Interlude 5: Red Devils and Chiwoo

Go to a football game when Korea’s team is playing, and expect to see part of the stadium light up with a blaze of red jerseys. These red-clad supporters will bang their drums and other percussion instruments, rhythmically chant the country’s name “Daehan Minguk,” all while rolling down a giant flag of Korea down the aisles. The supporters club will all be wearing similar shirts with messages and songs of victory. You’ve just witnessed the Korean football supporter team, the Red Devils.


The name red devils originated in 1983.  It was the FIFA World Youth Championship in Mexico. The Korean team exceeded everyone’s expectations and were dubbed the red furies by the international media, based on their fiery red jerseys. This term reached Korea under the translation of 붉은악마, the red devils. People liked the name.

The actual birth of the Red Devils support team and their mascot took a large part of the 90s. In 1995 the official club itself opened, but it wasn’t until 1997 that they decided to adopt the older word ‘Red Devil.’  But any good club needs a logo and mascot, and after a long campaign to decide a character, the official image was chosen and, in 1999, during a Brazil-Korea match, fans unfurled the flag and introduced the world to the Heavnly King Chiwoo.


The origins of Chiwoo go way back, before history and flies straight above prehistory into mythical times, the period of the 3 Sovereigns and Five Emperors. The name designates something of an Edenic Golden Age in Chinese mythology, when divine rulers and emperors ruled the world and introduced humans to various civilization building arts and tools. Most famous of these was the Yellow Emperor, a name that might be familiar with anyone who has read anything about ancient Chinese history, philosophy or even medicine.  This Emperor is considered the founder of Chinese civilization at around the year 2600 BCE.

But you don’t get to become founder of a long lasting civilization without making a few enemies along the way. As the Yellow Emperor was building his future Empire another group of tribes had similar dreams of grandeur. Conflict was inevitable, and these two groups fought a battle that is known in mythology as the Battle of Zhuolu. The contenders: The Yellow Emperor and his people, and the troops of the of  Chiwoo, the bull-headed horned tyrant who led the tribes outside of the Yellow Emperor’s sovereignty.

The records talk of an epic battle, where Chiwoo summoned fogs and winds to stop his enemies in their tricks. The Yellow Emperor also had his repertoire of magic, including his daughter the goddess of drought, who managed to go through his tricks. Eventually, the meteorologically charged battle ended with the Yellow Emperor’s victory.

Gone but not forgotten, Chiwoo managed to join the pantheon of divine beings. Sima Qian, one of the earliest historians in Chinese history, records that the first (non-mythical) Emperor of China, the Qin Emperor Qin Shi Huang, worshipped Chiwoo as the god of war. Liu Bang, founder of Qin’s successor dynasty, also performed sacrifices to Chiwoo before his decisive battle that led to the creation of his Han Empire. Chiwoo has held a significant position in the history of a lot of Eastern Asia for most of history.

But why would the supports of the Korea team use this god of war as their logo? It all hinges on the identity of Chiwoo’s tribe.  Many different groups regard Chiwoo as their own mythical king, the Hmong being an examples. Because the myths state that Chiwoo ruled over many different tribes,  there is a lot of speculation on who could claim mythical ancestry to the king. One of these tribes might have been the Dongyi, the mysterious people who would have been living close to the Korean peninsula at around the 26th century BCE.

The Red Devils obviously took this interpretation and ran with it. The official website informs us that Chiwoo became king in 2707 BCE, and ruled for 109 years as the 14th Heavenly King of Baedal, the successor state of the sacred city of Hwanguk, founded by the great Hwanung…

Wait. Hwanguk? Baedal? Hwanung? That’s right, this interpretation of Chiwoo comes from none other than our dear old friend, then Hwandan Gogi. The book has at least created some history now, even if it’s not that good at actually reporting it.

The iconography of the Heavenly King resembles the most prominent of Korea’s supernatural creatures, the Dokkaebi. These creatures, not unlike the fairy folk that dwell on the British isles, are the spirits of objects and plants come to life, and come in various shapes and sizes. They are usually mischievous, and only sometimes malicious, and you can be sure to see a dokkaebi in most folktales of Korea.  Gwangju  boasts ancient artifacts which show faces of dokkaebi, which presumably means they have been inhabiting Korea since at least the Silla period.


Roof tiles from ancient Silla. Source

Ironically, dokkaebi are supposed to despise the color red.

So with the World Cup 2014 well under way, we shall have to wait and see how much of the heavenly king’s bellicose spirit the team will manage to summon.


Interlude 4: Shamanism in the Ancient Kingdoms

Dressed in colorful, almost androgynous garbs reminiscent of older days, surrounded by the smiling images of ancient guardian deities over the mounds of offerings dedicated to them, moved by the ecstatic clanging of drums and chants, the mudang is ready to enter into a trance. She (the majority of shamans in Korea these days are female)  will change costumes many times during the drama of gut, invoking various gods, ancient generals, and spirits while reciting old legends of resentful spirits.

Mudang_performing_a_ritual_placating_the_angry_spirits_of_the_deadA Mudang Shamaness Source: Wikipedia

  There are variations depending on region and ritual. But they all inhabit a world where humans, spirits and divinities share a common space, influencing one another for good or bad. The most common kind of exorcism the mudangs perform deals with people afflicted by spirits who have died violently or has some lingering resentment towards the world. Through the drama of suffering and singing songs that give voice to these resentments, the mudang offers  therapeutic relief to the spirit who in turn leaves the tormented person alone.

The system of shamanism that exists in Korea today has had many transformations, absorbing beliefs, historical figures and rituals as it goes through a path of suppression and revival, suppression again and revival once more. But the worldview of the shaman offers us a rare glimpse into the world inhabited by the people of the ancient kingdoms of Korea.

Two stories from Goguryeo illustrate this:

In the fourteenth year of Goguryeo’s second king (Yuri), while preparing sacrifices to Heaven, the sacrificial pig escaped into the woods.  Two ministers chased the pig, tied it down, and brought it back to the king. Yuri, furious that the ministers hurt the sacrificial pig, had them executed. Later, the King fell ill, and the shamans declared that his illness was a result of the two ministers haunting him. We’re told that he “apologized to the two men,” but the nature- or ritual- of this apology is unknown.

In 234, Lady U was on her deathbed. She was so afraid of meeting her first husband in the afterlife that she asked the people to bury her next to King Sasang, her second husband. After her death  a shaman went into  trance and said he had a vision of King Gogukcheon. The deceased king said, “Yesterday, when seeing Lady U go to King Sansang, I was not able to contain my anger and so we fought…I cannot bare facing the people. Please report to the court and block me with something.” So the people of the court planted seven rows of pine trees between King Gogukcheon and King Sansang and Lady U’s tombs. Even death couldn’t stop King Sindae’s sons from causing a whole lot of drama.

Various folk tales and songs also talk about spirits full of resentment wrecking havoc on the human world. This is a common belief all over East Asia and quite possibly might be an ancient prototype and basis of   modern horror movies and ghost stories.

Local beliefs in these spirits was not the only form of supernatural beings inhabiting the world. There was a larger belief in gods and ancestors as well. The people of the ancient kingdoms were thought to be under the influence of Heaven. This Heaven was a cosmos, the natural order of things. The kings and their subjects offered sacrifices and prayers up to heaven to keep their country in harmony with the cosmos. More personal gods existed as well, most notably the founders of the old kingdoms- Dangun of Gojoseon Jumong of Goguryeo, Suro of Gaya, and Hyeokgeose of Silla- who were all sons of gods coming to earth in order to reign over people. The states all had festivals to these founders, and kings- as the descendants of these demi-gods- were expected to offer sacrifices to their ancestor’s shrines. Most notably, the second king of Silla, Namhae set up the shrine to his father, had his sister perform rituals at the place, and  gave himself the title of “Chachaung,” which we’re told was an old Sillan word for shaman. Kings, as descendants of these gods, thus had the shaman’s role of intermediary between this world and the divine world.

Like many of the old civilizations- Egypt comes to mind- there seems to have been some continuity between life and death. The idea of a connection between this life and the afterlife is evidenced by very ancient burial practices. Archaeological findings dating back even before the ancient kingdoms show dolmens and burial mounds for the tribal leaders and nobility.  Goguryeo’s wall paints fill the tombs of their leaders, and Baekje and Silla buried their kings and his family with many objects and jewelry. More gruesomely, in the 5th century, the king of Silla banned the practice of burying people alive with the deceased nobility, implying that it was common practice.

Nature also plays a massive role in shamanistic beliefs. Mountains especially are thought to be sacred, and it is no coincidence that most legendary founders are found or related to mountains. Trees are important, and if you hike mountains in Korea you might find altars under- or little papers stuck to- trees. It was under a tree, after all, that Dangun’s mother prayed and entered into holy marriage. The name Dangun means something like ‘Lord of the Cedar.’ Moving up the great chain of being, animals were also a manifestation of the cosmic order of Heaven, and many of them had a totemistic importance to the people, being sacred guardian spirits. The turtle was one  animal that was revered (see King Suro of Gaya), but so were ravens, horses and – somewhat surprising to modern ears- chicken.

Some people have called the ancient kingdoms a Theocracy, since they were ruled by divine or semi-divine kings that brought order to the universe. Theocracy might be a little misleading, in my opinion, since it implies a division between the natural and the supernatural world. There doesn’t seem to have been that kind of distinction in the thought of the people back then.

After the 5th century, the separation of sacred and profane would enter the consciousness of the people as the kingdoms convert to Buddhism. This did not mean that shamanism and shamanistic beliefs disappeared entirely. One of the reasons that Buddhism was so successful was its expansive worldview. Buddhists measure time in millions and billions of years, and experience reality as a massive multiverse with various worlds, each divided into various subrealms people with a myriad of beings. Buddhism had thus no problems integrating local beliefs into its cosmology. But the introduction of the religion caused the ancient shamans to become more differentiated, outside the status quo, and initiated a  search for its own identity.

Interlude 3: So You Think You Can Rule A Country? Being King.

Thanks to the work of your ancestor, a dynasty has been established, and now you find yourself being next in line for the throne. This does not necessarily mean that you are the son of the previous king, since it was also quite common for the throne to go from older brother to younger brother, but in any case, there is a lot of work to do. Here are some things to expect when you’re expecting the crown.

  1. Most People Will Never Know Your Name
    His fatherly gaze graces the South Korean 10,000 won bill, and his statue welcomes people in the downtown area of Seoul. He is one of the most famous kings of Korea, inventor of Hangeul and image of national pride. He is much beloved, very revered, and widely respected, the great, magnificent, King “Do.”
    “Sejong” was never called “Sejong” in his lifetime. Like other kings, he had many names. In addition to a person’s name, there is their childhood name, their intimate name, and that’s only when they’re alive. After you, king, pass away, you will be given a posthumous name and title, and sometimes a temple name if your country is Buddhist. That is why Chinese and Korean history is full of kings named ‘Taejong’ or ‘Taejo,’ which was a title meaning ‘great ancestor’ or ‘great progenitor.’ So “Sejong” was part of the king’s posthumous title, which was 世宗莊憲英文睿武仁聖明孝大王 Sejong Jangheon Yeongmun Yemu Inseong Myeonghyo the Great. You’ll be forgiven for simply using the name “Sejong”.
    The last kings of Goguryeo, Baekje and Goryeo did not receive posthumous names, because their dynasty perished before they did. And during the Joseon dynasty, two rulers were denied the posthumous names and even the title of ‘king’ because of political intrigues.

  2. You will spend a long time in otherworldly business.
    In a way, as King, you are responsible for the safety of your people and the success of the harvest. But rather than physically toil the fields, your responsibility means being in contact with the spirit world and Heaven to keep things running smoothly. Kings occupy a position between the world of man and the world of the gods and spirits. As such, you will be heading a lot of rituals in court. The most famous example is the oracle bones of China’s Shang Dynasty (1600 BCE-1046 BCE). One of the functions of the King back then was to divine the will of Heaven by reading the bones of sacrificial animals. Though subsequent dynasties, and other countries, things were more specialized, the position of King and Emperor as liaison to the spirit world colored a lot of the rituals you will perform.Now any good Confucian will tell you that, no, of course spirits don’t exist, and even if they did, they are irrelevant. That’s not what ritual is about. Rituals are a means through which we can symbolically express our deepest desires as individuals and as a society. Rituals connect ruler and subject, bring together communities, and form a vast and profound link between past, present and future. Rituals are what make us human.
    Any good shaman will tell you to shut your mouth before a spirit overhears your blasphemy.

  3. You will be a time-keeper.
    The world may not revolve around you, but the calendar will. The way historians will record the history of your reign based on your name and the year of your rule. So if 2014 is the second year of your rule, records will be written as (Your Name) (2).
    Some kings will sometimes choose to assign ‘era names.’ An Emperor will designate a special name for his era, signifying the Emperor’s accomplishment or hopes for their rule, sometimes with great irony. Japan during World War 2, for example, had the amazingly presumptuous era name of ‘Brilliant Harmony.’ Most of the time, kings will not choose era names, instead adopting the name of the Empire that they belong to. Kings will only designate their own era names to signal their accomplishments. In Korea, only a handful of monarchs have adopted era names.
    Incidentally, Japan, the only country in the region with an  Emperor, still has era names. The current era is called Heisei, ‘achieving peace,’ and has begun since the current Emperor Akihito took the throne in 1989.

  4. You will have to take place of unpleasant business.
    A king is only as powerful as his court allows him to be. You may have recently acquired the position and may have many projects in mind to help improve the kingdom. However, the ministers, who were chosen by your predecessor, might have different ideas from you. They quite enjoy the way used to be, and will drag their heels at every turn. Worse, they might have wanted another to become king, and will be outright hostile towards you. In order to make sure you can go ahead with your plan, you will need to people the court with ministers loyal to you. What to do with the old guard?
    The humane way is to offer them a retirement package, have them leave court, probably oversee a faraway province, or just make leave them powerless to stop you. It is still common today in South Korea for a president to completely change his cabinet and let go of the previous president’s people. As you might have guessed, many rulers decided to go through more drastic means.
    In 2013, the world was shocked to hear of Kim Jong Eun ordering the execution of his uncle. Prior to that, many high ranking officials were also executed under false pretexts. What happened in 2013 was the re-enactment of a drama very common in ancient courts, the purge. That was when people suspected of being disloyal, even if that suspicion was unfounded, would be exiled or killed.
    Purges took place many times in history, but the most notorious probably took place in Korea’s Joseon dynasty and China’s Ming dynasty. History unfortunately is also full of cruelty and harshness.

Interlude 2: So You Think You Can Found A Dynasty?

So there you are, leader of a small clan surrounded by other city-states trying to get you to submit to their authority as well as hostile nomads raiding your storehouses of grain. Classic situation, am I right? But one day, you decide that you want something more for yourself and your clan. And, after negotiating or conquering the other tribes and city-states around you, you find yourself with a territory that extends into regions much larger than your own clan, regions you’ve probably never visited before. Congratulations, you’ve become the leader of a kingdom! What’s next?

You’ve probably founded your own dynasty. For the next years, decades or- if you’re lucky- centuries, your family members will be in charge of the place. And to help your dynasty’s odds of survival, there are a few things you need to do.

  1. Establish a Myth
    As a founder of the dynasty, you will become a god. You are the link between heaven and earth and the world of humans. Kings after you will perform ancestor rites and will have a visit to your grave for worship at least once during their reign, preferably at the beginning, to get your favor. That means you’d better have an impressive story to make people believe you’ve got a link to the supernatural world. We’ve seen the myths of Dangun, Jumong and Hyeogkeose, with their direct connection to the gods and the spirit world. The exception to this was Onjo, and that’s because Baekje worshiped Jumong as their ancestral founder.
    But your myth doesn’t have to be so explicitly otherworldly. In China, most founders of dynasties justified themselves by saying that natural disasters means Heaven was displeased with the way things were, and your success was Heaven’s sign of approval As time goes on, new founders would use more moral mythologies than anything purely supernatural.
  2. Build your court.
    You’ve built your kingdom by absorbing other tribes and city-states around you. This could involve warfare and conquest, but more often than not other means are used to achieve this goal. Sometimes village chieftains and clan leaders will submit to you in order to be part of your kingdom. Perhaps the most common way of getting people on your side is marriage. Jumong married Sosuneo to get the tribes on his side. And we shall see later that the founder of Goryeo will marry 29 women of different tribes in order to consolidate his power. Being the founder of a dynasty is a full time job.
    But once you’ve started your kingdom, you need a system to keep things running smoothly. That’s the function of your court, and the ministers in court have the privileged position of being able to advise you on what to do next. The court will have two branches: military and civil. At the beginning, a single minister will probably have to do both functions, but as your kingdom expands, the functions of court will become more complex and specialized. Beware though, the military and civil ‘literati’ court ministers do not like one another. This will have many repercussions in the future. But for now, there is a more pressing question: who should people your court?
    The leaders who submitted to your authority will expect things in return. That is to say, they want to become part of the court. Even chieftains of conquered tribes. And it is a good idea to let them. Since you’re still consolidating your kingdom, and people might be a little sore about losing their autonomy, any slights or insults could trigger rebellions or secession. A problem that most leaders will face at the beginning of their reign.
  3. Consolidating versus Expanding
    Your reign will probably start off a little rocky. There will be a lot to do. Most founders, who do things out of love of glory, will probably think that ‘doing a lot’ means expanding their kingdom and claiming as many people and territories as possible. Although expanding is an important part of the job, if you’re a little too enthusiastic about expansion, your kingdom will probably lose most of the land you’ve acquired after you pass away. Your heirs will simply not be able to keep the land without consolidation, as rebellions and revival movements (that is, people wanting to bring back the old rule) will overwhelm your kingdom that got too big too fast.
    Just because you’ve got a tribe on your side, doesn’t mean that things will be stable. There is a lot to nation building, and you need the people to become integrated into your kingdom. This will involve lots of projects, both physical and cultural.
    A common physical project that most rulers of vast territories will undertake is building roads or building canals. This seems like the most obvious thing: if people are disconnected from you and the capital, away from economic or cultural activity, frustrations arise. A more Machiavellian reason for networks is that you can send ministers loyal to your cause to preside over faraway villages, which has the double advantage of having the region under your control, and making sure a charismatic minister doesn’t have too much influence in court.
    As for cultural consolidation, this is a good time to exercise mercy. Have people loyal to your cause by granting favors and amnesties. If your kingdom has an official religion, like Buddhism will in the Goryeo or the later Three Kingdoms period, building temples and uniting the people with religious symbolism will help you a lot.
    Whatever your projects, make sure that it integrates the people both physically and symbolically, and that will drastically reduce the risks of rebellions causing strife across the land.
  4. Define the relationship
    In East Asia, the relationship between countries is a very important part of politics. The countries around you will fall under one of three kinds of relationships: tributary, equal, and barbarians. If you’re close to a strong country that has had a long lasting civilization, you might consider becoming a tributary of that state. What that means is that you will submit to the authority of that country. Which sounds crazy, why should you give up this country that you’ve fought so hard to establish? Subservience to the bigger state means that you will receive protection, help in times of need, and get connected to a larger network of countries that are also tributaries of that country. In return, you need to offer “tribute” by giving gifts (the country is obliged to return a gift much larger than what you’ve given) and visiting the emperor of that country and offering ritual submission, the infamous “kow-tow.” It’s a pretty good deal, all things considered. It goes without saying that China was the empire most countries paid tribute to for most of East Asian history, but these relationships, like many other things, was very fluid.
    Relationship of equals just means that you acknowledge the presence the other state, usually a neighbor, without offering tribute to it. This will involve a lot of trade and cultural exchange, as well as keeping up to date about the affairs of the state. Japan and Korea shared this kind of relationship. In fact, when Japan went into its period of isolation, the leaders relied on Korea to get news about the outside world.
    The rest? Barbarians. Culturally inferior people and nomads who are not worth acknowledging. Who cares about them? (Your descendants will care. A lot. Once these “Barbarians” realize they can also consolidate power and form their own states and empires.)
    What about having others be tributary to you? Then you’d want to declare yourself an empire. Tibet, Vietnam, Japan, and Korea have all declared themselves an empire at some point in history, mostly as a symbolic way of affirming their independence. Others  took up the mantle of empire, like the Jurchens, Manchurians, Khitans and Mongolians, as a way to signal their intention of invading China. The result was the Jin, Qing, Liao and Yuan dynasties. If you really want to start off your dynasty by antagonizing most of the known world, good luck. Most countries don’t even touch the ’empire’ issue until they’re well established.

With these few simple guidelines, you should ensure that your new kingdom will survive and even prosper for many years to come. Next time, let’s look at what will happen to the kings that will follow you.

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.

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.