The Influence of Political Parties on the Development of Korean Culture and Society

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In this essay, I will address some of the underlying assumptions of the question posed in order to reframe it into a more nuanced inquiry that relates Korea’s cultural and societal development to the influence of nearby powerful political entities. I will first challenge the assumption that Korea always had its ‘own’ culture, and explore the development of the Korean peninsula during the tribal and three kingdoms period to argue that Korea did not have its own distinct culture and society until the Koryŏ period. Instead, the various original groups on the Korean peninsula had differing cultural and societal elements, many of which were influenced by Chinese culture as a result of China’s tributary relationships with those groups. Secondly, I will explain how Korea as a whole managed to maintain its cultural identity and autonomy during Mongol rule and examine how Neo-Confucian ideology created a rigid social structure that survived Japanese invasions during the Imjin war. Through analyzing these time periods, I will demonstrate that once Korea’s cultural and societal norms were fully formed, Korea showed perseverance throughout numerous invasions by stronger powers.

To answer this question, we need to first understand what it implies. What kind of timeframe does ‘throughout history’ entail? What level of development would constitute Korea as having its ‘own’ culture and society? Korea’s mythical origin story about Tan’gun, the ‘father’ of Korea, has been used by various historians to justify Korean autonomy and prove Korean national identity. Many historians felt the need to demonstrate Korea as an autonomous, independent nation in the face of Japanese colonization. It is suggested that the reliability of the Tan’gun myth would have come second to this agenda (Constructing Korean Origins, Hyung Il Pai, 81(?)). Discussing Korea’s early history can be controversial because of Korean national identity as tan’il minjok, or one race, since the beginning of time, but contrary to the compelling argument for Tan’gun as the originator of Korean society, Korean society and culture realistically took time to evolve into a distinctive identity. In fact, in early history, the Korean peninsula was occupied largely by numerous tribes with differing habits and lifestyles. According to the Accounts of the Eastern Barbarians from the Chinese San-kuo chih, the tribes were wildly different in religion, laws, and traditions (Sources of Korean Tradition, Korea in the Chinese Dynastic Histories). Additionally, China directly ruled over the Chinese commanderies, four administrative units located in northern Korea and part of Manchuria. The commanderies facilitated the spread of Chinese culture to the Korean peninsula. While China never directly ruled in Korea again after the commanderies, political entities in Korea often existed as tributary states to Chinese dynasties, and therefore were required to officially submit to China and send tribute in the form of goods, animals, and people. Although the question asks how Korea maintained its own culture and society, it’s clear that Korea has not always definitively possessed those attributes. Therefore, we should rephrase the question into a more easily answerable form: How did Korea come to develop as an independent country with a distinct (although admittedly sharing many characteristics with other East Asian political identities) culture and society despite numerous invasions and hundreds of years as a tributary or subservient state to another empire?

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The period from around 300 to 676 is known as the Three Kingdom Period, consisting of the Koguryŏ, Silla, and Paekche Kingdoms. The Koguryŏ people were a tribal federation who had diplomatic relations with the rivals of the Chinese Wei. Paekche was another kingdom with heavy ties to the Koguryŏ. It is relevant to note that while Paekche and Koguryŏ were different kingdoms, both began to flourish around the time Chinese influence declined in about 300 (Seth, 48). The third kingdom, Silla, developed slower than Paekche and Koguryŏ but eventually conquered Paekche in 660 and destroyed Koguryŏ in 668 with the help of the Chinese Tang, going on to drive the Tang out of southern Koguryŏ and effectively “unifying” the Korean peninsula for the first time (Seth, 48). However, the three kingdoms were not the only group occupying the peninsula during this time period. The Kaya were a group of loosely joined small states connected to the Wa people of Japan. The Kwanggaet’o Inscription, erected in 414 by Koguryŏ’s King Changsu in honor of his father (King Kwanggaet’o)s achievements details how the king “personally” led the charge against Paekche, “praised the sincerity of [the] loyalty” of the now-subservient Paekche people, and completely defeated the Wa people (Sources of Korean Tradition, 25-26). While the inscription does indicate an attempt to unite the kingdoms on the peninsula (despite or perhaps because of the heavy bias in King Kwanggaet’o’s favor), both the Wa and Paekche people are not depicted to share any sort of commonalities or values with Koguryŏ, indicating that Korea did not have a unique culture or society during the Three Kingdom Period. Furthermore, Silla’s relationship with Tang China and Kaya’s relationship with the Japanese Wa indicates that while the peninsula may not have been directly a part of China or Japan, for the inhabitants, the thought of one Korean culture had yet to form.

During Silla, Sillan society began to distinguish itself from that of Tang China. As a tributary state to Tang China, upper class Sillans still emphasized the importance of Chinese literature and art, but religiously, Silla differed from Tang China in the practice of Buddhism, which declined in late Tang (Seth 57). Silla lasted for several centuries; the rule of Wang Kŏn, the last Koguryŏ ruler, marks the beginning of the Koryŏ period which began after Silla’s collapse. Culture and society in Koryŏ seems to have become distinctly Korean at this time. Wang Kŏn’s Ten Injunctions, released in 943, gave instructions to his successors for creating and maintaining the state. He specifically states in Injunction Four that while society was heavily structured after Tang China, “[Koryŏ] occupies a different geographical location and [Koryŏ’s] people [are] different from that of the Chinese. Hence, there is no reason to strain ourselves unreasonably to copy the Chinese way” (Seth, 106). This proclamation’s desire to avoid copying Chinese culture exactly gives a sense of otherness from China that points to some unique Korean identity. Wang Kŏn also discusses Koryŏ’s social distribution(?) and refers to the aristocracy and bureaucracy; the corvée system, a form of taxation in which peasants provided a portion of their crops to the state; and the status of slaves as forbidden from working in government (Injunctions Seven, Nine, Ten). These injunctions give the impression of a well-developed class system and overall show that Koryŏ was well on its way to having its ‘own’ culture and society. Still, the injunctions were instructions for what needed to be observed for the betterment of Koryŏ’s future, not a commentary on the current state of Koryŏ.

By the time the Mongol Empire conquered Koryŏ, Korean culture had unquestionably solidified. During Mongol rule, the royal family intermarried with the Mongolian dynasty and adopted Mongolian styles of dress. However, Korean culture persisted, as can be seen in Yi Kok’s “A Censor Requests the Prohibition of the Seizing of Maidens” (Epistolary Korea, Ch. 3). The Mongols demanded to be sent over to China, and it was devastating and demoralizing to Korean families. Yi Kok discusses how the “Koryŏ custom is for men to go out and live separately… in Koryŏ it is the women who take care of their mothers and fathers,” indicating that while the upper yangban class and royal family conformed to Mongolian tradition, many Koryŏ inhabitants saw themselves as a people under subjugation of another power who infringed upon and threatened Korean tradition. Rather than be absorbed into the Mongol Empire, the Koryŏ people attempted to maintain their cultural traditions under new circumstances. One way the Mongol Empire did impact Koryŏ was the spread of Neo-Confucianism, which rapidly became the new basis for the civil service examinations and thus became heavily integrated into Korean society. Neo-Confucianism, created by Zhu Xi, emphasized remodeling government and family life on Confucian thought as well as eliminating Buddhism and other non-Confucian schools of thought (Seth 130). The Mongol Empire eventually collapsed, and Koryŏ gave way to Chosŏn, Korea’s longest lasting dynasty.

Neo-Confucian ideals characterized the Chosŏn period and formed a social structure so rigid that after Japanese invasions of the Imjin War from 1592-1598, Korea as a war-torn country actually embraced those ideals with even more vigor. A tragic piece of evidence for the strength of Neo-Confucian principles in Chosŏn is the plight of widows after the Imjin War. One of the core values of Neo-Confucianism was chastity of women. Widows were expected not to remarry after the death of their husbands, and these widows were actually almost encouraged to commit suicide as the ultimate show of devotion to chastity because without male heirs or husbands, their ‘purpose’ in society was essentially gone. Furthermore, women who were assaulted during the war were also almost expected to commit suicide to protect their chastity (Lee Sook-in, 5). The way that Korean society fell back onto its values instead of falling apart is a testament to how strongly Neo-Confucian values permeated throughout Korean culture by the Chosŏn period.

In response to the question originally posed, I would say that Korean culture, once it was fully formed, demonstrated a remarkable resilience in the face of the brutality and scorched-earth policies of the Mongol and Japanese invasions. However, that strength was the result of hundreds of years of development and it took time for the values that later formed the core of Korean culture to rise to prominence in the Koryŏ era. One could also consider the geographical distance between the Korean peninsula and its neighboring countries as a factor that kept Korea somewhat protected. Overall, in posing historical questions, we need to be careful to consider what overarching assumptions we are making. Korea has not been a single cultural or societal entity from the dawn of time, but it does have a long, storied past of cultural change and perseverance that accounts for its survival to this day.

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