The Emergence of Korean Culture

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  • 0:00 Origins & Geography
  • 1:37 Three Kingdoms & the Koryo
  • 3:57 Mongols
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Despite being pressed against one of the most powerful cultures in history, the Koreans were able to keep their cultural identity and, more often than not, their political independence.

Origins and Geography

Much like the Japanese, the Korean people originally came to their homeland from Eastern Siberia. While this may sound strange, we are able to ascertain this through linguistic analysis of the Korean language and the native languages of indigenous peoples in Siberia. Stranger still is that the Koreans managed to build a culture that has been able to maintain its independence alongside the cultural juggernaut of China for more than two thousand years, with very few interruptions. Granted, geography was a major help in that regard - the border between China and the Korean Peninsula is covered with mountains and the formidable Yalu River. Additionally, climate ensures that the weather itself is often a formidable adversary along the border.

That said, the Koreans were always conscious of their independence in their national myths of origin. One story has the Korean people being the offspring of a mythological she-bear. Yet another, adopted during a time of a particular pro-Chinese sentiment, suggests that the Korean nation first existed as the Choson Dynasty and was founded by a refugee from the Chinese Shang Dynasty. In any event, once the Koreans had managed to get rid of the heavy military occupation of the Chinese Han Dynasty by the third century AD, it was determined not to go back to being conquered by another power.

The Kingdoms and the Koryo

Korea split into three kingdoms following the exit of the Han Dynasty. In the southwest, Paekche ruled, while in the southeast, the Silla maintained control. In the north, the Koguryo Dynasty ruled in a manner that was the most similar of the three to the Chinese and was itself enough to cause the other two some level of caution. However, it was ultimately the Silla that would manage to conquer the other two, calling on the Chinese to provide some level of support.

Famously, however, after the Chinese had helped the Silla conquer Koguryo, the rulers of Silla proclaimed that they wanted to be sure that China could not have the influence on Korea that it once had. Most notably, this feeling was manifested in the writing system of the Koreans. Whereas other cultures, from Vietnam to Japan, had adopted all or at least significant parts of the Chinese system of writing characters, the Koreans refused to use the system except for a few technical words.

Instead, the king of Silla decreed that a Korean system, known as Hangul, would be invented that could more accurately portray the sounds of the Korean language. Hangul is notable in that it is a way of writing syllables instead of thousands of characters, as well as by the fact that it was entirely a homegrown writing system. While Hangul would not be completely perfected for some centuries, it did provide a very real level of separation between the Korean and Chinese cultures.

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