|[a] Process RF|
|[b] Gradual RF|
The mythical founding of the Korean state in 2333 BCE was said to be the result of the union between the son of the divine creator and a female bear that had taken on human form. Chinese influence was perceptible by the tenth century BCE in the form of agriculture, bronze implements, and, later, iron. By the second century BCE, China extended direct rule over Korea. It is important to realize that, while Korea’s neighbor Japan was never occupied by a foreign land before the twentieth century, Korea's history is one of constant contact in both benign cultural and overtly militaristic ways with China, the Mongols, the Manchus, and others. Korea’s distinct geographical location has contributed mightily to its ethnic heritage and its history.
By the fourth century of the Common Era, Chinese influence had ebbed and the peninsula was divided into the "Three Kingdoms" of Koguryo, Paekche, and Silla, The distinct geographical divisions between these kingdoms played an enormous role in shaping ethnic identity at a critical stage of Korea’s history. Cultural influence from China remained enormous, and it was in this long period from roughly CE 300-800 that profound cultural exchanges took place between all three major East Asian states, with Korea serving as a significant conduit in the process. This influence occurred partly because the peninsula saw many Chinese refugees after a period of turmoil in China, and partly because Korean officials themselves eagerly sought cultural innovations from China, sending envoys to Chinese courts regularly. Intermarriage and cultural exchange was so common that much of the diversity within the Korean and Japanese majority ethnicities can be traced to this period.
|[c] Distinctions RF|
The result of the peninsula's unification was that it became more thoroughly influenced by China than before. Like Japan at roughly the same time, the Silla state embraced Buddhism and sought to make Korea into a replication of Tang dynasty China. The irony is that in both Japan and Korea Buddhism was a powerful political force, even as it was weakening in China at the same time. The Silla state was founded on Buddhism, and an administrative and social ranking system from earlier times called "bone ranks” developed layer-upon-layer of social and economic distinctions that would play a large role in differentiating people in a relatively homogeneous society.
By the tenth century, however, Silla's hold had weakened, peasant uprisings swept the country, and the vacuum was filled by one of the greatest leaps of social mobility in Korean history. Wang Kon, the son of a merchant, founded the Koryo dynasty and, perhaps ironically, helped begin a long process that would begin to freeze in place social status during the next millennium. Lasting from 918-1392, Koryo established a strong foundation of Chinese influenced government that introduced civil service examinations, central government schools, and a Chinese-style bureaucracy. There was a wide gap between government officials and "the people.,” which would accelerate in the centuries that followed. As early as the Koryo period, stories tell of aristocrats who were unwilling to debase themselves by traveling to "backward" regions, and distinctions of class, capital, and status were propelled by marriage politics and a growing civil service system.
|[d] Rice RF|
The years following the collapse of the Mongol empire were ones of great political confusion all over East Asia, and it is significant that China, Japan, and Korea each experienced levels of social conflict and ethnic reassessment during this period that would shape their later histories. In the Korean power vacuum that emerged, a general named Yi Song-gye, sent to attack Ming Chinese forces to the north, instead turned southward and attacked his own leaders, seizing control of the peninsula. He consolidated power and founded the last great dynasty, the Yi, which lasted until Japanese colonization of the peninsula in 1910.
In the twentieth century, Korea saw extremely divisive and often bloody conflict, ranging from the Japanese occupation to the Korean War. These conflicts played out in two distinct ways. The first kind saw Korea dealing with the pressures of outside forces, not the least of which was represented by Japanese colonial forces. The second occurred almost exclusively within the relatively homogeneous Koreans themselves. Indeed, even today’s division of the peninsula along the thirty-eighth parallel is far more one of geography and ideology than ethnicity. As during the great division of the peninsula into three kingdoms fifteen hundred years before, the landscape and terrain (with accompanying cultural changes over decades and even centuries) played a far more important role in differentiating the populace than ethnic heritage.
|[e] Division RF|