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Chapter 5: Three Kingdoms Era


About the middle of the third century AD, the Chinese threat began to serve as a unifying political force among the loose confederations of tribes in the southern part of the Korean peninsula. Adopting the Chinese political system as a model, the tribes eventually merged into two kingdoms, thereby increasing their chances of survival against Chinese expansionism. Geographic features of the southern parts of the peninsula, in particular, the configuration of mountain ranges, caused two kingdoms to emerge rather than one. The two kingdoms eventually came to play an important role in Korean history.

In the central part of Korea, the main mountain range, the Taebaek Range, runs north to south along the edge of the Sea of Japan, which lies off the east coast of the peninsula. However, approximately three-fourths of the way down the peninsula, at about the thirty-seventh parallel, the mountain range veers southwest, dividing the peninsula almost in the middle. This extension is called the Sobaek Range. Tribes west of it were not shielded by any natural barriers against the Chinese-occupied portion of the peninsula, whereas, those to the southeast were protected. Moreover, the presence of the mountains prevented the tribes in the two regions from establishing close contacts. These two regions began to develop into separate entities.

Silla Kingdom

The Silla Kingdom (57 CE - 936 AD) was the first to develop. It was formed on the southeastern Kyongju plain by a confederation of six clans of the Chin-han. The tribal states in the southwest united, calling their centralized kingdom Paekche (18 CE - 600 AD). Some of the tribal states in the area of the lower Naktong River, along the south-central coast of the peninsula, did not join either of these kingdoms. They formed a league of walled city-states, called Kaya, which conducted extensive coastal trade and also maintained close ties with the tribal states in western Japan. Sandwiched between the more powerful Silla and Paekche, Kaya eventually was absorbed by its neighbors during the sixth century. The northern kingdom of Koguryo (37 CE - 668 AD) emerged from among the indigenous people along the banks of the northern Yalu River. It formed after Silla and before Paekche and was the largest of the three. Koguryo, Paekche, Silla formed the three kingdoms of ancient Korea.

The development of the Korean nation progressed through five distinct dynasties: Koguryo, Paekche, Silla, Koryo, and Joseon. The first three of these dynasties existed simultaneously. This time is known as the Three Kingdoms Era.

These kingdoms evolved into three distinct entities. In fact, each had its own dialect of the developing Korean language. The three kingdoms rivaled among themselves for power as each grew in national strength, so conflict was inevitable. Confrontations between the three kingdoms may be identified in three stages:
  • The first stage covers the period from the reign of Koguryo's King Srurim to the reign of King Munja, in which Koguryo became the aggressor. Koguryo looked to expand its borders toward the southern kingdoms of Silla and Paekche to gain land that was more fertile and to strengthen its position against the menacing Hsien Pei and other violent, northern nomadic tribes.
  • The second stage was marked by Silla's build-up of power until it was strong enough to overcome Koguryo's dominance. The creation of the Hwarang warriors, by King Chin-Hung, was the main reason for Silla's military success.
  • The final stage began in 589 AD when Sui unified China and undertook a massive invasion, with over one million men, against Koguryo. Sui underestimated the powerful resistance of the Koguryo people, who inflicted such severe defeats upon the Chinese that it caused the downfall of the Sui Dynasty and so founded the T'ang Dynasty (618-904 AD), one of China's most glorious dynasties. The T'ang also launched attacks against Koguryo, which Koguryo withstood while she pitted herself against the other two kingdoms, who were also fighting against each other. Silla formed an alliance with T'ang China, conquered Paekche, and finally conquered Koguryo, ending the wars and unifying all of Korea under the Silla Kingdom. This marked the beginning of the Silla Dynasty (661-935 AD) and led to the rapid development of Korea.


Koguryo was the largest, most powerful, and most aggressive of the three kingdoms. Due to its location, its main role from the first to the third century AD was to act as a bulwark against Chinese colonial forces and the aggressive, nomadic tribes that wandered the northern region. The survival of the kingdom depended on the ability of its people to defend themselves against constant attack and to preserve their territory. The Koguryo people lived in mountainous areas ill-suited for agriculture, so they turned their hunting activities into a professional military way of life. The people of Koguryo were hardy and strong-willed and became militarily powerful with a united spirit of invincibility. Early references to Koguryo reveal a people who were fierce fighters that frequently engaged in warfare. They were described by their Chinese neighbors as being ambitious, aggressive, warlike, and courageous. For centuries, the people of Koguryo withstood invasions and defended their territory against all attacks.

As Chinese military colonies began pushing their way onto the Korean Peninsula, they brought with them advanced farming techniques and they introduced bronze to the peninsula in 108 CE. All this led to a rapid growth of both weaponry and farming for the Korean people. However, from the beginning, Chinese rulers faced many uprisings by the Korean people against their rule. Starting from a point along the Hun River (a tributary of the Yalu), Korean rebels expanded their activities to the north, south, and southeast, increasingly menacing Chinese authority.

In the spring of 109 CE, the Chinese invaded the northern Korea peninsula and established a Chinese administration at Nang-nang, which endured for 400 years. The Chinese had great influence during this period and their presence led to the unification of many of the local tribes. In 37 CE, on a tributary of the Yalu River, a group who considered themselves a branch of the Puyo people united to form the kingdom of Koguryo under the rule of King T'aejo (53-146 AD). From its inception, Koguryo was dedicated to the expulsion of the Chinese colony at Nang-nang.

Koguryo claimed to be the successor to the Ko-choson (ancient) kingdom but it took almost a hundred years for it to develop an army sufficient enough to wage full-scale attacks against the entrenched Chinese. The subsequent fall of the Han Dynasty and ensuing political divisions in China enabled Koguryo to consolidate and extend its power. After a long struggle against the Chinese, by the fourth century, Koguryo had gained full control of Nang-nang, achieved undisputed control of all of Manchuria east of the Liao River as well as of the northern and central regions of the Korean Peninsula, and was attempting to spread its control over the other two kingdoms on the Korean peninsula.

Koguryo's best-known ruler, King Kwanggaet'o (whose name literally means "broad expander of territory") lived to be only thirty-nine years of age, but reigned twenty-one years, from 391 to 412AD. During that period, he conquered 65 walled cities and 1,400 villages, in addition to aiding Silla when it was attacked by the Japanese. Koguryo moved its capital to Pyongyang in 427AD and ruled the territory north of the Han River. However, Koguryo's expansion caused it to come into conflict with the Sui Dynasty of China (581-617AD) in the west and Silla, which was beginning to expand northward, in the south.

The Chronicle of Old Joseon, a history book on the old Joseon Dynasty, describes life in Koguryo. It said that people gathered on March tenth of every year at a site of a ritual where they performed a sword dance and held archery and Subak contests. The book implies that subak was one of the popular events for rituals in Koguryo days. The Chronicle said:
“At a power contest of subak techniques, Lee Yi-Min punched a pillar of the house with his right-hand fist, then some of the props of the roof were shaken.”
Young people were invited to subak contests where the skilled ones were selected to become military officers. Subakhui was so popular among the populace that they were held wherever a king went on inspection tours in villages. In the military, a pattern of collective practice called "dbyong subak hui" (5 soldier's subak play) was practiced so that it might be used in a real war. Subak grew to become an effective weapon to kill human beings.


When Koguryo was first formed, a large contingent of the Puyo population moved south into the Ma-han area where, in 18 CE, they established the kingdom of Paekche. Due to its geographical closeness to China and friendly relationship with neighboring Chinese colonies, the new kingdom prospered.
Chinese culture had a significant impact on the development of Paekche; even her governmental system was patterned upon that of the Chinese. However, because of this heavy dependence upon Chinese culture, Paekche culture was not as individual and independent as the cultures of Koguryo and Silla. On the other hand, its close involvement with China enabled Paekche to enjoy a higher degree of cultural advancement. Due to the constant threat from Koguryo to its north, Paekche sought all possible allies.


Silla, although it was the smallest of the three kingdoms, was the first to form. Founded by Chin Han in 57 CE, it was tucked away in the agriculturally fertile southeast. It was also the weakest of the three kingdoms in military terms. Isolated geographically, the people had little threat of raids and attacks from hostile neighbors. The land was rich for farming, so its people did not have to rely upon raiding or conquering other clans in search of food, as did the other two kingdoms. They had a peaceful existence.

Silla became a refuge for people from the other two kingdoms who preferred to live under old clan customs rather than under authoritarian rule. Due to the efforts of its people, Silla gradually developed into a powerful entity on the peninsula. Silla's growth was further stimulated by the introduction of Buddhism in the fifth century AD by the noted monk, Won-hyo. The high spiritual values of Buddhism appealed more to the people than the native myths.

Religious influence

During this period, tribal deity worship declined on the Korean Peninsula due to the penetration of Confucianism, Taoism, and later Buddhism southward from China. These religions had varying degrees of importance in the development of thought during the Three Kingdom Era.


Confucianism was the first to arrive and began to be absorbed by the Kingdoms of Koguryo and Paekche in the 4th century AD. However, they did not become wholly Confucian societies They maintained their own cultural identities while adopting certain elements of the Confucian system of education and politics.

From this introduction, the standards of formalized Korean culture and statesmanship were raised considerably. During this time, the Confucian system of recording events in written form began, so this is the first period of Korean history which was formally recorded.

Under the guidance of the Confucian monk Sundo, King Sosurim of Koguryo, in 372 AD, established T'aehak, the first national college for the education of the aristocracy in his kingdom. Soon after this, he began opening private academies called Kyongdang. These schools were set up to educate the youth of the Koguryo aristocracy in the Confucian classics, Chinese literature, the healing arts, and the martial arts. These were the first formalized schools of martial arts on the Korean Peninsula. These academies were not open to the public but were solely for the privileged.

From the Kingdom of Paekche, Confucian ideals were transmitted to Japan at the request of King Kunch Ogo (346-375 AD). Two Confucian scholars, A Chikki and Wang In were sent to Japan. They brought with them ten copies of the Analects of Confucius and one copy of the Chien Cha Wen, "The Thousand Character Classic." This is also the point where the initial transmissions of the Korean martial arts system of Subak were passed from Korea to Japan.

During the Three Kingdom Era, Confucian ideology seems to have had the least direct effect upon the Korean Kingdom of Silla. By the end of the 6th century AD, Confucian ideals apparently influenced some of the cultural doctrines of this kingdom but not to the degree that it had impacted the kingdoms of Koguryo and Paekche.


Taoism, which is both a religious and political system of thought, was first brought onto the Korean Peninsula in 624 AD when Emperor Kao Tsu, of the Chinese T'ang Dynasty, sent a Taoist priest, Shu Ta, to meet with King Yong Nyu (617- 642 AD) of Koguryo. At this point, the elite members of Koguryo society begin to take an interest in the speculative thought of Taoism but this enthusiasm only lasted for about one hundred years. It was much later, in the 12th century, that the Taoist concept of Um and Yang (Yin and Yang in Chinese) and the I Ching scriptures were embraced by the Korean masses.


Buddhism came to China from India in the 1st century AD. Though not fundamentally embraced by each of the varying Chinese dynasties, it did expand and reached the Northern Korean kingdom of Koguryo in 372 AD. The teachings then proceeded Southward to Paekche in 384 AD.

Buddhism was introduced to Silla during the reign of King Nul Chi (417-457 AD). Two Buddhist missionaries, Chong Bang and Myolgubi, arrived during the early part of his reign and they were put to death. The monks, Hukhoja and Ado arrived from Koguryo later in his rule. Near the time of their arrival, King Nul Chi's daughter became ill. Hukhoja cured the princess by burning incense in her presence and making a vow to one of the Bodhisattvas. This cure brought the King's favor and Buddhism was accepted by the Silla aristocracy.

As time progressed on the Korean Peninsula, Buddhism vacillated between favor and outrage within the varying Korean dynasties. By the sixth century, Koguryo, though predominately adhering to a Confucian doctrine, accepted elements of Buddhism into its overall philosophic canon. Po Duk, one of the preeminent Koguryo Buddhist monks of this period, traveled to China where he amassed a lot of Buddhist scriptures. Upon returning to his kingdom, he attempted to veer the Koguryo government away from any adherence to Confucianism. Unsuccessful, he left for the Kingdom of Paekche, where Buddhism flourished. In Paekche, Buddhism was so universally accepted that in 600 CE King Pop instigated a law that forbade the taking of any life, including animals.

From Paekche, Buddhist monks were sent to Japan in the 6th century. This is the point where Buddhism was introduced to the island nation. The Buddhist monk, Kwalluk, (Kanroku in Japanese), crossed the East Sea in 602 CE. He brought with him a large number of Buddhist sutras, historical books, works on astronomy, geography, and the occult arts, including the science of Ki. He was instrumental in the founding the Sanron school of Buddhism in Japan.

By the end of the sixth century, Buddhism reached its maturity in all three Kingdoms on the Korean Peninsula. Korean monks were commonly sent to China and India, and missionaries frequently traveling to Japan. Buddhism completely replaced the primal shamanistic religions indigenous to the Korean Peninsula.

Though The Three Kingdoms had become essentially Buddhist in their religious beliefs, there existed ever-increasing differences in their political ideologies. Warfare between the kingdoms, though always present, moved onto new expansionist ideologies.


Koguryo continued its expansion through the Korean peninsula, using its elite military class, the "kyon-dang." Its expansion reached a peak, in the fifth century AD, when it had gained control of half of the Korean peninsula and much of Manchuria. With the start of invasions by Koguryo and the hostile Han (Chinese) tribes from the north and Paekche's growth from the west, Silla was compelled to defend itself.

In 540 AD, after King Chin Hung had assumed power in Silla, came many years of wars between Silla and Koguryo. However, before Koguryo was engaged, King Chin Hung took on the task of driving the Japanese colonies in the south out of Silla. At about this same time, a small Kaya league had formed in the area between Paekche and Silla that had strong ties with the Wa State of Japan. King Chin Hung annexed the portion of the Kaya league that was in alliance with the Yamato Clan of Japan.

King Chin Hung then turned his armies toward the fertile valleys in central Korea, between the Han and Imjin Rivers. The conquest of Han-Imjin River area brought great wealth to Silla through the acquisition of the richest agricultural lands in the peninsula and of its peasantry labor. This conquest also opened an easier route to China through the capture of ports on the Yellow Sea. The acquisition of iron mining regions led to new technological gains that predicated even greater expansion by Silla.

King Chin Hung asked the famous Buddhist priest, Wan Kwang Bopsa, to develop a system of martial arts that was in harmony with his concepts of the laws of nature. The result was the creation of the Hwarang warriors who played a crucial role Silla's effort to unify Korea. The Hwarang are discussed in detail in a later section of this topic.

From 632 to 654 AD, two queens inherited the Silla throne in their own right, indicating a significant difference between ancient Silla practices and the male-dominated hierarchy of China. Silla's 27th ruler, Queen Son-dok, (reined 632-647 AD) quickly established good relations with T'ang China and introduced many Chinese customs, such as fashions in court dress. She also sponsored and supported the Hwarang-do and sent many Hwarang warriors on expeditions into China to learn Chinese war tactics. Her nephew, who later became King Mu-yol , the 29th ruler (reigned 654-661 AD), and his son, King Mun-mu, the 30th ruler (reigned 661-681 AD) led Silla in its efforts to unify the Korean peninsula.

As a part of its unity efforts, Silla sought the aid of the T'ang Dynasty in China. The Silla envoy to the T'ang court, Kim Chunch Ue, attained an alliance with the Chinese military to fight against Koguryo and Paekche. The agreement said that, if the united forces defeated Koguryo, the land south of P'yongyang would belong to Silla and China would get all land to its north, and, if they defeated Paekche, the entire country would belong to Silla.

The T'ang attacked Paekche from the sea, and Silla forces, led by General Kim Yu-sin (a Hwarang), attacked from the land. In 660 AD, the alliance defeated Paekche. However, the T'ang government ignored its agreement, established five military bases in Paekche, and attempted to establish pro-Chinese enclaves inside Silla. Although this angered Silla, since it was still battling Koguryo, it did not have the resources to resist the T'ang.

In 661 AD, a northern invasion of Koguryo by the T'ang and a southern invasion by Silla were not successful, but they did weaken Koguryo defenses.

During this critical time, the king of Koguryo, Yon Kae So Mum, died. leaving his brother and two sons battling for power. Due to Koguryo's internal strife, the continuous battles, and a Koguryo defector named Namsaeng, Koguryo was finally defeated in 668 AD, by the T'ang (under the leadership of Li Chi, invading from the north) and Silla (led by Kim In Mum) attacking from the south.


With Koguryo defeated, Silla went to war with the T'ang. Silla, Koguryo, and Paekche unified as a single people to battle the Chinese. China finally conceded and agreed that Silla would rule all of Korea, while still acknowledging the Chinese emperor. The land south of the Taedong River was unified under one common Silla government.

Many anecdotes survive to this day about the famous general, Kim Yushin, who played a decisive role in the unification of the three kingdoms. Among the many tales, one of the most notable is about when Kim Yu-Shin, as a young man, had fallen in love with a kisaeng girl and had begun to neglect his martial art training as a result of the affair. Kim's mother learned of the matter and scolded her son severely, making him promise never to meet the young woman again. Kim Yu-Shin fell asleep on the back of his beloved horse one night and the animal, out of habit, carried the sleeping man to the doorstep of the kisaeng's house. When Kim Yushin realized where he was, he became enraged, beheaded his horse with his sword, and fled to a cave deep within the mountains to purify his spirit. Kim Yushin's diligent training moved the gods and a heavenly figure appeared to him and bestowed upon him an engraved sword and some special texts. It is said that these celestial gifts helped Kim Yushin carry out his great task of unifying the Korean peninsula.

There are also tales of General Kim Yushin's son, Won Sullong, who went to fight against the T'ang Army in a territorial dispute. When Won-Sullong returned home in defeat, his father disowned him for breaking the Hwarang precept against retreat in battle. Bitter and humiliated, Won-Sullong went deep into the mountains and concentrated on martial art training. Later, he entered the enemy camp alone, as a commoner, and beheaded the enemy commander. He ten died a heroic death on the spot. The existence of such moving tales as these is a reflection of the inspiration that martial artists gave to Korean society.

Historical records, such as the Samguk Sagi (History of the Three Kingdoms, written during the 12th century) and the Sui China Chronicles, indicate that the various kings of Paekche patronized the martial arts of taekkyon and ssirum (a traditional Korean style of belt wrestling that only uses throws, not strikes). Folk stories of the time tell of martial art contests being held in the kingdom. There are merely fragmentary allusions to a double-sword dance in the nation of Karak. Karak, also known as Kaya, existed on the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula from approximately 42 CE to 562 AD.
Samguk Sagi also referred to chuk-guk (to kick a football, an ancient game played with a ball of leather stuffed with hair), too-ho (the game of pitch pot), soo-bak (striking with the hands), chu-choon (a rope swinging activity), chuk-ma (bamboo horse), and gum-moo (sword dance). The Tung-i Chuan section (Account of the Eastern Barbarians, a section dealing with Korea) of the San-kuo Chih (Annals of the Three States, a very famous book written in early China) mentions such activities as gak-chuh (butting), mok-chuh (pushing against a wheel), chuk-ma (bamboo horse), gake-hoe (to play, to sport), gake-hoe (leg play), sang-bak (to strike one another), chol-kyo (foot soldiers school), and cheng-kyo (to contest). These types of activities are thought to be different kinds of empty-handed martial arts that were practiced in Silla.

The Chinese regarded the ancient Korean empty-handed martial arts known as koryo-gi (Techniques of Korea) and yoo-kyo (a kind of wrestling) as powerful and superb martial arts forms. Linguistic scholars have recently found that Chu-Mong, the name of the founding king of Koguryo, was a special title given to prominent knights who excelled at archery in the state of Puyo. Puyo was in existence at the same time as the establishment of Koguryo.

Silla became a highly centralized Buddhist state, where the arts, not warfare, flourished. Martial arts rapidly declined during this period of peace. Descriptions in documents from the Three Kingdoms Era, such as the Samguk Yusa, the oldest document of Korean history, show that during this era, subak remained primarily a sport and recreational activity designed to improve physical fitness (although it was nonetheless still a formidable system of self-defense). During the Silla Dynasty, the terms subak (hand techniques) and taekkyon (foot techniques) appeared together, indicating that both hand and foot techniques were used, just as in modern taekwondo.

During the late Three Kingdoms Era, subak became fragmented. Its practitioners began to go their separate ways and open their own schools of subak. During this period of fragmentation, a new Korean martial art was formed, "yu-sul." It was a softer grappling art that many historians believe influenced Japanese "jujitsu." With the birth of yu-sul, there were two different schools of martial thought on the Korean Peninsula: the hard, straightforward striking attacks of subak and the softer, manipulative defenses of yu-sul. However, yu-sul declined and vanished from the Korean Peninsula almost as fast as it had developed. By the end of the seventh century, no sign of it existed.

In the northwest provinces of Korea, an interesting fighting style appeared called "pakchigi." It was based on using elbows, shoulders, and the head. In fashion at the time was a long ponytail of hair, the "plait." A sharp comb or metal weight tied at the end of the pliat was swung in a way as to strike the opponent in the eyes or wrap around his neck.

Another unusual feature of ancient Korean fighting was the use of "shaku-riki" (borrowed power), where the practitioner gained strength from sources outside the body, such as from spiritual powers, herbs, and medicines. A popular fighting system called "charyok" (borrowed force) was created by Korean mountainous anchorites called "sonyings." Charyok used such techniques as kicks from a sitting position, strikes to nerve centers, and toe strikes. It also had methods of defense against different animals, such as the wolf, bull, bear, and tiger. Its most popular stance was a position where the hands were held together in front of the chest similar to praying. All main hand strikes were executed from this stance.

During this period, the common style of dress was loose trousers and a jacket held together with a belt tied around the mid-section. The style was similar to the taekwondo and judo uniforms of today and was commonplace throughout the three kingdoms. In the kingdom of Paekche, the military officers wore different colored belts to indicate their rank, and in Silla, they wore colored trim on their lapels as an additional indication of rank.

Subak's popularity increased after it was adopted by warrior groups that developed throughout the county, one of which was the sonbae.

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