Korea – Mysterious Beginnings

Episode 23: Korea – Mysterious Beginnings

Foundations of Eastern CIvilization

Dr Craig Benjamin (2013)

Film Review

In this lecture, Benjamin explores the effect of Korea’s geography and climate on its early development.

He credits Korea’s failure to be subsumed by its neighbor China to its rugged mountainous landscape. Seventy percent of Korea is covered in steep mountains, making navigation between the East and West coast extremely difficult. Moreover unlike the majority of modern nations, it remains heavily forested.

Located in the same temperate latitude as Denver, it’s the same size as Britain and Utah. Surrounded on three sides by water, it shares a border with both China and Russia. Although separated from Japan by the sea of Japan, the archipelago is visible from the east coast of Korea.

Blessed with rich mineral resources (mainly gold, copper, tin and iron), Korea was the world’s largest gold producer during the first half of the 20th century.

It has only one (extinct) volcano Baikdu, also it’s highest mountain, with a volcanic lake associated with early Korean deities.

Owing to the steep drop of its mountains along its coasts, it has no significant bays or harbors suitable to facilitate urban development. Its three main river systems (which gave rise to its major cities) are Taedong in the North (location of North Korea’s capitol Pyongyang) and the Han (location of South Korea’s capitol Seoul) and Kum in the South.

As in China, there is archeological evidence that pre-human hominids (Homo erectus) using hand axes, flake tools and fire also migrated from Africa to Korea 500,000 to 600,000 years ago. Owing to the wide land bridge connecting China, Korea and Japan before the last Ice Age ended (and sea levels rose), similar remains and tools are found in Japan.

Paleolithic* remains show early humans lived in extended families in small caves or small dwellings in simple villages. They foraged, fished and hunted deer, wild board and macaques.

The Neolithic period saw waves saw waves of migrants who crossed the Yellow Sea land bridge. They lived in small dwellings heated by a central hearth, used distinctive pots used to store food from domesticated plants and supplemented their diet by hunting (of dogs, cats, water buffalo, boor, deer, dolphins and whales).

Neolithic** Koreans were ritually buried with jewelry and masks suggesting they believed in an afterlife.

*The Paleolithic, aka the Old Stone Age, is a period in prehistory distinguished by the original development of stone tools. It extends from the earliest known use of stone tools by hominids 3.3 million years ago to around 10,000 BC.

**The Neolithic, aka the New Stone Age, refers to a period characterized by agriculture and fixed human settlement between 10,000 BC and around 3,300 BC when bronze tools were developed.

Film can be viewed free on Kanopy.


China: Ancient Civilization Born in Isolation

Episode 14 China: Born in Isolation

The Big History of Civilizations (2016)

Dr Craig G Benjamin

Film Review

In this lecture, Benjamin mainly focuses on the early Chinese civilizations arising in the rich alluvial flood plains of the Yellow River. As in the Indus Valley civilization, their immense success related in large part to the formidable barrier the Himalayan mountains presented to invading nomads.

Archeological evidence suggests that by 7000 BC Yellow River valley inhabitants had domesticated millet. By 5000 BC they were living in villages and growing millet, mung beans and hemp (for clothes) and keeping domesticated pigs, cattle, sheep and ducks. They were also producing beautiful painted pottery and bone tools.

By 3000 BC (under the Xia Dynasty),  they had domesticated silk worms, built walled cities, invented potters wheels, and produced bronze tools and carved jade ornaments for their ruling elite.

The Shang dynasty ruled in the Yellow River Valley from 1600 -1045 BC. The first Chinese cities appeared during this period, along with the first written language. Peasants, who served as tenant farmers on the large landholdings of the wealthy, could be conscripted by the king into the military. Enemy captured in war were kept as slaves and were sacrificed during royal funerals. Believing they passed to another realm after death, people worshiped ancestors in the hope of winning their protection.

The Shang kings used their powerful military to conquer cities outside the Yellow River Valley for tribute and slaves. However the Shang Dynasty was no match for the Zhou dynasty, which defeated them militarily in 1045 BC. The latter ruled for 800 years, employing a decentralized structure allowing local kings to rule their own city-states, provided they supply tribute and soldiers to the Zhou king.

During the 9th century BC, regional armies gained access to iron and rebelled against the Zhou dynasty. Five hundred years of continual unrest gave rise to the major Chinese philosophies, as scholars sought ways to end war and establish more ethical governance.

  • Confucius (551-479 BC) taught that people should be able to obtain social status through education and ethical living, as well as through heredity. He supported social hierarchy and disapproved of profit-seeking.
  • Daoism, which appeared during the 4th century BC, taught that human beings could achieve fulfillment by better understanding their own nature and living as simply as possible.
  • Legalism, which appeared around 400 BC, was a school of political philosophyadopted during the Qin dynasty. It promoted strict laws with harsh collective punishment and taught that education, philosophy and commerce were useless professions.

The improved governance and military strength resulting from a legalistic approach enabled the Qin dynasty to reunite Yellow River city-states. Despite its short reign (221 – 206 BC, however, it laid a military and administrative foundation for both the Han dynasty and the Chinese imperial system, which lasted until 1912 AD.

The film can be viewed free on Kanopy