II. Ancient and Classical Periods, 3500 B.C.E.–500 C.E. > C. Early Civilizations and Classical Empires of South and East Asia > 6. Korea, to 540 C.E.
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
6. Korea, to 540 C.E.
Korea is a mountainous peninsula 100–150 miles wide and about 400 miles long, extending southward from Manchuria toward the western tip of Japan. High mountains and the frigid Sea of Japan have inhibited the development of the east coast, but the milder climate and more suitable terrain of the west coast facing China and the south coast opposite Japan have made these regions the natural centers of Korean history. The Yalu River in the north forms a natural border with China.  1
Since prehistoric times, the people seem to have been closely related racially, linguistically, and culturally to the ancient peoples of Manchuria and Siberia as well as to Japan, but post-Neolithic civilization came in large measure from China. The oldest Paleolithic (c. 50,000–40,000 B.C.E.) remains from dig sites reveal that the people were cave dwellers and built homes, using fire for food and warmth. They were hunters and gatherers and fishermen and used stone tools. The earliest Neolithic remains (c. 4000 B.C.E.) indicate that the people had pottery and polished stone implements. The Korean Peninsula (c. 3000 B.C.E.) had numerous settlements. Its pottery was gray in color with “comb pattern” markings on the outside, similar to pottery in the Russian Maritime Province, in the Amur and Sungari River basins of Manchuria, and in Mongolia. Another pottery culture emerged with painted designs, from Manchuria (c. 1800 B.C.E.).  2
People lived near waterways and later lived inland in pit dwellings. They hunted and ate fish they caught. Later there was some agriculture, too. There may have been a settled, community life in small villages. Society was organized by clans, each with a clan totem (an animal), headed by a chief; and each clan community was autonomous in its own terrain. Extra-clan bonds were formed through marriage and contiguous territory. They had animistic religious beliefs; nature's objects were revered, some even deified. Most important was the Sun, which figured prominently in Korean myths of human births from eggs following exposure to it.  3
Bronze was first used with subsequent regional variations (c. 9th–8th cent.–4th cent. B.C.E.). Dolmen burial, bronze daggers, and mirrors have been excavated from the Korean bronze age. People lived on higher ground than in the Neolithic age. Rice agriculture was practiced alongside fishing and hunting. Bronze was employed as weaponry and helped in the conquest of Neolithic communities. Walled-town states emerged as Bronze Age culture developed, and some community chiefs became more powerful than others, the embryos of Korean statelets.  4
In the 4th century B.C.E., six small states by river basins became sufficiently prominent that they were known even in China. The most prominent among them was Old Chosn in the basins of the Liao and Taedong Rivers (a major Bronze Age site) in northwest Korea. Rulers of Old Chosn combined political and religious affairs, claiming descent from a sun deity. Old Chosn later merged with other walled states into a “kingdom,” designating its leader a “king,” a clear Chinese borrowing. The use of iron came to northern Korea from Manchuria and was employed for plows and other farming tools, leading to the domestication of animals and increased agricultural production. Iron was also used for weaponry and horse-drawn vehicles, largely for the elite. People lived in pit dwellings. The influence of Chinese metal culture is evident from numerous Chinese coins unearthed at dig sites.  5
c. 300 B.C.E
The Chinese state of Yan invaded and conquered Old Chosn. It was subsequently taken over by the Qin.  6
206 B.C.E
Old Chosn conquered by Liu Bang, rebellion followed.  7
194–180 B.C.E
Power was taken back by Wiman, a Chinese refugee forced to flee to Korea during the tumult of the time. Wiman established the state of Chosn (or Wiman Chosn) which was highly Sinified but not a Chinese colony.  8
109 B.C.E
As Chosn continued to conquer other Korean statelets, the Han dynasty under Wudi, beginning to fear a Chosn-Xiongnu alliance, launched an attack.  9
108 B.C.E
The Chosn capital at present-day P'yngyang fell, and the Han established three commanderies on former Chosn terrain: Luolang (Nangnang), Zhenpan (Chinbn), and Lintun (Imdun).  10
107 B.C.E
A fourth commandery at Xuantu (Hyndo) was established. Zhenpan and Lintun were dissolved in 82 B.C.E. and linked, respectively, with Luolang and Xuantu. Luolang, near P'yngyang, became effectively an outpost of Han civilization with Chinese civil and military officials and Chinese colonists. Other Korean states also acquired Chinese culture artifacts through Luolang.  11
Some of the other more important states along the Korean Peninsula follow. Puy (Chinese: Fuyu), in the Sungari River basin of Manchuria, was first mentioned in the 4th century B.C.E. and then often from the 1st century C.E. It was seen as a threat to Wang Man's Xin dynasty. By 49 C.E. the Puy ruler was calling himself “king,” implying control over a confederated kingdom. Puy sent emissaries to China with whom it was on good terms. It was later conquered by Kogury. Kogury is traditionally said to have been founded by Chumong in 37 B.C.E., south of Puy. It was in the region of the Xuantu Commandery, but in 75 B.C.E. the latter was moved farther to the west into Manchuria due to local resistance and Kogury's emergence as a confederated kingdom. It was led by a warrior aristocracy frequently at odds with the Chinese, and it thus acquired more through warfare than productive work, unlike Puy. It began expanding in the early 1st century C.E. and fought against Wang Mang (12 C.E.); under King T'aejo (53–146?) it continued to spread south. Later in the 1st century it attacked also to the north. The Chin state was in the southern part of the peninsula, and it first appeared in records in the 2nd century B.C.E. It attempted contacts with Han China but was cut off from doing so by Wiman Chosn. Many Chinese refugees with knowledge of metalwork escaped to Chin. The use of iron in the south was important to social and cultural development, for example, in the greater use of rice agriculture. Chin was eventually subdivided into three statelets: Mahan, Chinhan, and Pynhan (known collectively as Samhan or the “three Hans”).  12
In society at the time, agriculture was most important, supplemented by the raising of livestock and the domestication of animals. Kogury retained much hunting. The village communities lived off farming and paid heavy taxes but were forbidden from participation in the military. The elite lived in walled towns apart from these peasant communities. The confederated kingdoms developed from the merging of these walled-town states. Kingship was hereditary from at least the late 2nd to early 3rd century C.E. in Puy and Kogury. Aristocratic relatives controlled the political and economic affairs of the states; the richer ones had large retinues of household slaves. Through this process, the confederated kingdoms became centralized aristocratic states.  13
There was a separation over time between religion and politics. The chief of ritual practice emerged with powers in his own quarters; shamanism continued to be practiced; there were various seasonal rituals; and festivals were open to all classes of populace. Royal burials were extravagant, and the numerous burial objects imply that ancestor worship was strong.  14
c. 210 C.E
The Gongson family of southern Manchuria gained control over Luolang.  15
c. 238
The Wei dynasty (one of the Three Kingdoms in China) captured Luolang.  16
Wei attacked Kogury and took its capital; when it attacked again the next year, the Kogury king fled.  17
THE THREE KINGDOMS PERIOD began after Kogury under King Mich'n destroyed the Luolang Commandery (313), ending four centuries of Chinese control, and took the Taedong River area to its south, before confronting the rising state of Paekche in the southwest. The third state, Silla, was in the southeast.  18
The Xianbei state of Yan attacked Kogury from the north, invaded the capital, took thousands of hostages, and burned down the imperial palace.  19
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.