The Korean Middle Ages and Unification of the Korean Peninsula

12th Century Celadon Vase

Episode 26: Korea – The Koryo

Foundations of Eastern Civilization

Dr Craig Benjamin (2013)

Film Review

King Taejo, founder of the Koryo[1] Dynasty (935-1392 AD), attempted to unite the country’s warring nobles by inviting them to serve at court. The fourth Koryo king Kwangjong (925-975 AD) would crush rebellious nobles via the following measures:

  1. Passing the Slave Review Act, reducing the economic and military power of many nobles by freeing their slaves.
  2. Introducing a genuine Confucian civil service exam system open to all classes, and not just the nobility.
  3. Introducing a brutal purge of remaining Castle Lords (see Ancient Korean History: Consolidation of Class Society), enabling Koryo to assert royal authority over the entire peninsula.

From the Koryo capitol Kaisong, Kuangjiong set up an extremely complex provincial administration that divided power between government ministers and local administrators.

Under the Koryo Dynasty, Zen became the predominant form of Korean Buddhism. Along with Buddhism, Korea also adopted geomancy (aka Feng Sui) from China. The latter incorporates auspicious natural features planning public buildings, temples tombs and private homes the elites.

The dynasty is is also known for Celadon, distinctive Korean ceramic dishes and ornaments.

in 792 AD, Koryo established a national university to train administrators, doctors, lawyers and accountants. In the 12th century, King Igiong (1122-1146 AD) would set up state schools to educate children. He also also enacted land reform laws. Under the Koryo Dynasty, all land technically belonged to the King although aristocrats could pass their land grants to their heirs. Since Koryo had no Equal Field system like China (enabling emperors to grant land to free-born peasants), Koryo peasants could farm on public land if they paid 25% of their crop to the king. Farmers on private nobles’ land paid 50% to the landowner.

Low-born peasants were required to live in special districts and perform whatever tasks the government assigned them (including farming, mining, silk weaving, and paper making). Government-owned slaves performed duties in the palace and publicly owned buildings.[2] There was also an outcast group (similar to India’s untouchables) consisting of butchers, wicker workers and kisaeng (female “comfort workers”).

King Kuangjiong and his successors continued to expand Koryo into northern regions formerly controlled by the Koguyu. This brought Koryo into conflict with the Khitan steppes nomads, who had conquered the state of Parhae (see Ancient Korean History: Consolidation of Class Society/). In 1010 AD 400,000 Khitan nomads crossed the frozen Yellow River and sacked and pillaged the Koryo capitol Kaesang.

Jurchen nomads from Manchuria also repeatedly attacked Koryo, despite extensive boundary walls constructed to keep them out.

After numerous of attacks on the Koryo throne, in 1170 AD a military coup established a dictatorship under whom the last Koryo kings served merely as figureheads.

In 1193, two massive peasant revolts occurred, resulting in the slaughter of 7,000 peasants, and in 1198, the entire slave population of Kaesang revolted.

The Mongols invaded the peninsula in 1231 AD[3], placing some regions under direct military rule and simply demanding tribute (gold, silver, grain falcons and young women) from others. This presented many Koryo peasants with the burden of paying levies both to the Mongols and their own government.

Between 1351-74 AD, the 31st ruler of Koryo Kongmin finally drove the the Mongols out of Koryo[4] and, with the help of Ming Dynasty officials he recruited to his government, ousted the nobles who collaborated with them. Kongmin is also known for enacting the first land reform laws redistributing land to peasant farmers.

The Koryo dynasty fell in 1392, after Kongmin’s assassination led to significant peasant unrest and Japanese pirates disrupted Koryo’s lucrative trade with China. The Choson Dynasty that followed survived to 1910.

[1] Origin of modern country name Korea.

[2] Slave status was hereditary and slaves could be bought and sold.

[3] The Mongols had just established the Yuan dynasty in China.

[4] Just as the Ming Dynasty was expelling them from China.

Film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy

The Decline of the Mongol Empire and the Birth of Russia


A Map of Muscovy Russian Expansion from 1533-1598 Under Ivan the Terrible

Episode 31: Conversion and Assimilation

Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)

Dr Kenneth Harl

Film Review

At its height the Mongol Empire consisted of four semi-independent states or hulas

  • The eastern hula, consisting of the Yuan Empire, Tibet and the Mongol homeland
  • The Chagatai Khanate on the central steppes
  • The Golden Horde controlling the western steppes and the Russian principalities
  • The Ilkhanate (Persia and Transoxiana)

The Yuan Dynasty was overthrow in a civil war in 1368. Mongol control over the other hulas began to decline even earlier (after 1254) as they converted to Islam.

Demise of the Yuan Dynasty

Concerned an entrenched bureaucratic state would undermine his power, the Yuan emperor Kublai Khan scrapped the civil service exam established by the Mandarin followers of Confucius. Appointing his own Mongol relatives to run the empire, he relocated the capitol further north to Xanadu (now Beijing) close to the steppes and the Mongol homeland. Likewise he refused to use Chinese script for official documents, adopting Tibetan script instead.

From the outset, this made him extremely unpopular with the Mandarin class. His successors were even more unpopular with the Chinese people for heavy taxes they imposed to fund military campaigns and construction initiatives. Owing to their failure to properly maintain the canal system, successive Yuan emperors were also blamed for a series of floods.

in 1351 a peasant named Chu Yuan-Chang launched an armed uprising. By 1356 he controlled south China, and in 1368 he marched his forces to Xanadu. After the Yuan emperor fled, Chu proclaimed himself the first Ming emperor. In 1403 the Ming Dynasty leveled Xanadu and rebuilt the city as Beijing. They also ordered total reconstruction (in masonry) of their border walls to ensure nomads never again ruled over China.


By 1334 the Ilkanate Empire had fragmented into multiple small kingdoms as Transoxiana was assimilated into the Chagatai hula. In 1453, with the fall of Constantinople, Ilkhan rule totally vanished as the Ottoman Sultanate (1299-1924) and the Safavid Dynasty of Iran absorbed the former Ilkhan kingdoms

Chagatai Empire

Beginning in the 14th century, the Chagatai Empire (which controlled the Tarim Basin Silk Road), split into smaller and smaller kingdoms until it was eventually absorbed by the Ottoman Empire. 

The Golden Horde

The Golden Horde continued to control the Russian principalities until the 15th century. Between 1325-49, they collaborated with Prince Ivan of Moscow, who collected tribute for them from the other Russian princes and Mongol cities on the western steppes. Also allying themselves with the Marmaluk Sultans in Egypt, the Golden Horde continued to provide them with Slavic slave via the Genoese colony of Kafia (on Black Sea) and later the Venetian colon of Tarnau (also on Black Sea).

In the 1380 Battle of Kurvo Yeti, a Russian army assembled by a coalition of princes defeated the Mongol army for the first time. However Mongol rule persisted, especially after Tamerlane came to the rescue of the Mongol khans.

Between 1453-70, the Golden Horde disintegrated into competing khanates (Muscoy, Crimea Khanate, Kazan Khanate and Astrakhan Khanate), all vassals of the Ottoman sultanate in Constantinople, which they supplied with slaves.

In 1480 Prince Ivan III (Ivan the Great) invaded the Kazan Khanate (comprised primarily of Turkish Tatars) for the first time. In 1568, Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible) conquered both Khazan and Astrakhan and gained control of the Volga. Crimea would remain a vassal of the Ottoman Empire until the 17th century, when Cossack cavalry developed the skill and technology to defeat mounted Mongol archers.

As Russia expanded rapidly across the Eurasian tundra, taiga and steppes, they made treaties with the Chinese Manchu Empire about control of the steppes. The Russians assumed control of Transoxiana, and the Chinese the Tarim Basin, Tibet and Inner Mongolia.

Film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy.