World History 1 195 - 12.3.2 Early Korea

The Korean peninsula is a mere six hundred miles long, from the Yalu River in the north to the Korean Strait in the south. Manchuria is located north of it and has historically been home to many nomadic peoples; at times it was part of the kingdoms that made up the lands of Korea. Situated so close to China and at the crossroads of much oceangoing traffic in East Asia, Korea and Manchuria have been influenced a great deal by Chinese culture, from landscape painting techniques to city planning, as well as by ideas such as Confucianism and Buddhism.

Before the common era, an early Korean state was established in the northwest portion of the peninsula and part of Manchuria. This was the state of Gojoseon, and its people founded their capital at the site of Pyongyang, the current capital of North Korea. During the period of the Han in China (220 BCE–220 CE), three separate kingdoms formed in the peninsula: Goguryeo in the north (37 BCE–668 CE), and in the south Baekje (18 BCE–660 CE) and Silla (57 BCE–935 CE). The northern kingdom of Goguryeo had been overrun by the Han, but in 313 CE it was able to throw off the Chinese and reestablish independence. A fourth state, the confederacy of Gaya (42–532 CE), was also established in this period, but it remained relatively weak and in 532 CE was absorbed by the kingdom of Silla (Figure 12.26).

A map is shown. The Yellow Sea is highlighted blue in the southwest and unlabeled blue water is shown in the east. A large section of land in the north is highlighted orange and labelled “Goguryeo.” To the south are three smaller areas labelled: Baekje (green), Silla (pink) and Gaya (yellow). The Han River is labelled. Other land shown in the northwest, northeast, and southeast is highlighted gray.
Figure 12.26 This map shows Korea during the Three Kingdoms period. Note the locations of the three—Baekje, Silla, and Goguryeo—which all vied to unify Korea under their own rule. Eventually the Kingdom of Silla absorbed the confederacy of Gaya in 532 and allied with the Tang to defeat Baekje in 660, and then Goguryeo in 668. (credit: modification of work “Map of Goguryeo (476)” by “solicitatia”/Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0)

It was during this Three Kingdoms period that cultural influences such as Buddhism were being spread along the Silk Roads. One of the Chinese dynasties to succeed the Han, the Jin, sent Buddhist missionaries into Goguryeo in 372. Many elites soon converted, and the kingdoms of Baekje and Silla followed suit. Other cultural innovations that influenced the three kingdoms were Confucian teachings and Chinese writing; Chinese became the official governmental language. The three kingdoms soon fell to quarreling among themselves, however. The southern two allied against Goguryeo in 550, though their victory was delayed for quite some time.

When the Sui reunified China in 589, they also sought to regain control of Korea, finding themselves in conflict with Goguryeo but repeatedly defeated. In 612, for example, when the Sui attacked with 300,000 soldiers, only 2,700 were reported to have survived. This and other failed attempts to conquer Korea weakened the Sui and were among the key reasons for the dynasty’s collapse and replacement by the Tang in 618.

The second Tang emperor, Taizong, also attacked Goguryeo and was likewise defeated. The Tang therefore allied with the Kingdom of Silla in their bid to dominate the peninsula. Together they defeated Baekje in 660, and then Goguryeo in 668. By 668, Silla was the sole remaining kingdom in Korea. In exchange for victory, however, Korea was now a tributary state of the Tang, although it extended only as far as the city of Pyongyang.

The new capital of Silla was located at Geumseong. Basing their city on the Tang capital of Chang’an, the Silla built many Confucian schools, and many Koreans traveled to China to acquire a solid Confucian education and learn more about Buddhism. The ideas of Confucianism and Buddhism slowly influenced and altered Korean culture. For example, Korea had been relatively matrilocal, with the husband joining the wife’s family after marriage. But thanks to the influence of Confucianism and its patriarchal traditions, the opposite now began to occur.

The Koreans did not adopt Chinese values wholesale. Although they accepted aspects of China’s examination system for filling the state bureaucracy based on merit, for instance, aristocratic control remained strong. High aristocrats were often given entire villages to govern and directly chose the local governing officers, and many of these nobles did what they could to protect their indigenous identities. And although China had few enslaved people, Korea had many.

In 780, an uprising occurred in which the king of Silla was killed. This event marked the beginning of the kingdom’s decline, and a number of additional revolts occurred over the following century. A general named Wang Geon overthrew the kingdom in 935 and established the Goryeo dynasty (from which modern Korea derives its name). The new capital was located where the city of Kaesong now stands, and its administration was based largely on the former Tang governmental system; examination systems and Confucian education increased in importance. To guard against northern nomadic invaders, the Goryeo dynasty built a wall just south of the Yalu River, based on China’s Great Wall.

The new Korean state persisted for some two centuries until a military coup in 1170. Although the Goryeo dynasty remained on the throne, successor kings were figureheads; the army generals held real power and maintained a powerful hold on the military establishment. In the early thirteenth century, however, the Korean capital in Kaesong was besieged by the Mongols, and in 1231 the government was forced to flee southward. The Mongols overran the state itself in 1258, bringing this formative period of Korean history to an end.

This lesson has no exercises.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax