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.

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