The Myochong Rebellion

The Myochong Rebellion

Not everyone in Koryo applauded the far-reaching adoption of Chinese systems and philosophy. Among those opposed to the new developments were Buddhist monks, who were troubled by the rising influence of Confucianism. In 1135 a monk named Myochong (d. 1136) gained the ear of the king. He argued that the court and the country had become too Chinese and too Confucian.

He urged the king to break with the pro-China bureaucracy based in Kaesong and move his court to Pyongyang. Myochong argued that not only was Pyongyang the heir to the old city of Lolang but that it had been the capital of Old Choson, the earliest (though mostly mythical) kingdom of Korea.

He added that the geomancy of Pyongyang was better, as Wang Kon himself had said in his “Ten Injunctions.” The king was persuaded, but when he presented his decision to the bureaucracy, he was overruled. Myochong would not give up that easily, however. He returned to Pyongyang, raised an army, and declared a new state in open rebellion against Koryo.

The Kaesong court dispatched an army under the command of Kim Pusik (1075–1157) to quell the rebellion. Kim was a high government official, and although he was on the civilian side of the bureaucracy, he was the one given the military task. Kim successfully quelled the rebellion, returned to Kaesong, and took up his civilian duties, which came to include writing the official version of history. His work, called Samguk sagi (Historical record of the Three Kingdoms), was published in 1145.

The Samguk Sagi was apparently based on an earlier work called the Samguk ki, no longer extant. Thus, Kim Pusik’s Samguk sagi is the oldest comprehensive history of Korea. A didactic history written in Confucian style, it emphasizes the moral lessons of history and judges the actors of that history over time by their character and adherence to Confucian values.

The Confucian view of history was not to go unchallenged. In 1285 a Buddhist monk named Iryon (1206–89) wrote an alternative history that emphasized more of the domestic uniqueness of Korea—a non-Confucian–style history called the Samguk yusa (Remnants and reminiscences of the Three Kingdoms). Iryon’s purpose was to preserve the unique culture of Korea and to tie it to Buddhism. He included in his history the Tangun foundation myth, other myths, and hyangga (Silla poetry).

These two great histories provide not only alternative views but also a symbol of the convergence and divergence of Buddhism and Confucianism in Korea. The two belief systems could not be more diametrically opposed. On the other hand, they form a perfect symbiosis: What one religion does well, the other does not; questions unanswered by one are answered by the other.

In spite of the tension between the two religions apparent in Myochong’s rebellion and the histories written by Kim Pusik and Iryon, during most of Korean history both religions were practiced side by side. In the Koryo period, Confucianism was growing in influence at court, while Buddhism was losing the official sponsorship it had once enjoyed.

Military-Civilian Conflict

The tension between Buddhists and Confucians did not rise to the level of hostilities very often, and when it did, as in the Myochong rebellion, the scope was narrow and the losses minimal. Another tension built into the fabric of early Koryo society and politics turned out to be more potent—the tension between military and civilian officials at court. According to Confucian doctrine, as one does not use one’s best metal for swords, one does not use one’s best men in the army. Acting on this belief, early Koryo put its civil officials on a pedestal and consistently knocked military officials off theirs.

In the ninth of his Ten Injunctions, Wang Kon had encouraged fair treatment for the military, an admonition that was at times ignored, as records of the time attest: The record indicates that families of high military officers were starving. Other records tell of poor treatment of the generals and other military men by the civilians, who at times treated the generals as servants.

In addition, whenever the court had a serious military problem to deal with, it often put a civilian official in charge of the army dispatched to the front. Two such cases already mentioned were Kang Kamchang, who drove the Kitans out in 1018, and Kim Pushik, who quelled the Myochong rebellion in 1136. The fact that they were successful rein-forced the idea that the military was not really as competent as the civilians, even in military affairs. This schism, more than that between Confucians and Buddhists, was to create major problems for Korea in the middle of the Koryo period.

One of the critical events that pushed the military over the edge and into action was an incident on a royal outing, an excursion to a Buddhist temple in 1170 (Shultz 1999, 31). On the pilgrimage a whole retinue of soldiers and civilian officials were in tow, as was the case when a king traveled. Displaying a new level of disrespect, one of the civil officials, Kim Tonjung (d. 1170), lit a general’s beard on fire as a prank. Kim Tonjung was none other than the son of the famous civilian scholar-offi-cial Kim Pusik. The general was Chong Chungbu (d. 1179).

The humiliation was the last straw for General Chong, who began seeking the time and place to get his revenge and stage a revolt. At the next royal outing he and his men were waiting at the place where the entourage was scheduled to stop to rest. They descended on the group, shouting, “Death to all civilian officials!” and then carried out their pronouncement with horrible efficiency.

Kim Tonjung and countless other civilian officials were killed. Chong banished the king, Uisong (r. 1146–70), to Koje Island and the crown prince to Chin Island, estab-lishing the king’s younger brother, Myongjong (r. 1170–97) as the new king. Myongjong was manipulated as a puppet at the hands of the mili-tary, first by Chong Chungbu and then by a series of other generals.

Myongjong’s “rule” was marked by a series of assassinations. Two other generals had helped Chong Chungbu carry out his takeover, Yi Uibang (d. 1174) and Yi Ko (d. 1171). For a time the three ruled together, but the triumvirate was short-lived. Yi Uibang tried to take over by first killing Yi Ko in 1171 and then trying to marry his daugh-ter to the crown prince, thus securing his position through marital ties to the royal family.

This threatened Chong Chungbu. Chong killed Yi Uibang in 1174 and thereupon ruled alone. Chong was in turn assas-sinated in 1179 by a young general named Kyong Taesung (1154–83), who took over the government. In 1183 he mysteriously took ill and died at the age of 29. Kyong was disliked by many of the military because of his aristocratic background.

Thereafter, another general, Yi Uimin (d. 1196), seized power. Yi Uimin came from the other extreme end of the social hierarchy: He was born a slave. Inspired by one of their own rising to the top, other slaves rose up in rebellion in various parts of the country under Yi’s rule. Yi became more and more ruthless in reaction to the criticism he received for breaking with the rules of social hierarchy. Finally, he was killed by yet another general in 1196, Choe Chunghon.