The Koryo Period Wang Kon’s Reign
Wang Kon was a remarkable alliance builder. One of his techniques in securing an alliance was to marry the daughter of the chieftain or general of a newly allied territory. He had more than 20 such marriages. Early in his reign, he cultivated ties with northern Chinese dynasties.
When the Song dynasty unified China in 960, Koryo became part of the Song tributary system. Koryo maintained peaceful relations with Japan, including trade and continued exportation of Buddhist technology. Koryo’s relations with its northern neighbors, the Kitan, however, were marked by tension and conflict.
To assure the success of his new dynasty, Wang Kon drafted a document called the “Ten Injunctions” just before he died. It was a list of orders to advise his successors on how to govern Korea. Religious concepts dominate the document. He admonished his descendants to honor the Buddha, and he also encouraged respect for the teachings of Confucius.
For good measure, he added advice that his descendants follow the principles of feng shui, or geomancy—the belief that construct-ing buildings and burying the dead should be done in accordance with the forces of the Earth. Feng (or the Korean pung) means “wind,” and Shui (or Korean su) means “water,” symbolic of the forces of nature:
1. Respect Buddhism; the kingdom is based on its teachings.
2. Build Buddhist temples according to the geomantic concepts taught by Toson.
3. The eldest son should succeed to the throne unless he is unworthy, then the second, or if he is unworthy, then the third.
4. Honor the Tang dynasty; do not follow the ways of the barbaric Kitan.
5. Follow good geomancy; visit Pyongyang every four years, for there the geomancy is good.
6. Maintain the state festivals.
7. Follow the example of the ancient sage kings of China (Confucianism).
8. Do not appoint to office men from the southeast (former Paekche).
9. Be fair and treat the army well.
10. Study the Confucian classics.
Wang’s successors obeyed most of these orders, and the injunctions have had a tremendous impact on Korean history. In the years to come, aspects of religion, geomancy, and state ceremony followed Wang Kon’s advice closely. Unfortunately, his negative view of the former Paekche people translated into a prejudice against people from the Cholla provinces that persisted for centuries.
The area that was most problematic was that of succession. As Wang Kon indicated, some flexibility was possible in the choice of an heir. Yet, with so many sons who wanted to be king, the potential for instability was great. Indeed, when Wang Kon died the next two sons to take the throne were killed in plots to establish yet another son as king. But the fourth king of the dynasty, Kwangjong (r. 949–975), reigned for 26 years.
Kwangjong was an innovator. One of his most important decisions was to strengthen Koryo’s ties with China and to reinforce Confucianism. Late Silla had already introduced some aspects of the Chinese centralized bureaucracy, and by the time Wang Kon’s third son, Kwangjong, took the throne in 949, the government was centralized in Kaesong.
All appointments—central and provincial, ministers and magistrates—were ordained by the king. Kwangjong moved Korea even closer to China by instituting a Chinese-style civil service exam in 958. This primed Korea to develop a government bureaucracy based on merit rather than ascription, making Koryo more competent and stable than the Silla dynasty had been, with its reliance on local power bases.
The move to recruit officials solely on the basis of merit was not completed in the Koryo period, however. Even toward the end of the dynasty in 1392, most officials were appointed because they held power in a particular region or on the basis of heredity—sometimes offices were passed from father to son, or father to son-in-law, or uncle to nephew, or other relationships.
Still, Koryo took a giant step away from this narrow method of recruitment. Although Kwangjong broke with the rigid “bone rank” system of Silla, Koryo society was far from egalitarian. Social stratification settled into three major classes: the aris-tocracy, the commoners, and the slaves.
Technically speaking, Kwangjong was not the first leader in Korea to use the civil service examination. It had been tried briefly in the late Silla period on a limited basis, but at that time it was so restricted in its application and so few were qualified to apply that it was hardly recognized as an open recruiting device.
The Koryo system, though an improvement, still suffered from one limitation not found in the Chinese system: The candidate had to prove his genealogical worthi-ness before he could take the exam. In China the examination system did not impose any restrictions on applicants. In Korea only those who could prove they were members of the aristocracy could sit for the exam. Koryo Koreans believed that certain bloodlines were nobler than others, and some of the doctrines of Confucianism reinforced this idea, helping to justify Koryo institutions of hierarchy, such as permission to sit for exams and slavery.
Koryo adopted Chinese-style government organization with only a few modifications. There were six main bureaus: personnel, rites, finance, punishments, military, and public works. There were two cross-cutting divisions in the organization—one between central and provincial positions, and one between civilian and military positions. The central positions were considered higher in status than the provin-cial ones, and civilian officers were generally considered to be of higher status than military officers. (Tension between civilian and military offices would afflict Koryo later in the dynasty.)
Kwangjong did other things in a Chinese way, such as adopting the Chinese calendar. The calendar had two manifestations. First, the years were reckoned in terms of the year of reign of the Chinese emperor—for example, the 25th year of Emperor Kaotsung. Most Korean documents were dated in the same manner. The other mani-festation was used in conjunction with the first but did not change with every emperor.
This was the 60-year cycle. This system consists of two lists: 10 “stems” and 12 “branches.” The 12 branches are a list of 12 zodiacal animals. The rotation of the cycle of 10 and the cycle of 12 results in 60 pairings, and thus 60 years became the hallmark for major events in one’s life. The 60th birthday was and is a major cel-ebration, and a 60th wedding anniversary is a rare but grand event.
A certain degree of fortune is implied by the year in which one is born, and individuals are said to resemble certain personality and character traits of the animal of their birth year. Marriage arrangements some-times reflected this belief: Girls born in the year of the horse had dif-ficulty getting married because women from this year were supposedly headstrong and did not make good wives.