Welcome to the History of Korea. I’m your host, Allen Lee. In this episode, we talk about the ancient kingdom of Jin and the formation of the Proto-three Kingdoms of Samhan.
[intro music] 여보나리 (Please Don’t Go)
In our last episode, we followed the Goguryeo Kingdom from its founding around the 1st century BCE to it’s resurgent return to power in 313 CE, when it defeats the Han Chinese and drives them out of power from the Korean peninsula for the final time. We ended in 313 because that was a convenient spot for us to stop before launching into the Three Kingdoms period of Goguryeo, Silla and Baekje.
But hold on. We’re not ready to talk about those three kingdoms yet. Because before there was the “Three Kingdoms”, there was the “Three Kingdoms.” Before Goguryeo, Silla and Baekje, there was another period in which three distinct kingdoms–or states, to be more accurate–ruled southern Korea. We gotta rewind the clock for a bit.
The reason we have to stop at 313 and go backwards is because up until now, we’ve done a credible job of painting a picture of how Goguryeo formed. We know about all the indigenous Koreans that lived in the northern part of Korea, Manchuria and Liadong peninsula. We know about the battles between the eastern Yan kingdom and the unified Chinese Han against the Yemaek, Okcheo, Gojoseons, etc.
But the last time we directly covered the geographic area in which Silla and Baekje formed, it was 400 BCE and the Koreans were just discovering bronze. But just like in the north, a ton of history happened. They just aren’t as well covered in the histories.
So we’re backing up and going back to 400 BCE and taking a look at what was going on in the southern half of the peninsula up until 300 CE. Then we will continue with our story as of 313 so that we can give due attention in equal amounts to Goguryeo, Silla and Baekje.
So that’s how we get to this naming convention that causes all types of confusion. Goguryeo, Sill and Baekje may be the first things you think about when we talk about the three kingdoms of Korea. But maybe 300 years earlier there was another period in time in which the southern part of Korea was divided into three kingdoms, or more precisely, confederacies.
We’re talking about the states of Mahan, Jinhan and Byeonhan. To distinguish these two periods, we call them The Proto-Three Kingdoms Period. It’s considered protohistory because there are no surviving written records from the inhabitants themselves. However the Chinese amply recorded accounts of these states which we can read today.
These three states occupied maybe the lower ⅔ portion of modern day South Korea, encompassing the agricultural, economic and political powerhouse provinces of Chungcheongdo, Jeollado and Kyungsangdo. I’m sure you recognize the name Han, which of course is different from Han China, in the modern day name for South Korea of Hanguk. We’ll talk about that in a minute.
I loved studying southern Korea because it has such a different feeling for me. The study of Goguryeo and Gojoseon feels like Winterfell and the white walkers (with apologies to Game of Throne fans), it’s the true north. It’s Siberian winters, barren plains, huge mountainous terrain, hordes of bandits on horseback. I’m constantly reminded of the Okcheo. If you look at the eastern coast of Korea it’s extremely mountainous and inhospitable. But along the extreme northeastern edge is a thin strip of arable land, and that’s where the Okcheo settled. Luckily for them they were able to become an agrarian society. Unluckily for them, they were just a hair too north for comfort. Right across the mountain range that boxed them against the sea, lived all the semi-nomadic tribes that didn’t have enough land to feed themselves. And so quickly the Ye tribes would make Okcheo their food source through force.
It made the Goguryeons tougher and that’s how they built an empire with a land mass much larger than their southern counterparts. But it was a tough life; it was constant encroachment by outsiders including the mighty Chinese and the people of the steppes. The people are tough and hardy.
Of course I’m way over romanticizing this. But there’s got to be an element of truth to it. Life in southern Korea must have been just a bit more easier. We’re talking rich fertile agricultural plains. Sedentary, farming villages that turn into towns that turn into statelets. Milder winters and hot summers. You’re going to hear me use this analogy a lot but studying the Samhan is like studying an organism growing in it’s natural element. It’s Korea insulated from the interference of outside forces. It’s organic growth from within. Yes there was war but it was between neighboring states.
Even to this day the average person of Korean descent, even in Korea, will trace their lineage back to Silla or Baekje with pride. I grew up in the states and if I had a dollar for every Korean restaurant that had Silla in its name I’d be retired. Not to take anything away from Silla, which we will be covering in due course, but as you’ll learn soon, there wouldn’t be a Silla without the Samhan. A lot of the industry and characteristics of Silla were a direct result of sociopolitical forces and innovation from the Jinhan period. You’ve traced your lineage back to Locke and Rousseau but you have the opportunity to trace it even further back to the even more prestigious ancient Greeks, who were the inspiration for them.
But to be fair, people aren’t ignoring the Samhan on purpose. As I’ll describe later in this episode, the study of Samhan has evolved quite recently, and it wasn’t until the 90s that archeologists unearthed key Samhan artifacts. So even in Korean language sources, the latest perspective of Samhan is quite new and perhaps hasn’t hit primary or secondary textbooks yet.
As for English language sources, forget about it. Like you, my first resource is Google search, and I can tell you the resources on Samhan online are scant. Luckily, I rely heavily on Mark Byington’s excellent Early Korea series, and in particular on a chapter written by Yi Hyunhae of Hallym University (한림대학교). Honestly, without that publication this episode would not exist.
If you get anything from this episode it will be a newfound appreciation for where the better-known Silla and Baekje kingdoms come from. Samhan should be as well known as Baekje and Silla, and we can get the word out. Who knows, maybe someday we’ll start to see restaurants named Jinhan? You never know.
NORTHERN KOREA FIRST
As I said, we first covered the development of Gojoseon,the Han Commanderies, and Goguryeo, mostly occurred in the northern part of the Korean peninsula and north of that, from the Liaoning Peninsula to Manchuria.
But, as we had talked about in our prehistoric episodes, in a way, the southern part of Korea was more interesting during this time because instead of really large dominant forces like the Goguryeons, there were many more tribes that developed along the rich agricultural patchwork that is southern Korea.
We talked about Gojoseon and Goguryeo first because from a geopolitical point of view, they were more important to “state” formation in Korea’s later years. We use the term “state” specifically to describe the general way in which modern society categorizes ancient civilizations: to how well they conform to the dominant culture’s version of civilization.
By that measure, Gojoseon and Goguryeo advanced first. They were more exposed to more developed civilizations including China and those to the north; they were the first to be recognized by such outsiders as tribes, and later states; they were the first to incorporate language, ideas and technology in a meaningful way.
And from a practical standpoint, there is more written about them. The Chinese historians wrote a lot and often about the northerners which later became states.
The south however remains to this day an enigma by comparison. From what I’ve read, up until very recently, historians relied on two sources for the Samhan: the first of course was the Chinese records, principally the Sanguozhi; and the second was the Samguk Sagi, which we know was compiled by Korean historians in the 12th century using older Korean records which we believe have been lost to history.
Up until the late 20th century, and understandably so, Korean historians had defaulted to the Samguk Sagi, which states that Baekje and Silla gained control of the Samhan region from 57 to 18 BCE. This was always in contrast to the Chinese Sanguozhi and Hou Hanshu which described the Samhan as still existing as of the 3rd century CE.
Recent archeological evidence seems to corroborate the Chinese records over the Samguk Sagi, and today the common view among Korean historians is that the Samhan lasted much longer than originally thought. We now believe that the Samhan did exist until the 4th century. So what were these kingdoms and who were the Samhans?
JIN STATE (300 BCE – 100 BCE)
To answer that question we have to talk about an even more ancient peoples, the Jin people (진국; 辰國). In fact, in order to trace their history from the beginning, we have to go back to the 3rd episode of this season when we covered the Mumun pottery cultures that inhabited the southern half of the peninsula. Before the 3rd century BCE, before even Gojoseon became a state and Goguryeons had formed, the Korean peninsula was inhabited during the Iron Age by tribes who gradually merged with each other into confederations sharing common cultures. At some point in the 4th century BCE, these tribes coalesced enough to form the makings of a state. Reasonable historians will disagree on how sophisticated this state was, but the clearest material evidence is the “바둑-style” dolmens that are widely distributed across the region, so-called 바둑 due to the smooth, polished stone rocks.
These are truly the early days of civilization in Korea. Jin’s contemporaries include the Okcheo in northeast Korea (who would later be subjugated by Goguryeo), and the Ye tribe occupying where Goguryeo would eventually be formed. North of the Ye were the Buyeo.
Side note: in a prior episode we described the thin strip of arable land hugging the northeastern coastline on which the Okcheo eked out a meager farming existence, only to have their harvest taken by the belligerent Ye tribes who would eventually form Goguryeo. How much easier must life have been in the southern farmlands of Chungcheongdo?
Jin is first referenced in the record books in the 2nd century BCE. It’s just one line in the “Account of Joseon” (Chaoxian zhuan 朝鲜傳) in the Shiji 史 記 (Record of the Grand Scribe) but it has extraordinary implications, in one stroke of the pen legitimizing perhaps an entire civilization.
At this time Wiman Joseon occupied the 대동강 river basin and Jin sent a communication to Han China seeking to open direct communication between the two, suggesting Jin’s strong desire to participate in China’s metal culture. Here’s a translation of the Shiji by Byington:
“The Chin state, located next to Chinbon, submitted a petition to seek an audience with the Han Emperor, but due to the obstruction [of King Ugo of Wei Man Choson], however, they were unsuccessful.”
In this one entry we know that the Jin was considered a state, that it was organized and had enough recognition to be able to submit a petition to the emperor.
But Wiman Joseon blocked this direct relationship as the regional hegemon for all international trade.
Jin was next referenced in the Chinese histories with respect to immigration.
Because Wiman’s trade blockade didn’t stop the flow of Gojoseon refugees fleeing south to the Jin and bringing along their metallurgy skills. In fact when Wiman Joseon usurped the throne of Gojoseon, the usurped king, King Jun, is recorded to have fled to Jin with his followers.
Furthermore, The Sanguozhi also records a high official of Gojoseon, named 역계경, who flees to the Jin before Wiman Joseon is defeated by the Chinese Han. He led 2,000 households with him.
These records are important because We’re still in the stage of Proto-history and so there are still reasonable debates over whether Jin was a proper state or kingdom or not.
How does Jin relate to the later referenced Han states?
We start with the statement from Hou Hanshu that the three Han states formerly comprised the Jin polity.
But with new evidence we dig a bit further and find a bit more nuance to that storyline. Maybe it wasn’t as simple as Jin being the progenitor to the Samhan. Currently there are several prevailing theories:
- Chin is the land which King Chun governed after his southward migration (or escape)
- Coexistence of Chin and Han, wherein Chin was located in present day Kyeonggi-do and Han was in Chungcheong and Jeolla.
Regardless, the historical evidence clearly shows that Jin was an entity to be dealt with that traded frequently with China and/or Joseon. Thus there should be lots of artifacts indicative of trade in the late 2nd century. However so far we’ve only found such evidence in Chungcheong province, lending some credence to the 2nd theory.
“According to archaeological data, Chin appears to have been a confederacy composed of individual polities, represented by the Slender Bronze Dagger culture, and bound together by religious authority and a trade network of bronze implements.” – Yi
Historian Yi writes that the direct cause of Jin’s demise was its conflict with Wiman Joseon. Wiman Joseon had blocked Jin’s access to China; and because Joseon at that time controlled all the land and sea routes from the peninsula to China, all material flow ceased. This was a major factor in the decline in bronze production within Jin, thereby damaging its economic capacity and thus ruining its ability to hold together as a confederation.
Another contributing factor was an increase in migrants leaving Wiman Joseon. After King Ugo of Wiman took a stand against Emperor Wu of China, those in opposition to the king fled southward. As we’ve discussed before, these Joseon people were more advanced than the Jin people with respect to metallurgy and other skills. That must have contributed to the general upheaval of that time and ultimately contributed to Jin’s fall.
Stepping back for a second we have a picture of an early state that gets far less attention than its northern counterpart of Gojoseon. But essentially when Wiman Joseon fell to the Han Chinese, that caused a ripple effect that eventually toppled the Jin in the south. Whether that kingdom encompassed all of the south, or just the western region encompassing Chungcheong seems to still be a question.
Nevertheless this was an important polity that we are discovering more about today.
Korean historians estimate that the Jin state lasted from around the 4th century BCE to shortly after Wiman Joseon fell to Han China in 108 BCE. Around that time, there were seventy eight “statelets” (小國) identified by the Chinese in southern Korea.
“Statelet” is a very carefully considered translation of the underlying word first used by the Chinese observers at the time. The chinese characters literally spell “small country” but of course the denotation is much more nuanced.
The authors used this very deliberately to distinguish it from a village, city or town and it’s well worth our attention to dig into this a bit.
The best way I can describe it is to compare it to evolution. A good analogy of the story of state formation in southern Korea is the evolution of an organism. The smallest unit we’re talking about here is a village. We don’t know precisely how many people lived in a village. But a collection of villages made up a town, and we do know that the average town had 500-1,000 households, or approximately 2500-5000 people.
Some towns had walls, some did not. There were core villages and “natural” villages within a town, and a typical arrangement looked like a neural network (again the organic analogy).
These towns were then grouped together, around 10, into a statelet. So a statelet could have around 50,000 people.
The story of the formation of Samhan is one in which tiny, independent single cell organisms, the villages, evolved into multicellular organisms, the towns, which then evolved into larger statelets, which then evolved into confederations of statelets, and finally, these confederations banded together to become the proto-states of Mahan, Jinhan and Byeonhan.
Where this analogy falls apart is how to fit Jin into the picture. What we do know is that the basic building blocks of Jin were most likely similar to those of Samhan. In other words, Jin was the first large confederation, or maybe even state, that these statelets first formed into. It was the outward forces of the Chinese commanderies that broke these statelets apart again into separate organisms, but perhaps the DNA, or the blueprint, for that evolutionary process remained.
Among the Samhan statelets, we can identify the specific location of only a few, including
- Chinhan: Saro 사로 斯盧國 (present-day Kyongju);
- Byeonhan: Kuya 狗牙國 (present-day Kimhae), Anya 安牙P國 (present-day Haman), Tongno 瀆盧國(present-day Pusan), and Kojamidong 古資彌;東國(present-day Kosong)
- Mahan: Paekche 伯 濟 國 (present-day Seoul) and Konma 乾 馬 國 (present-day Iksan)
HAN – WHAT’S IN A NAME?
A quick summary of the word, “Han”. The confusion this very common syllable can cause when studying Korean history. First there is the Han Empire of China, which in Korean alphabet (and in the Roman alphabet) is spelled the same; but the underlying Chinese character and the etymology are completely different.
Causing more confusion is the use of Han to refer to the Samhan, as we are discussing here, and to the other “Three Kingdoms” of Goguryeo, Silla and Baekche. We will talk about this period soon enough, but starting in the 7th century, people started to refer to these three kingdoms as the Samhan. Today, in modern usage, we do not use Samhan for this period, but you will see it in writing anyway.
The word, or sound, “Han” is used now in South Korea for everything related to Korea, including it’s official name of state, Dae Han Min Guk (or people of the great Han), the language, “Hangeul”, and so many other things.
No one is sure of the ultimate root of the word, but linguist Alexander Vovin suggests this word is related to the Mongolian “Khan” and Manchurian “Han” meaning ruler, and that the ultimate origin is Xiongnu and Yeniseian.
Whatever the case may be, it is generally agreed that “Han” was first used during this Samhan period (Mahan, Jinhan, Byeonhan), and may have been used by the Gojoseon to refer to all the people living south of them on the peninsula.
Getting back to our chronology, we have to step back to around 108 BCE, when Wiman Joseon was conquered by Han China. That would send ripple effects that would eventually bring the fall of the Jin state, which then reverted or transformed into around 78 statelets. Somewhere after that time, approximately between the first century BCE and third century CE, these statelets reconfigured again into three confederations, called Mahan, Jinhan and Byeonhan. Yi writes that:
The ethnic and cultural foundation of the Samhan originates in the Slender Bronze Dagger Culture (세형동검 문화; 細形銅劍文化), or Early Iron Age, in the Korean peninsula.
Eventually the states of Baekche, Silla and Gaya would evolve out of these three confederacies. Historian Yi writes that prior to modern academic research in Korea, the focus was on finding the geographic location of these statelets. But starting in the 1970s, state formation became the focus, with historians intently studying early records such as the Samguk Sagi. However since the 1990s, archeologist have excavated an enormous amount of material evidence, and at the present time they are the ones leading research into Samhan. This makes sense because as epically important and precious as the Samguk Sagi is, it was compiled many centuries after the fact.
One reason why there has historically been more focus on the northern states of Gojoseon and Goguryeo might be that, while Samhan did exist contemporaneously with them, it was perhaps a bit earlier in its development. Yi writes that:
The level of political development of each polity varied slightly. In terms of their political organization, Samhan culture was in the process of developing from the incipient state 初期國家(or walled-town state 城邑國家) to the territorial state 領域國家 (or confederated kingdom 聯盟王國) while on the socio-cultural level it was in transition from bronze culture to full-fledged iron culture.
Again, Yi: “We can estimate the collective population figure of the Samhan in the mid-third century as 100,000 to 200,000 households, or 750,000 to 1,000,000 people; the average population of each statelet was 2,000 to 3,000 households, or 10,000 to 15,000 people.”
As a comparison, “Lelang Commandery, with its twenty-five districts, had in 2 A.D. a population of 406,748 people comprising 62,812 households.” – Byington
Further as comparison, the population of England in 4th century was 3,6M, while Japan in 400 CE was 1.5M.
Given how early this time period is, and the lack of historiographical records, we are tempted to lump sum all three states together. But each of these three states had a distinct character that is apparent from the source data as well as archeological evidence.
We’ll stop there in the interest of time. In our next episode, we’re going to take a detailed look at the three Hans and learn how they differed from each other. We’ll also read directly from the Hou Hanshu and get a really good look at what the Samhan people looked like, how they behaved and what they did day to day.
Jin Kingdom; 진국; 辰國
Byeonhan; 변한; 弁韓
Byeonjin; 변진; 弁辰
Mahan; 마한; 馬韓
Jinhan; 진한; 辰韓
Baduk, Go; 바둑; 圍棋
Slender Bronze Dagger Culture; 세형동검문화; 細形銅劍文化
Saro; 사로; 斯盧
Mokji; 목지국; 目支國
마한 사회의 형성, 이현혜.
Dongyizhuan 東 夷 傳 (Account of the Eastern Yi) in the Sanguozhi 三 國 志 (Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms), Chen Shou 陳 壽
The Account of the Han from the “Biographies of the Eastern Yi” 東夷列傳 in the Hou Hanshu 後漢書， or History of the Eastern Han Dynasty)
Barnes, Gina. State Formation in Korea (Durham East Asia Series). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
The Early History of Korea. Gardiner, Kenneth H.J. 1965: ANU Press (no mention Jin)
Byington, Mark E., editor. Early Korea: The Samhan Period in Korean History,
Lee, Ki-baik (Author), Edward W. Wagner (Translator), Edward J. Schultz (Contributor). A New History of Korea. 1988, Harvard University Press (no mention Jin state)
Yu Chai-Shin. The New History of Korean Civilization. 2012: iUniverse. (no mention Jin state)
“Biographies of the Eastern Yi” (東夷列傳)