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Far East Kingdoms

East Asia


Pon Kaya / Gaya Confederacy (Korea)
AD 42 - 532
Incorporating Ara Gaya, Daegaya, Geumgwan Gaya, Goryeong Gaya, Seongsan Gaya, Sogaya

The Korea of the late classical and early medieval periods was for the most part divided into 'Three Kingdoms', although others also existed. In the lead-up to the formation of the three main kingdoms, the ancient state of Wiman Choson had fought a losing battle against Han Chinese occupation and the increasing fragmentation of its own territories.

In 108 BC the last king of Wiman Choson was assassinated, which allowed Go Dumak to form his own state out of the kingdom's core territory. That state, Dongmyeong-guk, was essentially a continuation of Wiman Chosen under another name. In 86 BC he decided to take over the prosperous splinter kingdom of Buyeo, which only created more division and the emergence of several tribal confederacies in territory which had previously fallen under the administration of Wiman Chosen.

One of these was the confederacy of Gaya, or Pon Kaya in older works. This confederacy of city states may have formed in the first century AD as an evolution of the Byeonhan confederation, although its origins are legendary and the third century may be a more accurate transition date. It was located well outside the range of Wiman Choson's authority, in the far south of today's South Korea.

Initially, the leading city state was Geumgwan Gaya or Bon Gaya, meaning 'first' or 'original' Gaya. It has also been shown as Garak, Garakguk, Gara, Garyang, or Guya, probably thanks to the uncertain translating of Korean names into hanja characters. The 'g' in Gaya is pronounced as a hard 'k'). The others were Daegaya (Tae Kaya), Seongsan Gaya, Ara Gaya (or Ana Gaya, located in today's Hanam County), Goryeong Gaya, and Sogaya.

This was tribal territory which was just emerging into history, perhaps partially as a reaction to the Han occupation of the original centres of Korean civilisation in the north (generally farther north than today's Koreas stretch). However, it developed into a fairly wealthy and culturally unique region.

Its creation is also theorised to have pushed out or extinguished the last remnants of indigenous communities which were connected to the populating of Japan, which largely occurred around three centuries beforehand. Gaya occupied a wedge of territory on the southern coast between the kingdoms of Silla to the east and Baekje to the west and roughly incorporating the region between today's Hadong and Busan.

The six elements - polities - which made up the confederacy evolved their chief settlements into small city states, each of which was governed independently but which generally acted in unison with the others when faced with an external threat - albeit with one city always dominating. Mounded burial cemeteries which have been dated to the late third and early fourth centuries AD, such as those at Daeseong-dong in Gimhae and Bokcheon-dong in Busan, have been interpreted as royal burial grounds.

The earliest rulers are shown below backed in lilac to highlight their legendary origins. The name 'Wang' by this time had come to mean 'king', while the rulers of Geumgwan Gaya all hailed from the Kim dynasty. Names are shown with the most recent translated version after the twentieth century version, while the few names for Daegaya are shown in red to differentiate them from those of Geumgwan Gaya.

South Korea's flag

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from Pre-Modern East Asia: A Cultural, Social, and Political History, Volume I: To 1800, Patricia Ebrey & Anne Walthall (Cengage Learning, 2013), from A New History of Korea, Lee Ki-baik (1984, supplied by Michael Welles, but excluding Koguryo), from History Of Korea, Roger Tennant (Routledge, 1996), from In State Formation in Korea: Historical and Archaeological Perspectives (Introducing Kaya History and Archaeology), Gina L Barnes (Curzon, 2001), Relations between Kaya and Wa in the third to fourth centuries, K C Sin (Journal of East Asian Archaeology, 2(3-4), 2000), and from External Links: Ancient History Encyclopaedia, and New World Encyclopaedia, and Academic Kids Encyclopaedia, and History of Manchuria, and Kings of Korea (in Korean), and Korea Information - History (Korean Cultural Center NY), and Enacademic.)

AD 42 - 199

Suro Wang

Legendary co-founder of the Gaya confederacy.

AD 42

Suro Wang's accession as the head of the Gaya confederacy is legendary. The legend is recorded in the Samguk Yusa which is written in the thirteenth century. It states that six eggs descend from heaven with a message which states that the six eggs bear six kings.

Map of East Asia AD 100
Late Han China continued to pressure the Korean states, especially to the north of the Korean peninsula, with Buyo seemingly accepting Han vassal status in AD 49 (click or tap on map to view full sized)

Six boys are born of them, maturing within twelve days (six plus six). One of them is Suro, who founds the Kim dynasty and becomes king of Geumgwan Gaya (Bon Gaya, meaning 'first' or 'original' Gaya, or Garaguk), within territory which is probably still part of the Byeonhan confederacy.

It is Geumgwan Gaya which is clearly the dominant city in the early days of the confederacy (even after its initial legendary period). The other boys reputedly found the remaining five 'Gayas', those of Daegaya (Tae Kaya), Seongsan Gaya, Ara Gaya (or Ana Gaya, located in today's Hanam County in South Korea), Goryeong Gaya, and Sogaya.

AD 42 - ?

? / Ijinasi Wang

Legendary founder of Daegaya.

199 - 259

Kodung / Geodeung Wang

Son of Suro. King of Geumgwan Gaya.

259 - 291

Map'um / Mapum Wang

Son. King of Geumgwan Gaya.


The third century has been noted (by Sin, amongst others) as being a more likely date for the emergence of the Gaya confederacy out of its beginnings within the preceding Byeonhan confederation.

Map of Three Kingdoms China AD 220-263
In AD 220 the Late Han Chinese empire was officially transferred to the Wei or Cao Wei dynasty, and their opponents simply had to respond (click or tap on map to view full sized)

The region's archaeology changes around this time, with burial customs exhibiting new influences. Based on the sparse written records which cover this region and period, and a change in military traditions, it has been theorised that elements from Buyeo have become the new governing elite, especially in Daegaya.

The year 285 may be considered a potential candidate for the takeover of some Gaya cities. A major Xianbei invasion of Buyeo virtually cripples it. The invasion forces the royal court to relocate to the Korean tribal state of Okjeo where it attempts to refound the former splinter sub-state of Dongbuyeo. The king commits suicide rather than abandon his lands.

This enforced relocation could easily result in a faction breaking away to head south into Gaya lands. From this point onwards, burials appear which resemble those of the steppe people to the north of the Korean kingdoms.

Possibly they are directly created by a new ruling elite in Gaya which has steppe origins, but more likely is the idea that Buyeo itself has been imbued with steppe influences which its people have carried with it.

The royal tombs of Gaya, Daegaya Museum, South Korea
The royal tombs of Gaya are today on display under the care of Daegaya Museum in South Korea (External Link: Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International)

291 - 346

Kojilmi / Geojilmi Wang

Son. King of Geumgwan Gaya.

? - ?

? / Geumnim Wang

Third or fourth king of Daegaya.

346 - 407

Ip'um / Isipum Wang

Son of Geojilmi. King of Geumgwan Gaya.

391 - 491

It is Gwanggaeto of Koguryo and his immediate successor, Jangsu, who push their kingdom's boundaries to their greatest extent. It encompasses the entire northern half of the Korean peninsula and extends into what is now China.

Wedged into the southernmost third of modern Korea's territory are the three subjugated states of Baekje, Gaya, and Silla. Some of the Gaya polities appear to disintegrate under this new pressure, but a few survive into the sixth century.

407 - 421

Chwaji / Jwaji Wang

Son. King of Geumgwan Gaya. Attacked by Silla.

421 - 451

Ch'wihui / Chwihui Wang

Son. King of Geumgwan Gaya.

451 - 492

Chilchi / Jilji Wang

Son. King of Geumgwan Gaya.

fl 479

? / Haji Wang

Fifth or sixth (?) king of Daegaya. Position uncertain.


Haji Wang's position in the uncertain and incomplete surviving list of kings of Daegaya is unknown. His reign can be pinpointed to this date, however, as he is responsible for sending an embassy to 'Namje', otherwise known as Nán Qí or Southern Qi. As that kingdom is only formed in this year, the embassy must be to congratulate General Xiao Daocheng in assuming control of all of southern China. (Haji also joins Silla and Baekje in attacking Koguryo in 491.)

Southern Qi's founder, General Xiao Daocheng
Southern Qi's founder was General Xiao Daocheng, who murdered Emperor Houfei of the (Liu) Song dynasty (not necessarily without good reason) and then established his own dominance over all of southern China

? - ?

? / Gasil Wang

Sixth or seventh king of Daegaya.

492 - 521

Kamji / Gyeomji Wang

Son of Jilji. King of Geumgwan Gaya.

? - ?

? / Inoe Wang

Ninth king of Daegaya.

c.480s - 520s

The Gaya confederacy of the 200s has declined somewhat, primarily owing to the partial conquest of Gaya territories at the end of the fourth century. The confederacy experiences a revival in this period, centred around Daegaya in what is now Goryeong County (Goryeong-gun) in South Korea's North Gyeongsang Province.

If Geumgwan Gaya had retained any dominance following that partial conquest, it is no longer evident and the line of kings there surrenders in 532. With Silla taking over, its nobility is successfully integrated into Sillan society, ending Gayan cultural distinctiveness. The seventh century Sillan king, Munmu, claims direct descent from Gaya's King Suro.

521 - 532

Kuhyong / Guhyeong Wang

Son of Gyeomji. Last king of Geumgwan Gaya.

? - 562

Wolgwang or Tosolchi / Doseolji?

Tenth (16th?) king of Daegaya. Defeated by Silla.

551 - 552

The formation of the Göktürk khaganate, to the immediate north-west of Korean territories, on the steppes of Mongolia, seems not to impact upon affairs in the Silla kingdom or upon the Koguryo state to the north. Instead, the Göktürk empire focuses its attention primarily on Sui China and on expanding across the steppeland towards Europe.

Map of Central Asia AD 550-600
As was often the case with Central Asian states which had been created by horse-borne warriors on the sweeping steppelands, the Göktürk khaganate swiftly incorporated a vast stretch of territory in its westwards expansion, whilst being hemmed in by the powerful Chinese dynasties to the south-east and Siberia's uninviting tundra to the north (click or tap on map to view full sized)

However, Koguryo's increasingly bitter internal feuding over the succession allows the Tuchueh nomads to capture several northern border strongholds. Both Baekje and Silla have also spotted an opportunity to strike back, launching attacks in 551. Baekje goes first, attacking forts in the fertile and strategically important Han river valley in central Korea.

Having exhausted its efforts for little reward, its supposed ally, Silla, now 'offers' assistance. Silla defeats the strained fortress defenders and captures the entire river valley for itself. Seong of Baekje, incensed at this betrayal, gets himself killed in battle against Silla in 553. This gives Silla direct access to the Yellow Sea and trade with China which will prove vital to its development.

559 - 562

Daegaya has been superseded by Ara Gaya as the principal city of the confederacy thanks to Daegaya's confrontational role against Silla in 554 in support of Baekje. Both Baekje and the Gaya forces had suffered heavy casualties to Silla's more dominant military machine.

The royal tomb of King Naemul of Silla
The royal tomb of King Naemul, progenitor of so many of Silla's later rulers, is a large mound of 2.2 metres in diameter and 5.3 metres height, located on the northern hill of Gyeongju's Confucian school

However, Ara Gaya's policy of appeasement and cooperation comes to nothing when it is attacked and conquered by Silla in 559. The remaining cities of the Gaya confederacy are captured by 562, with Daegaya being the last to fall.

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