100 CE to 313 CE: The Han Commanderies Part 2 (한사군; 漢四郡)


The exciting conclusion of the Han Commanderies in ancient Korea. The Korean Han (韓; 한); The Chinese Han (漢朝; 한조); Koguryeo ( 고구려; 高句麗); Wa (倭); Ye (예; 濊)


Welcome to the History of Korea. I’m your host, Allen Lee. In this episode, we continue our talk about the Han Commanderies in Korea.

[intro music] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yMYuHkUGpxU By Luna Lee; patreon page here: https://www.patreon.com/lunalee

Where are we now in Korean History? As a brief reminder, Han China conquered the major northern Korean power, Joseon, in the 1st century BCE. It then incorporated into its empire the northern coast lines into more or less four administrative districts, or commanderies. Lelang (樂浪郡, 낙랑군); Xuantu Commandery (玄菟郡, 현도군); Lintun Commandery (臨屯郡, 임둔군); Zhenfan Commandery (眞番郡, 진번군). 

At one point in time, each of these commanderies were managed by walled cities with tens of thousands of Chinese colonialists and officials and soldiers. The indigenous kingdoms and tribes in the north have been more or less pulled into a sometimes uneasy relationship with these commanderies. Some of them, such as the Ye in the northeast, willingly adopted Chinese suzerainty in exchange for their own semi-autonomy. But the Ye would not remain subservient for long. Others, such as the conquered Joseon, were basically bribed into compliance by having their social elite included into the administrative structure of the commanderies, with mixed results.

200 years later, around the 1st century CE, Han China remains in control but the cracks in its wide-ranging empire are beginning to form. Most of the Chinese colonialists in Korea came from three regions: the Liaoning peninsula, and Shandong peninsula and Hebei. It just so happens that lots of rebellions are occurring in these regions at the time. Partly because of that, large populations of Chinese settlers were moving to the Korean peninsula, particularly to the Lelang Commandery. And because some of them were escaping political instability, some of them were aligned against the ruling Han.

This caused internal strife at home to spill over into Korea, with wide ranging consequences for both the Chinese emigres and the Koreans. In this episode we’ll continue where we left off regarding Wang Diao’s rebellion against the Han Emperor and the huge consequences on the Korean peninsula. We’ll then conclude the story of the commanderies, following them until their demises. We’ll also begin our talks about the many indigenous kingdoms in the south that these Commanderies came into contact with. Of course the larger kingdoms such as Koguryeo deserve their own separate episodes, which they will, not to worry. You’ll also see our first (but not last) mention of the Wa people, or as we know them today, Japan.



So we left off the last episode after Wang Diao killed the Lelang governor and established his own regime there. He would only rule for five years before the eastern Han would restore order in inner China, and also bring back control of Lelang.

But that rebellion would only be a harbinger of more turmoil to come. In the 2nd century, the Eastern Han dynasty became really unstable again, allowing a family called the Gongsun (公孫 ; 공손) to take control of Liaodong as the official governor; and also exercised influence over the Shandong peninsula for 50 years. 

One member of the family, Gongson Kang (공손강; 公孫康) inherited control of Lelang and Xuantu from his father.  Around 204 to 207 CE, he formed another commandery from the then-abandoned southern part of Lelang, or what was left of it, and called it Daifeng. He did it to (1) better control the growing Korean Han to the south and also because (2) Lelang was still under the influence of the Chinese Han. 

While Lelang’s seat was located near Pyongyang, Daifeng’s was located in present day Hwanghae Province, or 황해북도, south of Pyongyang directly above the present DMZ.

Studies of tombs in Daifeng give us some clues as to what might have happened. In the first century BCE, wood-frame tombs were most common; later it was log-frame tombs. By the Daifeng era, we find log-and-brick tombs (귀 틀벽 돌무덤) or brick-frame tombs (벽 돌곽무덤) with inscriptions showing some inhabitants who had come from Shandong. 

It’s important to note that Gongsun did not seek to reform Lelang or completely take it over. One theory is that Lelang and Daifang were separate to keep control of different kingdoms. Lelang was used to maintain relations with Joseon and Ye; while Daifeng was used to maintain relations with the Han people (that is, the Korean Han people) to the south; and also to maintain relations with the Kingdom of Wa. 

Kingdom of Wa (倭)

So, let’s talk about Japan! Now this is significant because this is the first time in this particular story line, and that’s the China-centric one, that we’ll be mentioning them. When we go back and talk about this same time period from the perspective of Koreans we will mention them again, but even earlier, since Japan and Korea had been in close contact much earlier.

To be clear, prior to Daifeng’s formation in around 200 CE, Lelang was the main contact point to China for the Wa Kingdom.

The earliest mention of the Japanese people in historical records was done in reference to the Lelang Commandery. It occurs in the Hanshu (한서; 漢書; the Book of Han) in the line: 

The Wa people live in the midst of the ocean that extends out from Lelang Commandery. They have created more than one hundred states, from which they pay annual tribute to Lelang, dispatching envoys with tribute goods at regular times.

It was written in the early first century CE, and was referring to the condition extant since the first century BCE. 

Lee Sungsi writes that the Wa visited Lelang during a time when it was the sole commandery on the peninsula. By this time, both Lintun and Zhenfan had been terminated and Xuantu had moved to Liaoning.

The reason the Wa traveled all the way to Lelang (and remember, Lelang is on the opposite side of the peninsula and just as far from Japan as you can get in Korea) was because they had been trading and interacting with the Korean Han people in southeastern Korea. 

The one hundred states referenced in the Hanshu most likely referenced northern Kyushu. Wet rice cultivation had been transmitted to Japan from southern Korea a few centuries prior to this date.

The Korean Hans themselves sent an envoy to Lelang in 44 CE, 

But after the formation of Daifang, it took over the maintenance of the relationship with the Wa people.

Wei (위; 魏)

So we’ll jump way ahead here (but not to worry, we will go back in time to cover all the great Korean empires of Goguryeo, Han, etc in future episode) to the 3rd century. 

Gongsun would continue to control Daifang and Lelang until the 3rd century CE, when the state of Wei would launch a covert amphibious assault to win them over. It’s crazy to think about it now, but these commanderies have survived the fall of the Han Dynasty! In 220 the storied dynasty falls and China enters it’s famous Three Kingdoms period. Wei is one of the kingdoms.

By now, the southern part of the peninsula is controlled by Samhan (and again not to worry we’ll discuss this in detail in the near future). Emperor Ming’s first order in Korea is to provide the local Korean Han chiefs and their immediate subordinates with seals “engraved with the titles of Fief Lord (yijun; 읍군; 邑君)and Fief Leader (yichang; 읍장; 邑長), respectively.”

The Samhan people enjoyed Chinese dress so much that even the common people were known to have traveled to the commanderies to offer tribute. So even they were rewarded with seals, even though there was no purpose for it. The records show that 1,000 people got seals and robes and caps. It’s like schools nowadays, everyone gets a participation trophy and everyone’s a winner!

Side note: this won’t be the first time that Koreans, particularly the ones from the south, would treasure Chinese culture; my hot take is that it’s not necessarily Chinese culture, but knowledge, technology, new things. It’s perhaps in the Korean blood to love advancements. This will be recurring theme from here on out. Even at the hands of persecution by, let’s say, less civil societies (and I’m looking at you horsemen from the north), Koreans would hold fast to knowledge, books, civility, religion, etc. Much of this brought to them by China. 

So here’s something really interesting: meanwhile, in the Japanese archipelago, there’s been a seismic shift in power; from Ito (이도국; 伊都国) to Yamatai (야마타이국; 邪馬台国) (now, this is not a Japan podcast, I’d love to go down the wormhole here but we need to focus). Himiko (히미코; 卑弥呼), famed Queen of Yamatai, appears to have closely observed how Wei’s subjugation of Lelang and Daifang happened. 

In 239, she shrewdly sends envoys, including Nashime (나시메; 難升米) to the Wei capital of Luoyang. 

The Wei emperor conferred upon Himiko the title “King of Wa, Friendly to Wei”,親I皂倭王,while Nashime received the title “Leader of Court Gentlemen Conforming to the Good” 率善中郎將,and the other envoy the title “Commandant Conforming to the Good” 率善校尉.

Each was presented with seals engraved with their respective titles. All these titles were better than the ones given to the Han chiefs. It was a clever game of diplomacy, because at the time, the Wa were clearly not a threat to Wei. However, Goguryeo and the other Korean states were very much a threat. So Wei chose to stay friends with distant neighbors, who could clearly help them with their closer neighbors, with whom they were much less friendly.

Wa would continue to curry favor with Wei, sending envoys to Luoyang in 243 and 247.

This is one of the first times, but clearly not the last, where the Japanese people would take advantage of their geographical distance to study what is happening in the west in order to protect themselves. One really obvious one is how they were able to see in the 19th century how the west would force their way into China, which would lead to the Meiji restoration and the rapid industrialization of Japan.

And you can clearly see, even in this early time, how intertwined Korea, Japan and China are. Joined at the hips.

Dual citizenship policies

Kim Byung Joon argues against the common theory that Han China separated the Han chinese populace of Lelang from the native Koreans due to an ethnic policy.

Instead, he notes that the government made a distinction between the conquerors and the conquered so that they could institute a kind of affirmative action policy. To ensure that the conquered Koreans would not resist their authority, they took steps to offer preferential policies, such as hiring them into official positions. This was to be a stop gap solution for the ultimate method of integration, namely, intermarriage. 

In this sense, their “colonial” policy was much more in line with the Spanish Empire rather than the British. Rather than planning on a strict ethnic division, the Han had expected broad intermixing of the indigenous and the Han immigrants. 

In fact there is a record of a  legal case that dates back to the early Western Han period–again, just an insane fact that we can be talking about actual legal cases so long ago, and such records have survived that long. This legal case concerned another commandery, the Nan Commandery (南郡), located in Hubei (which is pretty central China). The governors of that territory were able to find a  legal loophole in the imperial code to subject the non-Han people to the same tax and corvee (or forced labor in lieu of taxes) as the ordinary Han people.

This contemporary case sets a precedence for how Han China could have viewed Korea. It makes sense because the Koreans were also an agricultural society, and therefore such taxes and corvees would have been a natural fit.

Therefore, Kim argues, the goal of Lelang was not to assert permanent, separate rule over the Koreans, but to start taxing the Koreans, just as they were taxing their own citizens.


Wei Attacks Goguryeo

In 244, Wei commenced war against Goguryeo, while at the same time exerting pressure on the Ye and Han people. There was a lot of statecraft going on; Wei tried to separate eight chiefdoms in Jinhan from the jurisdiction of Daifang and transfer them to Lelang, but that plan was foiled by a mistranslation. Several dozen states in Samhan, including Nahae surrendered to the Wei in 246. Meanwhile, the Ye, who had been subjugated by the Goguryeo, submitted to Wei in exchange for titles. At this point, Wei had put both the Ye and the Wa as tributaries.

The Han put up a hard fight but Wei mobilized the armies of Daifang and Lelang to bring temporary control back again by 248.

In 265 CE, Wei itself falls to the Jin Empire. By this time, there are records of envoys from Mahan and/or Jinhan visiting the Jin court. This was because, by this time, Lelang and Daifang were merely shadows of their former selves. 

In 274, the Western Jin establishes the office of Commandant of the Eastern Barbarians in Liaodong to versee management of the far eastern regions, thus sucking a lot of the responsibility from Lelang and Daifang. 

Lelang and Daifang Fall

Lelang and Daifang fall to Koguryeo in 313 and 314, respectively. The Zizhi tongjian 資治通鑑 and Samguk sagi both confirm these events. There are many signs that by that time, both commanderies had lost much of their power and authority. For example, Just prior to Lelang submitting officially to Koguryeo, 1,000 of its households had switched allegiance to Koguryeo. Also, the Chinese history books do not mention any names for governors for either commandery; instead they mention Zhang Tong 張统 from Liaodong, suggesting that perhaps the upheaval caused by the collapse of the western Jin had caused both commanderies to be essentially un-managed. Combined with a steady migration out of the commanderies by their Han Chinese and Korean residents, by the time Goguryeo attacked, they might have just been settlements.

Moreover, unlike the inner commanderies, Lelang was tasked with managing the non-Han dependent subjects of the region. Managing relations with these dependent subjects was a duty shared by all the command- eries that were established in non-Han territory, including Lelang. For this reason, these commanderies may be recategorized as a separate class of “dependent commanderies” (naesokkun 内屬君p).

It was a time of turmoil in general. The collapse of the Chinese empire, and then the collapse of the Western Jin, precipitated a land grab by all the different states of northeast Asia. The Xianbei (鲜卑) moved southward and plundered the Liaodong region. Specifically, the Murong Xianbei 慕容鲜卑 (Former Yan 前燕), were also making power moves, and were also looking to ally with Zhang Tong in Liaodong. This threatened Goguryeo, which had become very powerful, with a centralized administrative system and a large military. 

We will cover Goguryeo in depth in another episode. But notably, this is the rare Korean empire that attacked China. It attacked the Xuantu Commandery (which you may recall had been moved from northeastern Korea to Liaodong) in 302. Although Goguryeo killed 8,000 enemy soldiers, they weren’t able to get full control of the commandery.

Goguryeo was, however, able to block Zhang Tong’s forces from joining with the Former Yan. Then it launched an attack on Lelang. This war lasted for several years, and in 313, Goguryeo captured Lelang, and a year later, captured Daifang.

Finally, since 108 BCE when the Han Chinese first attacked and conquered Joseon, the Koreans finally kick the Han Chinese, once and forever, off their land. 

For four centuries, these Han Commanderies were not just a symbol of China’s ever reaching empire, but a center for trade, military, and culture. They drastically impacted the native Korean empires. We will never know whether the disparate peoples of Korea, from the Ye in the north to the Han in the south, would have united earlier. 

The Han Commanderies also brought the height of ancient civilization to the Korean peninsula. Officials, farmers and peasants alike from places like Liaodong, Shandong and Hubei immigrated to Korea and never left. They assimilated into the native population there, but not before bringing things like language, music, burial practices, food, weapons and currency.

Now that we’ve explored the first Chinese incursions in Korea from the beginning to the end, In future episodes, we will be revisiting some of these time periods from the perspective of the Koreans. Stay tuned for that!


The Han Commanderies in Early Korean History. Byington, Mark E., ed. Korea Institute, Harvard University, 2013.

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