Wee Kaya “Is ‘the theory of the Han Commanderies’ location on the Korean peninsula’ a product of colonial era historiography?” 2016 – translation

The following is a translation of an article by Wee Kaya (위가야 Wi Gaya) found in the same journal as Gi Gyeong-rang‘s, Yeoksa-bipyeong (역사비평 ‘history criticism/review’, vol.114 spring 2016). Wee’s article focuses on the question of the Four Han Commanderies’ locations, and provides wider historiographical context of their historical-geography, serving to debunk the claim by populist ‘pseudo’ historians that the Commanderies’ location on the Korean peninsula was a modern conspiracy of Imperial Japan.

To aid readability, this translation is marginally freer in form but there is still some redundant repetition which seems to be a characteristic of Korean prose. For exact wording and full references, the original article should be consulted.


  1. Introduction – Pseudo historians question the Northeast Asia History Foundation’s view of history
  2. A history of the Four Han Commanderies
  3. Pre-liberation Japanese research on the Four Han Commanderies – combined examination historical geography and investigation of physical remains
  4. Pre-liberation Japanese research on the Four Han Commanderies, pseudo historiography and déjà vu (旣視感) of colonial historiography
  5. The ‘Han Commanderies peninsular [location] theory’ in the late Joseon dynasty
  6. ‘Han Commanderies peninsular [location] theory’ and the compulsive obsession of pseudo historians


Is ‘the theory of the Han Commanderies’ location on the Korean peninsula’ a product of colonial era historiography? (‘한사군 한반도설’은 식민사학의 산물인가)

  1. Introduction – Pseudo historians question the Northeast Asia History Foundation’s view of history

[Case 1]

On 24 March 2015, assemblyman Do Jong-hwan (도종환), belonging to the New Politics Alliance for Democracy (새정치민주연합 {the main left leaning opposition party, since renamed the Minjoo Party of Korea 더불어민주당}), argued that the location of the borders of Goguryeo during the period 120-300 CE given in the Northeast Asia History Atlas project (동북아역사지도), being compiled by the [South Korean government funded] Northeast Asia History Foundation (동북아역사재단 – hereafter NEAHF) with a planned publication date of 2019, are identical to those given in the Chinese Historical Atlas Collection (중국역사지도집) created as a part of [mainland] China’s [government directed] Northeast Project (동북공정). It has the region from the Chinese Liao River to the northwestern part of the Korean peninsula as belonging to Han China. The assemblyman further argued that the designation of regions on both sides of the Liao river belonging to Han China was in order to locate the [historical] Four Han Commanderies on the Korean peninsula. (“Suspicion that historical maps promoted by the NEAHF are copied from China’s Northeast Project” Gyeonghyang-sinmun, 2015.3.25)

[Case 2]

On 4 October 2015, assemblyman Lee Sang-il (이상일), belonging to the [ruling, right leaning] Saenuri Party (새누리당), claimed (지적하다 ‘to indicate’) that the NEAHF had included sources and maps containing content agreeing with China’s Northeast Project, in materials submitted to the US Congressional Research Service (의회조사국 CRS) [that were sent] in response to a request by the [Korean] Foreign Ministry. According to Lee, the NEAHF had sent maps to the US which limited the extent of Old Joseon’s territory to just one part of modern Liaoning province, and which accepted the [Chinese view] that the Four Han Commanderies established by Han emperor Wu in 108 BCE governed a portion of the Korean peninsula. Professor Bok Gidae (복기대) of Inha University (인하대) claimed, “Concerning the theory (이야기) that the Four Han Commanderies were located on the Korean peninsula, it is a fact that during the period of Imperial Japanese forced occupation {일제강점기 aka the Japanese colonial era 1910-45}, colonial scholars created it [in order to support the notion that] ‘Korea was a subject state to another country’. (“The Four Han Commanderies on the Korean Peninsula – distorted sources on ancient history sent to the US Congress” Jung’ang-ilbo newspaper, 2015.10.5)

2015 [witnessed] the unprecedented event of both ruling and opposition lawmakers criticizing with a single voice the abnormal circumstances of management of a government body. The body that was the object of this criticism was the NEAHF. They claimed that the NEAHF, which had been established in order to respond to historiographical distortions of nearby countries {China and Japan}, was engaged in activities against this purpose/mission (취지 ‘spirit of intent’). However, such criticism of the NEAHF was not limited to within the National Assembly.

[Case 3]

On 22 April 2014, the ‘Headquarters for the Citizens’ Movement for the Dismantling of Colonial Historiography’ (식민사학 해체 국민운동본부) requested a public audit (공익감사) of the NEAHF from the Board of Audit and Inspection (감사원). They explained the purpose of their request [with the following] “Contrary to the purpose of establishment, the Foundation as continuously posted opinions on its homepage that support the Northeast Project”. (“Jaeya historians request public audit of the NEAHF” Yonhap News, 2014)

In 2014, the ‘Citizens’ Movement for the Dismantling of Colonial Historiography'[1] charged (비난하다) that The Han Commanderies in Early Korea published that year by the Early Korea Project [based at] Harvard, US, and financially supported by the NEAHF, contained content identical to the colonial view of history (식민사관), and so requested the audit of the Foundation.[2] They argued that the NEAHF was continuously publicizing and reproducing content in line with the Chinese Northeast Project, and that the foundation (근간) for this was {paradoxically} in the historical perspective of historiography [produced by the colonial era] Japanese Government-General in Korea (조선총독부). Under this logic, they made the shocking accusation that, not only the NEAHF but also [the majority of] South Korea academic historians are both a silent cartel [pursuing] ‘traitorous historiography’ (매국의 역사학) as well as descendants of the [colonial era] Joseon History Compilation Committee (조선역사편수회).[3]

During the above cases, there was always the same [argument] mentioned as evidence to substantiate [the claim that] the NEAHF’s historiography has been following Imperial Japanese colonial historiography: that they published history books espousing (입각하다) the so-called ‘Han Commanderies Korean peninsula [location] theory'[4] (한사군 한반도설) which locates the commanderies (the Four Han Commanderies {as they are known in the orthodox historiographic tradition}) established by the Chinese Han [dynasty c.108 BCE] on the peninsula, and that they produced maps based on this. Why, then, is the ‘Han Commanderies peninsular [location] theory’ a problem for them?

With the political intention of making the start of Korean history [with the peninsula] as a colony, Imperial Japan created the ‘Han Commanderies = Korean peninsula theory’. Due to there inevitably being gaps in this political fabrication, with just a minor amount of source [based] criticism, the problems of the ‘Han Commanderies = Korean peninsula theory’ can be seen through. What’s more, aside from the Imperial Japanese colonial scholars, and Yi Byeong-do (이병도 {Lee Deok-il’s favourite target}), there are many other scholars expressing their own opinions. (Lee Deok-il, ‘Korea history: the truth they have hidden’ 『한국사 그들이 숨긴 진실』 2009, p51)

According to their arguments, it was only in the Japanese colonial era that the notion of a portion of the Four Han Commanderies (particularly Lelang Commandery) being located within the peninsular was determined. Japanese colonial scholars such as Tsuda Sōkichi (津田 左右吉) created the ‘Han Commanderies peninsular [location] theory’ in order to legitimize the [modern] reality of colonial rule by making Korean history start as a colony; at the time their arguments were refuted by nationalist historians (민족사학자) such as Sin Chaeho, and further back in time opinions of empirically minded (실학 silhak ‘practical learning’) mid to late Joseon dynasty scholars can also be identified [asserting] that Lelang and Daifang commanderies were located in Liaodong {outside of the Korean peninsula}. In spite of this, the logic of the Japanese colonial scholars was continued intact by their disciple Yi Byeong-do, and because current day academic historians who were taught by him (그와 학맥으로) have uncritically followed after, the result is that the Japanese logic is still being followed. [Lee Deok-il etc further] argue that because they accept the northern part of the Korean peninsula having been a past colony of China, [their historiography] simultaneously supports China’s Northeast Project.

If this were true, it could not but be a serious matter. It would mean that those who, following Imperial Japanese colonial historiography, would hand over historiographical jurisdiction (역사주권) of the northern part of the peninsula to China, are in control of South Korea’s field of academic history. However, this [line of argument] is merely their subjective opinion (주장), and not actual fact. This is because their ‘Han Commanderies peninsular [location] theory = colonial historiography’ equation has not been established.

In fact, the accusation of colonial historiography made against academic historians is nothing new. Ever since the history textbook crisis (파동) erupted in the 1970s, blind criticism by the so-called ‘jaeya historians’ towards academic historians has continued.[5] However, [counter] criticism of their irrational arguments was already established when [their opinions] were first presented.[6] The irony (역설) has also been pointed out that their nationalistic stance (국수주의적 태도) is just a reprint (再版) of the [same] ’empire view of history’ (황국사관) they go to such lengths to criticize.[7] The reason their research behaviour can be termed as ‘pseudo historiography’ due to their ahistorical opinions being at once irrational and containing [this] self-contradictory nature. However, their arguments have been continuously spread to the public through a portion of history book writers. What is worse, as shown earlier, the seriousness of the problem has reached a point that they have [been able to] obtain the sympathies/support (동조) from a portion of political authority and attack such state [funded] bodies as the NEAHF.

{I have significantly changed the wording of the following paragraph but the meaning remains the same.}

Through confirming that the ‘Han Commanderies peninsular [location] theory’ is not the product of Imperial Japanese colonial historiography, as the pseudo historians assert, this article will seek to demonstrate that the main evidence put forward when condemning academic historians as descendants of colonial historiography – the ‘Han Commanderies peninsular [location] theory = colonial historiography’ equation – cannot be established.

  1. A history of the Four Han Commanderies

The Four Han Commanderies (漢四郡) refers to the four commanderies (郡) established by the Chinese state of Han following the overthrow of Old Joseon (Wiman Joseon). According to the “Joseon account}” in the Shiji, Wiman Joseon was attacked by Han in 108 BCE and overthrown. Han established Lelang, Lintun, Zhenfan and Xuantu commanderies (樂浪郡·臨屯郡·眞番郡·玄菟郡) in the region [8], but 20 years after, in 82 BCE, Lintun and Zhenfan were abolished and the territories they had controlled were transferred to Lelang and Xuantu. In 75 BCE, unable to withstand the resistance of a rising power, regarded to be that of Goguryeo, Xuantu was moved towards the direction of [modern] Xingjing (興京) in Manchuria.

In addition to these four commanderies, one further Han commandery would appear in the space and time of Korea’s ancient history. This was Daifang commandery (帶方郡). Even after Lintun and Zhenfan were abolished and Xuantu relocated, Lelang continued, however, towards the end of the Later Han, with the rise in power of the [peninsular] Han (韓) and Ye (濊) peoples, Lelang lost administrative control of the southern part of the commandery. At this time the Daifang commandery was established in the southern part of Lelang by Gongsun clan who had emerged as an independent power in Liaodong.  Subsequently, in 313 CE, both Lelang and Daifang were overthrown by Goguryeo and Baekje respectively, and so the Han commanderies and [subordinate] counties disappeared from the space-time of Korea’s early history.

The above is a brief overview of the Four Han Commanderies’ (more accurately ‘Han commanderies and counties’ 한군현) history.[9] Of course, the names Lelang and Daifang continue to appear in Chinese histories even after [their historical demise]. And there are also records which locate them in Liaodong and Liaoxi {the region between Liaodong and Beijing}; these are used as the main evidence in support of the pseudo historians’ arguments. However, as in the case of Xuantu above, these records are the result of the commanderies and counties having been relocated; such relocated commanderies are termed ‘namesake commanderies’ (僑郡 ‘false[ly named] commanderies’).[10] There are many instances in which the error in the pseudo historian’s argument is primarily a product of their ignorance concerning the notion of ‘namesake commanderies’.

  1. Pre-liberation Japanese research on the Four Han Commanderies – combined examination historical geography and investigation of physical remains

Regarded as the first specialized history book of Joseon to be compiled with a modern methodology, Hayashi Taisuke’s (林泰輔 1854-1922) Chōsenshi (朝鮮史) was published in 1892.[11] However research by Japanese on Korean history had occurred before then; the fact that this was connected to Japan’s advancement [in modern times] onto the peninsula has already been confirmed.[12] The fact that Japanese research into Korean history was not unrelated to their present interests provides an important clue (시사점 ‘hint’) in understanding their research on the Four Commanderies. Thus, at the stage of Chōsenshi the nature of the Four Commanderies [administration] was understood as a vague form of the ‘loose-reign’ (羁縻jimi lit. ‘bridle and halter’) system, but from the second half of the 1900s with colonial rule in sight, it became defined (규정하다) as an [ancient] ‘colony’.[13] Combined with the negation of Dangun Joseon’s historicity, this created the notion of Korean history (역사상) beginning with Korea as a colony.

Together with this historical construct, research on historical geography was carried out in order to define the spatial boundaries of the Four Commanderies. Beginning with Naka Michiyo’s (那珂通世  1851-1908) “Study of Joseon, Lelang, Xuantu and Daifang” (朝鮮樂浪郡玄菟郡帶方考), Shiratori Kurakichi (白鳥庫吉 1865-1942)[14], Inaba Iwakichi (稲葉岩吉 1876-1940)[15], and Imanishi Ryū (今西龍1875-1932)[16] all published writings concerning the location of the Four Commanderies. In general, they all considered Lelang to have been centered at Pyeongyang in the Daedong-gang basin, and Lintun in the region of [modern] Gangwon and Hamgyeong provinces. Xuantu was first centered in the region of [modern] Hamheung before being relocated to north of the Yalu river. However, concerning the location of Zhenfan, their opinions were divided, some posited it as being north of the Yalu [17], whilst others considered it to have been in the south of the Korean peninsula with its southern border variously in [modern] Chungcheong or North Jeolla provinces.[18]

Although their opinions on the southern boarder were divided, they all at least agreed that the territory of the Four Han Commanderies covered the entirety of the north of the peninsula. Because their research was centered on critical [parsing] of limited textual sources, strictly speaking, they could not go beyond speculative deduction (추론). However, ancient remains and artefacts which were being uncovered (확인하다) at the time through archaeological investigation (고적조사 ‘survey of ancient remains/monuments’) provided physical evidence to supplement the textual deficiencies of the sources. And because the best results of the archaeology were related to the Lelang remains, from the commencement of archaeological investigations, the [scholarly] interest gradually shifted from the entirety of the Four Commanderies to Lelang.

Sekino Tadashi (関野貞 1868-1935), who was a professor at Imperial Tokyo University’s College of Engineering, is known as the person who led archaeological investigations in Korea during the Japanese colonial period (일제강점기). In 1902 and 1909 he visited Korea and surveyed [various] ancient monuments; during the second visit he excavated burial mounds at Seok’am-dong (석암동) in the Daedong-gang basin. At first he regarded them as Goguryeo tombs, but later revised his opinion to view them as remains of Lelang commandery.  Because of this, pseudo historians argue that Imperial Japan fabricated Goguryeo remains as Lelang remains in order to use archaeology as support for the ‘Han Commanderies peninsular [location] theory’.[19] However, as confirmed in recent research which has analyzed Sekino’s excavation reports in detail,[20] it is regard to consider his early view of the Seok’am-dong tombs having been Goguryeo monuments as the result of a preconception, based on lack of initial knowledge, that the Pyeongyang region had been the capital of Goguryeo for a longer period [than it historical was]. Additionally, at the time of his first survey in 1902, previous to the Seok’am-dong excavations, Sekino already regarded the Han Commanderies’ territory to have been centered on Pyeongyang extending south to the Han river[21]; that he, in spite of this, did not from the outset argue the Seok’am-dong tombs to have been Lelang monuments demonstrates, rather, that the first Lelang tomb excavations were [specifically] not carried out under any preconceived design purposed to create [evidence for] the ‘colonial view of history'[22], so it is difficult for this to stand as evidence of Imperial Japanese colonial historians (일제 식민사학) fabricating Goguryeo remains as  those of Lelang.

Between 1910 and 1915, under commission of the Chōsen Government-General Sekino surveyed the entirety of Korea. During this process, monuments were excavated that [further] demonstrated sites such as Toseong-ri earthen fortress near the Daedong-gang river to have been the center of Lelang; from the mid to late 1920s, the sites and artefacts identified through these surveys were accepted as the core evidence confirming Pyeongyang as the center of Lelang commandery.

  1. Pre-liberation Japanese research on the Four Han Commanderies, pseudo historiography and déjà vu (旣視感) of colonial historiography

Japanese research on the Han Commanderies was able to achieve a scholarly persuasiveness as it provided demonstrable proof both through critical analysis of the sources, and physical evidence confirmed through archaeological surveys. However, their research merely treated the nature of the Commanderies as colonies (식민지) and established their locations. Recent research has suggested (지적하다) that, “Treating what appears on the surface as a phenomenon of rule by a different people as a colony, was a deficient form of historical (몰역사적) analysis”, and that, “Behind this kind of analysis was lying a conscious sense both of superiority and discrimination, and it was premised on a colonial ideology that would aid the imperialist historical invasion (제국주의의 역사적 침략)”.[23]

Defining the nature of the Four Han Commanderies as having been that of a colony, [helped] proliferate the understanding that Korea had been a colony to a foreign country from early on, and was used as a result to legitimize the colonial rule [by] the Japanese Empire. According to Hatada Takashi (旗田巍), who in later days self-reflected on the Japanese research on Korean history, it was a reality that the [contemporary colonial] Japanese rule of Korea restricted their research attitude (자세); as a result, the notion of history they deduced (도출하다), was wrong/mistaken, and missed the truth of Korean history.[24] This is the reason that, under the analytical [framework] of colonial historiography (식민사학이라는 비판), Japanese research into the Han Commanderies could not be free.

However, the inclination (모습) to define the Han Commanderies as colonies, and focus only on establishing their locations is readily evident, too, within pseudo historiography. Behind their assertions that the Han Commanderies were (or have to be) located outside of the Korean peninsula, lies the compulsive obsession (강박) to reject the [possible] notion that Chinese colonial commanderies could have been located within our territory. It is on account of this that they [necessarily] regard any [possible] relationship between archaeological materials discovered in the north of the peninsula and the Han Commanderies as either willfully misinterpreted, or intentionally fabricated, by Imperial Japanese colonial historians (일제 식민사학). However, the same allegations can all be turned towards themselves.

One [recent] pseudo popular history book has argued that, in order for the Imperial Japanese colonial historians to assert the notion of Korean history with Korea beginning as a colony, they forced the interpretation of an earthen fortress site on the Daedong-gang to have been the administrative seat of Lelang and before that the capital of Wiman Joseon, Wanggeom-seong, despite the site lacking sufficient earthworks (지형상 ‘topography’) to have been a capital site.[25] However, if one consults the original excavation report the book cites, following mention of the problem of the earthworks, it says:

However, this is not such a difficult problem. When constructing a town {i.e. the commandery seat}, the [incoming] Han Chinese, who [as a culture] had themselves arisen in the Yellow River basin, would have selected flat land corresponding to important transport routes, and surrounded it with a fortified wall for defensive purposes, but they would not have chosen an especially precipitous location as [the preceding capital site of] Joseon [had been]. (朝鮮總督府 『樂浪郡時代の{sic.ノ}遺跡』, 古蹟調査特別報告書 ‘Special report on the survey of ancient sites – remains of the Lelang period’ Chōsen Sōtokufu, Vol 4,1927,p21)

Thus the problem was resolved. In spite of this, the popular history book in question, leaves out this subsequent passage and so creates the distorted impression – indeed fabrication – that even the Japanese themselves had been unable to accept the earthen fortress site as that of the Lelang commandery seat but had in spite of themselves forced the interpretation.[26]

Pseudo historians reject colonial historiography and criticize it more aggressively that than anyone else. However, the foundation of their logic and research methodology, follows in the same mode to the very thing they criticize to such degrees. We may in fact be facing a variant species of colonial historiography, one that criticizes [the original] colonial historiography with the voice of current colonial historiography.

  1. The ‘Han Commanderies peninsular [location] theory’ in the late Joseon dynasty

{The terms ‘early’ and ‘late’ divide the Joseon dynasty into two unequal halves, divided by the late 16th century Japan invasions.}

The Japanese were not the first to locate the Four Han Commanderies within the Korean peninsula. Strictly speaking, various annotations to the Chinese histories recording the Goguryeo capital of Pyeongyang to have been Chaoxian {Joseon} county, [seat] of the former Lelang commandery, constitute the original (원조) ‘Han Commanderies peninsular [location] theory’. Based on these, early Joseon dynasty texts such as the Sejong Sillok and Goryeo-sa geography treatises, and the Sinjeung Dongguk Yeoji-seungnam (신증동국여지승람) all located the Han Commanderies on the peninsula. These early Joseon geographies all located Lelang commandery in the region of Pyeongyang and Lintun commandery in the region of Gangneung.[27]

This understanding of the Han Commanderies’ locations continued into the 16th century with Bak Sang’s Dongguk-saryak (동국사략), and with the compilation of Han Baek-gyeom’s Dongguk-jiriji (동국지지) in the 17th century, concerted research on historical geography that critically examined (비정하다) the location of the commanderies was realized. Han Baek-gyeom located Chaoxian (朝鮮縣) and Dongyi (東䁢縣) counties, the commandery seats of Lelang and Lintun, at Pyeongyang and Gangneung respectively; he regarded Xuantu commandery to have been centered on the [former polity] of East Okjeo, in the region of Hamgyeong-do province. He was also the first to identify the location of Zhenfan, which until then had remained unknown; taking its central Zha county (霅縣) as having been located on [the former polity of] Maek-guk (貊國) he posits its territory to have been centered on Gangwon-do province extending into Hwanghae-do.

Han Baek-gyeom’s location of Zhenfan on the Korean peninsula was the beginning of what is known as the ‘southern location theory of Zhenfang’ (진번군 재(在)남설). However, whilst largely following Han Baek-gyeom on the other commanderies, Yu Hyeong-won’s Dongguk Yeojiji (동국여지지) located Zhenfan within the borders of Liaodong; opinions that located the Zhenfan outside of the peninsula were continued into the 18th century by scholars such as Yu Deuk-gong, Jeong Yak-yong and Han Jinseo. Of course, they still all located Lelang, Lintun and the first Xuantu within the peninsula, and in this there was no large difference to Han Baek-gyeom.

Yu Deuk-gong Sagun-ji {四郡志} Jeong Yak-yong Abang gang’yeok-go {我邦疆域考} Han Jinseo Haedong-yeoksa sok jiriji {海東歷史續地理志}
Compilation date 1795 1811 1823
Lelang Between the Han river (한수) and Gwanseo (Pyeong’an-do) Pyeong’an-do and Hwanghae-do Former [Old] Joseon land; after the incorporation of Lintun , territory extended north to the Yalu, south to the Han, and east and west to both coasts.
Xuantu Hamgyeong-do Hamgyeong-do Hamgyeong-do
Lintun Gwandong (Gangwon-do) Gyeonggi-do, western outskirts Centered on Gangneung-bu, the region east of the Daegwan-ryeong (대관령) pass.
Zhenfan Beyond the Yalu, Xingjing (興京) North of the Yalu, south of Xingjing and around the Tongjia river (佟佳江) Southeast of Xingjing around the Pozhu river (婆猪江: same as Tongjia river)


However, separate to these scholars, there were also others who located Lelang and the other commanderies in the regions of Liaodong and Liaoxi. These arguments primarily relied on the Liaoshi geography treaties and later treaties that were based on it. However, the fact that the Liaoshi contains many errors had already been highlighted (비판이 이루어졌다) by Jeong Yak-yong and Han Jinseo etc. In his Balhae-go, Yu Deuk-gong had originally based the historical geography [sections] on Liaoshi, but when he later discovered the mistakes, he carried out large scale revisions and authored a revised Balhae-go (the “Geography” 지리고 section of which is entirely changed in structure and content).[28]

There was also one scholar who argued that Lelang and Daifang commanderies had been in Liaodong based on [his own] unique interpretation of the sources. In his [collected works] Seongho-saseol, Seongho Yi Ik argued that the central Lelang county  of Chaoxian was located in Liaodong but that it extended to the Korean peninsula including [up to] the west of Pyeongyang. Yi regarded both Lelang and Xuantu commanderies to have been in Liaodong based on the record that when Wei (魏) general, Guanqiu Jian (관구검), invaded Goguryeo, he [is said to have] departed from Xuantu and retreated to Lelang. Yi further viewed Lelang and Daifang as having been in Liaodong based on the record of Goguryeo attacking Xi’anping, Liaodong, killing the Daifang commander (대방령) and capturing the wife and child of the Lelang governor (낙랑태수). That most of the toponyms recorded in the Goguryeo invasion route by Sui emperor Yang are located to the west {i.e. north} of the Yalu is also taken as evidence for Yi’s opinion.[29] However, both Jeong Yak-yong and Han Jinseo refuted [this latter point] on the grounds that it would be reasonable to assume that the Daifang commander and Lelang governor’s wife and child could have been caught by the Goguryeo military when transiting through Xi’anping, travelling eastwards from Liaodong to Lelang to take up their posts. The question of Sui emperor Yang’s invasion route was also addressed (비판) by Jeong Yak-yong.[30]

It seems there were no particular criticisms made of Yi Ik’s argument concerning the invasion route of Guanqiu Jian. Perhaps for this reason, recent pseudo historians have a tendency to borrow the authority of Yi Ik’s name in order to prove that Lelang was in Liaodong.

Early on, in Seongho Yi Ik’s ‘Joseon Four Commanderies’ article, “Cheonji-mun” section of Seongho-saseol, after examining the routes of advancement and withdrawal of Youzhou cishi (유주자사) {幽州刺史 ‘regional inspector’} Guanqiu Jian {d.255}, Yi concludes that Xuantu and Lelang were in Liaodong. According to the Samguk-sagi, Guanqiu Jian set out from Xuantu, attacked Goguryeo, then withdrew to Lelang. Consequently Yi Ik explained that both Xuantu and Lelang commandery were in Liaodong, “As he set out from Xuantu and withdrew to Lelang, it can be known that both commanderies were in Liaodong.” …This critical identification (비정) of the comandery positions has been entirely ignored. This is because the [notion of the] ‘Four Han Commanderies having been located in the northern part of the peninsula’ has been transformed into a dogma by the Imperial Japanese colonial historians and their Korean disciples. (Lee Deok-il, ‘Korea history: the truth they have hidden’ 『한국사 그들이 숨긴 진실』 2009, pp59-60)

However, Yi Ik made an error by misinterpreting the recorded circumstances and this has been followed by the pseudo historians without examination. The event described by Yi Ik is recorded in the Samguk-sagi ‘Goguryeo annals’ entry for the 20th year of King Dongcheon {246 CE}. The course of events unfolded in the following order: 1) Guanqiu Jian invades [Goguryeo] from Xuantu (This is the 3rd Xuantu commandery which had been relocated westwards owing to Goguryeo attacks; it was located in modern Fushun {抚顺} municipality, Liaoning province, China) → 2) Goguryeo army is defeated → 3) Hwando-seong fortress (Ji’an county, Jilin province, China)  is overthrown → 4) King Dongcheon flees to South Okjeo (Hamheung) → 5) the tide of war changes [in Goguryeo’s favour] following Yuyu’s desperate sacrifice (분전) → 6) the Wei army withdraws to Lelang (Pyeongyang vicinity). Thus there is no problem with the Wei army route setting out from Xuantu and withdrawing to Lelang.

More than anything, the reason that arguments for Lelang and Daifang being in Liaodong could not but be the target of criticism by Jeong Yak-yong and others is that such an interpretation cannot be made for the following sources which would have been known to most Joseon dynasty scholars.

In Han (韓) there are three groups/types (種). The first is Mahan (馬韓), the second Jinhan (辰韓) and the third Byeonjin (弁辰). Mahan is to the west, and has 54 statelets; to the north is Lelang and to the south Wae (). Jinhan is to the east, and has 12 statelets; to the north it borders YeMaek (濊貊) Byeonjin is south of Jinhan, and also has 12 statelets; to the south is Wae. In total there are 78 statelets. Baekje (伯濟) is one of them. (Hou Hanshu book 85, Dongyi account, 75, “Han”)

Han () is to the south of Daifang (帶方); east and west are sea, and to the south is Wae (). In all directions it measures 4,000 li. There are three groups/types (種). The first is Mahan (馬韓), the second Jinhan (辰韓) and the third Byeonhan (弁韓). (Sanguozhi, book 30, Weishu 30, Wuhuan Xianbei Dongyi account, 30, “Han”)

In the Jingchu (景初) reign era (237-239 CE) emperor Ming (明帝) secretly dispatched Daifang governor (대방태수) Liuxin (劉昕) and Lelang governor Xianyu Si (鮮于嗣), to cross the sea and pacify the two commanderies. (Sanguozhi, book 30, Weishu 30, Wuhuan Xianbei Dongyi account, 30, “Han”)

Hou Hanshu and Sanguozhi both record the location of the Samhan {the Three Han} as south of Lelang and Daifang. If Lelang and Daifang were located in Liaodong then according to this, the Samhan {Mahan, Jinhan and Byeonhan/jin} would have to be in the sea. Concerning Wei emperor Ming dispatching the Lelang and Daifang governors by sea to pacify the two commanderies, there would be no reason to cross the sea to pacify commanderies in Liaodong. Further, as demonstrated in Samguk-sagi passages which describe Lelang having been to the east of Baekje, with Baekje centered in the region of modern Seoul, subsequent records of conflict between Lelang and Baekje prove that Lelang was adjacent to Baekje and not far away in Liaodong. Arguments relying on just one or two sources that appear to stand out, and which are presented without considering the wider historical circumstances lack persuasiveness. This is the reason such scholars as Jeong Yak-yong could not but criticize the notion that Lelang and Daifang were located in Liaodong.

It can be said that the [various] opinions on the Han Commanderies being located on the peninsula, Liaodong and Liaoxi underwent the first stage of ordering [and critical examination]  (일단의 정리) by the empirically minded late Joseon dynasty scholars. They approached the question of the commanderies’ locations from such a variety of angles (관점) that it has [recently] been observed that nearly all possible arguments (논리) for deducing the location of the commanderies made in later times {i.e. 20th century} first appeared during the latter half of the Joseon dynasty.[31] Locating all the commanderies except for Zhenfan on the peninsula – the ‘Han Commanderies peninsular [location] theory’ – was one amongst them. The view point developed (심화되다) by Yu Deuk-gong, Jeong Yak-yong and Han Jinseo were critically re-interpreted by Japanese scholars in the process of substantiating that the Han Commanderies were a colonial space (식민지 한사군의 공간). The ‘Han Commanderies peninsular [location] theory’ is simply an academic theory, the validity of which has been [widely] recognized through its long course of development starting with the [Chinese] annotations to the Chinese dynastic histories locating the commanderies on the peninsula, followed by the empirically minded scholars of the Joseon dynasty who researched historical geography, and arriving at the Japanese historians – it thus cannot be described as a construct (산물 ‘product’) of Imperial Japanese colonial historiography. Consequently the ‘Han Commanderies peninsular [location] theory = colonial historiography’ equation cannot be made.

  1. ‘Han Commanderies peninsular [location] theory’ and the compulsive obsession of pseudo historians

Up until here we have demonstrated that ‘Han Commanderies peninsular [location] theory’ is not, as argued by pseudo historians, a construct of Imperial Japanese colonial historiography, and so the above equation cannot be made {written Korean is excruciatingly repetitive}. If this is so, what then is the reason for pseudo historians to try to such an extent to expel the Han Commanderies from the Korean peninsula?

In June 2015, an article was published in the journal Gukbang yeon’gu (『국방연구』 ‘national defence research’) vol.58/2 titled “Examination on the position of Wiman Joseon’s {capital}, Wangheom-seong, considered through the military tactics of Han China – implications regarding China’s justification for preemptive rights to interfere [on the peninsula] in the event of a North Korean crisis” (「漢나라 군사작전으로 본 위만조선 왕험성 위치 고찰 – 북한 급변사태 시 중국의 연고권 개입 명분에 대한 함의」). It was written over the course of two years’ research by Dr. Bak Seong-yong etc of Inha University’s International Relations Research Center. The authors argue that when various points such as the joint army and naval strategy, the problem of supplies, and the campaign departure points, are collectively considered, the location of Wiman Joseon’s capital, Wangheom-seong, would be best viewed as having been on the Liaodong peninsula or Hebei province, rather than Pyeongyang on the Korean peninsula.[32]

The research results of this article are not simply limited to bolstering the logical foundation for competing hypotheses to the theory that Wangheom-seong was located in Pyeongyang – namely the Liaodong and Liaoxi location theories. [In] critically analyzing (비정하다) the territory of Old Joseon through analyzing the campaign route of Han China from a military strategy dimension based on the Shiji record, various weaknesses in the logic of the theory that China’s colony of Lelang existed in the region of North Korea have been discovered. Consequently, we cannot but doubt the evidence [put forward] as arguments for China’s preemptive rights to the region of North Korea – that it was a Chinese feudality from the time of Gija Joseon [contemporary to] the establishment of Zhou, and that Goguryeo was founded under the cultural influence of [having been] a Chinese colony following the overthrow of Wiman Joseon. This logical conclusion (논리적 추론) will function as a historical resource with which the Korean government and international community can refute the appropriateness (정당성) [of Beijing’s arguments] should they, in the event of a North Korea crisis, assert the authority for the Chinese army to cross the Korea-Manchuria border, the Yalu, and invade/occupy [the region of] North Korea north of the Cheongcheon-gang river under the justification of restoring former territory (고토).[33]

Debating the validity of the arguments [put forward in the article] is outside of my abilities so we can but wait for a repeat debate (재론 {unclear why he uses this word}). In spite of that, the reason for mentioning this article is because, I believe that the line, “will function as a historical resource with which to refute arguments for China’s preemptive rights, in the event of a North Korea crisis” provides a clue as for the reason that pseudo historians are so devoted to removing the location of the Han Commanderies to outside of the Korean peninsula. An argument of a similar vein can also be identified in a popular history book written by a pseudo historian.

If the Wiman Joseon capital was located in the region of Pyeongyang, as is the official opinion of the NEAHF, then the Republic of Korea would no longer have any grounds to argue against China’s Northeast Project. Instead, they would have to argue ‘It is true that in the past the northern part of the Korean peninsula was the territory of Chinese history, but because it is now our land, we cannot relinquish it’. (Lee Deok-il, ‘Korea history: the truth they have hidden’ 『한국사 그들이 숨긴 진실』 2009, p28)

The emotion that they both share is the anxiety with China, during its Northeast Project, asserting sovereignty over the northern part of the peninsula based on history. This anxiety is born from a position that equates the territory of ancient states with that of current day (현대) nation states. That is to say, they do not comprehend ancient history as ancient history. Because they analyze ancient history from an entirely current day perspective, they view the Han Commanderies’ commandery-county [based] system of rule as having been the same as the colonial rule of modern states (근대국가), and because of this they believe that to expel the commanderies’ territory from the peninsula is both a form of historical analysis benefiting the current day Republic of Korea, and the way to protect our territory. However, [given that] the current day People’s Republic of Mongolia cannot argue sovereignty over the entirety of the Eurasian continent based on the conquests of Genghis Khan and his descendants, I believe that this example sufficiently demonstrates that the concern of China asserting sovereignty over northern Korea based on the Han Commanderies having been located there, is nothing but empty worry (기우). However, this is not to say that in historical analysis the historian’s reality must not be reflected, and that such analysis should be negated. The classical adage that ‘history is a dialogue between the past and present’ is still valid. However, a clear distinction must be made between the reality in which a historian lives being reflected in their work, and [purely] in service to the demands of a historian’s reality (in this case the territorialist demands of the present day state) devoting oneself to the writing of history that would [seem to] be advantageous. Unfortunately, the article from one corner of academia and the writings of a pseudo historian examined above clearly fall into the latter category.

The history of historiography testifies to the existence of  groups who, through similar viewpoints as these pseudo historians, have taken up (접근) ancient history [and in so doing] provided historical legitimacy (당위성) to the [contemporary] realities of expansionist policies (침략정책). The colonial historians who served the territorialistic thirst (욕망) of Japanese imperialism [were such]. [Consequently, the fact] that the [Korean] pseudo historians view history through a similar frame to the Imperial Japanese colonial historians, who they criticize to such an extent, tells us that they, too, are another example.

At times the arguments of pseudo historians – projecting on to [our] cognition of ancient history, current day demands to write advantageous history  – have led to entirely absurd incidents. Leading the van in popularizing pseudo historical arguments, Lee Deok-il (director of the Hangaram History and Culture Research Centre 한가람역사문화연구소), wrote the following when fiercely criticizing the NEAHF’s Northeast Asian Historical Atlas (동북아역사지도) project for reflecting the same [content] as China’s Northeast Project.

Tan Qixiang’s (谭其骧) Chinese Historical Atlas Collection (중국역사지도집) showed the [Chinese] Han Gaogouli-xian (K. Goguryeo) county as [extending across] the region of Manchuria and North Pyeong’an-do province; the [NEAHF’s] Northeast Asian Historical Atlas copied from this. However, laughably, Tan Qixiang’s Chinese Historical Atlas Collection marked Goguryeo as a ‘commandery’ (jun 郡) on a map said to be of Western Han (202 BCE – 8 CE). There is no Gaogouli commandery in the Hanshu geography treatise. There is only the Gaogouli-xian of Xuantu commandery, one of the Four Han Commanderies. Why did Tan Qixiang’s Chinese Historical Atlas Collection draw a Gaogouli commandery not present in the Hanshu geography as [extending across] Manchuria and North Pyeong’an-do? This is a component of the Northeast Project seeking to transform Goguryeo history into Chinese history. Only by explaining Goguryeo as having from the beginning been a subordinate Han commandery, can they incorporate all of Goguryeo’s history into China’s. (‘Traitorous historiography, how far has it come?’ 『매국의 역사학, 어디까지 왔나』 만권당 2015, p133)

Tan Qixiang’s (谭其骧) Chinese Historical Atlas Collection was first published in 1982. If we follow Lee Deok-il’s argument, then China was already from the 1980s, pursuing the fabrication of history in order to incorporate Goguryeo within their own state history, through activities such as fabricating the ‘Gaogouli commandery’ which does not exist. And then, unaware of this, Korean academic historians [simply] copied the map. If this were true, then Chinese historians are highly cunning, and Korean historians quite pathetic, and it would have to be said that Lee Deok-il was superior. However, his argument is false.

The map that Lee Deok-il is referring to is the “Western Han Youzhou cishi-fu {幽州刺史部}” map, included in the Chinese Historical Atlas Collection, vol. 2, pp27-28. This map not only shows regions [directly] administered by the  Chinese Han (漢) but also areas populated by other peoples (종족 ‘stock/races’) in the surroundings, and Goguryeo is labeled as one of these. However, because Tan Qixiang regarded the Goguryeo homeland (거주기) as the same as where Xuantu commandery was established, the labels are close to one another. Unable to distinguish this, Lee Deok-il took the jun (郡 ‘commandery’) character of Xuantu-jun and applied it to Goguryeo creating [himself] an administrative region named ‘Gaogouli commandery’.


“Western Han cishi-fu ” map, included in the Chinese Historical Atlas Collection, vol. 2, pp27-28. Outlines have been added to Goguryeo (高句丽) and Xuantu commandery (玄菟郡) to aid the reader. {Figure from Wee Kaya’s paper shows clearly that the 郡 ‘commandery’ character is aligned with Xuantu, and not Goguryeo.}


What has caused us to reach such a circumstance, where someone who has received a doctorate in history makes such a beginner level error, presenting it to the public and bringing shame (망신살) on himself? As I lack the ability to look into another’s mind, I cannot be certain, however, I believe the cause is found in the perspective and attitude to examining history – that the [historical] understanding is buried in a current day perspective, and that the analysis serves [only] the demands of [present] reality (현실적 요구). To Lee, China’s Northeast Project was a conspiracy to support an expansionist policy of present day China by incorporating Korean history into the space and time of Chinese history. Consequently, his interest was purely focused on looking for evidence that would clearly expose the conspiracy, and to create an [alternative] notion of history that could smash this conspiracy. However, he believed by chance (albeit wrongly) that he had found the evidence of a ‘Gaogouli commandery’ fabricated by China in order to include Goguryeo history as Chinese history,

This attitude towards historical analysis appears as a commonality amongst the many arguments asserted by Lee Deok-il and other pseudo historians who share similar standpoints. However, this is a form of compulsive obsession that makes their historical analysis both narrow minded and irrational. As long as they fail to throw off this compulsive obsession, the day when the label ‘pseudo’ can be removed from their historical research, however much they seek to deny it, remains far off.

Wee Kaya (위가야 Wi Gaya)

Wee completed his doctorate at the history department of Sungkyunkwan (성균관대학교). Having majored in early Korean history, his interests pertain to the history of Northeast Asian relations focused on Korean and Japan. Published papers include, “A re-examination of Baekje’s territorial expansion [under] King Onjo – focusing on the subjugation of the Biryu group, and the annexation of the Mahan polity”, and “Ikeuchi Hiroshi’s identification of the position of Daifang commandery and its nature”

(「백제 온조왕대 영역 확장에 대한 재검토 – 비류집단 복속과 ‘마한’ 국읍 병합을 중심으로」, 「이케우치 히로시의 대방군 위치 비정과 그 성격」).

Notes {NB only notes containing additional prose information are translated}

[1] This organization was formed on 19 March 2014 at a launch held in a National Assembly meeting room in Yeouido {Seoul}. Joint chair persons present included: former National Intelligence Service director, Lee Jongchan (이종찬); Galilee church (갈릴리교회) priest, In Myeong-jin (인명진), and former director of Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology, Heo Seonggwan. Head of the ‘History of the Great Korean independence movement’ (대한독립운동총사) compilation committee, Kim Byeonggi, and director of the Hangaram History and Culture Research Centre (한가람역사문화연구소), Lee Deok-il, also participated. (「재야사학계 ‘식민사학 해체 국민운동본부’ 발족」 Yonhap News 2014.3.19)

[2] In response to this, the Board of Audit and Inspection confirmed the fact that the NEAHF had supplied funding to the Harvard University Korea Institute on two occasions without following a [proper] review process, and requested care from them. However, concerning the concrete research results, the Board judged that it was a matter for academic historians to debate. (「동북아역사재단 연구심사도 없이 25만 달러 ‘펑펑’」 Yonhap News 2015.2.9)

[3] Similar arguments appear repeatedly in books authored by Lee Deok-il, a member of the organization,  ‘The colonial view of history inside of us‘ (『우리 안의 식민사관』 만권당 2014), and ‘Traitorous historiography, how far has it come?’ (『매국의 역사학, 어디까지 왔나』 만권당 2015).

[4] Strictly speaking, it should be termed ‘theory of the Han Commanderies being located on the Korean peninsula’ (한사군 在한반도설), rather than ‘Han Commanderies Korean peninsula [location] theory’ (한사군 한반도설). However, as this article aims to critically examine the pseudo historians’ arguments, it adopts the term they use.

[6] Between 17-23 November 1978, historians led by Choe Yeong-hui (최영희), director of the National History Compilation Committee (국사편찬위원), published a series of five articles in the Gyeonghyang-sinmun newspaper under the title “This is ancient Korean History” (「이것이 한국 고대사다」). These history essays were composed with the objective of both highlighting the irrationalism of the jaeya historians’ arguments, and introducing academic historians’ research to the general public. The criticisms they made then are still valid.

[8] The commanderies of Lelang, Lintun and Zhenfan were established in 108 BCE, the same year Wiman Joseon was overthrown; Xuantu commandery was established one year later, in 107 BCE.

[17] The view of Naka Michiyo and Shiratori Kurakichi.

[18] Inaba Iwakichi viewed Zhenfan’s southern border reaching to Chungcheong province, whilst Imanishi Ryū tried to make it reach North Jeolla province.

 [19] Lee Deok-il, ‘The colonial view of history inside of us’ 『우리 안의 식민사관』 만권당 2014

[25] Lee Deok-il, ‘Korea history: the truth they have hidden’ 『한국사 그들이 숨긴 진실』 2009, pp27-8.

[26] In this report, the capital of Wiman Joseon, Wanggeom-seong {王儉城 sic. 王險城 Wangheom-seong}, and the Lelang commandery seat were regarded as being in separate places; it speculated that the high, precipitous area in the vicinity of Mokdan-dae and Eulmil-dae in the north of Pyeongyang, was the site of Wanggeom-seong {sic.}. (朝鮮總督府 『樂浪郡時代の{sic.ノ}遺跡』, 古蹟調査特別報告書 ‘Special report on the survey of ancient sites – remains of the Lelang period’ Chōsen Sōtokufu, Vol 4,1927,p25) Not only is this not mentioned in the popular history book which quotes from the same report, the book distorts the report to make it seem as if it treated the two sites as having been the same place.




One thought on “Wee Kaya “Is ‘the theory of the Han Commanderies’ location on the Korean peninsula’ a product of colonial era historiography?” 2016 – translation

  1. Pingback: Sin Gayeong “Research on the Mimana Nihon-fu and colonialist historiography” 2016 – summary | Koreanology

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