BCE 300 – BCE 108: Early Iron Age of Korea

The first Korean state and the politicization and controversy thereof. Chiaoxian; Gojoseon; Gija Joseon; Wiman Joseon; Xiongnu


Welcome to the History of Korea. I’m your host, Allen Lee. In this episode, we talk about the Early Iron Age of Korea.

[intro music] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3wR6TfNGauo

The Early Iron Age: Whodunnit?

Today we cover the Early Iron Age, defined broadly in the Korean region from around 500 BCE to 500 CE. If you want to know why this period is so important, it’s because it’s when Korea is born, so to speak.

There is no question that Korea as a polity, or state, was born during this time. But the devil is in the details. In fact, this entire episode is structured more like a mystery novel than anything else, the chief question being, What is Gojoseon? When, who, where is Gojoseon?

For this episode, I rely a great deal on the excellent work of Gina Lee Barnes, whose work encompasses Japan, Korea and China. 

In her excellent book, “State Formation in Korea”, she boils it down to three main controversies:

  1. the developmental status of the early polities; 
  2. whether they were created by foreign populations or developed as native institutions;
  3. and the main technological or organizational factors in the emergence of these societies.

Disclaimer and Preambles


There are many differing viewpoints and interpretations for many reasons, and I’ll give you a very brief summary, which I’ve mentioned in other podcasts but it is important enough to repeat here:

The origins of Korea have always been disputed by larger neighbors for reasons both domestic and international. Since as early as the Zhou Dynasty, some in China have laid claim to the origins of Korea. We’ll see later in this episode that much of what we know about ancient Korea was written centuries later in both Korea and China, further complicating the picture. Later the Manchus, in the 12th century and afterwards, and the Mongols, in the 13th century, each also tried to craft the origin story of Korea for their own purposes. 

First in the 16th century, when Japan first invaded Korea, and much more significantly in 20th century, it was Japan that tried to craft the story, going so far as to hide or tamper with archeological evidence. One narrative that Japan wanted was to paint the picture that Korea was never an independent state, and that it was either controlled by China, or was a part of China, from the very beginning. They also wanted to show a commonality between Korea and Japan, obviously with Japan as the dominant partner, thus painting a picture that they were the saviors of Korea from the unwanted grip of China. In some cases, they went as far as to claim that ancient Japan controlled Korea. We’ll see from archeological evidence that actually the opposite was more likely.

Later, the Americans, mostly unaware, accepted much of Japan’s research as fact, and thus contributed to perpetuating many of these falsehoods.

And of course, the last perpetrators are the Koreans themselves. It was only in the late 20th century that Koreans finally had the resources to begin to participate fully in the archeology and historiography of their country during ancient times. In some cases, in reaction to the real injustices caused to them by foreign powers, they sought to swing the pendulum the opposite way. Much as some Japanese and Chinese have at times embellished, exaggerated or outright misrepresented the truth for their own aims, so too did the Koreans.

This shift in ideological preference seems to stem from two causes: on the one hand, rising national consciousness, and on the other, the adoption of anthropological viewpoints according to which the demonstration of indigenous rather than imposed origins seems to bestow more scholarly value and native prestige on the society being studied.

Barnes, Gina. State Formation in Korea (Durham East Asia Series) . Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition. 

As is so often the case, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. My goal is to find the most likely scenario, relying on science to be the often deciding arbiter.

First of all, this is not unique to Korea. As I mentioned, China and Japan are even greater perpetrators of politicizing history. But why don’t we find similar things in the ancient history of England, for example? Well Britain never really had an existential threat in this way, obviously they did have an existential threat last century when Germany tried to bomb them to oblivion, but it was never a question of whether they belonged, or owned their land, or had a right to be there.

The most obvious comparable outside of Asia would be Israel. And you can see some of the tactics that Israel employs to protect its land and borders. 

Preamble: Terminology: Proto-history

So I’m going to introduce some new terminology that may not be known to the layperson, certainly it wasn’t known to me before. The difference between pre-history, proto-history, and history. Pre-history means what happened to a people before they wrote about themselves. History means a people have written about what happened, while it was happening.

Proto-history is what happens in between. For example, the people were written about by a foreign source. In this case, the Chinese began to write about the Koreans before the Koreans began writing. Another example of proto-history is where a people write about their history after the fact. And that also happens in Korea. Although we haven’t yet discovered writings by Koreans during Gojoseon, we do have documents such as the Samguk Sagi and the Samguk Yusa, written in the 12 and 13TH centuries respectively, that reference materials long gone that were presumably written contemporary with or shortly after the events of that time. Until we find those sources, we must consider that period of Korean history to be proto-historic.

Preamble: Sources

It’s worth briefly listing the historical documents that are critical to the subject matter at hand:

  1. The Shiji, A chinese historian named Sima Qian ([sɨ́mà tɕʰjɛ́n]; traditional Chinese: 司馬遷; simplified Chinese: 司马迁; pinyin: Sīmǎ Qián; c. 145 – c. 86 BC) during the Han Dynasty (206 bc–ad 220) but covering Zhou-period China (1027–221 bc) and its peripheral relations. 
  1. the Weizhi (Chronicles of the Wei Dynasty), compiled by Zhen Shou (233–297) as a record of events during the Wei Dynasty (ad 220–265). The Weizhi exists as part of the Sanguozhi (Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms), the official histories of the Chinese dynasties of Wei (220-265), Shu Han (221–263), and Wu (222–258) which comprised the Chinese Three Kingdoms period (220–280).
  2. the Houhanshu (Chronicles of the Later Han Dynasty, ad 23–220), compiled between 398 and 445 and based on the Weizhi despite the Han Dynasty having occurred earlier than the Wei. 

These records were all written approximately contemporaneously with the phenomena on the Korean peninsula which they describe.

The original Korean accounts of the states’ early histories, however, have not survived, and only later works incorporating this material cover these periods retrospectively. These works are 

  1. the 12th-century Samguk Sagi (Kim P.S. 1145 [in Ref. List]; Yi H.D. 1962; Gardiner 1970; Ch’oe J.S. 1987 [in Ref. List])2 and the 
  2. Samguk Yusa, written by the monk Iryon (1206–89) in the 13th century.

Barnes, Gina. State Formation in Korea (Durham East Asia Series) . Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition. 

Back to the Timeline

If you recall, we last left off when we visited the Mumun culture of Korea, which lasted roughly 550-300BC. Unlike their precursors, we know this Neolithic culture to have a largely sedentary culture, farming, and social stratification. From their burial mounds we know they have socially important leaders. There is evidence of conflict between groups of people and a consolidation of smaller groups into larger groups.

What happens from the Mumun era to 108 BCE is not in debate; in a very general sense, a Korean state is first documented into history by the Chinese.

But how that happened, and in what chronology, is a matter of intense debate.

We can’t rely on contemporary writing sources because we don’t have them any more. We know they existed, because later writings cite them.

If we rely on the next best thing, which are historical records closer to that time, we see many inconsistencies. We see from the Chinese records a distinct political bias in their favor.

The Korean histories written after the fact are much too late; they are written a millennia afterwards, and they also come along with a healthy dose of historical baggage.

So let’s start with what is incontrovertible:

GOJOSEON (고조선; 古朝鮮)

First fact: A region

Sometime around the 3rd or 4th century BCE, Chinese texts began to refer to an area to the east which they called Chiaoxian (朝鮮). The two chinese characters stand for “chiao”, or morning”, and “xian”, or fresh or calm. The modern day Korean pronunciation is Joseon, and thus we have the first name for Korea ever. If you’ve heard of the phrase, “Land of the Morning Calm”, it can trace it’s roots back to this translation, or transliteration, or interpretation, of the word.

Some say Chiao actually didn’t stand for morning, but for “court”.

There’s also some debate as to whether the characters for Joseon was used to approximate the sound of the local, or Chinese name for the place. There’s even some scholars who say that Joseon is the translation of “Asadal” (아사달), the capital of Joseon.

The most commonly accepted view is that Joseon was named by the Chinese for the area just east of the Yan Kingdom, which at the time was the farthest Chinese state in the east. Therefore, it would make sense for the Chinese to call that area Joseon, or fresh morning, since the morning sun hits Joseon before China. In the same way, the Chinese would name Riben, or Japan, whose characters stand for “new” or “rising” sun.

You may know that Joseon is also the name given to the state that was formed in 1392 by Yi Songgye. To distinguish this first state, we put the character for ancient, or old, pronounced “go” in modern Korean, (古), in front. So from here on out, I will try to refer to this geographical region as Chiaoxian, and as the state therein, as Gojoseon.

Joseon also is famously adopted by North Korea as their official state name. We will talk all about the politics and history behind that; but at this point in history, we can say that certainly North Korea has just as good, or even greater, claim to this historic name because of its geographic location.


Which is also a matter of some debate.

Experts disagree on where Chiaoxian (and by extension, Gojoseon) actually was. 

In Zhou times, Chaoxian is described as lying east of the state of Yan. In the next two periods it’s stated as bordering the Liaodong commandery of the Qin and Han states. Based on this description, it would place Chaoxian as encompassing the Liaodong peninsula. From the Shiji:

When Yen [Yan] was at the height of its power, it invaded and conquered the regions of Chen-p’an [Zhenpan] and Ch’ao-hsien [Chaoxian], appointing officials to rule the area and setting up fortifications along the frontier. … When the Han arose, however, it regarded the region as too far away and difficult to guard, and rebuilt the fortifications at the old border of Liao-tung [Liaodong], leaving the area beyond, as far as the Pei … River, to be administered by the King of Yen.

Barnes, Gina. State Formation in Korea (Durham East Asia Series) . Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition. 

Koreans argue that it was more east of there, east of even the Yalu river.

Synthesizing both viewpoints, Gojoseon is understood to have represented a large swath of land encompassing part of the Liaodong peninsula, part of present day North Korea and the northern part of South Korea.

But that’s nothing compared to the debate over when, and by whom, Gojoseon was founded.

Myth: Gija Joseon

I’m going to take a quick detour to discuss one of the founding myths of Korea. It’s commonly referred to as the Gija Joseon (Jizi or Qizi or kizi (Chinese: 箕子; Wade–Giles: Chi-tzu; 기자; 箕子 朝鮮). In our last episode we talked about the legend of Dangun, which Koreans do accept as part of their founding myths. This, however, is one that has been rejected; but from around the Goryeo era, when we first see mention of Gija, to around the early 20th century, Koreans accepted Gija as a part of their founding myth.

Gija is a legendary Chinese sage who is said to have ruled Joseon in the 11th century BCE. That’s 500 years before the time we’re covering at the moment. He was a relative of the last king of the Shang Dynasty, King Zhou. King Zhou imprisoned his relative for remonstrating against him. When King Zhou was overthrown by the Zhou Dynasty (confusing I know), the new King Wu freed Gija.

Probably this is historically correct up to this point. But the next point is controversial and largely rejected by historians. The earliest known source stating that Jizi went to Joseon is the Shangshu dazhuan (尚書大傳), a commentary on the Book of Documents attributed to Fu Sheng of the second century BC–in other words, 800 years after the fract. These texts mention Gija was enfeoffed by King Wu as ruler of Chiaoxian.

On the one hand, this is great news for Koreans, because now it moves the timeline for the founding of Gojoseon to 1100 BC. On the other hand, it clearly shows that China was in control of Chiaoxian back then.

Later, the Shiji, written again in the Han Dynasty era of around 100 BCE, which is a really important document for ancient Korea, also states that Gija was enfeoffed by King Wu. However, this statement is not in the same section as the one which talks about Gojoseon.

Later, much later in 1145, the Samguk Sagi would pick up this story. Kim Busik claimed that Gija had been enfeoffed in Haedong (海東: Korea) by the Zhou court, but commented that this account was uncertain because of the brevity of the sources.

And later, in the 13th century, The Samguk Yusa:

Later Dangun moved his capital to Asadal on T’aebaek-san and ruled 1500 years, until king Wu of Chou (ancient Chinese dynasty) placed Kija on the throne (traditional date 1122 BC). When Kija arrived, Dangun moved to Changtang-kyong and then returned to Asadal, where he became a mountain god at the age of 1908. (Ilyon, Samguk Yusa, translated by T. Ha & G. Mintz (1997), Yonsei University Press, p.33)

(御國一千五百年. 周虎{武}王卽位己卯, 封箕子於朝鮮, 壇君乃移於藏唐京, 後還隱於阿斯達爲山神, 壽一千九百八歲),

The bottom line is, if we accept that Gojoseon did not exist until at least 300-400 BCE, as most historians now believe, we must accept that the legend of Gija Joseon is just that.

Second fact: A polity

Getting back to history: Here’s the second incontrovertible fact:

In 195 BC, historian Gina Barnes writes that references in the Zhanguoce (战国策), Shanhaijing and the Shiji start referring to Joseon as a guo, instead of a region.

This perhaps is the first historical evidence of proto-Korea as a distinct polity.

Despite the foregoing evidence, scholars, mainly western scholars, hesitate to recognize Gojoseon as a state during this time.

As a point of reference, remember that the Roman Empire was very closely a contemporary to the Han Dynasty. Both were founded roughly the same time, at around 200 BCE. So at this period in time, the first Romans would land on England and start trading with the tribes there.

In that respect, Joseon was probably in a similar position to their British contemporaries. The Brits had allied with the Gauls, whom the Romans considered their enemy. Joseon had allied with the Xiongnu, who were causing all kinds of trouble for the Chinese.

There are some key differences however; the Brits started working with Iron much earlier, around 700 BC; while Joseon wouldn’t really see iron until around 300 BC, when they would presumably trade for it from their neighbors the Yan, who were actually the biggest iron producers in China at the time. According to many Korean scholars, they would argue that Joseon was a unified polity by the time the Han attacked; while there is no such comparable claim by British historians.

Wiman Joseon

There’s a third founding “myth” of Korea. We spoke about Dangun, which is accepted by today’s Koreans as their creation myth; there’s the Gija myth, which is currently rejected; and now there’s this third one, called Wiman Joseon.

If you had to rank whether this was true or not, you’d rank it way higher than the other two, and in fact it’s accepted as proto-history by historians outside of Korea. It’s called the Wiman Joseon dynasty, and it goes like this:

When Liu Bang reunified China as the Han dynasty in 202 BCE, he appointed a number of kings to function as vassals. One of them was King of Yan, the area in the far east of the Han empire adjacent to Chiaoxian. In 195 BCE, King Yan revolted and allied with the Xiongnu, a fierce steppe nomadic tribe to the north. 

The Shiji records that one of his lieutenants, a man name Wiman, fled with 1,000 followers to Joseon, where the King, called Chun, appointed him as frontier commander. Wiman, however, with the help of the Chinese diaspora living in Joseon at the time, seized power and thus took over Joseon. 

He is said to have established his capital at Wanggeom-seong (왕검성, 王險城), which various Korean historians place either near present day Pyeongyang or Yodong (요동) in Liaodong China.

This occurred sometime between 194 and 180 BCE. He and his descendants would rule until 108 BCE.

Note that the Shiji was written by Sima Qian who died in 145 BCE, so he died around 50 years after the events that he’s covering. It’s kind of a similar timeline as Leo Tolstoy who wrote about the war of 1812 around 50 years after the fact. Of course he never passed off his writing as history, in fact he may have been the first to write a historical novel, but I digress.

It’s a short enough period to pass for history, although technically proto-history.

Part of the reason Wiman Joseon is contested has to do with (1) lack of archeological evidence thus far and (2) references to Wiman that are suspect:

Barnes writes that

The Weilue, a mid-third-century text quoted in the preface to the Sanguozhi, records that Weiman (K. Wiman) actually usurped the rulership of the existing Qi [Qizi] Dynasty from a king named Zhun (K. Chun) and thus took over the kingship of the state of Chosŏn;

In other words this bit of writing references Gija, which we spoke earlier to be discredited according to historical record. 

If you read any general history of Korea written in English, you will find that Wiman is included as history, and I personally subscribe to that as well. 

Third fact: A polity

The next fact is incontrovertible as of today, and is finally where western scholars in particular agree as fact: In 108 BCE, the newly united Han Dynasty, waged war on a peoples east of their borders, and won. This people is agreed to be Gojoseon.

And this will end this episode, because from here on out, the documentation of history from the Chinese side is plentiful and very clear. From here on out, there is less reliance on just conjecture and archeology, and more a reliance on the written word of that time.


So with all the controversy, who and what are we to believe? It’s not a clear answer for me. Obviously, I believe that science should be the final arbiter of the truth. Evidence-based conclusions should dictate what we consider history and myth. But rarely is the world that clear cut. If we were to only rely on such evidence, we’d be the worst detectives in the world. 

In the absence of such evidence, what can we do? I’m always reminded of what happened with the Shang Dynasty. Up until around 1920, the western world believed the Shang dynasty was just a flight of fancy, in the same way they believe the Xia dynasty is a myth today. The fantastical descriptions of a powerful, rich kingdom that existed 2,000 years before the birth of another fantastical character named Jesus Christ seemed like so much fantasy to the western world. And yet in 1899, like in an Indiana Jones movie, a pharmacist in Beijing discovered what looked like ancient script written on some fossilized cattle bones. Long story short, it lead to the archeological treasure of more than fifty large buildings and football-field sized tombs, completely vindicating the written record of China, and placing into history one of the world’s greatest civilizations.

The history of Korea has yet to be fully uncovered; not the least of which is due to the treasure trove that must be North Korea. How many of Korea’s so-called fanciful myths will become history from discoveries there?

There is also a strain of unwarranted skepticism regarding Korea’s claims to ancient kingdoms that you just don’t see applied to western societies. I quote from a book that I otherwise respect:

“Modern Koreans see ancient Choso˘n as an ancestor to their nation, but there is no clear evidence linking it with any particular ethnic group or culture.” – Michael Seth

Although I rely on Seth’s writing as fair and objective, I think this is one example where his conclusions are unfair. 

If you read the history of England, there is no skepticism of whether the early Iron Age societies in Britain first discovered by the Roman Empire in 100 BCE are related to today’s English people. 



During the Early Iron Age, diverse

forms of reddish-brown earthenware were produced following the Neolithic tradition.

The most representative earthenware was Jeomtodae pottery, in addition to

long-necked pottery, pottery bent outward at the rim, pedestaled pottery, and deep

pots and jars. Jeomtodae pottery is generally defined as having a mouth surrounded

by a round or triangular clay band. Temporal differences in the production of this

distinctive pottery are seen in the specific shapes of the cross-sectional band (Fig. 1).

Round cross-sectional bands were made earlier than triangular cross-sectional bands


There is no question that material culture on the Korean Peninsula from the Neolithic

to the Bronze Age was influenced by that of northeastern China in various ways

and it is certainly possible that these cultural elements were disseminated through

migration. Researchers have usually suggested that climate change was the main reason

for presumed migrations until the Bronze Age, but large-scale migration in the

Early Iron Age could well have resulted from regional political conflict. New theories

that political factors rather than ecological factors precipitated population movements

have opened up considerably more varied interpretations than were previously in

circulation among scholars.


Archaeologists suggest that Gojoseon was established later, around 800 or 700 b.c., by which time artifacts

such as lute-shaped bronze daggers

and Misong-ri type pottery were being made

( KAS 2010 : 148).

Yan was the largest iron producer in late 1st millennium BC. 

By the second century BCE, Chinese works such as the Zhanguoce (Strategies of the Warring States) and the Shangshu dazhuan (Commentary on the Esteemed Documents) refer to an area called Chaoxian. Although some later Korean histories would assert that the state was founded by Tan’gun in 2333 BCE, the earliest uncontested date for a political entity called Choso ̆n is 109 BCE.


Chinese sources also bring considerable light to early Korean history. During the Han dynasty, the first great dynasty that unified all of China on a long-term basis (202 BCE–220 CE), the first detailed accounts of events on the Korean peninsula appear. The most important of these are the Chinese history Shiji (Historical Record), written by Sima Qian around 100 BCE, and the Dongizhuan (Account of the Eastern Barbarians) section of Sanguozhi (Record of the Three Kingdoms), compiled in 297 CE. The latter is probably the single

The Samguk Sagi, relied upon by many Korean scholars as a true version of history, gives founding dates for the Korean “Three Kingdoms” of Silla, Koguryŏ and Paekche (Figure 1.1) as 57, 37 and 18 bc, respectively, and it gives king lists from those dates onwards (Grayson 1976; Best 1979; Li O. 1981, 1986).


Barnes, Gina. State Formation in Korea (Durham East Asia Series) . Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition. 




Bronze Age, 

Early Iron Age, 

Gimhae culture, and 

Three States period (including Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla).


(Page 186). 



Hatata Takashi (Takashi Hatada, 1908 November 7 – 1994 June 30 ) is a Japanese oriental historian, Tokyo Metropolitan University (1949-2011) , professor emeritus.

Born in Mashan , Gyeongsangnam-do, Korea . 1931 Graduated from the Department of Oriental History , Tokyo Imperial University . After graduation, he belonged to Mantetsu Research Department and participated in the North China Rural Practice Survey [1] . Tokyo Metropolitan University (1949-2011) Associate Professor, Professor, Retired in 1972, Professor Emeritus, Professor at Senshu University. Retired in 79 years. After the war, he played a central role in the study of Korean history, such as overcoming oriental historical studies without humans and studying from the standpoint of denying colonial rule [2] .



Barnes, Gina Lee. State Formation in Korea (Durham East Asia Series). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition. 2001, Curzon Press.

Culture Contact and Cultural Boundaries in Iron Age Southern Korea, Jack DAVEY

The Cambridge History of Japan

Ancient Koreans and Xiongnu: What was the Nature of Their Relationship? Maurizio RIOTTO, Università degli studi di Napoli “L’Orientale”


Historical Series: Korean History 2 – Gija 기자 箕子

Transition from the Prehistoric Age to the Historic Age: The Early Iron Age on the Korean Peninsula



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



Paleolithic Archaeology in Korea https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007%2F978-1-4939-6521-2_17

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

THE HISTORY OF KOREA, Sohn Pow-key Kim Chol-choon Hong Yi-sup. Korean National Commission for Unesco/ Seoul, Korea. 1970

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

Korea – Forty Three Centuries.Published Cultural Series — Vol. I.Tae Hung Ha, 1962. Yonsei University Press


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