Silla Unification of Korea Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Silla unification of the Korean peninsula heralded a golden age in Korean history, culture, and arts. Many aspects of classical culture—ceramics, music, poetry, and philosophy—developed at this time continue to give great pride to the Korean people.

Summary of Event

Unified Silla had its roots in an earlier Silla Dynasty that controlled the southeastern part of the Korean peninsula. This earlier dynasty, one of three kingdoms on the peninsula, lasted from 57 b.c.e. until 668 c.e., when it completed the process of conquering the other kingdoms (Paekche and Koguryŏ). A key strength of that earlier Silla kingdom was the walled town of Saro (now Kyŏngju), where the dynasty began. From this small city-state, Silla slowly but surely expanded until it controlled the whole peninsula. [kw]Silla Unification of Korea (668-935) [kw]Korea, Silla Unification of (668-935) Silla Dynasty, United Korea;668-935: Silla Unification of Korea[0400] Government and politics;668-935: Silla Unification of Korea[0400] Cultural and intellectual history;668-935: Silla Unification of Korea[0400]

At first, this expansion occurred because Silla felt threatened by the incursions of its neighbors, including the Japanese to the southeast. As a result, its leaders developed a militaristic culture called the hwarang Hwarang . The hwarang was an institution of elite soldiers that had a strong sense of chivalry and had made an unquestioned commitment to the king. The hwarang was so successful in responding to attacks from all directions that Silla eventually was able to expand the kingdom by absorbing the other states. In the process, the people of Silla were exposed to Chinese culture.

The Chinese of the Tang Dynasty (T’ang; 618-907) had allied themselves with the original Silla Dynasty in order to claim large parts of the Korean peninsula for themselves. Once the old kingdoms were conquered, the Tang laid claim to the northern region, but the Silla encouraged the local people to rebel against the Chinese with their help. After several years, the Silla recovered the northern region, although the Tang did not officially acknowledge Silla control until 735. Despite this political tension, much cultural information flowed from China China;influence on Korea to Korea.

Chinese ideas and technology had a strong impact on the Silla culture; however, the people of Silla transformed the Chinese imports into uniquely Korean artforms. One of the lasting effects of the United Silla was the development of Buddhism Buddhism;Korea as the state religion. With the support of the government, many temples and hermitages were built, and much artwork was commissioned. The Silla built the most famous Korean Buddist temple, Pulguksa Pulguksa (Bulguksa), in Kyŏngju, and the equally famous hermitage of Sokkuram just outside of Kyŏngju. Pulguksa is still standing today, although the temple has many fewer buildings. At its height in the eighth century, the temple had eighty buildings made of carved wood and fine stonework that blended beautifully into the surrounding hillside. In 1592, much of the temple, which represents the pinnacle of Silla architecture, was looted and burned by invading Japanese forces. Architecture;Korea Korea;architecture The modern Korean government has restored the eight most important of these structures, and they are identified as national treasures. The Sokkuram hermitage Sokkuram hermitage is situated high above Kyŏngju and built directly into the hillside. It is modeled on the hermitage caves in India that contain great sculptures of the Buddha. The sculptures of Buddha at Sokkuram, which face east to protect Korea from invasion, are considered the best examples of Korean art. Most of them are intact, and they, too, have been named national treasures. Art;Korea Korea;art

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In addition to the development of religion and art, United Silla is famous for the development of Korea’s earliest urban center. Today Kyŏngju Kyŏngju[Kyongju] is a modest-sized city with only 150,000 people, but in the eighth and ninth centuries, it was one of the largest cities in the world, home to more than a million people. Kyŏngju rivaled Nara, Japan, and Chang’an (Xi’an), China, as a political center and was the site of many of Korea’s advancements in ceramics, including early celadon and stoneware. Today, a number of modern kilns in Kyŏngju produce ceramics in the Silla manner in order to preserve this style. Pottery;Korean Korea;pottery The city was also the site of Ch’omsongdae, the earliest known astronomical tower to be built in eastern Asia; established by Queen Sondok, it is still standing today.

The United Silla had already begun to collapse when Kyŏngju was ravished by Mongol invasions in the thirteenth century, and the dynasty had ended before the Japanese invasions in the sixteenth century, when the city lost much of its glory. Therefore, in the early twentieth century, when archaeologists began excavations at Kyŏngju, they uncovered tombs and other sites containing magnificent artifacts. So many of Korea’s national treasures, national historic sites, and great natural monuments are found in the city that Kyŏngju is known as the museum without walls. Most of the tombs have yet to be excavated, and they may be left untouched because the entire town would have to be moved to reach them. The United Nations counts Kyŏngju as one of the ten most important World Heritage sites for its wealth of cultural artifacts and contribution to the understanding of historic cultures.

The Silla Dynasty and the United Silla came to an end in 935 in part as a result of increasing corruption and the oppression of its people. Earlier in the dynasty, Silla rulers had given land allotments to peasants and developed an excellent irrigation system. However, by the ninth century, corruption and greed caused an increase in taxes and a decline in the maintenance of the agricultural infrastructure. Private merchants began to trade on their own with China and Japan, and bandits began taking over large parts of the countryside.

By the end of the ninth century, peasant revolts led to the creation of small, rival states within United Silla territory. It was only a matter of time before a state became strong enough to overthrow the Silla and form a new dynasty. In what later became Kangweondo Province, Kung-ye Kung-ye formed the Later Koguryŏ kingdom Later Koguryŏ kingdom[Later Koguryo kingdom] (901-935; the first Koguryŏ kingdom had been absorbed by the Silla).

In 918, one of Kung-ye’s generals, Wang Kŏn Wang Kŏn , overthrew him and renamed the kingdom Koryŏ Koryŏ Dynasty[Koryo Dynasty] , from which the English name of Korea is derived. By 935, he had peacefully taken control of the remaining Silla territory through a number of agreements with its leaders. It would take several years of serious battles before he could take control of the smaller peasant-based states that had formed in the dying days of Silla.

The Koryŏ Dynasty (918-1392) would distinguish itself by creating metal-cast movable type (two hundred years before Gutenberg) and completing the Tripitaka Koreana (thirteenth century), a great work of Korean Buddhist philosophy of which many copies were printed.

Significance

The significance of the United Silla in Korean history goes beyond its great artistic and cultural achievements, although these alone would be reason enough to remember it. The United Silla made Buddhism its state religion, transforming Chinese Buddhist ideas into Sŏn Buddhism Sŏn Buddhism[Son Buddhism] , which was characterized by different meditation techniques. This version of Buddhism was transmitted to the Japanese, who developed it into Zen Buddhism.

Another significant impact of the Silla was the unifying of the peoples of the peninsula. Without this unification, the creation of a classical Korean culture would have been confined to one area. Moreover, because United Silla became the first kingdom to rule the entire peninsula in 668, its development of classical Korean culture gradually was transmitted to people throughout the entire peninsula and provided the basis for a common Korean identity that has lasted to this day. Later developments of the Koryŏ and Yi (Chosŏn; 1392-1910) Dynasties built on the strengths established by the United Silla, thereby creating the basis for the modern people known as Koreans.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Adams, Edward B. Korea’s Golden Age: Cultural Spirit of Silla in Kyongju. Seoul: Seoul International Publishing House, 1991. Adams reveals the extraordinary cultural development of the Silla in their capital city of Kyŏngju through detailed descriptions and hundreds of photos. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Covell, J. Carter. Korea’s Cultural Roots. Elizabeth, N.J.: Hollym International, 1981. Covell presents the ancient roots of Korea’s culture through its artwork and religious materials. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kim, Duk-Whang. A History of Religions in Korea. Seoul: Daeji Moonhwa-sa, 1990. Kim describes the history and beliefs of the many religious traditions in Korea from ancient times to the current era.

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