My book Reading the Mirrors of History was published by Yuan-Liu Publication Co. Ltd. in July 2010. The content of the book divides ancient and modern histories of East Asia into four periods and each covers several hundred years; within each period it narrates concurrently the multilateral historic interactions among China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and the world around them. Soon after the book was published, I received positive responses, encouragements from many friends and readers, and invitations for speeches and exchanges, which made me feel very grateful. Also, magazines and websites invited me to produce additional articles including specifically a summary of the historic interactions among China, Japan and Korea in ancient times. I appreciate very much this particular invitation, as it allows me to convey this important topic in a more compact space to readers. But I would like to say that a condensed history has to worry about becoming a running account, no matter how lively the article is written. Therefore, readers may find that it is necessary to read the original book to find the causes and effects or to answer more of their questions.
The discussion of interactions and the resulting impacts among ancient China, Korea and Japan can be divided into three aspects: first, their ethnicities; second, their political and military events; and third, their cultures and ideologies. This article will address the first two aspects, and leave the third aspect to my future writing. I want to make clear that Korea in this article includes the current North and South Koreas.
·Interactions of ancient Korea with China
Although viewing from the map, the border of present Korea touches China’s at the Yalu River, this was not the case in ancient times. The Ancient Korea in history, which included the legendary Tangun Korea and the well-documented Jizi Korea and Wiman Korea in Chinese history, was geographically centered at Pyongyang, yet it also included part of northeast China. Jizi Korea was established in Korea by Jizi who was a relative of the last ruler of the Yin (i.e., Shang) Dynasty (in China) and the people who followed him. Until it was later usurped (at the time of the early Han Dynasty of China) by Wiman Korea, the Jizi Dynasty lasted for forty-one generations, more than one thousand years. Wiman, who established Wiman Korea was a general under Lu Wan, the King of Yan who was one of the heroes of Liu Bang, Han Emperor Gaozu who was the founder of the Han Dynasty in China. Some modern historians think that Wiman was originally a Korean. He followed Lu Wan, the King of Yan during his escape to the Huns, but turned to Jizi Korea. Later he incorporated into his armies many refugees who had fled to Korea from the kingdoms of Yan and Qi (in China) during the late Qin and early Han periods, and he became strong enough to overthrow Jizi Korea.
From the above history, we can be sure of two things. First, the population of ancient Korea was not homogeneous; it consisted not only of the indigenous peoples of Korea and the surrounding areas but also of numerous Chinese immigrants. Second, the ruling class of ancient Korea had a close and inseparable relationship with China, such that its political system, ideology and culture were mostly transplanted from China by these people.
Han Emperor Wu was militaristic and aggressive. He initiated external wars in all directions. He also sent troops to eliminate Wiman Korea (in 108 BC), annexed Korea and established prefectures and counties. From then until 313 AD (the 7th year of the Yongjia era of the Western Jin Dynasty), for 420 years, Korea was in the so-called "Han era of prefectures and counties.” Although Korea was autonomous or respected China as its suzerain state for most of its history, in reality it was independent and self-governing. It was rarely directly ruled by foreign powers. The "Han era of prefectures and counties" was one among the three exceptions. Nevertheless, as you can imagine, when China was powerful, the Korean people had no choice but to follow obediently. However, as soon as China was in a chaotic situation, the Koreans would readily revolt. Therefore, during some of the periods of the four hundred-odd years when China’s rule over Korea was weak, this happened, for example, during the Wang Mang Revolt at the end of the Western Han Dynasty and after the Wuhu (wu means five; Wuhu means the five kinds of non-Han people, namely: Huns or Xiongnu, Xianbei, Jie, Di, Qiang, esp. in connection with the Sixteen Kingdoms) Chaos at the end of the Western Jin Dynasty.
The origin of the Korean ethnicity is actually very complex. If we consider the time of one year before and after the Western calendar era, the Korean ethnicity included Goguryeo, Wei Mo, Zhenfan, and the “three tribal alliance” of Ma Han, Chen Han, and Bian Chen (Bian Han) in the south of the Korean peninsula. Among them, the Goguryeo people mainly lived by today's Songhua River in northeast China, the Wei Mo people at the northeast coast of the Korean peninsula, and the Zhenfan people on the plain north of the Han River. The Ma Han people were the aborigines; the Chen Han people, also known as the Qin Han, were traditionally said to be Chinese who had migrated to Korea to escape the rule of the Qin Dynasty. As for the Bian Chen people, because of the characteristic tattoos on their bodies and their very different customs and language, they were suspected to have migrated from Japan by crossing the sea. Therefore, we can firmly say that today’s Koreans do not descend from clean-bred Korean ancestors, but rather are a hybrid of various ethnicities. In fact, this conclusion also applies today to people in most countries or regions including China, Japan and Taiwan.
In Korean history, there was once a Three Kingdoms period when Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla existed as three major powers. According to general belief, this situation lasted for about seven hundred years from 18 BC to 677 AD until Silla unified the Korean peninsula. In fact, Goguryeo had always been the single dominant power whereas Baekje and Silla were only small tribes in the tribal alliance of Ma Han and Chen Han, and only later become powerful through annexation. Between 244 AD and 247 AD, General Wu Qiujian was ordered by the Wei Dynasty of China to lead troops to Korea; Wu defeated Goguryeo, carried out a holocaust, ran after the king all the way to the Fuyu boarder of northeast China. A monument was raised at the Pills Mountain (in today’s Jian City in Jilin Province). The Wei Dynasty also sent troops to the south of the Hanjiang River basin and defeated the coalition troops of the “three tribal alliance” of Korea. Some scholars have proposed that this contributed to the rise of Baekje and Silla, since Goguryeo was seriously destroyed and the “three tribal alliance” was also shattered. So, everything started afresh. However, the war also gave rise to a fourth power in Korea, known as Imnar (included Garrow) or as Gaya which was related to the Bian Chen discussed earlier; it was the bridgehead of Japan into Korea.
·Interactions of ancient Japan with China and Korea
Although Japan is an island, it has never been isolated. In ancient times, people often reached it by boat. Concerning the origin of Japan, there is a myth about the first Emperor Jinmu of Japan, who used to live in Kyushu and began an Eastern Expedition at the age of forty five. He unified the entire Japan and established the Daiwo Dynasty. Many scholars believe that, if there truly were an Emperor Jinmu, he might not be originally Japanese. The reason is that the Japanese Yayoi culture (from about 300 BC to 300 AD) started very suddenly. The unearthed Yayoi pottery, bronze swords, bronze mirrors, and the technology of rice cultivation appeared in a very short period of time. Apparently they were brought in by the “people who arrived in Japan by boat”. Some Korean people advocate that Emperor Jinmu was from Korea and some Chinese people advocate that Emperor Jinmu or his ancestors came from China. There are Chinese scholars who even say that Emperor Jinmu was the alchemist Xu Fu of Qin Shihuang (259-210 BC, the first emperor of China), who made the grand voyage to the sea by leading three thousand young boys and girls with him and never returned home; and they actually landed on Kyushu, Japan.
Japan's first history book The Chronicles of Japan (The Nihon Shoki) recorded that Qiongqiongchuzun (Ninigi no Mikoto, grandson of Amaterasu who was a Shinto sun goddess) of the great-grandfather of Emperor Jinmu was ordered by the sun goddess to ride a “sky boat” to leave the highland of Heaven and that he landed on Takachiho in the direction of Japan. Namely, he sailed with the wind to reach Japan from another place, which gave people a lot of room for imagination. However, The Chronicles of Japan recorded further that before Emperor Jinmu launched the eastern expedition, there had been people who flew down with sky boats and landed in other areas of Japan. Therefore, in the ancient days, it was very likely that people from different regions arrived in Japan by boat. At the same time when Xu Fu sailed to the sea, or before or after his voyage, it was absolutely possible that many other Chinese people also took boat trips and reached Japan. Of course, we cannot exclude that some (of the Japanese) were from the Korean peninsula, or perhaps even a portion were the indigenous people from Taiwan. The indigenous people in Taiwan were similarly from China, or more specifically, they escaped from China and came to Taiwan. One of the characteristics of the Taiwanese ancient aborigines was their specialty of sailing. According to studies, the ancestors of the Austronesian-speaking indigenous people on small islands today in the Pacific were almost all from Taiwan. So it can be said that they are all relatives of the current aborigines in Taiwan.
The ancient Chinese referred to Japan as Woguo, meaning "the country (guo) of the small people (wo)". According to records, the Wo people came to China continuously in ancient times since the Western Han Dynasty. But most of them first crossed the sea to Korea and then took the land route from one place to another to China. Han Emperor Guangwu, Liu Xiu, had given a gold seal with the inscribed words "king of the Woguo of Han” to a Woguo messenger. Today this seal is still kept at the Fukuoka Museum in Kyushu. But what can be confirmed is that Woguo was not yet a unified country then, or at least that the country was divided into more than a hundred tribal kingdoms. In Japan, there are scholars who have inferred that the earliest period of the Jinmu Empire was at best concurrent with Han Emperor Guangwu.
Chinese history books have also mentioned that during the Three Kingdoms period (after the break-up of the Han), King Cao Pi (Cao Cao's son) of Wei sent messengers to Woguo and found that the local people, whether men or women, old or young, all had tattoos on their faces and bodies. They claimed themselves to be the descendants of Tai Bo. Tai Bo was the self-proclaimed founding father of the Wu kingdom in the Spring and Autumn period (of China) and also the eldest uncle of Emperor Zhou Wenwang of the Western Zhou Dynasty, who founded the monarchy. In the Records of the Grand Historian (Shi Ji) written by Sima Qian, it is said that in order to give the succeeding right of the head of the family to Zhou Wenwang’s father, Tai Bo went into self-imposed exile from the homeland Xiqi to the barbarous Jin Man region which is near today’s Suzhou. At that time, the aborigines there wore tattoos on their faces and bodies. The decedents of Tai Bo also followed the local custom of wearing tattoos on their bodies. Incidentally, the Bian Chen people who lived at the southern end of the Korean peninsula, although they possibly came from Japan, also might have come from the Jin Man region of China.
From the above perspective, ancient Japan, China and South Korea did have blood relationship.
Emperor Ming of the Wei Dynasty Cao Rui who was the son of Cao Pi, also sent messengers to Woguo. By then, Woguo was already a confederated state composed of many tribal kingdoms and ruled by Queen Himiko. Emperor Ming conferred the title "king of pro-Wei Woguo" upon her.
The period from 304 AD to 581 AD of the Wuhu Sixteen Kingdoms (the Sixteen Kingdoms were connected with the five kinds of non-Han people and the Northern and Southern Dynasties of China was in a long era of wars; the same situation also occurred in Korea. Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla engaged in brutal wars and the competition among the three kingdoms also felt the great impact from neighboring China. Goguryeo tried to compete for hegemony with the Earlier Yan, one of the strong powers of the Wuhu Sixteen Kingdoms, established by the Murong’s of the Xianbei people in Liaodong, but was defeated and suffered a major blow. Baekje took the opportunity to invade Goguryeo by stationing troops at the bank of the Datong River and occupied the city of Pyongyang. King Gogugwon of Goguryeo was killed by arrows. His son, the 17th King Sosurim had to declare himself a vassal to the northern emerging hegemony Fujian of the Former Qin, who rose then in China, and paid tribute for protection. Later, the Northern Wei Dynasty established by Tuoba Xianbei of the barbaric Xianbei emerged and replaced the Former Qin of the Sixteen Kingdoms to become the dominant power in north China. As Goguryeo considered itself unable to compete with the Northern Wei Dynasty, it gradually gave up the Liaodong peninsula and focused their foothold in the Korean peninsula instead. For this reason, the 20th monarch of Goguryeo, King Jangsu, moved the capital from Liaodong to Pyongyang in 427.
·7th century: interactions of the Sui and Tang Dynasties of China with Korea and Japan
While the Korean peninsula was still in chaos, Woguo was basically unified internally. It aimed at an external expansion by using Imnar and Garrow as bases to actively develop the Korean peninsula and posed great threats to Baekje and Silla. Subsequently, two opposing alliances appeared on the Korean peninsula; Silla was not willing to yield to the threats from Woguo and chose to ally with Goguryeo; Baekje had been a long-time foe with Goguryeo could only reluctantly ally with Woguo to confront the Goguryeo and Silla camp. In 1877 (the 3rd year of Emperor Guangxu of the Qing Dynasty in China), a monument was unearthed yielding a tablet of King Gwanggaeto (the 19th monarch of Goguryeo) in Jian City, Jilin Province of China, which was engraved by the order of King Jangsu in 414 AD to commemorate the great achievements of his father King Gwanggaeto. The tablet has over 1,700 Chinese characters that confirm the complicated historical relations among the four kingdoms mentioned above. The simple and unadorned handwriting exhibits strength and elegance of both the Han clerical script and the regular square (block) script in calligraphy, which has become a well-known calligraphic work for imitation in China today.
However, the relationship between friends and foes is only temporary, not eternal. After Silla formed an alliance with Goguryeo, it gradually became more powerful and had the ambition to dominate. So Silla broke off with Goguryeo. Baekje and Goguryeo then turned foes into friends and allied with Woguo to form a three against one situation. This situation continued from the sixth century for more than one hundred years. Why Silla could sustain for such a long time? It was not relying on its strength alone; in fact, it depended on two other things. First, Baekje also had some conflicts with Woguo and did not want the Korean peninsula to become overdeveloped by Woguo; hence, Baekje treated Woguo apathetically and even seized a portion of Imnar’s land as its own. Second, Goguryeo had conflicts with two powers sequentially, the Sui and Tang dynasties of China.
The reasons for the extinction of the Sui Dynasty were manyfold, but had much to do with the three expeditions Emperor Yang launched against Goguryeo. Emperor Yang craved for greatness and success. He thought that Goguryeo was a small country, so his expeditions must be triumphal. In order to show off, he took part personally in the first expedition and led majestically an unprecedented 1,130,000 soldiers which he claimed to number two million. However, he suffered unexpected defeats in both sea and land battles. Later, to recover face, he twice sent expeditionary troops, but to no avail. In order to send troops, the whole country had to collect rice, weapons, tools and horses, etc.; hence, agricultural land was abandoned and officials taxed people by force and extorted levies. In addition, with frequent natural disasters, people became poor and froze to death or died of starvation one after another. Anger ignited across the country; peasants rebelled and revolted and many officials also joined the revolution. The state instantly perished. After the chaos, Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty put down the rebellions and brought back peace to the world. He sent officials to Koguryo, Silla, Baekje trying to mediate their disputes. The result was not only in vain, but also dragged him into trouble by allying with Silla to confront Goguryeo and Baekje. Tang Emperor Taizong had triumphed in every battle and won every fight in his life. In the 19th year of the Zhenguan era (645 AD), he took part personally in the expedition but was blocked at the Anshi City of Liaodong and could not even cross the Yalu River. He also lost his face. If the Koreans mention this period of history, they must be proud. However, the Yalu River has remained the boundary between China and Korea since Tang Emperor Taizong.
After Tang Emperor Gaozong had succeeded to the throne for a few years, Empress Wu Zetian was in power. She changed the strategy, leaving Goguryeo alone, but allied with Silla to first attack Baekje with two pincers from the sea and land, respectively. It is not known why Baekje made the big mistake of not waiting for the troops of the two allies Goguryeo and Woguo to come, but instead recklessly fighting back alone. As a result, it was exterminated in less than a month (660 AD). The Japanese of Woguo had operated in Korea for a few centuries. Fearing loss of their foothold, they accepted the request of the survivors of former Baekje by sending back the Baekje prince who was held as a hostage in Japan and sent more than one thousand warships and thirty thousand navy troops to resist the Tang troops. They were totally annihilated by the naval troops led by Liu Rengui of Tang at the White River Mouth (Baijiiangkou; in Japan, it was known as the White Village River, now it is the Jin River Mouth or Jinjiangkou in South Korea). Since then, the Japanese power withdrew from the Korean peninsula for the next nine hundred years (1592 AD, the Wanli era of the Ming Dynasty) until Toyotomi Hideyoshi sent troops to Korea again. This time, it was war with the allied troops of the Ming Dynasty of China and the Lee Dynasty of Korea.
Goguryeo lost its ally Baekje. Woguo was hit hard and there were also internal splits in the country. As a result, not much later (668 AD) Goguryeo was eliminated by Tang and Silla jointly. Empress Wu Zetian then decided to rule Korea directly and set up a military and administrative authority in Pyongyang, called the Anton Military Government. This was a consistent national policy of the Tang Dynasty, but it was extremely hated by Silla. Silla put up a continued resistance. Although the Tang Dynasty could suppress Silla for a period of time, it could not suppress it forever. When the Tubo (today’s Tibet) rose to replace the Turks that were outside the Great Wall to become the scourge of the Tang Dynasty, Wu Zetian then accepted the recommendations of her courtiers not to send troops to Korea in order to avoid fighting on both sides. As a result, Silla unified the Korean peninsula (677 AD).
Wu Zetian set up the Anton Military Government and several other military governments under its administration. This was the second exception in the history of Korea during which it was directly ruled by foreigners. But the duration was very short, less than a decade. The actual governance was even shorter, because a big portion of that period was in a chaotic state due to Silla’s desperate resistance and war. The third exception in the history of Korea during which it was under direct foreign rule was the thirty five years before World War II. Japan annexed Korea by force and set up a Japanese colonial administration of Korea. This is a section of history that was hated strongly by the Koreans.