7th Century Korea. A place of war and strife, the war of the Three Kingdoms; Silla, Koguryo and Paekche, feuding against one another for dominance. Death stalks the land, and peace seems a long way off. Yet at the end of the 7th Century, for the first time, Korea’s three kingdoms become unified as one country. Why did this happen? What was the driving force behind this?
For those that are red belts in Taekwon-do, they will have a little knowledge about who the Hwa-Rang warriors were, and those that are green belts will also have some knowledge on the Buddhist monk Won Hyo. A band of warriors from the Silla kingdom, and a monk, both played a pivotal part in the unification of Korea, but how? Why?
On the website, we have written the stories of Won Hyo and the Hwa-Rang warriors under the relevant Korean theory for the belts they are required for, but we will provide a summary in this article of what they did.
Won Hyo was a soldier in the war of the Three Kingdoms, until he became tired of watching his friends die around him in battle, and left his army to live in the mountains, studying under a Buddhist master. As a monk, Won Hyo travelled throughout the Three Kingdoms, revered by the kings and many others, and revolutionised Buddhism. At the time, Buddhism was about the study of Chinese calligraphy, which made it only accessible to the literate upper classes. Won Hyo changed Buddhism to be about simple prayer and inner peace, which made it accessible to everyone and all the classes, which helped unify the kingdom by uniting the working, middle and upper classes of the country, and the people across the three kingdoms.
Although spreading religion may not historically seem like a major contributor to unifying countries and bringing about peace, the influence of Won Hyo in bringing peace, and unifying all Koreans under a common banner cannot be undervalued, and he worked tirelessly until his timely death in 686AD.
Won Hyo was a monk, making him a man of peace, leading a passive, non-aggressive life, which is quite the opposite of the Hwa-Rang. However, Won Hyo was previously a soldier, which gave him an understanding of the horrors of war, and knowing that it wasn’t glorious. An ancient Chinese proverb says, “One cannot know peace without knowing war”.
When rival kingdoms are at war for control of a country, as has happened all over the world for thousands of years, this proverb can also be applied differently. You could argue that there cannot be peace without war. In Saxon Britain, the word “England” came from King Alfred’s dream of “One Land”. Through many years of war, this aim was finally achieved by his descendants, notably Queen Aethelflaed (if my facts are historically inaccurate, please say so in the comments below but this is what I’ve read in a history textbook many moons ago). War can unite a kingdom, but it can also crumble it. Fire is destructive, but it can also cleanse.
The Hwa-Rang were a group of young men in the Silla kingdom, taken from the nobility and upper classes and trained to become hardened and skilled warriors. They swam turbulent rivers in the coldest months and climbed mountain ranges to harden their bodies and muscles, and trained endlessly in horsemanship, swordsmanship, archery and other arts of war, making them elite warriors and masters of combat.
However, they also studied medicine and the arts, including philosophy and learned many other skills that would better their communities when they returned home. They studied how to serve and teach, and follow a set of rules similar to the tenets of Taekwon-do used today, that commanded loyalty, justice, compassion, valour, kindness and many other traits. The Hwa-Rang were the first “spiritual warriors” the world has known, and were the influence that created the first Bushido Samurai in Japan.
This spiritual training meant that the Hwa-Rang studied peaceful ways, not only how to win battles, which was pivotal in unifying the Three Kingdoms. Their brutal efficiency in combat meant that the smallest kingdom, Silla, waged war on the other two kingdoms, and after many brutal, bloody battles that stained the fields of Korea red, the Three Kingdoms were unified in a fragile peace from the fires of civil war.
However, after the war, what the Hwa-Rang did next is truly inspiring, and something we have seen so rarely in the world. The Hwa-Rang were exalted, god-like, revered, famed warriors across the kingdoms, feared and respected by all for their prowess in battle. They held the power of the country in their grasp, and were by far the most powerful men in the country.
But, despite all this, they let go of that power, were not swayed by their fame and status, and laid down their swords. Once they had unified the country, they returned home to their communities. Over the years, their status as revered warriors, famed across the country, diminished, and so did the Hwa-Rang. They took their values of peace, and helped better their communities locally, teaching the arts, philosophy and medicine to their towns and villages, dedicating their lives to promoting the peace and healing the wounds caused by their war.
This is truly remarkable, for a group of those so famed to so easily and willingly give up their power. I know I keep emphasising this point, but it is so inspiring to me. Throughout history, we have seen countless times the consequences of those who have power, and cannot let go of it, and we have seen the damage it has caused. Just look at the Emperor in Star Wars. It might be a daft example, but he had all the power, wanted to keep it for itself, and planets got blown up. Power can so easily lead to corruption, but the Hwa-Rang were never tainted.
An example of warriors not loosening their grip on power can be seen in the Samurai Shogun era in Japan. At one time, peasants were not allowed to train in the art of combat, and the Samurai became the ruling class of Japan (again, if my facts aren’t 100% correct, please tell me in the comments below), and caused a bigger rift in the country between rival warlords vying over power, and between the classes.
The efforts of the Hwa-Rang to bring about peace, and the work done by Won Hyo to unite the classes in a common cause unified the Kingdoms for the first ever time. In my opinion, the 7th Century in Korea is a shining example that peace can be achieved, and though it shouldn’t have to come to war, if the classes unite and those who hold the power give it up when the right and moral reasons arise, then anything is achievable, but holding onto power at all costs is shown to be unsustainable.
The 7th Century, and the deeds of those during the time period truly inspire me as a man, and also inspired the mentality that the country of Korea had had since then, which can be seen during the time of the 20th Century, which is equally as inspiring. That, however, is an article for another time.