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Was Korea ever a part of China?

The Proto-Three Kingdoms (c. 190 BCE - 49 BCE) and the Three Kingdoms of Korea (c. 50 BCE – 668 CE), (yes, Korea not China) should not be confused with the Chinese Three Kingdoms. The three Kingdoms were Goguryeo in Northern Korea extended to Manchuria, Pakche in the Southwest Korea and Silla in Southeast Korea. The proto-three kingdoms consisted of smaller statelets around Goguryeo, Pakche and Silla.

The unclear boundary between Korea and China leads to the question many historian scholars has - ‘Was Korea was a part of China?’. It is intriguing as to why the Korean Peninsula shares an uncanny resemblance to China in a number of ways.

Ancient Korea used the Confucian examination system for government officials, believed in the religion of Buddhism, and borrowed Chinese characters for their written language - all of which spread and influenced by China. Furthermore, it should not be forgotten that the military forces of the Han Dynasty (202 BCE – 220 CE) made Northern Korea a tribute state for nearly 400 years.

Thus, it can be argued that Goguryeo (Northern part of ancient Korea) was symbiotically part of china as they depended on China for their trade, culture, language and religion. However, they may still be considered autonomous as they had their own ruling kingdom (with little legitimate power).

Geographical Boundaries and A Brief History of Korea

Just by observing the proximity of these two countries, it is no wonder the Chinese civilization would be easily spread to the land where North and South Korea lies today. However, the Korean peninsula was much more complicated back in the ancient world.

There were a total of two Chinese rulers believed to be part of Korea’s history. Without much archaeological evidence, it was recorded that Chinese descendants from the Shang Dynasty founded the Gija Joseon in the 12th century and coexisted with Gojoseon. (a kingdom believed to have descended from heaven around 2333 BCE)

The second Chinese ruler was Wiman (Chinese name: Wei Man), who overthrew the throne of Gojoseon. As a former Chinese general, he defended Gojoseon against the attacks from the Han Dynasty in 109 BCE. He was eventually defeated and the Hans conquered the land where Wiman Joseon ruled, setting up the Commanderies of Lelang (one of the Four Commanderies of Han).  The fall of Wiman Joseon also led to the birth of ancient Korea’s proto-three kingdoms.

It has been factually recorded that ¾ of the Gojoseon population were not Koreans, but a mixture of Hans, Jurchens, Manchus and Mongols. Due to the vague boundaries between Mongolia, China and Korea back in the ancient world, this is highly plausible. Hence, there is contention and controversy as to whether Gojoseon could be solely part of China’s history as the majority of Gojoseon did not belong to Koreans.

Belief Systems and Cultures

With the Chinese alphabet came the introduction of a new philosophy of Neo-Confucianism. Historians so far have not been able to determine a specific date, but in the Three Kingdoms Confucianism and Buddhism were adopted throughout.

    In Koguryô, King Sosurim (371-384) became a Buddhist and built a Confucian university. Pakche both took up Confucianism and had an important role introducing the Japanese to Buddhism. In Silla, before Buddhism, Confucian and Taoism became popular, the first rulers followed shamanism closely and were more resistant to the introduction of new religions. Yet eventually, the popularity of the three religions did spread in the kingdom.

The Hanja Language

Korea’s language did not stem from the Chinese language, but was heavily influenced over the years by the Chinese. The Korean language belongs to a language group called the Uralic languages. This is a different group from which the Chinese language is from; the Chinese language is from the Sinitic family of languages.

Chinese influence in Korean linguistics may have began between 108 BCE and 313 CE, where Korea had heavy contact with the Chinese when the Han dynasty stationed commanders in North Korea. This contact, as well as the introduction of the “Thousand-Character Classic”, which was a principal text containing a thousand distinct Chinese characters, introduced Hanja. Hanja borrowed Chinese characters and pronounced them in Korean. The characters visually depicted ideas instead of sounds. Hanja became the oldest Korean writing system that was also the phonetic writing system used for trade and government business. It became more widespread when the Koryo kingdom’s civil service examination that was based on Confucianism in 958 CE.

Later on, a revised writing system that still used Chinese symbols was called idu, and it was written together with the traditional Chinese to write Korean. This pairing is called hunmin chongum (“correct sounds for instructing the people”), eventually, this system evolved into Hangeul, Korea’s modern alphabet today.

Power and Tribute System

Under the rule of the Han empire, it has been historically debated that the proto kingdoms held no legitimate power in their lands. With commandaries established in Gojoseon, ancient Korea was a tribute state to china.

Ancient Korea’s belief in Confucianism was part of the reason they were willing to pay tribute to the Han empire. Confucius teaches the importance to respect hierarchical political and social order, ruled by the emperor chosen by the mandate of heaven.

Tribute states are required to receive an imperial patent from the Han emperor in order to appoint new rulers, these tributary rulers are only allowed to address themselves as ‘King’ (wang); whereas Chinese rulers were named ‘Emperor’ (Huang).

China and Korea shared a symbiotic relationship. Vassal states would acknowledge their inferiority towards the Han’s Kingdom, swore allegiance to the Han Emperor and paid regular tributes. China strives on the tribute from Korea and other foreign states to legitimise their throne and strengthen their rule.  In return, China provided free trade, military protection and governance.

Through the tribute system, legitimate power laid in the hands of China, and the king was seen as the true sage-ruler. With this, could it be possible that Korea was a part of China?


Some Korean scholars disagree to the claim that Korea was a part of China. It is argued that there is a misconception of the term “vassal state” (tribute state) as the context of it should be taken into consideration. The tribute may be seen as just a trade to China as a sign of respect due to their belief in Confucianism.

Due to the geography and proximity of both countries, korea could be seen as simply a part of ‘sinosphere’ where similar ideologies were shared. Many scholars believed that China had no authority over the ordinary people of Korea and the control on the Korean kingdom were only symbolic and not legitimate. In other words, it could be possible that the ancient Korean Peninsula only shared harmonious neighbouring relations with ancient China.

In essence

It is not an easy task to decide if Korea was ever part of China and it is common to observe many historical bias in the investigation of this question. Nevertheless, it is evidently justified that they shared a symbiotic relationship, with mutual obligations tied together with shared ideologies of Confucianism and Buddhism. Seeing as how a plethora of Korea’s characteristics originated from China, it can be seen that China had a huge impact and influence on Korea’s history.

Written by Leen, Farah, Syafiqah.