Kim Alji (김알지; 金閼智) was a historical figure in Korean history, whose descendants are believed to have formed the Kim royal clan of Silla, one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea. According to legend, Silla's fourth ruler, King Talhae of Silla (탈해 이사금; 脫解尼師今) found him as an infant in a golden chest (from which came the surname "Kim," which means "gold" in Korean) that was lodged in a tree beneath which a white cock crowed, in the sacred grove of Kyerim. He was raised in the palace, and his descendants eventually predominated over the Bak and Seok clans and took the throne of Silla. A recent theory suggests that Kim Alji may have been a descendant of Kim Iljae, a Xiongnu prince who had been introduced into the court of Emperor Han Wudi. The Kim family fell out of favor with the Han dynasty, became powerful in the Xin Dynasty, and fled to Korea when the Xin dynasty was overthrown. The legend describing him as an orphan adopted by King Talhae of Silla is thought to be symbolic of the warm welcome which the Silla gave the Kim family. The Kim family is believed to have brought Chinese culture to Silla.
Kim is now family name of roughly 20 percent of the population of South Korea. The name is common in both modern-day North Korea and South Korea. The Gyeongju Kims trace their descent from Kim Alji and King Michu and the ruling family of Silla. In the South Korean census of 2000, more than 1.7 million citizens claimed to be Gyeongju Kims.
Silla (occasionally spelled Shilla) began as a chiefdom in the Samhan confederacies of Mahan, Jinhan, and Byeonhan in the central and southern Korean peninsula. Eventually Silla allied with China and conquered the other two kingdoms of Korea, Baekje ("Paekje") in 660 and Goguryeo ("Koguryo") in 668. Sometimes called Unified Silla or Later Silla, it occupied most of the Korean Peninsula, while the northern part re-emerged as Balhae, a successor-state of Goguryeo. After nearly a millennium, Silla fragmented into the brief Later Three Kingdoms, and submitted to its successor dynasty Goryeo in 935.
The name of either Silla or its capital Seora-beol was widely known throughout Northeast Asia as the ethnonym for the ancestors of the medieval and modern Korean nation, appearing as "Shiragi" (新羅、しらぎ) or "Shiragi-bito" (新羅人, literally "Silla-people") in the language of the Yamato Japanese and as "Solgo" or "Solho" in the language of the medieval Jurchens and their later descendants, the Manchus. Silla was also referred to as Gyerim (鷄林; 계림), literally "chicken forest," a name associated with the sacred forest near the Silla capital, where according to legend the state's founder, Kim Alji, was hatched from an egg.
Scholars have traditionally divided Silla history into three distinct periods: Early (traditionally 57 B.C.E.–654), Middle (654–780), and Late (780–935). Silla was ruled by three clans: the Bak, Seok, and the Kim. Historical records do not mention any bloodshed during the shifts of power from one clan to another, but historians have concluded that bloodless power shifts could not have occurred. The Bak clan held power for three generations before being faced with a coup by the Seok clan. During the reign of the first Seok ruler, Talhae of Silla ( 탈해 이사금; 脫解尼師今), the Kim clan's presence in Silla was mentioned in the story of Kim Alji’s birth from an egg. The Bak and Seok clans constantly fought each other for power and both were eventually overthrown by the Kim clan. The Kim clan ruled over Silla for many generations with the Bak and Seok clans as nobility, until the Bak eventually came back to power and ruled for four generations. However, the final ruler of Later Silla, King Gyeongsun, was a member of the Kim Clan.
In the year 65 (the ninth year of Talhae's reign), King Talhae heard a rooster crowing in Sirim, west of Geumseong (Gyeongju, the Silla capital at the time). He sent his minister Hogong, who was from Japan, to investigate, and he found a golden box hanging on a branch. Light was emanating from the box, and a white rooster was crowing under it.
Hearing this report, the king ordered the box brought to him. When the king opened the box, there was an infant inside. The king was very pleased, and raised him in the palace. Because he was born from a golden box and was very clever, the king named him "Kim (金, meaning the gold) Alji (閼智, meaning a child)." The forest where the box was found was named Gyerim (rooster forest), which also was used as the name of Silla.
This legend is similar to the birth legend of the founder of Silla, Bak Hyeokgeose of Silla (who is said to have called himself Alji Geoseogan).
According to a recent theory, Kim Alji may have been a descendant of Kim Iljae, a Xiongnu prince who had been directly recruited under Emperor Han Wudi. Not much else is known about Kim Alji except that the legend describing him as an adopted orphan of King Talhae is symbolic of the king’s warm reception of Alji after he and his clan fled China.
Origin of Kim Alji in Han china
Kim Iljae (Jin Midi, 134 B.C.E. - 86 B.C.E.; Traditional Chinese: 金日磾; Hangul: 김일제), courtesy name Wengshu (翁叔), formally Marquess Jing of Du (秺敬侯), was a prominent official of the Chinese dynasty Han Dynasty of Xiongnu ethnicity, who served as coregent early in the reign of Emperor Zhao of Han. Some Korean sources, including an engraving on the monument to King Munmu of Silla, claim him as the ancestor of the royal families of both Silla and Gaya Confederacy, but the dates of his birth and death appear to conflict with reliable datings of the founding of both of those states.
Kim Iljae was born Jin Midi in 134 B.C.E., the heir apparent to Xiongnu's Prince of Xiutu, a major prince under the supreme ruler of the Xiongnu, the Chanyu Luanti Junchen (欒提軍臣). After Luanti Junchen died in 126, he was succeeded by his brother Luanti Yizhiye (欒提伊稚斜), and the Prince of Xiutu and the Prince of Hunye were made responsible for defending Xiongnu's southwestern border with the Han Dynasty, in modern central and western Gansu. In 121 B.C.E., Emperor Wu of Han sent his general Huo Qubing to attack Xiongnu. Huo killed the Princes of Zhelan and Luhou and 8,900 Xiongnu soldiers, captured the Prince of Hunye's son and a number of officials, and took some golden statues which the Prince Xiutu had created to worship heaven. The Chanyu Luanti Yizhiye was greatly displeased, and considered summoning the Princes of Hunye and Xiutu to execute them. The princes, in fear, decided to defect to Han. When Emperor Wu sent Huo to accept their surrender, the Prince of Xiutu changed his mind, but the Prince of Hunye killed him and surrendered the region to Han. Jin Midi, his mother, and his brother Lun (倫), were conscripted as imperial servants, and Midi was assigned to the imperial stables.
During an imperial feast, Emperor Wu noticed Midi and was impressed by his propriety, tall stature, and the excellent care he took of his horses. He made Midi the director of the imperial stables, and became increasingly close to him. Remembering that the Prince of Xiutu had worshiped heaven with golden statues, Emperor Wu gave Midi the surname Jin, meaning "gold." When Jin's mother died, Emperor Wu restored her former status as princess. In 88 B.C.E., Jin thwarted an assassination attempt on Emperor Wu. In 87 B.C.E., when Emperor Wu was seriously ill, he created his youngest son Liu Fuling crown prince and designated Huo Guang, as regent, with Jin and Shangguan Jie (上官桀) as secondary regents. After the Emperor’s death, Liu Fuling took the throne as Emperor Zhao. In the fall of 86 B.C.E., Jin Midi became seriously ill. Emperor Zhao created Jin as the Marquess of Du on his deathbed; he died the next day and was buried near Emperor Wu's tomb.
Various Korean sources claim that Jin's descendants founded the Silla and the Gaya Confederacy. According to these sources, after the death of Jin Midi, his descendants became increasingly powerful in the Han court, and rival court officials began to attack the Jin family by using the family's Xiongnu origins against it. A daughter of the Jin family became one of Wang Mang's favorite wives, and through this connection the Jin family became even more powerful in the Xin Dynasty. After the overthrow of Wang Mang and the Xin Dynasty by Liu Xiu (Emperor Guangwu of Han) in 25, the Jin family fled China and went to the Korean Peninsula, where the descendants of Gojoseon lived. Because Gojoseon and the Xiongnu people were of the same Ural-Altaic language root, the Jin family was able to enter Goguryeo and migrate down to Silla. Jin's descendants later dominated the Bak and Seok clans, and became the rulers of the Silla kingdom.
These claims, however, are not supported by reliable Chinese sources, and contain a number of contradictions with the Book of Han and the Han Ji. Chinese historical records indicate that the Jin clan enjoyed prestige throughout the rest of Han Dynasty, until Wang Mang's Xin Dynasty, and no historical records suggest that Wang Mang took a member of the Jin clan as a concubine. These claims also conflict with the historical and archaeological dating of the founding of both the Silla and the Gaya Confederacy, both of which are believed to have been founded before the destruction of Xin Dynasty.
It is believed that Kim Alji led his family into the Korean peninsula during 65 C.E. The Kim family was most likely accompanied by an army trained in the ways that Han soldiers were trained at the time. Kim Alji and his family would have been carriers of the Chinese culture into the Korean peninsula, providing a possible explanation for why the kingdom of Silla was the most sinicized and favored the Chinese more than the other two kingdoms. Kim Alji was accepted into Silla by King Talhae and given a position in the Silla government, where he rapidly gained influence in the court and even began to dominate the King himself. However, when the time came for Talhae to select his successor, Kim Alji refused the throne, just as Talhae had done earlier in his lifetime. Unlike Talhae, however, Kim Alji never ascended the throne.
The time and circumstances of Alji’s death are currently unknown and cannot be precisely located within any records, but it is known that his descendants continued to serve as powerful officials within the Silla court, until the time when they took power. Kim's son was Sehan (세한(勢漢)), and subsequent generations are recorded as: Ado (아도(阿都)), Suryu (수류(首留)), Ukbo (욱보(郁甫)), and Gudo (구도(俱道)). Gudo's son (Kim Alji's seventh-generation descendant) was the first Silla king of the Kim line, Michu of Silla.
The Name of Kim
Kim is now the most common family name in Korea. In 1985, out of a population of between roughly 40 and 45 million in South Korea, there were approximately 8.8 million Kims—roughly 20 percent of the population (Storey, 35). The name is common in both modern-day North Korea and South Korea. The Chinese character used for the name (金) means "gold," and although the character is usually pronounced "geum" (금) in Korea, it is pronounced "gim" (김) when used for the family name and names of some cities, such as Gimhae (金海) and Gimpo (金浦).
The Gyeongju Kims trace their descent from Kim Alji and King Michu and the ruling family of Silla. This clan is also extremely populous. In the South Korean census of 2000, more than 1.7 million citizens claimed to be Gyeongju Kims.
The Sacred Wood of Kyerim
Korean gardens are generally categorized by function and style into place and temple gardens, the pavilion gardens of Confucian academies, the gardens of literati homes and government offices, the gardens of commoner's homes, the gardens of royal tombs, and the sacred woods of the nature-worshiping period. The best known of the sacred woods is Kyerim, where Kim Alji, the ancestor of the Kim clan, was born. The 7,270 square meter area is densely forested with willow trees and zelkovas more than five hundred years old, among which a stream meanders. The concept of sacred forests is associated with nature worship, which has its origins in the legend of Tangun, the founder of the Korean nation. He is said to have descended from heaven to earth under a sacred tree and to have built a sacred city there. Nature worship remained as late as the Chosun period; Taejo, the founder king of Chosun, honored all tutelary deities of major mountains, rivers and ancient trees with the title of Guardian Deities of the nation. In Kyongju, the capital of Shilla, there were sacred woods called Chongyongnim, Shintyurim and Kyerim. All the sacred woods had altars and landscaped gardens. Out of submission to heaven's rule, no fountains were made to shoot water heavenward. Instead, waterfalls and ponds were made to receive water from meandering waterways, as it was only natural to follow the law of nature by which water always flows down stream.
The monument to King Munmu of Silla refers to five mythical ancestors whose historical equivalents are uncertain. The historian Kim Jae Seop claims that these ancestors refer to the mythical Chinese Emperor Shun, one of the Five August Ones, Duke Mu of Qin, an ancestor of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, a Qin prince who fled east after the fall of the dynasty, Kim Iljae, and Kim Alji.
- Michu of Silla
- Gyeongju Kim
- Adams, Edward Ben, and Edward Ben Adams. 1991. Korea's golden age: cultural spirit of Silla in Kyongju. Seoul, Korea: Seoul International Pub. House.
- Henthorn, William E. 1971. A history of Korea. New York: Free Press.
- Lancaster, Lewis R., and Chai-Shin Yu. 1991. Assimilation of Buddhism in Korea: religious maturity and innovation in the Silla Dynasty. Studies in Korean religions and culture, v. 4. Berkeley, Calif: Asian Humanities Press. ISBN 0895818787
- Lee, Gil-sang. 2006. Exploring Korean history through world heritage. Seongnam-si: Academy of Korean Studies. ISBN 8971055510
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- Yi, Ki-baek. 1984. A new history of Korea. Cambridge, Mass: Published for the Harvard-Yenching Institute by Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674615751
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