A legend of beautiful knights popularized by 2016 drama series Hwarang: The Poet Warrior Youth, Silla’s legendary Hwarang have far more to them than what was simply portrayed on the dramatic retelling of their story.
For one, the English translation of “Flower Youth” doesn’t quite do the Hwarang justice, as it often has negative connotations attached to it in Western society. Though it is true that the Hwarang were known for their beauty, the English equivalent doesn’t quite cover the true meaning of the existence of the Hwarang.
The Founding of the Hwarang
Like many aspects of Korean history, the lines blur between historical facts and foundation myths. The Hwarang are said to have been founded during the Three Kingdoms Period of Korea, originally a faction of the Silla empire (southeastern peninsula), as opposed to Baekje (southwestern peninsula) and Goguryeo (Northern Territory). Historians believe the Hwarang stemmed from the Wonhwa, beautiful young women chosen to receive ethical training. As far as the myth goes, there were two leaders of the Wonhwa, and when one became jealous of the other she murdered her co-leader, causing the Wonhwa to disband.
King Jinheung is credited with the creation of the Hwarang in the 6th century to strengthen Silla’s military and find people to service the court. In order to be considered for the Hwarang, the male in question needed to be considered a “true bone,” which, put simply, meant being of royal or aristocratic familial background. Silla had a strong bone rank system, comparable to the caste system of India. So, the men eligible to join the Hwarang were likely to serve the court in some way to begin with.
For those unfamiliar with Korean history, Silla eventually rose up to conquer all three kingdoms, unifying the peninsula under the Silla empire, with the Hwarang playing a role in these Unification Wars. If familiar with Hwarang: The Poet Warrior Youth, it’s important to differentiate the dramatic elements placed in the storyline from real history. As far as primary sources go, there is no evidence that the Hwarang were created for political control, as is suggested in the drama.
The Hwarang Teachings
The Hwarang were more than just a military force. The members of this force were also versed in religious and ethical teachings. At the time of their founding, the state religion throughout Silla was Buddhism. Confucianism also had a major influence, as well as traditional Korean shamanism. Buddhist monks often helped with teaching the Hwarang, and common Buddhist and Confucian themes such as loyalty to the king and filial piety were a huge part in this education. In the Samguk Yusa, a collection of legends, a story exists tying the Hwarang to Maitreya Buddha, even suggesting that some were potentially reincarnates of the Maitreya Buddha. Other prominent Buddhist teachings such as mercy to all living things, indifference to material temptations, and a calm attitude towards death were important cornerstones in the education of the Hwarang. Silla’s native shamanism likely played a part in the use of cosmetics, accessories, and dancing during prayer. The Hwarang were known for taking on these practices as well. So, put simply, the beliefs and teachings of the Hwarang were a huge mixture of the beliefs of the time.
For reference, the Hwarang can be compared to Japan’s samurai or Europe’s knights. The Hwarang and samurai have the most in common, as both were made up of men from aristocratic backgrounds proficient in ethics and religion on top of military training. Knights are in a separate class, as they were often considered the lowest in the aristocracy and were much more military focused with less interest in education. Additionally, the codes of chivalry weren’t nearly as comprehensive as the Hwarang and samurai texts.
Still curious about the Hwarang? More sources can be found at the end of this piece! Additionally, Hwarang: The Poet Warrior Youth remains an interesting source for research on this particular piece of Korean history, even with the extra dramatic elements added in. Korea’s history is long and rich, and the Hwarang are just a small piece of it!
Richard Rutt, “The Flower Boys of Silla (Hwarang).” Transactions of the Korea Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 38.
Vladimir Tikhonov, “Hwarang Organization: Its Functions and Ethics.” Korea Journal 38, no. 2.
Woo-keun Han, The History of Korea. University of Hawaii Press.
Peter H. Lee, Sources of Korean Tradition. Columbia University Press.