As printed in A HANDBOOK OF KOREA, 9th, 1993;
Published by the Korean Overseas Information Service


Ancient Period

Tan-gun and Ancient Choson

The people of Ancient Chosön are recorded as Tung-i, “eastern bowmen” or “eastern bar­barians.” They spread in Manchuria, the eastern littoral of China, areas north of the Yangtze River, and the Korean Peninsula. The eastern bowmen had a myth in which the legendary founder Tan-gun was born of a father of heav­enly descent and a woman from a bear-totem tribe. He is said to have started to rule in 2333 B.C., and his descendants reigned in Chosön, the “land of morning calm,” for more than a millennium.

When the Chou people pushed the Yin, the eastern bowmen moved toward Manchuria and the Korean Peninsula for better climatic condi­tions. They seem to have maintained unity, as China’s great sages, Confucius and Mencius, praised their consanguineous order and the decorum of their society.

The eastern bowmen on the western coast of the Yellow Sea clashed with the Chou people during China’s period of warring states. This led them to move toward southern Manchuria and the Korean Peninsula.

There were other tribes of eastern bowmen, Ye-Maek in the Manchurian area and Han on the Korean Peninsula, all belonging to the Tungusic family and linguistically belonging to the Altaic. When Yin collapsed, Kija, a subject of the Yin state, entered Tan-gun’s domain and introduced the culture of Yin around the 13th century B.C.

Then came the invasion of Yen in the north­eastern sector of China, and Ancient Chosön lost the territories west of the Liao River in the third century B.C. By this time iron culture was developing and warring states pushed the refugees eastward.

Among the immigrants, Wiman entered the service of Ancient Chosön as military comman­der with a base on the Amnokkang (Yalu) River. He drove King Chun to the south and usurped power. But in 109 B.C. the Han emper­or Wu-ti dispatched a massive invasion by land and sea to Ancient Chosön in the estuary of the Liao River. Ancient Chosön was defeated after two years and four Chinese provincial com­mands were set up in southern Manchuria and the northern part of the Korean Peninsula. Not long after the establishment of the four com­manderies, however, the Korean attack became fierce and the last of the commanderies, Lolang (Korean: Nangnang) was destroyed by Koguryo in A.D. 313.


The Three Kingdoms

Ancient Korea in the last stage of bronze cul­ture of Karasuk affinity saw the impact of the iron culture in China’s state power. The rise of Puyö was seen in Manchuria along with China’s development. In the southern part of Korea, tribal leagues of the three Han gradually developed to the stage of state-building. Paekche and Shilla were prominent in the south, Koguryó in the north.

By the first century A.D., Koguryo was firm­ly established as a state power and destroyed the Chinese colony Lolang (Nangnang) in A.D. 313. In A.D. 342, however, Koguryö’s capital fell before the Chinese Yen. Paekche amassed power while Koguryo was fighting against the Chinese, and came into conflict with Koguryo in the late fourth century. Then came the growth of Shilla with more fully organized state power.

Koguryo was the first to adopt Buddhism as royal creed in 372; Paekche, the second in 384; and Shilla, the last in A.D. 528. Buddhist scrip­tures in Chinese translation were also adopted. Koguryo established an academy to educate the nobility and compiled a state history consisting of 100 chapters before the introduction of Buddhism. Paekche also compiled its history in the early fourth century prior to A.D. 384. Only Shilla undertook compilation of its history immediately following the adoption of Buddhism.

Thus the three developed state organizations occupied the Korean Peninsula, adopting Confucian and Buddhist hierarchical structures with the king at the pinnacle. State codes were promulgated to initiate a legal system to rule the people. In this process, Koguryo annexed Puyö, and Shilla conquered Kaya. The three states were competing with each other in strengthen­ing Buddhist-Confucian state power, in efforts toward serious territorial expansion.

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At this juncture Shilla developed its Hwarang, (flower of youth corps), a voluntary social organization. The Hwarang members were trained as a group in the arts of war, liter­ary taste and community life, partly through pil­grimages. The educational objectives were: 1) loyalty to the monarch, 2) filial piety to parents, 3) amicability among friends, 4) no retreat in war, and 5) aversion to unnecessary killing. These objectives were postulated by the famous monk Won-gwang, who consolidated Buddhist-­Confucian virtues in the education of Shilla youths. This movement became popular and the corps contributed to the strength of the Shilla state.

With the youth corps, Shilla was able to amass state power in the cultural sphere as well. With the aid of a Paekche architect, it erected a huge temple, Hwangnyongsa, and a towering pagoda famous even in China. The 70m-high pagoda of Hwangnyongsa stood from A.D. 645 until the Mongol invasion of the 13th century. Shilla was ready to learn from Koguryo and Paekche, and also dispatched monks to China to learn about China’s culture, especially through Buddhist doctrine, architecture and Chinese classics.

While Shilla was building amicable relations with T’ang China, Koguryo was in fierce con­flict with Sui and T’ang. Sui Emperor Yang-ti, after successful campaigns against the northern nomadic tribes, invaded Koguryo with more than one million troops. In A.D. 612 Koguryo General Ulchi Mundok held the fortresses against Yang-ti’s army and navy for several months and destroyed the Sui troops in retreat. An ambush at Salsu (Ch’ongch’on-gang River) allowed only 2,700 Sui troops out of 300,000 men to escape. Sui fell from power partly as a result of the defeat by Koguryo.

After the rise of T’ang, T’ai-tsung contem­plated revenge while protecting against inva­sion by building fortifications and walls along the Liao River. In A.D. 644, 648 and 655, T’ai­tsung attempted unsuccessful invasions. T’ang then turned to Shilla for assistance.

Shilla also persuaded T’ang China to come to its aid in the conquest of Paekche and Koguryo. Koguryo had earlier defeated Sui Yang-ti, and T’ai-tsung’s hostile relationship drove T’ang Kao-tsung to ally with Shilla in the campaign against Paekche and then Koguryo.

The latecomer to statehood, Shilla was finally able to defeat the other two states, but unable to control the whole territory of Koguryö which extended to Manchuria. T’ang’s intention toward Shilla was made clear in the aftermath of the unification by Shilla. The Paekche king and his family were taken to T’ang in 660 and a T’ang general appointed military governor to rule the Paekche territory. Koguryo's last king, his officials and 200,000 prisoners were also taken to China in 668 and Koguryo’s territory was administered by T’ang generals. T’ang Kao-tsung’s desires were now evident, and Shilla was determined to fight against T’ang. The determination of Kim Yusin, Shilla’s fore­most general who led and marshaled Shilla’s campaigns, counteracted the Chinese instiga­tion of Paekche and Koguryö to rebel against Shilla. Shilla commenced active resistance against Chinese domination in T’ang-controlled territory. In 671 Shilla started its own opera­tions against Chinese rule and took the Chinese administrative headquarters, thereby retaking all of the Paekche territory. China invaded again in 674 against Shilla, who had succeeded in quelling the T’ang army at Maech’o Fortress near Yanggu and the Ch’onsöng Fortress at the Yesonggang River near Kaesong. Shilla’s army also successfully drove out the T’ang army from P’yongyang. Nevertheless, the Chinese army persistently claimed the territories of Paekche and KoguryO until A.D. 735 when they gave in to Shilla’s claim of territory south of the Taedonggang River. Shilla became a unique state covering most of the Korean Peninsula and the majority of the people of the former three states.

One Koguryo warrior, Ko Sagye, who was taken by a T’ang general, joined the T’ang army. His son Son-ji had a successful military career in T’ang and conquered Tashkent in the mid-eighth century, transmitting paper-making technology to the Arabian countries. The Shilla monk Hye Ch’o in 727 visited India for pilgrim­ages to historic Buddhist sites in five Indian kingdoms, an account of which is preserved as an important historical record about eighth cen­tury India.