Hwarang: The Poet Warrior Youth: Historical Context

화랑 | 디지털 KBS
Photo Credits

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

Go-Ara,

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.

Hwarang

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.

드라마 '화랑', 신라 역사로 미리 보기! (박서준, 고아라, 박형식)
Photo Credits. King Jin Heung, the 24th king of Sila, played by Park Hyung Sik.
The scene in which the hwarangs pledge their loyalty to King Jin Heung in the last episode of the drama. In the drama, hwarangs are established by Jin Heung’s mother, the honorary queen Queen Jiso.

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.

신라 발전·통일 기여한 '화랑 트로이카'를 만나다 - 경북매일
Photo Credits

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.

화랑 - 김현준, 피하기만 하는 김태형에 분노 "어떻게든 널 증명해!".20170124 - YouTube
Photo Credits. Actor Kim Hyun Jun, who acts as a “nangdo” to hwarang Park Seo Jun’s character
The heartbreaking scene in which Kim Hyun Jun’s character is punished instead of BTS V’s character for the latter’s wrongdoing; possibly because although the two are brothers, they are only half-brothers, with the character played by V being a “pure-blood” that qualifies to be a hwarang, and his half older brother being a “half-blood” that can only be a nangdo

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.

삼국 시대 - 위키백과, 우리 모두의 백과사전
Photo Credits. A map of the three main kingdoms (Gaya is not considered part of the major kingdoms; hence the unification is called that of 3 kingdoms, not of the 4)

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.

화랑(花郞)', 드라마 넘어 게임으로 만난다… '눈길' - 노한솔 기자 - 톱스타뉴스
Photo Credits, A poster of a game launched based on the Hwarang drama

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.

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