Three Kingdoms Period Forms Korean Culture Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

During the Three Kingdoms Period in Korean history, Buddhism and Confucianism were introduced, and with some influence from China, Koreans developed the foundation for their contemporary culture.

Summary of Event

The Three Kingdoms Period in Korean history is named for three great kingdoms that emerged in the first century b.c.e., rose to prominence by the third century c.e., and reached their peak in the sixth century, before all of them were unified under one kingdom in the seventh century. Despite the name of this period, there was a fourth region on the Korean peninsula that did not belong to any of the kingdoms at first. This area comprised the Kaya (Gaya) states. It was located in the south central part of the peninsula and wedged between two kingdoms. The kingdoms that define the period are known as the Koguryŏ (Goguryeo), the Paekche (Baekje), and the Silla (Shilla).

The Koguryŏ Kingdom was the largest of the three kingdoms. It extended from the central part of what is now the Republic of Korea (south of the Han River) northward to the Sungari River, today part of China. Its origins are shrouded in old stories of Korea’s early history and Chinese colonization of the region by the Han Dynasty in the first century b.c.e. The first royal family was likely named Hae-si, and it had close ties to the Han Chinese. As the royal family’s power expanded, so did the Koguryŏ kingdom, finally pushing out the last Chinese colony in 313 c.e. Because of its proximity to and early control by China, the Koguryŏ culture borrowed liberally from Chinese civilization until the collapse of the Han in the third century c.e. China broke up into many kingdoms itself, which allowed the Koguryŏ to form their own civilization without interference. The Koguryŏ were in constant conflict with several groups of people in the region, such as the Puyŏ people and several nomadic groups. This conflict eventually led to moving the Koguryŏ capital southward to P’yŏngyang, and this put pressure on another kingdom on the peninsula: the Paekche Kingdom.

The Paekche Kingdom was situated on the southwest corner of the Korean peninsula. A confederacy of clans called the Chin occupied the southern part of the peninsula until the first century b.c.e., when conflict from the north spilled into the southern region. Puyŏ refugees from the north migrated to the southwest and established the Paekche Dynasty in 18 b.c.e. under the rule of King Onjo. Because of continuing conflict with the Koguryŏ, the Paekche moved their capital several times. They also formed alliances with the Chinese in the lower Yangtze Valley and with the Japanese, mainly the Asuka culture in the southwest. As a result, the Paekche acted as a conduit for the transfer of Chinese culture to Japan. This relationship was formalized in 367 c.e. when diplomats, cultural envoys, and craftspeople were exchanged. Interestingly, the third kingdom did not participate in these exchanges at first.

The Silla Dynasty formed the third kingdom. Their strength began in the walled town of Saro (now called Kyŏngju) during the collapse of the Chin confederacy. The first Silla king was Pak Hyŏkkŏse (r. 57 b.c.e.-4 c.e.). The early years of this dynastic rule were confined mainly to the walled city of Kyŏngju, but by the middle of the third century c.e. their power expanded to the largest part of what is today the southeastern corner of South Korea. In part because of a degree of isolation from Paekche in the early centuries of development, the Silla had little Chinese influence on their culture. This limited isolation was caused by the Kaya states wedged between Silla and Paekche as well as the southern extension of the T’aebaek Mountains. This isolation eventually changed. In 247, the Silla formalized state relations with the Koguryŏ, although this did not prevent the Koguryŏ from making periodic incursions into Silla territory. Moreover, the Paekche also started to put pressure on the Silla’s northwest boundary. The combination of these problems with periodic raids by Japanese bands led the Silla to develop a militaristic culture called the hwarang, an institution of elite soldiers with a strong sense of chivalry and unquestioned commitment to the king. They were so successful in responding to attacks from all directions that by the middle of the sixth century c.e. they had expanded the Silla Kingdom by absorbing the Kaya states, the northern part of Paekche, and the eastern part of Koguryŏ. In the process, the Silla were exposed to Chinese culture. This had an important impact on their own culture as well as the future of Korea as a whole.

All three of the kingdoms and the loose collection of city-states in Kaya were definable and separate entities from at least the first century c.e. to the middle of the sixth century c.e. The rise of Silla, especially through the hwarang, changed the political and cultural conditions of the Korean peninsula for many centuries to come. The Silla had absorbed the Kaya states by 532 c.e., slowly absorbed Paekche between the mid-sixth century and 660 c.e., and finally absorbed the largest part of Koguryŏ by 668 c.e. This date, 668 c.e. heralds a new period in Korean history called the United Silla, contemporaneous with the Tang Dynasty (618-907) of China, with which it had close ties. The United Silla period lasted until 935 and was the golden age of Korean culture and history. It was also the first time that most of the Korean peninsula was under a single, centralized government.

Significance

The significance of the Three Kingdoms Period in Korean history cannot be underestimated. The foundation of modern Korean culture was formed in the Three Kingdoms. Key elements of Chinese civilization were absorbed during this period. Most important among these were the writing system, ceramics, astronomy, Buddhism, and Confucianism. Later, Korean-style, developments of these elements during the United Silla period and the Koryŏ Dynasty (918-1392) were based largely on Chinese prototypes. For example, Koreans created their own writing system, called hangul, in the medieval period but they retained Chinese characters for proper names and calligraphic art. Once Koreans learned the craft of making ceramics, they went on to create their own, highly evolved styles and colors in the later periods. Most famous is Korean celadon. Confucianism slowly seeped into Korean social behavior at this time, but eventually Koreans created their own version, Neo-Confucianism. Buddhism was adopted by the Koguryŏ in 372 c.e., by the Paekche in 384 c.e., and by the Silla in 528 c.e., where, by the time of unification, it became the state religion. Most important, however, is that Korean interpretations of Buddhist texts contributed to the development of Zen Buddhism (called Sŏn in Korean), and the desire to spread Buddhist ideas to as many people as possible led to the development of early woodblock printing, as well as the first metal, movable type nearly two hundred years before Johannes Gutenberg in Europe. The oldest known woodblock print, called the Darani sutra, was found inside the Seokga Pagoda of Bulguksa Temple in Kyŏngju in 1966. It is believed to have been made at the end of the seventh century.

Another reason for the significance of this period is the establishment of a unique sense of Korean history separate from the cultural groups that surrounded the peninsula. The origin stories of the Korean people focus on a heroic progenitor named Tangun Wanggom, who is believed to have lived in the time just before the Three Kingdoms emerged. Many Koreans believe the first king of Koguryŏ was a son of Tangun. Although this belief is most likely based in mythology and legends of the time, its importance in forming a strong sense of Korean identity throughout the ages cannot be dismissed.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Adams, Edward B. Korea’s Golden Age: Cultural Spirit of Silla in Kyongju. Seoul, Korea: Seoul International Publishing House, 1991. Adams shows us the extraordinary cultural development of the Silla in their capital city of Kyŏngju through detailed descriptions and hundreds of photographs. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Covell, J. Carter. Korea’s Cultural Roots. Elizabeth, N.J.: Hollym International, 1981. Covell presents the ancient roots of Korea’s culture through its art work and religious materials. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Il-Yon. Samguk Yusa: Legends and History of the Three Kingdoms of Ancient Korea. Translated by Ha Tae-Hung and Grafton K. Mintz. Seoul, Korea: Yonsei University Press, 1986. Il-Yon was a thirteenth century Buddhist monk who collected stories and documents from the Three Kingdoms Period. These are collected in this volume. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kim, Duk-Whang. A History of Religions in Korea. Seoul, Korea: Daeji Moonhwa-sa, 1990. Kim describes the history and beliefs of the many religious traditions in Korea from ancient times to the current era.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Koo, John H., and Andrew C. Nahm, eds. An Introduction to Korean Culture. Elizabeth, N.J.: Hollym International, 2000. Chapter 3 in the history section covers the Three Kingdoms Period, but other relevant material is also to be found in topical sections on Confucianism, Buddhism, literature, and elsewhere. A substantial survey, with index.

Categories: History Content