Kim YuShin (김유신, 金庾信) (A.D. 595-A.D. 673)

Kim YuShin (김유신, 金庾信) (A.D. 595-A.D. 673), the great warrior-general of Korean legend, looms large in the tales we have from the "History" and the "Memorabilia." His statue stands at Namsan Mountain in Seoul, at the base of the staircase that leads to the summit. Just as the foothills form the foundation of a mountain, so, too, did the conquering of the Korean Peninsula by Silla become the most pivotal -- and controversial, in light of modern Korean politics -- event in the history of Northeast Asia. Kim YuShin played a deeply entwined role in the conquering path of death and destruction taken by Silla monarchs in the A.D. 600s, and he is remembered today as one of the most successful, and bloody, warrior-generals of Korean lore.

We have stories about Kim YuShin (김유신, 金庾信) (A.D. 595-A.D. 673), from the "Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms" (삼국 유사, 三國 遺事) and the "History of the Three Kingdoms" (삼국 사기, 三國 史記), both written about 1,000 years after the events they record. We also have a physical burial mound for him in what is today Gyeongju, the ancient Silla capital (경북 경주시 충효동 산 7-1). His accomplishments are grand and his burial mound is quite unique.


An artist's interpretation of Kim YuShin stands in the park at Seoul's Namsan Mountain.

He's probably the most important person in the stories of the great Silla-Baekje-Tang-Goguryeo mega-wars that swept across Manchuria and the Korean Peninsula in the A.D. 600s. Born a high-ranking nobleman, he was a child warrior in an elite unit, grew up to be a great swordsman, was an intelligent leader, a creative military problem solver and the father of another famous future general (Kim Wonsul, 김원술, 金元述, ?-?). Kim YuShin was descended from both Silla and Gaya royalty, and his sister married into Silla royalty. Her husband, eventually the king, appointed Kim YuShin to lead Silla armies against Baekje in A.D. 660 at the great Battle of Hwangsanbol (황산벌 전투, 黃山─戰鬪). Working with Tang allies who had sailed across the Yellow Sea, Silla-Tang forces were able to destroy Baekje and then move northward against Goguryeo. Kim YuShin is said to have died at the age of 78 after being rewarded with all the tax revenue from a village of 500 households, plus some horse farms. He was named posthumously as an honorary king -- given the title King Heungmu the Great (흥무대왕, 興武大王), an extremely rare honor for a commoner -- and is buried near Songhwasan Mountain in what is today Gyeongju. He is said to have sired 10 sons. Nobody recorded if he had any daughters.

Hwarang (화랑도, 花郞徒)

The core of the military in the three main ancient Korean kingdoms -- Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla -- were the elite troops. These, however, were supplemented by hwarang or "flower of youth" (화랑도, 花郞徒). Like child soldiers (소년병) everywhere, these were bands of soldiers as young as their mid-teens, trained to kill. The stories we have about Kim YuShin, from both the "Memorabilia" and the "History," tell us that Kim became a hwarang at the age of 15, in A.D. 610.

The hwarang units adopted traditional communal patterns that dated back to the clan days, before these societies had grown into kingdoms. There were "five secular injunctions" (원광법사 신라) that the hwarang had to respect, as laid down by the Buddhist monk Wongwang (원광, 圓光). These were: 1.) to serve the king with loyalty; 2.) be filial when serving one's parents; 3.) to practice fidelity in friendship; 4.) to never retreat in battle; and, 5.) to refrain from wanton killing.

The hwarang were also religious. They made pilgrimages to sacred mountains and rivers in Silla, and prayed for "national tranquility and prosperity." They performed ceremonial singing and dancing, too. In the end, though, their most important aspect was military. Many of the bloodiest stories in "Memorabilia" and "History" are stories of the hwarang going into battle.

Defeating General Gyebaek

In the year 660, Tang monarch Gaozong (당 고종, 唐 高宗) (r. 649-683) sent an invasion fleet against Baekje under the command of Su Dingfang (소정방, 蘇定方) (591-667). At the same time, Silla forces led by Kim YuShin marched into Baekje. Tang from the west across the waves; Silla from the east over the mountains; Baekje trapped in the middle. This resulted in the famous Battle of Hwangsanbol and in Baekje's heavy erasure from the victor's psyche. Silla ignored its conquered people and wrote its own version of history.

Much of the erasure of Baekje from Korean history has been rectified in recent times with the stunning new Buyeo National Museum, whose predecessor organization began in 1929 to collect and emphasize Buyeo history, literature and accomplishments, within the larger context of a Grand Korean history.

Hereditary rights

As Silla absorbed the defeated Baekje and Goguryeo lands, and as it fought to push out any remaining Tang influence in the late 600s, it had to change and develop both its economy and the ways in which the Silla nobles ruled over the new lands of what used to be Baekje and Goguryeo.

Even before the forced absorption by Silla, the Silla aristocracy had received grants of "tax villages" (sigeup, 시급). Like feudal Europe, this was agricultural land held forever by one family. It also included horse farms and grain silos. This allowed the ruling families to accumulate great wealth. Kim YuShin was part of this upper class. Later in his life, he was rewarded for his military victories with hereditary rights to a village of 500 households, 500 kyol (결) of farm land, and six horse farms.

The "History" tells us that among the 174 horse farms in Silla in 669, 22 were allocated to the palace, and 10 to various government offices. The rest -- 142 of them -- were distributed to Kim YuSin, Kim InMun (김인문, 金仁問) (629-694) and other prominent members of the aristocracy who show up in the "History." All of this wealth was given by the state, as a reward for service to the state.

Kim YuShin's tomb

Finally, we know so much about Silla today because they used a lot of stone. There are two great bodies of Silla art: religious and burial. The religious art is glorious, as it was made under a regime that actively supported Buddhism (Side note: Later Joseon Buddhist structures had to be constructed far away in the valleys and mountaintops, as the state did not support that religion.) Silla Buddhist art is quite glorious: it includes the Seokguram Grotto (석굴암 석굴, 石窟庵 石窟) and the Bulguksa Temple complex (불국사, 佛國寺), both part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In line with this beauty, so, too, is Silla burial art.

Silla tomb mounds are the treasure house of Silla works of art unrelated to Buddhism. Pre-A.D. 660, Silla tombs had a vertical shaft with layers of stone covered by mounds of earth. This makes pillaging difficult. Gold crowns and a variety of other magnificent burial objects have been preserved. Many of these are on display at the Gyeongju National Museum.

Post-A.D. 660, the most common types of tombs that have been unearthed have a horizontal shaft that leads into a stone burial chamber. Much smaller earthen mounds then covered the burial chamber, and then an upright supporting slab of stone was placed over the front. It is these stones that bring to us, down through the ages, some of the most beautiful Silla tomb art. It was on these stone slabs that the artists carved representations of the 12 zodiacal animal deities.

The concept was that these animal figures -- mouse, cow, tiger, et cetera -- all bearing weapons, would guard the soul of the deceased. The idea of the 12 zodiacal animals itself was borrowed from Tang and Sui, from across the Yellow Sea, but their use in tomb construction is a unique Silla development that has no counterpart in any ancient Chinese kingdom.

Which brings us to Kim YuShin's tomb.

This great military leader, honored as an official king after his death, has a tomb in Gyeongju that features the 12 zodiacal animals, each dressed in human clothes and bearing a weapon, ringing his burial mound. These stone pedestals are less than a meter in height, and they create a knee-high stone ring around his burial mound.


Kim YuShin's tomb is in Gyeongju, part of the larger complex of Silla burial mounds.

These animal warriors are extremely intricate, proof to the delicate artistry of the Silla tomb artists, and to the wealth of the Silla upper class. The best examples of the 12 zodiacal animal deities are found at the tomb of Kim YuShin (김유신묘, 金庾信墓), and also at the tomb of King WonSeong (원성왕, 元聖王) (r. 795-798) (경주원성왕릉, 慶州元聖王陵). If you visit Gyeongju, make sure to take note of the animals.

Finally, here's a story about Kim YuShin from the "Memorabilia," as translated by Ha Tae-Hung (1971).

Somewhat later, Kim YuShin discovered that Mun-hui [his sister] was pregnant. He was furious and immediately began preparations to have her burned to death as an example to all immoral women. That day when Queen Seondok went up South Mountain for a picnic, she noticed flames and smoke rising to the sky. Upon inquiring of her attendants, she learned that Kim YuShin was about to burn his sister to death because an illicit love affair had resulted in her pregnancy. The queen looked around and noticed that Muyeol [her son] was as pale as death. “So it was you!” she said. “Go quickly and save the girl!” Muyeol leaped on his horse and galloped quickly to Kim YuShin's house, shouting, “Queen's order! Queen's order! Do not put her to death!” And so Mun-hui was saved. A few days later Muyeol and Mun-hui were formally married.

Ilyon. "Samguk Yusa: Legends and History of the Three Kingdoms of Ancient Korea" (Kindle Locations 989-995). Kindle Edition.

Kim YuShin was childhood friends with King Muyeol, and Muyeol ended up marrying his sister.

In all, Kim YuShin is a vibrant character who comes alive in the stories about him in the "History" and in the "Memorabilia." He was born into a wealthy noble family, he married into a line of kings, he was a great warrior and defeated Baekje, and he died successful and wealthy. What else could you ask for in a mythic hero?