Prior to the ascendance of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE) over the kingdoms of ancient China, the Chinese Kingdom of Yan had spread its influence past the Yalu River into the Korean Peninsula. When King Zheng of Qin (the eventual First Emperor) captured King Xi of Yan in 222 BCE, the Korean holdings of Yan were absorbed by the growing Qin Empire. The Qin Dynasty, however, did not enjoy supremacy in China for long—massive rebellions broke out in 209 BCE, toppling the Qin emperors by 206 BCE. Civil war then broke out between the successful rebellion leaders, and from the ashes came Emperor Gaozu, who killed or subjugated all of his rival warlords by 202 BCE and founded the Han Dynasty. Emperor Gaozu appointed his childhood friend, Lu Wan, as a vassal king of Yan, including control of Yan’s Korean territory. Lu Wan abandoned his kingdom, however, and defected to the nomadic Xiongnu in 195 BCE, leaving a power vacuum in Yan, especially on the Korean frontier. It was then that a mysterious figure named Wei Man (or Wiman) made his bid for power in the unclaimed Korean lands formerly held by the Kingdom of Yan.
Little is known about the origins of Wei Man. He appears to have been a man of wealth and influence in the Yan-Korean region, but we have no knowledge about how he lived before 195 BCE. Whatever the case, he reportedly had the means and charisma to raise a personal army of over 1,000 men in the aftermath of Lu Wan’s defection, and he used this force to begin taking control of the communities of Northern Korea. Knowing that he would not be able to maintain control with a small garrison of 1,000 men, Wei Man actively assimilated himself into the culture of the natives he wished to rule. He stylized his hair and his wardrobe to make himself more palatable to the Korean population, and apparently succeeded in winning over Koreans to join his army and to support his regime. To further add to his numbers, Wei Man made an effort to recruit refugees who fled from the Han Dynasty. With this coalition of his personal army, Chinese refugees, and native supporters, Wei Man gained control of a sizable chunk of northern Korea, and eventually set up his base of operations at Wangxian (modern Pyongyang). With land and power consolidated under his rule, Wei Man declared himself King of Chaoxian (or Chosŏn), named after the Chinese designation for the land located east of the Yalu River.
Wei Man’s curious rise to power was noticed by the Han government, especially by the governors of Liaodong Province, who administered Han lands that bordered Chaoxian. Despite this awareness, the Han authorities decided not to interfere in Wei Man’s power-grab over lands that at one point had been under Chinese imperial control. Fortunately for the upstart king of Chaoxian, the early Han rulers were inwardly-focused and more intent on consolidating and enforcing their authority on the kingdoms in the heartland of their empire, rather than expanding imperial influence into the fringe frontiers or beyond. As a result, Emperor Gaozu and his immediate successors tried to keep foreign wars to a minimum, so that they could spend their time and effort on domestic politics and policy. With this philosophy in mind, the early Han emperors made peace with the Xiongnu nomads, and condoned the existence of upstart kingdoms born on the frontiers of the collapsed Qin Empire, as was the case with both the Kingdom of Southern Yue (in the Vietnam area) and Wei Man’s Kingdom of Chaoxian in Korea. The earliest Han Emperors were content to offer these frontier kingdoms peace in exchange for non-aggression pacts and some diplomatic shows of deference.
With Han recognition of his authority as king of Chaoxian, Wei Man continued to gain power, wealth and territory in Korea. He turned his regime into a hereditary monarchy that would continue to rule the kingdom of Chaoxian independently from Han authority for many more decades. The kingdom, however, would ultimately fall when Chaoxian was invaded and conquered by the expansionist Emperor Wu of Han in a war which took place from 109-108 BCE.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Emperor Kangxi on an inspection tour, painted by Wang Hui (1632–1717), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.