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Far East Kingdoms

East Asia

 

Old Choson / Gojoseon (Korea)

The early Korean state of Gojoseon ('Old Choson') is semi-legendary. A chunk of the region in which it is said to have formed was, during the tenth to third centuries BC, part of the proto-Korean Seo Dansan culture. The Samguk Yusa (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms) is a thirteenth century AD Korean historical account which collected together various traditions, stories, and legends, many of which were undoubtedly the remnants of oral tradition.

According to it, Gojoseon was an ancient Korean kingdom. It is shown as 'Choson' in some interpretations, with the 'Old' prefix added to differentiate it from later iterations of the name, a common naming practice in East Asia and South-East Asia.

The lists of emperors is little more than that, with no details and no dating. In linear terms this kingdom could be said to have grown out of the early Korean cultures in East Asia to form the basis of what is now known as Korea (north and south combined). In fact it seems to have been little more than a regional state with its own cultural expression, but it was a state which spawned all of the other, later Korean states.

If any of the names in the list below represent once-living persons then they were likely local kings of some regional greatness who later achieved godhood through continued remembrance, but in the legendary sense they are used to show the 'creation' and progressive development of humanity in Korea.

The state was the first organised nation to be formed by the Korean people, founded in 2333 BC by the legendary Dangun, and centred in the Liao river basins in today's Liaoning Province, immediately to the north of the Liaodong peninsula in modern China. Dangun (also interpreted as Wanggom or Wanggeom, albeit perhaps only in earlier twentieth century works) apparently ruled over the Korean peninsula to his south and what is now Manchuria to his more immediate north.

Around 425 BC, according to one account, the state's name was changed to Daebuyeo, but this may have been little more than a personal renaming which ended with the death of that particular king.

FeatureIt was the eventual break-up of this legendary kingdom which gave rise to better-attested early historical kingdoms in Korea (albeit with some of them still occupying plenty of territory to the north of today's North Korean northern border).

The Korea of the late classical and early medieval periods was for the most part divided into 'Three Kingdoms', although others also existed. Amongst the earliest states to appear were Wiman Choson, Buyeo, and Koguryo. These were also largely centred to the north of the modern Koreas, thereby generally avoiding the influences of the contemporary Mumun pottery period in the Korean peninsula (see feature link for additional chronology notes).

A study in 2012 found that eunuchs of the Choson (Chosun or Chaoxian) period lived up to nineteen years longer than their better endowed peers. They even outlived members of the royal family. Records state that eunuchs had some female-like appearances such as large breasts, big hips, no beard, and thin, high-pitched voices.

The imperial court of Choson used eunuchs to guard the gates and manage food. They were the only men outside the royal family who were allowed to spend the night in the palace, and they could not have children of their own, so they adopted girls or castrated boys. Their average age at death was seventy years, although the oldest of them reached 109 years. By comparison, men in other families in the noble classes lived into their early fifties. Males in the royal family lasted on average until they were just forty-five.

South Korea's flag

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from Pre-Modern East Asia: A Cultural, Social, and Political History, Volume I: To 1800, Patricia Ebrey & Anne Walthall (Cengage Learning, 2013), and from External Links: Eunuchs reveal clues to why women live longer than men (BBC News), and Ancient History Encyclopaedia, and New World Encyclopaedia, and Academic Kids Encyclopaedia, and History of Manchuria, and Kings of Korea (in Korean), and Korea Information - History (Korean Cultural Center NY).)

2333 - ? BC

Tan'gun Wanggom / Dangun

First emperor. 'Grandson of heaven'.

2333 BC

Dangun establishes his kingdom of Joseon ('Choson' in older modern works). By later historians and dynasties it is known as Gojoseon, meaning 'Old Joseon' to distinguish it from the Joseon kingdom of AD 1392.

Dangun then moves his capital to Asadal which is located either on Mount Paegak or Mount Gunghol. He is usually given as being contemporaneous with Emperor Yáo of legendary China.

Korean comb-pattern pottery
This comb-pattern container with its pointy base was discovered in Amsa-dong, Seoul, a representative historic site of the Korean Neolithic period

Buru

Gareuk

Osagu

Gueul

Dalmun

Hanyul

Usuhan

Aseul

Noul

Dohae

Ahan

Holdal

Gobul

Daeum

2094 BC

The earliest recorded eclipse (at least, recorded by oral tradition and written down a thousand years later) is noted in the Book of Documents (the Shujing, earlier known as the Shu King). In the fifth year of the reign of Zhòng Kāng of China, two royal astronomers, Hsi and Ho, fail in their duties to predict the eclipse and are executed by order of the king, with the event being matched to a hybrid eclipse of 2094 BC.

Map of Xia China c.2000 BC
The semi-mythical first dynasty of China emerged in territory along the Yellow River, quickly conquering and dominating the rival early states around it, especially the Shang tribe who would later pose such a threat to Xia hegemony, but also others such as the largely mysterious Pi, and Ge (click or tap on map to view full sized)

Wina

Yeoul

Dongum

Gumoso

c.2000 BC

Chinese rice and millet farmers spread southwards into a region which stretches between Vietnam and Burma. There, they interbreed with local hunter-gatherers in two main pulses, the first taking place around now and the second around the end of the first century BC.

The migrations seem to occur from southern China which, at this time, is not part of the Erlitou culture of the north, but which may still be informed and improved by it.

Around the same time, Korea welcomes the arrival of a regionally-unique pottery culture which consists of painted and chiselled designs. The makers of this pottery are agricultural, farming in settled communities, and probably organised into familial clans.

Rectangular huts and increasingly larger dolmen burial sites are found throughout the Korean peninsula. Bronze daggers and mirrors, along with small walled-town states, have all been found to exist during this Late Jeulmun pottery period.

Bamboo Annals
The Bamboo Annals which contain a good deal of the earliest Chinese history or legend were written down largely during the Warring States era of the fifth to third centuries BC, using slips of bamboo which are now causing experts a few headaches when it comes to finding ways of preserving them

Goheul

Sotae

Saekbullu

Aheul

Yeonna

Solna

Churo

Dumil

Haemo

Mahew

Naehew

Deungowl

Chumil

c.1766 BC

Emperor Jié of China is a tyrant who, in common with at least one recent ruler, is intent on securing his own pleasures above his duty to govern the kingdom. During this time the Shang state is increasing its own power by dominating other, neighbouring Xia vassal states one by one. The Shang eventually overthrow the Xia and its corrupt leader.

Erlitou palace
This palace of the Erlitou culture was at its height during the Xia dynasty, but this great palace was inherited by the Shang dynasty following its act of overthrowing the Xia

Kammul

Orumun

Sabul

Maereuk

Mamul

Damul

Duhol

c.1600 BC

It is estimated to be around this time that the Sanxingdui civilisation arises on the western edges of Early Chinese culture. Its people create an impressive city on the banks of the Minjiang River, which probably replaces older, less impressive dwellings.

Dalum

Eumcha

Eulwuji

Mulli

c.1500 BC

The Mumun pottery period emerges in what is now north-eastern China and northern North Korea, lasting unto about 300 BC. It consists of plain, coarse pottery which replaces the preceding comb-pattern wares.

This is possibly as a result of the influence of new populations which are migrating into Korea from nearby Manchuria and more distant Siberia. This form of pottery typically has thicker walls and displays a wider variety of shapes, indicating improvements in kiln technology.

Mal-ta-Buret' boy
DNA from the skeleton of a boy of the Mal'ta-Buret' culture in Siberia offers clues to the first Americans, with this culture being the first to the east of the Ural Mountains to show differences from its European counterparts, albeit before any admixture from East Asians had taken place

Kumul

Yeoru

Boeul

Koyeolga

Last ruler of the original dynasty?

c.1400 BC

The given list of names seems to run out here, at an approximate date of 1400 BC (allowing five kings to a century from 2333 BC onwards, which may still be generous).

c.1122 BC

The next mention in any records of a ruler of Gojoseon can be dated to the twelfth century BC (or eleventh, when corrected). Jizi (a name which has also been noted or translated at Qizi or Kizi) is described as a 'virtuous relative' of the last king of the Shang dynasty.

He is punished for remonstrating with the king but, following the Shang removal by the Zhou in 1122 BC (a date which is probably more accurately placed around 1059 BC), he is described as providing the new king with political advice.

fl c.1122? BC

Gija / Kija / Jizi

Chinese ruler of Chaoxian. Intrusive dynasty founder?

Later Han dynasty texts state that Jizi is positioned by the Zhou king as ruler of 'Chaoxian' (Joseon in Korean), although not as a subject or vassal, where he brings in various aspects of the more advanced Chinese civilisation and culture. The Koreans know him as Gija or Kija.

He is later positioned as an integrated successor to the original line of rulers of Gojoseon, although twentieth century revisions have made that position less certain. However, his position may indeed represent a Chinese intrusion - the first of many - into Korean affairs, and one which founds the Gija Joseon period of Korean history.

King Gija of Gojoseon
King Gija of Gojoseon, a potential Chinese interloper who replaced the indigenous ruling dynasty and took over rule of the earliest Korean state

425 BC

Following Gumul's victory, the Ohga name him as the new dangun of Gojoseon (dangun being the name of the very first emperor, with his name being retained for this position of power much as the later name of Caesar in Rome becomes an imperial title).

He continues the lineage of the first dangun, but changes the state's name to Daebuyeo ('Great Buyeo', not directly related to the later state of Buyeo, but certainly relatable to Gojoseon's immediate successor, Wiman Choson).

425 - ? BC

Gamul / Gumul

Founder of the Jinjoseon dynasty.

c.300 BC

The Chinese Yen/Yan kingdom conquers Gojoseon during China's 'Warring States' period. Is it coincidental that Japan's Yayoi period begins around the same time? For the preceding six hundred years or so increasing numbers of rice farmers have been settling areas of southern Japan and bringing with them their differing pottery style from that of the native Jomon people.

Could it be Mumun or Seo Dansan refugees from partially-conquered Korea who provide the final push towards ending the Jomon period there?

Early Jomon pot
This 'Early Jomon' pot dates to around 5000 BC, with Jomon pottery perhaps being amongst the world's oldest forms of pottery (disputed, but the argument certainly has favourable radiocarbon dating to support it)

232 - 220 BC

Bu

Rebelled against Qin overlordship.

222 BC

Control of Gojoseon briefly passes to the mighty Qin kingdom of China. King Bu is credited with invading Han China, but the dates given for him are too early for interaction with the Han dynasty which begins in 207 BC while it is still in opposition to the Qin.

220 - 194 BC

Chun Wang / Jun

Son. Possibly subject to Han control.

206 BC

Control of Gojoseon does indeed now pass to the Han, early in the Qin/Han War which sees the latter usurp power from the fading and hated Qin. The inept Qin Emperor Ziying is defeated in battle, surrenders, and is executed.

The war may spur on the migration of a wave of refugees who head towards Korean territory, which also helps to destabilise Gosjeon and assist in its imminent break-up into several states. General Wiman, the instigator of rebellion in 194 BC, is certainly one such new arrival from Chinese lands.

194 BC

The state of Gojoseon selects this moment to rebel against Han rule. The weakness of Liu Ying (Emperor Hui) in the face of his mother's domination has quickly become apparent. The Koreans regain their independence, but Gojoseon itself is fragmenting.

Map of Early Han (Western) China c.200 BC
The Han conquest of Qin China had to wait until the great Qin emperor himself was dead and it still took a year of fighting to destroy the Qin armies. Then the victors spent four more years and a civil war deciding that the Han would command the succeeding dynasty and reunite the fractured state (click or tap on map to view full sized)

General Wiman seizes the throne from Chun Wang to form a new dynasty of rulers in a new capital under the title of Wiman Chosen. Chun Wang is reputed to flee to the Jin confederacy in the south, while the new kingdom carries a good deal more historical authenticity than its predecessor.

 
Images and text copyright © all contributors mentioned on this page. An original king list page for the History Files.