Ancient Korea -

Presentation created by Robert L. Martinez
Primary Content Source: Prentice Hall World History
Images as cited.
Korea is located on a peninsula that juts
south from the Asian mainland with its
tip pointing toward Japan. At the
northern end of the peninsula, mountains
and the Yalu River separate Korea from
Low but steep mountains cover nearly 70
percent of the Korean peninsula. The
most prominent range is the T’aebaek. It
runs from the north to the south along
the eastern coast, with smaller chains
branching off to form hilly areas.
Because farming is difficult on the
mountains, most people live along
the western coastal plains, Korea’s
major farming region.
Korea has a 5400 mile coastline with
hundreds of good harbors. Since
early times, Koreans have depended
on seafood for most of the protein in
their diet.
Korea’s location on China’s doorstep has
played a key role in its development.
From its powerful mainland neighbor,
Korea received many cultural and
technological influences.
At various times in history, China
extended political control over the
Korean peninsula. Throughout its history,
Korea served as a cultural bridge linking
China and Japan.
Despite strong ties, the Korean language
is not related to Chinese. The earliest
Koreans probably migrated eastward
from Siberia and northern Manchuria
during the Stone Age.
They evolved their own way of life before
the first wave of Chinese influence
reached the peninsula during the Han
dynasty. In 108 B.C.E., the Han emperor
Wudi invaded Korea and set up a military
colony there.
Confucian traditions and
Chinese writing and farming
methods spread in Korea.
Between 300 C.E. and 600 C.E., powerful
local rulers forged separate kingdoms:
Koguryo in the north, Paekche in the
southwest, Shilla in the southeast, and
Kaya in the south.
Although they shared the same language
and cultural background, the kingdoms
often warred with one another or with
China. Still, Chinese influences
continued to arrive (i.e. Buddhism.)
In 668, with the support of the Tang
empress Wu Zhao, the Shilla
kingdom united the Korean
Under the Shilla dynasty, Korea became a
tributary state, acknowledging Chinese
supervision but preserving its
Over the centuries, Korea came to see its
relationship to China in Confucian terms,
as that of a younger brother who owed
respect and loyalty to an older brother.
Koreans adopted the Confucian
emphasis on the family as the foundation
of the state.
Confucian ideas affected the rights of women.
Early on, Korean women had the right to inherit
property. Some upper-class women held public
roles. Over time, as Confucian views took root,
women’s rights became restricted. Women
could no longer inherit property, and a
woman’s position within the family became
more subordinate.
At the same time, Koreans adapted and
modified Chinese ideas. For example, they
adapted the Chinese civil service examination
to reflect their own system of inherited ranks.
In China, even a peasant could win political
influence by passing the exam. In Korea, only
aristocrats were permitted to take the test.
During the Koryo age, Buddhism reached
its greatest influence in Korea. Korean
scholars wrote histories and poems
based on Chinese models, and artists
created landscape paintings following
Chinese principles.
Koreans used woodblock painting
from China to produce a flood of
Buddhist texts. Later, Korean
inventors made movable metal type
to print large numbers of books.
They learned to make porcelain from
China, but then perfected techniques of
making celadon, a porcelain with an
unusual blue-green glaze. Koran celadon
vases and jars were prized throughout
The Mongols occupied Korea until the 1350s.
In 1392, the brilliant Korean general Yi Songgye set up the Choson dynasty. Yi reduced
Buddhist influence and set up a government
based upon Confucian principles. With a few
generations, Confucianism had made a deep
impact on Korean life.
Despite Chinese influence, Korea preserved its
distinct identity. In 1443, Korea’s most
celebrated ruler, King Sejong decided to
replace the complex Chinese system of writing.
Sejong had experts develop hangul, an
alphabet using symbols to represent the
sounds of spoken Korean.
Although Confucian scholars rejected
hangul at the outset, its use quickly
spread. Hangul was easier for Koreans to
use than the thousands of characters in
Chinese. Its use led to an extremely high
literacy rate.
In the 1590s, an ambitious Japanese ruler
decided to invade China by way of Korea.
Japanese armies landed and for years,
looted and burned across the peninsula.
To stop the invaders at sea, the Korean
admiral Yi Sun-shin used metal-plated
“turtle-boats.” After six years, the
Japanese armies withdrew from Korea.
As they left, they carried off many Korean
artisans to introduce their skills to Japan.
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