Early Korea’s Distinctive Culture
According to historian Bruce Cumings, Korean culture in the Koryo and Yi dynasties was by no means simply derivative of Chinese culture. Instead, Korean culture in this period – from 918 to 1910 – demonstrates a considerable degree of inventiveness and autonomy, and while Chinese influence was a constant fact, the Koreans’ cultural practices by no means merely aped those of their larger neighbor.
In his preface, Cumings notes that Korean culture has long been mistakenly deemed a mere variant of Chinese culture; in truth, he argues, the Korean people had a strong sense of their uniqueness and developed as an entity separate from China early in their history. To illustrate Korea’s sense of itself, Cumings refers in his preface to a Korean map dating from 1402, in which Korea is well-defined and prominent while the rest of Asia is an undifferentiated mass and Japan is small and insignificant.
Though commonly seen as a “shrimp among whales,” he says Korea saw itself as “an important, advanced, significant country” (pp.9-10). Cumings’ history of Korea until 1910 validates this view. Despite misconceptions about Chinese influence and the fact that Korea’s own history in the twentieth century was turbulent and fragmented, he makes clear that China did have influence, but it did not wholly dominate Korean culture; as he states, “Old Korea was a universe all of its own, a fully realized human history like no other” (p. 20). Even before the Koryo dynasty (918-1392), early Korea (or Choson, its traditional name) was not considered a weak, easily dominated satellite of China.
Cumings writes: “Choson prospered . . . [and] was formidable to the point of arrogance” (pp. 25-26). Though its power waned as China rose, Korea (which consisted of a few different warring kingdoms before the Koryo period) was distinct enough to have even influenced Japan’s early development. Cumings quotes one scholar who maintains that “Korea [was likely] the wellspring of Japanese culture before 700” (p. 34). The Koryo dynasty (918-1392), from which modern Korea derives its name, “ranked among the most advanced civilizations in the world” (p. 40).
Though it derived some cultural influence from China (particularly Confucian philosophy and ideas on governance), it nonetheless had its own distinct culture independent of its large neighbor. Cumings states that Koryo artisans created a kind of fine ceramics superior even to China’s; one art scholar deems it “not only original . . . [but] the most gracious and unaffected pottery ever made” (p. 42). Also during that era, Korea evolved its own eclectic religious culture, fusing Buddhism and Confucianism to create something clearly Chinese-influenced but unique nonetheless.
Cumings claims that “the two great philosophical doctrines lived easily with each other, side-by-side as it were” (p. 44), and within this religious establishment, Korean monks also evolved a fertile, prosperous culture that made significant contributions to agriculture, commerce, and statesmanship. However, these achievements were obscured by the Mongol conquests in the thirteenth century, which marked the Koryo dynasty’s decline but does not diminish the fact that Korean culture in this five-century period was vital, sophisticated, and by no means a mere imitation of Chinese cultural achievements.
The Yi (or new Choson) dynasty, which immediately followed the Koryo dynasty and lasted until Japan’s takeover in 1910, continued the Korean tradition of borrowing some cultural elements from China but still transforming them into uniquely Korean practices. Cumings notes that the new Choson dynasty was “more a renovation than a revolution” (p. 48), which is an accurate assessment. In this era, Confucianism attained greater influence, as did the classical Chinese language, which was taught in formal education.
Still, Korean culture demonstrated considerable inventiveness and originality; by 1400, “Korea was far ahead of a Europe that . . . was stagnant economically and technically” (p. 64). New Choson-era Korea saw the advent of movable metal type, making books feasible there decades before Gutenberg’s advent in Europe. In addition, Koreans produced inventions such as the rainfall gauge and the iron-plated warship, as well as advances in mathematics and medicine; these were not mere derivatives from Chinese culture, but products of an autonomous Korean culture.
Outside the Yi dynasty’s elite culture, says Cumings, ordinary Koreans created their own rich cultural traditions as well, particularly folk art and religious practices independent of Chinese influence. He writes: “This Korean mass culture created remarkably lively and diverse art forms” (p. 75), ranging from painting to socially-critical novels to shamanistic religious practices operating apart from the Buddhist-Confucian fusion embraced largely by the upper classes.
These were also free from Chinese influence and developed largely independently even from the native Korean culture of the elites. It is true, though, that Korean culture’s relationship with Western ideas depended greatly on China, since Western ideas filtered in from Beijing and other cities with strong commercial ties to the West. Despite Korean culture’s originality, it did not develop a strong mercantile culture (unlike China and Japan), and as a result its embrace of Western ideas paled compared to Japan’s, creating the false impression that Korea was backward (pp.80-84).
Though Korea during these two dynasties was subject to foreign invasion and periodic decline, its culture remained original never deteriorated into mere derivation or imitation. China, its large, powerful neighbor, did contribute some key ideas, but early Korea evolved its own cultural practices, fusing Chinese ideas like Confucianism with its own creations to form a unique and original culture that endured for centuries.
WORKS CITED Cumings, B. (2005). Korea’s Place in the Sun. New York: W. W. Norton.Sample Essay of Masterpapers.com