Understanding the Enigma of Korean Culture

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Traditional culture is a mask fashioned by the present 
onto which features believed to represent the past are painted.  This article identifies and attempts to reconcile some of the key conflicts arising in the popular notion of “traditional Korean culture.” 

From early on, human culture has been wired into concepts of dualism: complementary phenomena where one half cannot exist or be described without reference to the other.  The root examples are life and death and the two genders.  In East Asian culture, dualism was early on made explicit through the Taoist notion of yin and yang.  By coincidence, Chinese cultural make-up now lends itself to a yin and yang interpretation reflecting a dynastic historiography alternating between ethnic Han and foreign periods of rule; in this case the dualism is given another layer of nuance by Barfield’s observation that nomadic steppe cultures tended to rise and fall in tandem with their agrarian Han neighbours forming their own bipolar yin and yang patterns of interaction.[1]  The foreign conquest dynasties of Manchuria relied on the ethnic Han bureaucracy whilst the territory of the expansionist Qing dynasty has come to define the modern concept of a once more Han controlled China and the scope of its historiography.

Dualist interpretations of foreign cultures are popular because they appear simplistic and through their own generalizing nature become self-fulfilling axioms.  Thus the notion of Japanese culture was equally summed up by Benedict in her enduring “Chrysanthemum and Sword” formula.  Such “greedy reductionism,” however, is regarded by today’s Orientalists as the epitome of Orientalist cliché.

In this brief and under-researched examination of what the current notion of Korean traditional culture encompasses, I unintentionally find myself describing another broad dualism though trying to introduce a formulaic label for Korea is not the motivation of my discourse.  The following observations I believe, help to make explicit an almost schizophrenic sense of unacknowledged divisions, or polarizations, inherent in the discourse of Korean cultural identity implied when and wherever the word “Korean” is used.  Designating language, sovereignty, ethnicity and plenty besides, the words “Korean” and “traditional Korean” are in constant use and, indeed, the discipline of Korean Studies would not exist without them.  This paper is not a comprehensive exposition but only a starting point to aid my own research.

With raced based nationalist historiography having become the mainstay of the two modern rival regimes, the homogeneity of the Korean people and their culture has become a self-professed and oft celebrated defining feature.  This trait of homogeneity is widely perceived and continues to be propagated amongst Koreans and those with an interest in Korea today. It has become a self-fulfilling prophecy as features considered to represent Koreanness – language, dynastic history, kimchi, ondol underfloor heating, traditional hanbok dress etc – have been emphasized over any other historical or cultural details which might otherwise detract from the brand image of traditional Korea.

The desire to create a nationalist cultural identity is nothing unusual and arguably quite necessary given thirty-six years under Japanese colonization (1910-45) which in its final decade included the infamous Naisen Ittai program of cultural assimilation aiming to eradicate any separate notion of Korean identity, including even the language itself.

In the West, the homogeneity of the Korean people has gone largely unquestioned as the notion undoubtedly merged with lingering stereotypes of neatly classifiable oriental cultures.  As the Korean peninsula was arbitrarily divided into opposing halves in August 1945 and the still today unresolved internal confrontation ensued, it became in the interests of both regimes to claim a culture and clearly definable Koreanness in order to legitimize themselves in the eyes of their citizenry as well as, for the South, in the allied West’s imagination.  While North Korea made its own consequent beeline from internationalist Communism to Stalinist inspired ethnic nationalism, a similarly crude cultural nationalism quickly took shape in the South from which a more nuanced view of Korean identity, although now emerged, has yet to be fully untangled.

Tracing further back, Korea’s avoidance of historical conquest and the celebrated tradition of popular resistance to invasions are important factors giving credence to modern claims of homogeneity.  During the premodern historical era, the Korean peninsula was invaded several times and made subject to long term occupation on two separate occasions;[2] it was subjugated both by the Mongol Yuan Dynasty and later the Jurchen Qing but crucially has never experienced any permanent conquest or associated wholesale inward migration comparable, for example, to the 1066 Norman conquest of Anglo-Saxon England.[3]

Korean homogeneity is therefore not entirely a myth and its discourse remains valid to some degree.  However this characteristic has been overemphasized or at best, left unchallenged leading to continued presumptions about cultural, ethnic and linguistic insularity.  Often overlooked both in the past and present, Korean culture and society has in fact played host to a series of internal divisions which are characterized by a tendency towards extreme polarization.  It is consequently only when these often opposing phenomena are treated as constituent parts of a greater whole that a more accurate description of Korea and what is popularly identified as “Korean” can be achieved.

In the broadest case of traditional Korean culture itself, polarization has occurred between popular notions of “indigenous folk” and “Classical Chinese learning.”[4]  The chief characteristic of Korean folk culture is its strong association with Korean shamanism, musok, alongside oral and music traditions embodied in folk song and performance arts.  Perhaps unexpected for a country with such a propensity for education exhibited in both the premodern Neo-Confucian examination system and the high level of university entrance rates of South Koreans today, folk culture remains, or rather has reemerged as, a compellingly prominent feature of contemporary Korean identity.  By contrast, “Classical Chinese learning” refers to literacy in Chinese and is now chiefly associated with Neo-Confucianism which became the male preserve of the yangban literati elite from early on in the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910).  This cultural divide was not just between the educated, landowning elite and peasant farmers but included, for example, female patronage of musok all the way up to palace ladies and queens owing to their own blanket exclusion from participation in the Neo-Confucian ritual practice of ancestor worship.

If the contemporary popular notion of “traditional culture” is assumed to refer to the culture of the Korean peninsula as it had evolved by the latter centuries of the Joseon Dynasty, then Buddhism falls on the folk side of the divide as it similarly faced official discrimination from relatively early on in the long lived dynasty in spite of having originally been introduced to the peninsula, together with Confucianism, through writings in Classical Chinese and itself having served as the dominant religious ideology of the elite until the overthrow of the preceding Goryeo Dynasty (936-1392).

An inaccurate but popularly imagined model of Korean cultural history therefore assumes an indigenous, Old Korean speaking musok substratum culture upon which the Chinese language and Buddhism were first introduced before in turn being supplanted by Neo-Confucianism which relegated musok and Buddhism to the lower classes and women.  The extension of this assumption is that if the Neo-Confucian layer were peeled away from Korean culture, a more indigenous substratum of folk culture would be recoverable beneath.  This was something actively attempted during the left-wing Minjung people’s movement which, coming to prominence in South Korea during the 1980s, sought to reinvigorate and, where necessary reconstruct traditional folk culture with the emphasis firmly on ideals of indigenous folk arts and musok actively downplaying the earlier cultural heritage of Chinese learning.

A key aspect influencing popular perceptions of the “folk versus Classical Chinese learning” divide is found in what can be termed the “Joseon Dynasty effect” created by the impressive longevity of a dynastic period throughout which the idiosyncrasies of Neo-Confucianism dominated the ruling stratum and those who aspired to it.  This half millennium persistence of strictly exclusionary Neo-Confucian orthodoxy, itself a contemporary neo-traditionalist movement,[5] strongly contributed to, if not created, the antagonisms between musok and Chinese language erudition.

Meanwhile in contemporary Korea a potent symbol of the “indigenous folk culture versus Classical Chinese learning” divide is the relationship between the use of the vernacular hangeul alphabet and hanja Chinese characters.  Hangeul, from the outset of its historic promulgation in the mid-fifteenth century, was very much conceived of as a writing system for the common people.  Infamously rejected by court officials, it was until the modern era chiefly used by educated women and poets for composing Sino-Korean sijo poems, personal letters and translating popular works from Classical Chinese; wider spread official usage and explicit association with Korean nationalist sentiment did not begin in any earnest sense until the late nineteenth century.  Throughout the same period Classical Chinese rendered in hanja continued to maintain a firm monopoly as the official written language of the Joseon court, Neo-Confucian yangban intelligentsia and Buddhist monks.[6]  In both Korean states today, hanja is consequently perceived as an elitist script and viewed as a borrowed item of foreign “Chinese” origin.

However, since the introduction of hangeul, and until recently when hanja was systematically phased out by both the North and South regimes, the modern Sino-Korean language was written naturally enough with an appropriate combination of hangeul and hanja.  This had the effect of making visible pure Korean vocabulary and distinguishing it from Sino-Korean words in the vernacular Korean language.  In South Korea today, those with a neo-traditionalist interest in reviving indigenous Korean culture and who attempt to reduce the volume of loanwords (both modern English and ancient Sino-Korean) in their usage of the modern Korean language naturally profess allegiance to hangeul.[7]

The pure Korean term for “pure Korean language” is uri mal, literally meaning “our speech” and in its strongest connotation, for which it is regularly employed, it distinguishes pure Korean from Sino-Korean vocabulary.[8]  The uri mal movement is thus associated with hangeul nationalism and treats hanja vocabulary as an occupying foreign entity where the continued study and usage of hanja is essentially only tolerated as a necessary evil in acknowledgement that so much of the peninsula’s historical heritage was, up until the end of the nineteenth century, recorded in Classical Chinese.

Otherwise the movement for the exclusive use of hangeul in the modern Korean language, that is Sino-Korean, has been highly successful,[9] though writing Sino-Korean exclusively in hangeul has subsequently had the converse effect of renaturalizing hanja loanwords which continue to account for a significant portion of daily vocabulary and this has further reinforced popular perceptions of homogeneity.

In a more nuanced contrast to immediate nationalism, the uri mal movement is simultaneously one aspect of what might be termed the “Altaic Theory effect” which sees some Koreans actively seeking cultural and linguistic connections with other ethnic groups in Northeast Asia based on the premise of a shared northeast Asian shamanic heritage.  Musok is thus associated with Siberian shamanism whilst Old Korean, the ancestor of uri mal, is treated as an “Altaic language,” albeit based on etymologies now widely regarded by comparative linguists to be false reconstructions.  Even if not linguistically correct, the Altaic Theory remains compelling because it supports the quest for an influential Korean regional identity outside of the Chinese cultural sphere.  The Altaic Theory effect can thus be understood in large part as a reaction to the Joseon Dynasty effect: it is anti-Sinocentric and through its active omitting or downplaying of Chinese learning, presents itself as a solidarity movement against Asian imperialism.  By locating Korean culture in the wider nexus of Northeast Asia, it also attempts to liberate its identification from the straightjacket of East Asia in which the peninsula is still widely treated as a passive conduit for Chinese learning to have reached Japan.[10]

Hangeul and hanja are thus representative extremities of the contemporary “indigenous folk versus Classical Chinese learning” divide, however it would be incorrect to believe that beneath the cultural layer of imported Classical Chinese lies a recoverable substratum of “pure” indigenous Korean folk culture because the introduction of Classical Chinese to the peninsula significantly predates the emergence of any pan-peninsula culture identifiable as specifically Korean.

On the premise that an indigenous Old Korean was the dynastic and likely dominant language of Silla during the Three Kingdoms period, it would not have begun to spread widely across the peninsula until following the Silla conquests over Baekje (660) and Goguryeo (668).  Classical Chinese however was introduced to Silla at the very latest with the official adoption of Buddhism in 527 but undoubtedly earlier given hanja terms used to designate native institutions such as the youthful order of hwarang (花郞) knights, the hwabaek (和白) council and golpum (骨品) hereditary status system, as well as names and titles.[11]  In the case of hwabaek and other recorded Old Korean, or Silla, words where the characters have been employed for their phonetic value, rather than their meaning in Chinese, there still had to be sufficient knowledge of Chinese in order to utilize their sound value and choose characters with attractive meanings.[12]  It is most likely therefore that the vernacular language of Silla was already Sino-Korean before its expansion in the late seventh century.

However, the hypothesis that Old Korean was only spoken in the homeland region of Silla and not the much vaster territory of the two modern Korean states, is not widely promoted or accepted amongst Koreans today because it undermines said claims of homogeneity.  In particular the implication that the dominant language of Goguryeo was genetically something other than Koreanic, possibly Tungusic (para-Jurchenic) or para-Japonic,[13] would be particularly grave for North Korean ethnic nationalism as well as South Korean irredentists who make at least cultural claims on Goguryeo’s former continental territory in southern Manchuria.[14]

The preferred assumption is that variants of Old Korean were spoken in all of the Three Kingdoms’ territories from time immemorial.  However, whilst it is possible that Old Korean was widespread on the peninsula as a relatively indigenous language prior to the Silla expansion it almost certainly was not spoken in the ancestral territory of Goguryeo and would not have begun to spread there until following the kingdom’s demise.[15]

By contrast, hanja was fully established across the whole of the Three Kingdoms’ combined territory by the sixth century at the very latest, whilst in the territory of Goguryeo the population would have been familiar with hanja and associated Classical Chinese learning – Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism – up to half a millennium before they were exposed to Old Korean which, by the time they were and as concluded above, would already itself have been Sino-Old Korean.[16]

Pure Koreanists or folk nationalists, might respond that the vast majority of the Three Kingdoms’ populations were in any event illiterate and Classical Chinese learning remained the preserve of the elite aristocracies: this would likely be correct but describes essentially the same circumstances as persisted all the way up until the modern era and so cannot prove that Classical Chinese learning was any less influential in more distant times than recent past.

Turning to historiography, the Old Joseon foundation myth of Dan’gun is comfortably interpreted as principally being of northeast Asian shamanic origin.[17]  In the established orthodox scheme Gi Ja later arrives from the Shang introducing Chinese learning, an event notably occurring before the establishment of the Chinese Han commanderies.  Both the Dan’gun myth, later historicized by the modern North and South regimes, together with the historical legend of Gi Ja are played out in the northern half of the peninsula and southern Manchurian mainland.

When Wi Man then arrives and usurps the kingdom, the ruling descendant of Gi Ja, Gi Jun, is forced south where he takes control of Mahan thus bringing Chinese learning to the southwest and by subsequent diffusion the wider area of the southern Three Han, the territory of which was later consolidated under Baekje and ultimately Silla.  This orthodox narrative created an unbroken lineage of Chinese learning which was actively celebrated throughout the Joseon dynasty providing the basis for its presumptions of Confucian moral superiority over the Manchu Qing.  At the same time, however, Dan’gun remained a recognized folk deity.[18]

The legend of Gi Ja has played a key role in allowing Koreans to accept Chinese learning as a near indigenous part of Korea’s formative heritage and not just an early foreign import received under the perceived duress of Chinese Han occupation.  By contrast, debate over the ethnic identity of Wi Man, recorded in the Siji as tying his hair in a topknot and wearing eastern barbarian dress, today provides material for an active “Altaic” interpretation, i.e. that he was a Murong Xianbei.[19]

What becomes evident in both linguistic and historiographic lines of enquiry, then, is how the “folk versus Classical Chinese learning” divide was existent from the most formative period of Korea’s cultural and historical origins.  To reach a point where an indigenous culture associated with only pure Old Korean and hypothesized primitive musok could be conjectured requires going back still centuries further, but in relation to any practical description of the modern Koreas’ traditional culture this would simply be too early and Chinese learning transmitted through hanja should be understood as being as indigenous to Korea’s traditional heritage as the illiterate “folk” element.

It should further be recognized that whilst, since at least the Three Kingdoms period, oral folk traditions, including songs and storytelling, may have been performed and enjoyed by those illiterate in Classical Chinese, the language employed would still have been Sino-Korean and stories told heavily influenced by Chinese learning.[20]  In this regard the solo operatic chantefable art of pansori can be considered as a representative example of “traditional Korean culture” and has indeed been designated as Important Intangible Cultural Property Number 5 by the South Korean government in 1964.[21]  Native to the Jeolla provinces in the southwest region of the peninsula and with its surviving repertoire first written down by the provincial yangban, Shin Jae-hyo (1812-84), pansori enjoyed its heyday from the late eighteenth through to nineteenth centuries.[22]

Given the enduring strength of the tradition and uniqueness of its vocal technique, Pansori remains relatively understudied in the West and underappreciated in South Korea in part because it so epitomizes the perceived “folk culture versus Chinese learning” divide and thus remains difficult to approach for those of either inclination.  To an anthropologist or ethnomusicologist the length of plays and large volume of Classical Chinese is intimidating whilst to scholars of premodern literature, pansori is equally difficult to study for a lack of familiarity with performance tradition and the limited availability of authentic texts.[23]

In spite of Shin Jae-hyo’s contribution which involved editing texts and coaching singers, pansori remained a genuinely oral tradition with variations of the plays being passed down through generations from master to pupil and as such has avoided being committed to paper until recent decades.  Pansori performers were drawn from the lower classes of hereditary mudang shamans and itinerant entertainers, and, though able to achieve recognition for their talents, were consequently denied status in the Neo-Confucian dictated social hierarchy which placed them at the bottom.  These facts taken together, pansori would appear to be firmly on the “folk” side of traditional Korean culture.[24]

The content of the pansori plays, however, is heavily influenced by Classical Chinese with a high volume of hanja and allusions to Chinese learning.  These are commonly explained as being the result of increased yangban patronage from the late eighteenth century onwards with pansori performers presumed to have begun including highbrow Classical Chinese references to satisfy the tastes of their audience when performing, for example, at the parties held to celebrate a yangban scholar’s success in the civil service examinations.  The implication of this, however, is that the pansori performers would have to have been sufficiently literate and knowledgeable in Classical Chinese in order to have made, or at least to have understood, the appropriate changes and embellishments: an idea which fails to tally with the hangeul nationalist ideal of shaman-descended, illiterate folk performers.  Yangban patronage may have influenced the selection of repertoire leading to an emphasis of Confucian themes within existing tales and songs but it would not have paid for a complete education in Classical Chinese literature and nor, notably, did it lead to any severe censorship of, for example, Buddhist references.

The sole explanation of Neo-Confucian yangban patronage is consequently unable to account for the depth of Classical Chinese learning inherent in pansori texts which were maintained almost exclusively as an oral tradition.  Even the Confucian themes of loyalty and filial piety present in the remaining five plays[25] are not explicitly Neo-Confucian, but rather are based around the more fundamental Three Bonds and Five Codes defining human relations inherent in original Confucian doctrine, and are fully integrated with equally blatant Buddhist and Taoist thematic devices.[26]

Pansori, as well as the substantial repertoire of preserved folk songs, are therefore better understood not as the direct results of an indigenous folk item having been altered and refined to suit the tastes of eighteenth century Neo-Confucian yangban but as the product of an already indigenous Sino-Korean heritage which the performers were equally in possession of in spite of their low social status.  It might be further postulated that pansori, although heavily embellished, was not so much adjusted to match the tastes of the yangban literati but that its inherent Sino-Koreanness appealed as much to some provincial yangban as it did to more common folk and consequently attracted their patronage.  After all, not all yangban were lofty Neo-Confucians and though the ideology they were encouraged to aspire to may have been exclusionary, Sino-Korean folk culture including the older Chinese transmitted traditions of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism, were not.

In conclusion, both claims of homogeneity as well as the polarization between the folk and Classical Chinese learning elements present in the modern Koreas’ traditional heritage can be explained as results of the Joseon Dynasty effect which through its longevity sustaining an exclusionist ideology and the invention of hangeul led to a distillation of a Sino-Korean culture long indigenous to the peninsula.  The perception of division is most evident in the polarization exhibited between hangeul and hanja.  Where hanja itself has historically been the medium for both Buddhism and subsequently Neo-Confucianism, hangeul today is similarly utilized at once as a vehicle for cultural nationalism as well as in the search for a pan-northeast Asian “Altaic” identity.

However, when examining concrete examples of what is commonly referred to as “traditional Korean culture,” such as pansori, it becomes evident that Korean heritage and identity has been from its most formative period a product of both folk and Classical Chinese learning.


Barfield, Thomas. 1989: Perilous Frontiers: Nomadic Empires in China. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd.

Beckwith, Christopher. 2005: The Ethnolinguistic History of the Early Korean Peninsula Region: Japanese-Koguryŏic and other Languages in the Koguryŏ, Paekche, and Silla kingdoms. – Journal of Inner and East Asian Studies, volume 2-2: 34.

Deuchler, Martina. 1992: The Confucian Transformation of Korea: A Study of Society and Ideology. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University.

Caprio, Mark. 2009: Japanese Assimilation Policies in Colonial Korea, 1910-1945.  Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Grayson, James. 2002: Korea – A Religious History: Revised edition. Abingdon: RoutledgeCurzon.

Hong, Wontack. 2010: East Asian History: A Tripolar Approach. Seoul: Kudara International.

Howard, Keith. 2006: Preserving Korean Music: Intangible Cultural Properties as Icons of Identity.  London, Ashgate Publishing Limited.

Hwang, Jurie. 2010: Ko indifferent to ‘Western yardstick.’ – The Korea Herald, 1 November 2010.

<http://www.koreaherald.com/lifestyle/Detail.jsp?newsMLId=20101101000706&gt; 1 September 2011.

Janhunen, Juha. 2003: Tracing the Bear Myth in Northeast Asia. – Acta Slavica Iaponica, 20: 1-24.

Sapporo: The Slavic Research Center, Hokkaido University.

Online version at: <http://src-h.slav.hokudai.ac.jp/publictn/acta/20/asi-20&gt;

Janhunen, Juha. 2005: The Lost Languages of Koguryŏ. – Journal of Inner and East Asian Studies, volume 2-2: 84.

Kang, Jae-eun. 2006: The Land of Scholars: Two Thousand Years of Korean Confucianism. Translated by Suzanne Lee. Paramus, New Jersey: Homa & Sekey Books.

Pai, Hyung Il. 2000: Constructing “Korean” Origins: A Critical Review of Archaeology, Historiography, and Racial Myth in Korean State-Formation Theories.  Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Asia Center.

Park, Chan. 2003: Voices from the Straw Mat: Toward an Ethnography of Korean Story Singing. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Pentikäinen, Juha. 1999: Kalevala Mythology: Expanded Edition.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Pihl, Marshall. 1994: The Korean Singer of Tales. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Asia Center.

Song Gi-jung 송기중. 2004: 역사비교언어학과국어계통론 (Historical comparative linguistics and theories on the genealogy of the Korean language). Seoul: 집문당 (Jimmundang).

[1] Barfield 1989:9

[2] The Han Lelang Commandery (108BC-c.313) and the Mongol Yuan’s Eastern Expedition Field Headquarters (1280-1356).

[3] In cultural terms, the closest watershed event was the 1392 coup d’état led by Yi Seong-gye (1335-1408) which although ushering in the Joseon Dynasty, in fact confirmed the complete expulsion of foreign interference (both Mongol Yuan and Han Ming) and furthered the consolidation of power under the previous Goryeo landed elite who effectively utilized the ideology of Neo-Confucianism to dissolve the power of the Buddhist temples.

[4] “Traditional culture” as a vague but frequently used term, in official as well as colloquial contexts, can be considered to typically refer to the documented cultural milieu as it had evolved by the end of the 18th century before exposure to distinctly foreign notions such as Christianity or industrialization.  Origins of traditional cultural items are assumed to be at least several centuries old and will often be traceable to the Goryeo Dynasty (936-1392) or beyond.

[5] In Joseon Dynasty Korea the Neo-Confucian movement attempted to recreate what was imagined to be the ritual practice and lifestyle of ancient Han China.  See Deuchler 1992:107

[6] It was occasionally learnt by women such as the poet Heo Nanseolheon (1563-89).

[7] For example the former Buddhist monk, democracy activist and celebrated poet Go Un (b.1933) has declared, “King Se-jong is my god. I have no other gods but Se-jong. I am so thankful for Hangeul, and I will do anything to guard it…”   See Hwang 2010.

[8] Ironically there is no pure Korean word for “pure.”  It can only be implied by the “our” of “our language,” though for absolute clarity the hanja sun (純,순) must be incorporated to make sun uri mal (純 우리 말).

[9] Just as the nationalist association with Korea’s folk identity was born out of the independence movement and search for identity during the Japanese colonial era, it can be speculated that hanja has been purged from modern Korean not just for its Chinese origin but because Sino-Korean written with a combination of hanguel and hanja too closely resembles the appearance of modern Sino-Japanese which had been the language of occupation.  The claim that hanja is simply cumbersome to the written language would otherwise be countered by the consistently stellar literacy rates displayed in Japan where the usage of Chinese characters has evolved in a far more complicated fashion than when used in Korean.  There is nothing either to imply the South Korean education system has significantly moved away from the cumbersome method of rote learning that was inherited from the study of hanja and has in large part subsequently been transferred to English.

[10] Where hanja is felt to be a regressive, even oppressive, influence recalling Joseon’s suzerainty to China, hangeul has become an active and positive identifier of Korean cultural identity.  Its association with the Altaic Theory in turn provides a legitimizer for Koreans to project their recently gained economic and “soft power” influence over weaker “Altaic” countries such as Mongolia and the Central Asian states; though this represents a nascent and relatively benign form of economic imperialism, if scaled up, the justification of shared ethno-cultural roots for the choice of countries Korea acts upon would soon echo similar claims made by Japanese scholars to support the annexation of Korea.   See Caprio 2009:102, 121 and Pai 2000:39.

[11] See Song 2004:179.

[12] Song 2004:152.

[13] Suggested by Janhunen (2005) and Beckwith (2005) respectively.

[14] For discussion of North Korean scholars professing a single Three Kingdoms’ Korean language, see Song 2004:181, notes 7,8 and 9.

[15] Though at some point significantly earlier, Old Korean would originally have had to have entered the peninsula from the continental mainland.

[16] Early use of hanja in Goguryeo is evinced by inscriptions found in fourth century tombs and on the Gwanggaeto Stele (erected c.414).  At the latest, hanja would have been first introduced to the peninsula by the Han commandery of Lelang (established in the Daedong River basin 108BC) if not nearly a century earlier: either first by Gi Ja or with the arrival of refugees led by Wi Man, though this depends both on whether either historical legend is true and whether either of them were ethnic Han Chinese or not.

[17] Grayson 2002:241, Janhunen 2003:5 and Pai 2000:93.

[18] Pai 2000:116-9.

[19] Hong 2010:121.

[20] The raw literary talent of illiterate oral storytellers should not be underestimated: both the biwa hōshi tradition of blind storytellers in premodern Japan, as well as current day singers of the Tibetan Gesar epic attest to this.

[21] Howard 2006:xi-xii

[22] There is perhaps an argument that pansori should not be considered representative of Korean culture owing to its distinct regional association, but all traditions have to have some place of origin and it could equally be noted that the Kalevala tradition forming the bases of Finnish national identity was based on oral poems collected in the remote White Sea Karelia region outside of Finland proper. See Pentikäinen 1999:228.

[23] Pihl (1994) and Park (2003) are the two seminal English language treatments of pansori.  It should be noted pansori enjoys significantly higher recognition in France than other Western countries.

[24] Its continued association with the politically discriminated Jeolla provinces further secured its Minjung credentials following the May 1980 massacre of citizens by government troops which occurred in the South Jeolla capital of Gwangju.

[25] The five pansori plays still performed are Song of Chunhyang, Song of Simcheong, Song of Heungbo, Song of the Water Palace and Song of Red Cliff.  The Confucian themes presented in the first four plays respectively are a wife’s faithfulness, filial piety (notably of a daughter), behaviour of brothers and loyalty to one’s sovereign whilst the fifth play is an adaption of the historic Chinese episode Battle of Red Cliffs.

[26] A Confucian academy (not to be confused with a Confucius Institute) was recorded in the Samguk Sagi (History of the Three Kingdoms) to have been first established in Goguryeo in 372, the same year as the official adoption of Buddhism; another was established under Unified Silla in 682: see Kang 2006:37 and 61.

Notes on the languages of the Three Kingdoms

The following notes are taken from Song Gi-jung’s Historical Comparative Linguistics and Theories on the Genealogy of the Korean Language (2004).  Song offers an insightful and critical summary into what is known and what opinions are held by Koreans regarding the languages of Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla.  I’ve made these notes a mix of translation and general paraphrasing with very occasional supplementation.  They hopefully give a useful overview but should not be quoted from without referring to the original book!  (The numbers in brackets indicate the page of Song’s book where the equivalent information can be found.)

  • It may forever be impossible to accurately reconstruct the contemporary pronunciation of any vocabulary from the Three Kingdoms period because the phonetic reading (讀音) of hanja (Sino-Korean characters), in which all known sources are recorded, has differed throughout periods and regions. (174)
  • It is not unreasonable to surmise that written Chinese (漢文) and Chinese characters (漢字) would have been introduced alongside Chinese culture (漢文化) to the Three Kingdoms which suddenly rose up both within and adjacent to the territory occupied by the Han Commanderies. (175)
  • It is presumed, therefore that Sino-Korean vocabulary (한문어식 단어) already existed to a considerable degree at the beginning of the Three Kingdoms period. (175)

Relying on the language sources currently known, it cannot be estimated to what degree the languages of the three countries differed, nor to what extent the language of each kingdom changed according to period.  Consequently, whilst it cannot be said whether the difference was one between that of language families or dialects, on the premise that the languages did at least differ to some degree, they can be distinguished as ‘Goguryeoic’ (고구려어), ‘Baekjeic’ (백제어) and ‘Sillaic’ (신라어).


  • Goguryeo is recorded as only ever having used the Sino-Korean term wang (王) ‘king’ to designate their ruler.  This is in contrast to both Silla in the south which early on used the terms geoseogan (居西干), chacha’ung (次次雄) and isageum (尼師今), and the peoples who neighbored to the north of Goguryeo such as the Xiongnu (匈奴) and Göktürks (突厥).  It is thought therefore that Chinese vocabulary was introduced to Goguryeo particularly early on. (177)
  • Official ranks and titles such as mangniji (幕離支), daeryeo (對廬) and toesal (褪薩); personal names such as Yeon Gaesomun (淵蓋蘇文), Ondal (溫達) and Eulpaso (乙巴素); and toponyms such as Dunul (杜訥), Maehol (買忽) and Buji (夫只) are examples of indigenous words which were rendered into hanja using the characters only for their phonetic value, regardless of their original meaning.  They are clearly built from Goguryeoic word roots but for most, neither the root, nor the exact meaning or pronunciation of the word can be conjectured.  Only in the few cases where old or alternate names have been recorded alongside using hanja for their meaning, can the meaning of these Goguryeoic words be deduced. (177)
  • Examples where this is possible are principally found in books (권) 35 and 37 of the geography section (지리지) of the Samguk Sagi.  An example from Book 35, is where a former Goguryeo place name was subsequently revised during the Unified Silla period: “Sujeong-gun (水城郡 ‘water fortress county’) was originally Goguryeo’s Maehol-gun (買忽郡); King Gyeongdeok revised the name.  It is now Su-ju (水州 ‘water province’).”[1]  In Book 37 there is the example, “Namcheon-hyeon (南川縣 ‘south river county’) is also known as Nammae (南買).”[2]
  • In total there are around 80 such Goguryeoic words for which there are also hanja “translations” of their meaning; of these there are around 20 which occur in more than one toponym and thus can be confirmed with greater certainty.[3]  They include the following:

gosa                           古斯                            jewel                            (玉)
geumhol                    今忽                            black                            (黑)
nae, no, noe              內-奴-惱                       land                             (壤 ‘땅’)
naemi                         內米                             pond                            (池)
dan, tan, don             旦-呑-頓                       valley                           (谷 ‘골짜기’)
dal                               達                                mountain, high            (山,高)
mae                             買                                water, river                  (水, 川)
sabok                          沙伏                            red                               (赤)
somun                         蘇文                            gold (metal?)              (金)
sur’i, doni                  述爾-道尼                     mountain peak            (峯 ‘봉우리’)
sik                               息                                earth                             (土)
eosa                            於斯                            horizontal(?)                (橫)
eo’eul                          於乙                            water spring                 (泉)
to                                 吐                               embankment, dyke       (堤 ‘뚝방’)
pa’ui, pa’ui, pahye    巴衣-波衣-波兮          rock                                (巖 ‘바위’)
pa                               波                                sea                                 (海)
hol                              忽                                fortress                          (城)

  • Some grammatical particles and endings can be deduced from mid 5th century stone inscriptions (石刻文) that record the construction of Pyeongyang-seong (平壤城).  They represent an early form of idu where certain characters are borrowed to represent grammatical features of the vernacular Goguryeoic, e.g. ‘-jung (-中)’ is used for the equivalent to the modern Koreanic dative particle -e (-에) and ‘-ji (-之)’ for the verb ending -da (-다).  An example sentence is:

丙戌十二月 漢城 下後卩 小兄文達 自此西北行涉之  (卩=部)

해석: 병술 12월 한성 하후부 소형 문잘 감독관(?)[이] 여기서부터 서북방(?)[공사를] 치르(?).[4]  (178)


  • Compared to Goguryeoic, the introduction of hanja to Baekje was significantly later, however there are far fewer confirmable Baekjeic words.
  • Although the Sino-Korean wang (王) is exclusively used in the Samguk Sagi and Samguk Yusa, in the Chinese Zhoushu (周書) earlier terms are recorded.
  • The first 22 listed Baekje rulers have names thought to be Baekjeic (as opposed to carrying a meaning in Chinese).  This is in contrast to Goguryeo where only the name of the 2nd king, Yuri (琉璃) , appears to be Goguryeoic.
  • Identifiable Baekjeic vocabulary is similarly found in the Geography chapters of the Samguk Sagi, Book 36.  In Baekjeic han (翰) means “big” (大) and is equivalent to Sillaic han (韓).  Han meaning “big” is attested still in 15th century Middle Korean. (179)  Other examples include:

sa                           沙              new                             (新, 현대국어 ‘새’)
buri                        夫里           field, plain                  (平野, ‘벌’; Sillaic beol (伐))
ji                             只              fortress                        (城)
o                            烏              alone, lonely (single child?)  (孤, ‘외’)
bi                            比              rain                              (雨)
sobi                       所比           red     (赤; Goguryeoic sabok (沙伏), sabi (沙非))
eum                       陰  fang, tusk, molar (牙, Middle Korean ‘엄’, modern ‘어금니’)
mulgeo                 勿居           clear                          (淸, 현대국어 ‘맑-‘)
maro                     馬老           dry                              (乾, ‘마르-‘)


  • There are many more sources available for Sillaic than Goguryeoic or Baekjeic.  They include inscriptions in which the grammar does not match Classical Chinese but rather Old Korean in the manner of the idu system; there are also the 14 hyangga songs recorded in the Samguk Yusa. (179)
  • From very early on in the Silla period, there are examples of hanja characters being used in names for their Chinese meaning, but at the same time the overall influence of Chinese remained weaker than in Goguryeoic or Baekjeic.  Examples of hanja being utilized for their meaning include the title of queens/consorts (王妃) as bu’in (夫人) e.g. in Alyeong-bu’in (閼英夫人) and Unje-bu’in (雲帝夫人); gong (公) used for princes, e.g. Ho-gong (瓠公) and Sobeol-gong (蘇伐公); wang (王) used for kings, e.g. Galmun-wang (葛文王) and Heoru-wang (許婁王); ju (主) used to designate commanders and lords e.g. gun-ju (郡主 “governor”), seong-ju (城主 “fortress commander; castle lord”), gun-ju (軍主 “chief; military governor”), jin-ju (鎭主 “garrison chief”). (179)
  • Until King Jijung (智證王) in the 6th century, the titles for and names of kings, together with official positions created during the reign of the 3rd monarch Isageum Yuri (r.24-57), were all non-Chinese, i.e. Sillaic.  Titles of the Silla king include geoseogan (居西干), chacha’ung (次次雄) , isageum (尼沙今) and maripgan (麻立干); names of kings includes Hyeokgeose (赫居世), Namhae (南解), Yuri (儒理), Talhae (脫解), Pasa (婆娑) and Jima (祗麻); official positions ibeolson (伊伐飡), icheokson (伊尺飡), pajinson (波珍飡) and ason (阿飡). (179-80)
  • In most cases, still, the meaning of identifiable Sillaic words cannot be deduced, only when Chinese translations are given beside the phonogram (character used for its phonetic value).  In total, there are more than 30 Sillaic words which can be reconstructed; in contrast to Goguryeoic or Baekjeic many of them can be compared with words found in 15th century Middle Korean and modern Korean.  In the 1st Book of the Samguk Sagi, it is recorded that, “The people of Jinhan (辰韓) call gourds (瓠) bak (朴).” (180)  Other examples include:

gawi         嘉俳         Han’gawi (Chuseok)   (秋夕, ‘한가위 < ᄀᆞᄇᆞㅣ’)
pajin          破珍           sea                            (海 ‘바다 < 바ᄅᆞᆯ’)
han            韓              big                              (大, 중세국어 ‘한’)
na              那              river                             (川, ‘내’)
bulgeo      弗炬           red, light                     (赤, 光明 ‘붉-’)
eul             乙              water well                    (井)
mul            勿              water                           (水 ‘물’)
alji             閼知           child                            (小兒 ‘아지’)
gil              吉              long                             (永 ‘길-’)
geochil       居柒        rough                           (萊, 荒, ‘거츨’)
icha, icheo   異次-異處   hate(?)                   (厭, 중세국어 ‘잋-’)
mil             密              push                            (推, ‘밀-’)

  • From the 14 recorded hyangga (鄕歌) songs it is possible to deduce grammatical particles:

subject (주격)                                 i, shi                            伊-是 (‘-이/가’)
genitive (속격)                                ui, ui                            矣-衣(‘-의’)
dative (처격)                             jung, yangjung, yajung   中-良中-也中(‘-에’)
accusative (대격)                             eul                              乙(‘-을/를’)
instrumental (조격)                          [r]yu                             留(‘-로’)
comitative (공동격)                          gwa                             果(‘-와/과’)
topic marker (주제지칭사)              eun                              隱(‘-은/는’)

The relationship between the languages of the Three Kingdoms

  • Those who profess that the languages of the Three Kingdoms were the same are at most able to suggest 30 words they believe are cognates, but all of them are problematic. (181)

For example North Korean scholar Kim Su-gyeong quotes a list from another North Korean consisting of 29 Three Kingdoms’s cognates.[5]  In contrast to this, South Korean scholar Kim Bang-han claims there are no cognates for all three kingdoms and lists only a small number of possible cognates between Goguryeo and Baekje.[6]  (Note 7, page 181.)

As an example, the first on the list of Kim Su-gyeong’s 29 cognates (given p45 of his book) may be assumed to be the one he and his colleagues were most confident about.  It comprises Goguryeoic su’eul (首乙) and mak-ri (莫離); Baekjeic moryang(go) (毛良(高)) and Sillaic suro/sureung (首露/首陵), marip/masu (麻立/麻袖) and mal(sang) (末(上).  He surmises their shared reading (공통적인 독음) was *mara/mari (마라/마리), and their meaning was meori (머리”head”).  In the Goguryeo and Silla cognates, the character su (首 “head”) is used for its meaning whilst all the remaining hanja are interpreted for their sound value, that is as phonograms.  The only point in common observable about these characters is that when read with Korean pronunciation, they all begin with an “m” and the second consonant is an “l/r” but this, simply, is not sufficient to confidently posit them as cognates.  (Note 8, p181).

In a separate list in Kim Su-gyeong’s book (p48-54) he suggests 17 Goguryeoic-Baekjeic cognates, 37 Goguryeoic-Sillaic cognates and just 10 Baekjeic-Silla cognates.  By contrast, Kim Bang-han gives only 2, 6 and none respectively.  (Note 9, p181).

  • Among existing sources there are no reliable examples of shared vocabulary; there are however examples of vocabulary from each of the Three Kingdoms to be found in Middle Korean (중세국어). (182) For example:

pawi, pawi, pahye    巴衣-波衣-巴兮       rock                     (巖 ‘바회/바위’)
hol                              忽                   administrative region   (城 ‘골/고을’)
sul’i, suni                   述爾-首泥     mountain peak              (峯  ‘수늙’ 嶺)
su                               首                   cow                               (牛 ‘쇼/소’)
gosa                           古斯              jewel, bead                   (玉, ‘구슬’)

sa                               沙                 new                             (新 ‘새’)
buri                             夫里             field, plain                    (‘平野, 벌’; 신라어 ‘伐’)
o                                 烏                 alone, lonely                (孤, ‘외’)
bi                                比                  rain                              (遇 ‘비’)
eum                             陰              fang, tusk, molar  (牙; 중세국어 ‘암’, 현대극어 ‘어금니’)
mulgeo                        勿居           clear                              (淸 ‘맑-’)
maro                            馬老           dry                                 (乾, ‘마르-’);

Sillaic – same as the above list.

  • There are three possible theories as to why this is so:
  1. The Three Kingdoms all had the same language which was thus inherited through Goguryeo to Joseon.  If this were the case, however, it needs to be explained why the individual languages share no vocabulary.
  2. The languages of the Three Kingdoms all came from a common ancestor; this recognizes a difference between the languages but fails to explain still the lack of shared vocabulary.
  3. Korean developed into a unified language subsequent to the Three Kingdoms period and was thus influenced by historical vocabulary absorbed as Silla expanded into the former territories of Baekje and Goguryeo, and further with the establishment of the Goryeo dynasty and the return of remnant population from Balhae: in the absence of convincing evidence of shared vocabulary during the Three Kingdoms period this appears to be the most appropriate explanation. (182)
  • Some scholars point to the fact that no mention of different languages is made in historical sources and that therefore the Three Kingdoms must have shared the same language; but this is not positive proof and in the histories of many other countries reference is not always give to the fact that foreign countries spoke foreign languages. (183)
  • Another observation made in support of a single Three Kingdoms’ Korean language is that the founders of Goryeo named their state after Goguryeo whilst being the successors to Silla.  Together with the grouping of the three kingdoms in the Samguk Sagi and Samguk Yusa, this implies they considered themselves to be the same minjok  (민족 “ethnic people”) and therefore must have had the same language: but this is still not strong positive evidence. (183)

Records in Chinese histories and the relationship between the Three Kingdoms’ languages

  • Opinions on the relationship between the Three Kingdoms’ languages have been chiefly based on the Chinese histories. (183)  There are four main theories:
  1. That the language of Goguryeo was Buyeoic (夫餘系) whilst the languages of Silla and Baekje were Koreanic (韓系).[7]  This theory was professed by South Korean scholar Lee Gi-mun (李基文) from the early 1960s and has remained influential.
  2. That a distinction can be made in the language of Goguryeo before and after its move south.  Before hand it was Tungusic and after it was the same as Silla and Baekje.  This theory was professed by Kim Bang-hang (金芳漢) similarly from the 1960s onwards.
  3. That the Three Kingdoms all spoke the same language differing only to the extent of dialects.  This is the North Korean stance as professed by Kim Su-gyeong.
  4. That the language of Goguryeo was originally Paleo-Asiatic but through contact with Tungus tribes it became Tungusic.  This is the hypothesis of Japanese scholar Kōno Rokurō (河野六郞).  In 1945 he described the languages of ancient Northeast Asia falling in two principle groups: Japonic (日本語系), consisting of Japanese and Sillaic (formerly the dialects of the Three Han); and Buyeoic, consisting of Goguryeoic (formed from the languages of Yemaek, Okjeo and Buyeo).  From this time on, Japanese scholars began to treat Goguryeoic as a branch of the Tungusic language family. (184)
  • The main Chinese sources upon which opinions are based are: Book (卷) 85 in the Dongyi-liezhuan (東夷列傳) section of the Hou Hanshu (後漢書); Book 30 in the Wuwan-xianbei-dongyi-zhuan (烏丸鮮卑東夷傳) in the Weishu (魏書) section of the Sanguozhi (三國志); Book 54 in the Zhuyi Donyi (諸夷 東夷) section of the Liangshu (梁書); Book 100 in the Liezhuan section of the Weishu (魏書); and Book 49 in the Yicheng-zhuan (異城傳) section of the Zhoushu (周書). (184)

From these there are thirteen key passages:[8]

  1. As a separate group (별종) of Buyeo, the language and customs (제반사) of Goguryeo were very similar to Buyeo.  <三國志>, <後漢書>
  2. The language of East Okjeo (東沃沮) was basically the same as Goguryeo, or just slightly different. <三國志>
  3. The language, food, housing and clothes of East Okjeo were similar to Goguryeo. <後漢書>
  4. The language and customs (법속) of Ye (濊) was basically similar to Goguryeo. <三國志>
  5. The people of Eumnu (挹婁) appear similar to Buyeo, but their language is different to Buyeo and Goguryeo.  It is the old country of Suksin-ssi (肅愼씨). <三國志>
  6. Eumnu later became Suksin (肅愼).  The people appear similar to Buyeo but their language is distinct.  <後漢書>
  7. Mulgilguk (勿吉國) is to the north of Goguryeo and was formerly Suksin.  Its language is uniquely different. <魏書>
  8. Jinhan (辰韓) is to the east of Mahan (馬韓).  According to what their elders have passed down through generations, to avoid labour duty under the Qin (秦), many people came to Han’guk (韓國).  Mahan shared its eastern borderlands.  There is a fortified fence (城柵) and their language is not the same as Mahan’s.  They call country (國) as na ‘那’[9], bow (弓) as ho ‘弧’, and robber/bandit (賊) as gu ‘寇’… So their language is similar to the people of Qin (秦). <三國志>, <後漢書>
  9. The Byeonjin (弁辰) live amongst the Jinhan (辰韓).  They have their own fortress (성곽).  Their clothes and housing are similar to Jinhan and their languages and customs resemble one another. <三國志>
  10. The Byeonjin (弁辰) live amongst the Jinhan (辰韓); their fortress and clothing are all the same.  There is a difference in their languages and customs. <後漢書>
  11. The ancestors of Baekje were Dong’i (東夷).  Today their language and clothing is roughly similar to Goguryeo. <梁書>
  12. The ancestors of Silla were originally of Jinhan (辰韓) stock.  Jinhan (辰韓) is also called Jinhan (秦韓 i.e. Qinhan in Chinese).  According to legends passed down, during the Qin (秦) people seeking to avoid corvèe duty came to Mahan and settled there; Mahan allowed them to live in its eastern border region.  Because they were people of Qin (秦) they called their territory Jinhan (秦韓).  Their language and words for things (사물) resembles those of the Chinese.  They call country (國) as na ‘那’, bow (弓) as ho ‘弧’, and robber/bandit (賊) as gu ‘寇’, which is different to Mahan…  Originally Jinhan was divided into six countries (나라), and even smaller as 12 statelets (나라); Silla was one amongst these…  The manners (拜禮), behaviour and lifestyle (행동거지) of Silla is the same type as Goguryeo.  They have no writing but carve on wood and use them as tokens (信表).  Their language can be interpreted by people from Baekje (언어는 백제 사람을 중간에 넣고서 통할 수 있다). <梁書>
  13. The ancestors of Baekje were made up of those from Mahan (마한의 속국) and separately those from Buyeo…  The surname of the king was Buyeo-ssi (夫餘氏)  and his title (호) was Eoraha (於羅瑕) whilst the Baekje people (백성) called him Geon’gilji (鞬吉支) which in Chinese both mean king (王).  The queen (왕비) was called Eoryuk (於陸) which in Chinese means queen (妃). <周書>

These thirteen points and scholarly opinion can be summarized as follows:

Points 1-4: Offer evidence that the languages of Buyeo, Goguryeo, Eastern Okjeo and Ye were the same.  These languages are typically referred to as “Buyeoic” (부여계 언어) but it is not known whether these languages were related to Koreanic (韓系) or the Tungusic family (Lee Gi-mun thinks the former, Kōno Rokurō the latter).

Points 5-7: Offer evidence that the languages of Suksin (肅愼), Eumnu (挹婁) and Mulgilguk (勿吉國) were the same and they are typically referred to as “Suksinic” (숙신계 언어).  Mulgil (Malgal) is a tribal name that was used significantly later than Suksin or Eumnu.  Suksinic languages are thought either to be Tungusic or Paleo-Asiatic, but either way not directly related to Koreanic.

Points 8-13: Deal with the countries that existed in the Three Han but they do not all agree with one another and are slightly confusing.

Points 8 and 12 (which was likely referenced on 8): State that the language of Jinhan was that of people who had migrated from the Qin dynasty and was different to Mahan.  Some scholars such as Lee Gi-mun believe the theory that 辰 was derived from 秦 was invented by the Chinese authors, whilst other scholars such as Kōno Rokurō have interpreted it as historical fact.  Either way, as long as it is understood as having been a language brought by migrants from Qin and not the indigenous language of the local population, it does not cause a problem to the debate on the relationship between the languages of the Three Kingdoms.

Point 9: States that the languages of Byeonjin and Jinhan were similar whilst Point 10 says they were different.  Some, such as Lee Gi-mun, believe this is a matter of interpretation of dialectical differences whilst others think that it must simply be a scribal error because the information for Point 10 from the Hou Hanshu (後漢書) was based on the Sanguozhi (三國志).  Point 9 is consequently taken as evidence by Kōno Rokurō and others that the people of Byeonjin and Jinhan were the same race (同族).

Point 11: Is the only record claiming the languages of Baekje and Goguryeo were the same.  Taken together with Point 13, it is conjectured to be referring to Goguryeoic and the language of the ruling class of Baekje.  Because the Liangshu (梁書) was compiled in the early 7th century, it is interpreted by some (An Byeong-hui and Kim Bang-han) to be referring to the language of Goguryeo after Goguryeo’s movement southward; whilst by others such as Kim Su-gyeong it is taken as evidence that the language of Baekje and Goguryeo were the same.

Point 12: That Sillaic could be understood through a Baekje interpreter is generally taken as evidence by scholars (represented by An Byeong-hui) that the two languages were similar whilst Point 13 has been noted (by Kōno Rokurō and subsequently Lee Gi-mun and An Byeong-hui) to infer that the language of the ruling class and those below was different.  Other scholars (Kim Bang-han and Kim Su-gyeong), however, have stressed that there is no evidence the language of the ruling Baekje class was Goguryeoic and they are unwilling to take these points as evidence that Baekjeic and Goguryeoic could have been different languages.


An Byeong-hui 安秉禧. 1987: ‘어학편’ (Linguistics) in 韓國學基礎資料選集古代篇 (A selection of basic sources materials for Korean Studies: ancient period), pages 1019-22.  Seoul: 韓國精神文化硏究員 (Academy of Korean Studies).

Kim Bang-han 金芳漢. 1983: 韓國語系統 (The Korean language family). Seoul: 民音社 (Mineumsa).

Kim Su-gyeong 김수경. 1989: 세나라시기 언어력사에 관한 남조선학계의 견해에 대한 비판적 고찰 (A critical examination into the opinions of South Korean academia concerning the linguistic history of the Three Kingdoms period).  Pyongyang: 평양출판사 (Pyeongyang chulpansa).

Kōno Rokurō (河野六郞). 1945: 朝鮮方言學試攷 (Experimental study on Korean dialects). Seoul: Tokyo Shosekirin (東都書籍林).

1993: 三国誌に記された東アジアの言語および民族に関する基礎的研究 (Basic research concerning the languages and peoples of East Asia recorded in the Sanguozhi ). 平成2-3-4年度 科學硏究費補助金 一般硏究(B) 硏究成果報告書, 1993)

Lee Gi-mun 李基文. 1981: 韓國語形成史 (Evolution of the Korean language). Seoul: Samseong Munhago (三星文化文庫 )

Ryu Ryeol 류렬. 1983: 세나라시기의 리두에 대한 연구 (Research on the ridu of the Three Kingdoms period). Pyongyang.

Song Gi-jung 송기중. 2004: 역사비교언어학과 국어계통론 (Historical comparative linguistics and theories on the genealogy of the Korean language). Seoul: 집문당 (Jimmundang).

[1]水城郡 本高句麗買忽郡 景德王改名 今水州.

[2] 南川縣 一云南買.

[3] Taken from Lee 1981:72

[4] Taken from An 1987:1019-22.

See also:  http://porocise.sakura.ne.jp/korean/idu_docs.html

[5] Kim 1989:45-48 and Ryu 1983.

[6] Kim 1983: 114

[7] See Lee 1981

[8] My tenses are inaccurate here.

[9] These are only the modern Korean readings of the hanja.

Emergence of K-pop: from Lee to Gee

The following list is very far from exhaustive but attempts to trace major developments in Korean pop music from the late 1980s until the beginning of K-pop as it is currently known.  Attention is given to the debut of the most famous artists, forays overseas and the establishment of the “big 3” management companies, SM Entertainment, JYP Entertainment and YG Entertainment.

It goes without saying, the beginning of the list is not the beginning of Korean pop music and other well established genres of music have continued to coexist alongside.  Suggestions of any other artists who deserve to be included are welcome, and I’ll be both grateful and happy to correct any mistakes pointed out!


Singer Lee Ji-yeon (b.1977 이지연) debuts with That Reason Hurt Me (그 이유가 내겐 아픔이었네). She is active until 1992 before moving to the US and becoming a chef.

I Still Don’t Know [if I’m in] Love (난 사랑을 아직 몰라)

alternate version

Cease Wind (바람아 멈추어다오)


Singer-dancer Park Nam-jeong (b.1966 박남정) debuts with Ah! Wind (아! 바람이여)

Drawing You (널 그리며, released 1989)

performing a robot dance with SamulNori!! and Kim Wan-seon

Don’t Go (가지마, released 2004)


Rock singer Lee Seung-Cheol (b.1966 이승철) makes his solo debut with Don’t Say Goodbye (안녕이라고 말하지마).

Girls’ Generation (소녀시대)

Girls’ Generation (covered by Girls’ Generation)

Shout Out (소리쳐, released 2006)


Singer-rapper-dancer Hyun Jin-young (b.1971 현진영 Hyeon Jin-yeong) debuts under future SM Entertainment with Sad Mannequin.

You in my Blurred Memory (흐린 기억속의 그대, 1992)

Hyun Jin-young, Go Jin-young, Go! (현진영Go진영Go, 1993)

Singer Gang Su-ji (b.1967 강수지) debuts with Violet Fragrance (보라빛향기). In the second half of the 1990s she goes on to record many songs in Japanese.

Dear Friend (친구에게, released 1990)

A Mirror Alone (혼자만의 겨울, released 1995)

In the same year ’80s singer and dancer Nami (b.1958 나미) releases her 6th album in collabroation with DJ Boom Boom (붐붐) including the song Like an Indian Doll (인디언 인형처럼) which becomes popular for it’s “Rabbit” style dance.

alternate version

Like an Indian Doll (performed by Miss A in 2011)


Star singer Kim Wan-seon (b.1969 김완선, debuted 1986) becomes the first female singer to sell more than a million copies with her 5th album The Clown Laughs at Us (삐에로는 우릴 보고 웃지). During the mid 1990s she releases three Mandarin language albums in Taiwan under her Chinese character name 金元萱.

Tonight (오늘밤 1986)

Dancing in the Rhythm (리듬 속의 그 춤을, released 1987)

Be Quiet (released October 2011, produced and featuring boy band B2ST member Yong Jun-hyung [용준형 b.1989])


Singer Ha Su-jin (b.1973 하수빈) debuts with album Lisa in Love including the song No no no no no (노노노노노).

I’m Falling In Love (written for her by Tommy Page)

Seo Taiji and the Boys (서태지와 아이들) debut with I Know (난 알아요).
I Know (TV debut).


Singer-songwriter Kim Gun-mo (b.1968 김건모 Kim Geon-mo debuts with Sleepless Rainy Night (잠 못 드는 밤 비는 내리고).

Love has Left (사랑이 떠나가네 released 1997, performed in 2012.3)


Singer-songwriter Park Jin-young (b.1972 박진영 Park Jin-yeong) makes his solo debut with album Blue City proving a success.

Don’t Leave Me (날 떠나지마)

Singer Park Mi-gyeong (b.1965 박미경, debuted 1985) releases her debut self-titled solo album including the song Not a Good Reason (이유같지 않은 이유).

Not a Good Reason (performed in 2012)

Eve’s Warning (이브의 경고, released 1995)


Kim Wan-seon (金元萱) releases her first of three Mandarin language album in Taiwan The First Touch (第一次接觸).

I Love You Coming Running through the Rain (愛上風雨中走來的你 sung together with Hong Kong Cantopop legend Alan Tam)

Sayonala (莎哟娜啦, released 1995)


SM Entertainment (formerly SM Studio est.1988) is established by Lee Soo Man (b.1952 이수만 Lee Su-man).


Gang Su-ji debuts in Japan with single Love Alone is Insufficient (愛だけじゃたりない) used as the theme tune for Japanese MBS drama 野々山家の人々RETURN.


Kim Gun-mo releases his third album Wrongful Meeting/Miss-encounter (잘못된 만남) which goes on to sell 2.8 million copies setting a record.

Wrongful Meeting (잘못된 만남)


Former Seo Taiji and Boys member Yang Hyun-Seok (b.1970 양현석 Yang Hyeon-seok) establishes Hyeon Planning (현기획 hyeon-gihoek) the forerunner of YG Entertainment. Two months later his first hip-hop group Keep Six debuts with Keep Six in the Chamber, but it is not successful.

1996.9 Boy band H.O.T. debut with their album We Hate All Kinds Of Violence under SM Entertainment. Their second single Candy proves a huge success and the album sells some 800,000 copies in the first 100 days. They are active until 2001.

Candy (performed in 2012 by former member Tony An with Tony&SMSH)


Girl group Baby Vox debuts under DR Music with album Equalizerher

To Men (남자에게)

Day of Doing one’s Hair (머리하는 날)

Get Up (from 3rd album in 1999)

Killer (from 3rd album in 1999)


Hip-hop duo Jinusean (지누션 Ji’nusyeon) debut under Hyeon Planning (future YG Entertainment). First and second singles are Gasoline and Tell Me (말해줘). They are active until 2004.


Jinusean‘s second album The Real is recorded in English.


Park Jin-young establishes Tae-Hong Planning Corporation and works as an independent producer for boy band g.o.d.

In the same month girl group S.E.S. debut with their self named album under SM Entertainment. They continue activities until 2002.

I’m Your Girl

Love  (1999)


Park Ji-yoon (b.1982 박지윤 Park Ji-yun) debuts under Seoul Records (she joins JYP Entertainment in 2000) with Sky Coloured Dream (하늘색 꿈) – a cover of the 1980 song by Locust (로커스트).

live version

Adulthood Ceremony (성인식 from her 4th album, 1st under JYP)


Boy band Shinhwa (신화 “myth) debut under SM Entertainment with album Resolver (해결사 Haegyeolsa).

Eusha! Eusha! (으쌰!으쌰!)

In the same month, Hyeon Planning (future YG Entertainment) is renamed as Yang Gun Planning (梁君企劃 양군기획 yang-gun gihoek).


Girl group Fin.K.L (핑클) of which Lee Hyori is a member, debut under DSP Media (est. 1991) with album Blue Rain. The group continue until 2002 when Hyori makes her solo debut.

To My Boyfriend (내 남자 친구에게)


Under his own label, YG Entertainment, Yang Hyun-Seok releases his first and only solo album Devil’s Smoke (악마의 연기).

I Don’t Believe Anyone (아무도 안 믿어, music by Seo Taiji)


1TYM (“One Time”) debut under YG Entertainment with album One Time for Your Mind. Two of the four members including Teddy Park (b.1978) are Korean Americans. They are active until 2005.


Good Love 


Boy band g.o.d. debut under future JYP with Dear Mother (어머님께).


Singer BoA (b.1986 권보아 Gwon Bo-a) debuts with ID; Peace B under SM Entertainment.


Park Jin-young‘s Tae-Hong Planning Corporation becomes JYP Entertainment.

Singer-rapper-songwriter and renowned performer Psy (b.1977 싸이) debuts with album PSY From The Psycho World! Psy joins YG Entertainment in August 2010.

Bird (새)

It’s Art (예술이야, released 2010.10)


Girl group Jewelry (쥬얼리) debut under Star Empire Entertainment with album Discovery. They attain success with their second album Again the following year.

Again (released 2002.3)

Superstar (written by Shinhwa member Lee Min Woo [b.1979 이민우 Lee Min-u] released in 2005)


Yang Gun Planning becomes YG Entertainment.


H.O.T. disband.


R&B ballad duo Brown Eyes debut with their first self-titled album.  Even without live promotions, the album becomes a major success.

Already One Year  (벌써 일년)

With Coffee


BoA releases her first album in Japan under Avex Trax, Listen to My Heart, selling a million copies.

Every Heart (ミンナノキモチ Minna no Kimochi)


BoA releases her second album No.1 which is to be her most successful album to date.


Anticipating 2NE1, girl group Swi.T debut under YG Entertainment with their one and only album.

I Will Be There 

Everybody Get Down 

In the same month, singer Wheesung (b.1982 최휘성 Choe Hwi-seong) debuts under YG Entertainment with album Like a Movie.

Is it Wrong? (안 되나요)

Insomnia (cover of Craig David’s song, released 2009)


Singer Rain (비 Bi, b.1982 real name Jung Ji-Hoon 정지훈 Jeong Ji-hun) debuts under JYP Entertainment with Bad Guy (나쁜 남자).

 Bad Guy  (live)


Girl group Big Mama (빅마마) debut under YG Entertainment with album Like a Bible. They stay with YG until 2007.

Break Away 

Singer-pianist Gummy (b.1981 거미 geo’mi lit.”spider”) debuts under YG Entertainment with album Like Them.

If You Return (그대 돌아오면)

Memory Loss (기억상실, from second album It’s Different in 2004)


Singer Se7en (세븐 se-beun, b.1984 최동욱 Choe Dong-uk) debuts under YG Entertainment after four years training with album Just Listen. Subsequently focuses on overseas promotions, especially in Japan.

Come Back to Me (와줘)

Passion (열정, released 2004)


Singer Lee Hyori (b.1979 이효리) makes her solo debut with album Stylish. The first and second singles are 10 Minutes and Hey Girl.

10 Mintues 

You Go Girl 


Singer-rapper Lexy (렉시, b.1977 황효숙 Hwang Hyo-suk) debuts under YG Entertainment with album Lexury. After the failure of her second album she leaves YG Entertainment in 2006.

Novice (애송이, featuring Psy)

Let Me Dance   


TVXQ (東方神起 Dongbang-sin’gi, Jap. “Tōhōshinki,” Chi. “Dōngfāngshénqǐ, lit. “rising gods of the East) make their debut with single Hug under SM Entertainment going on to spectacular success in Japan and across Asia.

Rising Sun (released 2005)

“O”-Jung.Ban.Hap (O-正.反.合. lit. “O-correct-against-join together, released 2006)

MIROTIC (released 2008)


Rain‘s third album It’s Raining sells over a million copies and tops charts in China, Japan, Taiwan, Thailand and Indonesia.


Se7en debuts in Japan with single Hikari (光 “light”)


Singer Ivy (b.1982 아이비) debuts under JYP Entertainment.

Tonight’s Secret (오늘밤 일)


2005.11 13 member boy band Super Junior (슈퍼주니어) debut under SM Entertainment with Twins a cover of British boy band Triple 8’s Knock Out.


Boy band Big Bang debut under YG Entertainment with single Big Bang followed by album Big Bang Vol.1 in December.

We Belong Together (featuring Park Bom of 2NE1)

A Fool’s Only Tears (눈물뿐인 바보)

This Love (cover of US band Maroon 5, rewritten by G Dragon)


Before debuting girl group Wonder Girls are first introduced through a 10 part series on MTV Korea, MTV Wonder Girls.


Wonder Girls debut under JYP Entertainment with the song Irony on single The Wonder Begins.


Big Bang release mini album Always containing the hit song Lies (거짓말 written and composed by Big Bang member G-Dragon [b.1988 권지용 Gwon Ji-yong])

2007.8 Girl group Girls’ Generation (소녀시대), name after the Lee Seung-cheol song, debut under SM Entertainment with their single Into The New World (다시 만난 세계).

Girls’ Generation (소녀시대, cover of Lee Seung-cheol’s 1989 song)


Wonder Girls release Tell Me the dance of which becomes hugely popular.


Rain establishes J.Tune Entertainment (제이튠 엔터테인멘트) as a subsidiary to JYP Entertainment and trains boy band MBLAQ which themselves are managed under another subsidiary J.Tune Camp.


Owned by jaebeol conglomerate SK Group since 2005, Seoul Records (est.1978 서울음반) becomes LOEN Entertainment. The company distributes music for many other labels including JYP Entertainment. It manages singer IU (b.1993 이지은 Lee Ji-eun) who debuts in September.

2009.2 Girls Generation release single Gee.

And the rest, is well documented recent history!