Ancient Korea

The Korean Peninsula is an extremely rich historical and archeological region that comprised a number of important Kingdoms in the early history of Asia.

Portrait of Song Si-Yeol and Yun Hwon-Joseon (17th Century)
The Ancient Kingdoms of Korea

Mask, Choson Period, 18th Century

According to legend, the mythical figure Dan-gun founded Gojoseon, the first Korean Kingdom, in 2333 B.C.E. Subsequently, several tribes moved from the southern part of Manchuria to the Korean Peninsula. Laying between the Chinese Empire and the Japanese Islands, Korea has always been a highly contested and strategic area, and the Korean people themselves describe Korea in folk tradition, as a white dolphin between a whale and a shark. Allusions aside the Koreans managed to maintain an independent culture, through the various periods of it’s existence. At times being fragmented into smaller states, and other times being closely controlled by the growing power of China, yet the Korean language and character managed to survive and prosper quite independently.

The Archeology of Ancient Korea

The Seokguram Grotto is a hermitage and part of the Bulguksa temple complex, said to have been built in 742

War, economic decay, and the vicissitudes of history have long since robbed the old wooden- built towns and palaces of Korea of their original appearance. As the buildings disappeared, so, too, did their contents, so that what has come down to us are only very scattered fragments of Korean art. No great mediaeval fortresses or ancient town centers remain. The stumps of columns scattered in the grass can convey little of the extent or nature of the artistic activity of previous centuries.

Since so little has been preserved above ground, all the more interest attaches to the many tombs and tumuli of the ancient settlements. The finds made here are often the only material on which we can base our study of Korean art. Archaeological research is of primary importance as a source of information not only for the more remote epochs but for more recent times as well. In this sense Korea is indeed ‘an archaeologists’ country’, where we may come across fragments of brick two thousand years old, break into a vault to find a tomb fifteen hundred years old, and pick up pottery eight hundred years old at the bottom of a ditch round a former palace or a potter’s shed.

Of the archaeological remains, the groups of tombs round P’yongyang have attracted most attention. To the south of the city alone, on the left bank of the river Tadonggang, there are over thirteen hundred tombs scattered in the fields in the close vicinity of the earth mound; they date from the height of the Han dynasty in China, that is, from the beginning of the Chris­tian era. This vast necropolis and the material found in the tombs, now preserved in the Central Historical Museum in P’yongyang, bear eloquent witness to the life and culture of north-west Korea two thousand years ago.

Naturally we are not taking this region as our starting point because it was here that Korean art was born; there is much archaeological material from elsewhere that tells of earlier developments. This material is now being studied and classified (see recent publications of Dr To Yu-ho and other Korean archaeologists). It is not easy to identify the different periods in medieval Korean art, for each site is a complex amalgam of material from different periods, not yet firmly dated, or its relationship established with the products of neighboring cultures and of earlier periods. In recent years work has been begun on several late Neolithic sites and on others where the material seems to date from the Iron and Bronze Ages. Of major excavations we may mention those at Kungsan on the Yellow Sea coast; at Chi’amni in the province of North Hwangha; at Konggwiri near Kangge in north-west Korea; and on the important site on Ch’odo Islandin the Sea of Japan off the coast of north-east Korea.

Soviet archaeologists, in particular A. P. Okladnikov, are also paying increased attention to Korean history in connection with excavations in the coastal regions of Siberia. Okladnikov distinguishes three Neolithic regions in Korea: the north-east, with the main finds in the pro­vince of Hamgyong, the north-west centering in the province of Hwanghado, and the southern in which the main finds are round Pusan. Recent finds in North Korea have confirmed this classification. The material found on the Yellow Sea coast is quite different from the character­istic tools (axes, hoes, half-moon knives and obsidian tools) found in Northern Hamgyong province. In the former area we find pottery decorated with the typical comb pattern and jars tapering towards the bottom. The district round Kangge forms a transitional area. In Neolithic times the whole of Korea formed part of a broader area extending from Kamchatka along the Pacific coast to the Ryúkyú Islands, and was quite distinct from the culture of the mainland. According to Okladnikov, over the whole of this area Neolithic vessels are found, shaped like a blunted cone and decorated with a continuous vertical zigzag pattern.

These features are common to finds in Korea, most of north-east China, and the Siberian coastal region. Within this area is a smaller one covering Korea, the southern part of the Siber­ian coastal region, and Japan, where the finds have a larger number of features in common. On the basis of this, Okladnikov suggests a relationship between the Neolithic cultures in the area and possibly also between the peoples that developed them.

A Goguryeo Roof Tile

A Goguryeo Roof Tile

At the height of the Neolithic period there was a further division within this area, when Japa­nese culture became distinct and developed the ceramics of the jomon period, the baroque style in ceramics. We cannot yet distinguish between the peoples responsible for developing the different cultures, and their mutual relations, up to the middle of the first millennium A.D. It is believed that in Korea the Neolithic Age gave way to the Bronze Age some time after 1000 B.C. A widespread megalithic culture then developed, which lasted until the rise of the states of Koguryo, Paekche and Silla.

It was followed in the north-west of the peninsula by the growing influence on Korea of the northern Chinese states, while in the south it persisted in the area inhabited by the Chinhan, Mahan and Pyonghan tribal groups. Characteristic of this culture are the menhirs, particularly dolmens, found everywhere in Korea except for the Northern Hamgyong province. The largest of these dolmens are in the region round the mouth of the river Taedoggang.

Among the interesting Bronze Age finds are the elongated bronze coins shaped like a knife or razor, known in Korea as myongdojon; they have been found only in the north-east of the peninsula. They formed part of the currency of the Chinese state of Yen, which during the Period of the Warring States ( 475-221 B.C.) spread over the northern region of He-pei province and in the east extended its influence as far as the Liao River in north-east China.

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The Gojoseon Kingdom

The people of Gojoseon or the oldest kingdom of Korea are recorded as Dongi, “eastern bowmen” or “eastern barbarians.” They propagated 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 Dangun 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 Gojoseon, the “Land of Morning Calm,” for more than a millennium.

When the Zhou 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 Zhou people during China’s period of warring states (475 B.C.-221 B.C.E.). This led them to move toward southern Manchuria and the Korean Peninsula.

There were other tribes of eastern bowmen, the Yemaek in the Manchurian area and the Han on the Korean Peninsula, all of whom belonged to the Tungusic family and linguistically affiliated with the Altaic. When Yin collapsed, Gija, a subject of the Yin state, entered Dangun’s domain and introduced the culture of Yin around the 11th century B.C. Then came the invasion of Yen in the northeastern sector of China, and Gojoseon lost the territories west of the Liao River in the third century B.C. By this time. iron culture was developing and the warring states pushed the refugees eastward.

Among the immigrants, Wiman entered the service of Gojoseon as military commander with a base on the Amnokgang (Yalu) river. He drove King Jun 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 Gojoseon in the estuary of the Liao River. Gojoseon 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 attacks became fierce and the last of the commanderies, Lolang (Korean: Nangnang) was destroyed by Goguryeo in 313.

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The Three Kingdoms

The turtle ship was a unique Korean invention

The turtle ship was a unique Korean invention

The Three Kingdoms refers to a period of time (early 4th to mid-7th centuries A.D.) marked by the struggle of three rival kingdoms: Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla over the territory spanning the Korean peninsula and part of Northeastern Asia.

Goguryeo was An ancient state of the Korean peninsula, Goguryeo occupied the largest territory among the Three Kingdoms. Founded in 37 B.C., Goguryeo prospered on a vast area encompassing the northern part of the Korean peninsula and south-central Manchuria. The kingdom expanded its territory in fierce battles against Chinese kingdoms, but fell to an alliance of Silla and Tang forces in 668 A.D.

Silla, was one of the ancient states of the Three Kingdoms, Silla originated in the southeastern part of the Korean peninsula. The kingdom lasted for 992 years, from 57 B.C. to 935 A.D. It conquered Baekje and Goguryeo, one after the other, by joining forces with the Tang Empire of China. Following the unification of the Three Kingdoms, the Tang Empire was no longer an ally, but an invader. Hence, Silla joined forces with the people of Goguryeo and Baekje to drive out Tang forces, and founded the first unified state in the history of Korea in the territory south of the Daedonggang River and Wonsanman.

Baekje was one of the three ancient kingdoms, Baekje (18 B.C.- 660 A.D.) was founded by King Onjo, the son of the king of Goguryeo, in the southwestern part of the Korean peninsula. The kingdom witnessed the florescence of the elegant and delicate Baekje culture, which in particular greatly affected Japanese culture. In 660 A.D., Baekje was defeated by the coalition troops of Silla and Tang of China.

In the last stages of the bronze culture of the Karasuk affinity, the impact of the iron culture was experienced by ancient Koreans as a consequence of the rise of Chinese state power. The rise of Buyeo was seen in Manchuria along with China’s developing centralized power. In the southern part of Korea, tribal leagues of the Three Han gradually developed to the stage of state-building. Baekje and Silla were prominent in the south, Goguryeo in the north.

These Korean war vessels were the first armored battleships of the ancient world

These Korean war vessels were the first armored battleships of the ancient world

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

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

Thus, all Three Kingdoms developed highly sophisticated state organizations on 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, Goguryeo annexed Buyeo, and Silla conquered Gaya. The Three Kingdoms were competing with each other in strengthening Buddhist-Confucian state power, in efforts toward serious territorial expansion.

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The Rise of Silla

Hwangnyongsa is the name of a former Buddhist temple in the city of Gyeongju, built in the 6th C., it was the center of state-sponsored Buddhism during the Unified Silla era

At this juncture, Silla developed its Hwarang (Flower of Youth Corps), a voluntary military 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: loyalty to the monarch, filial piety to parents, amicability among friends, no retreat in war, and aversion to unnecessary killing. These objectives were postulated by the famous monk Won-gwang, who consolidated Buddhist-Confucian virtues in the education of Silla youths. This movement became popular and the corps contributed to the strength of the Silla Kingdom.

With the youth corps, Silla was able to amass state power in the cultural sphere as well. With the aid of a Baekje architect, it erected a huge temple, Hwangnyongsa (Temple of the Illustrious Dragon), and a towering pagoda famous even in China. The 70-meter-high pagoda of Hwang-nyongsa stood from 645 until the Mongol invasion of the 13th century. Silla was ready to learn from Goguryeo and Baekje, and also dispatched monks to China to learn about China’s culture, especially Chinese Buddhist doctrine, architecture and Chinese classics.

While Silla was building amicable relations with Tang China, Goguryeo was in fierce conflict with Sui and Tang. Sui Emperor Yang-ti, after successful campaigns against the northern nomadic tribes, invaded Goguryeo with more than one million troops. In 612 Goguryeo General Eulji Mundeok held the fortresses against Yang-ti’s army and navy for several months and destroyed the Sui troops in retreat. An ambush at Salsu (Cheongcheon-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 Goguryeo.

After the rise of Tang, Tai-tsung contemplated revenge while protecting against invasion by building fortifications and walls along the Liao River. In 644, 648 and 655, Tai-tsung attempted unsuccessful invasions. Tang then turned to Silla for assistance. Silla also persuaded Tang China to come to its aid in the conquest of Baekje and Goguryeo. Goguryeo had earlier defeated Sui Yang-ti, and Tai-tsung’s hostile relationship drove Kao-tsung of Tang to go into alliance with Silla in the campaign against Baekje and then Goguryeo.

A late-comer to statehood, Silla was finally able to defeat the other two kingdoms, but was unable to control the whole territory of Goguryeo which extended to Manchuria. Tang’s intention toward Silla was made clear in the aftermath of the unification by Silla. The Baekje king and his family were taken to Tang in 660 and a Tang general appointed a military governor to rule the Baekje territory. Goguryeo’s last king, his officials and 200,000 prisoners were also taken to China in 668 and Goguryeo’s territory was administered by Tang generals. Kao-tsung’s desires were now evident, and Silla was determined to fight against Tang. The determination of Kim Yu-sin, Silla’s foremost general who led and marshaled Silla’s campaigns, counteracted the Chinese instigation of Baekje and Goguryeo to rebel against Silla. Silla commenced active resistance against Chinese domination in Tang-controlled territory. In 671 Silla started its own operations against Chinese rule and took the Chinese administrative headquarters, thereby retaking all of the Baekje territory. China invaded again in 674 against Silla, who had succeeded in quelling the Tang army at Maecho Fortress near Yanggu and the Cheonseong fortress at the Yeseonggang river near Gaeseong. Silla’s army also successfully drove out the Tang army from Pyongyang. Nevertheless, the Chinese army persistently claimed the territories of Baekje and Goguryeo until 676 when they gave in to Silla’s claim of territory south of the Daedonggang river. Silla became a unique state covering most of the Korean Peninsula and the majority of the people of the former three states.

One Goguryeo warrior, Go Sa-gye, who was taken by a Tang general, joined the Tang army. His son Go Seon-ji had a successful military career in Tang and conquered Tashkent in the mid-eighth century, transmitting paper-making technology to the Arabian countries. The Silla monk Hyecho 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.

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The Flowering of Art Under the Kingdom of Silla

Chosen pottery

The outbursts of creative vitality that occur from time to time in any civilization never cease to astonish. So it is with the Korean kingdom of Silla. What were the reasons for this sudden flowering of culture?

To answer this question we must first understand something of the economic and social back­ground. Here, we must ask other questions: why did this seemingly rather backward region develop into the only independent state in the peninsula? how was it able to resist absorption by the Chinese T’ang empire? how was it able to develop its civilization to such an extent? A very full answer to these and other questions is given in his introduction by M. N. Pak to Kim Pusik work Samguk sagi (Records of the History of the Three Kingdoms). Here, how­ever, we shall only consider very briefly conditions in the Silla kingdom.

The Chinese historical treatise San-kuo che mentions that in Chinhan (the predecessor of the Silla Kingdom) the soil was very fertile and that grain (including the ‘five grains’) was grown; the silkworm also was cultivated, and silk and linen cloth woven. In agriculture, irrigation and the plow were introduced at an early period. The traditional metal-working crafts played an important part in economic development. Iron and gold were smelted, and from the fifth century on were exported. The government had a financial interest in agriculture and the crafts, and by the year 500 transport and trade were well developed, making relations with China and other countries relatively easy. Silla was thus able to surpass the Koguryo and Paekche kingdoms economically, and then climb rapidly to their level of social and administrative organization.

Koguryo and Paekche probably owed their earlier advance to their geographical proximity to China and their direct relations with her; but whereas Koguryo was not ethnically or socially homogeneous–the western plain was more cultivated than the extensive mountain region inland–Silla had the advantage in these respects of a smaller and more compact territory. From the seventh century onwards we can speak of an ethnical unity in Silla. By this time the art and culture of the Korean peninsula had settled into that mold that has survived to the present day.

The art of Silla received a great impulse from the conversion of the country to Buddhism. There were temples to be built and sacrificial vessels and other articles needed for the cult to be pro­duced. Buddhism appears to have taken root in the first half of the sixth century, after over­coming some resistance. It owed its victory to the country’s relations with the Chinese Kingdom of Liang ( 502-557). Buddhist books were brought from there by Buddhist monks in 544. The new religion spread rapidly, proliferating into different sects introduced from China by Budd­hist monks.

The Unified Silla Kingdom promoted the development of culture and arts, and the popularity of Buddhism reached its peak during this period. Soon after the penetration of Silla by Buddhism, Buddhist art began to develop. A bronze statue of Buddha, sixteen feet high, and richly gilded, was set up in Hwangnyongsa Monastery in 574. In the following century, during the reign of Queen Sondok, Buddhism flourished greatly. In 647, an important secular building was built–the observatory at Kyongju, capital of the Silla kingdom. In the eighth century, under King Kyongdok, the greatest monuments of Buddhist art arose round Kyongju: in 751 Kim Taesong enlarged the monastery of Pulguksa until, it is said, it numbered seventy buildings; the famous rock shrine also dates from this time, with its statue of Shakyamuni and fifteen relief carvings of Bodhisattvas, the four kings of Heaven, guardian and arhats.

A Buddha from the Kingdom of Silla

A Buddha from the Kingdom of Silla

The Unified Silla Kingdom declined because of contention for supremacy among the noble classes, and was annexed by Goryeo in 935. The Balhae Kingdom began to emerge just as the Goguryeo kingdom was on the verge of collapsing. Goguryeo General, Dae Joyeong founded Balhae along with his army of displaced peoples. At one point, Balhae became so powerful that it was able to acquire territories in northern and eastern parts of China. At those times, the Tang Dynasty of China referred to Balhae as ‘the strong country by the sea in the east.’ The significance of the Balhae Kingdom is greatly inherited from Goguryeo, including the land that it was able to retrieve.

Silla reached peak of power and prosperity in the middle of the eighth century. It attempted to establish an ideal Buddhist country and constructed the Seokguram Grotto Shrine and Bulguksa Temple with splendorous masonic art. Extensive printing of Buddhist scripture was undertaken with woodblocks. The oldest imprint of the Dharani sutra, probably printed between 706 and 751, was brought to light during the recent restoration of a three-story pagoda at Bulguksa Temple.

The nobility of Goguryeo and Baekje were treated with some generosity. Scholars specializing in diplomatic correspondence, medicine, mathematics, and astronomy were invited to bring professional personnel into government service. The distribution of Jeongjeon (equity land system) was put into practice in 722 for the peasants, and the people in the country then became eligible to cultivate allotted lands. In addition, reservoirs were erected for rice field irrigation. For the allotted land the peasants had to return in kind crops of rice, millet, barley and wheat. Taxation in kind was collected in accordance with the actual crops from the land. In addition, the peasants were bound to plant mulberry trees for silkworms, and walnut and pine nut trees as a side tax to the government and nobility. They raised cattle and horses, two to four head in each household. The Silla people enjoyed an affluent life. The capital city prospered and there were streets of more than 10 kilometers distance.

During this period, a prominent monk, Wonhyo (617-686), started a new sect of Buddhism among the common people. By his creative thinking, Buddhism was brought to the public as a popular religion. There was no more war in the eighth century and the desire for learning grew. Idu, a new transcription system of Korean words by the use of Chinese characters, was invented by Silla scholars of the mid-upper class next to the upper-royal nobility, or Jingol (true bone). The growing need for scholarly work necessitated the recruitment of mid-upper class scholars, so a quasi-civil service examination system was instituted in 788 to meet this end.

The state cult of Buddhism began to deteriorate as the nobility indulged in easy and luxurious lives. Buddhism began to establish a new Seon sect (generally known in the West by its Japanese name Zen) in the remote mountain area. In the cities, the state cult also encountered difficulties as conflict among the nobility in outlying districts intensified, and the throne continued to lose power as struggles within the Jingol clan also increased. King Hyegong was assassinated in 780. During this time, there were frequent, but futile, attempts to usurp the throne.

In the outlying areas there also were uprisings initiated by Jingol magistrates. King Aejang was killed by his uncle who succeeded to the throne. Thus Silla in the ninth century was shaken by intra-clan conflict both around the throne and in district administration. Jang Bogo, a successful merchant, held sway in maritime commerce in the ninth century at Cheonghaejin (Wando), transporting goods to and from Chinese and Japanese ports. He was one among many local leaders to rebel against the Silla throne.

The government prohibited the building of new temples and extravagant decorations altogether in 806. One of the many prominent scholars, Choe Chiwon, who had passed the Tang civil examination and drafted a manifesto against Huang Tsao, returned to his own home country. However, his suggestions were not taken seriously, nor put in practice. Although offered a high-ranking office, Choe retreated to Haeinsa temple to live as a hermit. Scholars and talented persons from the mid-upper class wished for a change from Silla’s rule.

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The Balhae Kingdom

Korean Earthen Vessel Subsequent to the fall of Goguryeo, Dae Joyeong, a former Goguryeo general, formed an army of Goguryeo and Malgal (a Tungusic tribe) people, and led a migration to Chinese-controlled territory. They settled eventually near Jilin in Manchuria, and there founded a state which was at first called Jin, but in 713 was renamed Balhae (Bohai in Chinese). Balhae soon gained control of most of the former Goguryeo territory. The ruling class of Balhae consisted mostly of Goguryeo (i.e. Korean) people. Balhae declared itself the successor to Goguryeo, and sometimes called itself Goryeoguk (state of Goryeo).

Balhae prosperity reached its height in the first half of the ninth century during the reign of King Seon. At that time, Balhae territory extended from the Sungari and Amur rivers in northern Manchuria all the way down to the northern provinces of modern Korea. Its capital was Donggyeong, in the Jilin area, where the state had originally been founded.

Balhae was to become a victim of the political confusion and violence which accompanied the fall of the Tang Dynasty. In 926 the Khitan, who later came to dominate much of Manchuria and northern China, conquered Balhae. Many of the ruling class, who were mostly Koreans, moved south and joined the newly founded Goryeo Dynasty, which replaced Silla at that time. While the Manchurian portion of the Balhae territory was lost, the area south of the Amnok (Yalu)-Duman (Tumen) boundary was restored later by Goryeo.

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Goryeo Dynasty

Gang Gam-Chan, a national hero, he is best known for his military victories during the Third Goryeo-Khitan War

Gang Gam-Chan, a national hero, he is best known for his military victories during the Third Goryeo-Khitan War

Silla was torn to pieces by rebel leaders such as Gyeon Hwon who proclaimed the Latter Baekje (Hu Baekje) state in Jeonju in 900, and Gung Ye who proclaimed the Latter Goguryero (Hu Goguryeo) state, the following year at Gaeseong. Wang Geon, the last rebel leader, the son of a gentry family, became the first minister of Gung Ye. Overthrowing Gung Ye for misdemeanors and malpractice in 918, he sought and received the support of landlords and merchants whose economic as well as political power overwhelmed the Silla government.

Wang Geon easily raided Latter Baekje in 934. Wang Geon accepted the abdication of King Gyeongsun of Silla in 935. The following year he easily conquered Latter Baekje and unified the Korean Peninsula. Wang Geon was at first content to leave provincial magnates undisturbed. He was particularly careful to placate the Silla aristocracy. He gave former King Gyeongsun the highest post in his government, and even married a woman of the Silla royal clan, thus somewhat legitimizing his rule.

Enthroned as the founder king of the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392), the name of which was derived from Goguryeo, he drafted 10 injunctions for his successors to observe. Among the 10 injunctions he predicted probable conflict between his state and the northern nomadic states with Goguryeo’s territory as the objective, and advised the strengthening of the state. He advised that Buddhist temples must not be interfered with, and warned against the usurpation and internal conflicts among the royal clans and the weakening of local power.

King Taejo’s (Wang Geon’s posthumous title) lenient policy plus his marriage ties made the rebellious local lords relatively obedient. To weaken the local power, King Gwangjong (r.949-975) instituted emancipation of slaves in 956 in order to restore the commoner status of those unjustly bonded. This helped to increase revenue and was welcomed by the people unjustly forced into captivity.

Two years later, he installed a civil service examination system to recruit officials by merit. His successor King Gyeongjong (r.975-981), put into practice the allotting of land and forest lots to officials. These policies enabled the Goryeo Dynasty to gain a foothold as a centralized government. King Seongjong (r.981-997) in 982 adopted the suggestions in the memorial written by Confucian scholar Choe Seungro and paved the way to rule by Confucian state model. District officials were appointed by the central government, and all arms privately owned were collected to be recast into agricultural tools.

The government organization was set up after the Tang system, but the power to make admonitions to the throne on the part of officials and censorship of royal decisions was instituted. With such internal order, Goryeo was long able to withstand foreign invasion.

The Khitan rose to power and began to confederate, transforming their old tribal league into a centralized organization. They conquered Balhae in 926 and, officially came to be called Liao in 938. As noted earlier, the people of Balhae fled to Goryeo, but Liao was now ready to strike, and Goryeo tried in vain to open diplomatic relations. Liao initiated attacks in 983, in 985, in 989, and in 993, continuing to harass Goryeo. However, in 993, Goryeo’s commanding general Seo Hui (940-998), facing a stalemate with the Liao army, convened peace talks with Liao general Hsiao to end the enmity with the recognition of Goryeo’s territorial rights of south of the Amnokgang river.

Diplomatic relations were opened between the two states in 994. But Liao attacked again in 1010 and the Goryeo king fled to the south. The conflict became more complicated as the northern Jurchen tribes grew stronger in the Korean border area of Manchuria. As the conflicts continued to afflict war-weary Goryeo, King Hyeonjong (r.1009-1031) ordered the carving of the Tripitaka, imploring Buddha’s aid, which consisted of about 6,000 chapters.

However, in 1115 the Jurchen established the Jin Empire and came into conflict with Liao. Jin conquered Liao in 1125, and turned to an invasion of Song. By 1126 it conquered the Northern Song which fled south of the Yangtze River. Two Song emperors were captured by Jin, and royal as well as private Song libraries came into Jin possession.

Goryeo had its own calamity that year. In 1126, all of the palace buildings, including tens of thousands of books in the royal library and national academy, went up in smoke when the palace buildings were set afire by the father-in-law of King Injong. Goryeo lost the famed collection, and there was no way to obtain books from the Song. To print books with wood blocks was prohibitive in cost and time consuming. Then came the idea of typography and the casting of bronze type began with the same technology that was used in coin-casting. Goryeo printing with movable metal type was developed to print many titles in limited copies around the mid-12th century.

In 1145, King Injong (r.1112-1146) had a Confucian scholar, Kim Busik, compile the Samguk sagi (History of the Three Kingdoms). About one hundred years later, a monk by the name of Iryeon compiled the Samguk yusa (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms), which records important history and traditions that are not found in the Samguk sagi.

Conflict increased between civil and military officials as the latter were degraded and paid poorly. In 1170, the military officials rose up against the civil officials and paid them back with bloodshed. Around this time the Mongols consolidated power, and the new Song techniques of smelting iron with corks was utilized by the Mongols in the production of arms. With the new arms, the Mongols conquered Jin in 1215 and chased the diehard Liao refugees into the territory of Goryeo, which was consequently plagued by consecutive Mongol invasions. As a result, the Goryeo court and officials fled to Ganghwado Island in 1232.

Mongols invaded in 1238 and looted Goryeo, destroying the splendid Silla pagoda of Hwangnyongsa Temple. The Goryeo court on Ganghwado Island carved the second Tripitaka Koreana consisting of over 80,000 wood blocks inscribed on both sides, which is now stored at Haeinsa Temple. This enormous task was also conducted with pious patriotism to secure Buddha’s protection against the Mongols. The people of Goryeo reached a consensus to resist the foreign invaders and safeguard the nation despite the incessant attacks and invasions.

From the middle of the 14th century, the Mongol power declined rapidly, with their own internal struggles for the throne, and in the 1340s, frequent rebellions broke out all over China. Freed at last from Mongol domination, Goryeo began efforts to reform its government. King Gongmin (r.1351-1374), first removed pro-Mongol aristocrats and military officers. These deposed people formed a dissident faction which plotted an unsuccessful coup against the king.

A second internal problem was the question of land holdings. By now the land-grant system had broken down, and Mongol-favored officials and military men, along with a handful of landed gentry, owned the vast majority of agricultural land, which was worked by tenant farmers and bondsmen. King Gongmin’s attempt at land reform was met with opposition and subterfuge from those officials who were supposed to implement his reforms, as they were landowners and the policy of land ownership was supposed to undergo a drastic change.

A third problem was the rising animosity between the Buddhists and Confucian scholars. Normally, and during most of the dynastic period, Buddhism and Confucian creeds coexisted with little conflict. It must be noted here that by this time, Korean scholars had become imbued with the Neo-Confucian doctrine as advocated by Zhu Xi in the late 12th century, just before the advent of the Mongols. The new Confucian scholars did not agree with the idea that one should denounce one’s family ties to become a monk because the very basis of Confucian philosophy was founded on strong family and social relationships. The wealth and power of the monasteries and the great expense incurred by the state for Buddhist festivals became a major target of criticism.

Another problem was that Japanese pirates were no longer hit-and-run bandits, but organized military marauders raiding deep into the country. It was at that time that General Yi Seonggye distinguished himself by repelling the pirates in a series of successful engagements.

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The Han Tombs

Chinese painted artwork on a lacquered basketwork box excavated from an Eastern Han tomb

From the beginning of the second century B.C. relations with China became closer, until in 108 B.C. the Han Emperor Wu-ti ruled part of the Korean peninsula, administering it in four regions. At this time the settlement of Luo-Lang (Korean: Nangnang) was the most important; it is believed to have covered the area round present-day P’yongyang. The tombs and relics mentioned at the beginning of this chapter date from this period. Widely differing opinions have been held about the site of Nangnang and its administrative centre, and on the relation of the settlement to the central government of the Han Empire. But whatever the political status of Nangnang and its relations with the surrounding villages, the existence of such a large and well preserved Han site in the Korean peninsula remains of primary importance in the study of the cultural history of east Asia. Although many of the articles found on this site were probably not made locally, they show clearly the close and direct contact between Korea and China and the absorption by Korean artists of the most highly-developed techniques of the time.

This Han center on the Korean soil was an important factor in the subsequent development of the art of the region. P’yongyang, already identified as the ancient capital of Nangnang, attracted the attention of archaeologists in 1909. In the years that followed, the first important finds of Han art were made. The site was of outstanding importance, for it was not until many years later, following the end of the Second World War, that excavation of the main Han sites in China was undertaken.

Several elements usually found in China are missing from the P’yongyang Han tombs–in particular the mural paintings or relief carvings which are typical of the period; there are also far fewer bronze figures. This does not in any way detract, however, from the clearly Han charac­ter of the articles found.

The older tombs are lined with wood, forming a kind of coffin, while the later ones have brick walls with a pattern in relief on the side. The geometrical decoration is varied. We find com­binations of criss-cross lines, lozenges and hexagonals (the ‘tortoise-shell’ pattern); combinations of circles and dots, half-circles and wavy lines; simple horizontal bands employing animal figure designs (dragons, fishes, stags, tigers), hunting scenes, coin motifs, etc. The bricks are grey, darker in the centre, and were probably made of the soft local clay which is still used by the great brickworks in Wonamni. Some of the bricks bear a date, mostly of the later Han dynasty, from 182 A.D. onwards, but some date from the Tsin and Eastern Tsin dynasties. The latest date is 353 A.D. These later brick tombs show close relations were maintained between P’yongyang and China, even after the fall of the Han dynasty.

Of the wood-lined tombs the best known are Number 9 and the ‘painted basket’ tomb, where a lacquer basket richly ornamented with figure designs was found in 1931. Lacquer tables, bowls with handles, cups, spoons and lien vessels have also been found in the tombs. The lacquer is in soft, rich colours: black, dark brown, brick-red, yellow and grey. Most of the vessels are covered with small intricate designs: wispy clouds, very formalised arabesques, wavy lines and spirals, and slender stylised dragons’ bodies. The motif of two wavy lines criss-crossing to form a band of lozenge pattern is very skilfully used. It first appears in its original simple form on the bricks; later, for example, we find it on the ceiling of the ‘two pillars’ tomb of the Ko­guryo period.

Most of the lacquered articles are inscribed on the base with the date and place of production; the majority belong to the first decades of our era. They were probably placed in the tombs in the second half of the first century A.D. They came from the western Shu workshop (Shu-tsun s-kung), which was somewhere near the modern Ch’eng-tu in Szechuan province in south-west China, some 1300 miles from P’yongyang as the crow flies; or they may have been made in Kuanghan, now the province of Hupeh.

There has been much conjecture about the origin of the pure gold belt-buckle, decorated with a dragon motif in granulated work, discovered in Number 9 tomb. Both Persia and Scythia have been suggested as possible sources. Among the bronze articles discovered in the tombs are sacrificial chu ewers, lien vessels, broad pu pots, and many others. There are also gold-plated bronze incense-burners mounted on a pedestal resting in a broad bowl. The lids of the burners, in open-work design, are symbolically shaped like the Taoist mountain, Po-shan, near Ch’ing-chow in the Chinese province of Shantung. It was during the Han period that the Taoist doctrine of immortality first took clear shape. From then on symbols of longevity, images of immortals and scenes from their mythical environment become a familiar motif in Chinese, as in Korean art. We can trace Taoist symbolism in Korean art and crafts up to the beginning of the twentieth century.

The bronze mirrors, also–bronze discs polished on one side and with decorative bands in relief on the other–are full of Taoist symbolism in their designs and the inscriptions. The outer band is usually a geometrical pattern, while the inner ones portray the signs of the zodiac. At the center is a highly formalised plant or geometrical design and small bosses or nipples grouped in various ways. Later these are replaced by a single massive round boss. Among the finds in Korea is a type of mirror which seems to have been the precursor of those just described; the back of the mirror is decorated with a triangular or star-shaped design in which the fields are hatched in different directions. These mirrors also have two holes bored side by side, so that they can be threaded on a cord.

Many swords and daggers have also been found in the tombs, together with other weapons and metal articles. There is a good deal of pottery, similar in type to the bronze vessels. Some of the clay vessels and a clay candlestick and incense burner have been given a coating of green, low- temperature glaze. Articles made of jade and other semi-precious stones are also among the finds. In Number 9 tomb the deceased was buried strictly according to the rites of the Han period, with a grain of jade placed on the eyes, in the ears and nostrils, and on the tongue. Beneath the back lay a large jadeite circle, the symbol of Heaven, pi.

P’yongyang was not the only centre of the Han culture. Further south, near Sariwon, similar tombs have been found, although with less rich contents. The finds here include a gilded mask of a horse and many bronze articles. There are more tombs near the village of Unsongni in South Hwangha province, while the earth mound and tombs near Yonghung, not far from the coast of the Sea of Japan, are thought by some scholars to be the remains of another Han colony.

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