Issues in Northeast Asian History

Ancient History of Korea

Gojoseon, or Old Joseon is the first state to emerge in Korean history. The myth describing its foundation is found in historical texts such as Samguk yusa (The Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms) and Jewangungi (Rhymed Chronicles of Sovereigns) published in Goryeo. Based on records in Samguk yusa, it is widely accepted that Gojoseon was established in 2,300 BC. The first mention of Gojoseon in Chinese historical texts appeared arround the fifth century BC to the third century BC, in that is, in Guanzi (管子) and Shanhaijing (山海經). According to the section on Gojoseon in Samguk yusa, Gojoseon included Dangun Joseon and Gija (Jizi in Chinese) Joseon. In Korean academic circles today, it is commonly thought, that Wiman Joseon too should be included in Gojoseon.

Part of the
Part of the "Gojoseon" section in Samguk yusa

Among many controversies regarding Gojoseon, the core issues are the historicity of the myth of foundation, the territory of Gojoseon, and its central area. The first issue focuses on whether Dangun was a mythical being or the deification of a historical person. The other issues focus on Gojoseon's central territory, that is, whether it was around Pyeongyang in the northern Korean peninsula or in the Liao River area in Liaoning Province, China. Because of not only a lack of references to Gojoseon in Korea and China, but also the difficulty in finding comprehensive and systematic documents about it, there has been a general tendency to address controversial issues in the history of gojoseon through archeological evidence.

Important artifacts of Gojoseon include the mandolin-shaped bronze daggers and the dolmens that outline the territory of Gojoseon archaeologically. Mandolin-shaped bronze daggers are widely distributed in Liaodong and Liaoxi in the Liaoning Province, and in Jilin Province South to the Korean peninsula. Dolmens are also found in the Korean peninsula and the Liaodong peninsula. (See Image 1, the territory of influence). In particular, mandolin-shaped bronze daggers have been unearthed from stone cist tombs, stone lined tombs and stone mound tombs, which apparently branched from dolmens. Thissuggest the possibility that mandolin-shaped bronze daggers and dolmens were prominent cultural elements of Gojoseon. However, the archeological, cultural phase centering on Gojoseon calls for further in-depth and systematic studies as the first appearance of mandolin-shaped bronze daggers in the Liao River area is known to be around the twelfth century BC, and the culture of the Bronze Age leading to the establishment of Gojoseon had changed together with the acceptance of Iron culture and Chinese culture.

Mandolin-shaped Bronze Daggers
Mandolin-shaped Bronze Daggers
The Territory of Gojoseon
The Territory of Gojoseon

Lately, in Chinese academic circles, a new opinion about the characteristics of Gojoseon has been introduced, and now it is generally accepted academically that the history of Gojoseon is regarded as a part of Chinese history. According to their insistence, as Joseon was a state established in Jin-guk by Gija, who was from the royal family of the Yin Dynasty, Joseon became a fief of the Zhou Dynasty and attended the royal court assembly since its foundation. Further Wiman, the founder of Wiman Joseon and who usurped the throne of Gija Joseon, came from Yan. But, later the Han dynasty defeated Wiman Joseon and then built up the colony called Hansa-gun in the former territory of Gojoseon.

Bronze Ware Inscribed widh 'Gihu'
Bronze Ware Inscribed with "Gihu"

However, the Shangshu dazuhan (Sangseo Daejeon in Korean), a text invariably cited to verify Gija Joseon, was compiled in the Han Dynasty, because of which its reliability has long been doubted. Chinese academic circles state that they can prove that Gija emigrated to the area of Daling He through a bronze ware inscribed with "Gihu". (Picture 2: A bronze ware inscribed with "Gihu") However, there are some counterarguments. One is that this type of bronzeware has been excavated all over China, thus, the bronzeware inscribed with "Gihu" cannot be linked directly with Gija. Another is that the excavation of bronzeware inscribed width "Gihu" in the Daling He area does not mean that Gija emigrated to this area. Also, as to the usurpation of power of Gojoseon by Wiman from the Yan Dynasty, it has long been proposed that the usurpation simply means that only a part of the ruling class moved with no change of national identity. In other words, even after Wiman's usurpation of power, Joseon, the name of the country, was still maintained and the high-ranking officials were made up of a majority of people from Gojoseon. Consequently, it is clear form the above that Wiman Joseon should be a part of Gojoseon.

Another controversial issues are the identity of Buyeo, which was a state contemporaneous with Goguryeo. Buyeo was an argricultural state, highly prosperous in a plain around current Songhua Province, northern Manchuria, from the second century B.C.E up to 494. There are several cultures, such as Baijinbao culture, Hanseo culture, and Xituanshan culture, considered to have been established by Buyeo in Song-Nen pingyuan and Jilin Sheng. These cultures featured outer coffin tomb types, a Chinese tumulus form, in which ironware and earthenware belonging to Chinese culture were excavated. In the Chinese Academic circle, they claim, in accordance with the archaeological findings, that Buyeo had interacted with China from early and accepted Chinese culture. Futher, Buyeo was subjected to China and eventually became a minor polity of ancient China.

Pottery from the Baijinbao Culture
Pottery from the Baijinbao Culture

However, recently, it has been convincingly argued that Buyeo was an ancient Korean kingdom established by the Yemaek, who are considered to be an origin of the Korean people, given that it was recorded that Buyeo existed in Yemaek territory in Sanguozhi (Records of the Three Kingdoms), an ancient Chinese history book, which shows the possibility that Buyeo might be a branch of the Yemaek. Goguryeo and Baekje had a deep fraternal consciousness with Buyeo, insisting on being its direct descendants. And Byueo had different bureaucrat titles, such as Maga, Wooga, Jeoga, and Guga, from those of China. On this point, the influences of China shown in artifacts and Buyeo sites can be understood with regard to the active and voluntary acceptance of advanced culture, yet it does not connect directly with the national identity of Buyeo.

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