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Gung Ye
Hangul 궁예
Hanja 弓裔
Revised Romanization Gung Ye
McCune–Reischauer Kung Ye

Gung Ye (ruled 901–918) was the king of a short-lived state (901-918) (see Later Three Kingdoms) on the Korean peninsula. Although he was a member of the Silla royal family, he became a victim of power struggle among royal family members at the late 9th century Silla and at last became rebel leader against the unpopular Silla government, which almost abandoned the affairs of common people for the struggle for power among royal family members.

Contents

Birth

The exact date of Gung Ye's birth is unknown, but history records that Gung Ye was a son of King Heonan or of King Gyeongmun; his mother was a servant of the king who was beloved by the king. However, when she became pregnant other members of royal family became aware of it - since if she gave birth to a son, he would grow up and become a possible threat for their way to the throne.

Gung Ye was born on the traditional Asian holiday of Dano; a soothsayer prophesied that a baby born on Dano would bring disaster to the nation, and the court officials and royal family members urged to the king to get rid of the evil infant. So the king ordered his servants to kill him. However, when the troops rushed to the residence of Gung Ye's mother, she threw her baby down to the ground from the second floor, with her servant hiding on nearby bushes to catch the baby. Her plot tricked the soldiers well; however, while the servant catching and running away with him from the palace, she accidentally poked the left eye of the baby, causing Gung Ye to lose one eye. She hid Gung Ye and raised him secretly; when she died, Gung Ye became a Buddhist monk at Sedalsa, a Buddhist temple.

Revolt

At the time, the monarch of Silla was Queen Jinseong, who was the third and the last female head of state in Korean history (the other two being: Queen Seondeok of Silla and Jindeok of Silla). Queen Jinseong was a powerless ruler and the government was largely corrupted by interventions of royal family members, and the queen became unaware of ongoing situations--her advisors were typically bribed to keep quiet. Many people rebelled against the corrupt government, which did not care about their affairs and only raised taxes massively in 889 for their personal profit. Local aristocrats emerged as de facto rulers of many provinces, with the attention of government concentrated on suppression of rebellion and their own affairs. Among the rebel leaders and local aristocrats, Gi Hwon and Yang Gil gained most power.

Gung Ye joined at first the force of Gi Hwon in 891; however Gi Hwon did not fully trust Gung Ye and soon he decided to leave his force. After the death of Gi Hwon by his own followers, he joined Yang Gil's rebellion force in 892. The Samguk Yusa tells that Gung Ye was a lieutenant under Yang Gil[1]. Under Yang Gil he became leading general of the rebel forces by defeating local Silla army and other rebel groups. Most local aristocrats of Myeongju and Paeseo, including Wang Gun, submitted to his force, making him even more powerful than his master Yang Gil. Silla, after nearly a millennium as a centralized kingdom, was quickly declining, and Gung Ye instigated his own rebellion in present-day Kaesŏng in 898. He eventually defeated Yang Gil and other local lords in central Korea to proclaim himself king of Hugoguryeo in 901. With his rival Gyeon Hwon's state of Hubaekje taking control of southwest of the peninsula, he opened up the Later Three Kingdoms period, the long civil war in the last days of Silla.

Downfall

He changed the state's name to Majin in the 904, and moved the capital to Cheolwon in the following year. Since Cheolwon was a fortress located in mountaineous area, he moved 1,000 people from populous city of Cheongju, and expanded his rule into Chungcheong region, taking control of almost two-third of entire land once controlled by Silla. In the same year Gung Ye took over Pyeongyang and called for total destruction of the state of Silla.

However, his policies were resented by several aristocrats who surrendered to him. After several assassination attempts, he decided what was needed to unite people under his power was religious faith. Using his previous occupation as Buddhist monk, he referred to himself as Mireuk (Maitreya), or Buddha, who came to the world to guide and save the suffering people from all hardship, and began to exercise excessive power as an absolute god-king. He changed the name of his kingdom to Taebong in 911.

In his later days, after still more assassination attempts and severe criticism from many enlightened Buddhist monks, Gung Ye started to doubt almost everyone's loyalty toward him. He accused anyone for treason and sentenced death to anyone opposing him, including his own wife Kang and his two sons. As a result, in 918 four of his own top generals – Hong Yu (홍유; 洪儒), Bae Hyeongyeong (배현경; 裵玄慶), Shin Sunggyeom (신숭겸; 申崇謙) and Bok Jigyeom (복지겸; 卜智謙) – overthrew Taebong and installed Wang Geon as king. Soon thereafter, the Goryeo dynasty was proclaimed, and Wang Gun went on to defeat rivaling states of Silla and Later Baekje to reunite three kingdoms in 936.

New Theory of Origin

Some historians present a theory that states that Gung Ye was, in fact, a direct descendant of Go Anseung, who had been the ruler of Goguryeo-Guk, which had been a failed Goguryeo revival state. Records of Silla reported that Go Anseung was given the surname of the Silla Royal Family, "Kim." Therefore, Gung Ye's commonly-known origin as a prince of Silla was right in a way, but Gung Ye being a son of a king of Silla may have not been true. This theory does cover all parts of the argument, and may indeed have been the truth. These scholars also say that the theory that Gung Ye was the bastard son of a Silla-King was one of the many attempts to degrade Gung Ye's reputation and image.

Legacy

Even though Gung Ye was not able to keep his rule and achieve the reunification of the Korean peninsula under his rule, many scholars today are attempting to review the true character of Gung Ye. Historical records regarding Gung Ye are mostly of negative perspective, since many historians during Goryeo Dynasty tried to justify the coup by Wang Geon that dethroned Gung Ye, in order to give legitimacy to the dynasty. However, even after the founding of Goryeo, many people rejected the rule of Wang Geon and rebelled against the newly-formed dynasty; some even voluntarily defected to Gyeon Hwon's Hubaekje. It can be assumed that many people, even after the coup that crowned Wang Geon, favored the rule of Gung Ye and that he was not a total despot as described in history. Some scholars explain Gung Ye's self-proclamation as Buddha as an attempt to strengthen his power, since he, as a royal family member of Silla, had no influence over powerful local landlords and merchants, so he tried to use the power of religion in order to keep his rule, which did not prove to be effective.

References

  1. ^ Il-yeon: Samguk Yusa: Legends and History of the Three Kingdoms of Ancient Korea, translated by Tae-Hung Ha and Grafton K. Mintz. Book Two, page 126. Silk Pagoda (2006). ISBN 1596543485







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