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Manoa 14.2 (2002-2003) 14-15

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Korean History:
An Introduction

Edward J. Shultz


In symbolizing a nation, national flags often reveal history. The Korean flag—with the red and blue circle at its center—does this and more: it also makes a statement about the cultural belief system of the Korean people. The divided circle connotes the dynamically opposed forces of um and yang (yin and yang in Chinese) and symbolizes an ideal of unity or harmony that emerges as these opposites—light and dark, negative and positive—commingle. The harmonizing of opposing forces has been a theme in Korea's history and cultural heritage. For centuries, Koreans have sought to live in a peaceful balance among themselves and with their powerful neighbors. The nation's search for unity through opposites continues today, as North and South Korea struggle toward reunification.

Some historians locate Korea's origins as early as five thousand years ago, when the legendary king Tan'gun was born of a bear and a heavenly deity. Others place the beginnings of Korea at about 1000 B.C., when the people of the peninsula passed from a paleolithic/neolithic existence to the Bronze Age. In any event, by the beginning of the first millennium, small tribal communities appeared on the peninsula in districts ruled from walled towns. Gradually, the towns were consolidated into larger political entities, so that by the fifth century A.D., three key states—Koguryo in the north, Paekche in the southwest, and Silla in the southeast—dominated the Korean peninsula and southern Manchuria. China influenced the region's political and cultural values through Buddhism and Confucianism and aided these states in building stable political structures and unique legacies.

By A.D. 668, Silla had unified much of the southern two-thirds of the Korean peninsula by bringing Koguryo and Paekche under its control. In A.D. 936, a new kingdom defeated Silla and took the name Koryo, from which Westerners have derived the name Korea. The Koryo kingdom lasted five hundred years, until 1392, when the Yi family established Choson, Korea's last kingdom.

Although Silla, Koryo, and Choson survived for many centuries, each struggled to maintain Korea's independence amid the tides of political turbulence and warfare in East Asia. China's Sui and T'ang dynasties were the first to threaten the Koryo and Silla kingdoms. When the Koryo kingdom came to power in the early tenth century, it had to defend itself against Manchurian tribes, which repeatedly launched invasions over a forty-year period.

The Choson kingdom established modern Korea's geographic boundaries, but it too encountered many foreign threats. Japanese pirate raids, followed by major invasions by Japan in 1592 and 1598, crippled the kingdom economically and socially. The Choson kings repelled these threats only to be confronted by Manchu attacks in the 1630s. Again the kingdom withstood the onslaught. In the nineteenth century, Choson faced imperialist threats, first by Western nations and then again by the Japanese. In [End Page 14] 1910, the Japanese succeeded in annihilating the five-hundred-year-old Choson kingdom and began a domination of Korea that lasted nearly five decades, until 1945.

Protracted conflicts and invasions of the Korean peninsula resulted in the destruction of much of the literature, art, and cultural legacy of the Silla and early Koryo periods. Surviving artifacts testify to the fertility of the Korean creative genius and to its earthy sense of humor and love of nature. Shamanism, Korea's earliest spiritual practice, stressed the need to harmonize the self with natural forces and phenomena. In the fourth century A.D., Korea was introduced to the Buddhist approach to spiritual meaning. As shamanism helped people live in harmony with nature, Buddhism assisted the individual in a spiritual and religious quest. Confucianism, introduced at roughly the same time, helped to formalize the relationships among individuals, society, and the state.

Traditional Korean society was hierarchical and divided into classes. The most aristocratic, Silla had a state under the strict control of a hereditary elite and developed a rigid caste system in which birth determined one...


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