J.P. Park, June and Simon Li Associate Professor of Chinese Art History at the University of Oxford, UK.
Burglind Jungmann is Professor Emerita of Korean Art and Visual Culture at the University of California Los Angeles, USA.
Juhyung Rhi is Professor of Buddhist Art History at Seoul National University, Seoul, Korea.
Introduction: The Contours of Korea's Cultural History
Donald L. Baker
Readers interested in Korea's past will frequently encounter the statement that Korea has five thousand years of history. It is beyond dispute that Korea has a very long history. However, the figure of five thousand years should not be taken literally. If Korean history is defined as the length of time there have been human settlements on the geographic region we now call Korea, then Korean history stretches back at least eight thousand years. It reaches back much farther than that, to forty thousand or fifty thousand years ago, if we want to say that any Homo sapiens on what is now a peninsula, even wandering bands of hunter-gatherers, counts as history. However, pushing that far into the past makes it awkward to use the term "Korea" since as recently as the last Ice Age, which ended about ten thousand years ago, what is now the Korean peninsula was connected by land to what is now China's Shandong peninsula as well as through a land bridge to what is now Japan. If, however, we use the distinction historians often make between pre-history (meaning the period before written records) and history (the time period for which there are written records), then there are only around two thousand years of Korean history, since it is only within the last two thousand years that we have found written records produced on or near the Korean peninsula.
Moreover, it is anachronistic to use the term "Korean" for cultures and peoples who would not have defined themselves as living in the country of Korea or even as members of a Korean ethnic group thousands of years ago. In pre-historic times, people would, if asked, have given their kinship group, their village, or their tribe as the primary identity. There was no Korea they could identify with back then. When kingdoms first began to emerge in and around the Korean peninsula about two thousand years ago, people may have identified themselves as belonging to the kingdoms within which borders they lived but they definitely did not yet have a larger Korean identity, since Korea had not yet emerged from the merging of those various kingdoms. Most historians argue that it has been only within the last thousand years, when most of the peninsula fell under the control of one government for the first time, that peoples living on the Korean peninsula have come to see themselves as one people, comprising a single cultural and political group. Nevertheless, in order to avoid the confusion a number of different names for different groups may cause, we will use the term "Korean" in this chapter [and the rest of the volume] for earlier periods as well, except when we want to highlight differences among the various groups that have contributed over the centuries to the formation of Korean civilization.
Besides, in discussing the evolution of Korean civilization over the centuries, it is important to remember that what people see as their history is more important than what their history actually was. Because Koreans in more recent centuries have come to believe that peoples in and around the peninsula millennia ago are their ancestors and therefore should be called "Koreans" as well, the belief that Korean history and culture forms an unbroken line stretching several millennia into the past has shaped their self-identity and therefore has played an important role in their continuing cultural production. In other words, Koreans, like people all over the world, have produced art, music, and literature partially on the basis of who they think they are, and who they think they are is significantly determined by who they think their ancestors were. Therefore, in order to more accurately reflect the cultural environment in which Koreans in recent centuries have constructed Korean culture, we need to take into consideration their assumption that they are building on a foundation of Korean civilization thousands of years old. One way to ensure we do that is to use the term "Korean" for people and cultural developments on the peninsula thousands of years ago even when we feel that is not technically accurate.
We can also justify our use of the term "Korean' before the peoples we are writing about would have used that term because it is clear that the various early cultures on the peninsula and stretching into Manchuria, as well as the kingdoms that appeared later, shared some distinctive characteristics that separate them from the Chinese cultural sphere and therefore constitute a separate cultural zone. One distinctive characteristic is language. Although it is highly unlikely that the various peoples on and around the peninsula spoke the same language two thousand or more years ago, it is highly likely that the languages they spoke were members of the same language family. And that language family is separate and distinct from the Chinese language family. Unlike Chinese, Korean is an agglutinative language (that means it sticks ['glues'] syllables to nouns and verbs to represent various grammatical functions such as tense and number, degrees of certainty and probability, and even levels of respect for the person spoken to and the person spoken about). Moreover, because it uses attached syllables to identify such grammatical distinctions as subject and object, it does not need to follow the strict subject-verb-object order we see in Chinese. Korean also has its own distinct sound system. Not only does it not have the tones we see in Chinese, it distinguishes three different k, p, and t sounds, and two different s sounds, in a way we do not see in Chinese. Even though it was not until the fifteenth century that Koreans had a phonetic script they could use to write the way they spoke (han'gul), they were clearly speaking a different language from Chinese for millennia before that.
Language is not the only cultural characteristic that separates Korea from its neighbors. The geography of Korea, the fact that it is a peninsula jutting off a part of Northeast Asia which was culturally and politically distinct from China until the last couple of centuries, means that it was close enough to China to borrow elements of Chinese culture but distant enough to adapt those borrowed elements to meet Korean needs and Korean aesthetic tastes and make them their own. The fact that it usually required either a walk of several days or a trip by ship across often rough seas to reach Chinese settlements allowed Korea to maintain not only its political but also its cultural independence. It also was separated by sea from the Japanese islands, guaranteeing that, until modern nautical technology shrunk distances in the late nineteenth century, Korea could maintain its political and cultural independence from Japan as well.
That is why we can find evidence of Korea's cultural distinctiveness from ancient times up to the present day, from its early burial patterns and its housing styles to its cuisine (kimchi is a distinctly Korean form of fermented vegetables such as cabbages or radishes) and its religious culture (a unique mixture of imported and indigenous religions). And, of course, we also see evidence of Korea's cultural distinctiveness in its art.
The first clear evidence of Homo sapiens on what is now the Korean peninsula dates back to around fifty thousand years ago (Bae 2012). This is the Paleolithic age, meaning the age of crude stone tools. By crude stone tools, we primarily mean hand axes. We know those hand axes are man-made because they all appear to have been hammered by other rocks to reduce their size until they can be held by one hand. They are also shaped through pounding to give them a pointed end on top of a round base so that they can be used for tasks such as hunting, skinning the results of a successful hunt, or digging up plants. The hand axes used in Paleolithic Korea are somewhat similar in appearance to the hand axes we find in Paleolithic sites in Europe and north China. But that doesn't mean that the people in Korea were Europeans or Chinese, or that the people in Europe or China were Koreans! Technological similarities does not necessarily mean ethnic similarities. Rather people in Europe, people in China, and people in Korea independently discovered how to make the same sort of simple tool.
When we move into examining Neolithic culture in Korea, it is important to remember that not only does technological similarity not necessarily imply ethnic similarity, but technological and cultural distinctions do not necessarily mean ethnic differences. The Neolithic age in Korea, from about ten thousand years ago to about three thousand years ago, refers to progress in stone technology that results in the production of sharpened stone tools, such as arrowheads, spears, and even daggers made of stone. The Neolithic age in Korea is characterized by the emergence not only of polished stone tools but also of settled communities along with the appearance of various styles of pottery and different types of burials. Archeologists give different names to various Neolithic cultures to highlight diversities in their burial practices and pottery styles. However, we do not know if the different burial practices and pottery styles we find in Korea over the seven thousand years of the Neolithic period represent multiple ethnic groups or simply local variations caused when some members of one tribe moved to a new site and adapted to slightly changed environments. We cannot tell from the archeological record if new...