[KS] KSR 2001-15: _Generals and Scholars_, by Edward J. Shultz

Stephen Epstein Stephen.Epstein at vuw.ac.nz
Mon Aug 6 00:28:12 EDT 2001

_Generals and Scholars: Military Rule in Medieval Korea_, by Edward J.
Shultz.  Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2000.  Preface, Appendixes,
Notes, Bibliography, Index + 254 pages. ISBN: 0-8248-2188-2, cloth; ISBN:
0-8248-2324-9, paper.

Reviewed by James Lewis
Oxford University

	[This review first appeared in _Acta Koreana_, 4 (2001): 179-84.  _Acta
Koreana_ is published by Academia Koreana of Keimyung University.]

Edward Shultz has done us a great service by bringing into print an
expanded version of his doctoral dissertation, completed at the University
of Hawai'i in 1976. In nine chapters and an introduction, he examines the
political history of the KoryO dynasty from 1170 to 1258, a period usually
called the Military Era. His conclusions on the institutional
confrontations and their resolutions that developed over these eight
decades extend far beyond 1258 and have implications for the founding of
the succeeding ChosOn dynasty and even for the political economy of Korea
through the late nineteenth century. Studies in English on the KoryO period
are few and those in print are even fewer, so we should welcome this
elucidation of a complex time when military officials usurped power and
ruled in all but name.

In 1170, King Uijong was dethroned by a military coup, and for the next
twenty-five years, the survival of the dynasty was in jeopardy as strong
men fought over power.  General Ch'oe Ch'unghOn emerged in 1196 as the
victor, brought the dynasty back from the brink of ruin, and achieved
sufficient stability to pass power to his son.  In fact, the Ch'oe House
ruled from behind the throne for four generations or until 1258, when
civilian officials displaced them and negotiated a peace with the Mongol
invaders. The period of Ch'oe rule saw challenges of epochal proportions:
rebellions, massive foreign invasions, and the removal of the capital to
Kanghwa Island. Ch'oe governance responded with the creation of an
elaborate private system of governance that manipulated dynastic
institutions and political (Confucian) and religious (Buddhist) ideologies
and that relied heavily on retainers and personal loyalties. Ch'oe genius
was to retain older political structures while transforming and extending
them. The period saw the maintenance of traditional social elites, the
extensive use of marriage alliances and kinship ties, the continuation of
Buddhism as a significant economic and political factor, the retention of
KoryO kingship for its legitimating power, and the promotion of civil
ideals and structures for their ability to produce bureaucratic expertise.

The Ch'oe House introduced new trends as well as furthering old.  In
particular, the military seized power in 1170, because relations between
the civil and military branches of government had reached a nadir, but by
the end of the Military Era, both halves of the elite had achieved a stable
accommodation with the other. Ironically, the Ch'oe support of civil norms
and maintenance of the dynastic organs meant that its private system of
governance would eventually be displaced as soon as the military leadership
appeared weak or was unable to command sufficient personal respect. As long
as the military dictators relied on the king for legitimacy and used
Confucian education as a qualification for bureaucratic advancement, they
left themselves vulnerable to a re-assertion of civilian and royal
perogatives. Even Ch'oe House retainers were incorporated into the civil
dynastic structure, thereby diluting loyalty to their military masters.
SOn Buddhism was taken up and received sponsorship from the military
quarter, but SOn offers no political philosophy and so could not rival the
Confucian establishment with its focus on the king and concern with the
international politico-cultural order centered on China. The Ch'oe House
suppressed upstart social groups such as slaves and peasants, reasserted a
pre-coup social hierarchy, and worked hard to make the older economic
structures pay bureaucratic salaries. In so doing, they won support from
established clans. In short, the Ch'oe rulers reinvigorated the dynasty,
but their very success paved the road to their downfall.

The long-term legacies of Ch'oe rule were multiple. The success of SOn
strengthened a popular Buddhism that emerged as a credible rival to the
more elitist Kyo sect.  SOn offered a speculative philosophy that was to
assist the introduction of Neo-Confucianism in the late thirteenth century.
Buddhist syncretism during this period, typified by Chinul, Hyesim, and
Yose was paralleled in secular thought and society by the emerging
rapprochement between the civil and military officials. In suppressing
peasant revolts and purging the lowborn from high offices, the Ch'oe
dictators forestalled social revolution. Ch'oe restoration of a viable
dynastic tax structure allowed the land stipend system (prebends for
officials) to work, and brought in taxes for the operation of central
government, at least until capitulation to the Mongols. Nevertheless, the
resurrection and expansion of sigUp (prebends based on the number of
households, not land area) as rewards for loyalty and to pay Ch'oe expenses
created a trend towards the greater privatization of land and led to the
appearance of the great latifundia of the late KoryO period and the
eventual impoverishment of the dynasty.

At the risk of misrepresentation and omission, these are the general
conclusions of the study, except, that is, for one that is striking in its
suggestiveness. To reiterate, the Ch'oe House sponsored Confucian norms and
relied on the throne, while simultaneously using private institutions to
impose actual rule. The dual public/private structure sowed the seeds of
the eventual destruction of private governance at the hands of a
reinvigorated civil government.  Shultz is convincing in his argument, but
perhaps he over-weights his analysis and continues, "[w]ith or without the
Mongols, the Ch'oe House and military rule would not have survived KoryO's
civil tradition" (p. 186). Of course, Korean politics were determined first
and foremost by Koreans, but the impact of the Khitan and Mongol invasions
seems short-changed. On the next page, Shultz asserts, "the security of the
kingdom became the responsibility of the Ch'oe House ..." Presumably, the
Ch'oe House was unable to defend the kingdom against the Mongols and this
must have contributed greatly to a loss of legitimacy and ultimate demise,
much as the inability of the Tokugawa bakufu to keep foreigners away in the
mid-nineteenth century opened the door for a revolt of the domains. More
discussion on the Mongols follows below after we link this point to another
provocative innovation.

Shultz exposes us to the fresh breeze of comparative history by introducing
Japanese military government. He draws a number of interesting comparisons
between the character of Ch'oe House rule and the Kamakura government in
Japan, even going so far as to write: "[t]hat the rise of the warrior class
in Japan dovetails with the rise of the military in Korea highlights the
need to study these two cultures in concert." (p. xi) The Kamakura bakufu
initiated a series of military governments in Japan that lasted until 1868,
and so the obvious question is why Korea followed a different path. The key
differences highlighted by Shultz are that the Kamakura situation produced
vassals, whereas the Ch'oe House developed only retainers (lacking
elaborate ceremony or benefices). The Ch'oe House governed from the
dynastic capital, but the Kamakura bakufu located itself away from Kyoto.
Finally, the Kamakura situation was one of dispersed, decentralized power,
whereas the KoryO kingdom required a strong central army to defend itself
from attack.

Returning to the question of the role of the Mongols, the invasion factor
seems to relate directly to the comparison with Japan. The Mongols supplied
a large and overwhelming imperative for the reassertion of civil authority:
KoryO required centralization to survive. This was most easily achieved
within the existing dynastic structures. Without the Mongols, it is
conceivable that the Ch'oe House or another military successor may have
evolved away from the dynastic government and established itself in a
similar fashion to the Kamakura bakufu. In this sense, Shultz's comparison
with Kamakura may not be as apt as a comparison that might start with
institutional developments under the Heian court, leading to the period of
Taira Kiyomori following the Hogen and Heiji disturbances of 1156 and 1159,
through the Genpei War of 1180, to the establishment of the Kamakura bakufu
under Minamoto Yoritomo. Taira Kiyomori, like Ch'oe Ch'unghOn, did not
locate his power outside the dynastic establishment, but sought to use the
existing structure for his own ends.   In institutional terms, Kiyomori may
have been no more than a Yi Uimin-type figure (a lowborn slave with too
many ambitions), but Yoritomo's innovations in Kamakura may offer a glimpse
of where the Ch'oe House could have gone with the further development of
sigUp, private armies, and no Mongol invasion. Of course, Yoritomo did not
have the Khitans and the Mongols threatening his country, and Japan could
afford the luxury of decentralization. Shultz's argument leads to a
conclusion that downplays the impact of the Mongols, but his hypothesis of
internal factors being more important than external factors is untestable
and, although provocative, must remain only a hypothesis.

Shultz's attempt to introduce comparisons is brave and must be applauded,
no matter how modest they are at this initial stage. For example, no
comparisons are attempted between the popularity among military elites of
SOn in Korea and Zen in Japan. No comparison is attempted between the two
social histories or whether incidences of unrest or problems of social
mobility were similar or different.  No comparison is made with revenue
sources. These are large questions worthy of serious comparative study, and
this book cannot be faulted for ignoring them.  Interested readers may want
to consult Shultz's recent article in Japan Review for more on comparisons
between Korea and Japan (see Edward J. Shultz, "Ch'oe Ch'unghUn and
Minamoto Yoritomo," _Japan Review_, no. 11 (1999): 31-53. ).  Finally, on the
topic of comparisons, we might also consider the Sung military model and
its failures for some of the reasons behind KoryO's emphasis on civilian

Shultz's book is very informative on a number of important matters.  For
example, the vision of the "young, foolish, and stupid" (and corpulent)
Ch'oe Ui trying to flee over a wall and escape his assassins is priceless
for what it tells us about leadership qualities. Of course, the core of the
book is its extensive examination of the institutional arrangements for
governance. There are a few places where more information on broader
circumstances would have helped, or if it is there, this reader overlooked
it.  For example, there seems to be no summation of how Shultz views the
conduct and significance of the Khitan and Mongol invasions. The invaders
appear here and there, and although this is not his story to tell, given
the very interesting hypothesis mentioned above, a more comprehensive
assessment would have helped.  We get a few inklings of how the KoryO
government continued to function from Kanghwa Island, but one can imagine
that eluding and attacking Mongol forces while trying to govern and collect
taxes with difficult lines of communications and transport must have
consumed a large part of the day-to-day running of the government.  

A few minor quibbles follow. In 976, King KyOngjong introduced the chOnsikwa
"whereby the state granted prebendal rights from paddy land and woodland to
officials, military officers, and other government agents." (p. 4)  One
wonders how much "paddy land" existed in KoryO in the tenth century.
Tongnae is not near modern Pusan; it is one of the northern wards of the
city and the original core of the city.  (p. 14)  The KyOllyong Army is
obviously a key player in the coup of 1170, but its position within the
list of armies (p. 5) is not clarified, and the reader is left guessing its
size and position.  It would have been useful to have Ch'oe Ch'unghOn's
ten-point proposal in an appendix for easy reference. The final quibble is
not with the author, but with the University of Hawai'i Press.  There is no
glossary with Chinese characters. In fact, there are no characters at all.
This is a recurring failure of the Press to modernize itself. Such stubborn
refusal to join the modern world of multilingual publishing is now more
than an annoyance; it is an embarrassment.

Finally, there are a few last comments I would like to make concerning the
points of view that emerge in the book. The scene is surveyed from the
sources available, and so it would be surprising if the author's view could
have escaped completely from those biases. While reading the book, one has
to recall that the subjects of the study are actually a rather narrow group
of elites (perhaps no more than a few hundred?) located in the capital.
The book is an examination of palace coups among this group. Although there
is some consideration given to revolts in various regions, there is little
or no concern with the interaction of the regions with the center and how
that interaction may create limitations on elite activities. This is
apparent in the discussion of the immediate post-coup situation: "[t]o
stabilize the peasantry, sound administration was imperative." (p. 39)
Sound administration was certainly imperative, but the best laid central
plans are still hostage to the mechanisms of local rule, to weather,
disease, and invasion.  For example, what was the disposition of military
forces in the land?  How did the center administer provinces and
localities? Where were the Mongol forces and what did they control? Were
there lean harvest years, years of bad weather, outbreaks of disease?  Can
we detect the agricultural cycle in the actions of the government and the
movement of military forces? In short, what constraints on the center
derived from these military, political, and natural forces? The center acts
and so goes the country; this is a conceit built on a belief in the
efficacy of central government, a conceit that permeates the KoryOsa and
the KoryOsa chOryo, products of the age of ChosOn state-building. I have
already mentioned the question of the impact of invasion, but other, large
contextual and institutional issues that restrict the reach of the center
perhaps deserve some treatment.

Another inherent bias in the sources and within political history in
general is the common belief in elite qualifications for rule. For example,
much is made of individuals' fitness for high office (p. 31); this is
linked to experience, and experience would have been available only to
those of high social origins. Therefore, fitness for office begins with
high social origins. Not to discount experience, but this view is an
assumption that underlies an ideology designed to maintain the rule of
certain socially connected people, be they fifteenth-century Confucian
ideologues (editors of the KoryOsa perhaps?), or even members of the KoryO
elite in 1170. Ch'oe Ch'unghOn himself, although the scion of a
distinguished lineage, came from a military line, perpetrated a palace
coup, and seized power.  His acts were highly irregular, and one dares to
point out that his experiences did not prepare him for the role of military
dictator.  His appointments of civil officials from high social origins did
not necessarily result in good government; in fact, Shultz tells us that
the origins of the 1170 coup lay in the corruption of civil government. The
appointments certainly resulted in a cooptation of the elite lineages
receiving them, but it is dangerous to assume much more. Shultz offers
evidence for better government as a result of the exclusion of slaves and
lowborn, but the situation seems ambiguous: were the improvements more than
just greater efficiencies in revenue collection or the deft use of the
coercive powers of the state, and was the greater stability achieved by the
dynastic government or did it stem from the dictatorial power of private
Ch'oe rule? If the latter, then we are left with little more than "Might
makes right."

None of the points raised above detract from the value of this publication.
It is an extremely welcome contribution and opens doors on a period all too
often overlooked in English-language scholarship on Korea, so obsessed, as
it seems to be, with modern history.

Lewis, James. 2001
Review of _Generals and Scholars: Military Rule in Medieval Korea_, by Edward
J.    Shultz, (2000)
Korean Studies Review_ 2001, no. 15
Electronic file: http://www.iic.edu/thelist/review/ksr01-15.htm

More information about the Koreanstudies mailing list