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koreaCategory: (general)
Tuesday, 25 August 2009
07:29:39 AM (GMT)
I  Introduction 

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Korea, peninsula in Asia, divided since 1948 into two political entities: the
Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the Republic of Korea
(South Korea). The following article discusses the history of Korea until its
division. For information on Korea’s physical geography, climate, people, economy,
government, and subsequent history, see Korea, North and Korea, South. 

The earliest known Korean state was Old Chosŏn (Joseon), in what is now northwestern
Korea and southern Northeast China; it was conquered by the Han Chinese in 108 bc.
Thereafter the Chinese set up military outposts in Korea that helped spread Chinese
culture and civilization. The first of the three main Korean kingdoms to come in
contact with the spreading Chinese influence was Koguryŏ (Goguryeo), which emerged
in the 1st century bc in the north. Paekche (Baekje) in the southwest and Silla in
the southeast, which emerged in the 3rd and the 4th century ad, respectively, had
contact with China as well. 

The traditional founding dates for the Paekche and Silla dynasties are based on myth
but taken seriously by many Koreans. Silla, the winner of the unification wars in the
7th century ad but the last Korean kingdom to develop, needed to prove its legitimacy
by claiming the most ancient roots. In doing so, Silla needed to go back beyond 37
bc, the date Koguryŏ accurately claimed as its beginning. Silla therefore pushed its
horizon back to 57 bc, the mythological founding date of the dynasty by two legendary
figures, Kim and Pak, both of whom were said to be born from eggs found at the edge
of a forest. Similarly, the traditional founding date of 18 bc for Paekche is based
on myth as well. 

To a degree these kingdoms accepted Buddhism, Confucianism, and most importantly,
Chinese characters as a means of communication and education. Paekche and Silla also
had contact with Japan, along with a fourth, smaller kingdom called Kaya (Gaya),
located on the central southern coast. Paekche and Kaya had political and military
alliances with Japan; Paekche would later call upon Japan during a war with Silla,
but the aid came too late for Paekche to survive. Kaya and Japan had particularly
close ties, and for many years Japanese historians depicted Kaya as a
Japanese-dominated kingdom. Korean scholars have long rejected that view, and most
modern historians are divided as to which kingdom, if either, dominated the other. At
the time, both the Korean Peninsula and the Japanese islands were divided among
several kingdoms and fiefdoms. 

Koguryŏ was initially the most powerful Korean kingdom, controlling most of the
peninsula and Manchuria by the 5th century. In the mid-6th century, Silla conquered
Kaya and seized the area around what is now Seoul in the Han River valley, while
inflicting steady territorial losses on Koguryŏ and Paekche. By 668 Silla, in
alliance with the Chinese Tang (T’ang) dynasty, had conquered first Paekche and
then Koguryŏ, creating the first unified Korean state, Unified Silla, and ending
what is known as the Three Kingdoms period. 

Buddhism, which appeared on the peninsula during the 4th century and grew to a
powerful force by the 6th century, inspired much of Silla’s intellectual and
artistic life. Chinese culture, written language, and political institutions were
also extremely influential. Silla’s native culture, however, was the basis for
Korean development in this period. By the 10th century a distinctively Korean state
was firmly rooted, and despite many later changes and vicissitudes, this Korean
polity has endured until modern times. 

II  Koryŏ Period (918-1392) 

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During the 9th century Silla’s monarchy and governing institutions declined, and
regional leaders gained strength at the expense of the central government. From 890
to 935 the three main kingdoms reemerged on the peninsula. This time the northern
state, Koryŏ (Goryeo), accomplished unification. (The name Koryŏ, which is derived
from Koguryŏ, is reflected in the modern Western name, Korea.) Founded in 918 by an
astute warrior and statesman named Wang Kŏn, Koryŏ brought Korea’s regional
leaders under a single central authority and extended the frontiers of the country
north to the Yalu River. Here Koryŏ came into conflict with the Liao dynasty of the
Khitans, fighting wars from 993 to 1018. Peace was achieved in 1022, with Koryŏ
regaining all the territory contested by the Liao dynasty. 

The full flowering of Koryŏ culture took place in the 1100s. It was marked by a
stable central government, influenced by Chinese political institutions and methods;
a vigorous Buddhist faith that inspired many achievements in scholarship and art; and
a particularly distinctive ceramics industry that produced exquisite
celadons—stoneware with a gray-green, iron-pigmented glaze—which are still
appreciated today. In the early 12th century, however, stability began to give way.
Powerful aristocratic families contended with the throne for political control, and
the Manchurian Jin (Chin) dynasty added pressure from outside, provoking divisive
responses from a now uncertain leadership. In 1170 a group of military officers, who
felt civilian officials had too much power, threw out the officials and turned the
kings into figureheads controlled by the officers, thus beginning a period of
internal strife. The Mongols invaded Korea in 1231, launching a series of wars that
ended with their conquest of Koryŏ in 1259. Under the Mongols the Korean kings
recovered their power from the military. Koryŏ was able to drive out the Mongols in
1356, but in the long run it was unable to restore its institutions or contain the
new political forces it encountered. In 1392, after nearly 500 years, the state came
to an end. 

III  The Chosŏn Dynasty (1392-1910) 

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During the 14th century Korea came under the influence of Neo-Confucianism, a system
of Confucian thought influenced by Buddhism and Daoism (Taoism). The principles of
Neo-Confucianism, including emphases on good conduct, wisdom, and appropriate social
interaction, became part of Korean culture during this period. This value system
energized the middle ranks of Koryŏ’s officials, and their movement for social and
political reform inspired the founding of the Chosŏn (Joseon) dynasty by Yi

A  The Early Period 

Chosŏn’s early kings and its elite class of Confucianists established a social and
political structure that withstood all challenges until 1910, achieving one of the
longest periods of domination by a single dynasty in world history. Although heavily
influenced by Chinese culture, Chosŏn maintained a distinctive identity, as
illustrated by its own unique alphabet, invented in 1446 by King Sejong. Chosŏn’s
first 200 years were marked by peace and generally good government, although
disruptive divisions within the elite class began in the 16th century. While
distracted by these struggles, Chosŏn was invaded in 1592 by the Japanese, who
wanted to use Korea as a transit route for the conquest of China. By 1598, however,
Chosŏn, with the aid of China’s Ming dynasty and the efforts of its own naval
hero, Yi Sunsin, had repulsed the Japanese. Still recovering from the Japanese
invasion, Korea was again invaded, this time by the Manchus (first in 1627 and again
in 1636). The Manchu conquest of China in 1644 brought new problems for Chosŏn, but
it also had the effect of stimulating the Koreans, temporarily cut off from Chinese
influence, to more creatively develop their own culture.

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