Why you should care
These androgynous young dudes were deadly warriors and skillful leaders who brought security and stability.
In a breathtaking Korean valley, a group of young men gathers by a stream to dance and sing and pray to the spirits of nature. The boys are beautiful and wear makeup, elegant clothing and jeweled shoes. As the sun sinks behind the mountains, they head home, trailing incense.
Meet the Hwarang knights of medieval Korea. By today’s standards, their metrosexual look suggests a K-pop boy band parachuted into the Silla Dynasty, which ruled the Korean peninsula from 57 B.C. to A.D. 935. But you wouldn’t have wanted to get in a knife fight with them. Skilled in martial arts, archery, swordsmanship and mounted combat, they were as deadly as they were ambiguously sexy. And from their ranks came some of the greatest warriors and military minds in Korean history.
Roughly translated as “flower boys” or “flowering youth,” the Hwarang were male aristocrats who comprised an elite corps founded in the sixth century. “Unfortunately, there’s a lot we don’t know about the Hwarang,” says Courtney Lazore, historian and author of The Hwarang Warriors — Silla’s Flower Boys. “We often liken them to knights, but they were much more than just fighters.” With their focus on religion, education and the military, it was “possible for [them] to become well-rounded leaders.”
As with the samurai of Japan, Korea’s flower boys were military nobility and cultural ambassadors of the ruling dynasty.
The story goes that the 24th monarch of the Silla Dynasty, King Chinhung, decided to gather a large group of young aristocrats together around A.D. 572 to find talented people to serve in the royal court. Initially, he appointed two beautiful women, Nammo and Chunjong — known as the Wonhwa (“original flowers”) — to lead and serve as examples to potential members of the court.
The original flowers rapidly amassed hundreds of followers, but with fame came jealousy. At the height of their competition, Chunjong invited Nammo to her home, got her drunk on wine and pushed her into a nearby stream, drowning her. Chunjong was executed and her followers were disbanded. Thereafter, the king chose only aristocratic young men for his elite group.
And so was born the Hwarang Boys Academy, a place where the royal court enrolled the best and brightest male youth so that they might one day become leaders of the kingdom. According to a document called the Samguk Sagi, written by Korean historian Kim Busk in 1145, the youths instructed one another in “rightness,” entertained one another with song and music, and went sightseeing to even the most distant mountains and rivers. “Much can be learned of a man’s character by watching him in these activities,” wrote the historian. “Those who fared well were recommended to the court.”
The Hwarang were taught combat skills and religion in equal measure. The faith of the land at the time was ancient Korean shamanism blended with three imports — Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. Communing with nature was central to Hwarang religious instruction, hence dancing and singing excursions to beautiful natural settings.
The flower boys also intensely studied the era’s ethical philosophy. Its central texts were Five Relationships, Six Arts, Three Scholarly Occupations and Six Ways of Government Service. The most important was Five Relationships, which formed the basis of the Hwarang code of conduct:
- To serve the king with loyalty.
- To serve one’s parents with loyalty.
- To always show loyalty to one’s friends.
- To never retreat in battle.
- To never kill unnecessarily.
So, while military training was certainly important to the Hwarang, it would be misleading to label them solely as warriors. As with the samurai of Japan, Korea’s flower boys were military nobility and cultural ambassadors of the ruling dynasty.
However, many great military minds were born of Hwarang training. Kim Yu-shin, who became a Hwarang leader, was one of ancient Korea’s greatest warriors, participating in the battle of Nangbisong in 629. Another famous former flower boy and commander, Alcheon, defended Chiljung Castle in 638. Kim Wonsul, who served under the 30th Silla ruler, King Munmu, played a major role in thwarting Chinese invaders during the Unification Wars (668–676).
After the Unification Wars, the Hwarang were gradually disbanded, most scholars agree. It has been argued that they had served their cultural and political function and were no longer necessary in the more stable post-war dynasty.
In 1980, during a period of growing Korean nationalism, the discovery of a manuscript titled The Chronicles of the Hwarang sparked renewed interest in the ancient warrior-scholar cult. The fascination continues in the form of a popular television period drama, Hwarang: The Poet Warrior Youth, which launched in 2016. The allure of the flower boys is strong enough to span millennia.