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 Great Mongol Conqueror Ghenghis Khan Arrives on the Steppes

Episode 25: The Mongols

Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)

Dr Kenneth Harl

Film Review

This lecture concerns the background and history of Genghis Khan, the powerful Mongol conqueror. According to Harl, The Secret History of the Mongols, written in 1227, is currently one of the most reliable historical sources.

Prior to the birth of Genghis Khan’s in 1162, the steppes tribes were constantly at war. The Mongols derived from the Tatar* tribes, considered the most powerful on the steppes. With 70,000 warriors, they engaged in silk trade with both the Song and Jin Empires.

Harl is an open admirer of Temujin (who later became Genghis Khan), who he regards as a military genius with “remarkable sons and brilliant grandsons.” Temujin’s generosity, daring and bravery (even when wounded) inspired fierce loyalty among his warriors. Although he lived a simple life (in a tent), he retained huge harems of conquered brides.

Regarded as a favorite of Tengri (the Mongol’s universal sky god), Temufin’s basic strategy was to terrorize his rivals into submission by committing mass atrocities – often killing every living being in the cities he conquered.

After clan leaders poisoned his father, Temujin and his mother and brothers  were forced starving into into the forest by his father’s Tatar enemies. The ruler of the Keraites Federation (a minor Turkic steppes tribe), took Temujin in and became his mentor. In the 1190s, Temujin assembled his first army to attack neighboring Tatar tribes who had kidnapped his wife.

His major massacre of his Tatar enemies in 1206 would cement his control of the steppes, eventually leading to unification of all the steppes tribes. An assembly of all steppes nomad princes met that year and proclaimed him Genghis Khan (“universal ruler”).

*The term Tatars refers to a diverse Turkic ethnic groups involved in the Tatar Confederation, one of the five major 12th century confederations on the Mongolian plateau.

Film can be viewed free with library card on Kanopy.

The Role of Rumi and other Sufi Mystics in Converting Byzantium to Islam

100+ Rumi Quotes on Love, Life, Nature ...

Episode 23: The Sultans of Rum

Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)

Dr Kenneth Harl

Film Review

This lecture explores how Seljuk Turk victories on the Anatolian peninsula (which Harl refers to as Asia Minor) ultimately led to an independent Turkish Muslim civilization with Kanya as its capital

In the early 13th century, the Anatolian peninsula was ruled by numerous competing Turkish tribes. In 1237, Sultan Kaykhusraw II unified the entire peninsula under a single Seljuk regime. Unlike many Turkish rulers, he refused to submit to Mongol rule until the Mongols invaded Anatolia and crushed the Sejuk army. According to Harl, Genghis Khan allowed him to continue his rule as a Mongol vassal.

Although Anatolia had reverted to rival Turkish states by the early 14th century, Kanya would remain the religious and cultural enter of Turkish civilization. Having thrown off their nomad identity, Kanya sultans employed Persian administrators and used Persian as their official language. Their embrace of Islam linked them closely to the caravan trade, as more an more Muslims flocked to the Anatolian cities, bringing their skills as architects, engineers, mystics, scholars and poets. Muslim migration to Anatolia increase substantially as Mongol warriors pushed westward and drove the Turkish families out of Transoxiana* and Persia.

An independent Turkish architectural style developed during this period with the building of mosques, madrassas,** mausoleums and camel rest stops. The latter were unique complexes providing secure storage for caravans – as well as heavily taxing them. The revenue they produced enabled the Seljuk sultans to issue silver coins replacing Byzantine currency.

The most interesting part of this lecture concerns the wholesale conversion of Byzantine Christians to Islam, largely thanks to the charismatic influence of Sufi mystics who also migrated to Anatolia to escape the Mongols.

The family of the famous Persian poet and Islamic scholar Rumi fled Central Asia for Kanya some time between 1215 and 1220. In 1244, he became an ascetic. He and his followers (known as dervishes) incorporated poetry, dancing, whirling and miracles into their practice.

By 1350 AD, the vast majority of Anatolia had converted to Islam.

*Transoxiana is the Roman name for the central steppes region roughly corresponding to Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and southern Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Film can be viewed free on Kanopy with library card.

Militarized Nomads: Who were the Scythians, Huns and Mongols?

Ancient World History: Huns

Episode 16: The Importance of the Nomads

The Big History of Civilizations (2016)

Dr Craig G Benjamin

Film Review

One of my favorite lectures, this presentation covers the militarized pastoral nomads who dominated Central Asia from 5000 BC onward. According to Benjamin, the “life ways” of pastoral nomad conquerors only became feasible after when he calls the 5th millenium “secondary products revolution,” ie the discovery of secondary uses (ie blood, milk, hair, leather, and traction power) for domesticated animals. Domestication of the horse in the 5th millenium BC made it possible for pastoral nomads to establish vast military empires.

Benjamin covers three main networks of militarized nomads known for terrorizing sedentary civilizations: the Scythians, the Huns and the Mongols. Obtaining their weapons (bows and arrows, axes, swords and maces) from sedentary civilizations, all three played an invaluable role developing the Silk Road trade networks between China and they Mediterranean.

The Scythians terrorized the Greek city states. Although the Roman Army successfully kept them at bay,  they eventually caused the collapse of the Assyrian Empire. Eventually networks of Scythian tribes extended as far east as Uzbekistan and China. Weakened by battles with the Celts and Sarmatians,* they were assimilated by the Goths in the third millenium BC.

The Huns, who appeared between the fourth and sixth century AD, devastated Europe’s Germanic tribes and the late Roman Empire.

The Mongols who appeared in the 13th century AD created the larges contiguous empire in world history.

*The Samatians were are large Iranian confederation around 500 BC

This film can be viewed free on Kanopy with a library card.