The Samhan Confederation

The Samhan Confederation

When the Koguryo state was moving into the northern part of the peninsula, the southern parts had not yet formed kingdoms but rather functioned as three associations of tribes or tribal federations. They were called the Samhan tribes: Sam means “three,” and han was a Chinese loanword that probably meant “great.”After the fall of the Han, one of the northern Chinese states, the state of Wei, remained friendly with Koguryo.

Relations were so good, in fact, that Wei ambassadors obtained permission to travel through Koguryo territory in the mid-third century to visit the southern half of the peninsula. These Wei dynasty travelers described their journey in what has come to be called the Samhan tribal confederations. These Chinese records give us a glimpse into early Korean life before the Koreans in the south started keeping records.The Wei ambassadors told of three regions, and they described a number of city-states or walled towns in each.

The Chinese character they used, a glyph with a border around the outside and people with weapons on the inside, can either indicate the border of a country or the wall of a city or town. The glyph is today always translated as “country,” but at this time it was surely a city-state or walled town. In the south-west region, Mahan, the Wei travelers recorded 54 such city-states; in the south-central area, Pyonhan, 12; and in the southeast, Chinhan, also 12. In each of these regions, kingdoms later emerged.

Paekche was established in Mahan sometime around the second half of the fourth century; Kaya appeared around the same time in the Pyonhan region, and Silla arose in the Chinhan region around the early fifth century.Little is known about the Samhan tribes, but the Wei travelers described a people who were remarkably similar to Koreans of more recent times and even, in some ways, Koreans of today.

They described them as wearing white clothing: Koreans of the Choson dynasty (1392–1910) and even the Japanese period (1910–45) also wore white clothing and at times called themselves the “white-clad people.” The travelers described a people with great ceremonies, a people who enjoyed drums and dancing as well as drinking and singing. Like the Koreans of the Choson period, the Samhan people tied their hair up on the tops of their heads.

Up to the turn of the 20th century, one of the rites of passage for a young Korean man was the “capping” ceremony: His long queue, which had dangled down his back as a youth, was ceremonially wound up and capped under the black, wide-brimmed horse-hair hat that was the mark of an adult male of the upper class. Indeed, many descriptions of the prehistoric Koreans of the Samhan period seem to foreshadow the culture that manifested itself later on, well into historic times.