4. The Divine Archer: King Jumong


Source: Wikipedia

Buyeo was divided into two parts: Eastern and Northern Buyeo. Most information about these kingdoms is left to speculation, but one of these kings, Geumwa, enters Korean history as a result of a hunting trip.

Hunting was a favorite pastime of the old kings. And Geumwa’s hunting expedition looked like any other, until he ran into a mysterious woman by a stream in one of the mountains. Intrigued as to what she was doing in such a place, Geumwa approached her. The woman said her name was Yuhwa. She told her story of how she was with her sisters enjoying an outing in the mountain when a mysterious man came and approached them. The man, Hae Mo-Su, seduced Yuhwa and she left her family to live with him until he disappeared one day. Her father, named Haebaek, was scandalized by her behavior and they banished her away from her home, and that was where King Geumwa found her.

King Geumwa was intriguied by this woman and her story. He brought her back to his palace, where she was confined to a dark room. One day, stuck in her dark chambers, a ray of light penetrated the room. Yuhwa basked in this tiny sunlight, her body filled with the comforting glow provided by the tiny messenger from the heavenly orb, the golden rays filling the room with warmth. It was a moment of sweet tenderness in the middle of darkness and solitude. And then she laid an egg.

As you can see, we are back to mythological time in this story.

King Geumwa did not approve of people in his palace laying eggs. He tried to get rid of the egg by throwing it to the pigs and dogs, but they refused to touch it. He threw the egg in the middle of the road, but the horses and cattle walked around it. He cast it in faraway places, but the birds protected it. Finally he tried to do the dirty work himself, but the egg did not crack. Defeated, King Geumwa returned the egg to Yunwa, and eventually a boy hatched from it.

The boy was said to be exceedingly handsome and strong, being more than a match for the men of the palace when he was only 7 years old. Most noteworthy was his skill in archery, and he was given the name Jumong, which we’re told meant “skilled archer” in the Buyeo language.

Apparently Geumwa had forgiven the boy’s audacity to have been born from an egg, since Jumong quickly became the King’s favorite. This was much to the displeasure of the King’s actual sons, who saw that this boy could threaten their position in the palace.

Meanwhile, Jumong kept on shining in court. He is said to not only be a skilled archer, but had a talent in all matters related to fighting and warfare. A story told at that time was that he had a keen eye for horses. There were two horses in particular that he had his eyes on, seeing that one was very swift and the other very slow. Jumong fed the slow horse to make him look strong, and starved the quick horse. King Geumwa naturally chose the healthier looking horse and Jumong was “stuck” with the weaker seeming horse.

This was good foresight, for one day before an outing, Yuhwa warned her son that the princes were plotting on killing him. Tearfully, she urged him to escape and never return to Buyeo. And sure enough, as soon as they were away from the palace, Jumong felt the princes’ killer intents on him. With the princes hot in his pursuit, Jumong managed to evade them until a river blocked his way. That’s when he cried out, “I am the son of heaven and Haebaek’s grandson. My enemies are upon my heel, am I to be abandoned here?”

In response, the river bubbled, and turles and all kinds of creatures gathered to make a bridge. Jumong crossed, and the princes were left behind.

Jumong continued south. Since this was after the fall of Gojoseon, the landscape was full of small clans and slightly bigger households. No doubt using his divine archery skills, the next time we find Jumong, he has managed to unite some of these clans. The founding date of his kingdom is usually recorded as 37 BCE, a few decades after the fall of Gojoseon. He named his kingdom ‘Goguryeo’ and the records say that the kingdom’s ambition was to restore the lost dignity of the land. The Sunguk Yusa (the more mythically oriented historical record, from which most of this story comes) tries to cement this connection to Gojoseon by claiming that Jumong’s mother Yuhwa also had an affair with Dangun. Retirement and a couple of thousand years did not stop this ancient king from still being active.

The land of Goguryeo was mountainous, which made it difficult for agriculture. This constant threat of starvation meant that there was little luxury, and created a hardened and sturdy people, skilled in hunting and raiding. As a result, the country became a military might to be reckoned with. In its roughly 600 years of existence, Goguryeo will challenge its neighbors, bring down the last of the Han Commanderies, and even be responsible for the fall of a dynasty. A lot of people think of these days as times of heroism, and Jumong has been subject of long, sprawling, epic TV dramas.

Hunting was an important symbol of Goguryeo. Little wonder then that King Jumong is mostly remembered by a name that emphasized his hunting skills. As founder of his dynasty, King Jumong was worshiped as a god. His mythological connection to the sun and heaven made him prominent in the shaman’s panehteon, and worship of this ‘great ancestor’ was an important festival of Goguryeo. But the worship of Jumong wasn’t limited to the country he founded, Baekje also had a festival in honor of Jumong. That’s because Jumong indirectly had a hand in creating this second of the three kingdoms, as we shall see next time.


3. Gojoseon Falls: King Ugeo

By the 4th century BCE, Gojoseon had reached its height of power, pushing its way north into Manchuria, thanks to a new super weapon that was about to shake the ancient world: iron. Although still not completely developed, it allowed not only new modes of fighting and improved weapons, but also changed society at home. The rulers of Gojoseon adopted the title of “king” which proved their political power at the time. The Chinese state of Yan got fed up with what they perceived to be Gojoseon’s arrogance, and they attacked, greatly weakening the country. It would take a few hundred years, but in the 2nd century BCE, King Ugeo found himself ruling a country that was regaining its lost power, thanks to the work of his grandfather and old enemies.

Although Yan managed to defeat Gojoseon, the state itself was part of a time of great upheval, and was eventually absorbed into the greater empire of Qin (where the word ‘China’ comes from). Great Empire that it was, it didn’t manage to hold power for more than a few decades, when it was overthrown by the Han. All this political turmoil meant that a lot of people were caught in intrigue, and scores of refugees were escaping the new Han Empire.

One such person observing the state of affairs was Gojoseon’s King Jun. He accepted a lot of these refugees into his kingdom as his subjects. He sent a general, Wiman, to fortify the borders against all this chaos. Wiman is said to have been a refugee from Yan, who had assimilated into Gojoseon, adopting the traditional dresses and top-knot style, but like most biographies of this era it is up for debate. Either way, Wiman’s power base of refugees had given him the opportunity to overthrow King Jun, who escaped at the southernmost parts of the Korean peninsula to a people called the Jin (not to be confused with Jin of China…or Jin of China again…or Jin of the Jurchens…or Later Jin of the Manchurians…Jin was an awfully popular name for a country). King Jun would have an important role to play in that country, but more on that later. For now, Wiman was in charge.

With his military capabilities and economic strength, Wiman invaded the tribes surrounding Gojoseon and began expanding right by the Han borders. By now iron became a mainstay in his power. The relationship between Gojoseon and Han was tense, to say the least, as the two did not enjoy being so close to one another. And this was the situation that Ugeo inherited when he became king.

Things continued on thier way, Wiman and his son ruled without much incidence, and then when King Ugeo reached the throne, his kingdom had grown so powerful that it blocked other tribes and countries from being able to trade with the Han Empire. The Emperor of Han, Wu, tried to find a way to appease this bothersome country, and sent an envoy called She-He to request an audience with King Ugeo. This audience would not happen, and She-He was escorted back to Han. He did go back, but not before killing his Gojoseon escort in frustration, a move that is generally frowned upon by most schools of diplomacy.

Emperor Wu showed similar lack of diplomatic skills when Gojoseon demanded that She-He be brought to justice. Instead, Wu gave She-He rewards and titles. This was too much, and King Ugeo would show just how he felt about this by sending troops to go and kill She-He. The situation had reached its end point, and the conflict between Han and Gojoseon, many decades in the making, had begun.

Emperor Wu’s plan was to overwhelm the Gojoseon forces from land and sea. 50,000 sailed towards the country, while another group were advancing through land. They were both led by two of Emperor Wu’s generals with a similar objective: to capture the Gojoseon capital of Wanggeom. King Ugeo sent his army to the mountains to stop the troops from reaching the country. Meanwhile, the ships had landed, and the troops marched towards the capital. They were quickly repelled and admiral fled. The first wave of attacks had failed.

The two countries attempted peace negotiations, but looking back at the She-He incident, its obvious that diplomacy was not the strong point of these two monarchs. The battle resumed, and Wanggeom was now under siege. Frustrated by the lack of progress, Emperor Wu sent another general to take command of the army and attacks became more powerful and more concentrated. King Ugeo and his soldiers were able to repel attack after attack, but things were already starting to crumble- politically speaking- on the inside. Some ministers in court suggested that surrender was the best option. The strain of a siege, and such a long war, no doubt had some terrible consequences to the people and the land. What’s more, Emperor Wu was a capable military leader who had expanded his empire and fought successfully many wars already. How much longer could they hold out?

Four ministers presented their case for giving up.Perhaps it was due to stubbornness, perhaps because he thought things had gone too far to turn back now, or perhaps because he believed they actually had a chance of winning the battle, King Ugeo refused surrender. The attacks on Wanggeom the king managed to fend off, but he ignored this new pro-Han faction at his peril. Because in 108 BCE, one of the pro-Han ministers had defected, and went back to Gojoseon in order to have the king assassinated.

King Ugeo was dead, but his ambitions lingered on. A minister named Seong gi took controls and continued the war. It was already too late by then. Seonggi was also assassinated and Wanggeom, the city named after Dangun Wanggeom, had fallen. In the year 108 BCE, Gojoseon was no more.

Emperor Wu did not invade the country. Instead, he set up four commanderies around the former lands of Gojoseon. These commanderies were major towns run by Han ministers who would report back tot he Emperor and keep an eye out on the activities of over tribes. One of the reasons they were set up was to make sure no other tribe or city would grow too powerful. They would eventually fail. But for now, the commanderies were part of the Korean peninsula, something the people of the land greatly resented.

With Gojoseon gone, other kingdoms in the peninsula were about to flourish. Jin, the country that housed King Jun after he escaped Wiman, had grown considerable in economic power, and transformed into the Samhan (Three Hans): Mahan, Jinhan and Byeohan. There was also the kingdom of Buyeo to the north as well as various other tribes and city states around these bigger political entities.

So with the four Han Commanderies, the Samhan, Buyeo, Okje and Ye in place, the land was ripe and ready for the next phase of Korean history known as the Three Kingdoms Period.

2. The King That Never Was: Gija

While we’re finding more and more archaeological evidence about the ancient society, most of Gojoseon remains unknown to us. And glimpses under the shroud of mystery reveal mostly myths and speculation. Last time we saw the mythical founder Dangun retiring from ruling after an impressive 1,500 years. The reason that Dangun left the throne, the myth continues, was that he gave the helm to another. This new ruler was supposed to have introduced the laws of society, including the 8 Prohibitions, the earliest known laws in the peninsula. The parts of the 8 Prohibitions that still remain are simple outlines prohibiting things like stealing and killing. This second phase of Gojoseon was considered the second half of the founding myth for a very long time. And yet this king has disappeared from public consciousness.

The ruler’s name was Gija. Mention that name to people and their reaction will be dismissive, angry, or they will just shrug. References to the king vanished from textbooks, and there is not going to be any TV series or dramas recounting his life anytime soon. What happened? There is no historical evidence for Gija and his rule, and research since the early 20th century has cast doubt upon the story. But Dangun’s fantastic 1,500 year rule is still part of the official narrative, even if in a more symbolic reinterpretation. So why has Gija disappeared? The reason lies in ideology as much as it does in history, because Gija, original name title Jizi, had come to the peninsula as a ruler of the people all the way from China.

The story begins in the 11th century BCE, where the last king of the Chinese Shang kingdom had imprisoned his uncle Gija. The king of a rival kingdom overthrew the Shang king, eventually bringing about the Zhou dynasty. The King of Zhou freed Jizi, who moved east and started his own kingdom. He became Gija, and traditional history divided old Joseon into three parts: Dangun Joseon, Gija Joseon, and the third Joseon which will be part of our next chapter. Gija introduced cultural and political practices to his kingdom, including the 8 Prohibitions mentioned above.

The court of Joseon (the later one) considered the story of Gija to be an important part of its cultural heritage. But why were the earlier Koreans so eager to adopt Gija as part of their founding myth? It wasn’t because of subservience, as some people interpret it, but because of ‘Culture.’ The concept of culture was very conservative, and people looked to the past for guidance. China prided itself on its culture because it considered its early dynasties, the above mentioned Shang, the earlier Xia, and the mythical ‘Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors’ to be peopled with sages and demigods. Jizi, the ‘Viscount of Ji’ was one of those people. In fact, he was called a sage by none other than Confucius himself. For the people of Joseon, heavily influenced by Confucian philosophy, having such a figure as part of their cultural ancestry came with an incredible amount of prestige.

These days the idea of culture is not so conservative, and people aren’t as Confucian as they used to be. Coupled with a growing nationalistic consciousness in the early 20th century, and Gija’s importance is suddenly diminished. The idea of a Chinese king coming and introducing culture to the Korean peninsula does not fit well with national identity, which is why Dangun’s status has been raised while Gija’s eventually disappeared.

Ideology aside, what does the history say? It is impossible to have any conclusive proof. Older records, both in China and Korea, do mention the ‘Viscount of Ji’ establishing a kingdom in Joseon, but even those records were written centuries after the event. There are some historians, instead of dismissing the story altogether, argue that Gija Joseon and Dangun Joseon were two completely different kingdoms that occupied different parts of north and north-east Asia. What’s interesting is that some families, like the SeonWoo of Taewon clan (which is a rare family name that has two syllables instead of one, like Park or Lee), count Gija as their ancestor, so the legend still continues, even if  in a smaller way.

Whether or not the Viscount of Ji was a real historical figure is still up for debate, but China’s growing influence will take us out of mythological time and move history along, to the rise and fall of the final phase of Gojoseon.

Interlude 1: Fringe Histories and Conspiracy Theories

When it comes to ancient history, the lack of records is both fascinating and frustrating. It’s no wonder that the times BCE have been the source of so many myths, legends and theories. There is a mysterious aura surrounding the early people and the first kingdoms of the world. This allure of the unknown, coupled with the nationalism found in the 19th century that still stubbornly persists, has led to many different kinds of fringe historical theories, from the various myths about the lost tribes of Israel and Atlantis to the latest “Ancient Astronauts” theory. This is especially common with cultures that have a very long history, where some of the more nationalistic groups develop an “Everything comes from …” narrative. So you have the “Everything comes from Greece” histories, “Everything comes from India” histories, and the one that’s causing great annoyance to most of Asia: the “Everything comes from China” histories. Korea is another culture that has been around for a long time, so the fringe and nationalist historians have not neglected the country,

Most of what we know about the early Korean kingdoms come from two sources, the Samguk Sagi “Records of the Three Kingdoms” and Samguk Yusa “Miscellanies of the Three Kingdoms”. The latter is notorious for including a lot of mythology and folklore into its historical narratives (including the story of Dangun)- though the Sagi itself doesn’t shy away from recording omens and moral injunctions- but most accept their general outline of the events at the time. In the story of Dangun, Dangun’s father was said to preside over the “City of the Gods.” What if the city was not only a mythological golden age, but an actual place? What would happen if the city of the gods actually ruled the world?


Source The supplementary editio

Meet the Hwandan Gogi, Korea’s very own “Everything comes from…” history.The book is divided into four parts, the Samseonggi, Dangun Segi, Bukbuyeogi and Taebaek Ilsa. It’s a book that pushes back Korea’s history back to 7197 BCE, and puts two kingdoms before Gojoseon. These are the Hwanguk and Baedal kingdoms. It also lists 47 different Danguns who have ruled Gojoseon. The book has had a bit of a following in the fringe history community, and was a best seller in the 70s. Various interpretations and communities have popped up surrounding the Hwandan Gogi, which is where the fun truly begins.

So, not being satisfied with making Korea the second oldest civilization in “history” (the first, of course, being Atlantis at 10,000 BCE), what else does this community believe? Well, for starters, Sumeria was actually part of the Baedal kingdom! The kingdom was  in charge of twelve countries covering most of Asia and beyond, including Mesopotamia. The justification for this is that some ancient Mesopotamian words are similar to modern Korean words and that the fall of Sumeria coincides with the fall of the Baedal (according to the book’s timeline).

Most of the already mythological Three Sovereigns of China were also Korean, cause why not? One of the Emperors of Baedal was the god of war who had iron weapons before anyone else. Obviously, he managed to defeat the Yellow Emperor, one of the most popular of the legendary Five Emperors. The fact that Egypt, South America and various other countries had pyramids “proves” that they were part of the Baedal kingdom…somehow. Oh, they also had democracy. In a word, the entire history of all peoples of the world come from Hwanguk, Baedal and Gojoseon.

The book was published in the 70s but, in conspiracy theory fashion, claims to have been a text from an earlier date and had been hidden. The book became a hit when it first appeared in this plane of existence. There has recently been a revival of interest in the Hwandan Gogi and other fringe histories, probably in response to China’s revisionist historians who try to claim Gojoseon and Goguryeo as part of Chinese history. There is a website covering all the events in the book, as well as lecturers going around Korea talking about the amazing discoveries of the Hwandan Gogi and beyond. You can find the book in the bestseller table of most major bookstores in Seoul. It, as well as commentaries, have been translated into English. Though that is not to say it is all in any way accepted by  the mainstream. You won’t find many people who believe the claims, though some will sigh and exclaim that they wish it were real.

the purpose behind fringe histories like the one mentioned above is to give Korea a “Golden Age” narrative. I hope this blog will show that Korean history is amazingly rich and complex in itself. It is full of victories and tragedies, ups and downs, domination and subservience. It has been and continues to be a player in a World history, and has produced works of philosophy, literature, art and politics that should be better known. Korean history does not need an “Everything comes from…” myth to be worthy of studying.

1. Ancient Ruler, Modern Symbol: Dangun Wanggeom


People have inhabited the Korean peninsula for a very long time. The archaeological evidence shows paleolithic tools from around half a million years ago. There has been a lot of pottery uncovered at later dates, showing different styles and patterns indicating that there were different people living in the area. The most famous of the pattern is the “comb” pottery for its distinct shape. Almost nothing is known of these people, but a lot of Korean shamanistic practices is said to come from this time. Time went on, and with the coming of the Bronze age, technology increased, as did the beginnings of hierarchy evidenced by the tombs known as dolmens. Interest in archaeology is strong these days, with new discoveries every day particularly in areas of Gyeonggi.

The earliest social groups were clans, which later became tribes as populations expanded. These tribes started forming towns and villages, which were separated from one another by walls. These ‘walled city-states’ are the first known political organization in Korea. Eventually through absorption or alliances, these walled cities started linking with one another, giving rise to confederacies. Sometimes confederacies became big and centralized enough to have kings ruling over them, turning into kingdoms. These political entities became large, as in the fourth century BCE, we find one of these kingdoms covering the northern parts of the Korean peninsula and parts of the Liáodong Peninsula (a tiny peninsula right next to Korea). This state was Joseon, renamed by later historians as Gojoseon (“Go” meaning “old”) to distinguish it from the later Joseon dynasty of the 14th-20th century. This Gojoseon is considered by traditional historical narratives to be the first Korean kingdom, with a starting date of 2333BC. The founder, Tangun, is part of the founding myth of Korea.

The story starts off with no other than the Lord of Heaven himself, called Hwanin in this tale. Hwanin had a son named Hwaneung, who wanted to live in the human world. So Hwaneung and 3000 of his followers, including deities like the gods of rain and harvest, descended to Mount Baekdu and founded Sinsi, the legendary City of the Gods. At that time, a tiger and a bear prayed to become human. So in true mythological fashion, Hwaneung gave the two animals a task: they were to spend 100 days in a cave away from the sun, eating cloves of garlic and mugwort every day. This proved to be too difficult for the tiger, who ran out of the cave before the time was over. The bear diligently kept on and at the end of her trials was transformed into a woman. Ungnyeo, the woman’s new name, went to a sandalwood tree to pray and make sacrifices to the god who gave her this form. Hwaneung descended from Mount Baekdu and together they had a child. This child became Dangun Wanggeom, and he went on to found the city of Joseon. After ruling for a thousand and five hundred years, the retired and became a mountain ascetic, withdrawing from the world.

Many historians have an interpretation for this story. They say the city of the gods represents the more modern bronze age people, while the tiger and bear were the older clans. In fact the bear is a popular symbol in many ancient shamanistic tribes, and the tiger has folkloric significance in Korea to this day. The marriage of Hwaneung and Ungnyeo puts a kinder spin on the new people assimilating the old. As for Dangun’s rather impressive 1500 year rule? It’s been suggested that ‘Dangun’ was a title given to the king of the country, who was revered as a god. When one Dangun died, another carried the divine mantle, ensuing a continuing divine rule. When Dangun withdrew into the mountains, that signaled a change in the political system.

Aside from the literal and historical reading of the myth, there is a symbolic importance to the figure of Dangun. It must be remembered that when we’re using the word “Korea” (or China or Japan or Manchuria for that matter) when talking about the past, it’s an anachronism used for the sake of convenience. Gojoseon was home to many different tribes and confederacies, there were people like the Yaemek and Han, and after the fall of Gojoseon we hear a myriad of names like Buyeo, Okje and Samhan. The peninsula was united into a political entity similar to modern day Korea at around the 10th century CE. That’s around the time we start seeing records of Dangun, and the myth has grown in importance since.When Goryeo was facing outside threats, a shamanistic religion with Dangun as its central god popped up. And again in the 20th century, with the shadow of colonialism looming, a religion known as Daejonggyo also placed Dangun as their god. The religion isn’t very popular these days, but the date it set for the founding of Korea, October 3rd, has now become a holiday known as Gaecheon “The Opening of Heaven.” There are still religious ceremonies held on that day.

Dangun is a foundation myth that gives the people of Korea a national identity, a feeling of unity, and that is what gives the symbol importance today. A place that especially relies on symbolism for its legitimacy is North Korea. So it should be no surprise that North Korea makes copious references to Mount Baekdu in its extravagant cult of personality, even claiming that the mountain was Kim Jong Il’s birthplace (it wasn’t.) Interestingly, North Korea calls itself not Korea (or “Han” like South Korea), but Joseon.

Foundation myths play an important part in the national identity of people. The ancient Mesopotamians had Gilgamesh, the various city states of Greece had their own demigods and heroes as founders. George Washington, though obviously a more historical person, takes on mythological significance in most of the United States. For Korea, Dangun and his mythological origin take this role. But some myths have more significance than others. And some myths just seem to disappear from history- mythological and actual- altogether. One such myth will be the subject of our next chapter.

6 Things You Might Not Have Known About Korean History

Korea has been featured in the news a lot these days. Whether it is the North threatening to turn the world into an ocean of fire, or South Korea’s popular culture spreading around the world like a fever, interest in Korea is on the rise. The peninsula itself has a long colorful history which can still be felt today. For example:

  1. Korea has been divided before.
         North, South. Most people know of the Korean War, which is technically still going on since neither side has actually signed a peace treaty. South Korea is one of the most wired countries in the world; North Korea is a reclusive state still living out the Cold War. Unification is the official dream of the two countries; both consider themselves one country divided by circumstance and outside forces.It’s a story that has been told in the Korean Peninsula in the past. Because thousands of years ago, what is now known as Korea was a handful of kingdoms and confederacies, trading and fighting, exchanging goods and exchanging blows among themselves and neighboring countries like China and Japan. Eventually three kingdoms- Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla- became dominant in an era appropriately called the Three Kingdoms period, and in the 7th century Silla succeeded in absorbing the other two kingdoms. Even though this era is called the Unified Silla period, the peninsula was actually divided in lines very similar to the North-South division of today. It wasn’t until the dynasty of Goryeo in the 10th century that “Korea” became one country, and this is the image that North and South Korea have in mind when they talk about unification.
  2. Soju and Kimchi Have Foreign Origins
         Stop any visitor walking the streets of Seoul, ask them what they consider to be the most popular food and alcoholic beverage of Korea, and you’ll most likely get a near unanimous response: kimchi and soju. The pickled cabbage with red pepper paste and the green bottle will be found in nearly every person’s home, in most restaurants, and enjoyed by people having a night out on the town. There is nothing as representative of Korea as kimchi. And how it and soju got to the country is quite an international adventure.While pickled vegetables, including cabbage, have been a staple as far back as the Three Kingdoms era mentioned previously, the food of the time was missing something essential to what we consider to be kimchi today: chili peppers. Now a vital ingredient in so many Korean dishes, the pepper was introduced to Joseon dynasty Korea in the late 16th century. There are a few theories about how the pepper arrived, but the most common story goes something like this: the Japanese, who sent a wave of invasions at the end of the 16th century, introduced the red pepper to Korea. The Japanese themselves had received the pepper from Portuguese traders, who in turn got the pepper from Christopher Columbus’ journeys to America. There are other theories, but whatever the account, it was a long intercontinental trip for the chili pepper to reach the plates of Korea.

    Soju has a less convoluted history, but only slightly less. This alcoholic drink has its origins in the 13th century. That was when Genghis Khan and his army paved the way for a vast Mongolian Empire that would become a major hub for trade and cultural exchanges (see more in fact #6). While Goryeo dynasty Korea was never conquered by the Mongolians, the country was subservient to the empire and a trade network was established. One of the things introduced to Korea were distillation techniques and alcoholic drinks which would eventually lead to the creation of soju. The Mongolian rulers most likely got these techniques from the Middle East.

    We call our age an age of globalization, and assume that cultural exchange and trade is something unique to the 21st century. But international trade is nothing new, and looking at the origins of any cultural product will reveal a vast interconnected history. Soju and kimchi are just one of the many illustrations of this fact.

  1. In The Joseon Dynasty, Refusing to Worship Your Ancestors Could Get You Killed.
         Jaesa, commonly thought of by Westerners as ancestor worship, is an important part of many Korean households. Once a year the family gathers, sets up an altar, and prepares a big meal in honor of their deceased relatives. This is a symbolic way of establishing a link between ancestors and descendants, the living and the dead, keeping the lineage strong and in turn creating a bond to the rest of society. This respect for ancestry played an important part in Asian history, especially the era known as the Joseon Dynasty (the last dynasty before the 20th century), the most Confucian of Korean dynasties, where the proper functioning of society depended on people keeping these harmonious links between heritage and society. So what happens when a civilization that has ancestor worship as the basis of a well-organized society encounters a religion which forbids the worship of any besides God?Korean scholars first learned of Catholicism when they encountered Jesuit missionaries in China in the 18th century. This religion fascinated many of the philosophers of Korea, who engaged with the ideas without actually converting to the Christianity. But there were a handful of people who did convert, and the court of Korea looked on them with suspicion. The real troubles began when the pope at the time, Clement VIII, made an official decree forbidding the worship of ancestors. For the Confucian sensibilities of the Joseon court, this was unacceptable, an attack on the very fabric of society.

    In 1794, Yun Ji-chung, baptized as Paul Yun, was executed for refusing to set up the ancestral tablets for his mother. He was not alone, and the Catholic Church today recognizes 123 other martyrs alongside Paul. Christianity would eventually become integrated into Korean society, but only after a series of persecutions and massive conflicts that even led to war with China. But the issue of ancestor worship is still in many people’s minds. Whether they should participate in Jaesa is a question that many Korean Christians struggle with even to this day.

  1. Exam Fever is Nothing New
        If you’re in Korea on the 2nd Thursday of November, the autumn day will feel a little different. The morning rush hour will start a little later, and the whole city will feel a little hushed. If you look up you will notice that there will be no airplanes flying overhead. Hundreds of middle aged women will be praying in churches and temples, clutching their good luck charms, and all attention will be on schools, where students holding banners will be cheering on other students as they walk into the schools. This is the day of the suneung, the test which determines which university the students will attend.It’s almost a cliché to say that Asian education places a high emphasis on academic achievement and test taking. Most people familiar with Korea also know the number of hours students put in in order to pass the suneung. The final years of high school are known as ‘exam fever’ or, on less generous days, ‘exam hell.’ Issues like tiger moms and a need to improve school standards are very common these days. It is also a very old phenomenon.

    A father sends his 12 year old son to China with the warning that the child will be disowned if he does not pass the entrance exam within 10 years. The boy talks about his efforts to stay awake at night, memorizing till dawn, and finally after years of struggle, passing the test. Many students these days might react with a sympathetic groan to the story. The boy was Choi Chi-won, one of the most renowned chroniclers and poets in Korean history, who also happened to have lived in the 9th century. Korea- as well as most other Asian countries- has been burning up with exam fever for centuries. That’s because, for centuries, exams were the best way for you and your family to move up in society.

    The examination system was introduced to Korea through China. This test was quite meritocratic in theory, since people of almost any rank was eligible to take it. Those who passed were given jobs in the King’s court based on their score, and the better they did, the better their position. Since this test was notoriously hard, a boy who was taking the test had to be groomed for years, studying by himself or with a tutor. For farmers, the expense of hiring tutors, not to mention losing a pair of hands working the fields, was an enormous sacrifice. So the family was essentially pinning all their hopes on their son. No doubt the student must have felt enormous pressure. These days most Koreans are not farmers, but the drama of pressure and sacrifice is still enacted in many households, where expenses are put aside to make sure sons and daughters get the best education to pass the exam, and eventually get into a prestigious university and move up in society.

  2. Korea had one of the first female monarchs in East Asia.
        In the 7th century, the King of Silla found himself having to choose a successor to the throne. But he had no sons. So he did what seemed to be perfectly logical: he appointed his daughter to be the next ruler. This was Queen Seondeok, the first of the 3 female monarchs of Silla.Despite objections from more chauvinistic neighbors and opportunistic aristocrats, the legitimacy of Queen Seondeok’s rule was largely unquestioned. In fact,  her reign is considered something of a golden age of art, science and culture. She was also one of the key figures in the unification of the Three Kingdoms, a pivotal moment in the history of Korea. Women had a fairly high standing in Silla society, and it was only later that the strong division of men and women existed. The historians of later generations, who found the idea of a female ruler quite scandalous, were embarrassed to acknowledge all that Queen Seondeok and her successor Queen Jindeok had accomplished. But acknowledge they had to. These days, the queen is fondly remembered as one of the great rulers of Korean history, and was the subject of an extremely popular TV drama in 2009.
  3. The Korean wave, circa 1300
         Many Asian households across the world sit down to enjoy Korean dramas, Korean pop music, k-pop, has a following in areas of Europe and, of course, in 2012 the world galloped to Gangnam Style. This interest in Korean popular culture is known as the Korean Wave, or Hallyu, which seems to have started in the early 21st century. But before ‘Hallyu,’ there was ‘Goryeo Yang.’As mentioned previously, the Mongolians conquered a massive chunk of Asia under Genghis Khan. After his death, the empire was split among his descendants. One of Genghis Khan’s grandsons became Emperor of China and set up the Yuan dynasty. Korea was more or less a follower of this country, and had to pay tribute to the dynasty in many forms. However, the culture of Goryeo had a soft power effect on the Yuan, and everything Korean became vogue. If you were to visit China at that time you would see people copying Korean style clothes, artwork and crafts from Goryeo hung in the homes of aristocrats, and dumplings being cooked Korean style. Almost every aspect of Goryeo was a trend at that time.

    In order not to whitewash history, it should be noted that this trend for everything Korean also meant that it was fashionable and in demand to have your very own concubine from Korea. And many were forced to leave their homes at a young age. A lot of these women, though, ended up holding influential positions, one of them even becoming Empress of China.

So history still has an impact on people today, their customs, actions, and relations with other nations. We’re going to look at the people: those who made history, those who were unmade by it, and those who simply tried to make the best of the situations they faced.