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The Formation of the Central Aristocracy in Early Koryo John B. Duncan I. Introduction The twelfth century was a time of severe political instability in Korea. The Yi Cha-üi debacle of 1095 shattered the calm of the eleventh century and inaugurated a series of political explosions that rocked the Koryö dynasty, including the Yi Cha-gyöm revolt of 1126, the Myoch'öng insurrection of 1135, and the purges of the 1150s. The turmoil culminated in the military coup of 1170, the event that brought the early Koryö period to a close. The conventional explanations of these individual events reveal some of the historical forces at work during this period. Aristocratic power struggles characterize the Yi Cha-üi and Yi Cha-gyöm affairs, regional rivalries and conflict between Confucian and Buddhist ideas lay behind the Myoch'öng affair, and gross imbalance between the civil and military branches of government was one of the causes of the 1170 coup. Illuminating as these themes may be for particular events, they do not constitute comprehensive explanations of the overall political instability of the twelfth century. Historians almost universally subscribe to the view that these events took place within the general context of a decadent aristocratic sociopolitical order whose distinguishing feature was the domination of the kingdom by the families of royal consorts, most notably the Kyöngw ön Yi clan of Yi Cha-üi and Yi Cha-gyöm.1 This is a valid characterization , but it does little to explain the political unrest of the twelfth century, since aristocracy and domination by royal in-laws were also prominent features of the eleventh century, as seen in such clans as the Tongju Kim of Kim Ch'i-yang, the Ansan Kim of Kim Ün-bu, and the Ch'öngju Yi of Yi (Wang) Ka-do. Furthermore there were no major shifts in economy, thought, or the international situation during the eleventh and twelfth centuries that would explain why Korean politics grew so turbulent. The agrarian economy saw no major changes in 40DUNCAN either means or mode of production; Buddhism and Han-T'ang Confucianism continued to dominate philosophical and political thinking;2 and northeastern Asia was still under the control of a state of Manchurian origins that separated Koryö from Sung China.3 To what then can we attribute the onset of political instability at the end of the eleventh century? I propose that the primary cause was a subtle change in the social makeup of the central officialdom that intensified competition for political power. This change came about neither as part of some organic cycle of growth and decay nor as a departure from some presumably "proper" process of historical development. It was the result of the Koryö dynasty's continuing drive toward centralization . II. The Early Koryö Aristocratic Structure The early Koryö political system appears to have been a centralized power structure modelled after T'ang China. In this case, however, appearances are deceiving. Koryö's central government was much weaker than its Chinese prototype and the dynasty faced intractable problems in its effort to extend central authority over the whole kingdom . The causes of this fundamental weakness lay in the origins of the Koryö dynasty. After the collapse of the Silla dynasty's control over the provinces in the ninth century, local aristocrats began to assemble private military forces throughout the Korean peninsula. These men, often referred to as lords of walled towns [söngju] or generals [changgun], frequently joined forces with other local aristocrats as they sought to bolster their power and increase the land areas under their control. The alliances they formed coalesced by the early tenth century into two entities capable of challenging Silla: Later Paekche, headed by Kyön Hwön, and Koryö, headed by Wang Kön. The ultimate victor, Wang Kön, used more than military strategy and raw force to reunify the country. He pursued an active policy of winning over and establishing alliances with as many local aristocrats as possible, entering into marriage with no fewer than twenty-nine women, nearly all daughters of powerful local aristocrats. The Wang family itself does not seem to have been that strong: the...


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