Disclaimer: Due to lack of English-based resources on the following topics, the accuracy of this content may vary in some areas. If you happen to have sources/resources on Goryeo history, feel free to drop them in the comment section below! This article also features content that is speculative in some areas.
With Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo teaming with historical references and fascinating depictions of the monarchs, the desire to look deeper into the character’s historical counterparts was irresistible. If you want to see my review of Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo as a whole, you can find the article here.
Moon Lovers appears to depict Gwangjong (played by Lee Joon-gi as Wang So) with fair amounts of accuracy when compared to his historical counterpart. However, in this article, I would like to unveil the parts of his reign that were either only hinted at or not included in the series and explore where the line between reality and impressive-historical fiction divides.
The depiction of Wang So paints Gwangjong’s rise to the throne as a bloody and heartbreaking story of a prince cast out by his family and made a royal hostage by the powerful Kang clan. Years later he returns to Kaesong seeking his place and love among his royal family who had left him out.
Historically, Gwangjong’s legacy was marked by his swift emancipation of slaves (namely those whom were prisoners of war and utilized as sentries for the noble families’ military) and the eradication of the noble class’ political influence.
Choe Seungno, a well-regarded politician and Confucian, wrote about Gwangjong, stating:
“‘Was careful and laconic, but bold if he had to seize an opportunity.’ He had excellent appearance and qualities, and he received a special love from his father.” (Source: Wikipedia)
Due to the previous two emperors, Gwangjong’s rise to the throne came during a time of political strife and economic struggle. He set out to strip the power from the noble families—a dangerous move that was eventually met with backlash, as the families had been the pillars of Goryeo’s empire during Taejo Wang Geon’s reign. With his clear vision and unshakeable resolve to create a unified monarchy under his command, his efforts to stabilize a nation in economic turmoil and corruption paved the foundation for what may have been his shining legacy.
Beyond marrying within the royal family—a measure to ensure and secure his monarchy—Gwangjong actively strengthened diplomatic relations between the neighboring countries and rewarded those that made strong efforts towards the progress of Goryeo. During this time, Gwangjong actively studied Taizong of Tang’s book Difan and discovered his circumstances were similar to Taizong’s. These elements are revealed in the drama although they are not as deeply explored as it could have been.
While researching for my upcoming Goryeo-centered novel, in Moon Lovers, Jeongjong (played by Hong Jong-hyun as Wang Yo)—one of the show’s antagonists who opposed Wang So—I learned that historically Gwangjong aided his brother in suppressing the political influence of Wang Gyu and Park Sul-hee (who were allies to Hyejong during his reign) and their forces, and was a strong supporter in Jeongjong’s ascension to the throne.
I have since speculated that historically, Jeongjong and Gwangjong’s ideals held similarities and ambitions as royalty. While Jeongjong’s focus was to move the capital from Kaesong to Pyongyang, both he and Gwangjong held ambitions to reduce the noble family’s influence (at least Wang Gyu and Park Sul-hee and their allies); however unlike Gwangjong, Jeongjong was unsuccessful in his efforts to consolidate power within Kaesong, and ultimately could not secure the throne.
Their mutual alliance is also seen as both brothers lead conspiracies against King Hyejong- whose reign was brief. The drama played on a deep-rooted kinship between Hyejong (played by Kim San-ho) and Wang So, and the bloody rivalry with Wang Yo. However, historically Gwangjong and Jeongjong’s strong political influence created great controversy against Hyejong during his reign. Still, one of the elements that the drama presents raises an interesting theory surrounding Hyejong’s death. In Moon Lovers, Hyejong was poisoned by his brothers and left the throne open for Jeongjong to take. Both in history and in the series it’s told that he died from a disease. With Hyejong’s reign being unstable, it begs the question if the series didn’t allude to a grain of truth.
Overtime Gwangjong’s unwavering ambition to instill his unyielding reign was further driven into his subjects upon his declaration that he was an emperor and his nation an imperialistic empire. This declaration effectively ended the tributary relationships with China, calling Kaesong the Imperial Capital and Pyongyang the Western Capital, and adopting the era name Gwangdeok. Another reform he instituted was the national civil examination—an effort to gain civil officials recruited by merit and establishing medical centers known as the Daebi-won, which provided medical services to the poor.
Eventually the bitterness and discontent within the noble and civil officials who helped found Goryeo lead a rebellion against Gwangjong. Their efforts failed and during his eleventh year of reign, 960, Gwangjong swiftly issued mass purges against his opposers. This ruthless purge—as reflected in Moon Lovers—was the pillar of his tyranny. Among the purge, those who were killed were his brother Wang Won (ninth prince Hyoeun; played by Yoon Sun-woo) who was suspected of treason and was poisoned, King Hyejong’s son prince Heunghwa, and King Jeongjong’s son Prince Gyeongchunwon. For a time, Gwangjong mistrusted his five-year-old son Crown Prince Wang Ju who eventually succeeded the throne as Gyeongjong.
Ultimately, Gwangjong’s legacy marked his great reforms and political successes. Unlike the previous two kings, his power base was forged through his unwavering strength. However, with all his merits, it was said it was limited only to politics. The economy and the social systems that were put in place were significantly weak. Gwangjong was also distrusting and guarded; his vigilance toward hostile acts drove him to recklessly execute nobles and his relatives.
Choe Seungno condemned Gwangjong’s obsession with Buddhism and his public projects that drove the kingdom into debt and declared him a tyrant for his cruelty—presumably toward his relatives and the noble families.
After his death, Gwangjong was given the posthumous name “弘道宣烈平世肅憲懿孝康惠大成大王” Which loosely translates to “A shining king who fiercely paves a wide road.”
With Gwangjong’s reign buried deep in the charging current of history, those that seek the truth and extent of his and his family’s rule over Goryeo may only ever be able to glimpse at it. However, stories like Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo paint their history creatively and speculate on the psyche of these memorable monarchs. It’s without a doubt these stories breathe life into a time when Korean history was rapidly growing and evolving. The tales that enrapture and fuse history will eternally live on and shape how we view the lives of the those that came before us.