“One Who Conquers the Sea Will Conquer the World”
The 16th century was a time when the world powers were determined to conquer the sea as they sought territorial expansion. Many countries at the time were convinced that those who conquer the sea will eventually conquer the world, as the access to the sea was critical with respect to international trade and economic security. During the 16th century, England defeated the Spanish Armada and ruled the sea, quickly establishing itself as the world’s greatest power.
The Legend of Jang Bogo, the King of the Seas
Twelve hundred years ago, a Korean man named Jang Bogo rose to fame and was called the “God of the Seas” by his people as he ruled the Northeast Asian Sea. Although much of Jang’s origins remain unknown to date, a few historical records indicate that Jang was born in Wando Island sometime in the late 8th century during the late Unified Silla period. Jang is believed to have been born into a peasant family as he was called by his original first name Gungbok, without a surname.
According to historical records, Jang was adept in martial arts as a teenage boy but was unable to pursue a military career in Silla mainly due to his low social status. Knowing that he could achieve his career goals as a foreigner status abroad, Jang moved to China where he joined the Tang Army. At the age of 30, Jang was appointed to military office for his outstanding skills. It was the first time for a foreigner of a low social status to win a military position in China.
Jang quit the army and returned to Silla in 828 A.D. in order to stop the coastal pirates from selling Silla slaves in China. To better combat the pirates and to protect merchant activities in the Yellow Sea, Jang asked King Heungdok for permission to build a heavily fortified military garrison on the Wando Island. Jang’s request was accepted and an islet near Wando’s southern coast was named Cheonghaejin, where Jang trained 10,000 conscripts and effectively suppressed the Chinese pirates and Japanese raiders.
Jang also succeeded in opening a trading lane between Silla, China, and Japan, and active seaborne trading among the three countries was soon made possible. In 840 A.D., Jang sent a trade envoy to Japan and effectively utilized the Sillabang, a community of Silla people in Japan and China as a networking tool to open and manage international seaborne trade among Northeast Asian countries. As a result, a large amount of goods from China, Japan, and Arabia flew into Cheonghaejin, the hub of international trade in the region at the time. In the process of categorizing, repackaging, and selling the received goods under the direction of Jang, a tremendous amount of added value was created.
Jang also greatly contributed to boosting the production and sales of Goryeo celadon, which is widely acclaimed as the finest type of pottery in the world. In the 9th century, the state of the art Chinese porcelain, exclusively sold by China, was the most desired trading item among the merchants of Silla, Japan, and Islamic countries. Seeing the lucrative porcelain trade as a potential source of revenue, Jang looked for ways to make and export porcelain from Silla, and eventually succeeded in promoting the trade of Silla-produced celadon in Asia. The Silla aristocrats were concerned that Jang will continue to expand his power further and dominate the kingdom, and Jang was assassinated in 846 A.D. by an emissary sent by the Silla court.
Jang Bogo, the King of the Seas, who is credited with establishing an “Empire in the Sea,” will be remembered for his passion and relentless spirit that opened international exchange among the nations of Northeast Asia.