King Gwangjong of Goryeo

King Gwangjong of Goryeo: Tyrant or Reformer?

Gwangjong 광종(光宗) 
Personal Name: Wong So 왕소(王昭)
Born: 925
Died: July 4, 975
As Seen On TV:  The 4th King of the Goryeo Dynasty, you can see his story played out in the 2015 MBC drama, Shine Or Go Crazy and the 2016 SBS drama, Scarlet Heart: Ryeo

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Scarlet Heart: Ryeo’s 보보경심: 려 interpretation of Gwangjong

For those watching Moonlovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo, let’s start by clarifying that Gwangjong did not kill all his brothers. But more about that later. Various interpretations exist regarding Gwangjong’s reign. He has been portrayed during most of Korean history as a bloody tyrant. However, some now see Gwangjong as a great reformer and attribute his reign for laying the foundation of Goryeo which lasted for 475 years. We will take a look at his reign and establish fact versus drama fiction.

Stability Through Establishing A Strong Central Government: Following the death of Goryeo’s first king, Taejo Wang Gun in 943, the young kingdom of Goryeo was left in a turbulent and shaky situation. The following two kings had short reigns and lacked the political strength to stabilize the young kingdom. In 949, Taejo’s 4th son, Wong So, now known as Gwongjong, became Goryeo’s 4th king. Gwongjong took many measures to stabilize the kingdom by strengthening royal authority and creating a strong central government. Among some of his measure was the creation of a large military loyal to him, and declaring himself “Emperor” 왕제. Declaring himself as an emperor was considered a super bold and audacious move because the only emperor was the Chinese emperor.  The first seven of Gwangjong’s reign was considered peaceful and he was viewed to be a strong and wise king.

But Then History Turns Against Him…
In Gwangjong’s time, the aristocracy, which consisted of family clans and military generals, held massive of power and influence in the kingdom; many of whom were awarded Meritorious Service for having helped his father establish the new kingdom. Gwongjong upset the balance of power by strengthening royal authority and reducing their power.  He enacted a series of major reforms which were viewed as unfavorable to the aristocracy – simply put, he really pissed them off!

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“Gwang” 광 can can mean either “bright” or “shine” 光 or it can mean “to go crazy,” 狂 – Hence the drama title “Shine or Go Crazy” 빛나거나 미치거나

Slave Reform Act 노비안검법: One of his most famous reforms was enacting the Slave Review Act in 956.  Under this act, a new commission was set up to review the origins of slaves to ensure they were legally acquired. Those that were found to be illegally acquired were then emancipated. This was genius move because he was able to kill two birds with one stone. First, this decreased the number of slaves owned by powerful clans and military officers, thereby decreasing their power. Second, these newly emancipated slaves became tax payers, who fed into the royal coffers.

Establishment of Civil Service Exam 과거 제도: The other reform Gwangjong is credited for was the establishment of the National Civil Service Exam in 958. This was a national test which allowed government officials to be recruited based on merit and scholarly attainment rather than family or political connections. This had significant impact in Korean Confusion history.  Some consider Gwongjong to be a key figure in the establishment of Korean Confucianism. Although the slave reform act ended after Gwangjong’s death, the civil service exam lasted for almost 950 more years until the Gabo Reform of 1894.

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Scarlet Heart’s interpretation of King Hyejong (left) and King Jeongjong (right) the 2nd and 3rd kings of Goryeo. Both were brothers of Gwangjong.

Did Gwangjong instigate a bloody purge against the nobility or was he merely suppressing rebellious forces who were against his reforms?  So this is where history takes a turn. The mainstream version of history is that Gwangjong was a bloody tyrant, but based on additional evidence, the reality may be closer to the fact that he was merely squashing a rebellion.

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Scarlet Heart’s – 9th Prince Wang Won

Obviously, the powerful clans and military officers were not happy to lose their military strength, to lose their slaves, and to lose their status of Meritorious Service for the founding of Goryeo. Their discontent became too much to bare and they reacted by staging a rebellion. The rebellion failed miserably and as a result, in 960, there was a purge of all those involved in the failed rebellion attempt. As mentioned at the top of the article, Gwongjong did not kill all his brothers. The only brother that he killed was his half brother, the 9th Prince HyoEun 효은태자 (aka: Wang Wun 왕원 ). Other relatives who were purged in the rebellion included his nephews Prince HeungHwa 흥화궁군 (son of King Hyejong 혜종, the 2nd king) and Prince Gyeongchunwon 경춘원군 (son of King Jeongjong 정종, the 3rd king). 

According to historical records, Gwangjong’s son, Wang Joo (the future King Gyungjong 경종) was caught up in treasonous accusations. Historical records documents that the young prince was spared from the purge since he was Gwongjong’s only surviving son. In actuality, it seems the accusations were baseless since he would have only been 5 years old at the time of the rebellion.  

wedding Scarlet Heart GwangjongDid he really marry his half-sister? Yes he did. He also married his niece, the daughter of King Hyejong (the 2nd king) and the sister of  one of the nephews he purged in the rebellion of 960. (That must have been pretty awkward!)

He was the first and only Goryeo king to marry such close relatives. It is unclear to this writer as to why he decided to marry such close relatives. Perhaps he was trying to revive ancient Silla’s Bone Rank System by creating a “pure blooded” royal family. Perhaps he was doing this as a measure to strengthen royal authority by not allowing any other clans to join the royal family as in-laws. (Comments on this topic is welcomed and encouraged!)

Why the Bad Rap? As the old saying goes, history is written by the winners. It can also be said that history is written by the survivors. Goryeo statesmen and historian, Choe Seungno 최승로 was an the advisor to six generation of kings beginning with Taejo. During the reign of Gwongjong’s grandson, King Seongjong 성종, Choe wrote an ancient equivalent of a “Tell-All” book documenting the past glories and failures of all the past kings he served. Choe especially slammed Gwangjong and placed blame on him for a variety of things. Choe’s account and his interpretation of Gwangjong’s actions is the version that has stuck in history.

In Conclusion: Gwongjong’s reign lasted for 26 years. Goryeo lasted for another 400 years. His reforms such as the Slave Reform Act and the National Civil Service Exam are still taught over 1000 years later. So what do you think, tyrant of reformer? 

List of Dramas Featuring Gwongjong

Sources: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

정승우

Empress Chunchu’s interpretation of Gwangjong

Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo

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Shine or Go Crazy

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  • Nela

    I think the real truth of the past can never be determined by simply watching a fictionalized version of the events. The historian Choe Seungno may be telling the truth in his accounts of what had happened or he could be lying about it. No one will ever know. Nonetheless, I really liked Scarlet Heart: Ryeo because it made me feel what it’s like to live in those long ago past. It’s only creative writing but it feels real because it drew parallels on what actually happened. The real Gwangjong could’ve been a terrible king but I sympathized and fallen in love with Lee Joon Gi Gwangjong. He has so much sincerity I almost forgot it’s just acting. I’m half way through the drama but I did some research already. I can’t get enough!

  • Glyz Abangan

    Well right now I am disappointed that Hae Soo will not end up with the 4th Prince. 🙁 i am still at 7th episode of Scarlet Heart and had to look up Gwangjong. 😢😢😢

  • Kelimor

    I think GwangJong kill people because that is his way to protect the goryeo or maybe the people he killed was actually has a bad adentity

  • Eva dalit

    since i watched Scarlet Heart I became interested in Korea History so I decided to make some research and I came up it this blog and this is nice blog. I think King Gwangjong is the best king in Goryeo. He really a good and wise king. Thank you for all your information. This drama open the heart of many foreign fans to be interested in Korea History. Congratulations to the cast, crew, director and writer of Scarlet Heart. All of you did a very very great job. This drama is a masterpiece!!! The best drama

  • Umunie

    I think King Gwangjong was a reformer The historian Choe Suengno could be one of those who were not in favor of Gwangjong/s reforms or maybe he had so many slaves then ;( . At least in korean dramas , they were able to show the good things the 4th King had done to his country . I was influenced much by Scarlet Hear-Ryeo to the point that i have to dig and search about Wang So/Gwangjong and Goryeo

    • VermillionQueen

      Same. After watching Scarlet Heart I ran to google immediately lol

      • Lisa Briskey

        I did, too. Since watching Scarlet Heart, I have been watching documentaries on Goryeo.

  • Cynthia

    I think he is a reformer and scarlet heart got the story he did marry from family for he love someone he can’t it shows on his pass law about slaved. And maybe he is rewarded by heaven that he made life at present to really love and live freely that is why he is into Buddhism. Ah people with great heart has a place in the.
    sky for he live his life.

  • Tiago Tavares

    Hello, does anyone know how did the Jeongjong die?

  • Angel Lee

    I really like the Korean drama, “Moon Lovers”. I’ve learned a lot especially about the Kingdom of Goryeo. I think King Gwangjong was just a reformer, he had the reasons to kill the rebelions since he was just protecting the kingdom and to make the kingdom better and strong.

  • Rebekah

    I think right now I would say just a king trying to keep the rebellion down, until further evidence.

  • Humbledaisy

    Thanks for the “As seen on tv” links – it makes for a quick look at a few episodes! More monarchs, please!