Unified Silla (668 – 935) refers to the unification of the Three Kingdoms of southern Korea: Baekje, Goguryeo, and Silla. The fall of Baekje to Silla in 668 marks the recognized beginning of the Unified Silla dynasty. Balhae (698-926) ruled the northern region of Korea, from just south of Pyongyang. The Unified Silla dynasty and Balhae both fell to Goryeo by 935, creating the unification of the northern and southern half of Korea. Due to the north-south split during this period of Korean history, some historians have preferred to call this part of the Unified Silla dynasty the period of the North-South States (nambukguk sidae = 남북국 시대 = 南北國時代).
Archaeological discoveries in the ancient Unified Silla dynasty reveal a civilization rich in spirituality, advanced in science, skilled in martial arts, and outstanding in the arts of sculpture and architecture. The successful recovery of artifacts, and government support for restoration of historical sites, has enabled historians to piece together an accurate picture of Unified Silla civilization. Buddhism and aristocratic society were the twin pillars of the Unified Silla society, seemingly odd companions where one renounces the world and the other celebrates their worldly wealth.
With modern-day Korean reunification an increasing possibility in the early twenty-first century, the Unified Silla period stands as a potential model of the greatness a united Korean nation can achieve. Meanwhile, the policies of the contemporary regional powers of China, Russia, Japan, and the United States are not seen overall as strongly in support of a reunited Korea in the near future. China, in particular, worries about its northeastern region, with a minority Korean population, a portion of whose territory was once part of greater Korea.
In the seventh century, Silla allied itself with the Chinese Tang dynasty. In 660, under King Muyeol (654-661), Silla subjugated Baekje. In 668, under King Munmu (King Muyeol's successor) and the General Kim Yu-shin, Silla conquered Goguryeo to its north. During the wars, near the end of the Three Kingdoms Period, Tang Dynasty China established strong administrative cities in the defeated Goguryeo dynasty, as well as in Baekje. Silla launched a campaign against Tang China in 671.
Tang countered with an unsuccessful invasion of Silla in 674, defeated by General Kim Yu-shin's forces. Tang forces withdrew their administrative centers to the Liaoyang region in Manchuria, leaving Silla to rule most of the southern peninsula by 676. Silla then fought for nearly a decade to expel Chinese forces on the peninsula, intent on creating Tang colonies there to finally establish a unified kingdom as far north as modern Pyongyang. The northern region of the defunct Goguryeo state later reemerged as Balhae.
Silla's defeat of Tang China stands tall in the scope of Korean history, equal to the defeat of the Islamic forces by Charlemagne in France. If Silla had been conquered by Tang China, Korea may have ceased to exist. The regard Koreans have for Chinese culture and civilization may have weakened their will to wage war. Korea, from that time, could have been incorporated into the Chinese empire. Silla only succeeded in unifying the southern region of the Korean peninsula, leaving the northern region for refugees of the fallen Goguryeo kingdom to establish the kingdom of Balhae.
After Silla unified the south, and Balhae establish a firm government in the north, they both established peaceful relations with Tang China. Unified Silla and Balhae carried on economic and cultural exchange with Tang China.
King Sinmun (681-692) firmly established the throne of the Unified Silla dynasty in Gyengju. He eliminated a faction of nobles, the sangdaedung that derived from the "hallow bone" and "true bone" lineages, intent upon overthrowing the throne. Establishing his authority, Sinmun restructured the government and military. His son, Songdok solidified the power of the throne over the noble class further, introducing a remarkable period of national peace. Although the power of the throne became paramount, the system of true bone rank still persisted.
Silla, having expanded its territory, established a provincial and local government system to rule the unified dynasty, creating a province (chu, -ju), prefecture (kun), and county (hyoen) system. The throne resettled nobles to new secondary capitals. The capital remained in Gyeongju, although a strong faction lobbied for a move to Daegu. Silla absorbed the conquered territories into the system of government, granting government positions to local people while reserving governorships to nobles from Gyeongju.
Gyeongju, meaning "city of gold," thrived as the center of life for the noble, aristocratic class of Unified Silla. Imhaejon ("Pavilion of the Sea," set on the man-made Anapchi Lake) and Posokchong's winding channel carrying nobles' wine glasses while reciting poetry testify to the royal life in Gyeongju. The splendor of Gyeongju at its height has been described as a town with tiled roofs, not a thatched roof in the city. Nearly 180,000 households, with 35 mansions of royal splendor existed within the city walls.
Before unification, Silla had awarded "tax village" (sigup) to nobles for meritorious service while government officials received pay by governing "stipend villages" (nogup) in which they received taxes and the services of peasants. Shortly after unification, the throne abolished the "stipend villages," replacing them with "office-land," in which governors received only grain tax. The reform failed, though, with the "stipend village" system returning, thus reinforcing noble power over the peasants and the throne.
Both Korean arts and Buddhism flourished during the Unified Silla dynasty. The royal throne sponsored the construction and support of Buddhist temple compounds like Bulguksa, Seokguram Grotto, Hwangnyongsa, and Bunhwangsa temples. Bulguksa and Seokguram present an exceptional example of Unified Silla Buddhist architecture and sculpture, receiving the designation of World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Although enemies during the unification wars, Unified Silla maintained close ties with the Tang, as evidenced by the continued influence of Chinese culture on Silla civilization. Korean monks traveled to China to study Buddhism in the Chinese tradition. India also influenced Silla Buddhism as shown by monk Hyecho's written accounts of his stay in India, studying Buddhism. Those traveling monks who had studied abroad introduced new Buddhist sects to Silla, such as Seon and Pure Land Buddhism. The aristocratic class embraced the Hwaom doctrine.
Wonhyo (617-686) espoused the Buddha-Nature school, consternated by the division and rivalry of the sects in Silla and Unified Silla. Pure Land Buddhism found an especially enthusiastic following. A faith for the common person, an educated person could easily adhere to and understand the basic principles. Commoners had hope that their suffering would end upon death in the Western Paradise, where Amitabha lived, the "Pure Land." Thousands left their farms to practice in the mountains as monks.
Confucianism entered unified Silla at this time, beginning to rival Buddhism. In 682, Confucians established the National Confucian College, changing the name to National Confucian University (Taehakkam) around 750. Only the elite true bones of Unified Silla society could attend.
The Confucian university introduced a curriculum of the Confucian classics, setting the precedent for the national exam system used to screen government officials in 1788. The Confucian religion struck at the root of the true bone rank system and the Buddhist religion that supported it. The Silla faction that supported Confucianism, called the head-rank six faction, sought a religion that applied to everyday affairs over the Buddhist focus on paradise after death. Kangsu and Seol Chong emerged as two leaders of the Confucian religion in Silla.
Astronomy and Math. Maintaining a harmony between the forces of yin and yang emerged during this period, leading to the development of calendars in Unified Silla. The Cheomseongdae observatory was built at the end of the Three Kingdoms period. Mathematical knowledge advanced in other areas as well, including the design for the "Pagoda of Many Treasures" (Dabota) and "Pagoda That Casts No Shadow" (Seokgatap), at Bulguksa.
Woodblock printing. Woodblock printing disseminated Buddhist sutras and Confucian works. During a refurbishment of the "Pagoda That Casts No Shadows," archaeologists discovered an ancient print of a Buddhist sutra. The print of the Dharani sutra dated to 751 C.E., the world's oldest woodblock printing.
In a dynasty with so much wealth and splendor among the aristocracy, the poverty of the common people contrasted starkly. Slavery played a dominate role. Most people lived and worked on small farms clustered in villages. They had obligations to give a share of their crop to the governor. Free commoners and slaves worked the farm land, giving money to the state and the government officials themselves. The aristocracy used every means available to take money from the commoners.
Silla's middle period is characterized by the rising power of the monarchy at the expense of the jingol nobility. This was made possible by the new wealth and prestige garnered as a result of Silla's unification of the peninsula, as well as the monarchy's successful suppression of several armed aristocratic revolts following unification, which afforded the king an opportunity to purge the most powerful families and rivals to central authority. Further, for a brief period from the late seventh to late eighth centuries, the monarchy made an attempt to divest aristocratic officialdom of their landed base by instituting a system of salary payments, or office land (jikjeon 직전, 職田), in lieu of the former system whereby aristocratic officials were given grants of land to exploit as salary (the so–called tax villages, or nogeup 녹읍, 祿邑).
Silla's political troubles began in 768, when Kim Daegong planned a coup, leading to a three year battle. A series of assassinations of kings followed, severely weakening Silla. Over the course of the next 160 years, Silla went from a flourishing kingdom to decline and collapse. The middle period of Silla came to an end with the assassination of King Hyegong in 780, terminating the kingly line of succession of King Muyeol, the architect of Silla's unification of the peninsula. Hyegong‘s demise was a bloody one, the culmination of an extended civil war involving most of the kingdom‘s high–ranking noble families.
With Hyegong‘s death, the remaining years of Silla saw the king was reduced to little more than a figurehead, as powerful aristocratic families became increasingly independent of central control. The Silla kingship fixed in the house of King Wonseong (785–798), though the office itself was continually contested by various branches of the Kim lineage. Nevertheless, the middle period of Silla witnessed the state at its zenith, the brief consolidation of royal power, and the attempt to institute a Chinese style bureaucratic system. Twenty kings occupied the throne in Unified Silla during its last 150 years. In the latter years of Unified Silla, castle lords (seongju) rose in power, weakening the grip of the center royal power in Gyeongju on the dynasty. Their grip on the countryside cut off the flow of revenue from the villages to the central government, hampering the opulent lifestyle of the aristocrats in the capital city.
Peasant revolts flared, the first in the area of Sangju, in 889. Wave after wave of peasant revolts erupted across the country. Two peasant rebel organizers, Gyeonhwoen and Gungye, emerged as powerful leaders, aiming to restore the kingdoms of Baekje and Goguryeo, respectively. That action continued for nearly fifty years, spawning the Later Three Kingdoms Period. Gyeonhweon succeeded in taking the Baekje throne in Gwangju, proving a despotic and ruthless leaders. He hated Silla, sacking Gyeongju and killing King Gyeongae in 927. Only Gungye and Wang Keon stopped him from demolishing Silla.
Kungye succeed in capturing large areas in the previous Goguryeo kingdom, proclaiming the founding of Later Goguryeo. He built a new capital in Cheorweon, giving the state the new name of Daebong. He also hated Silla, killing all who entered his kingdom from there. He also ruled as a brutal despot. In the end, his generals forced him from the throne, the people he abused killing him. The successful peasant rebellions, and the establishing of Baekje and Cheorweon, marked the end of the Unified Silla dynasty.
The very end of this period, called the Later Three Kingdoms, saw the emergence of the kingdoms of Later Baekje and Later Goguryeo and Silla's submission to the Goryeo dynasty. Unified Silla lasted for 267 years by the time, under King Gyeongsun, it fell to Goryeo in 935.
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