Yejong of Goryeo

From New World Encyclopedia
Yejong of Goryeo
Hangul 예종
Revised Romanization Yejong
McCune-Reischauer Yejong
Birth name
Hangul 왕우
Revised Romanization Wang U
McCune-Reischauer Wang U
Courtesy name
Hangul 세민
Revised Romanization Semin
McCune-Reischauer Semin

Yejong of Goryeo (1079 - 1122) was the 16th emperor of the Korean Goryeo dynasty. He was the son of Emperor Sukjong (숙종; 肅宗; the 15th ruler of Goryeo) and Empress Myeongui. He succeeded Sukjong upon his father's death in 1105. King Yejong’s reign was characterized by complicated foreign relations, as Jurchen tribes threatened to invade from the north and established the Jin dynasty, eventually deposing the Song dynasty which had been Goryeo’s traditional ally and cultural influence.

King Yejong was a great patron of Daoism, preferring its precepts over those of the previously ascendant court religion of Buddhism. During his reign, Daoist court rituals were introduced from Song Dynasty China; many Daoist practices and institutions were established and began to flourish. King Yejong also received the Buddhist commandments, and in 1106, he established several large Buddhist training centers. King Yejong was also noted for his sponsorship of the arts. Confucian ceremonial music (Aak) had its origin in China's Zhou Dynasty and was introduced into Korea in the eleventh year (1116) of King Yejong’s reign, with a gift of Chinese musical instruments from the Song Emperor Huizong. The music accompanied "Ilmu," a dance performed by members of the court aristocracy during Confucian rites.


Relations with the Jurchens and China

King Yejong was born in 1079, and ascended the throne in 1105, after the death of King Sukjong. Although the early twelfth century was a relatively stable period for Korea, Yejong had to deal with Jurchen incursions in the northern part of the kingdom. Jurchens living in the northeastern regions of Goryeo had come under the control of Ukkonae, a Jurchen chieftain of the powerful Wan-yen tribe in northern Manchuria. Ukkonae's horsemen moved across the rugged Kaema Plateau and defeated Koryo infantry units whenever they encountered them, aggravating the conflict between those Jurchen who wished to stay subservient to Korea and those who wished to ally themselves with Ukkonae.

Yoon Gwan

The year before Yejong assumed the throne, Goryeo had suffered a Jurchen invasion from the north. General Yoon Gwan eventually convinced the Jurchen leaders to pull their troops back, ending the invasion of the Jurchen. Realizing that Goryeo lacked efficient cavalry units, Yoon Gwan requested permission from Emperor Sukjong to train and reorganize the current Goryeo military into a professional army with well-trained cavalry units. King Sukjong began a mass conscription campaign to raise a new Extraordinary Military Corps of 170,000 men.[1] Civil and military petty officials, merchants, members of aristocratic families, freeborn peasant farmers, and Buddhist monks were organized into special cavalry and infantry units to augment the regular army's Six Garrison Divisions, and began year-round training in preparation for a massive assault against the Jurchen.

Finally, in 1107, General Yoon led the newly-trained forces against the Jurchen tribes. Though the war laster for several years, the Jurchen were routed, and Goryeo forces ultimately pursued them up the Hamhung Plain along the east coast as far north as Hongwon. During the campaign, General Yoon's troops killed 9,000 Jurchen, took 5,000 prisoners, and destroyed some 130 villages. To mark the victory, General Yoon built nine fortresses to the northeast of the Goryeo-Jurchen borders (Hangul:동북 9성, Hanja:東北 九城).

To ensure future control of the territory, the royal court began encouraging people from the south to re-settle in the region around the Hamhung Plain. However, the remote and rugged terrain of the northeast coast was difficult to hold and defend, and difficulty in communication made it almost impossible for the court at Kaesong to respond quickly enough to the repeated retaliatory attacks of the Jurchens. The occupation plan eventually failed. The chronic skirmishes between Goryeo and the Jurchen soon exhausted both sides. In 1108, General Yoon was given orders to withdraw his troops by King Yejong. Through manipulation and intrigue among opposing factions in the court, Yoon was discharged from his post, and the nine new fortresses were returned to the Jurchens. Soon after, in 1110, Yoon Gwan was released from prison, and was offered a chance to return to his duties as general, but he refused and returned to his hometown, where he died a year later.

Jin Dynasty

In 1115, the Jurchen formed a new regional power in northern Manchuria and proclaimed the Jin Dynasty. Before attempting a major attack on the Khitan monarchy in Liao, Jin tried to secure its southern flank by making an unusual diplomatic overture to the Goryeo court. The Jin, confident of their strength, demanded that King Yejong conclude an alliance of peace and declare himself to be the Jin Emperor's "younger brother." King Yejong's court was suspicious and refused to submit to such an insolent demand. Instead, Goryeo severed all relations with the Jin and intensified the buildup of its northern defenses, sending a large army to repel Jin attacks in Korea's northern regions.[2] Song China, across the Yellow Sea, saw the rise of the Jurchens as an opportunity to eliminate its old enemy, the Khitan of "the Great Liao Country." Goryeo had always maintained friendly relations with the Song Chinese, based on economic and cultural exchanges. Emperor Huizong, in 1110, for political reasons, granted Yejong the status of "genuine king," and Goryeo afterwards conducted itself with great deference to China. The Song court in Kaifeng sent gifts of musical instruments to King Yejong in 1114 and 1116, wanting to secure Goryeo as an ally in mounting a two-pronged attack against the Liao state. King Yejong, however, was unwilling to risk provoking the Jurchen, and refused to assist Song China in its war with Liao. Instead, Goryeo tried to maintain strict neutrality in the conflict.

The Song emperor, Qin Zong (Huizong), then made an alliance with the Jurchen (Jin). Jurchen forces rapidly conquered all the Liao territory bordering the Yalu River as far west as Pao-chou, and eventually took control of most of southern Manchuria. In 1125, the Khitan dynasty crumbled. The Jin armies immediately turned on the Chinese and drove through the Liaodong Peninsula into China, capturing the Song capital at Kaifeng in 1127, taking Emperor Qin Zong and the Crown Prince prisoner and deporting them to Manchuria. The Song court and its military forces were driven south of the Yangtze River. From its new capital in Hangzhou, the Song Chinese asked Goryeo to intercede and secure the release of the two imperial prisoners. The Goryeo court refused the request and insisted on keeping out of any confrontation between the Jin and Song dynasties.[3]


Among King Yejong’s first decrees, in 1106, was an order breaking up the empire into new administrative divisions.

The aristocracy of Goryeo had traditionally maintained an influence over the throne by marrying their daughters to members of the imperial family, and manipulating the children born from these marriages. Aristocratic clans also expanded their influence through strategic alliances with each other. Gradually they expanded their privileges, making appointments to government posts hereditary and increasing their private land holdings. The ambitions of these powerful aristocratic families became a threat to the monarchy as open conflict broke out among them. Yejong's reign was characterized by a dilution of his power by strong government advisoes and other officials who often squabbled among one another.[4] Yi Cha-gyom, leader of the foremost clan of the Kaesong aristocracy, the Yi clan, presented his second daughter to King Yejong as his queen. When Yejong's reign ended in 1122, Yi Cha-gyom's daughter successfully contrived to put her seventeen-year-old son on the Koryo throne as King Injong.[5]

Yejong's Veritable Records (sillok) were compiled by three historians (including the Confucian scholar Kim Bu-sik, who had been appointed as Royal Diarist, or ji, in 1121) beginning in 1123.

King Yejong and Taoism

The intrigue at court, combined with the military difficulties with the Jurchen in the north, caused King Yejong to retreat further and further into his books and Daoist rituals.[6] He was a great patron of Daoism, preferring its precepts over those of the previously ascendant court religion of Buddhism. During his reign, Daoist court rituals were introduced from Song Dynasty China; many Daoist practices and institutions were established and began to flourish.


In order to promote government education, Yejong established an institution called the Yanghyon'go (Foundation for the Training of Talents) and stationed seven specialized lecturers at the Gukjagam who faithfully carried out this education.[7] In 1104, he added an additional division to the institution to provide military training, the first recorded occasion of a Korean dynasty providing formal training in the military arts. Due to tensions between the aristocracy and the military, it was removed from the curriculum soon after his death, in 1133.

King Yejong and Buddhism

King Yejong also received the Buddhist commandments, and in 1106, he established several large buildings to be used as Buddhist training halls. For five years, the centers flourished and Buddhist services were held there. Then there was a period of drought. King Yejong visited a Buddhist training center and asked one of the monks (曇真), who was very active there, to pray for rain through his teachings of Zen Buddhism. Then the King enthusiastically ordered the recitation of a sutra while marching in procession, and these events were held in the every towns and village. Eventually, the rain began to fall, and the King ordered the prayers to continue, this time asking for a good rice harvest. When the rice harvest was successful, King Yejong made the monk (曇真) his Buddhist master. King Yejong also ordered his subordinates to pray at the Buddhist temples with offerings of oil, bows, and swords for the defeat of the Jurchen invaders.

Patronage of the arts

King Yejong was also noted for his sponsorship of the arts. In 1114, Emperor Yejong sent a request to the Song Dynasty Emperor Huizong asking for Chinese musical instruments to be sent to his palace in the Goryeo capital of Gaeseong, so that he could conduct Confucian rituals in the Goryeo court. Huizong, apparently misunderstanding the request, sent a set of musical instruments to be used for royal banquet music.[8] Two years later, in 1116, Yejong sent another petition in which he reiterated his request for ritual instruments, whereupon Huizong sent an even larger gift of musical instruments (this time yayue instruments, numbering 428 in total), as well as ritual dance regalia and the appropriate instructions, beginning Korea's tradition of aak.[9] King Yejong was also interested in botany, gathering rare plants from all over Korea and sending them to China in exchange for many Chinese plants.[10] Also during his reign, the ceramic industry flourished, with Korean designs predominating over Chinese ones for the first time.

Court music and dance

Korean traditional court dance includes jeongjaemu (dances performed at banquets), and ilmu (line dances performed in Confucian rituals). Banquet Dances are subdivided into native hyangak jeongjae and Tang-derived dangak jeongjae, distinguished by the manner in which the dancers enter and exit, the calls that mark the beginning and end of a dance, the presence or absence of a spoken greeting, and the lyrics. In the Goryeo period these distinctions were rigidly maintained.[11] In the Goryeo period, baekhui gamu, or court entertainments including dance and acrobatic performances, were performed mainly in the court at national ceremonies. These included the Buddhist Festival of Eight Vows, or Palgwanhoe, the Lantern Festival, or Yeondeunghoe, and the New Year's Eve Festival, or Narye.

Confucian ceremonial music (Aak) has its origin in China's Zhou Dynasty and was introduced into Korea in the eleventh year (1116) of King Yejong’s reign. Aak started out as the music played during the Korean "Jongmyo Shrine's Jerye Ceremony," and then became used during other occasions as Korean court music, often with lyrics praising the current ruler. Ilmu, a dance usually performed by members of the court aristocracy, was offered during rites honoring Chinese Confucian sages, including Kongzi (Confucius), Mengzi (Mencius), Cengzi, and Yanzi, and Korean Confucian sages including Seol Chong and Choe Chi-won. It was performed in lines to the accompaniment of Confucian ritual music (aak), and was categorized according to the number of lines: Eight, six, four, or two. The ilmu introduced from Song China during King Yejong's reign was a six-line dance performed by thirty-six dancers, which later evolved into diverse line dances. It remained very popular for a time (there were originally no fewer than 456 different melodies in use) before dying out. It was revived in 1430, based on a reconstruction of older melodies. The music is now highly specialized, and uses just two different surviving melodies, and is played only at certain very rare concerts, such as the Munmyo jeryeak (Sacrifice to Confucius) held each spring and autumn at the Munmyo shrine in Seoul.

The ilmu dance performed in the royal ancestral rite held in Jongmyo Royal Ancestral Shrine, has preserved its original form intact. It is based on the Confucian concepts of courtesy, and is divided into two categories, munmu (civil dance), honoring literary and scholarly achievement, and mumu (military dance) honoring military feats. The civil dance is performed with dancers holding a flute in one hand and a dragon-headed stick in the other. The dancers in the front rows of the military dance hold swords, while those in the middle rows hold spears; and those in the rear rows hold bows and arrows. The ilmu dance is strictly regulated according to the procedure recorded in detail in Siyong mubo (Notations of Korean Dance). The music played in the ancestral rite strictly follows the principle of "introduction, development, turn, and conclusion."[12]


The Eo, a wooden percussion instrument shaped like a tiger, was among the instruments introduced from China during the reign of King Yejong. Today, it is used in the ritual music performed at Confucian shrines to signal the end of a concert. It is always placed on the west side of any musical ensemble. There are twenty-seven saw teeth on the back, which are scraped with a bamboo rod once; the head of the tiger is struck with a hammer three times to signal the end of a piece.[13]


  1. Bill Caraway, Koryo and the Mongols, Korean History Project.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Gyeongsangbuk-do province, Koryo dynasty. Retrieved October 19, 2007.
  5. Bill Caraway, Ibid.
  6. Ham Sok Hon, Chapter IV, The North: Prize and Peril, Queen of Suffering: A Spiritual History of Korea.
  7. KBS World, IV. Life in Koryo.
  8. Keith Pratt, The Historical Antecedents of Music in Korea. Retrieved October 19, 2007.
  9. Keith Howard, Korean music. Retrieved October 19, 2007.
  10. South Travels, Seoul and its vicinity. Retrieved October 19, 2007.
  11. Web Reservations International, Limited, Traditional Music. Retrieved October 19, 2007.
  12., Traditional Dance. Retrieved October 19, 2007.
  13. The National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Art, Eo. Retrieved October 19, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Eckert, Carter J., and Ki-baek Yi. 1990. Korea, Old and New: A History. Seoul: Korea Institute, Harvard University by Ilchokak. ISBN 0962771309.
  • Grayson, J.H. 2001. Myths and Legends From Korea: An Annotated Compendium of Ancient and Modern Materials. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon. ISBN 0700712410.
  • Kang, Jae-eun, and Suzanne Lee. 2006. The Land of Scholars: Two Thousand Years of Korean Confucianism. Paramus, NJ: Homa & Sekey Books. ISBN 1931907307.
  • Lee, Gil-sang. 2006. Exploring Korean History Through World Heritage. Seongnam-si: Academy of Korean Studies. ISBN 8971055510.
  • Pratt, Keith L. 2006. Everlasting Flower: A History of Korea. London: Reaktion. ISBN 186189273X.
  • Yi, Hong-Bae. 1996. Korean Buddhism. Seoul: Korean Buddhist Chogye Order. ISBN 8986821001.
  • Yi, Ki-baek. 1984. A New History of Korea. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674615751.

List of Goryeo Monarchs
Taejo | Hyejong | Jeongjong | Gwangjong | Gyeongjong | Seongjong | Mokjong | Hyeonjong | Deokjong | Jeongjong | Munjong
Sunjong | Seonjong | Heonjong] | Sukjong | Yejong | Injong | Uijong | Myeongjong | Sinjong | Huijong | Gangjong
Gojong | Wonjong | Chungnyeol Chungseon | Chungsuk | Chunghye | Chungmok | Chungjeong | Gongmin | U | Chang | Gongyang


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