Historical fiction drama “Hwarang: The Poet Warrior Youth” aired from December 2016 to February 2017, boasting an impressive main cast filled with current and rising stars like
Park Seo Jun,
and Park Hyung Sik.
Hwarang had a national viewership rating with a range between 6.0 to 11.1%. While the ratings might have been better, the drama received much love and support especially from the younger audience, both in Korea and abroad.
It’s been 3 years since Hwarang’s ended, so here’s a post on the historically rich context of Silla and hwarangs in the era.
When Jin Heung rose to the throne of Silla, he decided that beautiful and intelligent young women in the country would be recruited to become “wonhwa”, a group of approximately 300 female warriors who would eventually serve the country after training.
The wonhwa, however, was done away with when two wonhwas called Nanmo and Junjeong fought over jealousy, resulting in murder. Consequently, “hwarang”, a group with the same intended function as “wonha”, but consisting solely of men, was established.
“Hwarang” literally meant “men like flowers”, so the hwarangs not only honed their military combat skills but also their looks and character. They were not only warriors that fought valiantly in wars, but also (beautiful, intelligent and loyal to the country) representatives/the faces of the country.
The hwarangs, consisting chiefly of the sons of high-status/ranking men, trained and lived in various parts of Silla. Each small group of hwarangs had one “head hwarang”, called the “gukseon”. To be a gukseon, a hwarang had to be seong-gol or jin-gol, both of which referred to, respectively, the highest and second-highest ranks in the whole hierarchal system of status in the Silla era. Each hwarang group also had “nangdo”, who were lower status men that served the hwarangs, some consisting of about a few tens, and others, a few thousands.
Buddhist monks were usually responsible for educating a group of hwarangs. The monks were well-read in not only Buddhism but also in other religions emerging at the time in neighboring countries like China and Japan. Given the opportunities to learning they had, they were considered to be well-educated and hence sufficiently equipped to be teachers to hwarangs.
The system of educating hwarangs was a huge success. The hwarangs are deemed to have been significant contributors to the eventual unification of the three kingdoms, Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla, which was done by Silla, instead of other kingdoms which were previously considered to be much stronger, such as Goguryeo.
The hwarang system, for instance, produced a number of renowned heroes of the nation, such as Kim Yoo Sin, Kim Chun Chu, Moo Gwang Lang, Ban Gul, Gwan Chang, Sadaham and many more, who showed unparalleled bravery, loyalty to the country and their comrades, and of course, impressive combat skills. (FYI, Sadaham fought in many wars and was famous for releasing common people captured as prisoners from other kingdoms. When he died grieving over the death of his best friend Moo Gwan Lang, he was only 17.)
Although Silla was a strictly hierarchal society, the hwarang system provided a great platform for brave, loyal and intelligent young men to study, train and work together regardless of their backgrounds, allowing them to bond with a strong sense of solidarity and pride. Despite being chiefly quite young men from the age of about 15 to 20s, when Silla was attacked by other kingdoms, the hwarangs persuaded the king to let them fight in the war despite being much younger and less experienced than most soldiers on the opposing side.
The hwarangs, moreover, could contribute to the victory of Silla and the eventual unification of the three kingdoms only because King Jin Heung created and maintained an environment which respected and supported the learning of brave and loyal young men, regardless of their family background or status in the hierarchal system.