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Far East Kingdoms

East Asia

 

Samhan Confederacies (Iron Age) (Korea)
1st Century BC - 5th Century AD
Incorporating the Byeonhan Confederacy, Jinhan Confederacy, & Mahan Confederacy

While the first organised proto-Korean states had emerged out of the Seo Dansan culture in what today is Manchuria in the far north-eastern corner of China, and perhaps straddling the border with modern North Korea, they certainly did not extend into what is now South Korea.

The legendary state of Old Choson had fragmented into Wiman Choson and Buyeo, while around them tribal confederacies began to emerge into history. To the south, largely (but not entirely) contained within today's South Korea, a widespread tribal confederation had already formed, possibly as early as the fourth century BC.

The Jin confederacy of the last three or four centuries BC had formed out of several more minor tribal confederations or primitive states. In the second century BC this fractured into what are known as the Samhan confederacies, an umbrella term for all three confederacies: Byeonhan, Jinhan, and Mahan, although the same term was used to describe their successor states and was even appropriated by the later Goryeo dynasty to refer to all of Korea.

It also describes Korea's Bronze Age period which succeeded the Mumun pottery period. They occupied the central and southern regions of the Korean peninsula. All three emerged during the confusion of the collapse of Wiman Choson and all three claimed to be the true successors of the Jin confederacy (according to the History of the Later Han). The actual circumstances are highly uncertain, but it has been proposed that either Jin evolved into Jinhan, or that it fractured into all three Samhan confederacies.

The Mahan city states were focussed on the Chungcheong and Jeolla provinces in western-central and south-western South Korea during the first century BC to fourth century AD. For a while after the founding of the Mahan, its dominant king referred to himself as the Jin king, which would support the idea of an equal three way fracturing of the Jin confederacy.

The twelve states of the Jinhan were focussed in south-eastern South Korea, lasting until the fourth century AD (counted as the successor of the Jin state in the Records of the Three Kingdoms). The Byeonhan (or Byeonjin, to claim the Jin name for itself) were in the central-southern region, sandwiched between the other two. It was this which evolved into the Gaya confederacy of the first century AD (or, more likely, the third century AD).

The Mahan city states (numbering fifty-four in total) were conquered by Baekje in the fourth century, which had started out as one of those Mahan city states. Jinhan was similarly conquered by one of its own, which became the kingdom of Silla.

Archaeological finds have suggested that the Jin and Samhan confederacies exhibited cultural similarities with the Yayoi period Japanese settlers on those islands. It was the subsequent Gaya confederacy, more highly influenced and infiltrated by elements from the north, which is claimed ultimately to have pushed out or extinguished the last remnants of indigenous Yayoi-related communities on the Korean peninsula itself during the first to third centuries AD.

If correct then the confederacies which preceded the Gaya would seem to have been formed of a blend of Yayoi-related peoples and southern proto-Korean groups.

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), from A New History of Korea, Lee Ki-baik (1984, supplied by Michael Welles, but excluding Koguryo), from History Of Korea, Roger Tennant (Routledge, 1996), from Records of the Three Kingdoms, Chen Shou (third century text which covers the period AD 184-220 and which combines individual histories of China's 'Three Kingdoms'), from History of the Later Han, Fan Ye (fifth century compilation of older texts which covers the history of the Later Han dynasty of China), and from External Links: 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), and Enacademic.)

300s - 100s BC

The Jin confederacy breaks up, either concentrating its territory into the Jinhan confederacy, perhaps in response to attacks from the north, or splintering into all three confederacies of the Samhan, including the Byeonhan and Mahan confederacies.

Map of East Asia c.100-37 BC
The fall of Wiman Choson spawned the state of Buyeo which proved to be the founding point for Dongbuyeo, Galsa Buyeo, and Koguryo (possibly to be identified with Jolbon Buyeo), which would unify the whole of northern Korea and the Korean territories in today's Manchuria (click or tap on map to view full sized)

AD 42

Suro Wang's accession as the head of the Gaya confederacy is legendary, recorded in the thirteenth century Samguk Yusa. Silla's beginnings are similarly legendary, with both using the descend of godlike 'eggs' from heaven to give birth to the respective ruling kings.

The conclusion to be drawn is that the origins of (probably) all three later southern kingdoms have been lost. First century Baekje defeats its sister city state of Wolji or Mokji to assume dominance of the Mahan confederacy.

c.250

Both Baekje and Silla have established themselves as powerful states within their respective confederacies. Silla becomes increasingly dominant over the Jinhan city states as the third century becomes the fourth century, while Baekje already appears to have achieved a level of independence from its sister city states of the Mahan confederacy. Similarly, the Gaya confederacy is becoming the dominant member of the Byeonhan confederacy.

Map of East Asia AD 100
Late Han China continued to pressure the Korean states, especially to the north of the Korean peninsula, with Buyo seemingly accepting Han vassal status in AD 49 (click or tap on map to view full sized)

369

What had once been a small city state of the Mahan confederacy itself to begin with, Baekje has now become a powerful kingdom. It has been systematically conquering the other city states within the confederacy until now, when that confederacy is eliminated entirely and much of its territory in northern and central South Korea is absorbed by Baekje.

The Jinhan and Byeonhan confederacies are undergoing similar fates in favour of Silla and Gaya respectively.

503

Possibly to dispel any confusion about its rising status as a regional power, the Jinhan city state of Saro now officially adopts the name 'Silla'. The Samhan confederacies have been extinguished in favour of the 'Three Kingdoms'.

Shutterstock photo of a Unified Silla temple
Numerous structures which can be attributed to Silla still survive in South Korea, such as this one which is known as Seokguram Grotto

The other Jinhan states around this time are Bulsa (now the city of Changnyeong), Geun-gi (now either Pohang or Cheongdo), Gijeo (now Andong), Gunmi (now Sacheon), Horo (now Sangju), Juseon (now Gyeongsan), Mayeon (now Miryang), Nanmirimidong or Mirimidong (also now Miryang), U-yu (now either Cheongdo or Yeongdeok), Yeodam (now Gunwi), and Yeomhae (now Ulsan).

 
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