From Wang So to Gwangjong: So, tell me, what is the world that you dream of?
Oh, boy. The wheels are turning. Wang So is no longer just Wang So, the fourth prince and the fourth son of Taejo. Wang So dreams of getting the throne, and then some–he dreams of changing a world.
I think all of us at this point or another have frantically searched up Gwangjong’s history, desperate to find out if Gwangjong really did kill all of his brothers and courtiers, if he really was a bloody, ruthless ruler. To a certain extent, yes, he was. He did kill many people. But despite that, he is still regarded today was being a good king. Good as in not the morally right way, but good as in that he was an effective ruler in consolidating his throne and implementing the policies and changes that he wanted.
This post will delve into a brief history lesson about Gwangjong, his accomplishments and what he is known for, and how it ties into the story of Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo (and I have to hand it over to the production team, who looks like they did a lot of their own research, and intertwined it beautifully with the fictional storyline.)
As many of us have noted, Eun’s death is a turning point for Wang So. It’s a moment where he finally realizes he cannot stay where he is, if he wants things to change. The way he sees out of this mess–a situation where brothers are pitted to fight against one another for power and survival, a situation where he is always the dog following orders–he realizes and decides that he must become king.
And he will–he does.
Gwangjong (광종, 光宗), the fourth king of Goryeo
Let’s start with names because I am obsessed with names. Names carry power. All Korean kings have a posthumous name that usually describes his rule/reign or what kind of king he was. For example, Joseon’s 19th King, Sukjong, was called “Sukjong” because “Suk” means “severe” or serious” and he was a very stern king.
Wang So’s posthumous name, Gwangjong, uses the character “Gwang” (광). Gwang is the Korean pronunciation of the Chinese character 光, meaning “light” or “bright, shining.” Now, I don’t know about you, but a king being given this sort of name after death couldn’t have been all that bad, right?
But many historians during Goryeo’s time and after that called Gwangjong a mad king (광기의 왕). The gwang in his name can also be misinterpreted, or even act as a pun, because gwang is also another way of reading the Chinese character 狂 in Korean. This character 狂 means “crazy” or “mad.” There may be some people who think initially that his posthumous name means “crazy” and not “bright/shining.”
But. Whoa. Wait.
It suddenly makes sense as to why there was a Korean drama, starring Jang Hyuk and Oh Yeon Seo, about Gwangjong called Shine or Go Crazy (빛나거나 미치거나).
I also came across a review done by a Korean blogger and I absolutely love what she said to say, which I’ll translate and share below:
“If I had to summarize episode 16 into two phrases, they’d be ‘the one who wishes to wear the crown, must bear its weight’ (I interject here to say this is totally from the drama The Heirs) and ‘shine or go crazy.’ If one wishes to become the king of a country, he must possess the personality and capability to bear the burden of the seat. If he does not possess the strength to endure its weight, he will go crazy.”
“Wang So was born with the fate to become the king, and unlike Hyejong (Crown Prince Mu) and Jeongjong (Wang Yo) who were crushed by the weight of the crown, So will bear its weight and become a king who doesn’t go crazy, but shines brightly and become Gwangjong.”
BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE. REMEMBER THIS POSTER?
(This is actually the first poster I ever saw for Moon Lovers, and already with Lee Joon Gi’s bloody face and that
fucking caption, I knew from the bottom of my soul that this drama was going to own me in all ways possible and ruin my life.)
태양이 되길 원치 않았지만, 찬란하게 빛났다.
He didn’t want to become the sun, but he shone brightly.
So it was written in the stars that he was to become the sun, and shine brightly.
If we go over the basics, Wang So ascended to the throne at the age of 25, in 949 ACE. He died in 975 ACE, ruling for 26 years, which was longer than the reigns of his brothers, Wang Mu and Wang Yo.
Historically, Wang Yo ruled for 4 years as king. Feeling his approaching death, he made up his mind early on to make Wang So the heir of his throne, rather than his one and only son, Prince Kyeongcheonwon (경천원군). In the drama, Queen Yoo says to Yo to make Jung his heir. This is because Yo’s father-in-law is Park Young Gyu, who is a Hubaekje general, and they cannot give their throne to someone whose blood is mixed with someone from a country that is no more.
Ice cold, Queen Yoo. Thus, from the drama’s standpoint, it makes more sense that So may be a more suitable person to take the throne, rather than Yo’s son.
So… what kind of person was Wang So?
Wang So was the fourth son of Taejo, and the third son to Queen Yoo. He had three older brothers, which includes Crown Prince Mu, Wang Yo, and Wang Tae. Wang Tae is mentioned here and there in the drama, who was the first son between Taejo and Queen Yo, and died early. Since Wang So had three brothers before him, they were already strong contenders for the throne, and so, he was naturally seen as someone who wasn’t close to becoming king. This also stands true in the drama. Before So takes off his mask, nobody thinks that someone like him, a wolf-dog, could become a king.
But… as history would have it, Wang Tae dies early on, and so do Wang Mu and Wang Yo. Well, then… I guess you’re next, So.
If we take a look at the records of Goryeo’s Choi Seung Ro, he describes that Jeongjong (Wang Yo) and Gwangjong (Wang So) had quite different personalities. Wang Yo was said to have been stubborn and didn’t listen to what others had to say, while Wang So was said to have been careful and cautious, but when he saw that he had an opportunity, he seized it and acted boldly. In other words, when Gwangjong saw the chance to do something, he took advantage of it and made sure it happened.
Well, doesn’t the drama do a nice job of portraying that? *applause*
Apparently, Wang So was also said to have been handsome (thank you for casting Lee Joon Gi and his perfect face) and had a lot of talent, and thus he received particular favor from Taejo (So is clearly one of Taejo’s favourites in Moon Lovers, although he did a shitty job of being a good father to So.)
So: Ji Mong. I will have to become the dog that rips off his own collar. The crazy wolf-dog that rips apart his owner, and takes his place. I, Wang So, will become the king of Goryeo.
The Bloody Monarch (피의 군주)
When we talk about Gwangjong, there are two main accomplishments of his that must be discussed.
But let me draw out some background first.
As we all know, Taejo was the founder of Goryeo. He accomplished this through joining forces with powerful clans/families (known as Hojok / 호족) and together created the country. Therefore, after he became king, while he was thankful for their help, he also had to keep them in check and make sure that they were satisfied. In Goryeo times, powerful clans had their own armies, and therefore, it wasn’t uncommon to see them fight one another, and because they had those armies, it was difficult for the king to have absolute control. This changes after in the Joseon Dynasty, because noble families can no longer have their own armies.
These clans were extremely powerful and influential. Even Yeonhwa is deeply worried about her family (the Hwangbos) when it comes down to the clans.
Yeonhwa: The Shinju Kang Clan, Myeoncheon Park Clan, Uiseong Hong Clan, Gwangju Wang Clan… if we do not get the throne, they will strike us again!
By the time Wang So had ascended to the throne, he had already seen how these clans used their power to get their way. Taejo always had to keep them in check, and married the daughters of many clans to keep them from turning against him. Wang Mu lacked a strong backing because of his mother’s lowly status, and the clans were stronger than him. Wang Yo, despite having a powerful backing through Queen Yoo, failed to consolidate his throne as well. (We’ll talk more about So’s political backing in a bit).
Wang So made up his mind early on to weaken and dismantle the influence and power of the noble clans and consolidate his throne. He did through this the two main accomplishments I mentioned previously.
During the first 7 years of his reign, Wang So didn’t do anything radical. It is said that he got along with the noble clans, and left most of the politics to them, which I’m sure they were more than happy to do.
It isn’t until we hit Gwangjong Years 7-11 that he see him to begin to draw out the plans he’d been developing all throughout his time. Slow and steady does the trick. Wang So wasn’t just idly kicking back on his throne for seven years, he was biding his time, cultivating the tools and weapons that he needed to make sure his throne was consolidated, and he was the one calling the shots.
- The Emancipation of the Slaves (노비안감법)
He brought about this law in his 7th year of reign in 956 ACE.
Now why was this important?
Back in Goryeo times, the noble families/clans (hojok) had many slaves. A lot of them were prisoners of war, and so forth. These slaves were used for their own benefit, as their own soldiers and a means of income because slaves had to pay taxes to the clans. Therefore, because they served the clans, they didn’t contribute a lot to the king or the country. There were also a lot more slaves compared to commoners, so there weren’t a lot of people that the king could claim as ‘his people.’
Back in these times, the more men you had = the more power you had. Well, it’s no wonder that the king couldn’t just do as he pleased when there were noble families breathing down your neck and could kill you at any given moment if you fooled around.
So, Gwangjong decided to emancipate these slaves, and turn them into commoners.
By turning them into commoners, they would be able to pay taxes to the king and become a part of the king’s military forces, and so, the king becomes more powerful. And thus, the noble families’ power and influence weakens.
Of course, the noble families are against this. Nobody likes their power being taken from them. Even Queen Daemok (Yeonhwa) decides to intervene to stop Wang So from doing this, but he follows through with it anyways. It is a law that Taejo also apparently also tried to implement, but failed to fully carry it out. Gwangjong pushed through with this law, although it was later retracted during Seongjong’s (Goryeo’s sixth king) reign.
Through this, Gwangjong earned the favour of the citizens. Wang So had attempted to appeal to the citizens and gain their love and favour before as well, by promoting and supporting Buddhism as well as putting a stop to moving the capital to Seokyung from Songak (which Wang Yo is trying to do in the drama right now) as it was heavily disapproved by the noble families and citizens.
This was the first step in Gwangjong strengthening his throne and weakening the power of the noble families.
- The National Civil Service Examination (과거제도)
And the second accomplishment that Gwangjong did to consolidate his throne and weaken the noble families was through the National Civil Service Examination! During this time, nearly all of the courtier positions were fulfilled by the noble families. It’s no surprise that they were advising the king and trying to control the king’s power to their will. Since they helped to found the country, they felt that they had the right to be involved in the country’s affairs. But this also allowed them to become corrupt, and turn a blind eye to things that weren’t right, and made for a system where they benefited more than anyone else.
But Gwangjong despised this and didn’t want them to gain any more than they already had. He allowed anyone to take the exam, and chose courtiers based on their skills and intelligence, regardless of their family background. Therefore, the noble families couldn’t just become courtiers anymore because they were from noble families. And so, the power of the clans weakened and the king’s power grew.
Gwangjong, unlike his brothers, completely won against the noble families, and created an absolute monarchy for himself.
Furthermore, because Gwangjong wanted to make his throne stronger, he refused to marry a woman from a noble family. This is why he married his half-sister, Queen Daemok (Hwangbo Yeonhwa in the drama), and also his niece, Lady Kyeonghwagoong (경화궁부인), who was Hyejong’s daughter (he married his niece apparently in 944 ACE). His marriages to women inside of his family and political alliances allowed him to consolidate his throne as well
In the drama, Wang So also has the backing of the Yoo family (from his birth mother) and the Shinju Kang clan (from his foster mother). Both historically and in the drama, he has the support of General Park Su Kyeong.
Going back to the political backing, Gwangjong had a lot more power than Wang Mu or Wang Yo from his family and marriages, so that made him untouchable. The clans couldn’t just wield their power against him.
(Yeonhwa also said that So could become king if she became his person.)
Gwangjong was also notorious for his purges starting after his 11th year of reign. He killed those who dared to rebel against his cause, and he killed off a lot of the noble families. Contrary to what the drama claims, Wang So did not kill all his brothers. The one brother he did kill was Wang Won, who apparently had a violent personality and was suspected of treason, so Wang So killed him by giving him poison as a death penalty. Good riddance, you slimy snake.
Furthermore, apparently in the spring of 970 ACE (Gwangjong Year 21), he also purged Choi Ji Mong. Apparently he had followed Gwangjong to a Buddhist temple known as Gwibupsa (귀법사) and behaved rudely because Ji Mong had gotten drunk, so Gwangjong demoted him. Ji Mong did not recall what he did to cause Gwangjong’s ire because he had been drunk, and he did not return to his original position until five years later, when So’s heir and son, Gyeongjong took the throne.
So it’ll be interesting to see how Ji Mong’s and So’s relationship develops in the last few episodes of Moon Lovers.
In Gwangjong’s late years, he also killed off many other relatives out of his doubts and paranoia. He had been betrayed by many of those close to him, so it is understandable that he didn’t trust those around him. After all… the palace is a place where you have to doubt those closest to you.
Wang So killed off Wang Yo’s son, Prince Kyeoncheonwon, and Wang Mu’s son, Prince Heung Hwa. Gwangjong also deeply mistrusted his eldest son, Wang Joo (future Gyeongjong) to the point where Gyeongjong lived in fear he was going to be killed by his own father. That being said, Queen Daemok also feared for the life of her son as Gwangjong became more suspicious of those around him.
This is interesting because there was a recent Korean article that discussed the possibility of Hae Soo and Yeonhwa joining forces to put an end to Gwangjong’s purges, because Yeonhwa feared for the life of her son. I actually don’t know if this is possible with how the story is going, but it’s an interesting thing to speculate.
So: Kill them! Leave no one behind…
In conclusion! While Gwangjong killed many, many people to the point where he was called the bloody monarch, and a mad king by historians of his time and after, we cannot deny he was a king who made his power absolute through using his own weapons and strategies. He did, in fact, change Goryeo–his own world–in many ways.
Which is brings us back to the drama.
Soo: Do you… want the throne?
So: I want it.
Soo: Is that the reason why you left me?
So: The king would’ve used you to make me waver, and would’ve used me to hurt you.
Soo: What if I told you to give up?
So: I would persuade you until you said it was alright.
Soo: If we are together, you said that you were fine with not becoming the king. You don’t say those things anymore.
So: We promised not to lie to each other. I started this so that I could end the bloodshed between brothers. But… as I was building the palace, I realized that if the king changes, a world could also change. I won’t be controlled by others, and if I can get rid of what is unreasonable, then… I want to become the king, no matter what.
And we will watch, as Wang So paves his way to become a king who dreams of another world–to what he believes to be a better world.