Thursday, March 11, 2004

History of the Balhae Kingdom

The following is the seventh in a series of contributions by prominent Korean history scholars on the Goguryeo Kingdom. - Ed.

By Han Giu-cheol

Korea, China, Russia and Japan have been keenly interested in the history of Balhae (Po-hai), a kingdom that prospered for 229 years from 698 to 926 in the Manchurian region of East Asia. Korea, China and Russia are naturally interested in the history of Balhae because contemporary history continues to unfold across the old territory of Balhae. Japan also continues to maintain its interest in the area as part of studies on the historical records of exchange between ancient Japan and Balhae as well as on the basis of archeological research it has accumulated in the process of installing the so-called "Manchukuo" (in the early 1930s).

This mural painting depicts warriors on horseback from Muyong-chong, or the tomb of the dancers, located in Jian, northern China.
However, in the absence of formal and authoritative historical records about Balhae Kingdom, many historians have advanced diverse views in connection with Balhae's political standing in interstate relations and the nature of its population. The most contentious issues concern the degree of its independence and the composition of its population. South and North Korea, Russia and Japan assert that Balhae was independent in its relations with the Tang Dynasty. On the other hand, China denies this relationship and argues that Balhae was one of the provincial regimes of Tang Dynasty. With regard to the population composition, Korea maintains that it was a kingdom of the displaced Goguryeo people, while some Korean and Japanese scholars argue that the ruling class consisted of Goguryeo people, and the ruled were the Malgal (Mo-ho) tribes. Chinese, Russian and a few Japanese scholars are say that regardless of their social status, Balhae was a dynasty of the Malgal people.

While various opinions and theories emerged from these neighboring countries, only the Chinese will maintain a uniform position that Balhae was not an independent kingdom, but one of the provincial regimes of the Tang Dynasty and that both the founding leadership groups and the inhabitants were all Malgal people.

The Independent Balhae

The Chinese argument that Balhae was not independent is based on the fact that a tribute-investiture relationship existed between Balhae and Tang Dynasty. Under this system, they argue, a king of Balhae was invested in with the title of "governor-general of Holhan Province" of the Tang Dynasty. But, even if we acknowledge the influence of the Tang Dynasty over East Asia, the investiture relationship at the time should be understood as a diplomatic formality in connection with the approval of royal successions, not as an act of governing provincial regimes of the Tang Dynasty.

Also, a tributary relationship is widely regarded as a type of official trade between the dynasties. According to the New History of the Tang Dynasty, Balhae always used its "own era names" and "freely offered" posthumous titles to deceased kings without Tang's approval. Furthermore, the epitaph uncovered from the tomb of Princess Jeonghyo, the fourth daughter of third king Mun revealed that Balhae called itself an empire like China and its king was addressed as the "emperor." In fact, Balhae was so independent as to launch an attack on Tang in A.D. 732 to prevent contacts between Tang and the "Heuksu Malgal" tribe under its control.

It should be acknowledged that Balhae succeeded Goguryeo, because the state of Balhae was founded in the former territory of Goguryeo and its population mostly consisted of Goguryeo people, even though a number of Goguryeo people had been forcibly relocated to other areas following the downfall of Goguryeo in 668. In other words, the argument that the Malgals suddenly filled the old Goguryeo territory lacks credibility.

Successor of Goguryeo

The argument that Balhae was composed of the Malgals is based on the New History of the Tang Dynasty, which describes Dae Jo-young, the founder of Balhae, as a Malgal tribesman. Another reason with which the Chinese deny the relationship between Goguryeo and Balhae is that both Old History and New History of the Tang Dynasty put Goguryeo in the section of "Eastern Barbarian Dynasties," while Balhae was included in the section of "Northern Barbarian Dynasties." However, the History of Sui Dynasty put Goguryeo and Balhae together in the Eastern Barbarian section.

In this context, we can detect the fact that the history writers since the Old History of the Tang Dynasty maintained a dynasty-centered historical perspective. Under this approach, they could not acknowledge Balhae, which was created 30 years after the fall of Goguryeo, as a country that inherited Goguryeo. In any case, it is an unmistakable fact that Balhae was a kingdom established in succession of Goguryeo in terms of territory as well as the inhabitants. It is utterly unreasonable to argue that the Malgals suddenly replaced all Goguryeo people in the old Goguryeo territory or their population suddenly increased to outnumber the indigenous Goguryeo people.

In addition, the key to understanding the composition of Balhae inhabitants is the fact that the tribal name "Malgal (Mo-ho)" was given by outsiders, not by the Malgals themselves. It is widely known that the forbearers of Malgal were Suksin before the Qin Dynasty and Eup-ru during the Han Dynasty.

These names were not used by the tribes themselves but were coined by different Chinese dynasties to refer to various "uncivilized" barbarian tribes around the periphery. It is unlikely that the Malgal people would change their own tribal name, or would they be willing to use such derogatory word as "Malgal." The term "Malgal" was coined based on the old Sino-centric and dynasty-centered historical perspective as a general term referring to ethnic minorities in the Northeastern borderland of the Tang Dynasty.

It was also a derogatory name for the inhabitants living in the periphery of Goguryeo. In other words, the term "Goguryeo people" were used to refer to the residents in and around the capital Pyongyang and the people residing in outlying areas were called the uncivilized "Malgals."

Records describe Dae Jo-young, the founder of Balhae, as "a Goguryeo eccentric" or "a Sokmal Malgal." But, these descriptions of him do not mean that he could be either a Goguryeo person or a Malgal person. It simply means that he was a "villager from the Songwha River in Goguryeo." By the same token, it is also clear that the ethnicity of the ruling class and the ruled could not have been different.

We learn from the Old History of the Tang Dynasty the fact that Balhae succeeded Goguryeo. The book says that the "customs of the two dynasties were the same." Customs generally include established practices related with the ceremonies of coming-of-age, marriage, funeral and ancestor memorial, as well as the language. So, the Chinese records themselves testify to the successive relationship between the two Korean dynasties. This relationship can also be confirmed through their shared cultural heritage. There are certain lasting traditions in human societies that do not change even with the passage of time. Among them are the burial style and the heating system.

For the tombs of Goguryeo aristocrats, they relied mainly on masonry, such as stone chambers, stonewall and stone coffins. Balhae inherited this tomb style; a group of royal tombs in Yongcheonbu, the capital of Balhae, including the Tomb of Three Spirits (Samryeong Bun), were built in this manner. In the past, the earthen tombs in Balhae were thought to be the Malgal's typical grave pattern. Today, however, this type of tomb is known as a burial style for the commoners of Balhae, not a burial pattern of Malgal, which is a different tribe. All the commoners of Goguryeo and Balhae were buried in earthen mounds and this type of burial was universal at the time.

Korea is the only country in the world where people with the last name "Tae" exist, and they claim they are the descendants of Dae Jo-young, the founder of Balhae. Korea is also the only country in the world where apartment houses are equipped with "Ondol," the traditional "hot-floor" heating system. The Ondol (warm rocks) system originated from Goguryeo and the Balhae people also used the system. In the Old History of the Tang Dynasty, there is a description of Ondol: "In Goguryeo, lives of ordinary people are mostly poor. In winter, a long hole is dug under the floor of a room and people keep charcoal fire there to keep the room warm." The Ondol structures are found in the Goguryeo relics in Pyongyang and Jiban (presently Jian, Jilin Province, China). They are also discovered in the royal palace site in the capital of Balhae and the kingdom's surrounding areas such as the Littoral Province. All these findings are evidence that testifies to the successive relationship between the two Korean dynasties.

The writer is a professor of history at Kyungsung University. - Ed.



2004.03.11