Central Themes and Key Points
Classical Korea (ca. 50 BCE-918 CE)

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.

Silla (668-935)

  • 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.
© 2029 Asia for Educators, Columbia University | http://afe.easia.columbia.edu