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The Age-Old Bone-Rank Caste System of the Korean Kingdom of Silla

The Age-Old Bone-Rank Caste System of the Korean Kingdom of Silla

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In several cultures one’s social standing was determined by one’s birth, which included or precluded certain privileges and even determined the cutlery one was allowed to use. Such was the caste system that neither talent nor riches or beauty could elevate one beyond the inherited social strata bestowed by Fate at birth.

Brahmin priestess by Lady Lawley, (1914)

The Caste System: A Reincarnation of Souls

The caste system has been a dominating aspect of social organization in Asia for thousands of years. In India, early written evidence about the caste system appears in the Vedas from as early as 1500 BC. The Bhagavad Gita (circa 200 BC - 200 AD), emphasizes the importance of caste and from the same era Manusmriti (the Laws of Manu ) defines the rights and duties of the four different varnas (castes). The varnas are brahmin (priests), kshatriya (warriors), vaisya (farmers and traders) and shudra (tenant farmers and servants). This relates to the belief of reincarnation, where a soul is reborn into a new material form after each life. Souls could move among different levels of human society as well as into other animals. However, this freedom did not extend to within a life cycle as people had little social mobility and they had to strive for virtue during their present lives in order to attain a higher station in their next lives. As a soul's new form depends upon the virtuousness of its previous behavior, a very virtuous person from the shudra caste, for example, could be rewarded with rebirth as a brahmin in their next life.

Ceremonies of the Indian Brahmans in the wedding of their children, by Pieter van der Aa, from 'La Galerie Agreable du Monde Tome premier des Indes Orientales.'(1725)

The Caste System in China, India and Japan

The caste system did not restrict itself in South Asia. In East Asia, the simin (four categories of the people) was used in ancient China as far back as the late Zhou dynasty and is considered a central part of the social structure (circa 1046–256 BC). The simin included shi (gentry scholars), nong (peasant farmers), gong (craftsmen) and shang (merchants). However, these four categories did not influence people’s wealth and standing, nor were they hereditary.

A Sudra caste man from Bali. Photo from 1870, courtesy of Tropenmuseum, Netherlands. ( CC BY-SA 3.0)

The caste system is more than a religious and/or civic belief.

Bone Rank System

The Bone Rank System (Golpum or Kolpum) of ancient Korea was used in the Silla kingdom (57 BCE – 935 CE) in order to signal a person's political rank and social status. Membership of a particular rank within the system was extremely important, permitting a person to apply for certain jobs and deciding how they lived their everyday lives. The rigidity of the system, based as it was on lineage, allowed for very little movement between the classes resulting in a stagnation of talent, which eventually cost the Silla dear.

The Ranking System

The Bone Rank System, so called because it was based on a person's hereditary bloodline, was introduced as part of a new law code in 520 CE by king Beopheung (r. 514-540 CE) . This caste system had three main classes: the highest was 'sacred bone' (seonggol), then 'true bone' (jingol), and finally 'head rank' (tupum). The Silla kings, descended from the Pak royal line or their successors the Kims, were all of the sacred bone class. From the mid-7th century CE the sacred bone class was abolished and, thereafter, royalty held the true bone rank along with lesser royals, ministers of high office, and high-level aristocrats.


The head rank class was the largest and itself divided into six subclasses. These were numbered with ordinary people belonging to class one, two, and three. The aristocracy belonged to levels four, five, and six. These top three levels were linked to a person's family ties and/or land they owned, and certain clans dominated the higher positions.

Privileges & Restrictions

Membership of the head rank class was necessary for a person to be considered for civil and military roles in the state apparatus, with the most senior positions reserved for those in the higher numbered subclasses. One's bone rank decided the type of people one could interact with socially, who one could marry, and how much tax had to be paid to the state. Further, membership of a specific level was necessary for a person to enjoy a certain type of housing, not only the size but also decoration as, for example, ceramic roof tiles (instead of thatch) were a very practical and visible badge of rank in Korean society. Bone rank decided which transport people might use, the type of saddle they could sit on, the number of servants they were permitted to have, and even which utensils they could use. Clothes were another visible indicator of social status. Men who were members of the true bone class were not permitted to wear clothes which had embroidery, brocade, or fur, while only women of the sacred bone rank could wear hairpins inlaid with jade or gemstones.


Social Immobility

Although a particularly appreciated service to the monarch or a senior government official might bring a reward of land and titles, there was, otherwise, not much chance of climbing the social ladder. As the historian K.Pratt notes, "Social mobility was rare, and for most people their occupational and social status was inherited" (79). That is to say, one's birth was by far the most important factor in determining the level one would reach in society as an adult. Even the son of a merchant might expand his father's business considerably, but this new wealth would not have entitled him to access the higher levels of the bone rank system.

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The rigidity of the system allowed those who had power to keep it unchallenged, but one of the unfortunate consequences of it was that talent often went unrewarded and the state lost the opportunity to use gifted individuals for the good of all. Indeed, this social stagnation has been cited by many scholars as one of the factors leading to the ultimate downfall of the Silla regime.

This content was made possible with generous support from the British Korean Society.


Buddhist monks in comparison to medieval monastic power Edit

As monastic orders did during the Europe's Middle Ages, the Buddhist monks became the purveyors and guardians of Korea's literary traditions while documenting Korea's written history and legacies from the Silla period to the end of the Goryeo dynasty. Korean buddhist monks also developed and used the first movable metal type printing presses in history—some 50 years before Gutenberg—to print ancient buddhist texts. Buddhist monks also engaged in record keeping, food storage and distribution, as well as the ability to exercise power by influencing the Goryeo royal court.

Bone Rank System of Silla Edit

The bone rank system was the system of aristocratic rank used in the ancient Korean kingdom of Silla. It was used to segregate society, and particularly the layers of the aristocracy, on the basis of their hereditary proximity to the throne and the level of authority they were permitted to wield. The idea of royal blood in other societies is a close analogue to the idea of sacred bone in Silla thought. Bone rank was strictly hereditary, and thus acted as a caste system.

Korean ruling classes in the Goryeo dynasty Edit

Neo-Confucian Joseon period yangban leadership Edit

The yangban Confucian scholars grew to prominence during the Joseon dynasty period. From the late 14th century onwards, the yangban class formed the administrative backbone of the Korean nation. They occupied the highest echelon of social caste system.

Japanese colonial rule period Edit

The annexation of Korea by Japan from 1905 to 1945 ushered in not only a harsh [ citation needed ] colonial period wherein the Japanese took over and dominated every aspect of Korea's sociopolitical, cultural and economic life, it created a demand for Koreans skilled in working alongside the Japanese as petty bureaucrats, minor officials, junior administrators, clerks and low-level public officials such as policemen, station masters, railroad engineers, and army officers. This fostered the need and creation of a skilled indigenous workforce trained and schooled in Japanese ways and methods. Although small in number, this elite group of Koreans represented the first generation of Korean yuhaksaeng(유학생), or overseas students, to be sent abroad for foreign study. From 1910 to 1945 these Koreans studied mostly in Japan's best high schools and universities, especially Tokyo Imperial University. While many overseas Korean students were forcibly conscripted into the Imperial Japanese Army to fight against the allies, many survived the war mostly by being able to evade routine roundups by the Japanese police, usually with the help of sympathetic Japanese teachers and mentors. After Korea's liberation from Japan on August 15, 1945, they immediately were called upon to form Korea's first provisional government in conjunction with a U.S.-administered trusteeship. As they represented the only class of Koreans who were capable of administering the newly formed Republic of Korea upon its establishment in 1948, they became the de facto inheritors of the Japanese colonial system and founders of the first sovereign Korean state in modern times. Among their ranks were a generation's worth of Japanese-trained and educated bureaucrats, administrators, technocrats, military and business leaders, e.g., Park Chung-hee, Lee Byung-chul, etc. In toto, these trailblazers who were educated in Japan during the colonial period, became the founding members of the Republic of Korea as well as movers and shakers in Korean politics and business all the way up till the late 1980s. Collectively, this generation is called the Japanese Generation.

Post World War II Edit

After the Korean war and by the 1960s, a new generation of heavy manufacturing millionaires and soon to be billionaires came into being.

    , (1915–2001) the founder of the Hyundai Group and the richest man in Korea in the 1990s with over 170,000 employees.

Korea's first group of business, political and academic elites was the Japanese Generation, or specifically, those Koreans born during the waning days of the Joseon dynasty or the early years of the colonial period, who were trained and educated exclusively in Japan at elite universities and military academies during the Japanese colonial period from 1910 to 1945. This first generation of Korean overseas students, who as returnees to their native country after Korea's liberation from Japan in 1945, were called upon to form the first sovereign Korean state in modern history. Their studies in administration, agriculture and engineering and other subjects that the Japanese had deemed useful in the creation of a Korean administrative sub-class, were quickly put to use in filling the administrative void and power vacuum left behind by the departing Japanese colonial government.

By quickly assuming key technical and administrative positions in South Korea's fledgling government and bureaucracy, as well as assuming leadership in its post-colonial military and police force at the behest of U.S. trusteeship, Korea's Japanese Generation proved themselves as quick learners adept at jump starting Korea's ancient tradition of self-rule. These Koreans were also instrumental in forming, creating and leading Korea's post-war governmental institutions and driving its export-oriented economy well into the 1990s.

Today, near the end of the first decade of the 21st century, while a majority of the Japanese Generation has long since retired or passed on, their legacy continues to drive Korea's sociopolitical and economic scene for the time being, albeit less and less so. Meanwhile, increasing numbers of overseas educated Koreans—this time trained in the West and fluent in English—continue to return to Korea after their studies in overwhelming numbers seeking commensurate positions in Korea's public and private sector in order to establish their own imprimatur on Korean society based on their own experiences and learning acquired during their stints abroad as students studying at some of the best universities in America and Europe.

The overall impact of such disparate experiences in terms of influencing Korea's sociopolitical geography and economic millieu for the future is debatable though, as the current generation differs substantially from its predecessors. Specifically, Korea's current generation, although better educated and more privileged in many respects, lack a defining and unifying experience for their generation. The Japanese Generation, on the other hand was largely successful in terms of acting as Korea's legitimate power elites because they were able to quickly coalesce by capitalizing on the defining and unifying experience of their generation, which was the strong resentment of Korea's poverty and low status attributed to Japanese colonization and the Korean War. As a result, that generation felt an overwhelming obligation to put Korea on the right track at all costs, in order to prevent another return to an abysmal state.

Technocrats with degrees in the sciences or engineering have mostly been subsumed in power and influence in the political process, but have contributed to great success in the larger manufacturing combines, energy and resource cartels, chaebols, and cross-linked industries.

By 2005, a new ruling elite spurred by telecommunications and the internet had come into being: and English studies abroad fell, with a new class of elite studying in China, and planning on extensive business dealings with China upon graduation. At the same time because of the similarity of the Turkic languages to Korean, there have been extensive links with Mongolia launching new elites who will base their fortunes upon export and development in this region.

There is currently no published Korean rich list, despite the Wikipedia entry, but Forbes and other chroniclers of the power elites of the world have found sufficient high profile rich in Korea as to generate accurate numbers.

Forbes magazine has hinted at Korea having at the very least 7 high billionaires living on the peninsula, and at least ten families alone who control in the high billions in assets. There are possibly another 5 Korean billionaires abroad, mostly in the USA who maintain dual citizenship.

Low billionaire families are generally accepted to number more than 10 and less than 20 while domestic newspapers have indicated that there are at least 100 families who have more than $250 million in assets: primarily real estate and land being developed or in manufacturing who have a high enough profile as to be reasonably defined as amongst the very wealthy of the world.

Estimates on the number of Koreans who own more than a million US dollars in assets apart from their houses, and discarding all debts, are figured to be in the range of 65,000 high-net-worth individuals (HNWI) according to Merrill Lynch research by June 16, 2004. Article cited below.

Bone-rank system

The bone-rank system was the system of aristocratic rank used in the ancient Korean kingdom of Silla. It was used to segregate society, and particularly the layers of the aristocracy, on the basis of their hereditary proximity to the throne and the level of authority they were permitted to wield. The idea of royal blood in other societies is a close analogue to the idea of "sacred bone" in Silla thought.

Bone rank was strictly hereditary, and thus acted as a caste system. The scholar, Lee Ki-Baik (1984, p. 43) considers it to have probably been adopted as part of the administrative law introduced from China and promulgated by King Beopheung in 520. However, this likely did nothing but institute in legal fact what was already a society segregated by bloodline and lineage. Although only two of the five known ranks were referred to as "bone" (골, 骨), the term "bone rank" has become widely used to describe the whole system.

A person's bone rank status governed not only official status and marriage rights, but also the color of one's garments and the maximum dimensions of one's dwelling and carriage. These criteria are described in detail in the 12th century Korean history Samguk Sagi, particularly its Monographs (ji 志), book 2 (ranks and offices). The Samguk Sagi's depiction of Silla life, however, has often been criticized for being excessively static. Unfortunately, since other sources are scarce, it is difficult to judge what sort of changes may have taken place in the bone rank system over the centuries.

Bone Rank System 골품제도

Bone Rank System (골품제도 (GolPumJaeDo)/ 骨品制度) or the GolPum System was the rigid hereditary caste system used to determine aristocratic rank in Ancient Shilla. For those of you who saw or are currently watching, The Great King’s Dream, the Bone Rank System played a key role and explains why the Queen Regent was so adamant on keeping the royal line pure with “Sunggol” blood, which also plays out in the drama Queen Seon Duk. It was this strong adherence to the Bone Rank System which ultimately led to why Queen Seon Duk was selected to rule Silla despite being a woman.

Although the GolPum system was technically abolished with the fall of Unified Silla in 935, the foundation of pure bloodlines continued through the Goryeo and Joseon dynasties. The notion of pure bloodlines was still deeply rooted in Korean society up through the 20th century.

Artistic Credit:

Here’s a quick overview of the different levels:

Sunggol 성골 also known as “Sacred Bone” or “Hallowed Bone” refers to someone who had “pure” royal blood. They were directly related to royalty on BOTH sides of their parents. Up until King Muyeol 태종무열왕, o nly a Sunggol could ascend to the throne. It was lack of an adequate male Sunggol which made it possible for both Queen Seon Duk 선덕왕 and Queen Jindeok 진덕왕 to ascend to the throne. They were the last of the Sunggols.

Jingol 진골 also known as “True Bone” refers to someone who was directly related to royalty, but only on ONE side of their parents.

The Silla dynasty modernized its government and eventually strengthened its relationships with the newly established Tang dynasty. After a complex series of alliances and broken alliances among the various states of the region, Silla was able to defeat the other two kingdoms namely Goguryeo and Baekje and took control of a larger portion of the peninsula.

Buddhism was introduced into Korea in the 4 th century AD and many Buddhist temples were built in the period.

In the late 8 th century, the Silla kingdom began to break down. A warlord named Wang Geon formed a state named Goryeo in 918 after defeating his rivals and in 935 AD, became the ruler of Silla.

The Age-Old Bone-Rank Caste System of the Korean Kingdom of Silla - History

The Prehistory and Ancient History section displays artifacts that represent some of the earliest evidence of Korean civilization and culture, from stone tools of the Paleolithic age to gold jewelry of the Silla Kingdom and stone monoliths of the Balhae era, with each room documenting those aspects that uniquely define each of Korea’s different periods of ancient history.

Paleolithic Period
The Paleolithic Age marks the cultural genesis of humanity, when the first humans separated themselves from their anthropoid relatives by beginning to make tools and use fire. The Korean Peninsula has been inhabited by humans for around 700,000 years. Its earliest inhabitants were hunters and gatherers who moved from place to place in search of food, and usually lived in caves or near rivers.

Depending on the progress of human evolution and the development of tools, the Paleolithic Age can be divided into three different periods—the early, middle, and late Paleolithic. The early Paleolithic was the period of Homo erectus (“upright human”), who used large stone tools with various functions, including stone choppers and hand axes. The middle Paleolithic was marked by the rise of Homo sapiens (“wise human”), denoted by a wider range of smaller stone tools with more differentiated functions. The latter period is dominated by Homo sapiens sapiens, also known as anatomically modern humans (AMH). During this period, the first stone blades appeared, and the efficacy of stone tools and their manufacturing processes continued to develop. Soon, more sophisticated tools emerged, as people combined small blades with branches or animal horns.

Excavations of late Paleolithic sites on the Korean Peninsula have uncovered choppers with pointed ends (sumbezzirugaes), which are small stone blades commonly found in Northeast Asia. Such discoveries represent crucial evidence of exchange with neighboring regions.

Neolithic Period
In the Neolithic Age (8000 BCE – 1400 BCE), people began adapting to the changing natural environment after the Ice Age. This period is marked by the creation of earthenware pieces and ground stone tools, and the foundation of the first settlements. Thus far, about 400 Neolithic ruins have been found throughout Korea, in the form of dwellings, tombs, shell mounds, and more. The best-known ruins include Amsa-dong (Seoul), Osan-ri (Yangyang, Gangwon-do), and Dongsam-dong (Busan).

Neolithic people built dugout huts near seas or rivers, where food and water were most abundant. They actively practiced fishing, hunting, and gathering wild plants. This period also saw the introduction of the first crude forms of agriculture with the cultivation of Italian millet and common millet. Tools and weapons made from ground stone and bone enhanced people’s ability to gather food, while earthenware enabled them to store and cook food. They wore simple forms of clothing, made from woven thread or animal skins, and decorated themselves with jade, animal bones, horns, and shells. They actively engaged with various groups around the Japanese archipelago, Northeast China, and the Maritime Province.

Bronze Age/Gojoseon Period
In Korea, the Bronze Age began around the 15th century BCE, with the everyday use of mumun pottery, ground stone tools, and wooden tools. During this period, only a few people possessed bronze tools, which served either as symbols of authority or as ritual instruments. Agriculture continued to develop, including the beginning of rice farming, which led to the formation of larger settlements that resembled the rural villages of today. Notably, this era also saw the establishment of social classes, and the appearance of the first Korean nation of Gojoseon.

Gojoseon lasted until the Iron Age, flourishing mainly in the northwest of the Korean Peninsula, and challenging the Yan, Qin, and Han Dynasties of China. In fact, Gojoseon was powerful enough to defeat the Han in an early conflict of a war that lasted about a year. Nevertheless, the prolonged war eventually triggered internal strife that brought on the collapse of Gojoseon in 108 BCE.

Around the same time that Gojoseon fell, smaller dominions like Buyeo, Goguryeo, Okjeo, Dongye, and Samhan were gaining power and territory in different regions of the Korean Peninsula.

Buyeo Kingdom/Samhan Period
After the fall of Gojoseon (108 BCE), the Korean Peninsula was divided among a number of local dominions. Buyeo (2 BCE – 494 CE) and Goguryeo (37 BCE – 668 CE) ruled the northeastern area near China, with Okjeo and Dongye also occupying northern areas, while the central part of the peninsula was controlled by Samhan, which comprised the confederacies of Mahan, Jinhan, and Byeonhan. The levels of social development of these early civilizations varied according to their national power and location. Over time, Buyeo and Goguryeo grew into states by asserting their capabilities in both culture and warfare. As a result of various conflicts, Goguryeo took control of Okjeo and Dongye, while Mahan, Jinhan, and Byeonhan integrated into Baekje (18 BCE – 660 CE), Silla (57 BCE – 676 CE), and Gaya (42-562 CE).

Goguryeo Kingdom
The Goguryeo Kingdom (37 BCE – 668 CE) arose along the middle reaches of the Amnokgang (Yalu). By conquering neighboring regions, the kingdom eventually encompassed a huge area, from the Liao River to the central part of the Korean Peninsula. While maintaining its own cultural traditions, Goguryeo also actively embraced diverse cultures from China, as well as Central and Northern Asia. Thus, Goguryeo culture was both dynamic and practical, and it exerted tremendous influence on Baekje (18 BCE – 660 CE), Silla (57 BCE – 676 CE) and Gaya (42-562 CE), and even crossed the sea into Japan.

Tomb murals of Goguryeo are among the internationally recognized cultural legacies of Korea. The most frequent themes of the murals are daily customs, decorative patterns, and the guardian deities of the four directions.

Goguryeo culture was passed on to Unified Silla (676-935 CE) and Balhae (698-926 CE), and thus formed the backbone of Korean culture.

Baekje Kingdom
Baekje was a state that originated from Baekje country which was established in the Hangang basin by Buyeo settlers gradually integrated Mahan regions . After that, as the state moved its capital to Ungjin (Gongju at present), and Sabi (Buyeo at present). It flourished as a unique culture.

The Hanseon period (18 BC – 475 AD) is marked by the establishment of Baekje culture, which was open and international. These characteristics are re-confirmed by dwelling sites such as Seokchon-dong Tomb, Monchontoseong (castle) and Pungnaptoseong (castle), etc. During the Ungjin Period (475-538), the state actively embraced advanced Chinese civilization and developed into a cultural power. It can be conjectured by the Royal Tomb of King Muryeong and the excavated artifacts that indicate the relationship with the Southern Dynasty of China. Baekje culture reached its summit in the Sabi Period (538-660) when original plastic arts and sophisticated handicraft technologies were fully developed. It was during this period that Baekje Incense Burner, the very epitome of the spiritual world and artistic abilities of the Baekje people, was made.

On the other hand, Baekje culture was transmitted to ancient Japan from the early years and exerted an influence on the formation of the Ancient Asuka Period in Japan.

Gaya Confederacy
The Gaya Confederacy (42-562 CE) developed thanks to the abundant iron resources available in the mid- to lower regions of the Nakdonggang, formerly Byeonhan territory. In its early stages, Gaya was centered around Geumgwan Gaya in the Gimhae area of Gyeongsangnam-do, which became a hub of international trade, providing iron to Nangnang and ancient Japan via sea routes. In the late 3rd century CE, the region increased its power by embracing northern civilization, causing the center of activity to move northward to Dae Gaya in the Goryeong area of Gyeongsangbuk-do. Excavations of Gaya sites have yielded pottery inscribed with the “Great King” (大王), as well as flamboyant gold crowns, demonstrating that the state was strong enough to compete against Silla and Baekje.

Gaya culture is characterized by stone chamber tombs that were dug vertically, various pottery with smooth curves, a proliferation of iron objects and weapons, and gold and silver inlay techniques. In particular, artifacts excavated from Gaya tombs in Daeseong-dong (Gimhae, Gyeongsangnam-do) Dohang-ri (Haman, Gyeongsangnam-do) Okjeon (Hapcheon, Gyeongsangnam-do) and Jisan-ri (Goryeong, Gyeongsangbuk-do) illustrate the magnificence of Gaya culture.

Silla Kingdom
The Silla Kingdom (57 BCE – 676 CE) originated from the state of Saro in the Gyeongju region, and comprised 12 Jinhan chiefdoms from the southeastern part of the Korean Peninsula. The kingdom gradually expanded its territory by annexing small neighboring states, before officially declaring Silla laws in the 6th century CE. Around that time, the state accepted Buddhism as a governing belief system, which henceforth laid the foundation for the kingdom’s political and moral thoughts and actions. In 562 CE, Silla annexed Dae Gaya, paving the way for unification.

Silla culture is represented by its Buddhist relics, as well as distinctive wooden chamber tombs covered by stone mounds. Gold crowns and earrings excavated from such wooden tombs are among the most splendid and impressive gold handcrafts in the world, earning Silla the title of “The Country of Gold.” Silla society was profoundly influenced by the bone rank system (a hereditary caste system) and Buddhism, which dominated both social law and spiritual belief.

Importantly, Silla culture had international aspects, including overseas exchange, as evidenced by foreign artifacts excavated from the Gyeongju region, as well as traces of western culture found in burial mound figures.

Unified Silla Period
The Unified Silla Period (676-935 CE) began when Silla occupied the region stretching from the Daedonggang south to Wonsan Bay, conquering Baekje and Goguryeo to form a unified nation-state. The capital city of Gyeongju took the form of a castle town that organized and governed all the neighboring settlements. Gyeongju grew into an international city through active exchange with Southwest Asia, the Tang Dynasty of China, and Japan, and the advanced culture of the capital city gradually diffused into the local areas.

During the Unified Silla Period, Buddhism brought about major changes in society and culture. Cremation became the preferred funerary practice, with burial urns replacing tombs. Major Buddhist architecture, such as Bulguksa Temple and Seokguram Grotto were built. By integrating the cultures of Goguryeo and Baekje, Unified Silla formed the basis for a national culture.

Balhae Kingdom
Balhae (698-926 CE) was established by Dae Jo-yeong, a former military general, who gathered about 8000 migrants from Goguryeo (37 BCE – 668 CE) in the area around Mount Dongmou. At its height, Balhae occupied an enormous territory encompassing the entire Korean Peninsula north of the Daedonggang, as well as Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjang in China, and the Maritime Province of Russia. Balhae used a wide range of cultural institutions to actively cultivate an advanced civilization, leading China to praise it as the “thriving nation of the Eastern Sea.”

To effectively rule such a huge territory, Balhae had five gyeong (provinces) and moved its capital city several times. The capital cities of Sanggyeong, Junggyeong, and Donggyeong all featured impressive architecture and exquisite artwork, such as roof tiles, bricks, dragon heads, pottery, weapons, and various Buddhist sculptures.

Balhae enjoyed a vibrant exchange with Unified Silla, as well as the Tang Dynasty and Japan. Following the fall of Balhae, some of its citizens joined Goryeo (918-1392), securing Balhae’s legacy in Korean history.

National Museum of Korea
The National Museum of Korea is the flagship museum of Korean history and art in South Korea and is the cultural organization that represents Korea. Since its establishment in 1945, the museum has been committed to various studies and research activities in the fields of archaeology, history, and art, continuously developing a variety of exhibitions and education programs.

The National Museum of Korea help visitors to understand and appreciate Korean history and culture through diverse experiences, events, and exhibitions. National Museum of Korea’s permanent collection offers a fascinating journey through thousands of years of history, from simple hand axes of the Paleolithic Age, to a splendid gold crown from the Three Kingdoms Period, exquisite celadon from the Goryeo Dynasty, masterful paintings from the Joseon Dynasty, and photographs from modern times. By immersing themselves in such captivating artifacts and artworks, visitors will understand the deep national pride that Koreans feel for their unique culture.

National Museum of Korea strives to provide visitors with the most entertaining and informative cultural experiences, introducing various cultures through an array of exhibitions and informative programs. The museum’s vast collection is presented in rotating displays in our six permanent exhibition halls. National Museum of Korea also regularly feature major special exhibitions on important themes, and provide exciting educational programs for children. In addition, we have recently upgraded our facilities and rest areas, to make your visit even more pleasant. The museum’s enchanting garden is the perfect place for a leisurely stroll during any season of the year.

The National Museum of Korea is working hard to make your museumexperience more pleasant and enjoyable, by planning a number of exciting upcomingexhibitions, providing docents to give tours in six different languages, and entertaining and educating kids in our Children’s Museum. We have many educational programs specifically designed to suit different groups so that information about our numerous relics and works of art is more accessible to everyone. You can also attend fabulousworld-class performances and concerts at our Yong Theater, or simply enjoy theafternoon in the tree-filled park which is adjacent to the museum.


Information on the Hwarang are mainly found in the historiographical works Samguk Sagi (1145) and Samgungnyusa (c. 1285), and the partially extant Haedong Goseungjeon (1215), a compilation of biographies of famous monks of the Three Kingdoms of Korea.

All three of these works cite primary sources no longer existent, including: 1) a memorial stele to Nallang (presumably a Hwarang based upon the suffix nang) by the 9th–10th century Silla scholar Choe Chiwon 2) an early Tang account of Silla titled the Xinluo guoji by the Tang official Ling Hucheng and 3) Hwarang Segi (Chinese: 花郞世記 Korean: 화랑세기 , Chronicle of the Hwarang) by Kim Dae-mun, compiled in the early eighth century. In the late 1980s, an alleged Hwarang Segi manuscript was discovered in Gimhae, South Korea. Scholar Richard McBride regards it as a forgery. [5]

Wonhwa Edit

According to the Samguk Sagi and Samgungnyusa, two groups of women called Wonhwa (Hangul: 원화 , hanja: 源花 , "original flowers") preceded the Hwarang. The precise nature and activities of the Wonhwa are also unclear, with some scholars positing they may have actually been court beauties or courtesans. [6] However, considering that they were trained in ethics, this may be a later patriarchal reading into the Wonhwa. Women played a much more prominent social role in pre-Joseon Korea, especially in Silla, which had three reigning queens in its history.

Both sources record that during the reign of Jinheung of Silla, groups of beautiful girls were chosen and taught filial and fraternal piety, loyalty, and sincerity (no firm date is given for this, and some scholars express doubt this even occurred during Jinheung‘s reign). [7] However, the leaders of the two bands of Wonhwa, Nammo (南毛) and Junjeong (俊貞), grew jealous of one another. When Junjeong murdered her rival, the Wonhwa were disbanded. No doubt the details of this origin story are most likely based on myth and legend, despite the facts surrounding the foundation of the sect being true, as supported by various documented sources. First note that the term wonhwa is composed of won 源, "source", and undoubtedly refers to the founders of the sect, while hwa 花, "flower", is a euphemism for someone who has spent a great deal of time or money in the pursuit of something, i.e. a devotee. In the case of the Wonhwa, devotion to philosophy and the arts. Furthermore, while the names nammo and junjeong could have been appellations adopted by these two ladies for use in court, one cannot overlook the obvious descriptions they portray. Nammo hints at one who is careless yet lucky, or perhaps someone who is innately insightful and therefore lackadaisical about further erudition. Junjeung clearly indicates a person who is talented and virtuous, despite the fact that she was the one who succumbed to homicidal tendencies. It would be logical to assume that if someone had to work hard, maybe even struggle with attaining certain goals, that envy might consume them if their counterpart, especially if viewed more as a rival, seemed to reach the same objectives with substantially less effort.

Origins of the Hwarang Edit

Although some historians believe that the Hwarang played a big part in the unification of the Three Kingdoms, some historians are unclear about the role that the Hwarang played in the unification An excerpt about Sadaham in the Samguk Sagi . [8] According to the Samguk Yusa, the Silla king, "concerned about the strengthening of the country . again issued a decree and chose boys from good families who were of good morals and renamed them hwarang." [9] The actual word used in this chronicle is hwanang (花娘), meaning "flower girls". [10] This suggests that the Hwarang were not originally military in character, as the Wonhwa were not soldiers.

The youths who were chosen by the Silla Kingdom became the knights and warriors for the Silla Dynasty within the age of the Three Kingdoms of Korea. A close relationship did exist between the Hwarang and Buddhism because Buddhism was accepted as a state religion by the royalty and aristocrats within the Silla Kingdom. [11] The Buddhist monks were often mentors for the Hwarang in both physical and spiritual ways. The Hwarang would seek the teachings of these Buddhist monks because they knew that the martial arts practiced by these Buddhist monks were a source through which they could strengthen themselves for greater success in the future and for the benefit of the Silla Kingdom. [12] The monks would train themselves in physical fitness exercises through self-defense techniques, countering the weakening effects of long-term meditation and enabling them to protect themselves from bandits and robbers who tried to steal the donations and charities that were collected by the monks on their pilgrimages. [13] Both the Buddhist monks and the Hwarang would go on journeys to famous mountains to heighten their training and would seek encounters with supernatural beings for protection and the success of the Silla Kingdom. Won Gwang Beop Sa (圓光法士) was a Buddhist monk who was asked by the Hwarang to teach them ways to develop ambition, bravery, and honor, in order to protect the Silla Kingdom from the other kingdoms inhabiting the peninsula. Won Gwang trained these youths in three areas:

Won Gwang taught the youths of the Hwarang to become warriors who could defend their beliefs with martial arts, to be confident in their actions, and to control themselves and their surroundings. Won Gwang gave to these Hwarang teachings in gwonbeop (martial methods or skills) that combined the secret Buddhist monk's physical and mental exercises. Won Gwang also proposed 5 principles or guidelines that were later called the Five Precepts for Secular Life (Se Sok O Gye 세속오계 世俗五戒) which became a list of ethics that the Hwarang could embrace (this is why he is commonly known as Beop Sa or "lawgiver"): [14]

  1. Show allegiance to one’s sovereign. (sa·gun·i·chung 사군이충 事君以忠)
  2. Treat one's parents with respect and devotion. (sa·chin·i·hyo 사친이효 事親以孝)
  3. Exhibit trust and sincerity amongst friends. (gyo·u·i·sin 교우이신 交友以信)
  4. Never retreat in battle. (im·jeon·mu·toe 임전무퇴 臨戰無退)
  5. Exercise discretion when taking a life. (sal·saeng·yu·taek 살생유택 殺生有擇)

These commandments and teachings of Won Gwang were followed by the Hwarang to protect the Silla Kingdom from rivaling kingdoms and helped unify the nation of Ancient Korea until the fall of the Silla Kingdom.

In 520, King Beopheung had instituted Sino-Korean style reforms and formalized the golpum (bone rank) system. In 527, Silla formally adopted Buddhism as a state religion. The establishment of Hwarang took place in the context of tightening central state control, a complement to the golpum system and a symbol of harmony and compromise between the king and the aristocracy. [15]

Evolution Edit

With the consolidation and expansion of Silla and intensification of military rivalries among the Three Kingdoms in the 6th century, the Silla court took a more active interest in the Hwarang. Hwarang groups were usually led by a youth of aristocratic standing, and the state appointed a high-ranking official to oversee the organization.

The Hwarang in the later 6th and 7th centuries trained in horsemanship, swordsmanship, archery, javelin and stone throwing, polo, and ladder-climbing. [16] By the seventh century the organization had grown greatly in prestige and numbered several hundred bands. [17]

The Samguk Sagi, compiled by the general and official Gim Busik, emphasizes the military exploits of certain Hwarang, while the Samgungnyusa emphasizes the group's Buddhist activities. [18] The biographies section of the Samguk Sagi describes young Hwarang who distinguished themselves in the struggles against the Gaya confederacy and later Baekje and Goguryeo. According to the Hwarang Segi, as cited in the Samguk Sagi and Haedong Goseungjeon, “. able ministers and loyal subjects are chosen from them, and good generals and brave soldiers are born therefrom.” [19]

The Hwarang were greatly influenced by Buddhist, Confucian, and Daoist ideals. A Chinese official recorded, "They [Silla] choose fair sons from noble families and deck them out with cosmetics and fine clothes and call them Hwarang. The people all revere and serve them." [20]

  • 원화 – Wonhwa: royal female patron (源花) (disbanded)
  • 국선 – Gukseon: Grand Master (國仙)
  • 원상화 – Wonsanghwa: first officer in charge of training (原上花)
  • 풍월주 – Pung-wolju: Chief officer (風月主)
  • 화랑도 – Hwarang-do: members of the Hwarang and team leaders of the Nangdo (花郎徒)
  • 낭도 – Nangdo: team members (郎徒)

Two youths, Gwisan (귀산,貴山) and Chwihang (취항, 取項), approached the Silla monk Won Gwang (원광, 圓光) seeking spiritual guidance and teaching, saying, “We are ignorant and without knowledge. Please give us a maxim which will serve to instruct us for the rest of our lives.” [21]

Won Gwang, who had gained fame for his period of study in Sui China, replied by composing the Sesok-ogye ("Five Commandments for Secular Life" 세속 오계 世俗五戒). These have since been attributed as a guiding ethos for the Hwarang: [22]

  1. Loyalty to one's lord (sagun ichung 사군이충 事君以忠 나라에 충성하고)
  2. Love and respect your parents (sachin ihyo 사친이효 事親以孝 부모님께 효도하고)
  3. Trust among friends (gyo-u isin 교우이신 交友以信 믿음으로 벗을 사귀고)
  4. Never retreat in battle (imjeon mutwae 임전무퇴 臨戰無退 싸움에 나가서는 물러서지 않으며)
  5. Never take a life without a just cause (salsaeng yutaek 살생유택 殺生有擇 살아있는 것을 함부로 죽이지 않는다)

The Samguk Yusa also records that Hwarang members learned the Five Cardinal Confucian Virtues, the Six Arts, the Three Scholarly Occupations, and the Six Ways of Government Service (五常六藝 三師六正).

Following the fall of Silla, the term hwarang survived and changed in meaning again. In Choe Sejin (최세진)'s 1527 book Hunmong jahoe (훈몽자회), the term hwarang is even referred to as a male prostitute. Today, Hwarang is often used in the names of various schools, organizations and companies.

Korea's First Female Ruler, Queen Seondeok of Silla

Queen Seondeok (?-647, r. 632-647) was the 27th monarch of Silla, one of the kingdoms of the Three Kingdoms period. She was the first reigning female monarch in Korean history and the second in East Asian history. She was not only a politically strategic ruler, but also facilitated many cultural achievements.

The daughter of King Jinpyeong and Lady Maya, Seondeok, named Kim Deok-man at birth, displayed clever insightfulness from an early age. A story included in both the History of the Three Kingdoms (Samguk sagi) and Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms (Samguk yusa) retells how when her father received peony seeds and a painting of the flower from the emperor of Tang China, Seondeok remarked how it was a shame such a beautiful flower did not have a scent before the seeds had even been planted. She had inferred this fact because the painting did not depict any butterflies, which are attracted to flowery scents. It was also during her time as a princess that she took up an interest in astronomy and had Cheomseongdae, the oldest extant astronomical observatory in the world, constructed. However, after being reprimanded by the Tang ambassador for her precociousness, her father suppressed her studies of the stars Ώ] .

Seondeok took the throne as queen when her father died without a male heir. Although Silla preferred male heirs, more important than the sex of the heir was that they were of the “sacred bone” rank. “Sacred bone” refers to top rank of Silla’s “bone rank system,” a caste system which was determined by the heritage of ones’ parents. As there were no male sacred bone heirs left, Seondeok was chosen to succeed her father. This speaks to the comparatively high social status of women, who served as advisors and could have inheritances, as well as the importance of bone rank in Silla society. ΐ]

Seondeok ascended the throne during a period when Silla was under threat by Baekje and Goguryeo. However, despite attacks on Silla territory, Seondeok was able to successfully defend the kingdom with the aid of her cousin, Kim Yu-sin. She maintained good diplomatic relations with Tang China and sent many young scholars to study in there, which later proved advantageous during the 668 unification of the Three Kingdoms. She also ruled wisely and saw to the care of the people through the promotion of state Buddhism and the stabilization of popular sentiment. To promote Buddhism, she served as a patroness for the construction of multiple Buddhist temples, and also ordered the construction a nine-story wood pagoda at Hwangnyongsa Temple. The 80-meter tall pagoda was the tallest structure in the world at the time of its construction.

Despite her various cultural accomplishments and successful protection of the kingdom, members of Silla royalty, and even the Emperor of Tang, thought women were unfit to rule and questioned her abilities. In 647, Bidam, a royal from the lesser “true bone” rank, led a revolt under this justification. The revolt was quickly suppressed by Kim Yu-sin in just 10 days, but during this short time, Queen Seondeok died of a chronic disease.

Queen Seondeok’s 15-year reign was followed by that of another female, her cousin, Jindeok, the last monarch of “sacred bone” descent. One more queen would reign during Unified Silla.

Confucianism in Ancient Korea

Principles of Confucianism were adopted by successive dynasties and kingdoms in ancient Korea, and the study of classic Confucian texts was an important part of education and entrance examinations for the state administration. Confucianism was practised side-by-side with the official state religion of Buddhism and, amongst the lower classes, with shamanism and animism. By and large, Buddhism was the practised religion whilst Confucian principles were adopted for government and public life.

The Principles of Confucianism

Confucius (or Kongzi) was a Chinese philosopher who lived in the 6th century BCE and whose work was developed and codified by two important later philosophers, Mencius (or Mengzi) and Xunzi (or Hsun Tzu). Together these three figures created the philosophy known as Confucianism. Chief among its ideals are the importance of a virtuous life, filial piety, and ancestor worship. Also emphasised is the necessity for benevolent and frugal rulers with a high moral standing, the importance of inner moral harmony and its direct connection with harmony in the physical world and that rulers and teachers are important role models for wider society. They must be benevolent in order to win the affections and respect of the populace and not do so by force, which is futile. Politics, therefore, when following Confucian principles tended to focus on the intimacy of relationships rather than institutions.


Another central pillar of Confucianism is that the moral harmony of the individual is directly related to cosmic harmony what one does, affects the other. For example, poor political decisions can lead to natural disasters such as floods. An example of the direct correlation between the physical and the moral is evidenced in the saying, 'Heaven does not have two suns and the people do not have two kings.' A consequence of this idea is that, just as there is only one cosmic environment, there is only one true way to live and only one correct political system. If society fails it is because sacred texts and teachings have been misinterpreted the texts themselves contain the Way but we must search for and find it.


Confucianism expounded the importance of four virtues which we all possess: benevolence (jen), righteousness (i), observance of rites (li) and moral wisdom (te). A fifth was later added - faith - which neatly corresponded to the five elements (in Chinese thought) of earth, wood, fire, metal and water. Once again, the belief that there is a close link between the physical and moral spheres is illustrated. By stating that all men have such virtues, two ideas are consequent: education must nurture and cultivate them and all men are equal - 'Within the four seas all men are brothers.'

Adoption by Korea

By the 2nd century BCE Confucianism was the official state religion of Han Dynasty China. During the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE) temples were established in the name of Confucius at all administrative capitals and the study of classic Confucian texts (e.g. Book of History, Book of Changes, Book of Songs, and Spring and Autumn Annals) became an essential part of the education of every member of the elite classes and they were tested on their knowledge of it in the examinations set for those wishing to join the state's civil service. Then Confucianism was given even greater importance by the subsequent Song dynasty (960-1279 CE). This pattern would be repeated when Confucianism was passed on to Korea, a long-time Chinese trade partner, probably via the Chinese commanderies which controlled the northern territories, especially Lelang, up to the 4th century CE.

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In 372 CE a Confucian Academy was established in the Goguryeo kingdom of northern Korea. Queen Seondeok of Silla appointed Confucian scholars to her court in 636 CE. A little later, in the Unified Silla Kingdom, which now controlled all of the Korean peninsula, a National Confucian Academy (Gukhak) was founded in 682 CE which was decorated in 717 CE with a number of portraits of Confucius and prominent philosophers brought especially for the purpose from China. In 750 CE it was renamed the National Confucian University. Besides studying at home, many young men of aristocratic families were sent to study in China where they acquired the necessary knowledge of the Confucian classic texts to enter and pass Chinese administration examinations and gain valuable diplomatic experience which they could bring back to Korea and so further their career there.

In 788 CE an examination for state administrators based on Confucian texts was introduced in Korea on the Chinese model. Questions in these papers were largely based on the Analects and the Classic of Filial Piety, both of which contain conversations and sayings attributed to Confucius especially relevant would have been those regarding proper behaviour and attitudes to superiors and the importance of human relationships to good government. By the 11th century CE 12 private academies, called the Twelve Assemblies (Sibi to), had been established which further spread Confucianism. One teacher, in particular, gained great fame, Choe Chung (984-1068 CE), who became known as 'the Confucius of Korea' and who, in 1055 CE, set up the first private Confucian school called the 'School of Nine Studies' (Kujae haktang) because there were nine areas of study.


Government and education were the main theatres of Confucian thought, albeit with some application to family roles and responsibilities, especially rituals of ancestor worship in the family shrine within each home. Buddhism, however, remained the official state religion, with shamanism and nature worship the main popular religions, largely pursued by the lower and more rural classes.

The adoption of Confucianism was not only an indicator of ancient Korea's willingness to adopt elements of Chinese culture but its very principles of filial piety and duty to one's superiors perpetuated a long-standing cultural admiration of all things Chinese and certain political subservience to its large and powerful neighbour. In return, China recognised Korea as 'a country of gentlemen' where 'gentlemen' here is termed junzi, as in the Confucian Analects text.

Practical Application & Manifestations

Confucianism is notoriously difficult to pin down and elaborate upon, based largely as it is on the original obscure and ambiguous short maxims attributed to Confucius himself, but rulers and ministers endeavoured to transfer certain ideals to their political approach. Hierarchy, rights, responsibilities, loyalties, and a sense of duty were all important Confucian features of Korean government. So too were a belief in a fixed social caste system (e.g. the Silla Bone Rank system) which was thought to preserve harmony and balance in the community – the 'know your place' attitude - and more intangible and unquantifiable beliefs such as trustworthiness, diligence, and respect. The historian Jinwung Kim summarises these principles and their effect on both internal and international Korean politics, thus:


Confucianism is based on an ideal model of relations between family members that called for special bonds between sovereign and subject, father and son, and husband and wife, as well as five moral disciplines. Confucianism generalized the family model and relationships of subjects to the state and to an international system. In political terms, these principles meant that a village followed the leadership of venerated elders, and citizens revered a king who was thought of as the father of the state. Generalized to international relations, the Chinese emperor was the big brother of the Joseon king. A conservative philosophy, Confucianism stressed tradition, strict social hierarchies, obedience to superiors, and identification of the father with the monarch. It adopted the proper rite as one of its major virtues and therefore paid careful attention to the performance of ritual. In the international context, it envisioned a China-centered world order. (Kim, J., 187)

Confucianism was not limited to the realm of politics and its principles can be seen in both the art, architecture, and literature of ancient Korea. In painting and calligraphy, the restraint of Confucian principles was an ideal to be strived for whenever possible. In ceramics, the white porcelain of the Joseon dynasty from the 14th century CE onwards reflects the no-nonsense, ordered and masculine tendencies of Confucian thought and it is no coincidence that it became the favourite of the Korean elite at that time and was widely used in Confucian rituals.

Another medium where Confucian themes were popular was screen painting, especially of the eight Chinese characters representing the munja-do or virtues of Confucianism. House architecture might also be dictated by Confucian principles, especially the belief that men and women should be separated and the two sexes, if strangers, should avoid meeting, hence the design of traditional homes of the Joseon dynasty with distinct areas for hosting guests and domestic work. Confucian philosophy also stresses the importance of examining the past and learning from it and this helped foster a Korean sense of history and national identity, as seen in the production of such famous history texts as the Samguk sagi and Samguk yusa from the 12th century CE.


From the 14th century CE a new brand of Confucianism, Neo-Confucianism (again originating in China), gained wide acceptance to the detriment of other faiths, especially Buddhism. With many points of similarity to its original philosophy Neo-Confucianism added a belief that all men could attain higher goals if they applied themselves. This principle resulted in a widening of the eligibility for state examinations, even if those from the elite still had a distinct advantage, such was the necessity for years of classical study prior to the examination. Neo-Confucianism, with its emphasis on clearly defined hierarchical roles for everyone in both public and private life, also resulted in a significant backwards step for women's rights and status in respect to their position in previous Korean thought systems which had drifted away from the original Confucianism.


This content was made possible with generous support from the British Korean Society.

Watch the video: Το Φιλανδικό σύστημα εκπαίδευσης. Jaana Hannele Oikarinen Βασιλόπουλος. TEDxChania (August 2022).