If you’ve watched any historical dramas or films, you’ll already have an idea of what life may have been like back in early Korea. But Korean history is a bit more than angsty princes brooding and fighting each other for the affections of a girl!
So for those who want to know a bit more about how Korea was founded and other interesting facts, we’ve prepared a crash course in Korean history for you~!
The Legend of Dangun
Korean tradition teaches that the first ever documented state in Korea, Gojoseon (고조선) or ‘Old Joseon’, was founded in 2333 BC by a man named Dangun – the grandson of Hwan-in, the ‘Lord of Heaven’, who ruled over Gojoseon for 1,500 years before becoming a Sanshin (산신) or ‘Mountain God’.
The legend of Dangun is woven into many parts of modern Korean life, for example one move in the International Taekwondo Federation (ITF) is named after Dangun – its actions are meant to represent the connection between Dangun, the mountain where he became a god and the heavens.
The Three Kingdoms
Korea wasn’t united under one Korean ruler until 57 BC, when Silla (신라) defeated the surrounding kings and drove out the Chinese T’ang Dynasty from northern outposts.
But by the end of the 8th century BC Silla had split into three seperate kingdoms which, including Silla itself, was now made up of Baekje (백제) and Goguryeo (고구려) that was later called Goryeo (고려) – Goryeo is also where the modern name for Korea comes from.
Thus the Samguksidae (삼국시대) or ‘Three Kingdom Period’ begun.
Later Silla and Balhae (North-South States)
Husilla (후신라) or ‘Later/Unified Silla’ is known as the golden age for culture, art and Buddhism. Husilla was a very prosperous country who’s capital, Seolabeol (서라벌) was the fourth largest city in the world during that time.
After Goguryeo fell in 668 BC, Balhae was founded in it’s northern territories. Balhae was viewed as a very culturally advanced country and it saw many years of peace.
In the 9th century Silla became weakened, due to of political troubles, and was eventually taken over by Goryeo in 935 BC.
The Goryeo Dynasty
The kingdom of Goryeo (고려) began in 918 BC and lasted until 1392 BC, it had thirty six rulers throughout its period and is known for its art of celadon pottery (a type of jade ceramic) and the Tripiṭaka Koreana (carved wooden blocks that were used as a form of Buddhism worship).
Foreign trade was also very prominent during the Goryeo dynasty. From Byeokrando, a port close to the capital, Goryeo traded with Japan and China for silks, spices, gold, horses, weapons, medicines and books.
The Joseon Dynasty
The Joseon (조선) dynasty began in 1392 BC after Goryeo fell to General Yi Seong-gye, who took over the throne and executed the last three kings. Joseon had twenty six rulers, the most influential being King Sejong The Great who introduced the hangeul alphabet that we use today!
Throughout it’s history, Joseon saw many periods of cultural growth, such as the establishment of the Korean Tea Ceremony, ceramic art, Korean gardens, adjustments to the hanbok (traditional Korean dress) and literature.
Joseon also experienced many faction uprisings, violent power struggles, political purges and was invaded by both Japan (1590 BC) and Manchu (1626-43 BC).
The Korean Empire
The Joseon dynasty lasted for five hundred years until it was officially renamed ‘The Korean Empire’ in 1897. Japan eventually occupied Korea in 1910, they introduced new European-styled communication and transport systems across the country but made it the Korean culture and language illegal.
After World War II ended, Korea was divided and left to rebuild its culture.
Today South Korea is currently one of the top ten global exporters and is on the frontier of the entertainment, electronics and beauty industry. Thousands of people around the world enjoy what Korean culture has to offer, from films to music to food.
We’ve definitely come a long way from when the legendary Dangun walked the earth.