Despite the rich cultural heritage of Korea, its long and ancient history has given the world far more than what it has borrowed from its neighbors. Over the process of time, as Korea went through a variety of developments, geographical and cultural changes, the country has still maintained its distinct cultural identity even within its diasporas that have migrated all over the world.
The preservation of Korean uniqueness has been possible despite its geographic proximity to other major civilizations. Korea shares a few similarities with China as well as marked distinctions but it still remains distinctly Korean.
GeographyKoreas geographic history reveals that people have been living on the Korean peninsula for about half a million years. This has been established by archaeologists who have found ancient evidence of stone chopping tools, axes and old pottery in digs in Central Korea.
Farming most probably started in the Bronze Age, around 3,500 years ago since carbonized rice grains and farming tools dating from this period of history have been found at many archaeological digs.
The Korean Peninsula points southward from the north-eastern corner of the Asian continent and is surrounded on three sides by large expanses of water. Korea’s geography has been a major factor in shaping its history; include in this is the manner in which the inhabitants of the peninsula emerged as a common people wanting to belong to a unified nation called Korea.Aside from history, the Korean people account for their origin in mythology.
Popular folklore traces the origins of Koreans on the peninsula to the founding of the state of Choson, meaning “Land of the Morning Calm.” The founding of Choson dates to 2333 B.C. when according to popular folklore, Tan-gun, a legendary figure born of the son of Heaven and a woman from a bear-totem tribe, established the state.
Historically, ancient Korea was dominated by clan communities which combined to form small town-states. However, by the first century B.C. the 3 kingdoms, Koguryo, Paekche and Shilla had emerged on the Korean Peninsula (today part of Manchuria).
Ever since the Shilla kingdom unified the peninsula in 676 A.D, Korea had been ruled by a single government and has maintained its political independence and cultural and ethnic identity in spite of frequent foreign invasions.In the late 19th century, Korea became the focus of intense competition among imperialist nations, China, Russia and Japan. In 1910, Japan annexed Korea and instituted colonial rule.
National liberation occurred in 1945 but was soon followed by territorial division. In June 1950, North Korea launched an unprovoked full-scale invasion of the South and started a war that lasted three years. The three-year war caused terrible damage before it ended in a cease-fire in 1953. Since then, the Korean peninsula has been governed by the Republic of Korea in the south and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the north (Korea Information Gateway, 2004).
Reunification remains the long-cherished but elusive goal of all Koreans on both sides of the Military Demarcation Line. The fall of Communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and the unification of Germany raised expectations in Korea that unification could be achieved. Some progress in promoting trust and cooperation between the two halves of the Peninsula was made in recent years (Caraway, 2001).Korea has a long and distinguished cultural history.
Its culture has blossomed during its long history. Japan, because of its geographic proximity to the Korean peninsula, could have had considerable cultural impact on Korea. However, despite their comparative closeness the peninsula has been affected far more by the civilizations on the Asian continent than by those in Japan. On the contrary, owing to its geo-historical dependencies, Japan has adopted many Korean ideas and customs.
Korea has spawned some great inventions: its ancient printing systems, the first ever iron-clad battleship, and the Korean alphabet, devised by a group of 15th century scholars, remains largely unchanged today. Today this innate creativity is still reflected in the Korea people as is evidenced by their rapid economic development.Additionally the ancient religion of Korea, Buddhism, has played and continues to play a powerful role in Korean art. A large number of excellent examples of Korean artwork and architecture can be found in Buddhist temples and paintings.
Tomb murals from the Three Kingdoms Period are the earliest examples of Korean painting. The current trend in Korean art is the harmonious combination of traditional and modern styles (Grayson, 1989).Fantastic paintings of mythological beasts such as dragons and flying horses show an imaginative and creative spirit showing the influence that mythology has played in moulding Korean art form. Moreover throughout the Unified Shilla and Koryo Periods, Buddhism prevailed in every field of life and was thus able to influence the creation of a rich collection of icon paintings that have survived to this day.
In the late Koryo Dynasty, ink and brush paintings of the four “noble plants”, (cherry blossom, orchid, chrysanthemum, and bamboo), symbolizing traditional virtues, became popular revealing natural and societal influences. Artists of the Choson Dynasty produced innovative masterpieces embodying the Korean spirits and perspectives. There are humorous animal pictures, scroll paintings of dreamlike, mist-clad mountains, and insightful sketches of everyday life done in brush and ink. Paintings with folk custom and nature themes flourished in the latter half of the 18th century.
Calligraphy, the art of brush writing, a traditional art form in Korea, has exerted a strong influence on social and cultural life and is still highly respected today.The perfection of celadon, accomplished during the Koryo Dynasty, was one of the most significant achievements in Korean art. Korean artisans developed a superbly controlled glaze that was both beautiful and unique because it fully utilized the properties of Korea’s rich clay (Caraway, 2001).Similarly Korean architecture has been shaped by several influences: religions, the availability of materials, the natural landscape, and an aesthetic preference for simplicity.
Gently sloping rooflines and sturdy, undecorated pillars characterize its simplicity, harmony, and practical utility. Korea today has many original wooden and stone structures, some dating back over a thousand years. There are also many skillful reproductions. Traditional architectural designs are also incorporated in many modern buildings throughout the country (Grayson, 1989).
Koreans have also always had a deep love for music and dance and traditional forms are still practiced today. Some examples of what current visitors to Korea might see are classical court music, narrative folk songs, farmers dance, mask dance, and traditional western style music (Korea Information Gateway, 2004).Furthermore the museums of Korea testify to Koreas historic treasures and cultural legacies. Many national, municipal and university museums, as well as a number of private institutions, preserve Korea’s colorful past.
History shows us that conquering nations such as Japan, for example, have taken much from Korean art, music and religion – this is especially evident in their building style for instance. Nevertheless Koreans tend to be a little closeted and reluctant to spread their cultural influences in places outside the country. When settling in a new country as immigrants, Koreans seem to keep a lookout for their own countrymen and take up residence in closely knit communities. So there is an unmistakable cultural identity, a sense of homecoming for the Korean traveller when they visit families abroad, away from Korea.
China is one of the few remaining countries in the world today that began to flourish economically and culturally during the ancient era of human civilization. Certain parallels can be drawn between the historical development of China and Korea as well as several distinct contrasts.Over the course of China’s 4,000 year history, it has endured barbarian invaders (the Mongols), socio-political turbulence (Communism), and the threat of technological obsolescence (the Game Boy), yet it remains unique for its continuity and perseverance. This continuity despite adversity is also true of the history of the Korean peninsula despite numerous political upheavals and battles for control.
Historians believe that the first true Chinese dynasty was the Xia (c. 2200 BC) The Xia was followed by the Shang, who was the first Chinese people to develop an alphabet. For 700 years the Shang reigned over China, until about 1100 B.C.
when the Zhou came to power. The Zhou were the first of many Chinese dynasties to suffer barbarian invasions, but they also produced some great minds, namely Confucius and Lao-zi, whom you might know better as the author of the ancient world’s best-selling “Tao-te Ching”. The development of the clan communities and later the three kingdoms in Korea are somewhat reflective of the dynasty type rule in China.Within the “Spring and Autumn” and “Warring States” periods in China things got ugly for a few hundred years.
During this period, a brilliant military strategist named Sun-tzu jotted down some notes on tactics and strategy which came to be known as “The Art of War”. About this time, one of the Chinese emperors noticed that there were a series of walls built in different places, and thought it might be a good idea to connect them. Enter the “Great Wall” of China. Started as a series of smaller walls as early as the 7th century BC, the Great Wall is the single largest construction project ever undertaken by man.
The project was more or less “finished” during the Ming dynasty of the 14th century (you know them for their vases), however, much of the foundation for the Great Wall was built during the time of China’s first emperor, Qin (or Ch’in) Shihuangdi.The Great Wall of China is today represented by the economic, social and political divide that now separates the Korean peninsula. Within China the chaos of the “Warring States” period eventually came to an end when Qin reunited China in 221 BC. However the same is as yet true for the Korean peninsula that continues to be divided despite sentiments being expressed to do otherwise.
During Qin’s short but productive reign, the first great palace for the Chinese emperor was built. Qin also developed a rigid, authoritarian bureaucracy to help manage the sprawling Chinese empire, which would be used for nearly 2,000 years. The famous Han dynasty later came to power in 206 BC followed by the famous “Three Kingdoms” period and a few subsequent dynasties. About 618 AD, the T’ang dynasty came to power, extending China’s borders into what are now Siberia, Korea, and Vietnam.
The T’ang were followed by the Sung dynasties (960 – 1279), who are probably best known for losing China to Genghis Khan and his Mongol raiders in the 12th century. The Mongols occupied China for about 100 years, until their militaristic ways caught up with them and they were unseated by Chinese rebels in 1368. The Ming dynasty followed, as did the Qing (Manchu) dynasty in 1644.Political instability seems to have characterized both Korea and China throughout their history.
Constant shifts in political power by means of inheritance, overthrows or invasions represent the features that have been most influential in shaping both cultures. For China stable adjustment usually ensured after major political shifts. To some extent Korea has been able to respond to these changes equally well. However, as the current situation reveals, the divide between North and South Korea is still a sore topic that does not appear as if it will be resolved in the near future.
Overall Korea’s history has experienced several political changes and it has also interacted with other civilizations. Several of its experiences reflect similar incidents undergone by China. Despite these however, Korean culture has remained quite distinct and has been preserved up to modern day where Korea is still distinctly Korean.;;;;;;;;;;;;ReferencesJohn Meskill, J.
Mason Gentzler (1974). An Introduction to Chinese Civilization, The China Quarterly, No. 58 (Apr. – Jun.
, 1974), pp. 392-394.;Associated Press/AP Online, (2006). China Weighing Tough Measures Vs N.
Korea;Norrie mAy-welby via sam, (2007). STOP THE CLASH OF CIVILIZATIONS.
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