Gongju and Bueyo are two small settlements in Chungnam that were, for a time, capitals of the Baekje dynasty which controlled much of the Korean peninsula’s southwestern area during the Three Kingdoms period. Once known as Ungjin, Gongju became the second capital of the realm in 475, when it was moved from Wiryeseong (now known as Seoul), but held the seat of power for only 63 years before it was passed to Buyeo, a day’s march to the southwest. Buyeo (then named Sabi) lasted a little longer until the dynasty was choked off in 660 by the powerful Silla empire to the east, which went on to unify the peninsula. Today, these three cities form an uneven historical triangle, weighed down on one side by Gyeongju’s incomparable wealth of riches. Although the old Silla capital sees by far the most foreign tourists, the Baekje pair’s less heralded sights can easily fill a weekend. Many of these echo those of the Silla capital – green grassy mounds where royalty were buried, imposing fortresses, lofty pavilions and ornate regal jewellery. Unabashedly excessive, yet at the same time achieving an ornate simplicity, Baekje jewellery attained an international reputation and went on to exert an influence on the Japanese craft of jewellery-making; some well-preserved examples in both cities can be found at their museums, which are two of Korea’s best. Additionally, the Baekje Culture Festival takes place each September, with colourful parades and traditional performances in both Buyeo and Gongju; see wwww.baekje.org for more information.
The two cities remain off the radar of most international travellers, and most who visit do so on day-trips from Seoul. Much of this can be attributed to the fact that there’s next to no higher-end accommodation in either city, though a resort has recently opened up just outside Buyeo. Though unheralded even by Koreans, the cities’ unassuming restaurants are a different story altogether – though extremely earthy, the food on offer here is some of the best and most traditional in the land, and an extremely well-preserved secret.Read More
The smaller and sleepier of the Baekje duo, BUYEO (부여) is nonetheless worth a visit. The Baekje seat of power was transferred here from Gongju in 538, and saw six kings come and go before the abrupt termination of the dynasty in 660, when General Gyebaek led his five thousand men into one last battle against a Silla-Chinese coalition ten times that size. Knowing that his resistance would prove futile, the general killed his wife and children before heading into combat, preferring to see them dead than condemn them to slavery. Legend has it that thousands of the town’s women threw themselves off a riverside cliff when the battle had been lost, drowning both themselves and the Baekje dynasty. Today, this cliff and the large, verdant fortress surrounding it are the town’s biggest draw, along with an excellent museum.
Presided over by the large fortress of Gongsanseong, small, sleepy GONGJU (공주) is one of the most charming cities in the land, and deserving of a little more fame. It’s also the best place in which to see relics from the Baekje dynasty that it ruled as capital in the fifth and sixth centuries: King Muryeong, its most famous inhabitant, lay here undisturbed for over 1400 years, after which his tomb yielded thousands of pieces of jewellery that provided a hitherto unattainable insight into the splendid craft of the Baekje people. Largely devoid of the bustle, clutter and chain stores found in most Korean cities, and with a number of wonderful sights, Gongju is worthy of at least a day of your time.
The Baekje dynasty
The Baekje dynasty
The Baekje dynasty was one of Korea’s famed Three Kingdoms – Goguryeo and Silla being the other two – and controlled much of southwestern Korea for almost seven hundred years. The Samguk Sagi, Korea’s only real historical account of the peninsula in these times, claims that Baekje was a product of sibling rivalry – it was founded in 18 BC by Onjo, whose father had kick-started the Goguryeo dynasty less than twenty years beforehand, in present-day North Korea; seeing the reins of power passed on to his elder brother Yuri, Onjo promptly moved south and set up his own kingdom.
Strangely, given its position facing China on the western side of the Korean peninsula, Baekje was more closely allied with the kingdom of Wa in Japan – at least one Baekje king was born across the East Sea – and it became a conduit for art, religion and customs from the Asian mainland. This fact is perhaps best embodied by the Baekje artefacts displayed in the museums in Buyeo and Gongju, which contain lacquer boxes, pottery and folding screens not dissimilar to the craftwork that Japan is now famed for.
Though the exact location of the first Baekje capitals is unclear, it’s certain that Gongju and Buyeo were its last two seats of power. Gongju, then known as Ungjin, was capital from 475 to 538; during this period the aforementioned Three Kingdoms were jostling for power, and while Baekje leaders formed an uneasy alliance with their Silla counterparts the large fortress of Gongsanseong was built to protect the city from Goguryeo attacks. The capital was transferred to Sabi – present-day Buyeo – which also received a fortress-shaped upgrade. However, it was here that the Baekje kingdom finally ground to a halt in 660, succumbing to the Silla forces that, following their crushing of Goguryeo shortly afterwards, went on to rule the whole peninsula.
Though local rebellions briefly brought Baekje back to power in the years leading up to the disintegration of Unified Silla, it was finally stamped out by the nascent Goryeo dynasty in 935. Despite the many centuries that have elapsed since, much evidence of Baekje times can still be seen today in the form of the regal burial mounds found in Gongju and Buyeo.