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Ancient Japan › Origins

Definition and Origins

Author: Mark Cartwright

Ancient Japan has made unique contributions to world culture which include the Shinto religion and its architecture, distinctive art objects such as haniwa figurines, the oldest pottery vessels in the world, the largest wooden buildings anywhere at their time of construction, and many literary classics including the world's first novel. Although Japan was significantly influenced by China and Korea, the islands were never subject to foreign political control and so were free to select those ideas which appealed to them, adapt them how they wished, and to continue with their indigenous cultural practices to create a unique approach to government, religion, and the arts.


In Shinto mythology, the Japanese islands were created by the gods Izanami and Izanagi when they dipped a jewelled spear into the primordial sea. They also created over 800 kami or spirits, chief amongst which was the sun goddess Amaterasu, and so created the deities of Shinto, the indigenous religion of ancient Japan. Amaterasu's grandson Ninigi became the first ruler, and he was the great-grandfather of Japan's first emperor, the semi-legendary Emperor Jimmu (r. 660-585 BCE). Thus, a divine link was established between all subsequent emperors and the gods.


The first historical period of Japan is the Jomon Period which covers c. 14,500 to c. 300 BCE (although both the start and end dates for this period are disputed). The period's name derives from the distinctive pottery produced at that time, the oldest vessels in the world, which has simple rope-like decoration or jomon. It is the appearance of this pottery that marks the end of the previous period, the Palaeolithic Age (30,000 years ago), when people crossed now lost land bridges from mainland Asia to the northern and southern Japanese islands. They then spread to the four main islands of Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu, and eventually to the several hundred smaller islands that make up Japan. The production of pottery does not necessarily signify communities lived in fixed settlements, and for the majority of this time period, people would have continued to live a hunter-gatherer existence using wood and stone tools.
The first signs of agriculture appear c. 5000 BCE and the earliest known settlement at Sannai-Maruyama dates to c. 3,500 BCE and lasts until c. 2000 BCE. Populations seem to have concentrated in coastal areas and numbered somewhere between 100,000 and 150,000 across the islands. There is evidence of rice c. 1250 BCE, but its cultivation was likely not until c. 800 BCE. The first evidence of growing rice in wet fields dates to c. 600 BCE. Skeletons from the period indicate people of muscular build with wide square faces and an average height of 1.52 m (5 ft) for females and 1.60 m (5 ft 3 inches) for males.Genetic and cranial studies suggest that Jomon people are the ancestors of the present-day minority group, the Ainu.
The most common burial type of the period is in pits, sometimes lined with stone slabs, which contain one or more individuals.Other types of burial include single individuals in jars and large pits containing up to 100 skeletons. Artefacts discovered relating to the Jomon Period include clay and stone human-shaped figurines, clay masks, stone rods, and clay, stone, and jade jewellery (beads and earrings). Archaeology has also revealed the Jomon built ritual structures of stone circles, lines of stones forming arrow shapes, and single tall standing stones surrounded by a cluster of smaller stones.

Jomon Spouted Vessel


The Yayoi Period covers c. 300 BCE to c. 250 CE, although, as mentioned above, the start date is being pushed back as more discoveries are made in archaeology. The name derives from the reddish pottery first found in the Yayoi district of Tokyo, which indicated a development from the pottery of the Jomon Period. From around 400 BCE (or even earlier) migrants began to arrive from continental Asia, especially the Korean peninsula, probably driven by the wars caused by Chinese expansion and between rival kingdoms.
The new arrivals conquered or integrated with the indigenous peoples, as indicated by genetic evidence, and they brought with them new pottery, bronze, iron and improved metalworking techniques which produced more efficient farming tools and better weaponry and armour.
With improved agricultural management, society was able to develop with specialised trades and professions (and consequent markets for trade appeared), ritual practices using such distinctive items as dotaku bronze bells, social classes of varying prosperity, and an established ruling class who governed over alliances of clan groups which eventually formed small kingdoms. Chinese sources note the frequency of warfare in Japan between rival kingdoms, and archaeology has revealed the remains of fortified villages. The population of Japan by the end of the period may have been as high as 4.5 million.

Yayoi Period Bracelet

Japan was beginning its first attempts at international relations by the end of the period. Envoys and tribute were sent to the Chinese commanderies in northern Korea by the Wa, as the confederation of small states in southern and western Japan were then known, the most important of which was Yamato. These missions are recorded in 57 and 107 CE. One Japanese ruler known to have sent embassies to Chinese territory (238, 243, and c. 248 CE) and the most famous figure of the period was Queen Himiko (rc189-248 CE). Ruling over 100 kingdoms (or perhaps just the monarch of the most powerful one), the queen never married and lived in a castle served by 1,000 women. Himiko was also a shamaness, embodying the dual role of ruler and high priest, which would have been common in the period. That a woman could perform either of both roles is an indicator of the more favourable attitude to women in ancient Japan before Chinese culture became more influential from the 7th century CE.


The Kofun Period covers c. 250 to 538 CE and is named after the large burial mounds which were constructed at that time.Sometimes the period is referred to as the Yamato Period (c. 250-710 CE) as that was then the dominant state or region, either incorporating rival regions into its own domain or, as in the case of chief rival Izumo, conquering through warfare. The exact location of Yamato is not known for certain, but most historians agree it was in the Nara region.
From the 4th century CE there was a significant influx of people from the Korean peninsula, especially the Baekje ( Paekche ) kingdom and Gaya ( Kaya ) Confederation. These may have been the horse-riding warriors of the controversial 'horse-rider theory' which claims that Japan was conquered by Koreans and was no more than a vassal state. It seems unlikely a total conquest did actually occur (and some sources controversially suggest the reverse and that Japan had established a colony in southern Korea), but it is more certain that Koreans held high government positions and even mixed with the imperial bloodline. Whatever the political relationship between Korea and Japan at this time, there was certainly an influx of Korean manufactured goods, raw materials such as iron, and cultural ideas which came via Korean teachers, scholars, and artists travelling to Japan. They brought with them elements of Chinese culture such as writing, classic Confucian texts, Buddhism, weaving, and irrigation, as well as Korean ideas in architecture. There were also envoys to China in 425 CE, 478 CE, and then 11 more up to 502 CE. Yamato Japan was establishing an international diplomatic presence.

Shionjiyama Kofun

The large burial mounds known as kofun are another link with mainland Asia as they were built for the elite in various states of the Korean peninsula. There are over 20,000 mounds across Japan, and they usually have a keyhole shape when seen from above; the largest examples measure several hundred metres across and are surrounded by a moat. Many of the tombs contain horse trappings which are not seen in previous burials and which add weight to contact with the Asian continental mainland. Another feature of kofun was the placement of large terracotta figurines of humans, animals, and even buildings called haniwa around and on top them, probably to act as guardians.
Kofun, built on a grander scale as time went on, are indicators that the Yamato rulers could command tremendous resources - both human and material. Ruling with a mixture of force and alliances with important clans or uji consolidated by intermarriages, the Yamato elite were well on their way to creating a centralised state proper. What was needed now was a better model of government with a fully functioning bureaucratic apparatus, and it would come from China.


The Asuka Period covers 538 to 710 CE. The name derives from the capital at that time, Asuka, located in the northern Nara prefecture. In 645 CE the capital was moved to Naniwa, and between 694 and 710 CE it was at Fujiwarakyo. Now we see the first firmly established historical emperor (as opposed to legendary or mythical rulers), Emperor Kimmei, who was 29th in the imperial line (r. 531-539 CE to 571 CE). The most significant ruler was Prince Shotoku who was regent until his death in 622 CE. Shotoku is credited with reforming and centralising government on the Chinese model by, amongst other things, creating his Seventeen Article Constitution, rooting out corruption and encouraging greater ties with China.

Prince Shotoku

The next major political event of the Asuka period occurred in 645 CE when the founder of the Fujiwara clan, Fujiwara no Kamatari, staged a coup which took over power from the then dominant Soga clan. The new government was remodelled, again along Chinese lines, in a series of lasting reforms, known as the Taika Reforms, in which land was nationalised, taxes were to be paid in kind instead of labour, social ranks were recategorised, civil service entrance examinations were introduced, law codes were written, and the absolute authority of the emperor was established. Kamatari was made the emperor's senior minister and given the surname Fujiwara. This was the beginning of one of Japan's most powerful clans who would monopolise government until the 12th century CE.
Emperor Temmu (r. 672-686 CE) pruned the extended royal family so that only direct descendants could claim any right to the imperial throne in a move which would create more rival clan groups. Temmu selected Fujiwarakyo as the first proper Japanese capital which had a palace in the Chinese style and streets laid out in a regular grid pattern.
Perhaps the most significant development of the Asuka Period was not political but religious, with the introduction of Buddhism to Japan sometime in the 6th century CE, traditionally in 552 CE. It was officially adopted by Emperor Yomei and further encouraged by Prince Shotoku who built several impressive temples such as Horyuji. Buddhism was generally welcomed by Japan's elite as it helped raise Japan's cultural status as a developed nation in the eyes of their powerful neighbours Korea and China.
Shotoku had sent official embassies to the Sui court in China from c. 607 CE and they continued throughout the 7th century CE. However, relations with Japan's neighbours were not always amicable. The Silla kingdom overran its neighbour Baekje in 660 CE with the help of a massive Chinese Tang naval force. A rebel Baekje force persuaded Japan to send 800 ships to aid their attempt to regain control of their kingdom, but the joint force was defeated at the Battle of Baekgang in 663 CE. The success of the Unified Silla Kingdom resulted in another wave of immigrants entering Japan from the collapsed Baekje and Goguryeo kingdoms.

Central Gate & Pagoda, Horyuji Temple

The arts, meanwhile, flourished and have given rise to an alternative name, the Suiko Period (552-645 CE) after Empress Suiko (r. 592-628 CE). Literature and music following Chinese models were actively promoted by the court and artists were given tax reliefs.


The Nara Period covers 710 to 794 CE and is so called because the capital was at Nara (Heijokyo) during that time and then moved briefly to Nagaokakyo in 784 CE. The capital was built on the Chinese model of Chang-an, the Tang capital and so had a regular and well-defined grid layout, and public buildings familiar to Chinese architecture. A sprawling royal palace, the Heijo, was built and the state bureaucracy was expanded to some 7,000 civil servants. The total population of Nara may have been as high as 200,000 by the end of the period.
Control of the central government over the provinces was increased by a heightened military presence throughout the islands of Japan, and Buddhism was further spread by Emperor Shomu's (r. 724-749 CE) project of building a temple in every province, a plan that raised taxation to brutal levels. Major temples were built at Nara, too, such as the Todaiji (752 CE) with its Great Buddha Hall, the largest wooden building in the world containing the largest bronze sculpture of the Buddha in the world. Shinto was represented by, amongst others, the Kasuga Taisha shrine in the forests outside the capital (710 or 768 CE) and the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine (711 CE) near Kyoto.
Japan also became more ambitious abroad and forged a strong relationship with Balhae ( Parhae ), the state in northern Korea and Manchuria. Japan sent 13 diplomatic embassies and Balhae 35 in return over the decades. Trade flourished with Japan exporting textiles and Balhae furs, silk, and hemp cloth. The two states plotted to invade the Unified Silla Kingdom, which now controlled the Korean peninsula, with a joint army with an attack in 733 CE involving a large Japanese fleet, but it came to nothing. Then a planned invasion of 762 CE never got off the generals' map board.
The Nara Period produced arguably the two most famous and important works of Japanese literature ever written: the Kojikiand Nihon Shoki histories with their creation myths, Shinto gods, and royal genealogies. There was also the Manyoshupoetry anthology, Japan's first of many, which was compiled c. 760 CE.

Daibutsuden, Todaiji

In contrast to the arts, the ordinary populace did anything but flourish. Agriculture still depended on primitive tools, not enough land was prepared for crops, and irrigation techniques were insufficient to prevent frequent crop failures and outbreaks of famine. Thus, most peasants preferred the greater security of working for landed aristocrats. On top of these woes, there were smallpox epidemics in 735 and 737 CE, which historians calculate reduced the country's population by 25-35%.
The court, besides facing these natural disasters, was low on funds after too many landed aristocrats and temples were given exemption from tax. Nara, too, was beset by internal conflicts for favours and positions amongst the aristocracy and politics was being unduly influenced by the Buddhist temples dotted around the city. Consequently, Emperor Kammu (r. 781-806 CE) changed the capital yet again, a move which heralded the next Golden period of Japanese history.


The Heian Period covers 794 to 1185 CE and is named after the capital during that time, Heiankyo, known today as Kyoto.The new capital was laid out on a regular grid plan. The city had a wide central avenue and, like Nara before it, architecture followed Chinese models, at least for public buildings. The city had palaces for the aristocracy, and a large pleasure park was built south of the royal palace (Daidairi). No Heian buildings survive today except the Shishin-den (Audience Hall), which was burnt down but faithfully reconstructed, and the Daigoku-den (Hall of State), which suffered a similar fate and was rebuilt on a smaller scale at the Heian Shrine. From the 11th century CE the city's longtime informal name meaning simply 'the capital city' was officially adopted: Kyoto. It would remain the capital of Japan for a thousand years.
Kyoto was the centre of a government which consisted of the emperor, his high ministers, a council of state, and eight ministries, which, with the help of an extensive bureaucracy, ruled over some 7,000,000 people spread over 68 provinces. The vast majority of Japan's population worked the land, either for themselves or the estates of others. Burdened by banditry and excessive taxation, rebellions were not uncommon. By the 12th century CE 50% of land was held in private estates ( shoen ), and many of these, given special dispensation through favours or due to religious reasons, were exempt from paying tax, causing a serious dent in the state's finances.

Izumi Shikibu

At court the emperor, although still considered divine, became sidelined by powerful bureaucrats who all came from one family: the Fujiwara clan. Further weakening the royal position was the fact that many emperors took the throne as children and so were governed by a regent ( Sessho ), usually a representative of the Fujiwara family. When the emperor reached adulthood, he was still advised by a new position, the Kampaku, which ensured the Fujiwara still pulled the political strings of court.Emperor Shirakawa (r. 1073-1087 CE) attempted to assert his independence from the Fujiwara by abdicating in 1087 CE and allowing his son Horikawa to reign under his supervision. This strategy of 'retired' emperors still, in effect, governing, became known as 'cloistered government' ( insei ) as the emperor usually remained behind closed doors in a monastery. It added another wheel to the already complex machine of government.
Buddhism continued its dominance, helped by such noted scholar monks as Kukai (774-835 CE) and Saicho (767-822 CE), who both brought ideas and texts from China and founded the Shingon and Tendai Buddhist sects respectively. At the same time, Confucian and Taoist principles continued to be influential in government and the old Shinto and animist beliefs continued to hold sway over the general populace.
In foreign affairs, after 838 CE Japan became somewhat isolationist without any necessity to defend its borders or embark on territorial conquest. However, sporadic trade and cultural exchanges continued with China, as before. Goods imported from China included medicines, worked silk fabrics, books, ceramics, weapons, and musical instruments while Japan sent in return pearls, gold dust, amber, raw silk, and gilt lacquerware. Monks, scholars, students, musicians, and artists were sent to see what they could learn from the still more advanced culture of China.
The period is noted for its cultural achievements, which included the creation of a Japanese writing ( kana ) using Chinese characters, mostly phonetically, which permitted the production of the world's first novel, the Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu (c. 1020 CE), and several noted diaries ( nikki ) written by court ladies, including The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon (c. 1002 CE). Another important work was the 905 CE Kokinshu poem anthology.
Visual arts were represented by screen paintings, hand scrolls of pictures and text ( e-maki ), and fine calligraphy. Painters and sculptors continued to use Buddhism as their inspiration, but gradually, a more wholly Japanese approach expanded the range of subject matter in art to ordinary people and places. A Japanese style, Yamato-e, developed in painting particularly, which distinguished it from Chinese works. It is characterised by more angular lines, the use of brighter colours and greater decorative details.
All of this artistic output at the capital was very fine, but in the provinces, new power-brokers were emerging. Left to their own devices and fuelled by blood from the minor nobility two important groups evolved: the Minamoto and Taira clans. With their own private armies of samurai they became important instruments in the hands of rival members of the Fujiwara clan's internal power struggle, which broke out in the 1156 CE Hogen Disturbance and the 1160 CE Heiji Disturbance.
The Taira eventually swept away the Fujiwara and all rivals, but in the Genpei War (1180-1185 CE), the Minamoto returned victorious, and at the war ’s finale, the Battle of Dannoura, the Taira leader, Tomamori, and the young emperor Antoku committed suicide. The Minamoto clan leader Yoritomo was shortly after given the title of shogun by the emperor, and his rule would usher in the medieval chapter of Japanese history with the Kamakura Period (1185-1333 CE), also known as the Kamakura Shogunate, when Japanese government became dominated by the military.
This article was made possible with generous support from the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation.

Ancient Korea › Origins

Definition and Origins

Author: Mark Cartwright

Korea, located on a large peninsula on the eastern coast of the Asian mainland, has been inhabited since Neolithic times.The first recognisable political state was Gojoseon, which existed in the second half of the first millennium BCE. From the 1st century BCE to the 7th century CE the peninsula was dominated by the kingdoms of Baekje, Goguryeo and Silla, along with the Gaya confederacy in a period known as the Three Kingdoms period. Silla, with significant Chinese aid, would eventually conquer all of the other Korean states and form the Unified Silla Kingdom which ruled until 935 CE. From the 10th century CE, the peninsula was ruled by the Goryeo kingdom until Korea's independence was brought to an end by the Mongol invasions of the 13th century CE.
Close cultural and political ties were maintained with China, albeit with significant periods of conflict between the two areas.Japan was another trading partner and was also involved in Korean cultural exchange. Ancient Korea has provided many unique contributions to world culture including the invention of movable metal type printing, superb celadon ceramics, the exquisite gold crowns of Silla, the oldest astronomical observatory in Asia, fine gilt-bronze Buddhist figurines, stone pagodas, hanji, the most prized paper in the world, and the ondol underfloor heating system.


The Korean peninsula was inhabited from 10,000 BCE (or even earlier) by people who subsisted on hunting, fishing, and gathering. The earliest known settlements date to c. 6,000 BCE. Megalithic structures from the 2nd millennium BCE still dot the landscape of Korea and number over 200,000. Dolmens were constructed of huge single stones and were likely used as tomb markers. Other types of burials take the form of stone-lined cist graves with precious goods such as amazonite jewellery being buried with the deceased.
Dwellings of this period are typically subterranean with a roof supported by poles and have a central hearth. Villages tend to be located on hillsides and sometimes enclosed within a wooden perimeter fence. Archaeological finds include jewellery made from stone, bone and shell; chipped stone hand-axes; stone pestle and mortars; stone ploughs, sickles, and hoes; and obsidian or slate arrowheads. Early pottery, especially in the form of flat-bottomed brown bowls with incised decoration, shows a cultural link with communities in the Liaoning province and Liaodong peninsula of China. Neolithic pottery and obsidian objects also indicate an early maritime trade with ancient Japan.
Agriculture was first practised from the second millennium BCE and aided by the introduction of rice cultivation from China by 700 BCE. The Korean Bronze Age covered the same period with the metal culture brought from Manchuria. The presence of fine bronze goods such as swords, bells, and mirrors in certain tombs along the Taedon River indicates a culture with a tribal elite. Other common bronze items include slender daggers, spearheads, belt buckles, and fan-shaped axes. The Korean Iron Age began in the 3rd century BCE as evidenced by tomb finds of that date in Gyeongju (Kyongju). It was in this period that the first state was formed, Gojoseon.

Table Dolmen, Ganghwa, Korea


Gojoseon (Gochoson), according to Korean mythology as recounted in the 13th-century CE Samguk yusa ('Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms'), was founded in 2333 BCE by Dangun Wanggeom (Tangun) who was the offspring of the god Hwanung and a female bear transformed into a woman. Archaeological evidence suggests that the state was formed from the alliance of small fortified towns around the Daedong (Taedong) and Liao River basins perhaps from the 7th century BCE and more certainly from the 4th century BCE. Although mentioned in the c. 100 BCE text Records of the Grand Historian written by the Chinese historian Sima Qian, modern historians continue to debate whether it is possible to describe Gojoseon as a state proper, when exactly did it exist, where was its capital, and what were the exact territories under its control.
Gojoseon prospered due to agricultural improvements (with iron tools introduced from China) and plentiful natural resources like gold, silver, copper, tin, and zinc. At this time the famous ondol underfloor heating system was invented and the first Korean grey stoneware produced. However, Gojoseon was weakened by attacks from the neighbouring Yan state c. 300 BCE, and a long decline set in. Gojoseon finally collapsed in the 2nd century BCE, and its successor, Wiman Joseon, did not last very long either for in 108 BCE it was conquered by the Han dynasty of China (206 BCE – 220 CE). The Han were interested in natural resources such as salt and iron and they divided northern Korea into four commanderies directly administered by their central government.

Map of Korean States in 108 BCE

Gojoseon's territories would later become Goguryeo ( Koguryo ) while the southern part of Korea at this time, often referred to as the Proto-Three Kingdoms period, was spilt into the Three Hans of Pyonhan, Mahan, and Chinhan (no connection to the Chinese Han), which became the three states of Baekje ( Paekche ), Gaya ( Kaya ), and Silla in the subsequent Three Kingdoms period. These kingdoms benefitted from the sophisticated culture brought by refugees from the collapsed Gojoseon and defeated Wiman Joseon states.


The four states of the Three Kingdoms period (57 BCE – 668 CE) were in constant rivalry and so they formed ever-changing alliances one with another and with the two dominant regional powers of China and Japan. According to a tradition based on the 12th-century CE Samguk sagi ('Historical Records of the Three States') this happened from the 1st century BCE, but modern historians prefer the 2nd or 3rd century CE (or even later) as a more accurate date when the states could be described as having more centralised governments.
Goguryeo, with its capital at Pyongyang, particularly prospered in the 5th century CE during the reign of Gwanggaeto the Great (391-413), who lived up to his other title of 'broad expander of domain,' and permitted Goguryeo to dominate northern Korea, most of Manchuria, and a portion of Inner Mongolia. Silla, meanwhile, with its capital at Kumsong (Gyeongju) flourished under the reign of king Beopheung (aka Pophung, r. 514-540 CE), achieving a much greater degree of centralisation and prospering on the eastern coast due to agricultural innovations such as oxen-drawn ploughs and irrigation systems. Gaya, squeezed between its more powerful neighbours in the south of the peninsula, never fully developed into a centralised kingdom. Silla captured the Gaya capital Pon Kaya in 532 CE, and the state collapsed completely a few decades later. Baekje had done well in the late 4th century BCE under king Kunchogo and had formed its capital at Hansong (modern Gwangju). An alliance with Silla between 433 and 553 CE brought some stability, but in 554 CE at a battle at Kwansan-song Fortress (modern Okchon) Baekje tried to reclaim territory it had lost to a Silla invasion and their 30,000-strong army was defeated and the Baekje king Song killed.

Three Kingdoms of Korea

The system of government of the three kingdoms was much as it would remain for the rest of the history of ancient Korea. A monarch ruled with the aid of senior administrative officials drawn from a landed aristocracy. Government appointed officials administered the provinces with the aid of local tribal leaders. The majority of the population were landed peasantry, and the state extracted a tax from them which was usually payable in kind. The state could also oblige citizens to fight in the army or work on government projects such as building fortifications. At the very bottom of the social ladder were slaves (typically prisoners of war or those in serious debt) and criminals, who were forced to work on the estates of the aristocracy. Society was rigidly divided into social ranks, best epitomised by the Silla sacred bone rank system which was based on birth and dictated one's work possibilities, tax obligations, and even the clothes one could wear or the utensils one could use.
The in-fighting between the Korean states was finally settled by outside intervention from China. Goguryeo had successfully rebuffed three invasions from Sui China in the 7th century CE, and then the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE) attempted an invasion in 644 CE, but the great general Yang Manchun once again brought victory to the Koreans. Goguryeo had joined forces with Baekje and successfully invade Silla territory two years before, but the Tangs were not done with their plans for Korea and they decided on Silla as their temporary ally to defeat the other two remaining Korean states. In 660 CE, a Silla army of 50,000 led by the general Kim Yushin and a naval force of 130,000 men sent by the Tang emperor Gaozong proved more than enough to crush Baekje and its king, Uija, was taken to China. Then in 667 CE Pyongyang fell, and the next year the Goguryeo king Pojang was likewise taken prisoner to China along with 200,000 of his subjects. Silla had no intention, though, of becoming a Chinese vassal state and defeated the remaining Tang army in battles at Maesosong (675 CE) and Kibolpo (676 CE). Silla then took control of all of Korea in 668 CE, forming a new state, the Unified Silla Kingdom.


The Unified Silla Kingdom (668- 935 CE) was the first dynasty to rule over the whole of the Korean peninsula. There was a state in the north at this time, Balhae ( Parhae ), but most of its territory was in Manchuria and so the majority of historians do not consider it a Korean state proper.

Silla Gold Crown

The whole state was now divided into nine provinces (three in each of the old three kingdoms) and five secondary capitals.Kumsong continued as the overall capital, then known as Sorabol, which benefitted from an extensive rebuilding programme, pleasure palaces and temples, and would eventually boast a population of around 900,000. A whole series of administrative regions, prefectures and counties were created right down to village level. To consolidate the kingdom, troublesome peoples and the ruling elites of the former kingdoms were forcibly relocated and village headmen were compelled to send their eldest sons to work in the capital administration or military. The kingdom prospered due to a thriving agricultural industry, which was made more productive via extensive irrigation projects, and trade throughout the East China Sea. The prolonged absence of war also meant that the arts and sciences flourished as never before.
The state began a slow decline from the 8th century CE, largely due to the rigidity of its class structure, still based on the bone rank system, the strict social classification of entitlements and obligations. Not only did the lack of opportunity to rise above the class of one's birth create a stagnation of ideas and innovations but the aristocracy began, too, to resent the power of the king.At the other end of the social ladder, the peasantry grew more and more resentful of the incessant taxes levied upon them. On top of that, local landed aristocrats became ever more difficult to control from the capital. The state was falling apart from within.
Two individuals would cause particular trouble for the Silla kings. One Gyeon Hwon (Kyon Hwon), a peasant leader, took advantage of the political unrest in 892 CE and formed a revival of the old Baekje kingdom in the south-west. Meanwhile, an aristocratic-Buddhist monk leader, Gung Ye (Kungye), declared a new Goguryeo state in the north in 901 CE, known as Later Goguryeo. There then followed another messy power struggle for control of the peninsula just as there had been in the Three Kingdoms period, indeed this period is often referred to as the Later Three kingdoms period. Kyon Hwon attacked Kumsong in 927 CE while Gung Ye's unpopular and fanatical tyranny led to his death a the hands of his people. He was succeeded by his first minister, the able Wang Geon ( Wang Kon ), in 918 CE who attacked Later Baekje, now beset by leadership in-fighting, and then Silla. The last Silla king, Kyongsun, surrendered in 935 CE and left Wang Kon to unify the country once again but under a new name, the Goryeo Dynasty.


Goryeo (Koguryo) would rule Korea from 918 CE to 1392 CE, and it is the name of this kingdom which is the origin of the English name for the peninsula, Korea. Wang Kon selected the northern city of Songdo (Modern Kaesong) as his new capital and declared himself king. For his contribution to creating the new state he was given the posthumous title King Taejo or 'Great Founder.' The new state was not without its external threats, and the Khitan (Qidan) tribes to the north attacked Goryeo twice.In 1033 CE they were finally defeated, and a defensive wall was built stretching right across the northern Korea border.

Korean Calligraphy

From then on the kingdom flourished and the capital Songdo boasted over 1,000 shops. For the first time Korea minted its own coinage (996 CE), and the unbyong (aka hwalgu ) silver vases were made from 1101 CE which took the shape of the Goryeo empire and were marked as legitimate currency by having the official state seal engraved on them. Movable metal type printing was invented and the older method of woodblock printing refined. The period then saw a boom in Buddhist texts and an interest in documenting the history of the country with the famous Samguk sagi ('History of the Three Kingdoms') written in 1145 CE by Kim Pu-sik.
Prosperity had its downside and resulted in a steadily increasing decadence among the ruling elite, corruption, and social unrest. Open rebellions broke out in 1126 and 1135 CE which were ultimately quashed, but matters came to a head in the reign of king Uijong who was much criticised for building lavish palaces and water parks. The military, with not much else to do and no status in higher society, staged a coup in 1170 CE. Uijong was replaced by his brother Myeongjong but he only remained as a puppet sovereign. Decades of turbulent in-fighting between all levels of Goryeo society ensued with more coups, assassinations, and slave rebellions. Worse was to come, though. Ghengis Khan, who had unified the Mongol tribes, had swept across China, and his son Ogedei Khan turned his attention to Korea in 1231 CE. Goryeo was forced to move its capital to Kanghwa Island the following year. While the ruling elite was safely ensconced on their island, the rest of the Goryeo population had to face six Mongol invasions over the next three decades. By 1258 CE, the people had had enough and the military ruler was assassinated, the king reinstalled with full powers, and peace made with the Mongols. Korea would not be independent again until the general Yi Song-gye formed the new state of Joseon in 1392 CE.


Relations between Korea and China go back to mythology when the sage Kija (Jizi) and 5,000 followers left China and settled in Dangun's kingdom. When the latter decided to retreat to meditation on a mountaintop, Kiji was made king of Gojoseon in 1122 BCE. This myth may represent the arrival of Iron Age culture to Korea.

Bronze Korean Coin, Goryeo Dynasty

Trade between the two areas went on throughout this period. Iron, gold, silver, copper, ginseng, hemp goods, pine nuts, furniture, paper, and horses were exported to China, and silk, tea, spices, medicine, ceramics, books, and writing materials came in the other direction. Chinese culture was likely brought to Korea by refugees fleeing the 4th-century BCE conflicts of the Warring States period. Archaeological evidence of this early cultural influence is perhaps best seen in the use of pit burial tombs in the Daedong River area and the frequent presence of horse trappings therein. Later cultural ties are more clearly defined with Korea adopting the Chinese writing system, the kingly title of wang, coinage, literature, and elements of art. Students and scholars frequently went to study in China.
Similarly, diplomatic and cultural relations with Japan were ongoing from the Bronze age onwards. The Wa (Wae) of Japan had particularly strong ties with the Gaya confederation. The latter was the more advanced culture and exported large quantities of iron, but just how much one state influenced or even controlled the other is still debated by scholars. Baekje culture was exported to Japan, especially via teachers, scholars, and artists, who also spread there Chinese culture such as the classic texts of Confucius. Relations were maintained with southern Japan by the Unified Silla kingdom, especially in the Nara and Heian periods. Goryeo, too, continued trade relations and imported Japanese goods, especially swords and paper folding fans.


The Korean states, traditionally practitioners of shamanism, adopted first Confucianism, then Taoism and Buddhism from China, with Korea making the latter the official state religion from the 4th century CE. Confucian principles were followed in the state administration and were an essential part of entrance exams to positions within that system. Buddhism was the strongest faith, though, and temples and monasteries sprang up everywhere. The Buddhist temple -monasteries, with their landed estates, royal patronage, and exemption from tax, became wealthy and the whole religious apparatus rivalled that of the state itself. Many such monasteries even had their own armed forces recruited from warrior-monks and the general populace.Buddhism was practised not only by the elite families, which often sent a son to study at a monastery and become a monk, but also by the lower classes.

Buddha Statue, Seokguram Grotto


High-fired grey stoneware was produced in great quantities from the Three Kingdoms period. Ceramics were decorated with incisions, applying additional clay pieces, and cutting away the clay to create a latticework effect. The most famous Korean ceramics from any period, though, are the pale green celadons produced in the Goryeo kingdom. Also known as greenware, these have a smooth glaze and typically have fine inlaid designs ( sanggam ), especially Buddhist motifs such as the lotus flower, cranes, and clouds. Celadons were first introduced into Korea from China during the 9th century CE, but Korean potters became so skilled at their manufacture that their wares were exported back to China and, even today, Korean celadons are amongst the most prized ceramics in the world.
Tomb-painting is best seen in the tombs of Goguryeo. Over 80 of them have chambers decorated with brightly painted scenes of everyday life, portraits of the occupants, and mythical creatures. The paintings were made by applying the paint either directly onto the stone wall or onto a lime plaster base.

Celadon Fish-Dragon Ewer, Goryeo Dynasty

Buddhist art was popular throughout the peninsula, and gilt-bronze was used to produce expressive statuettes of Buddha, Maitreya (the coming Buddha), and bodhisattvas. Monumental figures were carved from boulders and into rock faces too. Gilt bronze was also used to manufacture ornate incense burners, relics boxes, and crowns. The most famous Korean crowns are those of the Silla kingdom made in sheet-gold. These have trees and stag-like branches which represent a link with shamanism. Jewellery of all kinds was made using goldwork techniques such as wiring, punching, cutting, and granulation.Jade, often carved into crescent moon shapes, was a popular form of embellishment for these glittering adornments. Another skill of Korean metalworkers from the Unified Silla kingdom onwards was the casting of large bronze bells ( pomjong ) which were used in Buddhist temples to announce services.


The best surviving remains of Korean architecture from the period prior to recorded history are megalithic structures, fortification walls, and stone-lined tombs. Outstanding examples of ancient Korean dolmens are the table-type structures on Ganghwa Island which date to c. 1000 BCE in the Korean Bronze Age. Single standing stones (menhirs), unrelated to a burial context and perhaps used as marker stones, are also found across Korea.
Unfortunately, there are few surviving public buildings from ancient Korea prior to the 16th century CE. The architecture of ancient Korea is, then, best seen in tomb paintings and those structures which do still stand such as the stone pagoda of the Baekje Miruk temple at Iksan which has six of its original 7-9 storeys. Stone pagodas are Korea's unique contribution to Buddhist architecture with two other fine examples being the Dabotap and Seokgatap pagodas at the 8th century CE Bulguksa temple near Gyeongju.

Muryangsujeon, Buseoksa, Korea

Large mound tombs are typical of the Three Kingdoms period. These are earth-covered mounds with interior stone-lined or brick interior chambers for the deceased, usually with a horizontal entrance passage (except Silla tombs which have no access point). One of the largest such tombs is at the Goguryeo capital Kungnaesong (modern Tonggou) and thought to be that of King Gwanggaeto the Great (r. 391–412 CE). It is 75 metres long and using blocks measuring 3 x 5 metres.
One of the outstanding stone structures from the Unified Silla period is the Buddhist Seokguram Grotto (Sokkuram) temple east of Gyeongju. Constructed between 751 and 774 CE, it contains a circular domed inner chamber within which is a massive seated Buddha. Another interesting Silla structure is the mid-7th century CE Cheomseongdae observatory. 9 metres tall, it acted like a sundial but also has a south-facing window which captures the sun's rays on the interior floor on each equinox. It is the oldest surviving observatory in East Asia.
A good idea of the Korean architectural style for larger houses and palaces is seen in the 13th-century CE Goryeo Hall of Eternal Life (Muryangsujeon) at the Pusok temple in Yongju. It is one of the oldest wooden structures surviving in the whole of Korea. Roofs of Korean buildings, as seen in the Hall of Eternal Life, are typically high-pitched to allow easy drainage of rainwater and strong enough to resist the weight of snow in winter. They are also high to permit air-flow in the warmer months.Ancient roofs were made of wooden beams and then tiled ( giwa ) over a layer of earth to provide extra insulation. The roofs are concave for aesthetic purposes, and the eaves also gently curve upwards ( cheoma ). This curvature permits extra sunlight in winter to enter the building and at the same time provide a little extra shade in summer.

Hanok Interior

Interior walls of traditional Korean buildings ( hanok ) were made of wood and paper, often functioning as sliding doors ( changhoji ). The floors of rooms could be either in wood and slightly elevated (the maru system) to keep the room cool in hot months or used the ondol system of underfloor heating necessary for winter months. This latter type, made of stone with a waxed paper covering, has a system of flues through which hot air flows from the main hearth of the house. External doors and windows were made using interlocking grids of wood ( changsal ), often carved into highly decorative latticework ( kkotsal). The home was divided into purpose-specific areas and typically enclosed a courtyard or garden area.
Finally, the immediate topography of buildings was an important consideration so that architects endeavoured to harmoniously blend their designs into the natural environment ( pungsu ) and take advantage of scenic views ( andae ). The best possible place was a site which was backed by mountains to block the wind and opened onto a wide plain with a river running through it to provide the home with positive energy or gi.
This article was made possible with generous support from the British Korean Society.

Chariots in Ancient Chinese Warfare › Origins

Ancient Civilizations

Author: Mark Cartwright

The chariot was used in Chinese warfare from around 1250 BCE but enjoyed its heyday between the 8th and 5th century BCE when various states were constantly battling for control of China. Employed as a status symbol, a shock weapon, to pursue the enemy, or as transport for archers and commanders, it was used effectively in many battles of the period.Eventually, with the rise of lighter and more mobile infantry and especially following the introduction of cavalry, its limitations were more exposed with the consequence that the chariot became relegated to a peripheral role in warfare from the 3rd century BCE.

Chinese Qin Chariot


Chariots first came into use from the mid-13th century BCE and were probably introduced from Central Asia. According to Chinese legend, in contrast, they were invented closer to home by the Yellow Emperor or one of his ministers Hsi Chung. That they were imported is evidenced in the absence of any significant evolution, the absence of precursor vehicles such as carts and wagons, and that the earliest chariot finds are already relatively complex in design. A rectangular walled platform was attached over a single transverse axle which the wheels revolved around. A single draught pole running from the centre of the cab was then harnessed to the horses.
At first, their use in the Shang state (and some neighbours) was limited with only a few nobles employing them in battle, and their production, like weapons in general, was controlled by the state. Shang chariots were usually drawn by a pair of horses, more rarely by four, which were small stocky creatures controlled by a rope bridle and bit, which evolved into leather versions and then bronze. Chariots had two wheels, which could be up to 1.5 m (5 ft) in diameter with 18 spokes being the commonest number. The wheels were thus much higher than 2ndmillennium BCE chariots of Mycenae and the Near East.
Made of wood, bamboo, rattan and cane with some bronze fittings such as parts of the yoke and axle, they had an open front and low sides sometimes topped by a guard rail. The back was not open as in chariots in other cultures but had a gap left to mount the vehicle. A chariot crew ( ma ) consisted of the driver, an archer (who typically stood on the left side) and sometimes a third soldier armed with a spear or knife-axe (on the right side). It is interesting to note that most burial sites with chariots have only two people buried with them.
Chariots from this period have been found in 25 separate tombs where they were buried along with their two horses, equipment and rider which indicates the high status of the deceased. In this early period, it is important, then, to note that chariots were employed much more for ceremonial purposes, to give prestige to rulers, and as hunting vehicles than they were as weapons of war. One final use of chariots was the gruesome punishment for crimes like arson with the guilty being tied to and ripped apart by two chariots driving in opposite directions.


During the Western Zhou (Chou) period (c. 1046-771 CE) chariots developed larger wheels with more spokes and a curve away from the hub, increasing their strength. Teams of four horses became more usual than pairs and the whole vehicle received lavish decoration using cowrie shells and bronze fittings. Riders now wore chest and arm armour made from bronze, leather scales or lacquered (Sumatran) rhino and buffalo hides while the horses were protected by tiger skins with bronze additions. The extra weight which resulted in these developments would have reduced the mobility of the chariot and it is possible they were now largely used to impress and demoralise the enemy while commanders used them to better coordinate their troops.

Chinese Chariot Design

The Western Zhou army had around 3,000 chariots at its peak to complement its 30,000 infantry. Chariots were arranged, as during the Shang, in corps of 25 subdivided into units of 5. Chariots continued to be buried with the elite in a ceremony of conspicuous consumption designed to impress. One grave pit at Liulihe of the Yan state contained 42 horses and their chariots.


In the Eastern Zhou period (771-226 BCE) the hundreds of small states in China were gradually consolidated into eight major states. As these rivals battled for territory the power and threat of their armies were measured in how many war chariots they could field in battle. The fierce competition ensured that states invested heavily in bulking up their chariot armies. For example, in 632 CE the Tsin had 632 chariots but only a century later they boasted 4,900. In 720 CE the Ch'i had 100 chariots but this rose to 4,000 by the early 5th century BCE.
Chariots continued to improve in design with wheels now having up to 26 spokes, the central pole was shortened to give greater stability, and the cab was covered in hardened leather for extra protection. Sometimes chariots had a canopy to deflect arrows, sported banners, and had lethal serrated bronze blades attached to their wheel hubs. Four horses and the three-man crew continued to be the norm but the excessive decoration of the Western Zhou chariots largely disappears.
Chariots were manufactured for different purposes - lighter ones for speed to pursue a fleeing enemy or heavier and better-armoured ones for direct assaults on entrenched enemy positions. One specialised chariot of the period was the crow's nest chariot or ch'ao-ch'e which had a higher chassis, reinforced wheels, and a tower on its cab so that one man - sometimes even the army commander himself - could better view the battlefield and pass on orders to the flag wavers who communicated manoeuvres on the ancient Chinese battlefield.
The Luiu-t'ao ( Six Secret Teachings ), the 5th-3rd-century BCE military treatise, describes the necessity for chariot warriors to be the best and fittest in the army:
The rule for selecting warriors for the chariots is to pick men under forty years of age, seven feet five inches [modern: 5 ft 7 in.] or taller, whose running ability is such that they can pursue a galloping horse, race up to it, mount it, and ride it forward and back, left and right, up and down, all around. They should be able to quickly furl up the flags and pennants and have the strength to fully draw an eight-picul crossbow. They should pracitce shooting front and back, left and right, until thoroughly skilled. They are termed 'Martial Chariot Warriors.' You cannot but be generous to them. (in Sawyer, 2007, 100)


Chariots were typically formed into units of five and deployed either separately or with each chariot accompanied by its own contingent of infantry. They could be lined up in single file along the front of the infantry lines prior to battle or grouped all together in the dead centre. A commander might use a group of chariots as a shock weapon and charge a specific area of the enemy's formation or use them in a feint attack to disrupt the enemy's own manoeuvres or in a rapid ambush.

Chariot, Terracotta Army

A commander had to be careful of his terrain when employing chariots as they were liable to get bogged down in wet conditions or break their axles if the field of battle was pitted with holes and rocks - there are cases when commanders prepared the field by filling the larger holes. An added limitation was the manoeuvrability of the vehicles. With a fixed axle and the horses tied to a draught pole in such a way that they could not move sideways, a chariot needed a large space to make significant turns. About turns or retreats must have been chaotic, exposing both horses and riders to infantry and archer attack.There are many instances in accounts where riders are speared or dragged from the chariot by infantry and wheels are smashed by jamming spears between the spokes when a chariot slowed to turn. For this reason each chariot usually had its own small infantry unit to protect it. Chariot counter-measures could be taken by the enemy, too, such as digging concealed pits and ditches in the battlefield or scattering caltrops (clusters of metal spikes) to incapacitate the horses.
Chariots may not always have been used to directly confront the enemy but kept as a means to take troops to the battlefield, offer the general and unit commanders better mobility and visibility of what was going on in the chaos of battle, or act as a mobile platform for archers to fire on the enemy from a distance (although the jostling of the vehicle would have made accurate fire extremely difficult). Finally, and probably as a last resort, chariots could be arranged to form a defensive wall behind which beleaguered troops could make a better defence just as settlers did with their wagons in 20th-century CE Western films.Several examples of such a tactic being employed exist, including with success against a numerically superior enemy.
The Liu-t'ao has this to say on the deployment of chariots:
For battle on easy terrain five chariots comprise one line. The lines are forty paces apart and the chariots ten paces apart from left to right, with detachments being sixty paces apart. On difficult terrain the chariots must follow the roads, with ten comprising a company, and twenty a regiment. Front to rear spacing should be twenty paces, left to right six paces, with detachments being thirty-six paces apart. (in Sawyer, 2011, 371)
Sometimes, as in the battle of Pi in 595 BCE between the Ch'u and Tsin, skirmishes between chariot units would go on for days before the infantry engaged each other. In the Battle of Cheng in 713 BCE between the northern Jung and Cheng the latter used their chariots to make a false retreat and then returned to surround the enemy which had become disordered in their pursuit. In the battle at Ch'en-p'u in 632 BCE between the Tsin and Ch'u, the commander, Duke Wen of Tsin, was able to surprise the enemy with his troop movements by shielding them under a cloud of dust raised by having his chariots drag branches behind them over the dry terrain. In another imaginative tactic employed by a Tsin commander, who faced the Ch'i again in the battle of P'ing-yin in 554 BCE, chariots were filled with dummies and only one rider to make it appear the army was much larger than it was. The ruse worked as the Ch'i commander withdrew thinking himself greatly outnumbered.


The Zhou period had been the golden age of the chariot and never again would they be used in such great numbers. However, that is not to say that they had always been used effectively. One infamous loss was in 613 CE when a peasant revolt in the Tsu state overthrew its rulers. An army was sent by allies which included 800 chariots but the peasant army was victorious.
The same problem hit chariot warfare just as it had in other cultures from Greece to Carthage : chariots needed relatively flat terrain and space to manoeuvre or they could easily be outflanked by a more mobile enemy infantry force no longer weighed down by bronze age armour or rigidly deployed in only three forward-moving divisions. There are episodes of chariots still being employed as useful mobile units of archers or even as a kind of artillery with winched crossbows mounted on them. In addition, literature continued to expound the noble virtue of heroes like Lang Shin riding their glorious chariots fearlessly into the enemy. Nevertheless, the reality was that from c. 500 BCE the sword was replacing the bow and spear and better infantry deployment had reduced the effectiveness of chariots on the battlefield.
When cavalry was introduced in 307 BCE, the chariot's days as an effective weapon were seriously numbered even if armies such as those of the Ch'in empire (221-206 BCE) employed them in smaller numbers and they are present in the Terracotta Army of Shi Huangdi (d. 210 BCE) with some groups of chariots accompanied by larger units of cavalry while others seem to function as field transport for groups of officers. In the 2nd century BCE, the Han continued to field them, too, but they seem to have been the exception when it came to chariot use. In general, just as the Egyptians and Mesopotamians had discovered a thousand years before, the chariot's limitation of manoeuvrability on the battlefield and the arrival of more dynamic military encounters relegated it to a minor role in ancient Chinese warfare.


Article based on information obtained from these sources:
with permission from the Website Ancient History Encyclopedia
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