The Bridge That Bleeds: The Poet vs. The Prince
Korean revolutions are fought with swords *and* words
Poeun had reluctantly accepted the invitation to this dinner. As a respected poet, scholar and government official, he could not be absent from this banquet. But the evening’s host was his main political rival, Jeongan.
It so happened that Korean politics had been a violent affair as of late. The country was in a state of flux. Peoun was a supporter of the official regime. Jeongan, on the other hand, was a member of a faction that was publicly plotting a revolution. The question of who was the rightful ruler of Korea would certainly be the central subject that night.
Skilled in the art of debate, Peoun didn’t fear the arguments that his rival would bring to the dinner table. But Jeongan’s aggressive ambition unnerved Peoun as he prepared himself for the banquet. Would the revolutionary make his point with words alone, whilst the country was descending into violence?
Determined to support the current dynasty, poet Peoun joined the soiree anyway. Unsurprisingly, matters swiftly came to a head. To this day, there’s a bridge in North Korea that weeps for the fate that befell Peoun that very evening.
The Wihwado Retreat
Nearly four years earlier, Jeongan had witnessed his father doing something extraordinary. He had altered the course of Korean history.
Roughly a century back, during the 13th century CE, Korea had become a Mongol vassal state. Its ruling family, the Goryeo dynasty, frequently intermarried with the Mongol imperial family. As a result, the two dynasties were closely allied.
As the 1360s progressed, however, Mongol control over China started slipping. By 1368, the native Chinese had overthrown the foreign invaders. A Han Chinese emperor once more ruled the country.
These events placed great stress on Korea’s foreign policy. The Mongol cause seemed lost. But on account of its marriage ties, the Korean Goryeo dynasty could not simply abandon its obligations to it.
In 1388, after much debate, Korea decided it would attack the new Ming dynasty now ruling China. Jeongan’s father, general Yi Seong-gye, was sent north to attack the Liaodong Peninsula — then as now Chinese territory. When he arrived there, he realized that the Ming forces greatly outnumbered his own.
So he made a momentous decision: in a famous move called the Wihwado Retreat, he refused to attack, turned his army around, and marched back to the capital as a rebel.
The reason for Yi Seong-gye’s rebellion was the Mongol alliance of the Goryeo court. Because of the dynastic changes in China, the bonds with the Mongols had become a foreign policy burden for Korea. The union had garnered resentment from many powerful factions in the Korean administration.
Yi Seong-gye and his son Jeongan were part of such a faction. There were sent to Liaodong to defend a foreign policy tenet that they no longer subscribed to. So, while there, it didn’t take them long to gather enough support for a coup.
The rebellious general swept back towards the capital and defeated a smaller loyalist army. He dethroned king U and installed U’s 8-year old son Chang as the new monarch. Nobody was fooled, however: Yi Seong-gye was the true power behind the throne and Chang was just a puppet king.
This charade ran for about a year and a half. Then the general was done with it and resorted to kingslaying. He deposed Chang, too, and sent U — who was still alive — and Chang away from the capital.
On December 31st, 1389 CE, the two former kings were killed with poison. Chang was not yet 10 years old. Meanwhile, the military placed another Goryeo relative on the throne as king Gonyang.
Poeun’s staunch loyalism
Why didn’t Yi Seong-gye take the throne for himself? Well, as it happened, the general controlled the army and the throne, but there were other factions inside the government. And they argued that, charade or no, a Goryeo should rule Korea — the latter name is even derived from the former!
As a respected scholar and poet, Poeun was an important spokesperson for the loyalist cause. Yi Seong-gye’s camp tried to ripen Korean minds for the idea of officially overthrowing the dynasty. But as long as Poeun preached his loyal and determined support for the Goryeo family, general Yi Seong-gye — although he controlled the king de facto — legally remained a rebel, a mutineer.
Poeun’s influence came from his stellar career under king U and his predecessor. Poeun had received the highest mark on the exam for becoming a civil servant. Afterward, his literary skills propelled his prospects ever onwards.
Poeun’s scholarly works earned him great respect at the Goryeo court. He also participated in prestigious diplomatic missions to both Japan and China. Additionally, his poems contributed to his popularity outside the literary elite.
This statesman was thus a formidable pillar of support for the Goryeo regime. Ever a faithful public servant, the loyalty and friendship between them reinforced the political positions of both king and poet. General Yi Seong-gye, who had no objections to murdering individual kings, did not dare officially topple the dynasty as long as Poeun still drew breath.
A heated argument
Unbeknownst to the general, his son Jeongan had plans of his own to deal with the popular poet. While his father delicately muddled through as kingmaker and -slayer of several Goryeo dynasts, Jeongan was prepared to make matters even messier. He decided to throw a party.
Inviting the entirety of Korea’s elite, Poeun was naturally on the guest list. Host Jeongan dabbled in poetry as well and presented his guest with a treat that was aimed at his most famous guest: Poeun.
What shall it be: this or that?
The walls behind the temple of the city’s deity have fallen — shall it be this?
Or, if we survive together nonetheless — shall it be that?
— Jeongan, the son of general Yi Seong-gye, addressing his audience
To every listening ear, the message was clear. Jeongan was unequivocally and definitively asking Poeun to choose between the Goryeos (“the city’s deity”) or the alternative, implying official rule by his father. All guests nervously turned their heads towards the poet to see how he would react.
Of course, Poeun replied with a poem of his own.
Though I die and die again a hundred times,
That my bones turn to dust, whether my soul remains or not,
Ever loyal to my Lord, how can this red heart ever fade away?
— Poeun replying to Jeongan’s challenge
Jeongan had forced the argument and gotten his answer. Poeun would continue to support the Goryeo regime to his dying day. In the eyes of the supporters of a new dynasty, he had to go.
The weeping bridge
As the poet was making his way back home after the banquet, Jeongan sent five armed men rushing after him. They caught up with him on the Sonjuk Bridge and assassinated him on the spot. One of the old dynasty’s most loyal supporters was thus forcibly removed from the chessboard.
With such a major obstacle out of the way, Yi Seong-gye’s path to power lay wide open. King Chang was exiled the same year and, of course, murdered as well. After nearly 500 years in power, the Goryeo dynasty had come to an end. Yi Seong-gye ascended to the throne in 1392 and founded the Joseon dynasty. It would rule Korea for another five centuries.
The new king was not altogether grateful to his overly aggressive son. Poeun’s standing in Korean society had been enormous and his assassination was frowned upon. Yi Seong-gye publicly rebuked — now prince — Jeongan for the violent removal of the popular poet. This sowed the seeds for internal discontent that would continue to plague the Joseon court for generations to come.
Nowadays, the Sonjuk Bridge is a national monument in North Korea. There’s a brown spot on the stonework that turns red when it rains. According to legend, this is a blood stain from Poeun’s assassination.
Consequently, the centuries-old bridge still seems to bleed over the violent transition from the Goryeo to the Joseon dynasty and the price that Korea’s most respected statesman had to pay for his unwavering loyalty to the old regime.