Yeon Gaesomun

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Yeon Gaesomun
Yon Kaesomun.gif
Portrait of Yeon Gaesomun
(Portrait painted by guessing)
Dae Magniji (Grand Prime Minister) of Goguryeo
In office
Preceded byNone
Succeeded byYeon Nam-saeng
Personal details
ChildrenYeon Nam-saeng
Yeon Nam-geon
Yeon Nam-san
Korean name
Revised RomanizationYeon Gaesomun
McCune–ReischauerYŏn Kaesomun

Yeon Gaesomun[1] (594–666) was a powerful military dictator in the waning days of the Goguryeo kingdom,[2] which was one of the Three Kingdoms of ancient Korea. He is remembered for his successful resistance against Tang China under Emperor Taizong and his son Emperor Gaozong.[2]

Traditional Korean histories from Joseon painted Yeon Gaesomun as a despotic leader, whose cruel policies and disobedience to his monarch led to the fall of Goguryeo. However, his achievements in defending Goguryeo against Chinese onslaughts have inspired early Korean nationalist historians, most notably the 19th-century Korean historian and intellectual Sin Chaeho, to term Yeon Gaesomun the greatest hero in Korean history. In popular culture Yeon Gaesomun is often remembered as a exceptional soldier-statesman without equal in Korean history.


Yeon Gaesomun was born into the influential and distinguished Yeon family as the first son of Yeon Taejo, the prime minister (막리지; 莫離支) of Goguryeo during the reigns of King Pyeongwon and King Yeongyang. His grandfather Yeon Ja-yu was also a prime minister.

Information about Yeon Gaesomun comes largely from the Samguk sagi's biographical accounts of King Yeongnyu,[3] King Bojang,[4][5] and Yeon Gaesomun himself,[6] and tomb engravings and biographical accounts, from the New Book of Tang, dedicated to his sons Yeon Namsaeng and Yeon Namsan.

Tang Chinese historical records give Yeon Gaesomun's surname as Cheon (; Quán in Chinese, meaning "water spring"), because Yeon (; Yuān in Chinese, meaning "riverhead") was the given name of Emperor Gaozu (李淵; Lǐ Yuān), the founding emperor of Tang, and thus subject to the naming taboo by Chinese tradition. Yeon Gaesomun is also sometimes referred to as Gaegeum (개금; 蓋金). In the Nihon Shoki, he appears as Iri Kasumi (伊梨柯須彌).[7] Since both Yeon Gaesomun and Iri Kasumi are transcriptions from Chinese and Japanese intending to approximate his Korean name, his actual name can be reconstructed as "Eol Kasum".[8]

Very little is known of Yeon Gaesomun's early days, until he became the Western Governor (西部大人), where he oversaw the building of the Cheolli Jangseong, a network of military garrisons to defend Liaodong from Tang.

Yeon Gaesomun had at least three sons: (eldest to youngest) Yeon Namsaeng, Yeon Namgeon, and Yeon Namsan.

Overthrow of the throne[edit]

In the winter of 642, King Yeongnyu was apprehensive about Yeon Gaesomun and plotted with his other officials to kill him. When Yeon Gaesomun discovered the plot, he arranged a lavish banquet to celebrate his rise to the position of Eastern Governor (東部大人) to which one hundred of the opposing politicians of the nation were invited. Yeon Gaesomun ambushed and killed all one hundred politicians present, and then proceeded to the palace and murdered King Yeongnyu. According to traditional Chinese and Korean sources, Yeon Gaesomun's men dismembered the king's corpse and discarded it without proper ceremony.

After placing King Bojang (r. 642–668– ),a nephew of King Yeongnyu, on the Goguryeo throne, Yeon Gaesomun appointed himself the Dae Magniji (대막리지; 大莫離支; generalissimo) and assumed absolute de facto control over Goguryeo affairs of state until his death around 666.[9]

Yeon Gaesomun's coup d'état came as the culmination of a lengthy power struggle between those in the government who favored appeasement toward Tang China and those who advocated military confrontation; Yeon Gaesomun belonged to the hard-liners. Traditional Chinese and Korean historians assumed that Yeon Gaseomun's motive was simply his thirst for power, but many modern Korean historians assert that his motive was to make Goguryeo assume a tougher stance against Tang China, as opposed to King Yeongnyu who submitted to Tang for a peaceful diplomatic relationship. Yeon Gaesomun's role in the murder of King Yeongnyu was taken as the primary pretext for the failed Tang invasion of 645.

Wars with China[edit]

The series of wars between Goguryeo and Tang China comprise some of the most important events in the ancient history of Northeast Asia, leading to the Tang–Silla alliance, the ultimate demise of powerful Goguryeo, and the unification of the Korean Peninsula under Silla control. Yeon Gaesomun was a central protagonist in this series of conflicts, as well as its primary cause.

At the outset of his rule, Yeon Gaesomun took a brief conciliatory stance toward Tang China. For instance, he supported Taoism at the expense of Buddhism, and to this effect in 643, sent emissaries to the Tang court requesting Taoist sages, eight of whom were brought to Goguryeo. This gesture is considered by some historians as an effort to pacify Tang and buy time to prepare for the Tang invasion Yeon thought inevitable given his ambitions to annex Silla.

Relations with Tang deteriorated when Goguryeo launched new invasions of Silla. In 645, the first conflict of the Goguryeo–Tang War began and Emperor Taizong's noted military acumen enabled him to conquer a number of major Goguryeo border fortresses.

Eventually, however, Emperor Taizong's invasion was met with two major setbacks. First, his main army was stymied and bogged down for several months at Ansi Fortress due to the resistance of the celebrated commander Yang Manchun.[2][9] Second, the elite marine force that he sent to take Pyongyang, Goguryeo's capital, was defeated by Yeon Gaesomun who, according to the Joseon Sanggosa, then immediately marched his legions to relieve Yang Manchun's forces at Ansi Fortress.

Emperor Taizong, caught between Yang Manchun's army in the front and Yeon Gaesomun's counter-attacking forces closing in from behind, as well as suffering from the harsh winter and dangerously low food supplies, was forced to retreat homeward.[10] Before setting off, Emperor Taizong left behind 100 bolts of silk cloth out of respect to Yang Manchun.[9] The retreat was difficult and many of his soldiers died.[11] Emperor Taizong's campaign against Goguryeo was unsuccessful.[12][13] However, he succeeded in inflicting heavy casualties on Goguryeo. Upon returning home, Emperor Taizong founded the Minzhong Temple, the oldest temple in Beijing, to commemorate his soldiers who died in Goguryeo.[14][15][16][17] He invaded Goguryeo again in 647 and 648, but was defeated both times, and thus was unable to accomplish his ambition of conquering Goguryeo in his lifetime.[9][13]

Conquering Goguryeo had been an obsession with Emperor Taizong,[18] and after his death in 649, his son Emperor Gaozong continued his ambition. After the Tang-Silla alliance conquered Baekje, Emperor Gaozong invaded Goguryeo in 661 and 662.[12][19] One of Yeon Gaesomun's greatest victories came in 662, when his forces defeated Tang general Pang Xiaotai (龐孝泰) and his Lingnan army at the Sasu River (蛇水, probably Botong River). Pang Xiaotai and all his 13 sons were killed in combat.[20][21] Famed Tang general Su Dingfang, who was instrumental in conquering Baekje, was unable to overcome Pyongyang's defenses and was forced to withdraw due to harsh snowstorms. With increasing domestic turmoil in China, Tang was once again forced to retreat.

However, Goguryeo's population and economy were severely damaged due to the long years of continuous warfare.[22] Yeon Gaesomun died in 666 of a natural cause, and Goguryeo was thrown into chaos and further weakened by a succession struggle among his sons and younger brother,[9][23] with his eldest son defecting to Tang and his younger brother defecting to Silla.[22] Tang mounted a fresh invasion in 667, aided by Silla and the defector Yeon Namsaeng, and was finally able to conquer Goguryeo in 668.[22]


The most likely date of Yeon Gaesomun's death is that recorded on the tomb stele of his eldest son Yeon Namsaeng on the twenty-fourth year of the reign of King Bojang (665). However, the Samguk sagi records the year as 666, and the Nihon Shoki gives the year as the twenty-third year of the reign of King Bojang (664).


According to a local Chinese legend in the 19th-century Funing County Annals (阜宁县志): during a campaign, Emperor Taizong was scouting ahead of his army and was almost captured when he discovered Yeon Gaesomun's encampment and was recognized by the latter, but narrowly escaped by hiding in a decrepit well; later, Emperor Taizong had a pagoda (朦朧塔) erected near the location.[24][25]

Historical depictions[edit]

Tang and Silla sources portrayed Yeon Gaesomun as a brutal and arrogant dictator who carried five swords at a time, and had men prostrate themselves so that he could use their backs to mount and dismount his horse.

In popular culture[edit]

Yeon Gaesomun sometimes appears as a door god in Taoist temples in partnership with the Tang general Xue Rengui. In some Chinese legends, Xue Rengui and Yeon Gaesomun are the reincarnations of the White Tiger's Star and Azure Dragon's Star, respectively.[26]

Film and television[edit]


Yeon Gaesomun (under the name Gai Suwen) appears in Peking opera as the archvillain of the famed Tang general Xue Rengui, who rescues Emperor Taizong from Yeon Gaesomun's pursuit.[27][28]

Yeon Gaesomun appears in numerous classical Chinese literature about Xue Rengui, who rescues Emperor Taizong from certain death at the hands of Yeon Gaesomun himself.[29]

Age of Empires: World Domination, a mobile game produced in collaboration with series owner Microsoft,[30] includes Yeon Gaesomun as a selectable hero of the Korean civilization.[31]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Some Chinese and Korean sources stated that his surname was Yeongae (연개; 淵蓋) and personal name was Somun (소문; 蘇文), but the majority of sources suggest a one-syllable surname and a three-syllable personal name.
  2. ^ a b c Lee, Ki-Baik (1984). A New History of Korea. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. p. 48. ISBN 067461576X.
  3. ^ Kim, Busik. "Samguk Sagi: Volume 20". Wikisource. Retrieved 17 July 2016.
  4. ^ Kim, Busik. "Samguk Sagi: Volume 21". Wikisource. Retrieved 17 July 2016.
  5. ^ Kim, Busik. "Samguk Sagi: Volume 22". Wikisource. Retrieved 17 July 2016.
  6. ^ Kim, Busik. "Samguk Sagi: Volume 49". Wikisource. Retrieved 17 July 2016.
  7. ^ Nihon Shoki, First year of Empress Kōgyoku (642); 秋九月。大臣伊梨柯須彌殺大王。并殺伊梨渠世斯等百八十餘人。
  8. ^ 장세경 [Chang Sekyung] (1990). 고대 차자 복수 인명 표기 연구 [Study on the different ancient transcriptions of the same personal names] (in Korean). Seoul: Dongguk University. OCLC 26398687.
  9. ^ a b c d e Kim, Jinwung (5 November 2012). A History of Korea: From "Land of the Morning Calm" to States in Conflict. Indiana University Press. pp. 50–51. ISBN 978-0253000781. Retrieved 17 July 2016.
  10. ^ Sima, Guang. Zizhi Tongjian.
  11. ^ Graff, David (2 September 2003). Medieval Chinese Warfare 300–900. Routledge. p. 168. ISBN 9781134553532. Retrieved 2 November 2016.
  12. ^ a b Injae, Lee; Miller, Owen; Jinhoon, Park; Hyun-Hae, Yi (15 December 2014). Korean History in Maps. Cambridge University Press. p. 29. ISBN 9781107098466. Retrieved 17 July 2016.
  13. ^ a b Tucker, Spencer C. (2014). 500 Great Military Leaders. ABC-CLIO. p. 447. ISBN 9781598847581. Retrieved 12 October 2019.
  14. ^ "Record of Restoring the Buddha Relic at Minzhong Temple". Museum of the Institute of History and Philology. Academia Sinica. The Minzhong Temple is known today as the Fayuan Temple in Beijing. The temple was built by Emperor Li Shimin to mourn and salvage the lost souls in his failed attempt to conquer Goguryeo.
  15. ^ Haw, Stephen G. (22 November 2006). Beijing – A Concise History. Routledge. p. 171. ISBN 9781134150335. Retrieved 2 November 2016.
  16. ^ Perkins, Dorothy (19 November 2013). Encyclopedia of China: History and Culture. Routledge. ISBN 9781135935696. Retrieved 2 November 2016.
  17. ^ Jaivin, Linda (15 May 2014). Beijing. Reaktion Books. ISBN 9781780233000. Retrieved 2 November 2016.
  18. ^ Walker, Hugh Dyson (20 November 2012). East Asia: A New History. AuthorHouse. p. 161. ISBN 9781477265178. Retrieved 4 November 2016.
  19. ^ Ring, Trudy; Watson, Noelle; Schellinger, Paul (12 November 2012). Asia and Oceania: International Dictionary of Historic Places. Routledge. p. 486. ISBN 9781136639791. Retrieved 16 July 2016.
  20. ^ 옆으로 읽는 동아시아 삼국지 1 (in Korean). EASTASIA. 2 September 2013. ISBN 9788962620726. Retrieved 5 November 2016.
  21. ^ 통일기. 한국콘텐츠진흥원. Korea Creative Content Agency. Retrieved 5 November 2016.
  22. ^ a b c Lee, Ki-Baik (1984). A New History of Korea. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. p. 67. ISBN 067461576X.
  23. ^ Kim, Djun Kil (30 May 2014). The History of Korea, 2nd Edition. ABC-CLIO. p. 49. ISBN 9781610695824. Retrieved 17 July 2016.
  24. ^ "迷趣重重朦胧塔之诗文选萃【散文】".
  25. ^ HD역사스페셜 제22편 세계전쟁사의 수수께끼!! 고구려 수당전쟁(2/2) (Documentary). South Korea: KBS. 7 October 2005.
  26. ^ "White Tiger in Ancient China". Retrieved 12 October 2019.
  27. ^ "Court: Peking Opera logo violated artist's copyright". China Daily. Retrieved 17 July 2016.
  28. ^ "Gai Suwen". Paul and Bernice Noll's Window on the World. Retrieved 17 July 2016.
  29. ^ McLaren, Anne Elizabeth (1998). Chinese Popular Culture and Ming Chantefables. BRILL. p. 196. ISBN 9004109986. Retrieved 17 July 2016. The Tang emperor engages in siege warfare of fortresses in snow-swept Liaodong in the kingdom of Gaoli (Koguryo) in modern-day Korea. The military dictator is regarded in some accounts as a barbarian to be sinified, and in others as a usurper who deserves execution. The terrain is treacherous and the enemy sophisticated. The emperor leads the campaign personally, against the advice of his ministers, and his very life is imperilled at one point. Xue Rengui's rescue of the Emperor Taizong at Yuni River from certain death at the hands of the Korean dictator is a highlight of fictional accounts.
  30. ^ "Age of Empires: World Domination Launched for Android and iOS". NDTV Retrieved 16 June 2016.
  31. ^ "Age of Empires: World Domination". KLabGames. Archived from the original on 3 June 2016. Retrieved 16 June 2016.
Preceded by Daedaero of the Western Province of Goguryeo
Succeeded by
Preceded by Magniji (Prime Minister) of Goguryeo
642 - ?
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Dae Magniji (Grand Prime Minister) of Goguryeo
Succeeded by