Goguryeo was neither Korean nor Chinese but maintained its own dual south continental, northern peninsula identity which subsequently became divided together with its territory following the kingdom’s collapse.
- The former territory of Goguryeo straddles the modern mainland Chinese and North Korean border.
- The modern dispute over Goguryeo’s heritage is therefore nearly 100% subjective though Korea has the longer historiographic tradition.
- The dispute is not academic or scholarly but politically motivated on both sides as both mainland China and the two Koreas are equally concerned about very real irredentist claims based on modern racial-nationalist claims to the ethnic heritage over the ancient kingdoms of the region (namely Old Joseon, Lelang Commandery, Goguryeo and Balhae).
- In this context, Beijing’s assertion over Goguryeo is as much a reaction to Korean claims over the subsequent Balhae kingdom which was, more so than Goguryeo, overwhelmingly a (Manchurian) continental entity.
The contemporary ethnic identity of Goguryeo was neither Korean (which didn’t exist at the time) nor Han 漢 Chinese.
- However, it is possible and probably desirable for Goguryeo to simultaneously be regarded a part of both Korean and Chinese history but with the crucial qualification that ‘Chinese’ not denote the ethnic Han 漢 Chinese, but the multiethnic modern Chinese state which, despite the current political dominance of the modern ethnic Han majority, inherited the former territory of the Manchu Qing dynasty. And here it should be appreciated that the Qing dynasty had been a multiethnic empire founded by Jurchen-Manchu whose very distant ancestors (whether remembered or not) likely included much of the continental population of Goguryeo.
- If Goguryeo heritage cannot be treated as a part of multiethnic Chinese history, then the natural conclusion is the assertion of Korean irredentist claims. Under such circumstances, the remaining tombs and fortress sites are vulnerable to neglect and continued deterioration. As long as Manchuria is a part of the present day mainland Chinese state, Goguryeo’s continental heritage should be administered by China.
In the end, the only real arguments worth having are over the international pronunciation of the name as Goguryeo or Gāogōulí and access to joint archaeological investigation.
- In the case of the international name, the Korean pronunciation should probably remain in acknowledgement of the longer historiographic tradition.
In terms of its territorial heritage Goguryeo may be associated with both modern (multiethnic) China and the two Koreas today (especially North Korea).
- Goguryeo emerged in the south of continental Manchuria with its early power base in the region of modern Jilin province of present day mainland China. Over its very long history, this power base gradually moved southwards into modern North Korean territory eventually to the location of Pyeongyang, the modern capital of North Korea. However, even in the later period, a major part of its history (Sui and Tang invasion wars) was played out in southern Manchuria, modern Liaoning province.
- Whilst royal tombs were later constructed around modern Pyongyang and South Pyeong’an province (west of Pyongyang), Goguryeo’s spiritual homeland remained the region of Jolbon, modern Jilin, where the shrine to the mythical progenitor, King Dongmyeong (aka Jumong) was maintained.
Ethnic identity is a strongly subjective notion determined by self-identification with a group (influenced today by modern notions of political nationalism and racialist indoctrination) and traceable ancestry.
- Goguryeo ethnic identity would have been forged from a multiethnic diversity primarily consisting of the southern Manchurian groups including a superstrate of the, semi-naturalized, descendants of former ethnic Han (漢) ‘Chinese’ who subjugated the region in 108BCE.
- Goguryeo both expanded to the northeast and subsequently southwards into the peninsula. During the latter process it would have absorbed the indigenous peoples of the northern Korean peninsula: many of these assimilated to the new Goguryeo ethnic identity; others, e.g. the peninsula ‘Malgal’ (靺鞨 – as they are anachronistically named in the Samguk-sagi), apparently maintained their own identity whilst accepting political suzerainty, perhaps in a manner similar to the much later banner system of the Manchu Qing dynasty (used to incorporate ethnic Mongols). Other peninsula peoples meanwhile came under the dominance of Baekje and Silla and actively resisted Goguryeo expansion managing to maintain their complete independence.
Ancestry is a retrospective concept: no people attempt to trace their lineage into the future beyond the ideal of sustaining their current ethnic group.
- Goguryeo people could only self-identify with their present and past: there was no concept of “Korea” or even the “Three Kingdoms” at this stage so it would not have been possible to self-identify as ‘Korean’. Equally there was no larger Manchurian identity and Goguryeo was constantly at war with most neighbouring states including the various northern ‘Chinese’ dynasties (with the exception of Northern Wei which was an ethnic Xianbei entity and with which Goguryeo general maintained better relations).
- In terms of ancestral lineage today, given the territorial division it can be surmised that the number of extremely distant Goguryeo descendants living in the territory of modern China would be at least as large, if not greater, than the number living now on the Korean peninsula. The descendants of Goguryeo would have largely reassimilated as either Balhae-Jurchen (ethnic Tungus-Manchu) or as Unified Silla-Goryeo (Koreans).
In terms of religious, artistic and technological innovation, Goguryeo had next to no known influence on dynastic mainland China, unknown though likely significant influence on the Manchurian region and some similar influence on the Korean peninsula, at least within its former territory. Beyond the Jumong myth being maintained as northern folklore (to the extent that Yi Gyubo felt compelled to write it down) it is not clear what else was clearly inherited from Goguryeo as many traditions were superseded by those of Silla.
History is created by those who remember and write it down and perpetuated by those who read it. Oral history is similarly dependent on transmission and continued relevance to the audience (but subject to distortion quickly becoming folklore). People create and transmit history; they may dictate the narrative and conceal or censor available facts but nobody can physically own the past.
At a point when the peoples of the Korean peninsula had created a politically unified ‘Korean’ entity, namely the Goryeo dynasty (936-1392), Goguryeo’s history was remembered, re-compiled and incorporated into the notion of a peninsula focused Three Kingdoms historical period (also referred to at the time as Samhan).
- During the Three Kingdoms period there was no concept of a “Three Kingdoms” identity; nor throughout Unified Silla and Balhae. It was created retrospectively during the Goryeo dynasty and thus, crucially, Koreans preserved the historiographic heritage of Goguryeo. Neither Tang nor Silla wrote dynastic histories of Goguryeo but records were at least preserved during the Unified Silla such that they could be compiled early in the Goryeo dynasty (first as the now lost Gu-samguk-sa ‘Old History of the Three Kingdoms’ and later as the Samguk-sagi). Balhae may have compiled its own dynastic history of Goguryeo but nearly all Balhae records have been lost.
- In terms of historiography, Goguryeo has always been treated by Koreans as a part of their heritage. This has not been the case in traditional Chinese historiography.
- Official dynastic histories and modern government sponsored history writing have the primary aims of legitimizing territorial claims and assimilating ethnic minorities. Unified Silla apparently failed to successfully assimilate or integrate its expanded territory and suffered the consequences of revivalist movements; Goguryeo was subsequently included in Goryeo’s official history helping to legitimize its claims over the full peninsula territory.
- Following Goguryeo’s collapse, its former continental territory was not immediately occupied by any ethnic Han Chinese dynasty and so its history was not formally compiled. This state of affairs did not change until the founding of the modern Chinese Communist Party and they immediately set to work on researching their borders; the current Chinese claims are the natural outcome of this official revisionist history project, in essence no different from the purpose of compiling dynastic histories (that is, to legitimize territorial claims and assimilate ethnic minorities).
Ethnic identity is closely associated with both linguistic and political boundaries but linguistic range does not always match the speed of dynastic and modern political re-configurations.
- There were likely many languages spoken as a linguistic spectrum across the territory of Goguryeo, increasingly so as it expanded. Undoubtedly, this predominantly included Tungusic languages ancestral to Jurchen-Manchu.
- Goguryeo was already writing Classical Chinese inherited at the latest from the previous Han commanderies (Lelang and Xiantu) and propagated through Buddhist evangelism such that the language of the ruling class would have soon become at least partially Sinicized in a manner similar to modern Sino-Korean and Sino-Japanese, that is to say: whatever language the Goguryeo language was, it would have been Sino-Goguryeo.
- The Koreanic ancestor to the modern (Sino-)Korean language was certainly the dominant language of Silla when it overthrew Baekje and Goguryeo. It is not known to what degree Koreanic languages were spoken outside of Silla’s traditional southeastern peninsula territory; they may have been widespread on the peninsula but were very unlikely to have been spoken on the Manchurian continent and so would not have been the dynastic or continental language of Goguryeo.