CE 1249. Choe Hang and Choe Ui

We’ll finish out the Choe dynasty in this episode, including the mostly tragic reign of Choe Hang and Choe Ui.

Choe Hang 최항(崔沆, 1209년 ~ 1257년 5월 17일(윤 4월 2일)); CHOE UI (최의 崔竩 (1238? ~ 1258))

Intro Music:

Type: Pansori (판소리)
Music Title: Dan-ga ‘Undampungkyung’ (명창 단가 운담풍경)
Singer: Human Cultural Property (National Treasure) KIM So Hui (b. 1917 ~ d. 1995) (인간문화재 김소희, 金素姬)
Buk (Korean Drum): 고수:이정업 LEE Jung Up
Recorded: 1960s
Publisher: Korean Classical Music Record Museum (MIREEL-0216) (국악음반박물관 소장 릴테입 관리번호 MIREEL-0216)
YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y8hT_QEHEcc

In our last episode, we left off with the end of Choe U’s reign, which was remarkable for both the solidifying of his father’s original government as well as the desperate, urgent, scrappy defense of the country from the Mongols.

Edward Shultz makes a clear demarcation between the rule of Choe Chungheon and Choe U on one hand; and Choe Hang and Choe Ui on the other. He writes that the first two Choes were

“effective administrators and at the same time decisive leaders. They left a definitive stamp on Koryo institutions and dominated Koryo’s cultural life. Moreover, under their leadership Koryo doggedly endured the Mongol invasions.”

He writes further that:

Ch’oe Hang and Ch’oe Ui’s rule are tragic not only because of the immense destruction wrought by the Mongols, but also because a mountain of evidence reveals that the new Ch’oe leaders were incapable of addressing the key issues of the period. Both Ch’oe Hang and Ch’oe Ui become pawns of events rather than the molders of change.

These are strong words. Let’s see if this is true.

Choe Hang would reign for only eight short years, beginning when he’s 40, to his death in 1257 at the young age of 48.

Let’s take a broad look around at what is happening during Choe Hang’s reign. In 1249, the Mongols are on their fourth campaign on the Korean peninsula! It’s incredible the beating that Goryeo took from the awesome Mongol war machine. Choe U had basically crafted a strategy of fighting the Mongols, then surrendering, then refusing their demands, then getting attacked again. He did this for thirty years. It was brutal for the Korean people, but at least they can say they never were subsumed by the Mongolian Empire. They always remained a vassal, always plotting their freedom.

So Hang inherits his father’s reign in the middle of the Mongol’s fourth invasion of Goryeo. In 1247, the Mongols started their fourth campaign against Goryeo, demanding that they return the capital from Ganghwa Island to songdo. But in 1248, Guyuk Khan dies, and like any time the great khan dies, all the Mongol armies from all corners of the world return to Kharakorum to attend a kurultai. And that’s what happened in Korea; the larger part of the Mongol army left. But they continued smaller scale raids well into 1250. And in 1251, with the ascension of Mongke Khan, they renew their demands again: that King Gojong surrender to him in person; that they give them a bunch of royal hostages; and that they move their capital back to the mainland. The Goryeons refuse. Around 1253, Jalairtai Qorchi invades Korea and lays waste to the country. Finally, in 1254, the Goryeons sue for peace and King Gojong himself visits the Mongol prince Yeku’s palace, and they agree to move the capital back to the mainland. A cease fire is signed in 1254 on the Korean peninsula.

But, of course, the Korean’s haven’t completely caved. Not even close. The Mongols find out that Koreans have been lying to them, and that many high officials are still on Ganghwa Island. So from 1253 to 1258, the Mongols under Jalairtai launch four devastating campaigns against the Goryeons that would finally cause the Koreans to surrender. Most of the country at this point was starving, so they had no other choice. Actually, it was the Choe family that fought against the Mongols towards the end. The rest of the country was ready to admit defeat, probably because they were dying of starvation.

So let’s keep this horrific environment in mind as we talk about Choe Hang’s governmental policies.

Before his death in 1249, U picked his son, Choe Hang, as his successor. As soon as he died, his house guards immediately left his home and stationed themselves in front of Choe Hang’s house, signifying the transfer of power.

This succession wasn’t without some controversy. You may recall that Ch’oe U’s daughter married Kim Yakseon (김약선, 金若先) of the Kyongju Kim clan, a very prominent noble family which could trace its lineage to Silla kings. Choe seemed to have handpicked Kim to be his heir, putting him in positions of power. But somewhere during that time, Kim got involved in some controversy, and fell quickly out of favor. In fact, U had Kim banished and then executed.

Next, U considered naming his grandson Kim Chong (김종), the son of Kim Yakseon. But he too was banished. I’m sure the power of the Kim family was a critical factor in U trying to name them as successors.

Hang must have been a distant choice because he is born in 1209 to Choe U and his concubine, the daughter of Sa Honggi. But even though the mother was just a concubine, she too was from a prominent family.

But because of the Kims, Choe Hang must have grown up unsure of whether he’d inherit the regency from his father. We know that he spent his early years studying Son Buddhism in Cholla Province, far from the seat of power.

Unlike the first two Choes, who were not able to marry upward into prominent families until later in life, Hang for his first wife marries the daughter of Ch’oe On, a member of the Tongju Ch’oe lineage, a prominent military family. By all accounts he lives a quiet scholar’s life in the south.

But in 1243, at the age of 34, Hang is thrust into the spotlight. It was then that U names him as his successor. Hang is assigned the best scholars as tutors and then assigned 500 house troops. He’s then promoted to the Minister of Revenue.

So Hang takes power in 1249. In what has become a Choe tradition, he purges his father’s old administration and fills the positions with his own allies. In particular he went after the officials who had supported his cousin Kim Chong. He also went after his father’s second wife’s family, the Taes. By some accounts, Hang might have gone overboard with his purges.

It’s here that we start to see some patterns to the Choes’ rule, and thus their weaknesses. In particular, we see that individuals were loyal to each individual Choe, but not to the family or their dynasty. That’s why there needed to be a purge every time a new Choe came into power.

Perhaps asking the Goryeo citizens to remain loyal to the monarchy, the Choe in charge, and the Choe family was too much. Thus there was a significant inefficiency in both transfering as well as maintaining power. Without the inherent legitimacy of the monarchy, the Choe dynasty had to spend much more resources ensuring that each new Choe quickly assumed enough power and loyalty from those around them.

To this end, Hang enlists King Gojong, who declares:

Since my father and then I have occupied the throne, the Duke of Chinyang [Ch’oe U] has assisted us and worked for the Three Hans [Korea]. Now suddenly he has died without appointing an heir. His son. Deputy Commissioner of the Security Council (ch’tr mirwonbusa) Hang, has inherited the responsibilities and protects all. He should be summoned and given the position of minister.

Hang’s advancement in the dynastic structure was much more rapid and comprehensive than his two predecessors. Before his father’s death, Hang had already entered the lower ranks of the Security Council. Then he promoted himself to head of the Security Council, the Ministries of Civil Personnel and Military Affairs, and the Censorate. The next year he appointed himself chancellor (munhasijung), a post traditionally reserved for the ranking elder statesmen.

Something remarkable did become apparent by Hang’s reign. That is, it seemed the lines between the military and the civilians began blurring. Remember when at the start of the military coup in 1170, these two parties were mortal enemies?

Well things had really calmed down in the 60 years since Choe Chungheon took control. After all, Choe Hang had studied buddhism in a monastery before taking charge. Can you imagine, someone like him becoming the generalissimo? We’re a far cry from Choe Chungheon who sliced Yi Uimin’s throat with his sword.

Military generals starting taking, and passing, the civil entrance exam–a privilege once limited to civilians. Schulz particularly notes the increasing emphasis on the state examination that the Choes had. Compared to the 65 years prior to the Choe dynasty, an average of 16 people passed the exam per year. During the Choe dynasty, that number rose to 21.

Choe’s “kitchen cabinet”, or his inner circle, were more widely drawn than the rest of the government. In particular, Choe Yangbaek actually came from a slave background–either he or his parents. He was the first in the Choe dynasty to rise to the upper echelons from such a low beginning.

Another of Hang’s inner circle was the grand general Choe Yong, who first distinguished himself against the Mongols.

Both Choe Yong and Choe Yangbaek would prove their loyalty to Hang by helping his son, Choe Ui, once he inherited his father’s rule.

Another advisor was Choe In, who was a member of the prominent Tongju Choe family. This family had been intimately involved with the Choe House since Choe Chungheon’s days. Once Hang was in authority, Choe In became the assistant executive in Political Affairs and handled relations with the Mongols.

Shultz notes that there seemed to be a steady decline in the quality of Hang’s advisors over time. The histories in one place would note some of his trusted advisors as “mediocre and worthless.”

Shultz writes that the histories have not been kind to Hang. He reads him as lacking political talent, rash, inelastic and arrogant. In one incident, Hang was unhapy with the Board of Astronomy’s observations of the heavens and dismissed two men from the board.

The histories note that Hang made an effort to change the histories. Confucian tradition holds the writing of history to an esteemed level that must not be tampered with. Choe Chungheon and Choe U are not mentioned in the histories as having tried to change the histories. So it is with some irony that the histories note that Hang tried to change them. Apparently he didn’t try hard enough. You may recall, it was Choe U who tried to steer his administration towards Chinese standards. Hang must not have been as amenable or as principled.

By 1253, the histories note Hang’s increasing aloofness and note that the decreasing frequency with which he met with his advisors. Granted, Hang was handed a kingdom in severe duress by the Mongols.

Choe Hang seems to have forgotten some of the rules that gave his family power in the first place. For example, he began to promote slaves into positions of authority. While this may seem honorable, it was his grandfather and father’s recognition that they needed to constantly court the existing establishment that kept them in power.

Hang was the son of a concubine, which added to his troubles by weakening his legitimacy in the eyes of the dynasty.

After only eight years of rule, Choe Hang dies at the age of 48. The year is 1257 and the kingdom is in even worse shape than when Hang inherited it during the fourth mongol invasion in 1249.

CHOE UI (최의 崔竩 (1238? ~ 1258))

Rule of the country passes to his son Choe Ui. There is even less information that I could find on him than on his father. We do know that Ui’s mother is a concubine. Choe Ui would inherit not only a disintegrating, war-torn, starving country but a Choe House in disarray.

Within days of becoming ruler, Ui opens the granaries to feed the starving and paid each ranking official 30 sok of grain. He also returned lands to the court and gave the court presents of rice, cloth, honey and oil.

But he quickly followed this magnanimous gesture by appropriating 3,000 parcels of Ganghwa land, presumably from local landowners, then dispatched his cronies to collect taxes from the peasants on this land.

Upon Hang’s death, Ui became head of the Directorate General for Policy Formulation–that really important body created by Choe Chungheon.

The histories are quite straightforward in their characterization of Ui. They describe him as:

young, foolish, and stupid. When meeting nobles to discuss contemporary affairs, he was without propriety. Those whom he personally trusted were like Yu Nung and Ch’oe Yangbaek’s group. All were worthless and mediocre. His uncle Kosong Wonbal, together with Oi’s own favorite concubine Simgyong, terrorized the countryside and in court slandered people and seized property without limit.

Ui seemed destined for failure. And the end came quickly for him.

His predecessors had all faced multiple assassination attempts and survived all of them. He would not be so lucky. His main opposition came from two disparate places: Confucian scholars and underprivileged military upstarts.

Here’s how it all went down:

Remarkably, a former house slave would play a pivotal role in Ui’s assassination. First off, it seems a bit too convenient that so many bad guys were former slaves. But this is what the histories note and god knows we don’t have many other sources for 13th century Korea. So here goes:

There was a general named Song Kilyu (송길유, 宋吉儒), who was said to be quite a nefarious individual who was prone to abusing power. When finally an inspector censured him and referred the matter to Ui, some of Song’s associates, including a man named Kim Joon (김준, 金俊), appealed to the confucian scholar Yoo Gyeong (류경, 柳璥, 1211년 ~ 1289년) for help. When Yoo tried to intervene, Choe Ui accused all the men of treason. Song was banished, and although the others escaped punishment, Kim Joon held a grudge.

Two months later, Kim Joon and Yu Gyeong would lead a coup that assassinates Choe Ui and his closest supporters including Yu Nung, Choe Yangbaek, and Ui’s uncle, Kosong Wonbal (yes you heard that right, a rare two-syllable Korean last name).

Kim Joon had emerged as the ringleader after Song was first banished. He and all of his friends comprised a group of military officers that was ushered in during Choe Hang’s reign. I guess Choe Ui didn’t do a good enough job of purging them in the beginning, because they stuck around.

Kim Joon was the former house slave. In fact, he first appeared in the histories way back when during Choe U’s reign, when he was banished for having sexual relations with one of U’s concubines!

When Choe Hang took charge, Joon managed to get himself appointed as a subcolonel. From there he worked his way up the ladder in the Choe household.

Schulz speculates that what did Ui in was exactly what started the military coup nearly a century ago in first place: a diminished, or in this case, a perceived diminishment, of the military’s role.

Because Kim Joon must have seen less military officers in Ui’s ranks. Perhaps he noticed that Ui was the first Choe not to marry into a military family. Or that Ui was trained as a Buddhist monk, rather than a soldier.

Perhaps the dismissal of Song Kilyu was the final straw.

What we do know is that Ui’s administration verged from his predecessors in that he was allowing less military and more low-borns into top ranks. Maybe that emboldened someone like Kim Joon.

Or, maybe none of this mattered. After all, this is 1257, the height, or rather the nader, of the Mongol conquest of Korea. Most of the country by this point is starving or dead. Everything we’re talking about takes place within the sanctuary of Ganghwa Island, where those lucky enough to have the last name Choe or were in their good graces lived what must have been a surreal existence. To be able to live somewhat normal lives while the rest of the country was being ravaged by foreign invaders must have required a disassociation from reality.

But back to the actual coup: Here’s who else joined: disaffected house slaves and men from the Yabyolcho (야별초, 夜別抄) and the Sinuigun 신의군(神義軍). Both are elite units of the Choe army. I’d love to do a separate episode on the different military units that were formed during these turbulent times.

The Sinuigun acted as guards for Kim Joon, while the Yabyeolcho smashed down the doors to the Choe estate. Choe Ui’s uncle tried to protect him but Ui was reportedly too fat to escape over the walls (hmmm, remind you of any current leaders?). Once they had killed Ui, Kim Joon, accompanied by Yu Kyeong and Choe On, met with the king and declared the righteousness of their actions.

Kim Joon would rule the kingdom for another 11 years, not bad considering how short Ui’s reign was; but predictably he’d be toppled by one of his associates in 1268, and that person would then be kicked out in 1270, when civilian officials take complete control of the kingdom and the court returned to the mainland at Kaegyeong.

The Choe Dynasty, as so many hereditary institutions, started brilliantly with the coldy calculating, ruthlessly efficient mastermind of Choe Chung Heon, and ended with an ignominious whimper. The histories note that Choe Ui was a far cry from the genius of Choe Chung Heon; but surely outside forces had as much to do with the fall of the House of Choe than anything else. How can any nation survive the onslaught of the Mongol army?

And that concludes our series on the Goryeo Era of Military Rule, or the 무신정권(武臣政權). It lasted 100 years from 1170, when those three military officers overthrew the King; to 1270, when finally the civilian bureaucracy takes back full control of the kingdom. How can we view this century?

At least for a short while, the Choes were able to bridge the unpassable divide between civilian and military. In order to maintain control, they promoted a civil government based strictly on state examinations and a throwback to an emphasis on Chinese classics. They embraced Confucianism which was in vogue for all the elites of the day.

They oversaw a cultural flowering, both in Buddhism and in the arts, including supporting Yi Kyubo, one of the era’s greatest artistic minds.

But all of this must be viewed against the backdrop of the seismic world events happening around them. The Mongols first march up to the border in 1214; then cross it in 1216; and they wouldn’t really leave for the remainder of the military era. The Mongols would lay waste to a large part of the country while the Choes and their capital elites ensconced themselves in the relative safety of Ganghwa Island.

I grapple with whether Choe was good for the country given the Mongol invasion. Would a weakened monarchy have fended off the Mongols better? Or would they have capitulated more quickly, as so many of the country did towards the end? After all, it was the Choes and their elite military units that remained independent and continued a guerilla war against the Mongols long after the rest of the country gave in.

Or, was the Choe very bad for the invasion? Choe had to spend most of his resources protecting his back, ensuring his legitimacy. In a sense, he was using the country’s coffers to support two governments rather than one. These are funds that could have been more efficiently spent on defense.

Ultimately, the more I read history, the more I realize that a nation’s successes and failures almost always happen at all levels. It is not accurate to blame the elites of a country, or its military, or its citizens. The success and failure of a nation must be attributed to all of society, from the very bottom to the very top. With that, I’ll leave you until the next time.


Kim Yoon Seong 김윤성(金允成)


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