Gwang Jong, the Korean king featured in drama “Scarlet Heart Ryeo”

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Moon Lovers; Scarlet Heart Ryeo” finished airing in 2016.

It’s 2020, and fans are still petitioning for the second season (myself included)- we desperately want to know how (and if) Wang So and Hae Soo meet again in the modern era. There’s no shortage of fan-made trailers imagining a reunion of Wang So and Hae Soo in the 21st century…

Although Go Ha Jin of the 21st century is a fictional character, Prince Wang So played by actor Lee Jun Ki, definitely isn’t.

The heartbreaking last episode of “Moon lovers” shows the main character Go Ha Jin back in 21st century South Korea, reading about the accomplishments of Wang So, or, King Gwangjong.

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Let’s take a closer look at one of the most interesting kings of the Goryeo era, King Gwangjong.

Birth & Childhood

Gwangjong was born as Wang So (王昭), the fourth son of King Taejo, the founder of the Goryeo dynasty.

According to historical records, he was known to be quite handsome and very tall, at a height of 180cm. Considering the average height of Korean men (as of 2019) is about 170cm and average heights of people have been increasing over time, Gwang jong is considered tall even in modern day South Korea and was probably considered extremely tall in the Goryeo era.

(Fun fact: Lee Jun Ki is 178cm.)

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Gwangjong was born to Queen Shinmyeong sunseong but was adopted by Lady Shinjuwon of the Kang Clan who had lost her son.

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As a king

As Taejo’s fourth son, Wang So wasn’t supposed to be king. But his elder siblings passed away, so at the age of 25, Wang So became the 4th king of Goryeo.

Gwangjong has the reputation of basically transforming Goryeo from a disorganized mess (it hadn’t been a long while since the three kingdoms have been re-united to become the Goryeo Kingdom) into a strong country.

Among many accomplishments, he is best known for these:

1. Freeing of Slaves

Many powerful men of the Goryeo era possessed slaves most of whom had become slaves because they were in debt or had been captured during war of the Three Kingdoms.

Painting depicting a high-class man just chilling while his slaves work. Photo Credits

Gwangjong freed those who had been illegally made slaves or were previously just common people before the war.

It is believed that his true purpose of implementing the policy of freeing slaves was to undermine the power of formidable clans. This was because slaves at the time were used by members of the clans as soldiers and workers, in fact amplifying the military and financial power of the clan members.

Of course, to implement the policy, Gwangjong needed a valid reason. He justified the policy by emphasizing the importance of addressing the chaos in social status/hierarchy in society brought about by the war of the Three Kingdoms.

The policy, expectedly, resulted in enormous backlash from the powerful clan members, but was ultimately implemented.

Gwangjong’s plan was a huge success. It not only strengthened his power and weakened that of the clans. It also further fortified the military power of Goryeo because the freed slaves, now working common people, had the obligation to be part of mandatory military service and pay taxes.

2. Implementing of “Gwageo” exam

According to the suggestion of scholar Shaung Ji, Gwangjong implemented the “Gwageo” exam in Goryeo based on the civil service exam used in Tang at the time.

The “Gwageo” exam, a national civil service examination, could be taken by all male free-borns. The exam was meant to allow all qualified, intelligent men to work in the royal palace.

A drawing of how a “gwageo” exam used to look like. Photo Credits:

This policy completely undermined the status quo; at the time, only men whose fathers were powerful or accomplished could work for the government.

After picking public officials based on their exam results, Gwangjeong also standardized the attire of the officials based on their rank. (e.g. purple, red, green, etc.)

All these changes firmly established the hierarchy and order in the royal palace. They also reinforced Gwangjong’s power as king.

For the first seven years of his reign, Gwangjong had been a king compliant to the wishes of public officials and clan members. The groundbreaking changes he suddenly started to implement after seven years of planning and waiting threw the public officials and clans off guard.

Although the advantage son of high-class men had in working in the palace couldn’t be completely eliminated, the exam encouraged more capable men to contribute their talent to the country.

3. Eliminating opposition in the palace

As Gwangjong implemented various policies to strengthen royal power and establish order in the country, there was strong opposition from many in the palace.

The Gwangjong after seven years was a completely different king from how he was at the start of his reign. He declared he would immediately lock up and execute those who went against his wishes- and he did.

Public officials and clan members who opposed Gwangjong’s wishes were killed or exiled, accused of treason against the king. It was to the point that prisons were insufficient and more had to be built to hold the prisoners.

By the time Gwangjong had stepped down from the throne, only 40 public officials from King Taejo’s time were left in the palace.

There’s another chilling reason Gwangjong is known to be the “bloody tyrant” or “monarch of blood”; years into his reign, he even killed his own nephews and harbored suspicions about his own son, the crown prince.

Regarding whether Gwangjong truly deserves censure for his “bloody rule” is still up for debate in the present day.

Some argue that compared to other kings like King Taejong who only executed those who were truly against his rule, Gwangjong executed even those who supported his rule. It is often asserted that his killing was excessive and stemmed from paranoia rather than rational judgments.

Setting aside the necessity of the executions he ordered, Gwangjong is often also criticized for taking the lives of so many people, given the sanctity of life.

On the other hand, some argue that compared to other kings like King Taejong (who is also known for killing his brothers, friend and many others to become king), Gwangjong’s ruthless killing was in fact necessary for his survival.

Depiction of King Taejong by actor Yoo Ah-in. Photo Credit

In the case of Taejong, for example, when he’d become king, most of the public officials in the palace were loyal to him or generally on his side.

Meanwhile, in Gwangjong’s case, he was surrounded by powerful clan members who constantly looked for the opportunity to dethrone him- perhaps making his ruthless rule necessary for him to become a powerful, effective king.

Depiction of King Gwangjong by actor Lee Jun Ki. Photo Credits

His later years

After reigning for 26 years and 2 months, at the age of 51, Gwangjong passed away from an illness.

One of his 2 tombs is in Songaksan, a volcano mountain on Jeju Island. The other tomb is in North Korea.

Was Gwangjong a good king?

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Was Gwangjong a paranoid bloodthirsty tyrant, going on a ruthless and cruel rampage of killing even his family and supporters? Or was he a powerful leader doing what he had to do to survive? Or was he a bit of both?

I leave it to you to give Gwangjong a thought as we hope for a Moon Lovers sequel. 🙂

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