Seong of Baekje, the Holy King (성왕, 聖王) (r. 523-554)
Seong was instrumental in the Baekje resurgence and in founding its new capital. He made Buddhism the official state religion and reigned over the glory days of Baekje. However, after an alliance of more than 100 years, he fell to Silla betrayal, to Silla violence and to Silla greed, dying angry in battle against his former ally.
Upon rising to the throne, King Seong of Baekje (성왕, 聖王) (r. 523-554) inherited a great legacy from his grandfather and father before him, Grandfather King Dongseong (동성왕, 東城王) (r. 479-501) and father King Muryeong (무령왕, 武寧王) (r. 501-523) laid the foundation for Baekje’s return to growth. Their two reigns saw Baekje become a much stronger and more organized state. Muryeong’s military successes and administrative reorganization allowed Seong to actively promote the spread of Buddhism during his reign. This, in turn, helped to strengthen ties to southern Chinese kingdoms, like the Southern Liang (남량, 南涼). Seong of Baekje is known as “The Holy King,” too, for his religious patronage.
Before these glory days, however, in 475, before any of these people were on the throne, the Baekje capital had to flee southward from the Hangang River basin and was newly established in the Geumgang River basin, in today’s Gongju in Chungcheongnam-do Province. This was due to wars with the mighty northern neighbor, Goguryeo.
To face these northern threats, Baekje relied on strengthening internal control. In terms of internal organizations of the state, it was around this time that Baekje was divided into 22 districts, or damno (담로), and a prince or baron from the royal family was put in charge of each district. It’s believed that a system of 22 separate central government offices and a territorial administrative units — consisting of five capital districts (부, 部, bu) and five provinces (방, 方, bang) — came into being at around this time, too. These both helped to strengthen central control.
To further fortify administrative strength and to entrench national development schemes, the capital city had to be moved: out of the mountains around Gongju and onto the plains around adjacent Buyeo, just downstream along the Geumgang River. The administrative re-ordering took place in conjunction with the move to Buyeo during Seong’s reign. Seong moved the capital to Buyeo and renamed his kingdom “Southern Buyeo” (남부여, 南夫餘).
Concerning religion, the “Memorabilia” says that Buddhism first came to Baekje through a monk named Marananta (마라난타, 摩羅難陀) in the ninth lunar month of the year 384. This new cultural import — a religion! — was welcome, but largely unknown. As a way to strengthen his power, but perhaps also reflecting a growing trend in Baekje society, Seong entrusted the monk Gyeomik (겸익, 謙益) and other monks with the task of fostering the spread of Buddhism. Gyeomik, sources tell us, travelled to ancient central India by boat in 526. He studied Sanskrit and Buddhist teachings. He returned to Baekje with a collection of Vinaya texts (율, 律), a set of monastic rules, and other texts. He translated these into Korean.
In 528, under Seong, Baekje formally adopted Buddhism as the state religion. Religion was a form of diplomacy in those days, too, and Seong sent many diplomatic missions to both the Southern Dynasties and to the Wa kingdoms. These missions included trade and requests for religious texts and artifacts. His government’s internal re-organization allowed Seong to strengthen international ties.
Another international tie was even closer to home. As well as his domestic internal controls, Seong also relied on external relationships with Baekje’s ally to the east, Silla. This was an alliance that had stood for more than a century, throughout the reigns of both Dongseong and Muryeong.
Having restructured his kingdom and built up its strength, Seong now turned his efforts toward recovery of Baekje’s former territory in the Hangang River basin, today’s Seoul. To this end, he made a pact with Jinheung of Silla (진흥왕, 眞興王) (r. 540-576), a true Stalin of a man, and, taking advantage of internal dissension in Goguryeo, struck northward. With the occupation of the lower reaches of the Han, around today’s Seoul. He had for the moment attained his objective. However, in a grand betrayal, Silla then turned and seized this area of the lower Han River for itself. The Silla troops, instead of attacking Goguryeo as agreed, attacked the exhausted Baekje troops instead. Seong saw his dreams end in failure. Jinheung won the Hangang River for Silla.
Enraged, Seong struck back against Silla’s betrayal. Seong retaliated with a frontal assault on Silla in 554. Unfortunately for Baekje, he was killed by Silla forces that were waiting in ambush, near the Gwansan Fortress (관산성, 管山城) in today’s town of Okcheon (충청북도 옥천군 군서면).
The Silla-Baekje alliance that had lasted for 120 years was at last sundered. Ever after Seong’s death, Baekje looked upon Silla as its mortal enemy and, making common cause with its former foe Goguryeo, launched one attack after another against Silla.
If you travel to Chungcheongnam-do Province today, you can see Seong’s official burial mound itself. It’s one of the Baekje royal tombs in Neungsan-ri (능산리고분군) in Buyeo, these days looking just like a well-manicured park. Those tombs are but one of the eight archeological sites that make up the broader UNESCO-registered Baekje Historic Areas.
By Gregory C. Eaves
Korea.net Staff Writer
Photos: Cultural Heritage Administration, Wikipedia