Jang Bogo 장보고 – The Emperor of the Sea

jang bo goJang BoGo 장보고 張保皐 (also known as: GongBok 궁복(弓福) )
Born: 787 (Speculative)
Died: 841 (Speculative- 54 years old)
As Seen On TV:  Jang Bogo is famous for establishing Korea’s maritime dominance in East Asia by essentially owning the routes connecting Korea, China and Japan during the Unified Silla period. You can see his story played out as in the drama, Emperor of the Sea.

As Written In the Samguk Sagi (History of the Three Kingdoms)

Jang Bogo was a man of Silla whose clan site and ancestors were unknown. He found a good battle. He went to Tang (China), where he because Wu-ning-chun, and he was peerless in horsemanship and wielding a spear.

Upon return to Silla, Jang had an audience with King Heungduk [흥덕왕(興德王) – 46th King of Silla r. 826 – 836]. To the king he reported, “Everywhere in Tang they use our people as slaves. I beg Your Majesty to build headquarters at Chonghae to prevent pirates from kidnapping our people and shipping them west. 

Chonghae, now Wondo Island, was a strategic point on Silla’s sea routes. The king gave Jang and army of 10,000 men and bade him to pitch camp of the island [826]. Therefore Silla people were no longer enslaved on the high seas.


The Emperor of the Sea*

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. Wando - Emperor of the SeaJang 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_bogo_historyJang 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 bogo celebrationJang 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 above was written by KBS World in article published on June 2010. It is no longer there. Fortunately I printed out several articles while I had the chance. I would like to ensure that articles written in English, especially on more obscure historical figures, have a place to reside. 

The Downfall of Jang Bogo

The Silla aristocrats were concerned that Jang will continue to expand his power further and dominate the kingdom. The were especially concerned over his efforts to marry his daughter to the king.  Jang was assassinated in 846 A.D. by an emissary sent by the Silla court. In 851 Chonghaejin was abolished as a military base. This ended Silla’s maritime dominance in the region.

jang05Jang Bogo is still remembered to this day. S. Korea’s base in the Antarctic is named after him.