Korean History, Culture, And Society Term Paper

Length: 10 pages Sources: 3 Subject: History - Asian Type: Term Paper Paper: #23080999 Related Topics: Korean War, Political Culture, Archaeology, East Asian History
Excerpt from Term Paper :

¶ … 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...


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…

Sources Used in Documents:


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.

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