Puyo and Koguryo in Early Chinese Records

Puyo and Koguryo in Early Chinese Records

Korea first appears in Chinese histories long before Koreans started writing their own history. Two early Korean states mentioned in Chinese records are Puyo and Koguryo. Little is known about them, but because they dared to confront their large neighbor China in battle, historians assume that they were not merely tribal federations but had developed into kingdoms.

Puyo, located north of the Yalu River, is first mentioned in Chinese sources as early as the fourth century B.C.E., and its name appears from time to time until the first century C.E., when the Chinese recorded that the Xiongnu, the Puyo, and the Koguryo were a threat to China from the northeast. By this time the Puyo were using the term wang (Chinese for “king”) for their leader, which suggests that they had moved from tribal status to state.

From 49 C.E. until the fall of the Han dynasty in 222 C.E., Puyo and China were allies, probably because of “leapfrog diplomacy”: The Chinese liked to make alliances with the kingdom at the back door of their hostile neighbors. In this case, the hostile neighbor with which they shared a border was the Xianbei. Puyo was to the north and east of the Xianbei territory.

After the fall of the Han, Puyo assisted the Chinese state of Wei (or Cao Wei), situated to the north and east of the Chang Jiang (Yangzi River), in battles against Koguryo, their common enemy in the mid-third century C.E. Wei and Koguryo had started out at the fall of the Han with friendly relations, but war broke out in 244. At that point, the Puyo-Wei alliance defeated Koguryo, only temporarily. Just as its own alliances helped keep it strong, alliances against Puyo destroyed it. In 285 Puyo was caught in a battle between the Xianbei and the resurgent Koguryo. The Xianbei armies toppled Puyo, and the king committed suicide.

Some of his relatives fled to Okcho, a small state in the north-eastern part of the Korean Peninsula, and others escaped to China. The Chinese propped up the kingdom for a time, but in 316, when the Xianbei drove the Chinese to the south, Puyo’s last hope disappeared. Some of the remnants of Puyo were given refuge in Koguryo. There is some evidence that Puyo people settled in the kingdom of Paekche, which had developed in the southwestern part of the Korean Peninsula in the early third century.

The Koguryo first appear in Chinese records as the fierce tribe that was among the “barbarian” enemies of China in the northeastern borderlands in the first century B.C.E. By the first century C.E. they were already using the Chinese term for king, wang. Originally they prospered in the heartland of the region formerly called Manchuria. The Koguryo gradually moved south into the Korean Peninsula and controlled the northern sections of it.

In 108 B.C.E. an emperor of China’s Han dynasty sent troops to the empire’s remotest border and set up four commanderies, or military outposts. Although three did not last long, the fourth survived, Lolang. It outlasted the Han dynasty, which fell in 220 C.E. and flourished as a center of advanced culture at the far-flung edge of Chinese civilization and the heart of Korean civilization.

This Han dynasty outpost attracted the less-sophisticated Korean tribes, and Lolang became a great trading center. Its trading connections included even Sorabol, a settlement in the far southeast of the peninsula that later grew into Kyongju, the capital of Silla, one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea (ca. third century to 668) that unified the peninsula in the seventh century C.E. Koreans traded hides, gold, and other raw materials for Chinese manufactured goods, such as silk and bronze vessels.

From this time forward Korean culture had to evaluate itself in terms of another culture, one that presented itself as superior. During its time Lolang was a conduit of much cultural transfusion to Korea, but Korea had its effect on Lolang as well. When its parent dynasty, the Han, fell around 220 C.E., most of the Lolang Chinese stayed on and became Korean. Lolang was taken over by the Koguryo kingdom shortly thereafter, and Koguryo leaders found the place so attractive that they moved their capital to Lolang in 427, raising Koguryo’s cul-tural quotient in the process.

Koguryo culture proved to be very resilient. Although it originated on the mainland, north of the Korean Peninsula, and the people were gradually squeezed out of that land down onto the peninsula, they later played a formative role in the Three Kingdoms period and beyond. The Koguryo state was resurrected at the end of the Unified Silla period (late ninth century), at least in name.

It was then known as the Later Koguryo kingdom, then, beginning in 918, as Koryo, from which comes the modern name Korea. Koguryo has become the symbol of northern strength and legitimacy, and North Korea embraces it as such. North Korea asserts that its capital, Pyongyang, the former Koguryo capital of Lolang, could more rightfully claim the role of capital of a unified Korea than Seoul, the capital of South Korea.