Gwangjong of Goryeo

From New World Encyclopedia
Gwangjong of Goryeo
Hangul 광종
Hanja 光宗
Revised Romanization Gwangjong
McCune-Reischauer kwangjong
Birth name
Revised Romanization So
McCune-Reischauer So
Courtesy name
Hangul 일화
Hanja 日華
Revised Romanization Ilhwa
McCune-Reischauer Ilhwa

Gwangjong (광종 光宗) (949 – 975) was the fourth Emperor of the Goryeo dynasty which ruled Korea from the fall of Silla in 935 until the founding of Joseon in 1392. He ascended the throne just thirty years after his father, King Taejo, founded the Goryeo dynasty, at a time when rival royal clans were vying for political power and the throne was constantly under threat. Recognizing the need to establish a stable government, he enacted a series of laws to centralize the power of the state, weaken the power of the local lords, and liberate slaves and return them to commoner status. In 958 he established a system of civil service examinations to select talented scholars for government posts; it continued in use for 940 years.

Gwangjong eliminated many of his powerful rivals by sending them to prison or having them executed. Later in his life, he appears to have repented, and built a number of Buddhist temples. His son and grandson developed additional policies which allowed Goryeo to succeed under a strong centralized government, and which prepared for rule according to a Confucian state model.

Background: Foundation of the Goryeo Dynasty

Taejo Wang Geon (Wang Kǒn태조 왕건) was a descendant of a powerful merchant family at Songdo, which controlled trade on the Yeseong River. He was born in 877 to a wealthy merchant clan based in present-day Kaesŏng. His father, Wang Yung, was leader of clan and became prosperous from trade with China. His ancestors were known to have lived within ancient Goguryeo boundaries, making Wang Geon a Goguryeon by descent.

Rise to Power

Taejo began his career during the turbulent Later Three Kingdoms period (후삼국 시대; 後三國時代; Husamguk Sidae). In the later years of Silla, many local leaders and bandits rebelled against the rule of Queen Jinsung, who did not have the qualities of a strong leader, or enact policies to improve the conditions of the people. Among those rebels, Gung Ye (궁예; 弓裔; Kung Ye) in the northwestern region and Gyeon Hwon (견훤; 甄萱; Kyŏn Hwŏn) in the southwest gained more power than the others, and defeated or absorbed other rebel groups as their troops marched against local Silla officials and bandits. In 895, Gung Ye led his forces into the far northwestern part of Silla, where Songdo was located. Wang Yung, along with many other local clans, quickly surrendered to Gung Ye. Wang Geon followed his father into service under Gung Ye, the future leader of Taebong, and began his service under Gungye's command.

Gung Ye soon recognized Wang Geon's ability as a military commander, promoted him to general and even regarded him as his brother. In 900, Wang Geon led a successful campaign against local clans and the army of Later Baekje in the Chungju area, gaining more fame and recognition from the king. In 903, he led a famous naval campaign against the southwestern coastline of Hubaekje, while Gyeon Hwon was at war against Silla. He commanded several more military campaigns, and won support from the public because of his capable leadership and his generosity towards the conquered people who had lived in poverty under Silla rule.

In 913, Gung Ye declared himself King of a newly renamed Taebong and appointed Wang Geon his prime minister. Gung Ye began to refer to himself as the Buddha, and persecuted people who expressed opposition to his religious arguments. He executed many monks, and later his own wife and two sons, and the public began to turn away from him. His costly rituals and harsh rule created even more opposition.

Rise to the Throne and Founding of Goryeo

In 918, four top-ranked generals of Taebong, Hong Yu (홍유; 洪儒), Bae Hyeongyeong (배현경; 裵玄慶; Pae Hyŏn-gyŏng), Shin Sung-gyeom (신숭겸; 申崇謙; S(h)in Sung-gyŏm) and Bok Jigyeom (복지겸; 卜智謙; Pok Chi-gyŏm) met secretly and agreed to overthrow Gung Ye and crown Wang Kon (Wang Geon) as their new king. Wang first opposed the idea but later agreed to their plan. The same year, Gung Ye was overthrown and assassinated near his capital, Cheorwon. Wang was crowned king and renamed the kingdom Goryeo, thus beginning the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392). The next year he moved the capital back to his hometown, Songak.

Goryeo Dynasty

Wang Geon raided Later Baekje in 934, and accepted the abdication of King Gyeongsun of Silla in 935. The following year he conquered Later Baekje and unified the Korean Peninsula. Wang Geon was careful to placate the Silla aristocracy, and gave former King Gyeongsun the highest post in his government. He also married a woman of the Silla royal clan to legitimize his rule. He drafted ten injunctions for his successors to observe, including strengthening the state to protect against incursions from the northern nomadic states. He warned them that the power wielded by the various clans and warlords over their local areas must be weakened. He urged his successors not to interfere with Buddhist temples, and to avoid internal conflict among the royal clans, because it would result in usurpation of the throne.

When Wang Geon died in 943, he was given the posthumous title King Taejong (“Great Progenitor”). He was succeeded by his son Hyejong (혜종; 惠宗; 943–945, second Emperor) and then by his second son, Jeongjong (정종; 定宗; 945–949, third Emperor). In 949, King Gwangjong took the throne.[1]

Life and Accomplishments

When Gwangjong, the third son of Wang Geon, came to throne in 949, he found that his position was very unstable. He had fought alongside his father and Gung Ye as they revolted against the Silla queen and then conquered Baekje and Goguryeo. The leaders of the royal clans were like warlords, each with a local power base in his home region, and each vying for control of the government. The military leaders who had helped to establish the Goryeo Kingdom were still attempting to dominate his rule and had ambitions to take the throne. Gwangjong’s predecessor, King Jeongjong, had tried unsuccessfully to reduce the power of various royal in-laws, including Wang Gyu and Pak Sul-hui, but lacking the support of the Gaegyeong elites, he had been unable to substantially strengthen the throne, or to move his capital to the newly constructed fortress at Pyongyang.

Gwangjong realized that his first priority must be to create a strong and stable government. Recognizing many similarities between his situation and that of Taizong of Tang (626 – 649), who had ascended the Chinese throne after helping his father to found the Tang dynasty, Gwangjong made a careful study of Taizong’s book Rules for Emperors (How A Ruler Should Act, Di Fan). From this book he acquired many ideas on how to create a stable government.

One of the first challenges faced by Gwangjong was to eliminate or reduce the power of his rivals, many of whom he imprisoned, exiled or had executed. He enacted a series of laws intended to centralize the state government. One of these, enacted in 956, was the liberation of slaves. During the conflicts among the various warring clans, many prisoners had been taken, and these were made to work as slaves on the estates of their captors. By restoring those who had been unjustly enslaved to their previous status as commoners, Gwangjong weakened the power of the local estates and increased tax revenue.

In 958, he initiated a system of civil service exams to select government officials (노비안검법; 奴婢按檢法) from among the most talented and intelligent candidates, regardless of social status or origins. Previously, government appointments had been made based on social status, family connections and favoritism rather than on merit, allowing many incompetent people to occupy top positions, and perpetuating the class system. The civil service examinations ensured a bureaucracy that would remain stable through regime changes. The system continued in use for 90 years, until 1894.

Gwangjong then selected a Korean era name, Junpung, Gwangjong proclaimed himself Emperor, a sovereign independent of any other country. This ended tributary relationships with China. Gwangjong’s successors were also known as Emperors.

Choe Seung-ro (최승로; 崔承老), a historian who served as Prime Minister to the first six Goryeo kings, including King Taejo, wrote a book criticizing Gwangjong for driving the kingdom into debt by being too obsessed with Buddhist activities, rituals, and public projects. He declared that the first eight years of Gwangjong’s reign had been peaceful, because he ruled wisely and did not mete out harsh punishments, but that afterwards, he had become a tyrant, spending money lavishly, tolerating corruption and executing anyone who opposed his policies of centralization. Late in his life, Gwangjong began to build numerous Buddhist temples; scholars speculate that perhaps he had repented for killing so many powerful people and wished to calm the resentment he had aroused.


Gwangjong’s successor Gyeongjong (r. 975-981) began the practice of allotting lands and forests to officials, a policy that strengthened the central government of the Goryeo Dynasty and ensured its survival. In 982, his successor, Seongjong (r. 981-997) adopted the suggestions in the memorial written by Confucian scholar Choe Seungro and set up a Confucian state model.


  • Father: Emperor Taejo (태조)
  • Mother: Empress Sinmyeongsunseong (신명순성왕후)
  • Consorts:
  1. Empress Daemok (대목황후), half-sister of Gwangjong
  2. Princess Gyeonghwagung (경화궁부인), niece of Gwangjong
  • Children:
  1. Emperor Gyeongjong (경종), 1st Son of Empress Daemok
  2. Crown Prince Hyohwa (효화태자), second Son of Empress Daemok
  3. Princess Chonchu (천추공주), first daughter of Empress Daemok
  4. Princess Bohwa (보화공주), second daughter of Empress Daemok
  5. Empress Mundeok (문덕왕후), third daughter of Empress Daemok

See also


  1. Goryeo Dynasty, Cheong Wa Dae, Office of the President, Republic of Korea. Retrieved February 1, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Kim, Kumja P. Goryeo dynasty: Korea's age of enlightenment, 918-1392. San Francisco: Asian Art Museum—Chong-Moon Lee Center for Asian Art and Culture in cooperation with the National Museum of Korea and the Nara National Museum, 2003. ISBN 093911724X
  • Kungnip Chungang Pangmulgwan (Korea). Hanʼguk chŏntʻong munyang. 2. Koryŏ chʻŏngja = Goryeo celadon. Sŏul Tʻŭkpyŏlsi: Hanʼguk Pangmulgwanhoe, 2001.
  • Yunesŭkʻo Hanʼguk Wiwŏnhoe. Korean history: discovery of its characteristics and developments. Anthology of Korean studies, v. 5. Elizabeth, NJ: Hollym, 2004. ISBN 978-1565911772


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