Korean Civilization

(This is a brief entry, to be replaced later by a full article)

Traditional Korean civilization owed a huge debt to the civilization of its giant neighbor, China. This is unsurprising, given that the cradles of urban, literate civilization in East Asia lay in the great river valleys of China. Also, lying further west than Korea, influences from western Eurasia (metallurgy, the chariot, Buddhism) tended to come to Korea via China.

Korea imported from China its rice-growing agriculture, its metal-using technology, its script, its Confucian ideology and its Buddhist religion. In the early stages of its civilization, it also based its governmental institutions on Chinese models, such as the bureaucracy and the public examination systems. Moreover, Korean scholars continued to participate in the fuller intellect life of the region. For example, they helped to elaborate the Neo-Confucianism which rose to dominate the thought of East Asian elites after the 10th century.

Korean civilization, however, developed some very distinctive features of its own. The Koreans did not copy the Chinese governmental system slavishly, but soon adapted it to their own needs. Being a mountainous country and without the great floodplains of China, the highly centralized bureaucratic system of China was not ideal in Korea. The Japanese faced the same problem, and ditched the entire system, instead basing power on local lords. This was  recipe for repeated civil wars. In Korea, on the other hand, the bureaucracy was adapted to be looser, more flexible than in China.

This gave room for a landed aristocracy, with roots in the localities. This died out as an effective force in Chinese society after the early 10th century, at the latest, but in Korea the aristocracy remained an important part of the social and political scene. Unlike in Japan, however, the nobility were not allowed to develop their local powers to the extent that they became petty princes within their own domains; instead, they were co-opted into a central system of control, looser than in China but still present. As a result, Korea experienced long periods of political stability and internal peace.

Korean civilization also make several remarkable contributions of its own. Although block printing came to Korea from China, it was the Koreans who developed metal moveable type, a far more sophisticated technology. Related to this, the Koreans invented their own alphabetical system, much simpler than the pictographic one they had borrowed from the Chinese. Other precocious technical innovations were improvements in metallurgy, such that it was the Koreans who first constructed a bridge made entirely from steel, and it was they who first put iron warships (the famous “turtle” ships) into service, at least two centuries before Europeans did.