China and Japan’s relationships with the early Korean Kingdoms

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Author: Andrea Ramírez 

The Korean peninsula has a history that goes back thousands of years. Some historical accounts have even sought to take this history linearly for nationalistic purposes. A clear example of this is the Myth of Dangun 단군 and the creation of the first kingdom called KoChosom which is thought to have been founded in 2333 BC, regarding this issue historian Bruce Cumings says that there are no sources that establish precisely this year, but that in fact, this kingdom existed. Indeed, talking about the history of the peninsula and its neighbors takes us back many centuries.

In this blog, we intend to talk a little about some relationships between the first Korean kingdoms and their closest neighbors: China and Japan. Depending on the historical time the peninsula has had several kingdoms, the oldest being KoChosom and later Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla until the 5th century when Unified Silla was established, it disappeared in 935 AD with the appearance of one of the best-known kingdoms Goryeo (935 AD – 1392 AD). The relations of the peninsula with its neighbors have been given from different aspects such as military, diplomatic, political, ideological, cultural, and commercial, among others. Let’s get started!

Map of the Three Kingdoms of Korea. Taken from Wikidata.

Because of the proximity between the territories of China and Japan with the peninsula, there have been transfers and influences since even before the formation of the three most famous Korean kingdoms, namely Goguryeo (37 BC – 668 AD), Baekje (18 BC – 660 AD), Silla (57 BC – 935 AD) and let’s not forget that there was also Gaya (42 BC – 532 AD) considered a minor kingdom. One of the most constant relations between the kingdoms and their neighbors was the war, since the expansion of the territory and the confrontation over it occurred at different times, for example with the Chinese Han commanderies in 108 BC or with the attacks of the Japanese. This influence even served to create changes in the military strength of certain kingdoms due to the danger of being invaded, this was the case of Goguryeo thanks  to the direct influence of China in the north. These warlike relations also brought migrations that undoubtedly changed little by little the population of the territory, even if only minimally, the migrations occurred for various reasons such as not being in the middle of conflicts, let us remember that in those times the borders were easily modified by defeats and victories on the battlefield.

On the other hand, when the three kingdoms were in dispute with each other it was common to see that they made alliances with China in order to achieve unification, an example of this is Silla with the Tang Dynasty of China to take over the territories of Baekje and Goguryeo. In fact, according to Professor Lee Ki Baik in his book New History of Korea, it is stated with respect to foreign relations that there was a tug of war between the Korean militia and the Chinese militia precisely because of this constant change of territories, i.e. the struggle for land and borders, in addition to the attempts at unification by the kingdoms of the peninsula as mentioned above, were made with alliances with Chinese and Japanese. 

Korean ambassadors at the Tang Court. Unknown artist (public domain).

Diplomatic relations were also maintained with the Chinese commanderies, and there were even marriages of an exogenous nature to establish better ties with the neighbors. In addition, at different times the kingdoms on the peninsula were tributary kingdoms of China that maintained their independence, but they were like younger brothers of the Asian giant. Even delegates or emissaries were sent every year to maintain a good relationship, it should be noted that this text is establishing a generality, but not implying that always or with all the kingdoms there was the same relationship. With respect to diplomacy, China was also taken as a model for the political organization of some kingdoms, for example, using a unified system of official ranks around the King.

Mural of the tombs of Goguryeo.

On the other hand, some relevant ideologies in China were adopted in the peninsula, Professor Lee Ki Baik in his book New History of Korea explains that elements of Chinese culture such as Buddhist and Confucian ideology, as well as the form of writing, were adopted in the peninsula. Regarding Buddhism, it is said to have been embraced in 372 AD for the further purpose of the spiritual unification of the nation. In the kingdom of Silla, the acceptance of Buddhism comes late around 527 and 535 AD, but it leaves a great imprint on the territory that can even be seen today through architecture. In addition, the Te Jak, that is, the National Confucian Academy was established with the purpose of rationalizing the bureaucratic structure. As for Chinese writing, it was present until the end of the 19th century, because although the Chinese language was not spoken and Hangul was created in the 14th century, it was not used for writing for a long time.

Korean Ceramics. Taken from KMagazine.

Certainly, a strong relationship was the transfer of cultural knowledge, as there was influence in the Korean kingdoms, especially in Goguryeo, but it gradually moved southward, an example, as Bruce Cummings points out is that there are aspects of pottery culture that moved from China to the Korean peninsula in 2000 BC bringing painted and chiseled designs in the Neolithic period. On the other hand, artists from the Baekje and Goguryeo kingdoms perfected mural painting and brought it to Japan, according to Cummings based on a Japanese historian, Baekje art “became the basis for the art of the Asuka people in Japan (552 – 644)” (Page 33).

In addition to art, Cummings mentions that there were commercial relations, several products moved from the peninsula to Japan such as iron, armaments, and ceramics; regarding iron, it was in fact used for the creation of weapons. It should be mentioned that these commercial exchanges also took place with China as Silvia Seligson mentions in her text within the book Minimal History of Korea “Koguryo exported gold, silver, pearls, furs, fabrics, and slaves and imported from China weapons, silk, and other sanctuary objects” (Page 38).

Throughout this blog, we saw that the peninsula has been constantly related to China and Japan in different ways from the battlefield to commodity exchanges. It is impossible to summarize in this text all the relations between these three neighbors because it is a very broad topic, however, I hope you have learned new things and have been left with some questions that lead you to investigate it. Did you know these aspects of the history of Korea? Tell me if you learned something new! I hope you liked this blog, which was academic, but it is interesting.

Written by: Andrea Ramírez 

Reviewed by: Luisa Quintero

References

CUMMINGS, BRUCE, Korea’s Place in the Sun. A Modern History. pp.22-33

LEÓN MANRÍQUEZ, JOSÉ LUIS, (coord.), A Minimal History of Korea. pp.23-41

LEE, KI-BAIK, A New History of Korea. pp.19-81 

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