3,000 years of East Asian history in Korea, China, Japan, Mongolia, and Russia
A Reformed Government The Northern Frontier


Ch 4 - Koryo and the Khitan

The Liao Dynasty

The Song Dynasty formally secured the practice of centralized government in China. Despite great achievements in politics, education and commerce, the Song were unable to block inroads by the Khitan into northern China. Koryo remained detached from the growing conflict and strengthened its northern frontier to defend against the Liao Dynasty emerging north of the Yalu River.

In 959, just fifty-two years after the collapse of the Tang Dynasty, General Zhao Guangyin, commander of the palace corps, stole the Celestial Throne from Emperor Shizong of the Later Zhou Dynasty, the 7-year-old head of state Zhai Rong. During the next seventeen years, General Zhao successfully conquered all but two of the states that stood in the way of reunifying China. After establishing a new capital city at Kaifeng, Zhao Guangyin established the Song Dynasty and took the ruling tile Tai Zu, "Grand Progenitor." The rise of the Song dynasty brought an end to the political confusion and fragmentation in China.

Emperor Tai Zu's success rested in large measure on his determination to solve the most dangerous political situation of his time;  the almost unrestricted power of local warlords. He attacked the problem by transferring his own leading generals to minor posts or retiring them with suitable rewards. He limited the provincial regional military governors and their supporters to a single prefecture and, as they died or retired, replaced them with civil officials from the central bureaucracy. He also reassigned the best military units to the capital armies, and placed all military forces directly under the control of the central government. By subordinating the military to civilian control, Tai Zu not only eliminated the powerful warlords that had destroyed the Tang and kept China unstable and divided, he assured his new government would hold the preponderant military power in China. This system of civilian rule led to a greater concentration of power in the emperor and his palace bureaucracy than had been achieved in the previous dynasties.

Zhao Guangyin died in 976, and was succeeded by his younger brother, Zhao Heng, who ruled as Tai Zong, "Grand Ancestor." Under Tai Zu and Tai Zong, the administration of the whole Song empire became more thoroughly centralized at the capital than ever before in Chinese history. They completely reorganized the imperial government and centralized control of the dynasty at the capital in Kaifeng. Situated near the juncture of the Grand Canal with the Yellow River, Kaifeng remained in the old northern heartland of China, but it was almost three hundred miles closer than Changan to the rich rice-producing lands of the lower Yangtze River basin.

The civil government dominated virtually every aspect of government and society. Beginning with the Song, China's government not only became more centralized, it became more autocratic. The Chinese Empire had always been basically autocratic in theory at least, and certainly autocratic in practice, particularly under strong rulers. The Song Dynasty changed this by making the government more efficient and more centralized by changing the governing officialdom from aristocrats to bureaucrats. The greatest strength of the Song government lay in the quality of its higher civil service. Under the Song, the civil service examination system developed during the Tang Dynasty reached its most perfected form to provide a constant flow of young talent. This system succeeded in bringing a high level of talent into government service. It also had the benefit of keeping talented men from pursuing subversive activities by affording them a more attractive door to wealth and power.

The Song government managed to achieve such a level of stability that General Zhao Guangyin's usurpation of the throne in 959 proved to be the last in Chinese history. Although dynasties continued to fall from foreign invasion or domestic rebellion, and members of the royal family continued to steal the throne from each other, no Chinese subject ever again managed to usurp the mantle of imperial rule.

Many of China's great cities grew into centers of trade, industry and maritime commerce under the Song. In the provinces, the land-owning gentry, mostly scholar-officials of the government, lived alongside a newly emerging group of wealthy shopkeepers, artisans, and merchants:  the mercantile class. Printing and education flourished and spread, giving rise to a commercial revolution. A market economy based on private trade developed that linked the coastal provinces with China's interior. No longer were land holding and government service the only route to acquiring wealth and prestige. The expanded economy generated tremendous tax revenues and the Song Finance Commission, which handled the treasury, taxes, monopolies, and other financial affairs, kept a very close watch over the empire's entire tax yield.

Even with such improvements, the Song had one major flaw:  a weak military, particularly in the face of increased pressure from the northern nomads. When the Khitan helped the state of Later Jin achieve the throne as the third of the Five Dynasties in 936, they were given some sixteen prefectures as a reward. The Khitan thus sat in control of a wide swath of northern China that stretched from the Gulf of Bo Hai to the northern extent of the Ordos Plateau. The Song military never managed to achieve the military strength of the Han or Tang and could neither reincorporate Northern Vietnam into the empire or extend its control over any part of Central Asia or the northern steppe lands of Inner Mongolia.

In 979, China mounted a major military campaign to recapture frontier territory in the Liaodong Peninsula dominated by the Khitan. The campaign ended in total failure. In the years following the disastrous Liaodong campaign, much of south China united under the Song as the young dynasty mounted an unsuccessful attempt to retake the sixteen northeastern border provinces lost years earlier to the Khitan. The mounting military pressure against Song China by the Khitan effectively changed Koryo's relationship with China. The Song intended to move against the Liao state in alliance with Koryo and attack it on two fronts much as the Tang-Silla alliance had assaulted Koguryo in the fourth century.

Refugees from the earlier destruction of the Kingdom of Parhae by the Khitan settled in a mountainous region along the middle reaches of the Yalu River where they formed the small kingdom of Chongan. Squeezed between the Liao Dynasty on the north and Koryo on the south, Chongan established connections with the Jurchen nomads of eastern Manchuria and used them to establish and maintain communications with Song China. For years Jurchen envoys traveled down the Yalu River and crossed the Gulf of Bo Hai to China, carrying on both trade and diplomacy with the Song court in Kaifeng. In addition, both Chongan and Koryo shipped military horses to the Song along this same route. The people of Chongan took an actively hostile stance against the Khitan and their link with the Song Chinese greatly annoyed the Liao state. The Khitan moved to end such provocative behavior in 983 by launching a series of major assaults against the Jurchen tribes in eastern Manchuria. Within two years, Khitan troops occupied Chongan territory and the Tongga River basin.

Song China sent its envoys to the royal court at Kaesong in 985 to ask King Songjong for military assistance. King Songjong, already preoccupied with Khitan incursions and raids along his northern frontier, was in no position to offer military aid. Furthermore, he saw no need to help China and refused the Song request. Koryo correctly understood the direction of events unfolding across the Yellow Sea and was determined not to become involved in any internal struggle in China. Without help from Koryo, Song China again attempted to recover territory in the Liaodong Peninsula in 986. Once again the attempt ended in failure. With their eyes set on the riches to be found in the southwest, Khitan forces under Emperor Shengzong instigated incessant retaliatory raids and border clashes against the Song and began encroaching deeper into northern China.

Although the Khitan focused their attacks against Song China, they could not erase their deep apprehensions about Koryo's intentions in the south. The Liao state increasingly feared an alliance between Song China and Koryo as a direct threat to its own safety. As tension along Koryo's northern frontier heightened, the Khitan emperor tried to counter the possibility of being outflanked by once again trying to establish friendly relations with the Koryo government. Once again he was refused. Faced with Koryo's refusal to establish relations and its continued economic trade relations with China, Liao officials concluded that the only reasonable alternative left was to invade Koryo and conquer it outright. The Khitan launched their third major assault against the Jurchen in the Chongan territories along the mid-reaches of the Yalu River in 989. This time they occupied the territory in depth and constructed three major fortresses along the north bank of the Yalu River. Two years later, the Khitan completed construction of a large fortress at Naewon-song on the lower Yalu River near modern Kumdong-do, and effectively cut the only communication link between Chongan, the Jurchen and Song China. Ever wary of Khitan intentions, Koryo responded by building its own fortifications along the south bank of the Yalu River.

In late August 993, Koryo intelligence sources along the frontier learned of an impending Khitan invasion. Beacon fires lit the ridge tops between the Yalu River and the capital in Kaesong warning of the threat. King Songjong quickly mobilized the military and divided his forces into three army groups to take up defensive positions in the northwest. Advanced units of the Koryo army marched northwestward from their headquarters near modern Anju on the south bank of the Chongchon River. The seriousness of the situation compelled King Songjong to travel from the capital to Pyongyang to personally direct operations. That October, a massive Khitan army said to number nearly 800,000 men under the command of General Xiao Sunning swarmed out of Liao from the Naewon-song Fortress and surged across the Yalu River into Koryo. Waves of Khitan warriors swept across the river and fanned out over the countryside. They overran towns and farmlands, butchered whole populations, and laid waste to Koryo culture by razing national shrines, libraries, and monuments.

In bloody seesaw warfare, the fierce resistance of Koryo soldiers at first slowed, then considerably hampered the Khitan advance at the city of Pongsan-gun. As they had done with the Chinese, Koryo's army never surrendered. It stood firm against frontal attacks, broke to retreat and lay ambushes, and launched flanking attacks against the Khitan. Koryo warriors finally halted Xiao Sunning's army at the Chongchon River. In the face of such quick and determined resistance, the Khitan decided that further attempts to conquer the entire peninsula would be far too costly, and sought instead to negotiate a settlement with Koryo.

What the Khitan could not take on the battlefield with arms, they tried to steal with words. Without a hint of contrition or humility, General Xiao Sunning demanded the surrender of the former territory of Parhae to Emperor Shengzong. He demanded that Koryo sever its relations with Song China and, in the boldest demand of all, that King Songjong accept vassal status under the Liao emperor and pay a set annual tribute to the Liao state. Instead of responding with a unified voice and rejecting General Xiao's demands outright, the Khitan ultimatum quickly became the topic of heated debate in the royal court at Kaesong. Government officials on one side believed that acceding to General Xiao would prevent further Khitan incursions and they urged the court to appease the Liao emperor. Many of the senior military commanders who had recently faced the Khitan army on the battlefield stood in opposition, including General So Hui, commander of an army group north of Anju.

While the bureaucrats argued in Kaesong, General Xiao launched a sudden attack across the Chongchon River directly at the Koryo army headquarters in Anju. The Khitan assault was quickly repulsed, but it had the effect of agitating the royal court to a state of near panic. In an effort to calm the court nobility, General So Hui volunteered to negotiate directly with General Xiao. The one key factor influencing the negotiations, and both parties knew it, was the heavy pressure being exerted on the Liao state by Song China. In face to face talks with his Khitan counterpart, General So bluntly told General Xiao the Khitan had no basis for claims to former Parhae territory. In fact, since the Koryo dynasty was without question successor to the former Koguryo kingdom, that land rightfully belonged under Koryo's domain. In a cleverly veiled threat, So Hui reminded General Xiao that the Liaodong Peninsula was also territory once under the dominion of Koguryo. The Manchurian territories, including the Khitan capital at Liaoyang, should properly belong to Koryo.

After pushing General Xiao into a corner, So Hui gave the Khitan commander a "golden bridge over which he could escape" from his now difficult position. He told General Xiao that the activities of the Jurchen tribes south of the Yalu River hampered friendly relations between their two countries. Once the Jurchen were driven from the area, Koryo would extend its territory north to the Yalu River. The resulting land link between Koryo and the Liao state would, in time, make it much easier to establish friendly diplomatic relations. Faced with the alternative of withdrawing his armies from Koryo or fighting a major war on two fronts, General Xiao felt compelled to accept the logic of So Hui's arguments. In a final remarkable act, General So obtained Khitan consent to allow the region up to the Yalu River to be incorporated into Koryo territory. General Xiao and the Khitan army not only returned to Liao without having achieved their goals, but the invasion literally ended with the Khitan giving up territory along the southern Yalu River to King Songjong. So Hui's brilliant diplomatic maneuver underscored his correct understanding of both the contemporary international situation and Koryo's position in the region.

Following an exchange of prisoners, the Khitan army withdrew back across the Yalu River. The following year, Koryo and the state of Liao established formal diplomatic relations. In an effort to help the process along, Koryo temporarily suspended its diplomatic relations with Song China. King Songjong promptly took advantage of the situation and ordered his armies to drive the Jurchen tribes out of the northwest. Koryo moved into the area of the lower Yalu River and established a monopoly market for trade at the Liao city (modern Uiju) on the southern bank of the Yalu River.

King Songjong restructured the military forces of Koryo's central government into Six Divisions and the Two Guards. The Six Divisions included the Left and Right Division, the Divine Tiger Division, the Elite Striking Division, the Internal Security Division, the Thousand Bull Division, and the Capital Guards Division. The Two Guards units, the Soaring Falcon Guards and the Dragon-Tiger guards, were the kings personal bodyguards. A general commanded each of the Six Divisions and each of the Two Guards. These men also belonged to the Council of Generals, the military counterpart to the civilian Privy Council. An officer commanded each of the army's forty-five regiments and met regularly with other regimental commanders in the Council of Commanders. The one thousand man regiments included cavalry, infantry, prison guards, army ceremonial, navy ceremonial, and gate guards units.

King Songjong expected further Khitan incursions and ordered the construction of what became known as the Six Garrison Settlements to extend the power of Koryo all along the banks of the Yalu River. Peasant laborers built massive fortresses in the coastal plains and foothills between the Chongchon and Yalu Rivers near the modern cities of Uiju, Yongch'on, Sonch'on, Ch'olsan, Kusong, and Kwaksan. With its modernized defensive fortifications completed, Koryo reopened diplomatic relations with Song China. Khitan Emperor Shengzong viewed this defiant action and the growing strength of Koryo forces stationed south of the Yalu River with alarm. He not only voiced displeasure over these developments, but demanded that Koryo turn over its Six Garrison Settlements to the Liao empire. King Songjong immediately rejected his demand out of hand, thereby causing tensions between the Liao state and Koryo to heighten once again.


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A Reformed Government The Northern Frontier