Jang Bogo: The Powerful Silla Kingdom Warlord And Korean Hero
The ancient history of Korea is one of the more enigmatic historical periods of Asia and is still a subject of very active research by scholars. The surviving writings of the early medieval period tend to mix legend with fact, and the resulting combination left behind a rather mysterious narrative. Nevertheless, some real historical facts still survive, and give us a good enough insight into the development of Korea in its early stages. Many prominent kings and nobles dominated this period, and Jang Bogo is a figure of prominence and deserves a story of his own. A hero loved by the people, a shrewd commander and an opportunist maritime trader, he rose to become one of the most powerful men in Korea’s Silla Kingdom. This prominence earned him the favor of many - but also the hate of his most noble-born opponents.
Jang Bogo ( 張保皐) Young Jeong-eun is the national portrait for Jang Bogo ( 張保皐, ?~846) drawn by Lee Jong-sang ( 李鍾祥). It was produced in 1979 and measures 116.5cm in width and 91cm in length. It is in the collection of the National Museum of Contemporary Art. ( History.go.kr)
What Little We Know About Jang Bogo
The historical period of Korea in which Jang Bogo lived is known in history as the Later Silla period. This refers to Silla, one of the three major kingdoms of Korea, in the period after it conquered its neighboring kingdoms: Goguryeo and Baekje. Also called the Unified Silla kingdom, it rose as a prosperous and powerful kingdom, alongside the Tamna state on Jeju Island, and the so-called Little Goguryeo far in the north. Unified Silla and its ruling dynasty of the same name existed roughly from 668 to 935 AD, until it was absorbed by the rising Goryeo kingdom in the Later Three Kingdoms period. And Jang Bogo lived in the golden age of the Unified Silla period.
Tang dynasty painting of envoys from the Three Kingdoms of Korea: Baekje, Goguryeo, and Silla. ( Public domain )
History did not preserve very much information about the early life of this powerful figure . What little information survives suggests that he was a commoner, not a noble born man, and that his early youth indicated no promise of greatness whatsoever. Apparently, Jang Bogo—whose birth and childhood name was Gungbok—made his way to the Shandong Peninsula in China as a young man. It is suggested that it was there that a community of Silla expatriates existed, and it was there that the hero of our story gained his experiences in seafaring, trade, and military leadership.
How and why Jang Bogo rose to prominence while staying in Tang dynasty China remains unclear. One of the few semi-historical sources of Jang Bogo’s life is the so-called Samguk Sagi , a historical record of the Three Kingdoms period. It was written some three hundred years after Jang Bogo’s death, and confusingly mixes legend and fact. Even so, we know for certain that during the Tang dynasty, there were thousands of Silla subjects living in communities in Jiangsu and Shandong provinces, and it was seemingly there that Jang Bogo first made his mark.
Most agree that he became a local military officer very early in his youth, gradually gaining experience and power. It is documented that at one point he raised a Buddhist temple for his compatriots in Tang China. Known as Beophwawon,it is located in Rongcheng, in Shandong province in China. It can be freely speculated that this gesture earned him a lot of prestige and favor amongst the Sillans in Tang China, whom he recognized as mistreated and endangered by coastal raids and pirate incursions. Due to the unstable political situations in the region in the 9th century AD, pirates infested the seas in high numbers, and exploited the instability by engaging in slave trading and kidnapping civilians en masse. Jang Bogo sought to combat this threat, either for the benefit of the Sillans, or for his personal advancement.
A sea battle between Japanese pirates and the Chinese in the Tang period. Jang Bogo trained in China's Shandong Province in this period and then did battle with the same pirates from his base on Wando Island, South Korea. (Rijksmuseum / Public domain )
Jang Bogo’s Rise In China And His Return To Korea
Several sources tell us that Jang Bogo was in the service of the Mooryeonggun army, in which he held an officer rank. Apparently he “retired” with the rank of junior commander, at which point he had major influence and prestige in the region. It was around this time that he raised the Beophwawon Temple. Sources indicate that this temple was not just a religious center for Sillans in Tang China, but also served as a diplomatic and economic center as well, a sort of consulate.
Whether or not his prominence reached the royal court in Korea is unknown, but sometime after 820 AD, he returned to his homeland, probably at the head of an army of up to a 1,000 soldiers, and a powerful fleet as well. Around 828 AD, he petitioned the Sillan king Heungdeok and successfully convinced the government to appoint him as a magistrate of a large naval fortress off the southern coast of the Korean Peninsula, near the island of Wando. Such a strategic naval fortress could actively combat the pirate threat and secure the southwestern and maritime borders of Silla Kingdom. Thus, Jang Bogo’s request was granted, and he became an even more powerful figure.
The observatory of Cheonghaejin Castle or the Cheonghae Garrison on Wando Island, where Jang Bogo established his naval powerbase. ( SiHo / Adobe Stock)
This fortress was known as Cheonghae (淸海, "clear sea") Garrison, or Cheonghaejin. King Heungdeok granted Bogo command over the 10,000 troops stationed there. From this point on, Jang Bogo’s rise to prominence becomes stellar. With his command of a major naval fortress, he becomes one of the many private warlords who operated outside the bounds of the capital of Silla, backed by their own private armies.
Standing at the head of an army of 10,000 men, and commanding a powerful fleet, Jang Bogo singlehandedly emerged at the very top of the region’s influential figures. He soon became the dominant figure in the trilateral maritime trade between Japan, Korea, and China, successfully applying his experience in Shandong to integrate the military with economic pursuits. He became the arbiter of the trade in the Yellow Sea, dominating commerce and navigation. This power also made him a prominent figure in the politics of Silla.
Those who stood at the head of such a sizeable army certainly had plenty of leverage at the court. However, Jang Bogo’s commoner background earned him a lot of hate from Sillan nobles. Some sources claim that he was so powerful that he could have ousted the king if he wanted to, but this claim is arguable.
Nevertheless, Jang Bogo soon got involved in politics. This perhaps was not done by his own instigation, but by those seeking the aid and protection of his army. In about 837 AD, he was approached by Gim Ujing, the latest loser in Silla’s royal struggle for succession. Gim Ujing sought to retake the throne from King Minae, who usurped it by killing Ujing’s father. Some sources claim that Jang Bogo answered this plea thus: “The ancients had a saying, ‘To see what is right and not to do it is want of courage.’ Though I am without ability, I shall follow your orders."
But the most likely scenario is that Jang Bogo saw a clear opportunity for further advancement in politics and the royal court of Silla by backing the winning side. He agreed to help Gim Ujing (later called Sinmu) and dispatched a force of 5,000 men under the command of his closest officer, Jeong Yeon. The struggle was a success, and Gim Ujing emerged as King Sinmu, the 45th ruler of Silla. For his aid, Jang Bogo was made the Prime Minister, and enjoyed even greater power and wealth than before. He was also enfeoffed and granted the title of “Grand General of Cheonghae Garrison.”
A Korean warrior in traditional dress, who could very well be a younger Jang Bogo. ( Wirestock Exclusives / Adobe Stock)
Was The Desire For More Jang Bogo’s Undoing?
Alas, King Sinmu’s rule was all too brief. In fact, it was the shortest rule of any king in the history of Silla. He died from disease roughly three months after ascending to the throne. He was succeeded by his eldest son, King Munseong. For Jang Bogo, this meant little as his power was still at an all-time high. But his own desire for more, eventually led to his gradual downfall.
Inspired by his power and all his successes, Jang Bogo wanted to achieve the ultimate height of power. And around 845 AD he maneuvered to have his own daughter married to King Munseong, as his second queen. This raised a great tumult in the Silla court: the noblemen were greatly opposed to the idea and openly hated Jang Bogo, painting him as a common-born opportunist. Pressured by the aristocratic elite, King Munseong relented and rejected Jang’s proposal.
This period is recorded in the History of the Three Kingdoms and tells us that Jang Bogo took it as a slight and was greatly angered, so much so that he rose in rebellion, or more likely conspired against the king. In response to this, the aristocratic elite and the government plotted to have Jang Bogo assassinated. This happened in either 841 or 846 AD, at his headquarters in Cheonghae.
He was approached by an assassin whom he knew. The man apparently betrayed him and approached with a knife concealed in his garments. Jang Bogo was assassinated as he shared wine with the man. His burial location is not known.
Soon after the demise of the powerful Jang Bogo, his garrison at Cheonghae was disbanded, and all the troops he commanded were sent elsewhere. Rising to prominence and power during many years of his life, everything he accomplished was essentially wiped out in mere seconds, erased by the flashing tip of the assassin’s dagger. And all because of his desire for more power and wealth.
If he were of noble origins, the story might have ended differently. Many argue that it was his common birth that gained him such staunch opposition from the Sillan elite. Historians argue that it was his social status that inhibited his acceptance in Sillan politics and the society of the capital. In fact, the culture of the Silla Kingdom was characterized by a stout hereditary system, where people were ranked by their origins and lineage.
This in turn determined their social identity, their prospects for marriage, taxes, public interactions, and eligibility for bureaucratic office. Merchants and military officials such as Jang Bogo found ways to bypass this strict social rule, by amassing wealth and sociopolitical prestige, and in some cases private armies. But even so Jang Bogo could not rise to the heights he coveted because the strictness of the social hierarchy of the Korean nobility was too firmly rooted.
Jang Bogo Memorial Hall on Wando island, South Korea. (hyolee2 / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Jang Bojo Remembered As A Warlord Who Became A God
Following his death, Jang Bogo was worshiped as a god, especially on the small island where his naval fortress and headquarters were. There, he was especially loved and seen as a god, most likely due to the protection he gave to the smallfolk against the pirate incursions. The villagers raised a temple on the island, for their own Korean shamanistic religion, that was dedicated to the worship of the Great General Song, which was apparently one of Jang Bogo’s titles.
The remnants of his fortress at Cheonghae can still be seen on the little islet, situated some 180 meters off the coast of Wando Island. The two are connected by a foot bridge. Archaeological excavations revealed numerous remains on the site, and some were partially recreated.
Today, the Cheonghaejin (lit. “Blue Sea Headquarters”) is one of the main tourist attractions in the area. Remains of earthen ramparts, castle gates, a Buddhist temple, and the castle were all discovered during excavations.
Jang Bogo was fictionalized several times as a major historic figure in South Korea’s history. And he was fictionalized in movies and TV shows on many occasions. A memorial to him was opened in 2007 AD in Shenyang, China. Furthermore, his name was given to the Korean submarine “Admiral Jang Bogo,” and to the permanent South Korean research station in the Antarctic, Jang Bogo Station .
Today, the story of Jang Bogo’s life, what little can be pieced together historically, provides us with exceptional insights into the socio-politics of Silla, and the maritime power domination of Korea, China, and Japan.
Moreover, Jang Bogo’s personal life story can teach us a lot about greed, the incessant lust for power, and the bitter fruits of opportunism. Jang Bogo was certainly an opportunist. He knew how to recognize a good chance to further his status and became one of the most powerful figures in Korea’s Silla period.
Top image: Jang Bogo was a powerful medieval warrior. Credit: brunogm / Adobe Stock
By Aleksa Vučković
Hwang, M. K. 2016. A History of Korea. Macmillan International Higher Education.
Leidy, D. and Lee, S. 2013. Silla: Korea’s Golden Kingdom. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Su-Il, J. 2016. The Silk Road Encyclopedia. Seoul Selection.