K-pop’s biggest male stars may be beauty gods but they’re hardly a new trend. While Korean pop stars may wear porcelain foundations, colorful eyeshadows, and blood-stained lips, there were men who walked — and worked — the earth centuries before. They were called the hwarang – literally “flower boys” aka “pretty boys” of Korea’s Silla dynasty – who sported crimson eye shadows, powdered faces, and slicked-back hair as a spiritual practice. These warriors were chosen for their beauty, as Silla’s king, Jinheung, believed beauty was power. In the excerpt below, we understand Korea’s rich history of beautiful men and how cosmetics, makeup, skincare isn’t a new phenomenon — beauty is literally embedded in the very culture. Here’s a history of the pretty boy warriors who were precursors for K-pop stars to thrive in our modern era.
South Korea is now known as the beauty capital of the universe, and its men hold the title of world’s biggest cosmetics consumers. Korean men glisten and glow, their complexions plumped and hydrated, as if serums pump through their very veins. But to understand why Korean men today care so much about their aesthetics, we must look to Korea’s sixth-century Silla Dynasty, and to the hwarang. The hwarang—which roughly translates to “flower boys”—weren’t only some of the fiercest weapons-wielding, martial arts–practicing assassins in Asia. They would become legendary for their fight and their faces. Aesthetics, and the spirituality behind beautifying, were paramount to their ability to defend their kingdom for over two centuries . . . and to lead the way for generations of Korean beauty boys to come.
Like all the Silla, the hwarang were devout followers of Maitreya, the future Buddha. Ancient texts say he manifested into human form to live among mortals as a lean, teenage pretty boy before the nation of Silla was formed. It was said that his look was so striking, all were awed by his presence. The kingdom of Silla awaited his return on Earth as Christians await the return of Christ: it is foretold that he’ll return to save humanity. Legend has it that when Maitreya’s physical form died, his spirit reincarnated into Silla’s soil to be reborn in the physical form of young men who resembled him. That meant that any young man in the aristocracy who happened to be pretty could also very well be Maitreya incarnate. Talk about winning the genetic—and spiritual—lottery!
But Silla’s wily king Jinheung had big plans for those fated pretty boys. For years, the king had been testing his allies’ patience, slowly plotting to take over the entire Korean peninsula. The Korean nation had been split into three kingdoms for centuries at that point: Baekje in the west, Goguryeo in the north, and Silla, which occupied land to the east. King Jinheung had helped the Baekje reclaim their land from the Goguryeo, but quickly turned on the Baekje right after, breaking a sacred 120-year alliance. At the end of the war between Baekje and Silla, one that was years-long and tireless, Silla was left as vulnerable as ever. In his final days, King Jinheung was paralyzed by fear and consumed by paranoia. He knew his enemies were thirsty for revenge, and were after his people’s complete downfall.
To keep his enemies at bay and his kingdom alive for centuries to come, King Jinheung needed power that none of his enemies had. He needed something supernatural, that Big Buddha Energy. Silla’s pretty boys were the only ones who could deliver, he thought. After all, the prettier the boy, the closer to god—and these men were packing!
King Jinheung searched for every beautiful boy throughout the kingdom who came from true bone status. The search was methodical and swift (like, a few months swift!), and a year after his hunt began, in 576 CE, the hwarang was implemented as an official arm of Silla’s military. As detailed in the Samguk Yusa, a historic Korean record, these young men would immediately go through rigorous training that not only stripped them from their families, but demanded their excellence in all things physical, emotional, and spiritual.
The hwarang trainees mastered martial arts, swordfighting, and hwarangdo (a specific style of martial arts created for the hwarang by Silla monks), horsemanship, stone throwing, archery, and javelin, as well as perfecting song and dance and memorizing religious texts. These “soft” skills allowed the men to become well-rounded warriors. Instilled with great discipline, each was also indoctrinated with Taoist, shamanist, and Buddhist teachings. Many became so devout that they even believed they’d encounter Maitreya before they died.
And in true Maitreya fashion, it’s believed that the boys perfected their appearances as well—the closer they resembled Maitreya, the closer they would be to divinity. “They selected the handsome boys of the nobility and adorned them, powdering their faces and calling them Hwarang,” wrote an envoy for the Tang dynasty. “The people of the country all respected and supported them.”
Unfortunately, there exists no information on the specific makeup they used, but we can look to the Chinese Tang dynasty, whom the Silla were influenced by, and make an educated guess. In historic texts, the Chinese detail face powder ingredients as being made of (lethal) lead, rice, and clamshell powder mixed together to create a thick, pearly foundation.
In addition to face powder, modern scholars believe the hwarang would have used red eye-shadow to distinguish themselves as elite warriors, as well as appearing more intimidating during battle.
The red dye the hwarang may have used on their eyes would have been created from safflower and red lily, and was also used by Chinese royals as a cheek, eye, and lip stain.
Per the time period, their long hair may have also been hydrated with oil produced from apricot seeds and peach kernels (way fancier than St. Ives). Some hwarang are also depicted with pierced ears and beautiful clothing—when you’re already fancy, what’s a little more?
When the hwarang officially made their debut, they became overnight sensations. Precursors to boy bands like NCT 127, The Boyz, or even BTS, who are now worldwide heartthrobs, they had tongues wagging all the way from Silla to China. As King Jinheung had once pre-dicted, his enemies would one day attack Silla. In the midsummer of 660 CE, the Baekje launched an attack against the Silla, which would become known as the famous Battle of Hwangsanbeol. But the hwarang, fighting together with the Tang army, would prevail against the Baekje, sending the enemy cowering. For over three hundred years, the hwarang would defend their borders from outsiders—without smudging their eyeshadow—until they, too, were overthrown by another power. In 935 CE, they surrendered in defeat to Korea’s last dynasty, the Goryeo, which would go on to unify the entire Korean peninsula. Though the hwarang were dissolved by the new power, their legacy wasn’t completely erased: the Goryeo government took pride in Silla’s past, and made attempts to celebrate hwarang history over the years.
To this day, no one can deny how mystical and magical these “flower boy” warriors were. In contemporary Korea, the hwarang are still extolled for their bravery and celebrated for their beauty, and South Korea’s men’s beauty business leads the way for innovations around the world. Korean pop culture celebrates men’s beauty, from TV shows like OnStyle’s Lipstick Prince, a program that features male K-pop idols learning about makeup and putting cosmetics on each other, to K-dramas like 2016’s popular Hwarang: The Poet Warrior Youth, which cast K-pop’s biggest names and prettiest faces in the role of warriors, from BTS’s V to SHINee’s Minho. These are only some of South Korea’s contemporary flower boys, who some shamanists would argue possess the hwarang spirit, alive and well (and pretty!).
Excerpt from PRETTY BOYS by David Yi, illustrated by Paul Tuller. Copyright © 2021 by David Yi. Illustrations © 2021 by Paul Tuller. Available June 22, 2021 from HMH Books & Media.
About the Author: David Yi is the founder of Very Good Light, a site that has aimed to redefine masculinity through a beauty lens. Prior to Very Good Light, David launched fashion and beauty verticals at Mashable, reported for WWD, and was the fashion editor at the New York Daily News, in addition to writing for many other publications. He has received a GLAAD Award and two Webby nominations, and was named one of “25 People Changing the Beauty Conversation” in Marie Claire. “PRETTY BOYS” is his first book.