Episode 24: Korea – Land of Morning Calm
Foundations of Eastern Civilization
Dr Craig Benjamin (2013)
Benjamin begins this lecture by describing King Dangun (grandson of the Lord of Heaven), mythical founder of Joseon, the first Korean kingdom.
Joseon, a prehistoric walled city near the modern North Korean capitol Pyongyang, dates from 2300 BC. Built while Korea’s neolithic villages were consolidating into larger town-states, it’s is associated with giant unworked tomb markers known as dolmans* and undecorated “mumun” pottery.
Korea experienced its Bronze Age during the first millenium, accompanied by the emergence of powerful leaders and coercive states. Numerous bronze artifacts (bells, mirrors, swords, axes chisels, scythes and hoes) begin to appear in the eighth century 8 BC, possibly related to trade with China.
During this period, Koreans abandoned their river valley villages and built settlements in the foothills and mountains to increase agricultural production in the flatlands. They grew rice** and millet, as well as domesticating pigs and water buffalo. A clearly identified elite formed, who buried their dead with jade and bronze jewelry and chariots.***
Between 57 BC and 668 AD is known as the Three Kingdoms Period (Koguryo, Paeckche and Silla), although there was a smaller also a small fourth kingdom Kaya. All four were continually at war with one another). Initially ruled by a council of chiefs, Koguryo (founded 37 BC) became a hereditary monarchy, consisting of noble aristocrats and a lower class made up of farmers and slaves. Paeckche was founded around 18 BC by two brothers who adopted Chinese dress and produced a sufficient agricultural surplus to establish an artisan class. Silla was founded in 57 BC, when six villages joined forces to elect a paramount chief to defend them from hostile armies.
In 194 BC Wiman, a Chinese general from the Yan dynasty conquered Joseon and ruled it as the independent state Wiman-Joseon. In 109 BC, the Han emperor Wudi invaded Wiman-Joseon and ruled northern Korea as a Chinese colony for 400 years. His efforts to rule southern Korea were failed.
When the Han Dynasty collapsed in 220 AD, the Korean kingdoms successfully drove out their Chinese occupiers, though they faced new military aggression following China’s reunification under the Sui and Tang dynasties.
Under Chinese occupation, Buddhism spread to Korea from northern China, and the three larger kingdoms all adopted Buddhism as their official religion. The kingdom of Silla also adopted Confucianism, which ended their tradition of human sacrifice and the burial of retainers with their rulers.
After 581 AD, repeated Chinese invasions of Korea’s coast led to an unsuccessful invasion of Koguryo (611 AD) costing the Chinese close to one million troops. A second invasion in 614 AD would bankrupt the Sui Dynasty and cause its collapse.
Following its own unsuccessful invasion, the Tang dynasty that followed allied itself with the Silla kingdom, as the latter fought off a military invasion by the Paeckche. This enabled Silla to take over most of Koguryo and Paeckche and to rule most of the Korean peninsula for 900 years.
*Prehistoric Dolmans are found through Eurasia, but the highest concentration is found in Korea.
**The japonica variety, which, according to Benjamin, must have come from China around 1200 BC)
***Indicated early Korean civilization was influenced by steppes nomads, as well as China.
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