died from exposure in terrain where temperatures plummeted to -45 degrees.

By the middle of the eighth century, China's regional military commanders had become semi-permanent officials who controlled civil as well as military affairs in the ten large frontier regions surrounding China proper. Ambitious generals exploited this situation to become virtually independent local warlords. In 743, three of Tang China's northeast frontier districts fell to one of these warlords;  General An Lushan. The legally adopted son of Yang Guifei, Emperor Xuanzong's favorite consort, An Lushan was a shrewd, multilingual, self-made man of the frontier. He soon engaged the patronage of his mother to become a real power within the Tang court at Changan, where a volatile atmosphere pervaded the Chinese bureaucracy and the halls of government bristled with bickering and personality clashes of every description.

In the battle for control of the central government, General An Lushan came into direct conflict with Yang Guifei's younger brother. Using the unstable situation in the imperial court as a pretext to eliminate the "evil counsel" to the throne, An Lushan's troops rebelled in 755, marched south from and took the capital in Changan. The Tang collapsed internally as discontented soldiers forced the fleeing emperor to execute both Yang Guifei and her brother, blaming them both for the catastrophe.

The An Lushan Rebellion seriously weakened China's central government and exposed many of the dynasty's institutional weaknesses. Yet, despite internal dissension between the aristocracy and bureaucrats appointed on merit, the government initiated drastic political and financial reforms, reforms that led to a new state structure that enabled the Tang Dynasty to survive for another century and a half. The years following the An Lushan Rebellion brought a less hostile environment of reforms and restoration to China as the central government established a new, far more sophisticated controlling system than that of the early Tang. One of the principal goals of this reform was to effectively link the empire's three crucial regions, each with a unique role to play:  the Lower Yangtze River basin as the key economic region;  metropolitan Changan as the state's political heartland, and the northwestern frontier as the capital's military defense zone.

Parhae's King Son (818-830) ruled a vast territory that stretched north to the Amur River, east into the Russian Maritime Territory, west to the south-central plains of Manchuria, and southward down the Korean peninsula to the Silla frontier. Parhae established four regional capitals and five major roads pushed out through the provinces for trade and communications. The Parhae capital in the Amur region modeled itself after the Tang capital at Changan and King Son's government administration became a replica of the Chinese system. One official Chinese history noted the impressive cultural developments in Parhae early in the ninth century by describing the kingdom as a "flourishing land of the East."

Just as Korea reached its formative stage during the sixth and seventh centuries, filled with potential and poised to embark on new paths of independent thought and achievement, it felt the ponderous weight of Chinese civilization laid over it like a blanket. Having yet to evolve ideas of its own and knowing nothing better, the Korean people accepted the Chinese role model and started down the long path to an almost slavish acceptance of Chinese thought. From that time onward, Korea's sense of cultural spontaneity and originality dimmed. It slowly lost sight of everything beyond this artificially contracted horizon and imitation became its highest ambition.

Both Parhae and Silla established peaceful diplomatic relations with the Tang dynasty and began to assimilate Tang institutions and culture, a major factor in the later blossoming of their native cultures. International trade between China and Korea developed out of a paternalistic exchange of goods at the government level that operated something like an open acknowledgement of the balance of power. Through this "tribute system," the two Korean states recognized China as the paramount power, and their trade embassies paid ceremonial obeisance to both the Chinese court and its envoys to the two kingdoms. The ceremonial obligations which accompanied this "trading system" clearly reflected China's world view. In exchange for "tribute" paid to the imperial court, the Chinese benevolently rewarded the "inferior" state's envoys with "gifts." Any failure to observe this protocol could be taken by either party as a premeditated insult. While states peripheral to China adopted this system of trade and diplomacy in varying degrees, the Korean kingdoms adopted it rather completely.

Along with the official trade conducted by embassies, a great deal of private trade occurred among individual embassy members. Imports from Tang China to Parhae and Silla included robes and caps for court use, a variety of luxury textiles, tea, weapons, specialty items, curiosities such as parrots or other rare birds, and above all books. Both kingdoms imported large numbers of books and works of art from China. Religious monks and students traveled to China to study the tenets of Confucianism, Buddhism, and the doctrines of the various Buddhist sects that proliferated under the Tang dynasty. Perhaps the most influential and familiar Buddhist sect in history appeared on the peninsula during the late Silla period. The sect was called Chan in Chinese and Son in Korean, but it is perhaps most familiar to the western world by its Japanese name, Zen.

The aristocracy in both Parhae and Silla developed a tremendous appetite for high quality goods. This demand and the growing volume of Chinese trade stimulated rapid developments in manufacturing. The central Silla government established individual offices for the controlled production of a wide variety of goods including high-quality textiles, furs, hides, furniture, pottery and roof tiles, clothing, lacquerware, paintings, horse and chariot equipment, tents and banners, weapons and ships. Silla exports to China included finely crafted weapons decorated with gold and silver and elaborately engraved with hunting falcons and hawks, gold and silver arrowheads and arrow cases, and silver needle cases with decorative engravings.

In addition to trade with China, frequent economic and cultural exchanges occurred between Silla's Japan Bureau and the Japanese government office known as the Dazaifu, located in northern Kyushu at the site of modern Fukuoka Dazaifu. These contacts led to a considerable amount of private trade with the island of Tsushima and the lords of coastal provinces in western Japan. A wide variety of quality Japanese goods arrived in Silla through such trade, including luxury items such as pearls, fans and decorative screens. In addition, Arab merchants who sailed into East Asia at about this time established contacts with Silla and brought a trickle of Arabian culture to Korea.

During the late ninth century, Silla became a virtual miniature replica of the Tang Dynasty. At its height, as many as one million people lived in Kumsong;  178,936 households divided among 1,360 homes and 35 mansions of the immensely wealthy. Silla's capital city exemplified the finest architecture, painting, ceramics, sculpture, and music in Asia. Shops brimmed with an abundance of silk and other fine cloths, gold and silver jewelry, lacquerware, and iron and bronzeware. The elite Silla aristocracy lived an extravagant life, even by contemporary standards. Royalty wore rare, iridescent kingfisher feathers. Silla's artisans produced silk-smooth paper coveted by the Chinese and beautiful bronze Buddhist temple bells admired in Japan The Emille Bell.

Enormous construction projects undertaken in Kumsong during this period reflected the splendor of the kingdom. The king's four palaces, one for each season, basked in luxuries;  Philippine tortoise shell, Persian glass and Japanese pearls. The royal parks, lakes and botanical gardens displayed rare plants and animals from China. Not a single house within the city of Kumsong had a thatched roof. Tile-roofed homes with enclosed courtyards stretched along the city's streets in unbroken lines. Literary and archaeological evidence suggests that Kumsong had arcades, so people could walk the streets when it rained and not get wet. The elegant Imhae-jon banquet hall, the "Pavilion by the Sea," built out over the water of man-made Lake Anapchi stood as a remarkable example of Kumsong's social life. The never-ending sound of music and song filled the streets night and day. Those with a taste for the good life referred to Kumsong by a name that meant literally, "city of gold."

Despite Silla's tremendous wealth and glory, ominous signs appeared just below the surface that indicated things were not going well. Silla society was in turmoil.

 

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