The Korean peninsula juts south from the East Asian mainland. Like Japan, much of the Korean Peninsula is covered by rugged mountains, which limits the amount of land for agriculture. The mountain ranges run north to south along the peninsula’s east coast. As a result, Korea’s main population centers are in the west, where the land flattens into plains. This location between China and Japan made Korea a bridge for the passage of people, culture, and ideas.
The first Koreans were nomadic peoples from northeastern Asia. As in Japan, the early Koreans formed clans and developed their own culture.
Three Kingdoms: c. 300s–c. 670
China soon began to influence Korea, when the Han dynasty of China defeated and colonized part of Korea in 108 BC. During this period, the Koreans adopted Confucianism as well as Chinese writing, political institutions, and agricultural methods. Eventually, Chinese missionaries introduced Buddhism to Korea as well. After China’s Han dynasty declined, three rival kingdoms gained control of Korea.
Silla dynasty: c. 670–c. 935
By 668 the rulers of one of these kingdoms, Silla, allied with China—then ruled by the Tang dynasty—and conquered the other two kingdoms. The Silla then turned on the Chinese and drove them from Korea. By about 670 the Silla ruled all of Korea. Although independent, Silla’s rulers agreed to pay tribute to China to ensure harmony and goodwill.
Under Silla rule, the Koreans embraced many aspects of Chinese civilization. Silla’s rulers promoted Buddhism, for example, and created a central government and bureaucracy based on the Tang model.
Koryu dynasty: c. 935–1392
The Silla Kingdom eventually weakened, and around 935, rebels defeated it and founded the Koryo dynasty. This dynasty, whose name is the basis of the word Korea, lasted until 1392. Founded by the warlord Wang Kon.
Korean society was divided between a powerful nobility and the rest of the people. During the Koryo period, Korean culture thrived. Korean artisans created pottery covered with a blue-green glaze called celadon. This celadon pottery rivaled Song porcelain in beauty and was highly prized. In addition, the Koreans used Chinese methods of printing and carved some 80,000 wooden blocks to print Buddhist texts. The Koreans later improved the process by creating metal movable type.