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Korean Society to 1800

Page history last edited by Robert W. Maloy 5 years ago

Yeon Gaesomun, 7th century leader

Yeon Gaesomun, 7th century leader




Focus Question: How has Korea been both a battleground and a cultural bridge between China and Japan?

Topics on the Page

  • Korea was a main focus of China and Japan. Both countries attacked multiple times to invade, with limited success, until the 1630s when the Manchu dynasty formed a tributary relationship with Korea.


  • Cultural characteristics of China and Japan, such as art, literature, and ceramics can be seen in Korean culture.


Origins of the Korean peoples


People have lived in the Korean peninsula since pre-history. Korean civilization did not start until 5500 B.C.E when the Korean people started cultivating grains and beans.


The inclusion of rice into the Korean diet occurred around 2700 B.C.E. Koreans and Chinese people shared inventions and innovations over time. Namely in the fields of metallurgy, religion, and scholarship. Buddhism as well as Confucianism spread form China to Korea, and from Korea to Japan.


  • The first Korean immigrants to Japan crossed the Eastern Sea (as it is known in Korea) in 400 B.C. to establish the first farming villages in Japan. 


  • Much of the Japanese population is descended from these farmers and Koreans and Japanese people are closely related because of this.  

video on Korean History during the Gaya Kingdom, which spanned across China, Korea, and Japan (don't read comments).

An animated timeline of Korean history provides an overview from 300-1000 CE.

Korea is a small country located between China and Japan. Between 1592 and 1598, Japan invaded and tried to occupy Korea. The Koreans, however, successfully chased off the Japanese with aid from the Chinese. The Chinese assisted the Koreans because they were interested in having access to Korea’s natural resources and for national security purposes (they wanted to protect their own borders from invasion).

Korea is located on the Korean Peninsula in northeast Asia. It is bound by two countries, Japan and China, and three seas. The Amnok River separates Korea from China. The Yellow Sea is to the west, the East China Sea is to the south, and the East Sea (also called the Sea of Japan, depending on whose point of view is being expressed) is to the east of Korea. This geography was pivotal in the histories of Korea, China and Japan, entwining their cultures and histories with common threads. Even their ancient peoples were closely related culturally, linguistically, and governmentally, starting in prehistoric times.

Why was Korea a battleground between China/Japan?

It is important to note that the Three Kingdoms of Korea are often referred to by two different names: Koguryo or Goguryeo, Paekche or Baekje, and Shilla or Silla. The following text uses the former pronunciations only, so as to avoid any confusion.

In the early Common Era, the Three Kingdoms of Koguryo, Paekche, and Shilla, were virtually stand alone kingdoms. They often competed for power, and at times, fought amongst each other. During this period, Koreans played an important role as transmitters of cultural advances, helping the formation of early Japanese culture and politics. Most Japanese aristocratic clans trace their lineage to the Korean peninsula. The Japanese Emperor stated that "it is recorded in the Chronicles of Japan that the mother of Emperor Kammu was of the line of King Muryeong of Baekje," and "I believe it was fortunate to see such culture and skills transmitted from Korea to Japan."

Check out this video playlist about the Baekje influence on Japan.

The Korean kingdoms competed with each other economically and militarily. While Koguryo and Paekche were more powerful in this era, defeating Chinese invasions several times, Shilla's power gradually extended across Korea, and eventually established the first unified state to cover most of the Korean peninsula by 676—a period is often called Unified Shilla.

Soon after the fall of the Goguryeo, a group led by former Koguryo general Dae Joyeong went to eastern Manchuria and founded Balhae (698 AD - 926 AD) as the successor to Koguryo. After Balhae was defeated in 926, much of its people, led by the Crown Prince, were absorbed into Koguryo.

After Unified Silla fell apart in the late 9th century, this gave way to the Later Three Kingdoms period (892-936), which ended with the establishment of the Goryeo Dynasty. During the Goryeo period, laws were made, a system of civil service was introduced, and Buddhism established itself and spread rapidly. In 1238, the Mongolian Empire invaded and, after nearly thirty years of war, the two sides signed a peace treaty.

In 1392, General Yi Seong-gye established the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) after this treaty. King Sejong the Great (1418-1450) promulgated Hangul, the Korean alphabet, as an alternative to Chinese characters that were previously the only system of writing. This period founded various other advances in culture and technology. Between 1592 and 1598, Japan invaded Korea,but was eventually repelled with the efforts by the Korean Navy led by Admiral Yi Sun-sin, resistance aid, and Chinese help. In the 1620s and 1630s, Joseon suffered invasions by the Manchu Qing Dynasty.


Image result for joseon dynasty

Gyeongbokgung palace: The ancestral home of the Joseon dynasty


Korea's relationship with Japan: Korean and Japan are ancestral cousins yet, this has never stopped them from invading each other. As was mentioned before Admiral Yi Sun-sin held off the Japanese with the help of the Chinese and Korean peoples. What was not mentioned was the revolutionary and seemingly unstoppable navy created by Admiral Yi Sun-sin. The admiral created a series of ships known as Turtle Ships, which, were armor plated warships designed for battle. Unlike most warships from the era they had a covered deck, multiple cannons and defense systems never before seen in naval warfare. To learn more about one of Korea's greatest military achievements watch this video.

KBS world is a great website that lays out Korean History in an easy to read format!


Check out the Unesco World Heritage Website to learn more about ancient Korean Culture.

Cultural Bridge

  • Pre historic Korean civilizations introduced metallurgy and rice farming to the Japanese.


    • as wars between the Three Kingdoms intensified, many Koreans emigrated to Japan and had a profound impact on Japan, especially with their ability to develop underdeveloped areas.


  • The Paekche peoples introduced Buddhism to the Japanese.


  • The implementation of Chinese literature spread throughout the Three Kingdom elite


  • Buddhism was practiced heavily by its inhabitants after being adopted after unification


  • Later, Koreans adopted the western calendar from China


  • Made headway in literature

A summary of Korean history from 1600-1800 on the Metropolitan Museum of Art's (NYC) web site includes the following text:

"The Manchu invasions of the Korean peninsula and the subsequent establishment of the Qing dynasty in China during the first half of the seventeenth century shape the Chosôn elite's view of its own culture. Scholars and officials increasingly take an interest in Korea's history, geography, agriculture, literature, and art. The new strain of research, now commonly termed sirhak, or "practical learning," is in vogue through much of the two centuries between 1600 and 1800. It is manifested in practical legislation that seeks to control and enhance the government's bureaucratic workings and the lives of the general population, especially the peasants.


"Culturally, a similar strain of interest in things Korean finds expression in works of art that explore native vernacular, geography, and social customs. Fiction written in han’gûl (Korean writing) explores nontraditional themes that fall outside of //yangban// (literati) interests, and are often authored by people of the lower classes. Paintings of the eighteenth century depicting famous sites in Korea and the daily lives of people—known as "true-view" landscape painting and genre painting—evidence the vibrant and "Korean" artistic expressions of this period. Ceramic production, having suffered setbacks following major Japanese and Manchu invasions of the peninsula, reemerges with fresh creativity by the second half of the seventeenth century and through the eighteenth century.

"Attention to Korea's history and culture does not mean indifference to foreign stimuli. On the contrary, there is enduring, if selective, interest in and relations with the world outside, alongside discoveries of native potentials. Diplomatic and cultural exchanges with Japan continued, despite ambivalence and mistrust, and contributed significantly to shaping Chosôn culture. Sporadic and largely accidental contact with the West sparks the two worlds' awareness of each other."

Click here for a downloadable PDF of a great multi-day lesson plan on teaching Korean History!

The Hidden Korea History provided by PBS online, has great resources covering a vast variety of topics!

The Korean history channel provided a short 5 minute clip chronicling the Joseon Dynasty and its major achievements.

The University of Hawaii has a wide database of bibliographies of Korean works available to the public, find books on the ancient relationships here.

Radio interview set to pictures to explain Confucianism.

Traditional Korean Families is a reading on the role of women and families in Korean history.


  1. The Metropolitan Museum of art, (2007). Korea. Retrieved March 25, 2007, from The Metropolitan museum of art Web site: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/06/eak/ht06eak.htm
  2. Duiker, William J. and Spielvogel, Jackson J., (2005). The essential world history. Belmonet, CA: Wadsworth, a division of Thomson Learning, Inc.
  3. Caraway, William (2007). Korean History Project. Retrieved March 8, 2007, from Where the Past is Always Present Web site: http://www.koreanhistoryproject.org/
  4. East Asian Curriculum Program, (2007). Imperialism, War, and Revolution in East Asia. Retrieved March 8, 2007, from Asia for Educators Web site: http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/webcourse/key_points/kp_11.htm
  5. PBS, (2007). Hidden Korea. Retrieved March 8, 2007, from PBS Online Web site: http://www.pbs.org/hiddenkorea/history.htm
  6. Library of Congress, (2007). Korean Under Japanese Rule. Retrieved March 8, 2007, from Library of Congress Web site: http://lcweb2.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?frd/cstdy:@field(DOCID+kr0021)
  7. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/09/eak/ht09eak.htm for summary and key events until 1800
  8. http://asianhistory.about.com/od/southkorea/p/JoseonDynasty.htm for summary of Joseon Dynasty
  9. Map, http://mappery.com/map-of/East-Asia-Map.
  10. Bibliography, http://www.hawaii.edu/korea/biblio/ancientKJrels.html.
  11. Timeline, http://www.ecai.org/Area/AreaTeamExamples/Korea/KoreaHistoryAnimation.html.
  12. https://www.pbs.org/hiddenkorea/history.htm 
  13. https://www.thoughtco.com/thmb/bR5OoLaVxNbWVJkEh8gJWKdBHqQ=/768x0/filters:no_upscale():max_bytes(150000):strip_icc()/exterior-of-gyeongbokgung-against-clear-sky-636734387-5799ab625f9b589aa9882277.jpg

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