Disputed Historical Figure
During the mid-Goryeo period in the 13th century, those in power deprived farmers of their land for various reasons. Farmers who lost their land often degenerated into slaves. To remedy the situation, the Directorate for Reclassification of Farmland and Farming Population was first introduced in 1269. The government organization tasked with land and slavery reform was re-established several more times afterwards. The office played the most critical role ever in 1366 during the reign of King Gongmin. It was Buddhist monk Shin Don who pushed ahead with reform through this organization.
On the back of full confidence of the king, Shin Don grabbed the halls of power. Some describe him as a reformer or a revolutionist, while others call him a corrupt and wicked monk blinded by greed for power. Let’s find out more about Shin don, one of the most disputed historical figures in Korean history.
Buddhist Monk in King Gongmin’s Dream Wipes Farmers’ Tears
Shin Don was born as the son of a female slave in a Buddhist temple. Without a father, he was brought up by his single mother. He naturally became a Buddhist monk and spent his childhood with his Dharma name “Pyeonjo(편조).”
Shin Don met King Gongmin for the first time in 1358. Having been disappointed with the aristocratic class with power, the king was looking for a new figure to push for reform.
One day, the king had a dream. In the dream, a man was about to kill the king when a passing Buddhist priest rescued the king. It turned out that the king met Shin Don soon after this dream.
King Gongmin believed that Shin Don was none other than the Buddhist monk he had seen in his dream. Afterwards, the king met him frequently and gave him a nickname “cheonghan geosa(청한거사),” meaning a hermit of clarity and leisure. Shin Don started to engage in state affairs in earnest. He was determined to reform the corrupt society.
His politics focused on improving the public livelihood. Previous kings set up the Directorate for Reclassification of Farmland and Farming Population, but Shin Don re-established the organization to reform land and slavery systems. He enforced the law requiring aristocrats to return the land they had taken from helpless farmers to the original owners. If low-class people or slaves wanted to be commoners, Shin Don granted their wish. Of course, farmers and slaves hailed him as a great reformer or a saint.
Harboring Ambition based on King’s Trust
However, a history book known as History of Goryeo calls Shin Don a vicious Buddhist monk. In the book, he is described as a person who pretended to be a saint with his words, but spoke ill of other people and did harm to them while enticing women into having inappropriate relationships with him. The book also said despite all these evil acts, the double-faced man was completely different in front of the king.
Shin Don wasn’t afraid of anything as he enjoyed the full confidence of the king. Aristocrats pleaded with the king to stay away from the evil man, even plotting to get rid of him. But the king only sided with his beloved retainer.
Yet, their close relationship began to crumble gradually after Shin Don proposed to relocate the capital. As the king grew aware of Shin Don’s increasing ambition, he began to keep the man at a distance. Shin Don plotted treason, only to be sent into exile. He was later beheaded.
Goryeo Reformer also Reviewed as Vicious Monk
Shin Don assumed power for a relatively short period of six years under King Gongmin in the Goryeo era. His political status was rather abnormal as it was only rooted in the king’s deep trust. It is also said that he lacked qualifications for a politician.
But he utilized a government office to return the land that aristocrats had taken away from farmers to the original owners, and also selected politicians through the education system of Sunggyungwan. Obviously, these were highly important tasks that someone had to carry out.