Origins of the Korean People
- In prehistoric times the Korean peninsula was populated by nomadic
peoples migrating from the Northeast Asian mainland, who developed
settled agricultural communities around 4,000-5,0000 years ago.
- Chinese historical records show the existence of tribal states in
northern Korea and Manchuria (northeast China) before 1,000 BCE and
parts of the Korean peninsula were occupied by Chinese military forces
during the Han dynasty around the time of Christ.
- According to Korean legend, a semi-divine figure named Tangun established
the first Korean kingdom in 2,333 BCE and named his kingdom Choson,
which was also the name of the last Korean dynasty (1392-1910) and
the name for Korea currently used in North Korea (in South Korea,
the name for Korea is Hanguk).
Three Kingdoms (ca. 50 BCE–668 CE)
- In the first century BCE numerous tribal states on the Korean peninsula
consolidated into three kingdoms: Koguryo in the north (extending
into Manchuria), Paekche in the southwest, and Silla in the southeast.
All were strongly influenced by Chinese culture and government administration,
including the use of the Confucian examination system to train government
officials. Buddhism, originally from India, was also adopted from
China and became an important part of Korea’s religious culture
to the present day.
- Development of a writing system: Like the Japanese and Vietnamese,
Koreans adopted the Chinese writing system. However, like Japanese,
the Korean language is structurally very different from Chinese,
and Chinese characters were modified and new characters invented
to correspond to Korean grammatical patterns. A modified Chinese
writing system called idu was used along with “pure” classical
Chinese to write the Korean language, until an indigenous Korean
writing system. This system was called hungmin chongum (meaning “correct
sounds for instructing the people”) when it was invented in
the mid-fifteenth century but became known as Hangul after 1913.
It is a phonetic writing system.
- The Tang dynasty of China (7th century-10th century) was a “golden
age” of Chinese civilization, and Chinese culture strongly influenced
China’s neighbors at this time, especially Korea, Vietnam,
and Japan. Of the three, Korea was probably the most faithful to
the Chinese “model,” although it maintained its cultural
distinctiveness and, unlike Vietnam, was never incorporated into
the Chinese empire itself.
- In the seventh century, the Korean kingdom of Silla allied with
Tang China to defeat its rivals Paekche and Koguryo, and by 668
Silla had conquered most of the Korean peninsula. Historians often
refer to the period from the Silla conquest until the end of the
Silla dynasty as “Unified Silla,” although the extreme
north of the peninsula and a large part of Manchuria were under
the control of the Parhae kingdom, which had incorporated part
of the Koguryo aristocracy into its ruling elite.
- The state religion of Silla was Buddhism, and some of the most impressive
Buddhist monuments in Asia were built during the Silla period near
the Silla capital of Kyongju in southeastern Korea.
- Silla was also very active in maritime trade in East Asia, and
the kingdom was even known by Arab traders, who were the first
to transmit knowledge of Korea, or “al-Sila” as the Arabs
called it, to the West.