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The Hwarang, or "Flower Boys", were an elite group of male youth in Silla, an ancient Korean kingdom that lasted until the 10th century. There were educational institutions as well as social clubs where members gathered for all aspects of study, originally for arts and culture, and stemming mainly from Buddhism. Chinese sources referred only to the physical beauty of the "Flower Boys". Originally, the hwarang were known for their use of make-up and cosmetic decorations and accessories. Few Koreans are said to have known about the history of hwarang until after the liberation of 1945, after which the hwarang became elevated to a symbolic importance.
The Hwarang were also referred to as Hyangdo (fragrant ones or incense men), the word hwarang and its colloquial derivatives being used from everything from playboy, to shaman or husband of a female shaman. The word remained in common use until the 12th century but with more derogatory meanings.
Information on the Hwarang are mainly found in the histories Samguk Sagi (1145) and Samguk Yusa (ca. 1285), and the partially extant Haedong Goseungjeon (1215), a compilation of biographies of famous monks of the Three Kingdoms.
All three of these works cite primary sources no longer extant, including: 1) a memorial stele to Nallang (presumably a Hwarang based upon the suffix nang) by the 9th–10th century Silla scholar Choe Chiwon; 2) an early Tang account of Silla titled the Xinluo guoji by the Tang official Ling Hucheng; and 3) Hwarang Segi (화랑세기, 花郞世記, Chronicle of the Hwarang) by Kim Daemun, compiled in the early 8th century. In the late 1980s, an alleged Hwarang Segi manuscript was discovered in Gimhae, South Korea, which some scholars regard as a forgery.
According to the Samguk Sagi and Samguk Yusa, two bands of females called Wonhwa (원화, 源花, "original flowers") preceded the Hwarang. The precise nature and activities of the Wonhwa are also unclear, with some scholars positing they may have actually been court beauties or courtesans. However, considering that they were trained in ethics, this may be a later patriarchal reading into the Wonhwa. Women played a much more prominent social role in pre-Joseon dynasty Korea, especially in Silla, which had three reigning queens in its history.
Both sources record that during the reign of King Jinheung, groups of beautiful girls were chosen and taught filial and fraternal piety, loyalty, and sincerity (no firm date is given for this, and some scholars express doubt this even occurred during Jinheung‘s reign). However, the leaders of the two bands of Wonhwa, Nammo 南毛 and Junjeong 俊貞, grew jealous of one another. When Junjeong murdered her rival the Wonhwa were disbanded.
At some point thereafter, according to the Samguk Yusa, the Silla king, "concerned about the strengthening of the country ... again issued a decree and chose boys from good families who were of good morals and renamed them hwarang." The actual word used in this chronicle is hwanang (花娘), meaning "flower girls". This suggests that the Hwarang were not originally military in character, as the Wonhwa were not soldiers.
In 520, King Beopheung had instituted Sino-Korean style reforms and formalized the golpum (bone rank) system. In 527, Silla formally adopted Buddhism as a state religion. The establishment of Hwarang took place in the context of tightening central state control, a complement to the golpum system and a symbol of harmony and compromise between the king and the aristocracy.
With the consolidation and expansion of Silla and intensification of military rivalries among the Three Kingdoms in the 6th century, the Silla court took a more active interest in the Hwarang. Hwarang groups were usually led by a youth of aristocratic standing, and the state appointed a high-ranking official to oversee the organization.
The Hwarang in the later 6th and 7th centuries trained in horsemanship, swordsmanship, archery, javelin and stone throwing, polo, and ladder-climbing. By the seventh century the organization had grown greatly in prestige and numbered several hundred bands.
The Samguk Sagi, compiled by the general and official Kim Busik, emphasizes the military exploits of certain Hwarang, while the Samguk Yusa emphasizes the group's Buddhist activities. The biographies section of the Samguk Sagi describes young Hwarang who distinguished themselves in the struggles against the Gaya confederacy and later Baekje and Goguryeo. According to the Hwarang Segi, as cited in the Samguk Sagi and Haedong Goseungjeon, “...able ministers and loyal subjects are chosen from them, and good generals and brave soldiers are born therefrom.” 
The Hwarang were greatly influenced by Buddhist, Confucian, and Taoist ideals. A Chinese official recorded, "They [Silla] choose fair sons from noble families and deck them out with cosmetics and fine clothes and call them Hwarang. The people all revere and serve them."
While the Hwarang are viewed by some historians as fighting bands which degenerated into effeminate dilettantes, others consider that they were a religious cult which later evolved into dance boys, the title then being inherited by a lower class of itinerant mujari, or "Korean gypsies", known for male prostitution or homosexuality and who replaced a role previously taken by women, Pederastric relationships being tolerated amongst the aristocracy during the Koryŏ Dynasty. A reputation confirmed during the later Yi period. Further commemoration of this homosexual association is noted by a Konkuk University scholar.
Two youths, Gwisan (귀산,貴山) and Chwihang (취항, -項), approached the Silla monk Won Gwang (원광, 圓光) seeking spiritual guidance and teaching, saying “We are ignorant and without knowledge. Please give us a maxim which will serve to instruct us for the rest of our lives.”
Won Gwang, who had gained fame for his period of study in Sui China, replied by composing the Five Commandments for Secular Life (Se Sok O Gye; 세속 오계; 世俗五戒). These have since been attributed as a guiding ethos for the Hwarang:
The Samguk Yusa also records that Hwarang members learned the Five Cardinal Confucian Virtues, the Six Arts, the Three Scholarly Occupations, and the Six Ways of Government Service (五常六藝 三師六正).
Following the fall of Silla, the term hwarang survived and changed in meaning again. In Choe Sejin (최세진)'s 1527 book Hunmong jahoe (훈몽자회), the term hwarang is even referred to as a male prostitute. Today, Hwarang is often used in the names of various schools, organizations and companies.