academic and popular discourse on East Asia, Korea has a long, strong, and unique history. The culture of Korea has evolved over the last several millennia to become one of the world’s most distinctive, homogenous, and intact. Being surrounded by large and ambitious neighbors has caused Korea to have a troubled history, evident in the most recent generations with the division between North and South. The division between North and South Korea is the first time the peninsula has been divided since its initial unification in the mid-7th century CE. Until the Korean War, the people of Korea have been bound together by common language, customs, and political culture. No significant minority culture or linguistic group has made Korea its home, and although Korea has been invaded and encroached upon by others, it has also never been an expansionist or imperialistic culture either.
The Korean peninsula has been inhabited since the Paleolithic era, hundreds of thousands of years ago, but the archaeological record suggests, interestingly, that the Korean people of today are “not the ethnic descendants” of these early cave-dwelling inhabitants,” (Eckert, et al., 1991, p. 2). Linguistic archaeology suggests that the current Koreans are descendants from peoples from Central Asia, as the Korean tongue is remotely related to the Altaic and Tungusic language families of Mongolian, Turkish, and Manchu (Seth, 2010). The pottery records also show that there was much cultural continuity between Siberia, Central Asia, and East Asia in the Neolithic era. For example, Seth (2010) states that there was some similarity in the pottery found in regions as geographically distant as Japan, Siberia, and Korea between 6000 to 3000 BCE. At the same time, genetic research shows that Koreans evolved separately from their neighbors and have distinct gene markers (Nelson, 1993). The ethnic homogeneity of Koreans highlights the common ancestry of its people. Korea has been influenced by China and Japan throughout history, but it has also influenced those cultures as well. Korea is separated from the Manchuria region of China by rivers and mountains, and is itself surrounded by water on all sides. Because of its geographic isolation, it became possible for several powerful and culturally intact kingdoms to emerge thousands of years ago and retain an ethnically, politically, and culturally unified region.
The Korean peninsula has had significant cultural and geographic contact with the Manchuria region of China. This cultural, political, and economic connection has remained a source of enrichment as well as strife between the two nations. Between the first century BCE and the 7th century CE, “much of the Korean peninsula and Manchuria were ruled by the kingdom of Goguryeo,” (Washburn, 2013). At its peak, Goguryeo extended as far as what is now coastal Russia as well as continuous swathes of land in China and North Korea (Washburn, 2013). It is a matter of considerable dispute whether the Goguryeo kingdom was under the auspices of the Chinese Middle Kingdom, or if it was a “proto-Korean” kingdom instead (Washburn, 2013). Most likely, Goguryeo was a distinct society that can be described equally as a proto-Korean and regionally Chinese. The frontier between what is now China and North Korea had historically been a nebulous region. The lands north of the Yalu River were not officially part of China until the seventeenth century, and this region remained “an ethnically non-Chinese frontier until the nineteenth century,” (Seth, 2006, p. 9). It is no small wonder why China and Korea continue to display a degree of territorial tension (Washburn, 2013). Korea perceives China as a military threat to this day, largely because China retains strong diplomatic ties with North Korea and partly because China has expressed a similarly colonialist interest in Korea as it has in Tibet (Washburn, 2013).
Regardless, early written records from China suggest that since the 4th century BCE, Korea was developing its own regional identity distinct from China. Puyo, Yemaek, Old Choson, Imdun, Chinbon, and Chin were the earliest civilizations that can be called distinctively Korean. Language and custom distinguished these Korean states from their counterparts in China. Gradually, these various Korean states grew in wealth, power, and stature, and began vying for political, economic, and territorial power. During what is known as the “Three Kingdoms” era, three of the most powerful of these states rose to the fore: Koguryo in the north, Paekche in the southwest, and Silla in the southeast (Armstrong, 2015). The Silla kingdom prevailed with the aid of the Tang dynasty, an event that united Korea for the first time in 668 (Washburn, 2013). During the Three Kingdoms era, the Korean peninsula periodically paid tribute to Chinese lords. Following the Silla victory and especially in the ensuing centuries, Korea struggled to distance itself from its neighbors, forge its own identity, and yet not completely discard the academic, philosophical, religious, and pragmatic wisdom of other cultures. However, the Silla era of Korean history was the time in which Buddhism took root and flourished in Korea.
The unification of Korea in the seventh century temporarily severed the peninsula’s political ties with Manchuria, but the influence of China on the Korean peninsula would be evident in literature, religion, philosophy, and the arts. Yet Korean language and culture are completely distinct from those of China, and there are several dimensions and elements in which Korean culture is uniquely its own. For example, although there has been considerable contact, communication, and conflict between Korean and Chinese people for thousands of years, Korean language remains completely distinct from Chinese. Japanese language and culture would later influence Korea, too but although the Korean language shares some grammatical structures in common with Japanese, the two languages are only distantly related. The role of Chinese in Korean language is similar to that of the role of Latin and Greek in the English language, in that the languages themselves are unrelated but some words have been borrowed, and those words are especially common in liturgy, science, and other high status social realms. Indeed, much of Korea’s “high culture” blends Chinese language, worldview, and philosophy with a Korean ethos (Armstrong, 2015).
Chinese influences are particularly evident in the areas of neo-Confucian social and political systems and Buddhism providing the mores and worldviews fundamental to Korean culture. While it was under the provenance of Manchurian and other Chinese rulers, Korea depended on Chinese sources of military and political support (Armstrong, 2015). The present geographic territory of Korea was established slightly after the fall of the Silla dynasty, during the Koryo dynasty (918-1392). Korea is named after the Koryo dynasty. Subsequent to the Koryo dynasty, the Choson Dynasty (1392-1910) “consolidated Korea’s national boundaries and distinctive cultural practices,” (Armstrong, 2015). The important northern border between North Korea and China was established in the 15th century and has not changed since (Seth, 2006). Because the surrounding seas are rough and difficult to navigate, the Korean peninsula was exempt from European exploration, did not receive much attention during that age, and thus did not come under the influence of European powers, as did many of its neighbors.
Korea is unique in the sense that it is an ethnically homogeneous peninsula but with a diverse melting pot of ideology and ideas that belies its geographic diversity. The Korean peninsula is mountainous, which would tend to give rise to pockets of individual cultures and language differentiation, but instead, the peninsula has remained linguistically and culturally unified. Mountains create the sense of isolation, provincialism, and regionalism, but on the ground, Korean culture is not appreciably different from one point to the next until the 20th century and the traumatic division between North and South Korea.
Throughout much of Korean history, Confucianism and Buddhism formed the basis of the Korean worldview. Confucianism provided the social norms and ethical guidelines for the society; Buddhism provided the cosmology and spirituality. Beyond the formal and liturgical influence of Buddhism and Confucianism, though, Korea also retained a strong indigenous culture and religion in its ancient shamanic practices that predated both Buddhism and Confucianism. Ironically, Korean social stratification retained more of Confucianism’s original values and prescriptions than China itself (Seth, 2006). Confucianism, Buddhism, and a highly stratified social system remained core elements of Korean culture throughout its existence, and to a large extent, remain so today.
Korea had long served as a “bridge between China and Japan,” (Seth, 2006, p. 9). In fact, it can be said that Japanese society and culture were more influenced by Korea and China than Korea was influenced by Japan (Seth, 2006). The original inhabitants of southern Japan were in fact people who had traveled by sea from the Korean peninsula (Seth, 2006). Japanese culture did not influence Korean society much until the nineteenth century, when a tumultuous relationship came to a head. At the end of the 16th century, Korea began to experience its first signs of notable and persistent conflict with neighboring Japan. Frequent invasions from the highly militarized Japanese presented clear and present threats to Korean sovereignty. So powerful have been the simultaneous threats from China and Japan that Koreans have developed a saying that Korea is a “shrimp among whales,” (cited by Seth, 2006, p. 9). Korea has, for millennia, strived to assert its sovereignty and retain its integrity in spite of encroachments from its neighbors. In the twentieth century, for the first time in its history, Korea became an international battleground. The Korean War led to the first division of the peninsula in thousands of years.
Because of its need for self-protection and self-preservation, Korea had become a “hermit kingdom” long before that term was applied solely to North Korea’s uniquely despotic regime (Armstrong, 2015). Even more so than China, Korea maintained a strictly insular policy that has created an aura of mystery around the peninsula, but which has also led to many misconceptions about Korean culture and society. Korea has been indelibly and unabashedly influenced by China and Japan, and yet has always been totally distinct from those two neighboring societies. Korea managed to maintain domestic stability — even in the midst of peasant uprisings that were inevitable considering the feudal system that had remained entrenched — for centuries until the modern era (Armstrong, 2015). The nineteenth century was a watershed moment for Korea, as this was when peasant revolts did become more common, simultaneous with the age of Imperialism. China, Japan, and Russia all lusted after the peninsula for strategic economic and political reasons. Because Korea was indeed a “shrimp among whales,” it succumbed to Japanese invasion and Japan declared Korea a “colony” in 1910 (Armstrong, 2015).
In spite of the “strict and often brutal” Japanese policies and practices toward its “colony, Korea was still strongly withstanding colonization and imperialism. Korea fought hard to retain its sovereignty in terms of language, culture, and identity. The one thing that Korea did willingly accept from Japan was a penchant for industrialization and modernization. Korea had long been a forerunner in technological development, being the first society to use a metal moveable type system and the first to develop celadon-style pottery several centuries prior to that (“Hidden Korea,” n.d.). Japan helped to ignite an industrial revolution of massive proportions in the Korean peninsula, one of the few remnants of colonial rule that had a positive impact on Korean society. Korea developed hard industries like steel, cement, and chemical manufacturing and in so doing became almost as highly developed technologically as Japan by the end of World War Two (Armstrong, 2015). Japan’s defeat in World War Two also ended decades of its rule over Korea. Unfortunately, the end of World War Two also ushered in a new shadow over the peninsula: the partition into North and South Korea along the 38th parallel. The Soviet Union took over the northern part of Korea, and South Korea became an independent democratic nation allied with the United States.
In June of 1950, war broke out between North and South, partly as a proxy war between various external parties such as China, the United States, and the Soviet Union. After a year of fighting, the war resulted only in a stalemate that led to two radically divergent paths for North and South Korea. North Korea would become the impenetrable totalitarian state it is today, befriended only by a few other nations in the world. South Korea, on the other hand, is one of the world’s most advanced nations in terms of its democratic form of government, its economic development, and its participation in global affairs. Ironically, North Korea’s official full name is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), whereas South Korea is simply the Republic of Korea. The division of Korea will have untold long-term effects on the evolution of Korean society throughout the peninsula. Prior to the twentieth century, Korea was a homogenous and intact civilization, but now, North Korea has been for generations modeled after extreme interpretations of Soviet policy as well as its own radical ideologies. The most notable of North Korean ideologies is juche, which loosely translates to “self-reliance,” and is an extreme version of “economic and political independence,” (Armstrong, 2015). Likewise, North Korean politics are “highly centralized” with a cult-like worship of the “Great Leader” (Armstrong, 2015). South Korea has evolved completely divergently from its northern counterpart in spite of their shared language, culture, and history.
A more subtle distinction in modern Korean society is beginning to emerge in the south as well, between the Cholla area of the southwest and the Kyongsang area of the southeast because during the 1960s, “President Park Chung Hee focused on the economic development of his home region of Kyongsang, and drew much of South Korea’s leadership from there (Armstrong, 2015). As a result, the Kyongsang region became more modernized and economically developed, whereas the Cholla region became stigmatized as being backwards, the people lacking access to the same economic resources as their Kyongsang counterparts. The relative economic impoverishment of Cholla remains a source of discontent among the people, in spite of attempts to reform domestic policies made in the 1990s under the auspices of President Kim Dae Jung (Armstrong, 2015). The division between these two regions of South Korea is a source of political conflict in the country, but pale in comparison to the differences between North and South Korea.
Modern South Korean culture is characterized in part by a “willingness to adapt outside ideas and to make them part of their culture,” (“Hidden Korea,” n.d.). Traditionally, Korean culture had also adapted to outside ideas and made them a part of their culture. Whereas in the past, Korea borrowed from Confucianism and Buddhism, as well as some elements of Chinese art and literature, modern Korean culture borrows some American and Japanese popular culture, all the while never neglecting to place its own Korean stamp on creative expression. Between six and seven million Korean people live outside of the Korean peninsula, adding to the complexity of modern Korean culture (Armstrong, 2015). Most Koreans living in the diaspora live in China (approximately two million people), with one million living in the United States and about 700,000 living in Japan (Armstrong, 2015). Almost all Koreans in the diaspora migrated in the 20th century. Prior to that, Korean society remained highly intact and insular, save for a migration of people from Korea to Central Asia, China, and Russia during the 1860s when conflict with Japan highlighted impending problems.
In spite of modernization, Korea remains a traditional society with strict social stratification, gender norms, and a strong agrarian base as well. Korea is a definitively patriarchal society, with gender segregation stemming from Confucian norms and potentially even earlier than that. Korean society has long placed an emphasis on obedience and submission to authority, manifest in the family as the patriarch. Elders are honored, as are the spirits of deceased ancestors (“Hidden Korea,” 2015). Modern South Korean society has more relaxed gender norms than pre-industrial Korean society, but the culture remains patriarchal. Not all of the Korean peninsula is industrialized, and in rural communities, more traditional social norms may be observed, all stemming from ancient systems of patriarchal and Confucian values including a deference to authority and a commitment to hard work (“Hidden Korea,” 2015). Marriage and other social rites of passage remain steeped in the traditions of the past, even when they assume modern forms.
The history and genealogy of Koreans reveals the complex and tightly woven norms related to family and marriage, as clan names remain the modern family names of Koreans such as Kim, Park, Lee, Kang, and Cho (“Hidden Korea,” n.d.). Koreans value their genealogical data and heritage and keep meticulous records; in the past, recordkeeping may have been to prevent intermarriage within the same clan and gene pool but today, the practice is a source of pride (“Hidden Korea,” n.d.). Also a source of pride in Korean culture is the cuisine, which has been designated as one of the world’s most historic and culturally important of all food cultures by UNESCO, especially with kimchee. Kimchee and other fermented food products have been staples of the Korean diet for millennia, but the modern form of kimchee with chilies only evolved over the last several centuries and the era of global trade when chilies were first transported to Korea. Traditional Korean medicine is different from traditional Chinese medicine, but the two share some elements in common including an appreciation for herbs like ginseng, and the use of moxibustion, acupuncture, and other therapeutic interventions based on the system of meridians in the body (Seth, 2006). Korean food is also a part of Korean medicine; foods are believed to have curative properties (Seth, 2006).
Korea’s history and culture remain mysterious and even impenetrable to outsiders. A dearth of English-language sources on Korean history and culture contributes to the lack of complete understanding of the depth and complexity of this ancient society. Korea’s modern history is more well-known and well-documented in English or any other non-Korean language, especially given the relationship between the United States and South Korea since the end of the Second World War. Because Korea is one of the wealthiest nations in the world and one of the strongest Asian economies, the country is increasingly being showcased as a hub of business, commerce, and culture. From the “Gangnam Style” phenomenon to the predilection for graphic design and video games, 21st century Korean culture has become an influential power worldwide. Like popular culture, Korean businesses can help to introduce Korean culture to the outside world, revealing the intricate and dynamic ancient society beneath.
Armstrong, C.K. (2015). Korean history and political geography.
Eckert, C.J., Lee, K., et al. (1991). Korea Old and New. Korea Institute, Harvard University Press.
“Hidden Korea,” (n.d.). PBS. Retrieved online: http://www.pbs.org/hiddenkorea/history.htm
Nelson, M.N. (1993). The Archaeology of Korea. Cambridge University Press.
Seth, M.J. (2006). A Concise History of Korea. Rowman & Littlefield.
Seth, M.J. (2010). A History of Korea: From Antiquity to the Present. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Washburn, T. (2013). How an ancient kingdom explains today’s China-Korea relations. The Atlantic. April 15, 2013. Retrieved online: http://www.theatlantic.com/china/archive/2013/04/how-an-ancient-kingdom-explains-todays-china-korea-relations/274986/
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