2333 BC – 108 BC
Let’s kick off History Of A Nation 2017. Where the aim is to reach the AD years before the end of this year. Too ambitious? Maybe at least 500 BC. And yes, this is one more state that technically started before 2000 BC, I said there were no more when I did Old Assyria but this one I overlooked and in all honesty, the claim that it had its origins before 2000 BC is very unsubstantiated and largely these days just used as propaganda by a certain family line of North Korean dictators. Yet if I did Van Lang and the Xia Dynasty this early on I might as well go for Gojoseon, and outline another national founding myth. If only there were something similar I could do for Japan (for the uninitiated, I am very personally interested in Japanese history as I am with most parts of its culture and yet there’s basically no records or even founding legends anywhere near this far back so my first Japan post will be quite a while from now). Gojoseon means ‘Ancient Joseon’ and is called that to differentiate itself from later states called Joseon, that often being a word used as interchangeable with Korea itself if I’m understanding this correctly.
Located mostly in the northern part of the Korean peninsula, the first Korean state seems to be largely set between the Yalu and the Imjin rivers but probably in its heyday reached all the way out to the Liao river over by Bohai Bay in Northeast China, hence for my nation sorting purposes it will go into both the Koreas and China. We know this as the first time Gojoseon is actually mentioned in historical records, is as late as the 7th century, hence if you want to be pedantic I could be doing this much later. And the first link we have is the Chinese state of Qi trading with Koreans over the water in Bohai Bay, far further into modern China than you’d expect Koreans to be. Still, they only start referring to them as a country in the last century of Gojoseon’s existence, until then Korea is ‘that large region over the other side of the bay’. Until the last years of its existence Gojoseon was probably a big collection of city-states in a sort of federal alliance, so there may be something on that. But let’s get to the Timeline so I can say why we’re doing it this early.
If we are going to be generous to Korean founding myths, then Gojoseon began as a state in 2333 BC. There are 1400 years in between that and the Qi beginning to trade with them where they could have been a collection of Korean city-states working together but it’s more likely they started at least past 2000 BC so I still win. In fact I think they started 1999 BC purely so I get to say this is the exact right place to put them. Sorry Korean historians and people with a lifetime of research in this area, I decide now.
In actuality, the Korean founding myths have a man called Dangun founding Korea. A bit like Lộc Tục of Van Lang and the legendary emperors of China, there’s a lot that is mythical about him. His grandfather was the Lord of Heaven. Dangun’s father, the son of this Lord wanted to live on Earth. He descended to Baekdu Mountain in the north of Korea and founded a city. Nearby were a tiger and a bear who wished to become human. Dangun’s father gave them a test, stay in a cave and eat garlic for 100 days. The tiger failed and left the cave, but the bear succeeded and transformed into a beautiful woman. As you do when you’re a former animal turned human, she hooked up with Dangun’s father and bore the founder of Korea from her loins. He built a capital, Asadal, whose location is disputed but believed to be near modern Pyongyang, establishing Gojoseon. This is dated to 2333 BC by a medieval text that corresponds it with the legendary Chinese emperor reigning at the time. North Korea today sometimes puts it even further back. For prestige and all.
Then, absolutely nothing for 1200 years. In the 11th century, taking the throne of Gojoseon we have Jizi, a Chinese sage escaping from the collapse of the Shang dynasty, who we are yet to cover here. As he was Chinese rather than Korean, his story has lost some popularity in recent years but it was very popular during the rule of the actual Joseon in the eary modern period. Unlike Danggun there’s probable cause for his existence (not being the son of a bear helps, what also helps is that we can track Chinese history from his time period onwards) but it’s unconfirmed that he actually ruled Gojoseon.
The only other names for kings turn up at Gojoseon’s decline, when it is about to be invaded by the Han. And most of them are Chinese generals installed in the century before the Han annexed Gojoseon. King Jun in 194 was the last Korean king of this nation. And the only king for whom we’re positive on existence and rulership.
Yan had been invading Gojoseon for the last two centuries on and off so it would have only been a matter of time before they succeeded. However this was probably when Gojoseon really became a state worth talking about, with more connections with the cities under it and a greater sense of who the monarch was. This was the Warring States period in mainland China, and Yan was just the closest part of that, yet for two hundred years Gojoseon held them off, while the king of Gojoseon grew ever more powerful until finally they were overthrown. Yan records describe a cruel leadership but that’s probably only one side of the story.
In 194 BC, Jun appointed Wiman, a Yan refugee from the unification of China as one of his generals. That was a mistake as Wiman rebelled while Jun fled south to the state of Jin. I hope you’re keeping up. Wiman set up his line on the throne of Gojoseon and they managed to hold for a time before the Han in 108 BC lost an ambassador (by the incredibly unconfusing name of She He) to political conflicts, in response killed Ugeo, Wiman’s grandson and ruler at the time and annexed part of Gojoseon into four commanderies under their rule. Successor States sprang from the rest and the next part of the history of Korea is a lot more confusing – so when we get to it in a year or two I’ll explain it well.
We don’t know that much about the state. Archaeologically we have the Bronze Age starting on the peninsula around about 1000 BC, a new culture of people around 2000 BC (see, I was right!). We have specially shaped mandolin daggers that form the most unique part of their later bronze-working as you can see from the pictures, but Gojoseon sites also have bronze items that were at least influenced by styles in Manchuria and Siberia.
They started farming rice around about the time the Bronze Age kicked in, I wish I could tell you more. Ultimately not much is known about the Gojoseon state, I wish all future leaders of North Korea the best of luck in finding more that proves it was the greatest nation in the world.
See Also in History Of A Nation: China
Main line of Dynasties: Xia