Silla of The Three Kingdoms
Silla, the last of the Three Kingdoms states to be established, developed out of the Chinhan tribal federation in the third century C.E. Though the Chinhan federation consisted of 12 walled towns in southeast Korea, the Silla foundation myth features only six of them. These six tribes are associated with six villages in the area of Kyongju, which later became the capital of the state (Won-yong Kim 1982, 25). The six vil-lages were located on four tributaries to a major river.
They formed an alliance and made a member of the Pak clan, who may have come from outside the area, their first king. This was the first level of development and can be called the “small state stage.” Hardly bigger than a city, the small state of Sorabol (to become Silla) began to consolidate power by taking over smaller city-states or walled town areas nearby, eventually controlling what is today most of the North Kyangsang Province, an area naturally bounded by mountains.
One of the sources of the power of Sorabol was the superior weapons they had, both of bronze and of iron, weapons they had acquired through trade with the Chinese at Lolang. Sorabol is not far from the port cities of Ulsan and Pohang, and apparently Sorabol used both.Separate from the six tribes was the royalty of early Silla: the Pak, Sok, and Kim clans. The succession of the early kings, which goes from Pak, to Sok, to Pak, to Sok, to Kim, to Sok, to Kim, shows a style of rotation that is more typical of a tribal federation than a state.
In many ways, Silla did not become a true kingdom until the time of King Naemul (r. 356–402), but the stages of development were in motion as early as the first century B.C.E. By the time of King Naemul and there-after the kingship was well established and stayed in the Kim line, with one brief return to the Pak line at the end of the Unified Silla period (in 917).
It was five kings later before King Chijung (r. 500–514) used the Chinese title for a king, wang, which is one benchmark in the stages of developing a state. The use of the Chinese term wang probably does not imply the adoption of Chinese institutions of government as much as it shows Silla’s desire to appear as powerful or legitimate as the other kingdoms that had adopted the term.
There was movement to adopt Chinese institutions, but the process was a long one, barely beginning at this point in Silla. Korean institutions persisted, and aside from a few exceptions, Chinese forms did not take over. One such native institution was the hwabaek, which apparently meant the “harmony of the white-headed,” meaning a council of elders. A remnant of the tribal alliances from which the kingdom grew, the hwabaek continued to function well into the Silla kingdom.
Silla’s capital, once called Sorabol, was later renamed Kyongju. It was a grand city with numerous sites that have survived to the present day (Youn 1998). At its pinnacle in the seventh and eighth centuries, Kyongju was one of the three most prosperous cities in the world, along with Kyoto, Japan, and Chang’an, China. The city itself, with its many ancient relics, was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000.
Two categories of sites are found in the city: those that predate the introduction of Buddhism, which occurred in the early sixth century, and those that are Buddhist in nature. Today Kyongju is called a “museum without walls” because of the numerous historical places there.Among the pre-Buddhist artifacts two are particularly noteworthy: the numerous tomb mounds that dot the landscape, including the Flying Horse Tomb, and the astronomical observatory.
The tombs are found in various sections of the city. They are rounded, somewhat natural-looking, grass-covered mounds, and some are the size of a three- or four-story building. The occupants of the tombs excavated thus far are not identifiable (Young-Duk Kim 1997, 35). Several elegant Silla gold crowns and other artifacts have been found inside the tombs. The gold crowns contain symbols that were significant in shamanism.
Fixed to the styl-ized branches of the crowns were comma-shaped pendants of jade, most likely stylized bear claws or tiger claws. These symbols were probably representations of actual ani-mal claws that were years ear-lier worn by the tribal leader, who may have also had a sha-manistic role in tribal society. Also dangling from the crowns were gold disks, symbolic of mirrors, another element in Northeast Asian shamanism.
In one of the excavated tombs, the one known as the Flying Horse Tomb, archaeolo-gists discovered a unique and unusually beautiful artifact. On a piece of birch bark found with the equipment for a horse and chariot—assumed to be a mud flap—is a marvelous painting of a horse that seems to be fly-ing. Its hooves, tail, and mane feather off into wispy clouds. Besides the painting of the fly-ing horse and a gold crown,the Flying Horse Tomb held numerous additional artifacts.
Another important structure is an astronomical observatory built during the reign of Queen Sondok (r. 632–647) (Nha 2001, 269). A small but graceful structure, it resembles a large bottle. From the obser-vatory the astronomers could observe stars and the moon and make accurate calendars, a necessity for the state. Farming could then be regulated, and eclipses could be incorporated into the royal record, so that such phenomena would not startle the people into believing that the monarch and court were out of sync with the heavens.
The reign of the queens is an interesting aspect of Silla rule. In all, three queens ruled Silla, including the last two rulers of the Three Kingdoms period. They did not rule in place of their husbands but were daughters or nieces of previous kings. Queen Sondok was on the throne when Silla conquered Greater Kaya. Queen Chindok (r. 647–654) was ruler when her cousin crown prince Kim Chunchu negotiated the alli-ance with Tang China that led to the unification of the peninsula.
Later, in the Unified Silla period, the third of the three female rulers in Korean history, Chinsong (r. 887–898), followed two brothers to the throne. The term queen was added in later records; it was customary while a monarch ruled to record only a royal title without the notation for gender. After the Silla period no other woman came to rule Korea in her own right.