The history of Korea until the arrival of the Dutchmen.

According to the Koreans their history spans a period of five thousand years. That is a little bit exaggerated, because their oldest written sources date from the first century A.D. They have many legends about the foundation of the country with the legend of Tangun being the most famous. Tangun is supposed to have founded Pyongyang and called his country Chosôn. He then moved his capital to Asadal on Mount Paegak, also named Mount Kunghol, whence he ruled for fifteen hundred years.

Still the Korean culture, based on the archeological finds, can be counted to one of the oldest in the world. During the Middle Paleolithic Period, Pre-Neanderthal and Neanderthal men dwelt in caves at Jeommal near Jecheon and Durubong near Cheongju. From the two caves, fossil remains of rhinoceros, cave bear, brown bear, maccacus, hyena and numerous deer, all extinct species, were excavated. The oldest Neolithic sites were found at Amsa-dong in Seoulwhich have been dated 4270 BC. At Seokjang-ri near Gongju, Chungcheongnam-do province, artifacts of lower Paleolithic industry consisting of chopper-scraper culture was unearthed in the lower most part of the site. So Korean culture is not much younger than the Chinese of which it experienced a lot of influence. It distinguishes itself by other cultures by its continuousness. Despite several invasions and occupations the Koreans have maintained their language and their cultural identity.

The Koreans belong to a Tungusic branch of the Ural Altaic family . According to a native tradition the first Korean State has been established in 2333 B.C by Tangun, who made the walled city of P'yôngyang the capital and called his country Chosôn. He then moved his capital to Asadal on Mount Paegak, also named Mount Kunghol, whence he ruled for fifteen hundred years.

The historical proof of this fact however is uncertain and of course it's impossible to rule for one person for fifteen hunderd years but probably the legend refers to a dynasty rather than to a person. Fact is however that around 1200 B.C. in Northwest Korea a state was founded which was under Chinese hegemony. The founder Kija came from Shang China and settled at Lolang near modern Pyongyang. It was not until after the collapse of the Later Han dynasty that one of the Korean tribal states was able to take over the territory which was governed by Lolang. Around that time three independent kingdoms started to exist: Koguryo in the north, Paekche in the Southwest and Silla in the Southeast and is called the period of the three kingdoms.. One often overlooked kingdom however was Kaya. So the period could better have been called the period of the four kingdoms.

Yi Myong Uk: Meeting between a fisher and a lumberjack. An example of Korean Art during the time in which the Dutch were in Korea. Hamel and his companions stayed alive with amongst others fishing and chopping wood. One can assume they were dressed like the persons in this image. Oil on Silk, (17th century), Chosôn

Korean belongs to the Altaic language group, the same as for instance Mongolian, Manchu and Turkish. Japanese has a big similarity in structure and syntaxis, but very little in vocabulary. As a result of the big cultural influence from China, it has incorporated, like Japanese, a lot of words from the non-related Chinese language.

Already in their oldest scriptures the Koreans used Chinese characters. In the 4th century A.D. Buddhism was being imported from China, together with several Chinese forms of culture, but got their own typical Korean form. In their turn the Koreans passed this cultural inheritance on to Japan.

In the cultural history of Japan, Korea played a major role. The king of Paekche, in order to get military assistance against his neighboring countries sent in 533 to the Japanese emperor a statue of Buddha and several banners with Buddhist proverbs. In a letter which accompanied these gifts, he also recommended Buddhism as a basis for a happy life. From that time dates the rise of Buddhism in Japan.

In 935 A.D. the unification of Korea was established. The country's name became Koryo, of which the name Korea is derived. The Japanese continued to use this name as Kôrai, which was taken over by the Portuguese as Core, Coray, and later the Dutch and the rest of the world as Corea, which changed somewhere in the end of the 18th beginning 19th century into Korea. The culture of Koryo had a strong Buddhist character.


During the first two centuries of it's existence, the country made a cultural high rise. Especially for sculptures and ceramics magnificent pieces of art were being made. But in the thirteenth century Koryo suffered Mongolian invasions. From 1232 till 1270 the country was occupied by the Mongolians. The governement moved in 1232 to Kwanghwa Island, the same year when the first moveable metal printing type is invented in Koryo. In 1270 Koryo returns the capital to Kaesong and abandons the struggle against the Mongols.

This ended when the Ming-dynasty in China overthrew the Mongolian rulers. Since 1386 the Ming emperors formally ruled Korea, which was called Chosôn ( = land of the morning calm ). In China the period from 1368 AD to 1644 AD is known as the Ming Dynasty. The period from 1644 AD to 1911 AD is known as the Qing Dynasty.

In 1388, Yi Sông-gye (1335–1408), ousts the reigning Koryô king and the leading officials responsible for the court's anti-Ming policy. In 1392, he is proclaimed as king of the new Chosôn dynasty. This dynasty would rule until 1910, the year in which Japan annexed the country. The kings of the Chosôn dynasty made Seoul their capital, while Confucianism became the official state philosophy. The influence of Buddhism was strongly repressed. This was a disadvantage for the development of sculptural art and architecture. But the pictorial art bloomed like never before, especially during the first two centuries. Of great influence for the cultural identity of the country was the invention of the Korean alphabet, which was officially announced by king Sejong in 1446.

At the end of the 16th and in the beginning of the 17th century the country was attacked again by war liking, neighboring countries. Between 1592 and 1598 the Hideyoshi invasions took place and in 1636 the Manchu's invaded the country.

Hideyoshi Toyotomi was a Japanese farmer's son who made it to general and became the first Shogun. In 1590 he united Japan. After that he decided to invade Korea in order to conquer China. He led two invasions into that country. Although that didn't lead to the desired result, it did result in huge destructions. Almost all the potters were kidnapped to Japan, because of that the ceramical art in Japan gained to a high level while in Korea this art went downhill. The death of Hideyoshi in September 1598 prompted the Japanese to bring the war at close. At land Chosôn had made great losses but at sea Yi Sun Sin made great victories with his unique turtle ships.

China had made a pact with Chosôn to halt the aggressive and rising Manchu state founded by Nurhachi (1559-1626). The damage caused by the Hideyoshi invasions was hardly repaired or the country was attacked by the Manchu's which were called Tartarians by the Dutch.

The Manchu's were a close to the Koreans related Tungusic race that, like themselves, spoke an Altaic language. However, there were clear differences as well.

When the Manchu's had occupied Beijing, they brought prince So Hie Yon to the Forbidden City. He stayed here for about a year and widened his view a lot. He became, for instance acquainted with the German Jesuit Adam Schall von Bell, theologist, astronomer and mathematician (1591-1666). Not only did he grant him a view on the firmament, but also taught him the main religious points of the catholic doctrine. At the end of that year the Manchus granted him permission to return to his motherland. He died here under suspicious circumstances. The rumor went that he was poisoned. Perhaps some thought that the ideas he had gotten in Beijing were a threat for the confusianistic state-doctrine.

The Manchu's were rougher, more military minded and less civilized. In 1627, they conquered the capital Seoul and took the crown prince Sohyon as hostage to their country. The army of the Chinese Ching Dynasty left soon without inflicting lasting damage on the Korean Peninsula. But the Korean court whose fortune sagged immensely from the series of invasions was shocked and distressed.

Since then, the Korean committed themselves to a Confusion-style elder-younger brother relationship with the Manchus and pledged aid against the Ming dynasty. The Koreans however did not take their pledges seriously and in 1632 the Manchu's declared Korea to be a vassal state. The Koreans balked against the tributaries they had to pay and in 1636 they issued a declaration of war. The Manchu emperor Abahai (1592 - 1643) took up the challenge and conquered Korea quickly. The Manchus extracted a heavy price and: a tributary relationship and severance of ties with the Ming court, adoption of the Manchu calendar, and submission of crown prince Sohyon and his brother, the prince Pongnim (who became King Hyojong), as hostages. The Manchu's went on to conquer China, in 1644 the Manchu's occupied Beijing. The last Chinese emperor was abducted and replaced by a Manchu emperor, the first of the Qing dynasty, who would rule until 1912 in China.

During their stay in Korea from 1653 until 1666 the Dutch came into a stable and well-organized country, which had recovered remarkably fast from the wounds which the Hideyoshi and Manchu invasions had made. But the Koreans had gotten a traumatic fear for contacts with other nations. On top of that a certain cultural decay had started. Only in the pictorial field we come upon some great names. Only in the 18th century this type of art bloomed again.

The Dutch must have felt like they landed on another planet. The differences between their own country and Korea were enormous. The Calvinistic way of life differed highly from the Confusianistic one. Korea had a very closed society. Except for the Dutch nobody came in and except them, nobody left the country again. The Republic of the Seven United Provinces (Holland or the Netherlands) on the other hand was a very open society. On one hand the Dutch roamed all the oceans, on the other hand a lot of fugitives for political religious reasons from several countries found a safe haven in the Republic.

Initially the language barrier formed a great obstacle for the contact between the Dutch and the inhabitants of their host country. But during thirteen long years the easterners and westerners started to understand each other anyhow. And not only literally. It's striking to read in the journal how interested the Koreans were in the stories the Dutch told them about foreign nations and their people. Hendrick Hamel himself had some interesting conversations with high administrators, with whom the Dutch were well acquainted. Which reminds us of the poem of the well-known Englishman Rudyard Kipling. The first four lines of this poem are.

Oh East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God's great Judgments Seat.
But there is neither East nor West, Border nor Breed nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the End of the Earth.

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