The Three Kingdoms

The Three Kingdoms

In the first four centuries of the first millennium, Korea gradually entered the Three Kingdoms period (Jung-Bae Kim 2004). It may sound like a trick question: “How many kingdoms were there in Korea during the Three Kingdoms period?” The answer is “four.” Koguryo continued to grow in power in the north.

In the southeast Mahan gradually transformed into the kingdom of Paekche; Pyonhan developed into the kingdom of Kaya; and Chinhan became the kingdom of Silla.

The kingdoms Koguryo, Paekche, and Silla survived into the seventh century, but from the third (or fourth) to the sixth centuries there were four kingdoms. Kaya, which fell to Silla in the mid-sixth century, is often overlooked, but it played an important role in the formation of Korea.

During this time Chinese cultural influences gradually seeped into the peninsula. Those areas closest to China developed them first while the more distant areas accepted Chinese culture and civilization later. History means literacy, and in Korea, literacy meant adopting Chinese characters. They were a poor fit, however.

Korean is radically different from Chinese, yet the cumbersome set of Chinese characters was the only form of literacy available. As Koreans adopted Chinese literacy, they accepted the culture that came with it. That culture included Buddhism, Confucianism, and Chinese forms of government.

Chinese culture transformed Korea. The adoption of Chinese literacy and culture was felt in every area of human culture on the peninsula, yet beneath the Chinese veneer, Korean culture persisted.

Through the next centuries Korea moved between the two poles of greater accep-tance of Chinese culture on one hand and holding on to native Korean traditions on the other. Whether Korea lost more than it gained may be debated, but as far as most Koreans of the time were concerned, adopt-ing Chinese culture represented progress.