Saturday, December 7, 2013

Three Kingdoms of Korea

Korea has enough tension today with two antagonistic states vying for land, ideologies, and latent craziness (you'd think the North would have that last one in the bag, but the South have their moments). But you actually haven't seen anything yet.  If two's company and three's a crowd, people in Korea must have felt pretty claustrophobic for the first seven centuries following the baking of the first doughnut (Anno Doughnutty, or AD for the lazy people out there). The Korean peninsula played host to three different kingdoms during this time, an era that those clever historians dubbed the Three Kingdoms Period. For nearly 700 years, the states of Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla scratched and clawed the living heck out of each other until a victor finally emerged. It was the sort of spectacle that almost makes you glad of Korea's present division, communism and all.

Fig.1: Official Vegas Odds
Goguryeo: 7/2
Baekje: 8/1
Silla: 25/1
Gaya: ∞/1
Even more scary is the fact that they had to whittle it down to just three separate kingdoms. The Gojoseon kingdom, which had supposedly ruled Korea for two millennia under the descendants of a bear-woman, fell apart after a Chinese invasion in 108 BC. Many local rulers then took control, and Korea was cut-up into more unfulfilling slices than an office birthday cake. The super-aggressive rulers of Goguryeo took care of their neighbors in the north, and even snatched up some land from the Han Dynasty in China as they were started to get old and fall apart in the 2nd and 3rd centuries (respect your elders, my butt). Baekje formed as a confederation of tribes near the Han River valley in southwestern Korea. They just wanted to share their resources at the local co-op, living together while holding hands and singing in harmony forever and ever. Freaking hippies. Then there was Silla, who was quite content with their corner of the peninsula, and just wanted to be left to themselves. They demonstrated this by keeping their door closed to any diplomatic relations, and shouting at the other Korean states, "Just leave me alone! I hate you!" There was actually a fourth state in the south, Gaya, but they were relatively insignificant and had their finger in their nose the whole time. And so by the 4th century, the stage was set for the Battle of the Three Kingdoms (fig.1), and each one hoped the odds were ever in their favor.

Of course, the war-loving Goguryeo were the ones to get the party started. They invaded Baekje in the 360s, as their territory was coveted for its fertile soil and secluded make-out spots along the Han River. Baekje showed that maybe they weren't willing to shake hands and share the land with just anyone: not only did they repel Goguryeo, but killed their king in a counter-invasion as well. These hippies don't mess around! Intermittent warfare continued between the two before Goguryeo's King Gwanggaeto took over the river valley around 404, forcing Baekje to move their capital to the south. The city of Pyongyang would be established by Goguryeo during this time, albeit without the creepy proletarian monuments that cover the city at present. Silla came out of their room every once in a while and changed alliances between Goguryeo and Baekje (when asked why, they would shout, "Cause I feel like it! Gosh!"). Meanwhile, Gaya discovered that they could tickle their own feet.

Fig.2: Pretty much the greatest scene
ever depicted in a Buddhist shrine.
Despite all the cat fights, Chinese influences poured into Korea during the Three Kingdoms Period. The most prevalent was Buddhism, which had been slowly taking over Asia like the mood slime in Ghostbusters II (without so much the dancing toasters) since Ashoka's conversion in the 3rd century BC. Missionaries arrived in Goguryeo in the 370s and went door to door with their white shirts and black ties spreading the good news of Siddhartha Gautama. Maritime trade with the Chinese allowed Baekje to become introduced to the religion as well; they even had a real life Indian monk visit in the 380s who provided not only spiritual enlightenment but technical support as well. Silla, on the other hand, was having none of this nonsense. They preferred their system of beliefs called shamanism, and cranked up their headphones if anyone dared to mention Buddhism in their presence. A legend goes that even when a court official named Ichadon converted to Buddhism as late as the 520s, the Silla king ordered for his beheading. However, milk poured out of his head instead of blood, as if it was the nose of a laughing five-year-old at dinner (fig.2). For some reason this caused people to believe in the power of the Buddha, making Jesus go, "At least people got to enjoy some wine during my miracles!" Silla sucked it up and finally adopted Buddhism in the mid-6th century.

After a lull of just plain skirmishing and "Yo Mama" jokes, the Three Kingdoms were ready to go at it once again by 550. Baekje and Silla put aside their inherent differences and decided to take that arrogant Goguryeo down a notch or two. Through the magical power of teamwork, they took back the river valley Goguryeo stole from Baekje nearly two hundred years earlier. Baekje was willing to split the spoils with Silla, as well as hold a nine-day rock festival in typical hippie fashion (aka: without proper hygiene facilitates). Unfortunately for them, Silla did not hold the same sociological values and decided to take over all the land for themselves. While they were at it, they did the world a favor and annexed that butterfly-chasing Gaya kingdom as well. Silla wasn't going to hide behind those dark, greased-down bangs any longer.

Fig.3: "Okay, I've got my big
boy belt on. Time to conquer
some Koreans!"
Meanwhile, China finally emerged from the political chaos that followed the collapse of the Han Dynasty back in 220 (which actually included their own "Three Kingdoms Period," those copycats). The Sui Dynasty emerged as the dominant Chinese state in 581, and decided to show off that dominance by hoping on the "I hate Goguryeo" bandwagon as well. Alas, they fell victim to the first of Vizzini's classic blunders, as Sui's failed invasion shook their Jenga-tower-like hold on authority in China, collapsing with a collective "Awwww!" in 618. The Tang Dynasty, under the rule of Emperor Taizong (fig.3), quickly took over and eventually tried the same thing in 644 and 659, to no avail.

It was time for Tang to put their thinking caps on (which Taizong had the one he sported in fig.3 passed to his son and successor, Gaozong) and figure out an innovative way to invade Korea. Luckily, newly-extroverted Silla offered to help provide a base on the peninsula, in exchange for helping to get rid of those long-haired freaky people in Baekje. A combined attack in 660 reduced the Three Kingdoms down to two, and the rulers of Baekje were free to follow the Grateful Dead on tour whether they liked it or not. With Goguryeo trapped between Tang on the north and Silla to the south, it was only a matter of time before they shriveled up like a dead platypus (they seem like they would shrivel, wouldn't they?). They finally fell in 668, and Tang began to set up their own government in the region. But in a lesson worthy of the Berenstain Bears, Silla brought together the former officials and citizens of Goguryeo and Baekje to help kick the Chinese out of Korea! Hooray for xenophobia!

And so after nearly seven centuries of fighting amongst themselves, it was their common hatred of their neighbors that finally brought all the Koreans together in harmony. (There's a lesson in that somewhere, but it's probably not a very nice one, so let's move on.) In the end, it was dark horse Silla that emerged the victor in the War of the Three Kingdoms, making some bookies very happy. They would rule the united peninsula for less than another three centuries before an old fashioned East Asian rebellion took the dynasty down in 935. But the Three Kingdoms period would be important in establishing a Korean identity, and the age has been romanticized in several books, television dramas, and comedic history blogs. Maybe the present day split of Korea can become mended one day as well, perhaps through the skilled diplomacy of one Dennis Rodman.

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