Ten surprising tidbits from Korean history

Written by on May 2, 2014 in Special Report, Worldwide Korea Bloggers

We all love Korean historical dramas, and most of us are using this platform to learn more about Korean history. Dramas are good to study about culture, society, relationships but is not always a reliable source of facts, since many dramas involve a significant amount of artistic freedom applied to the script. When you start diligently studying Korean history, though, you get immersed into a fascinating world of incredible complexity.

I compiled a couple of facts about Korea that might actually surprise you, unless you are studying Korean history yourself, either for fun, or professionally.

So, did you know that….

1. … North Korea claims to have found the remains of legendary founder of the Korean nation, Dangun Wanggeom? The only problem is that serious historians consider him to be a legend only. Well, what else could a person born out of the love of a half-god and a bear possibly be?

Read more about Dangun’s legend here. (Image from ohmynews.com)

2. … there have been many states that occupied parts of the Korean penninsula before the first unified state, Silla unified the three kingdoms of Goguryeo-Baekje-Silla in AD 676. One of these earlier states were Buyeo, which existed between the 2nd century BC and 494 AD. In this ancient Korean state women were sentenced to death upon adultery and even if they were found to be jealous of their husbands. (Kim, pp 22-23.)

3. … Silla‘s capital, Gyeongju was so big and prosperous it may have had around one million citizens? This is also where East Asia’s oldest surviving observatory, the Cheomseongdae was built in the 7th century. (Lee, p78., Visitkorea)

Cheomsongdae (Photo: Visitkorea.or.kr)

4. … according to current knowledge, in all of Korean history there have only been three queens who reigned? And all three were from Silla? All other known monarchs in all known Korean states were male.

5. … moving metal type printing was invented in Goryeo some 200 years before Gutenberg? (Cumings, pp.39-45)

6. … Buddhist temples in Goryeo kept slaves, just like the nobles did, and they also made large amounts of alcohol and often operated inns? (Nahm, pp. 77–78)

7. … women had significantly more rights in Goryeo than in Joseon later on? They could own and inherit property, freely mingle with men, divorce and remarriage was allowed to them, and after marriage the man would live in the bride’s house for a longer period. It all changed in Joseon as Confucianism grew stronger. (Seth, pp. 96-97.)

8. … traditional Korean sports like ssireum (Korean wrestling) can actually be traced back to Goguryeo times (37 BC – 668 AD)? (Yi, p. 107; Yu-Kwon, p. 131.)

Depiction of ssireum. (Image source: altaic-wiki)

9. …. hanbok has its origins in the Korean Three Kingdoms period (Goguryeo-Baekje-Silla; 1-7 centuries AD)? It is related to the kaftan and reflects on the nomadic horse-riding nature of earlier Korean societies. Initially both men and women wore the same long jacket design (“jogori”), which gradually became shorter and shorter for women over time. (Han-style)

Early Korean hanbok from the Three Kingdoms period. Photo by Brian Negin, cc-by-sa-3.0)

Early Korean hanbok from the Three Kingdoms period. Photo by Brian Negin, cc-by-sa-3.0)

10.  …the yangban elite in Joseon did not have to pay any kind of taxes? They considered themselves eligible for all worldly wealth and pleasure and everyone else to be mere servants. They avoided conscription and all type of manual work, having the peasants pay all form of taxes, including the tax issued on all yangban private lands. (Nahm, pp. 102-105; Cumings, p. 55.)

About the Author

Timea Baksa

I'm from Hungary. I got attracted to Korea through music and movies. I'm a blogger on Asian culture, an editorial writer at Hellokpop magazine and a contributor to Wikipedia. I love learning languages, currently trying to make my way through Korean.