A Designer of a Particular Era
While history flows like a huge wave that individuals can’t swim against, particular individuals do change the course of history from time to time, just as the narrow throat of a stream changes the course of water.
Particular individuals here refers to people who endeavored to build a new country in times of transition, like Kim Ok-gyun, in the early stage of westernization in Korea and Jeong Do-jeon, from the late Goryeo and early Joseon periods. Goryeo politician, Choi Seung-ro, who witnessed the chaos of the tumultuous Later Three Kingdoms era, laid the groundwork for a unified, centralized state and stable royal authority.
From Silla Person to Goryeo National
Choi Seung-ro was born in 927 as the son of Silla noble Choi Eun-ham. His birth story is recorded in the Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms.
Choi Eun-ham finally had a son long after his marriage. When Gyeon Hwon of the Baekje Kingdom attacked Gyeongju, the capital of Silla, Choi fled to a Buddhist temple with his son and hid the baby at the back of a Bodhisattva statue there. And he eagerly prayed for the safety of his son. When he returned to the temple after the Baekje forces withdrew, he found that the baby was clean, as if he had just been given a bath, and smelled of milk, although 15 days had passed. The father thanked Buddha and returned home with the baby, who turned out to be Choi Seung-ro.
When Choi was ten years old, King Gyeongsun(경순), the last ruler of Silla, surrendered the 1,000-year-old kingdom to King Taejo of the Goryeo Dynasty. Choi moved to Songak(송악), which is present-day Gaeseong, with his father to become Goryeo nationals. Choi quickly became famous in the capital of Goryeo.
Choi was recognized for his academic talent from childhood. He recited the Analects of Confucius in front of King Taejo at the tender age of 12. The king highly praised the boy and gave him a saddled horse and 20 bags of rice. Choi had the honor of entering a public institute where only scholars were admitted.
People had high expectations for the promising boy and Choi was determined to do something important for his country. He began to showcase his abilities in earnest after he met King Seongjong, the sixth monarch of Goryeo.
Establishment of Basic Political Structure of Goryeo
Choi could not display his abilities properly from his early 20s to late 40s, which is usually the most prolific period for men, because those studying abroad were given preferential treatment at the time. He rose to the forefront of politics when he was over fifty.
King Gwangjong, the fourth ruler of Goryeo, enforced massive reform by turning slaves to commoners and implementing the state-run Civil Service Examination. That eventually weakened the power of local leaders.
When the next king, Gyeongjong, died after six years of reign, however, the Goryeo court was plunged into uncontrollable confusion. King Seongjong, who ascended the throne in turbulent times, decided to establish a new political order and instructed high-ranking officials to write urgent issues to be resolved first.
Just as if waiting for this to happen, Choi wrote a proposal based on his accumulated knowledge and submitted it to the king. The long proposal, consisting of 28 articles, called for correcting various evils and creating new systems. For example, Choi proposed the reorganization of the military system, a ban on excessive Buddhist events, a restraint on trade, the establishment of administrative organizations in local provinces, the design of the uniforms for public officials, a strict prohibition on the high-handedness of Buddhist monks, the implementation of compulsory labor of commoners on an equal footing and the establishment of the status system.
Choi presented the reform proposition to the king in 982. The 56-year-old politician was at the peak of his career both in knowledge and experience. Choi was assigned to a royal assistant as the key official of the king, who was entrusted with a grave mission to settle the confusion and stabilize state administration. The Goryeo Dynasty was finally able to wrap up the era of endless confrontation with local leaders and establish the foundation of the kingdom, which would last 500 years.
When the reform was completed in 988, Choi asked the king several times to allow him to retire. He wasn’t interested in wealth or honor since his dream had already come true. But the king did not permit Choi’s retirement as he wanted to keep the key reformer by his side. When Choi died of old age in 989 at the age of 63, the king mourned his death and gave 1,000 rolls of hemp cloth and 500 bags of rice to be spent on his funeral.
The seventh king, Mokjong, enshrined Choi in King Seongjong’s grave. Choi made great contribution to allowing Confucianism to take root in Goryeo and establishing the crucial groundwork for the dynasty.