They say history is written by the victors, which is easily proven by how little you learn of the “losing” nations during history class. The Korean history you learn in school, in particular, has a tendency to focus more on the dominant nations; otherwise you’d have to spend hours and hours per week to cover over 5,000 years of history. (Trust me, even just focusing on the victors made national history class a complete brainbuster.)
It’s easier when the Korean peninsula was a unified nation: Silla, Goryeo, and Joseon, for example, but it gets trickier when we’re talking about the times when it was not. The Three Kingdoms era, for example. (57 BCE ~ 668 CE) And among the Three Kingdoms, Baekje (백제) usually gets the least attention.
The Three Kingdoms consist of Goguryeo(고구려), Baekje, and Silla(신라). Goguryeo, being one of the first countries established on the peninsula with an amazing founding legend has a great reputation, Silla wound up unifying the entire peninsula so it’s natural there would be much documentation about it, too. Consequently, it’s Baekje which gets a bit lost in the shuffle and unfortunately, because Euija was its last king, he gets a bad rap, too.
I’ve asked several people – Korean, of all ages – what the first thing that came to mind about King Euija and it came down to three things: last king of Baekje, the 3,000 ladies of court who jumped from Nakhwaam (낙화암), and General Gyebaek (계백장군).
Euija was the eldest son of Baekje’s 30th king, King Mu (무왕). He was known to be virtuous, full of filial piety, humble, and always kind and courteous to others. Euija was already in his forties when he became king in 641. At that time, the Korean peninsula was rife with endless power struggles between the three nations. The influence of China’s Tang Dynasty was also a big factor; Baekje had maintained an amiable relationship with Tang since the reign of his father.
King Euija was adept in diplomacy and military strategy; keeping ties with Tang and creating alliances with Goguryeo meant that Baekje would be safe from Tang’s desire to conquer their nation, with Goguryeo serving as a roadblock. An alliance with Goguryeo also meant that alienating Silla would also be possible, for they were getting to be a big threat.
In the years of his reign, King Euija attacked Silla several times, directly leading the army himself to secure more land and strengthen Baekje’s power on the peninsula. By 643, he was able to attack and procure Silla’s most important fortress. He also attacked Silla in 645, when Tang decided to attack Goguryeo with help from Silla’s troops; he jumped on the chance of their absence. Unfortunately, after this incident and dealing with internal conflict, Silla decides to fully cooperate with Tang and become strong allies.
It is said that King Euija’s most trusted confidantes and political advisors noticed this change. They understood how Silla was steadily gaining potential to become a greater threat, how they were paying attention to the shifting of power on the peninsula and the continent. General Kim Chun-chu (김춘추) of Silla, who had received promises of Tang’s aid in avenging Baekje whilst on a diplomatic mission, became King Taejong Muyeol of Silla in 654. The famous general Kim Yu-shin (김유신), his brother-in-law, was at his side.
However, King Euija ignored his advisors’ counsel, for Baekje had victory upon victory. In 655, they also aided Goguryeo in procuring 33 northern fortresses of Silla, but it was around this time things started to unravel within Baekje as well. Intoxicated with the success of his reign, King Euija became lax in attending the nation’s affairs and started to seek pleasure, living a life of lavish luxury. Political power struggles arose within the court and the country began to be neglected.
In 660, fed up with constantly being attacked, Silla joined forces with Tang and started their plans to completely overtake Baekje. Attacks started in March, King Taejong Muyeol and General Kim Yu-shin personally led armies in May, immensely deflating Baekje’s prowess. These attacks culminated in the famous Battle of Hwangsanbeol (황산벌) in July, where General Kim Yu-shin defeated Baekje’s greatest General Gyebaek.
Tang simultaneously attacked Baekje from the shore, so after General Gyebaek’s defeat, it took only a short time before Baekje’s capital was taken over and fell. King Euija fled the capital with his sons but surrendered soon after. He was taken to Tang as a hostage with his family and died there that very year, the disgraced last king of Baekje.
In 2008, new historical documents were discovered in China which suggests that it wasn’t King Euija who surrendered of his own will; he was betrayed by one of his subordinates who handed him over as a hostage to Tang. What the truth is always debatable, as scholars would point out, for the accuracy of historical documents are always debatable as well.
Even though, it is a fact that King Euija was Baekje’s last king, who will be forever remembered as the king who brought upon the nation’s demise. Whether it was indeed due to his negligence and outrageous lifestyle at the end or whether it would have been inevitable not to succumb to Silla – after all, Goguryeo also eventually fell to Silla in 668 – that is also a controversial issue.
So where does the legend of the 3,000 court ladies come from? We’ve already harbored on the fact of Euija being the last king, mentioned General Gyebaek, so what is the other thing about King Euija that people find so memorable? Probably due to the accusations that he led a lavish lifestyle of drink and pleasure in his later days, King Euija is notorious for being a ladies’ man, so much that the moniker “King Euija” (의자왕) itself is being used as slang for “ladies’ man” or “playboy”. It’s very commonly used, even when nothing has been truly documented to define that King Euija was indeed of such temperament.
However, there is a record of ladies of court jumping from the rock cliff after the capital was seized by Silla. The ladies, afraid of being compromised by the Silla army, jumped off the cliff and took their own lives in order to preserve their virtue. Although the cliff was originally named something else, it became to be called Nakhwaam (낙화암), which literally means “Rock of Falling Flowers”.
Since scholars speculate that the population of Baekje’s capital would have been around 50,000 at that time, it is highly improbable that there were 3,000 ladies of court. It is most likely an expression used for “many” which has been misinterpreted in modern times. Nevertheless, the image of 3,000 ladies of court flinging themselves over the cliff into the water below brings upon license for romanticizing, and has been stubbornly linked to King Euija through centuries.
To reiterate the whole of Baekje’s history here is impossible, or telling the complete story of Euija for that matter, because there is so much more to discover. Fortunately, there has been renewed interest in Baekje and Euija lately with more historical research and development of various tourist programs for the general public, not only in Baekje’s old region but throughout the country where its influence can be found.
Even in Seoul, old remains of Baekje were discovered and the Seoul Baekje Museum was established last year in Olympic Park. There is a Baekje Cultural Land in Buyeo, where the Baekje Cultural Festival is held every year in the fall. In addition, the Goran Temple (고란사) in Buyeo, which dates back to the 11th century, has murals which depict Baekje’s history in delightful detail, of which the Nakhwaam mural is said to be the most popular.
The increase of Baekje’s presence in TV, film, and the stage is also notable, where King Euija is undoubtedly the most explored. One of the most creative interpretations recently was that in the musical “Samcheon” (삼천) – which is a homonym for 3,000 – where it is not 3,000 ladies of court but one lady of court named Samcheon who is seeking to destroy King Euija and brings down the whole country in the aftermath. King Euija also regularly appears in historical dramas about the final years of Three Kingdoms era; currently KBS’s “King’s Dream” about Silla’s King Taejong Muyeol.
King Euija’s portrayal differs by which perspective the story is being told and one would hope that in the future, more historical information about King Euija would be revealed and he would be portrayed with more depth and dimension; he did do many good deeds as king, it would be unfortunate that he only be remembered by a titillating legend only.
- Video from Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea about Baekje: http://youtu.be/mM0skGuf0dk
- Baekje Cultural Land: http://www.bhm.or.kr
- Baekje Cultural Festival: http://www.baekje.org
- Seoul Baekje Museum: http://baekjemuseum.seoul.go.kr
- KBS “King’s Dream” currently on air: http://www.kbs.co.kr/drama/kingsdream