-108 BCE to 313 CE: The Han Commanderies 1 (한사군; 漢四郡): Lelang (樂浪郡, 낙랑군)

-108 BCE to 313 CE: The Han Commanderies 1 (한사군; 漢四郡): Lelang (樂浪郡, 낙랑군)

Ye (예; 濊); Yemaek (예맥; 濊貊); Jin (진한; 辰韓); the Han (한; 韓); The Han Dynasty (漢)


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

[intro music] Check Out Luna Lee on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/luna422422

The Han commanderies refers to the territories that Han China set up to govern Korea after conquering Gojoseon in 108 BCE. Before we get into the history and the facts, I want to talk about why the Han commanderies are significant. I haven’t done this in the past but I think it’s important for me to provide my perspective on why we are covering a particular topic in Korean history, and it’s something I’d like to do going forward at the top of the episode. After all, if you just wanted me to read off the facts then you would do better to go read Wikipedia (which is excellent by the way in presenting facts). My value-add is to provide my perspective on providing context to what we think happened, in as fair a manner as possible.


The Han Commanderies are important because this will be the first, and last time, that Han China will have conquered Korea. Of course, China under the Liao Empire conquered Goryeo, as did the Jin Empire, the Mongol Empire and the Qing Dynasty. But these were all ethnic outsiders as defined by China. The Liao, Jin, Yuan and Qing were Khitans, Jurchens, Mongols and Manchus, respectively. They were not what is considered the Han ethnicity. I’m not going to step into the political minefield of defining the “ethnicity” of Han as compared to these other people. But it’s enough to say that, as China today defines itself, and also as Korea defines China, both mainstream Chinese and Koreans agree that Han China has never conquered and/or ruled Korea since the Han Dynasty. From my point of view, never again has Han China SOUGHT to conquer Korea, either. This is an important distinction particularly in light of China’s recent rise. China was the suzerain, the hegemon, the superpower–whatever you want to call it, during the length of Korea’s history, but only very rarely did it seek to overstep its boundaries in some sort of aggression. I would argue that it would learn its lesson in the Sui dynasty not to attack Korea.

This is not just a modern, retroactive interpretation either. Back then, the Koreans patently refused to recognize the legitimacy of all these northern invader empires (except perhaps with the exception of the Liao), and suffered real hardship because of it. One quick example is that even after the Manchurian Qing conquered the Ming, Koreans refused to recognize them as the legitimate rulers of China, and were invaded as a result. Even after defeat, the Koreans refused to adopt Qing dress, and clung to the Ming Dynasty’s cultural legacy and were constantly persecuted because of it.

As we discussed in the last episode, the Han Dynasty of China attacked and conquered the Wiman Dynasty of GoJoseon in 108 BCE. We will be talking about the Han Commanderies extensively. But before we do that, I need to emphasize that the Han Commanderies are a story of northern Korea only. It is the more prominent history that is emphasized by historians for good reason: it’s these polities that eventually go on to be the primary powers to deal with China, which has an outsized influence on unified Korea from then on.

But to ignore what is happening in the southern part of the peninsula is a huge mistake, because, as we’ll discuss in this episode, it’s key in finding out how Korea eventually unites itself. Therefore, this episode will talk about not just what happens between the Han Chinese and Gojoseon, but what’s happening in the southern part of Korea during this time.

It’s also my attempt to pull the dialogue from a Sinocentric story line to one that is more Korea centric. To give a very very uninformed and superficial analogy, it is as if we were to view the history of Britain as a peripheral land conquered by the Roman Empire. In the same way, I’ve seen English language coverage of Korea in that same viewpoint: it starts with China and/or Japanese history and treats Korea as the side character. Again, to continue with the horrific analogy (and I say this because I am not an expert in British history), it’s as if we were to study Caesar’s conquest of southern Britain without learning what the Scottish people were doing at the time. Eventually it’s the Scottish who help incite the southerners to finally oust the Romans. 

This isn’t just conjecture; one of the pre-eminent scholars of Early Korea, Gina Lee Barnes, is actually a professor of Japanese studies who had to study Korea because of its critical place in early Japanese culture. Mark Byington, a professor at Harvard, whose work I heavily rely upon in this episode, started as a Korean historian, but had to switch to China studies because that’s where the funding is. 


To get back to the story, after Han China topples Wiman Joseon, in accordance with its policy at the time, the Han Empire set up four “commanderies” in Korea to administer their newly conquered territory.


As with any episode discussing early history, we need to talk about our sources. I’ll be drawing heavily from THE HAN COMMANDERIES IN EARLY KOREAN HISTORY edited by MARK E. BYINGTON.

As this book points out, all six commanderies in discussion in this episode are believed to have been located in present day North Korea. Therefore, there is a limit to how much evidence is available. Thankfully, there is some fairly good documentation by Koreans and Japanese, and even the Chinese (to the extent that it involves evidence in present day China). But a lot of current research relies on archeological evidence that was obtained in the mid-20th century before North Korea effectively shut off access.

The Samguk Sagi contains scattered fragments about Lelang and Xuantu, and these were all nearly copied from Chinese histories. The Hanshu briefly notes the establishment of four commanderies in 108 BCE. And the Shiji of course documents a much more detailed account of the events leading up to the establishment, as we covered extensively in the last episode of the Han-Gojoseon War.

Review: Why Han attacked Gojoseon

You may recall from our last episode that the Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty conquered Gojoseon in 108 BCE. 

You shall guard the barbarians 蠻夷 beyond the border; you shall prevent them from raiding the border; and should the chiefs of the various barbarians wish to have audience with the emperor, you shall not obstruct them


First, it emphasizes the need to protect and guard the barbarians (Manyi 蠻 夷,equivalent to the general term Yiren 夷人)

Second, the statement stresses the need to maintain stability in the outlying areas adjacent to Old Choson. This condition was intended to pre­ vent skirmishes that could arise from Old Chosons dominance among the Eastern Barbarians. Third, the various groups of Eastern Barbarians were to be allowed to engage directly with China without interference from Old Choson. Direct engagement meant an audience with the Chinese emperor with a view to paying tribute. Old Choson was to be first among the East­ ern Barbarian tributaries and an exemplary model in the region.

but Old Choson did not comply with Hans three conditions for several reasons. 

First, the outer vassal system was weak and without binding power. 

Whether or not a polity observed its duty as an outer vassal was entirely dis­ cretionary. Han lacked the institutional capacity to enforce its own terms.

Second, Old Choson was not in a position to observe its duties as an outer vassal. At that time, Old Choson was home to a considerable popu­ lation (said to have numbered in the tens of thousands)5 of Han Chinese who had fled from China. Wei Man (K. Wiman 衛滿),who assumed the kingship of Old Choson after a coup, was also an exile from China, as were

Third, This also reveals that prior to the reign of Emperor Wu, Old Choson forsook its position as an outer vassal of Han to become “the left arm of the Xiongnu.”

What is a Commandery (jun; 군; 郡)? 

During the Qin Dynasty (221 to 206 BC), China set up its first known two-tier administrative system. The largest territorial unit was called a jun, and within the jun were counties (called xian). There were 36 at the time.

Later in the Eastern Han dynasty, China moved to a three tier system. Now the largest unit was the zhou, then the jun, then the county. There were initially 13 zhou and 100 jun.

A jùn was a historical administrative division of China from the Eastern Zhou (c. 7th century BCE) until the early Tang dynasty (c. 7th century CE). It is usually translated as a commandery.


A commandery (jun 君) was the major unit of territorial administration of the Han empire. Each commandery was divided into districts (xian 系),which were then divided into successively smaller units.

  • Byington

However, the way ‘commanderies’ is used can be very confusing, especially as it relates to material evidence. The commandery itself is a territorial unit with a political boundary. But of course, especially during that time, there was no physical boundary. Often historians will refer to a particular archeological site as the Lelang Commandery. But what they’re really referring to is the seat, or headquarters, of the commandery. The commandery itself is many thousands of miles in diameter, and at the time it was a lot of untamed wilderness. But the headquarters was usually a large walled fortress or city, along with probably a bunch of neighborhoods surrounding it. Many historians will often conflate the two which can be confusing for the layman (including me).

The Four Commanderies of Han (한사군; 漢四郡) 

Generally, a discussion of the Han Commanderies boils down to four commanderies: 

  1. Lelang Commandery (樂浪郡, 낙랑군/락랑군, BC 108 ~ AD 313):[8] 25 prefectures, 62,812 households, population of 406,748 in 2 CE.
    1. The Lelang Commandery was, according to the Book of Han, composed of 27 districts and had a population of over 406,748 people
    2. 낙랑군 – 기원전 108년 ~ 313년.
    3. 대방군 – 204년 ~ 314년. 낙랑군 남부도위를 과거 진번군 자리에 설치. 낙랑과 함께 고구려 미천왕 때 수복.
  2. Lintun Commandery (臨屯郡, 임둔군, BC 107 ~ BC 82)
    1. 임둔군 – 기원전 108년 ~ 기원전 82년. 이후 현도군에 편입되었다가 낙랑군 동부도위가 되었으며, 이후 독립해 동예가 됨.
  3. Xuantu Commandery (玄菟郡, 현도군, BC 107 ~ AD 302):[9] 3 prefectures, 45,006 households, population of 221,845 in 2 CE.
    1. 현도군 – 기원전 107년 ~ 404년. 창해군 자리에 설치되었다가 이후 고구려, 옥저가 건국되며 요동 근방으로 이전. 광개토대왕 때 수복.
  4. Zhenfan Commandery (眞番郡, 진번군, BC 107 ~ BC 82)
    1. 진번군 – 기원전 108년 ~ 기원전 82년. 이후 낙랑군 남부도위가 되었다가 대방군이 설치.

But there is a pre-commandery, called Canghai.

Canghai (창해군; 倉海君)

Founded in 128 B.C. and abolished in 116 B.C. Canghai lasted only a short duration in the lands of the Ye 歲 and its existence may best be understood as a trial attempt to establish the commandery system in the region.

Han China is experimenting with the administration of their growing empire. 

The first semi-permanent commandery was Lelang (Nangnang in Korean). The seat of Lelang is basically Pyeongyang (current capital of North Korea) or just south of it, but the commandery itself encompasses the land around it, from the eastern coast of the peninsula inward towards the mountains. It was established first in 108 after the war. Two other commanderies were founded that year as well, Zhenfan, which is immediately south of Lelang, and Lintun, which is almost directly west, hugging the other coast of the peninsula. A year later, in 107 BCE, Xuantu is founded, right north of Lintun. And so by 107 you have your four major commanderies. If you look at a map of north korea, these four commanderies saddle the eastern and western coastlines. They do not cover the middle of the peninsula, probably that is basically a mountain range that cuts North Korea in half north to south.

But in 82 BCE, barely 26 years later, the Han reorganize. They shut down Zhenfan and Lintun and merge them into Lelang and Xuantu. If you’re looking at a map, the two southern commanderies on each side of the peninsula are rolled into their northern counterparts. So now we have two large commanderies remaining, one on each coastline.

By 75 BCE, six years later, Xuantu itself is shut down, its headquarters and all its people relocated way to the other side of the border near Liaoning; it’s territory itself, or whatever territory is remaining, is merged into the jurisdiction of Lelang.

From a top level view, the Chinese are retreating and consolidating. They started out with four commanderies; then they reduced down to two; and the last one has to be re-located out of Gojoseon entirely. They’re now down to effectively one large commandery, located in Lelang.

There were several reasons for that change. First, there was continued resistance from the locals. For example, Chinese records state that Xuantu’s relocation was due to attacks by the Imaek (夷*) people.

Second, these shutdowns and consolidations were part of an overall Han policy at the time. Five years earlier saw an aggressive expansion policy due to Grand General Huo Guang 大將軍霍光, who was ruling as regent at the time. By 75 BCE, the Han had changed course and were pulling back; in fact they also shut down the Daner Commandery in the Nanyue region in 82 BCE.

Third, the system heavily relied on ethnic Han who lived in the area. This was a time when especially the Lelang commandery had received many migrants from China. We’re not completely clear on why they were escaping the Han regime; it might have been the war with the Xiongnu or something else. But the Shiji and other documents record that many tens of thousands of Han had settled in Gojoseon.

What was life like in the capital of Lelang?

Before they were defeated, the state structure of Gojoseon was a familiar one; at the center was the king. However each region was semi-autonomous and appointed officials such as Ministers (상; 相) and Commanders (장군; 將軍). Obviously, after losing to the Han, this structure was severely disrupted.

As soon as the Lelang commandery was established, Han Chinese began migrating en masse. We discussed before, it could have been because of war, or maybe because of economic opportunity, or freedom. Probably for the same reasons anyone migrates to a new land. Thus, the Lelang commandery was run by ethnic Han, as is apparent from the burials of the social elite. While there were lots of ethnic Han in Lelang, there weren’t as many in the farther commanderies of Zhenfan and Lintun.

From the archeological remains of Lelang, we identify three main groups of Han: 

The first were the officials dispatched from the central government to help administer the land. These were called Commandery Governors (태수; taishou 太守) and District Magistrates (ling 令 or zhang 장 ; 長) who were dispatched by the central government.

Records mention the names of eleven Governors and eight Magistrates in Lelang Commandery, all of whom were Han Chinese dispatched from the central government.

The official policy for these top officials was that they were rotated through Lelang for only a temporary amount of time, very similar to the state department for the US today. And if you died in Lelang, your body was conveyed back home where you could be buried. Again very similar to governments today. This is important because much of the evidence we have for these times is from studying tombs. Given this policy, we can assume that these officials are not buried at Lelang.

The second were Aides (shuli, 속리; 屬吏) who were in principle recruited from the indigenous people. But in the beginning, many were imported from the Liaodong Commandery. Probably because they didn’t trust the locals, rightly so of course since the war had only lasted one year and I’m sure the two sides weren’t the best of friends. This is clearly indicated by the rebellion led by two feudal lords, Wang Hyop 王峡 and Choe 最 between 105 B.C. and 99 B.C. Perhaps in response to these rebellions, Lelang afterwards began to appoint more locals to the Aide position.

Last were merchants.

Historical records also confirm the presence of merchant groups in Lelang. The cases of other outlying commanderies similarly show that there was considerable movement on the part of merchants seeking economic gain whenever a new outlying commandery was established. Whether Lelang was as profitable to the Han empire as other outposts in its southwestern regions remains questionable, but we do see a considerable influx of merchant groups from the interior commanderies in pursuit of economic profit.11 Merchants economically exploited the native population with the backing of local rulers, which, on the one hand, upset the traditional social order in Old Choson society, but, on the other, facilitated the receipt of cultural influence from Han China.

There is considerable evidence of the Han in Lelang. Tombs with mandolin shaped bronze daggers, roof tiles with clearly Han inscriptions abound. But what about the indigenous Gojoseon?

There are three indications that local leaders were a part of the Leland power structure. In the first century BCE, The first includes the wood-frame tomb (목관묘; 木槨墓), which is a wooden frame or chamber into which a wooden coffin is placed. Inside these tombs we find slender bronze daggers (세형동검; 細形銅) and flowerpot-shaped pottery (花盆形土器) and short-necked jars (단경호; 短頸壺). These are distinctly non-Han items and associated with Gojoseon. This is distinguished from the first century CE, when we find more Han items in burial sites at Lelang. 

Based on these items, we theorize that these tombs must have belonged to the local lords from Gojoseon. This is corroborated by a written document recovered from one of the tombs at Chongbaek-tong in Pyongyang, with a seal that says 부조예군 (夫租濊君). 부조 was a region of Old Choson located near the east coast of the Korean peninsula that had been incorporated into Lelang Commandery. 예군 (蔆君; Ye Lord).

The Chinese employed local leaders with strong political and economic connections as lower-ranking officials for their Labor Section (공조; 功曹) and Assistant Magistrate (주부; 主薄) positions and various other departments, bringing them into the newly established system of government at the district level by bestowing upon them such titles as Chieftain (읍군; 邑君)


Material Culture of Lelang

Roof-end tiles inscribed with legends such as “Lelang fugui” 樂浪富貴 (낙랑부귀; Lelang Affluence) or “Lelang liguan” 樂浪禮官(낙랑예관;  Lelang Ministry of Rites),

Comparable History

As reference, as Peter Ackroyd writes (the History of England, Foundation 2011), Julius Caesar invaded the British Isles in 55 BCE. This was just a reconnaissance force; in 43 CE, 20,000 men under the leadership of Aulus Plautius landed in two places and scored a definitive victory over the indigenous Brits. The emperor Claudius personally came to the island; and upon his return was celebrated for having received the surrender of 11 kings.

This is in contrast to Korea, in which the conquer of Wiman was considered by the Chinese as victory over all of Gojoseon. A couple of other noteworthy points: The British have great records of many of the rebellious indigenous Brits, including Boudicca the queen. Also of note is that the estimated 125,000 Roman soldiers required to keep order on the island were made up mostly of men from Gaul, Spain and Germany.

By 49 CE, Roman soldiers were supervising mining operations in Somerset. By the 3rd century, the country was divided into two provinces, Britannia Superior with London as its capital and Britannia Inferior with York as its centre. The two areas were later subdivided into four and then five provinces, emphasizing the fact that the country was being closely administered and exploited. By 408 CE, with the Roman empire falling apart, northern barbarians attacked the Roman English. The Roman English defended themselves and then threw out the remaining Roman overlords.

Again, a roughly similar timeline is seen with the Han Commanderies. From the time they are established in 108 BCE, in the next 400 years, by around 313 CE, the indigenous people, in this case represented by a state called Goguryeo, finally takes back northern Korea from the Chinese.

How about the locals?

We need to at least mention the Jin (진한; 辰韓) state, which existed before Wiman Joseon was founded in 185 BCE (which we should have mentioned in an earlier episode). It seemed to be a polity that existed south of Gojoseon in modern day South Korea. It is mentioned in the Chinese histories as the land to which King Joon of Gojoseon fled after having been ousted by Wiman Joseon. It was powerful enough and stable enough to contend with Gojoseon at the time. By the time the commanderies were set up, it seems not to have been an issue any more. But it remains an important, documented polity in the ongoing dialogue of proto-Korean states. 

The Han Commanderies weren’t set up just to control Gojoseon. We learned in the last episode that Gojoseon was key because it served as the intermediary between Han China and the rest of the outlying peoples, including the Xiongnu to the northeast and the local states to the south on the peninsula. 

But for now, let’s touch upon some of them. I mentioned in the last episode that one of the leaders of Gojoseon, minister Han Eum (한음; 韓陰), was from a state called Han (again, not to be confused with the Chinese Han). Side note: one theory of where the Korean Han word comes from is that it’s derived from the word for tribal chief (either han 干 or hangi 干岐). By the third century CE, these tribes will have organized into three main states, Byeonhan, Mahan, and Jinhan (together, known as Samhan 三韓).

Don’t worry, we will be dedicating future episodes to discuss the polities to the south.

In 1988, numerous Han-period artifacts were excavated at the Taho-ri site in Changwon, South Kyongsang Province (경상남도). These include burial mounds with mirrors and wuzhu coins belonging to the Western Han period, dating the site to the 1st century BCE. Historians point to this in saying that the Lelang Commandery had wide ranging influence all the way to the tip of the peninsula.

Meanwhile, on the east coast of present North Korea, the Ye people were farmers, fisherman and hunters. Of all the so-called Eastern barbarians (동이; 東夷), the Ye people were thought to have been the most proactive in seeking alignment with the Chinese. Unlike the Korean Han, they adhered to Chinese cultural norms such as disallowing marriages between individuals with the same surname. Historians theorize they were incentivized to align with the Chinese because they were semi-sedentary and needed to cover a lot of ground for hunting. Therefore they needed to make nice with the Chinese. The thinking is that the Lintun Commandery was established on the east coast for the Ye people; there are artifacts suggesting that high ranking members of the Ye served in both the Lelang and Lintun Commanderies. 


In 37 BCE, Goguryeo is believed to have been founded. We will cover that later, but let’s follow the path of the commanderies forward for now. 

In 25 AD (and so we are jumping way ahead for now), a man named Wang Diao (왕조; 王調) killed the Lelang Governor, Liu Xian (유헌; 劉憲),and established his own regime, appointing himself Grand General and Governor of Lelang (대장군낙랑태수; 大將軍樂浪太守). (This also happened in England with the Roman Empire.) He did this during a time of tumult in the Han Dynasty. This is shortly after the fall of the short-lived XIN dynasty, and during a power struggle for the throne. 

Lots of Chinese from the Shandong region emigrated to Lelang during this time, probably to escape the turmoil at home. Subsequently, archeologists have in particular found many similarities between the Han tombs in Lelang and those in Shandong.

In fact, those in Lelang supported the losing side, and in 30 CE, Emperor Guangwu’s expeditionary forces would take back Lelang. Many of the recent immigrants, who had aligned with Wang Diao, would then flee the commandery itself, moving southward and eventually integrating into the southern Korean states such as the Samhan. The unintended effect was that this spread Chinese Han culture into the south of the peninsula.

This is hard to imagine; imagine a mass migration of mostly well-to-do people from Hebei and Shandong making the big journey to Lelang in order to escape war at home. Now further imagine these people leaving the comfort of their commandery to assimilate into the indigenous Koreans to the south. Imagine the first settlers in America from Britain seeking better opportunities; now imagine them separating completely from the British and seeking to assimilate into the native society there. It’s unimaginable because of the stark difference between the Europeans and the native Americans at that point; thus the situation in the Korean peninsula must have been substantially different. The difference between the living standards and cultural advancement between the Han Chinese and the native Koreans must not have been that large by that point.


John King Fairbank – China. A New History [2006][A]

Early Korea 1: Reconsidering Early Korean History through Archaeology Paperback – November 30, 2008 https://www.amazon.com/Early-Korea-Reconsidering-History-Archaeology/dp/0979580013

A History of Korea. Seth, Michael J. Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham: 2011.

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