Old Choson State Founded in Korea Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Legend states that Tangun Wanggom founded Korea by establishing a kingdom now known as Old Chosŏn; these legends remain an important part of the Korean national consciousness.

Summary of Event

There is archaeological evidence that the Korean peninsula was inhabited as early as 500,000 years ago. However, most historians place Korea’s Paleolithic Age between 40,000 and 50,000 years ago. Artifacts that belong to this period include stone axes, choppers, points, and scrapers. The Paleolithic Age was followed by the Neolithic Age (5000-4000 b.c.e.), Bronze Age (4000-1000 b.c.e.), and Iron Age (1000-400 b.c.e.). Tangun Wanggom Kija Wiman

According to legend, Korea was founded by the king Tangun Wanggom in 2333 b.c.e. The earliest known source addressing this origin is Samguk Yusa (1281; Samguk Yusa: Legends and History of the Three Kingdoms of Ancient Korea, 1972), written by the Korean Buddhist monk Iryŏn (1206-1289) during the Koryŏ Dynasty (918-1392).

Iryŏn based the story of Tangun’s founding of Korea on Wei Shou’s Chinese history Wei Shu (c. late sixth century c.e.; Treatise on Buddhism and Taoism, 1956). According to Iryŏn, the Wei Shu states that Tangun Wanggom founded the Korean kingdom at Asadal and named it Chosŏn in the fiftieth year of rule by Chinese emperor Yu during the Xia Dynasty (Hsia; c. 2100-1600 b.c.e.); traditionally this date is given as 2333 b.c.e.

Citing another work called Kogi (literally “old record,” perhaps a name given to all histories written before the mid-Koryŏ Dynasty), Iryŏn wrote in Samguk Yusa that Hwanung, son of the creator Hwanin, wished to descend to Earth and rule humankind. After receiving permission from his father, Hwanung, along with three thousand spirits, descended on T’aebaek.

On the mountain, Hwanung encountered a bear and tiger, who beseeched him to make them human. He promised to transform them if they would follow his bidding. Although the bear persevered and was transformed into a woman, the tiger failed to become human. Because the woman wanted to bear a child, Hwanung changed himself into a man and married her. They had a son, Tangun Wanggom, who was made king by the people.

In ancient Korea, the dominant religions were animism, totemism, shamanism, and ancestor worship. In totemism, a natural object or animal is chosen as a patron saint. Given the religious practices of the time, historians have formulated a theory regarding the Tangun Chosŏn origin story. Hwanin and his son Hwanung most likely came from a heaven-worshiping tribe, and the woman who married Hwanung probably came from a bear-totem tribe. These tribes were probably of high status, and their union by marriage would have strengthened their authority. The failure of the tiger to become human suggests that the tiger-totem tribe was of a lower status.

The Old Chosŏn (Ko Chosŏn) period is often divided into three eras: Tangun Chosŏn (2333-1122 b.c.e.), Kija Chosŏn (1122-194), and Wiman Chosŏn (194-108). According to traditional sources, the debauchery of Zhouwang (Chouwang), the last emperor of the Shang Dynasty (1600-1066) in China, brought about his downfall and resulted in the founder of the Zhou Dynasty (Chou; 1066-256) taking over the country. At the end of the Shang Dynasty, a Chinese statesman called Kija (Ji-zi, or Chi-tzu in Chinese) obtained permission from the new emperor of China to emigrate to Chosŏn with five thousand followers. After arriving in Tangun Chosŏn, he took it over in c. 1122 b.c.e. However, some scholars contend that Kija was just a refugee fleeing wartorn China, and others claim he never came to Korea.

Although the existence of the Kija Chosŏn era is somewhat debatable, the next period, Wiman Chosŏn, is well documented. During the third century b.c.e., China was once again undergoing turmoil and a rapid succession of states. After the Warring States Period (475-221 b.c.e.), China was unified for the first time under the Qin Dynasty (Ch’in; 221-206 b.c.e.), which was soon replaced by the Han Dynasty (206 b.c.e.-220 c.e.).

The turbulence on the continent sent many fugitives across the Yalu River. Among them was Wiman, who came from one of the former Warring States, Yan (Yen). He put his fate in the hands of King Jun of Old Chosŏn. Wiman was well received, given land by the unsuspecting king, and a post guarding the northwestern border. When Wiman collected enough followers, however, he marched on P’yŏngyang (also called Wanggŏm) and usurped the kingdom. King Jun had just enough time to slip away and sail south before Wiman entered the palace, beginning the Wiman Chosŏn era in 194 b.c.e. Some scholars maintain that Wiman was actually a Korean general who served in the Chinese Yan state, which would mean continuous Korean rule instead of the existence of a Chinese state within Korea. The fact that the region occupied by the Yan state had been a part of Old Chosŏn at some point gives the theory some credibility.

Wiman was a capable ruler, and when his kingdom was at its height, it extended from the Han River in the south to southern Manchuria in the north. In 109 b.c.e., the Han emperor, Wudi (Wu-ti), fearful of his empire’s security, sent an invading army to stop the expansion of Wiman Chosŏn. King Ugŏ, the grandson of Wiman, mounted a stubborn resistance. The siege lasted until 108 b.c.e., when a traitor assassinated King Ugŏ and fled to the enemy camp, and another opened the gates to the enemy. Wiman Chosŏn fell that year, marking the end of Old Chosŏn.

During the Old Chosŏn period, other political entities existed on the Korean peninsula and southern Manchuria. In the Sungari River basin in Manchuria, there was Puyo, which dates at least as far back as the fourth century b.c.e. Puyo developed into a powerful state, but was taken by Koguryŏ of the Three Kingdoms Period in 370 c.e. South of Puyo, along the Yalu River and Tungchia River basin, were Ye and Maek. Imdun existed in the northeast shore of the peninsula in the South Hamgyŏng Province, and Chinbon was located in the region of Hwanghae Province below the Taedong River.

After Han China defeated Wiman Chosŏn in 108 b.c.e., it established four administrative districts based on the former territories of Imdun, Chinbon, Ye, and Old Chosŏn. Imdun and Chinbon territories became Lintun (Lin-t’un) and Chenfan (Ch’en-fan) Commanderies, respectively. Ye territory became Xuantu (Hsüan-t’u, or Hyundo in Korean) Commandery. Old Chosŏn territory became Lelang (Nangnang in Korean) Commandery, which occupied the region along the Taedong River. Lolang became the political and economic center of the Chinese government. Because of the natives’ constant infringement, soon there was much territorial restructuring and readjustment. Only Lolang lasted for more than four centuries and was eventually seized by Koguryŏ in 313 c.e.

South of the Han River, the state of Chin existed around the third century b.c.e. Continuous migration from the north brought more advanced bronze and iron technology. Chin grew in power and was eventually restructured into three Hans (Samhan): Mahan, Chinhan, and Pyonhan. In the first century b.c.e., two powerful kingdoms emerged from these Hans, Silla (57 b.c.e.) and Paekje (Paekche; 17 b.c.e.), which, together with Koguryŏ in the north, formed the Three Kingdoms from which the period takes its name.

Significance

The founding of Korea is a controversial issue, and some scholars question the existence of Tangun Wanggom as well as the story of his founding of Old Chosŏn. Some scholars prefer to consider Kija the founder of Korea, but his Chinese origins are problematic to some nationalistic Koreans. Further research is needed to settle the numerous controversies. Regardless of the veracity of the Tangun stories, for centuries the Korean people have identified themselves with this early king. In times of crisis, the Korean people have rallied under the banner of Tangun, and Tangun worship has strengthened over time, deepening the Koreans’ national consciousness. True or not, the story of Tangun’s founding of Korea is deeply ingrained in the people’s psyche, where it is likely to remain.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hulbert, Homer B. Hulbert’s History of Korea. 2 vols. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962. Contains a detailed account of the perhaps legendary Kija and a critical treatment of Wiman.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Joe, Wanne J. Traditional Korea: A Cultural History. Vol. 1 in A History of Korean Civilization. Seoul: Chung’ang University Press, 1972. This history of Korea does not acknowledge the Kija Chosŏn period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lee, Ki-baik. A New History of Korea. Translated by Edward W. Wagner. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984. This history of Korea does not recognize the Tangun Chosōn period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Macdonald, Donald Stone. The Koreans. San Francisco: Westview Press, 1990. Traces the historical roots of the Korean people and follows the development of their culture. Emphasizes the importance of Korea strategically, economically, and culturally.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nahm, Andrew C. Introduction to Korean History and Culture. Elizabeth, N.J.: Hollym, 1993. Presents the mythical and legendary founding of Old Chosŏn plus a clear overview of various other states during the Old Chosŏn period.
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