The problems with the concept of "Three Kingdoms of Korea"

Haakbus

Ad Honorem
Aug 2013
3,798
United States
In a similar vein to F0ma's thread:

Traditionally Korean history has a period (named after the Chinese historical period) called the "Three Kingdoms". This typically stretches from 57 BC to 668 AD, or by some scholars from c. 300 AD to 668 AD, with the earlier period of 57 BC to 300 AD being the "Proto-Three Kingdoms period". The three kingdoms are traditionally Koguryo, Paekche, and Shilla.

First off, Koguryo is the only one of these that was in existence by the first century BC, Shilla and Paekche forming at the end of the third century AD. Even then they took quite some time to expand and grow.
Secondly the Iron Age polities that existed alongside the Three Kingdoms and Kaya from their beginnings are rarely acknowledged despite the fact that they remained mostly independent at least until the late fifth century.
Third, the polities in the south-central region of the peninsula played an important though often overlooked role in international politics. First was Kaya (modern Kimhae), which formed at the same time as Paekche and Shilla and emerged as a regional hegemon until around 400 AD, then in the middle of the fifth century was Pallo/Panp'a (which renamed itself Greater Kaya and whose royal lineage claimed descent from Kaya's first king's older brother) which remained hegemonic until the end of Kaya in the 560s. Alla, modern-day Haman, formed as a second regional hegemon in the early sixth century.
Fourth, Paekche and Shilla during the beginning of this period had not completely coalesced into unified kingdoms. This was accomplished around the middle of the fourth century for Paekche and the end of the same century for Shilla.

T'amna, the polities on Cheju Island are also usually overlooked as well as the fact that the Three Kingdoms and early Yamato Japan saw a huge amount of interaction and essentially formed a unique political sphere.

So the most you can have of a true Three Kingdoms period is from the late 200s to the 660s, but even that is not completely accurate until the 560s onward. The designation of "Three Kingdoms" does not at all do justice to the complexity and politically dynamic nature of the period.
 

Haakbus

Ad Honorem
Aug 2013
3,798
United States
I had a scheme where the Iron Age ends and the Three Kingdoms period begins in 313-314 (though it lingered on in some regions for some time). The Early Three Kingdoms would be until 562 or so (when all the Iron Age polities were finally absorbed by Shilla and Paekche) and the rest would be the later part, or something like that.

History is so complex and it's rare if anything is even or clearly discernible like this, which has made me dispense with chronologies like this except as rough approximations that have only a surface usefulness.
 
Sep 2012
1,121
Taiwan
I've read some interesting arguments that Kogoryo shouldn't actually be considered one of the Three Kingdoms until the fifth century and the moving of the capital to Pyongyang. Before then it's been postulated that it is a Manchurian, rather than a Korean polity. Any thoughts?
 
Sep 2012
1,121
Taiwan
Why not both?
Well it's not my theory :lol: I've never really questioned the idea that Kogoryo isn't (fully?) Korean, although it's not something I delve into too often or too deeply. Just came across this idea recently; given how politicised the debate is, I found it quite refreshing to see the argument that they may have been Manchurian, rather than the usual Korean vs Chinese battle lines. Unfortunately the papers I read only cite theories and don't go into too much depth, so I haven't read the original arguments in full. I guess before the move of the capital, they were mainly up in Manchuria doing Manchurian things and speaking Manchurian - I don't really know, that's why I wanted to put it to the Korean history folks here. I personally don't see any reason why they couldn't straddle two separate cultures in such a way - just as we might say the Yuan dynasty is both Mongol and Chinese -, although historians do so like to arrange things into neat little boxes. I'm not really educated enough on Kogoryo to really weigh in on the argument though.
 

Haakbus

Ad Honorem
Aug 2013
3,798
United States
Well it's not my theory :lol: I've never really questioned the idea that Kogoryo isn't (fully?) Korean, although it's not something I delve into too often or too deeply. Just came across this idea recently; given how politicised the debate is, I found it quite refreshing to see the argument that they may have been Manchurian, rather than the usual Korean vs Chinese battle lines. Unfortunately the papers I read only cite theories and don't go into too much depth, so I haven't read the original arguments in full. I guess before the move of the capital, they were mainly up in Manchuria doing Manchurian things and speaking Manchurian - I don't really know, that's why I wanted to put it to the Korean history folks here. I personally don't see any reason why they couldn't straddle two separate cultures in such a way - just as we might say the Yuan dynasty is both Mongol and Chinese -, although historians do so like to arrange things into neat little boxes. I'm not really educated enough on Kogoryo to really weigh in on the argument though.
Though we have limited data on the Koguryo language (not the placenames which aren't a reliable source for the language of an expansionist empire), that which we do have clearly links it with Korean. Korean-like grammatical markers in hanja inscriptions, the Nan shu of the seventh century says they spoke the same language as Paekche (which is better attested and is clearly related to Korean), etc.

I mean there's a point there, though you could move it back to the 360s-390s since that's when Koguryo got involved in the affairs of Shilla and Paekche. In the end though this is really just another problem with the whole concept of the Three Kingdoms.
 
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Jun 2013
31
Australia
As usual, very fascinating stuff. Would it be correct to say that Koguryo eventually amalgamated or got absorbed into something more Manchurian like than strictly Korean? The Jurchens would surely have had a great direct influence in the northern parts of the Peninsula. Also, just exactly how similar are the languages of Paekche and Shilla? My rough understanding is that the south west and south east parts of the peninsula are separated roughly down the middle by a great mountain range that was daunting to cross even in modern times, would cultural interactions have been quite limited back in those times of the Three kIngdoma?
 
Sep 2012
1,121
Taiwan
We had an interesting discussion about this the other day. Parts of the Kogoryo elite certainly survived, perhaps amalgamating with the Mohe people and becoming a (Manchurian) 'Bohai' ethnic group in later centuries. Part of my curiosity stems from how Manchurian parts of Kogoryo may have been earlier on; how many Mohe or similar potentially Tungusic groups were administered in the parts of Kogoryo beyond the peninsula for example. It's something I know quite little about, since its rather earlier than the period I typically study.
 

Haakbus

Ad Honorem
Aug 2013
3,798
United States
As usual, very fascinating stuff. Would it be correct to say that Koguryo eventually amalgamated or got absorbed into something more Manchurian like than strictly Korean? The Jurchens would surely have had a great direct influence in the northern parts of the Peninsula. Also, just exactly how similar are the languages of Paekche and Shilla? My rough understanding is that the south west and south east parts of the peninsula are separated roughly down the middle by a great mountain range that was daunting to cross even in modern times, would cultural interactions have been quite limited back in those times of the Three kIngdoma?
Shilla took over Koguryo's southern territories (including much of the capital region) before and shortly after its defeat so a good deal of it would have been absorbed into Koguryo. Its northern territories would have eventually been absorbed into a Parhae culture like F0ma said.

One of the main differences between the Shilla and Paekche languages we can observe is that Shillan frequently shows the loss of final vowels where Paekche or other languages preserve them: pəl "town" vs Paekche puri (Middle Korean βəl), hol "fortress" from ultimately from Koguryo koro (which in turn is a variant of the wanderwort qoton/hoton), etc. As you can see in the first example there are also vowel differences as well as other minor things as far as vocabulary goes. Not a whole lot of grammar has survived from these languages beyond very basic stuff so it's difficult to tell how they might have differed in that way.

As for cultural interactions, the Iron Age (c. 350 BC -- 300 AD) saw relatively similar culture throughout the southern peninsula (with regional variations though), and there were long-reaching trade routes established around the first or second century AD from Japan all the way to China. A lot of trade was done along the coast where it was far easier to travel. So yeah in the southern peninsula there were really 3 basic regions we can determine based on material culture, that is the Han and Kum basins in the west (Paekche), the Yongsan basin in the southwest, and the southeastern Naktong and Hyongsan basins (Shilla and Kaya region). Even within these subregions there was some cultural variation on a minor level.

The Han, Kum, and Yongsan basins were called Mahan in the records and the Hyongsan and Naktong basins were called Chinhan and Pyonhan. The records say the villages of these two were intermixed and there were nonmaterial cultural differences between them. The Pyonhan were probably the last speakers of the Mumun-period Japonic languages once spoken throughout the southern peninsula, although it's important to note that the Koreanic speakers in the south were also highly mixed with the Mumun people.
 
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