With the destruction of the Han Chinese military commandery Lelang in 313 A.D., and the division of the peninsula among the three kingdoms of Koguryô (in the north), Paekche (in the southwest), and Silla (in the southeast), along with the small confederation of city-states known as the Kaya Federation (in the region between Paekche and Silla), a critical new era in Korean history dawns. Over the next 350 years, the culturally and politically divided inhabitants of the Korean peninsula will be united, albeit at the cost of much bloodshed, into a single nation.
The era of the Three Kingdoms is not a time of tranquility. The peninsula’s royal houses face formidable external and internal challenges to their authority. Externally, there is the constant threat of aggression from neighboring Korean states as well as the possibility of attack from Japan and, especially after the sixth century when the country is reunited under the Sui dynasty (581–618), from China. Internally, a ruler’s power is dependent on the ability to command the respect and support of the aristocracy. The large numbers of embassies dispatched by the three Korean kingdoms to China during the latter part of this period indicate the importance peninsula rulers attach to sustaining diplomatic contacts with Chinese governments. It is the prestige of Chinese culture as much as political and commercial interests that prompts the rulers to maintain the steady flow of these missions.
The transmission to Korea from China of Confucian ideals of government, which promote the ideal of the supreme authority of the ruler exercised through a bureaucratic hierarchy of well-educated officials, provides Korean monarchs with a defense, although never wholly successful, against aristocratic encroachment on royal prerogatives. Buddhism, first transmitted to Koguryô from China in 372 A.D., will be adopted as the state religion in all three kingdoms by 528. Patronized by the court and aristocracy, Buddhism, despite its foreign roots, will have a profound religious, cultural, and political influence in Korea for centuries to come.
Ceramics take diverse forms, due in part to the use of the potter’s wheel, which is introduced to Korea about the same time as iron technology. There is also a new interest in sculptural forms. Objects such as bird-shaped vessels dated to this period may represent tribal totems or specific beliefs about the afterlife. Made of a soft, low-fired clay, they are clearly distinguishable from the more utilitarian vessels found in great quantities at residential sites.
A hard, high-fired gray stoneware (kyôngjil t’ogi) begins to appear at this time, replacing the soft, low-fired earthenware (wajil t’ogi) of earlier periods. With the exception of Chinese stoneware, the stoneware of the Three Kingdoms period is the earliest known high-fired ware in the world. Requiring firing temperatures of more than 1000°C, the wares are produced in a wood-fueled climbing kiln that is ideal for producing intense and steady heat. This type of closed-kiln design, imported from China, makes it possible to restrict the flow of oxygen into the firing chamber, resulting in the reducing atmosphere that is responsible for the characteristic gray color of Three Kingdoms ceramics. The widespread use of the potter’s wheel increases the rate of ceramic production and enables potters to exploit more readily various properties of clay, such as its elasticity.
The kingdom of Koguryô seizes the territory of the Chinese commandery of Lelang, bringing to an end more than 400 years of Chinese authority centered in this province-sized colony.
Buddhism is introduced to Korea from China, transmitted first to the northern kingdom of Koguryô, in 372 A.D. by a monk sent from the northern Chinese state of Former Qin (352–410 A.D.), and then to the southwestern kingdom of Paekche in 384 A.D. by a monk from the southern Chinese state of Eastern Jin (ca. 317–420 A.D.). The Silla Kingdom, whose geographically isolated position on Korea’s southeastern coast slows the penetration of sinitic culture, does not officially sanction the practice of Buddhism until 528 A.D.
In each of the three kingdoms, the royal court and aristocracy create a demand for luxury goods, symbols of power and authority. Royal tombs in Kyôngju, the capital of Silla, have yielded the largest quantities of these objects, including sumptuous personal items such as gold crowns with curved jade (kogok) pendants, weapons and horse trappings made of precious materials, and pottery vessels. The contents of Silla tombs remain intact due to the relatively impenetrable tomb structure, which is constructed of wood, sealed with clay, and covered with mounds of stone and earth. In their design—notably the vertical projections that suggest antlers, dangling pendants, and treelike shapes—and goldworking techniques, Korean crowns are similar to ones excavated from various parts of the Eurasian steppes, suggesting not only connections between these regions but also that Korean shamanism derived from Scytho-Siberian shamanism. The existence of active land and sea trade linking Korea with lands far to the west and south is evidenced by glass vessels and beads, some of which are imported from as far away as the Mediterranean. Pure gold earrings uncovered from Silla and Kaya tombs display a variety of designs and accomplished techniques, from simple cut gold sheet to complicated filigree and granulation. The ultimate source of such elaborate techniques as granulation is probably the Greek and Etruscan goldsmiths of western Asia and Europe, whose skills were transmitted to northern China and later to Korea. The resemblance of earrings found in Japan in the Kofun period (ca. 3rd century—538 A.D.) to those from Silla and Kaya tombs suggests that such articles are imported from Korea.
By this time, the Korean peninsula is divided among three independent polities, the kingdoms of Koguryô in the north, Paekche in the southwest, and Silla in the southeast. A fourth political entity comprised of a group of small city-states, the Kaya Federation, is situated between Silla and Paekche. During much of the Three Kingdoms period, China undergoes a period of political upheaval following the collapse of the Han dynasty (206 B.C.–220 A.D.) in the third century A.D. Vying for power on the peninsula, the rulers of Koguryô, Paekche, and Silla seek to strengthen their position through alliances with the contending states on the Chinese mainland. International connections maintained by diplomatic missions serve as important conduits for the transmission of Chinese culture to Korea. Each of the three kingdoms eventually adopts elements of Chinese statecraft and Confucianism. Chinese writing, introduced to Korea between the first century B.C. and the second century A.D., is adapted to the Korean language using a system known as idu. (The founding dates for each of the three kingdoms are traditional dates; archaeological evidence shows that these kingdoms had become independent entities by the fourth century.)
The earliest extant example of landscape painting in Korea is found in a Koguryô tomb, in Tôkhûng-ni, South P’yông’an Province, dated by inscription to 408 A.D. The wall painting depicts a party of hunters on horseback within a landscape setting consisting of simply rendered images of mountains outlined in dark ink and filled in with color. A later mural painting dating to the second half of the fifth century A.D. is from the Tomb of the Dancers (Muyong- ch’ong), located in the modern Chinese province of Jilin, an area originally part of the northern kingdom of Koguryô. This mural displays a greater interest in realism and a rudimentary attempt at depicting spatial recession. Koguryô tomb murals also provide the earliest evidence of Korean portrait and genre painting, as well as the influence of Chinese Confucian court protocol on Korea’s elite.
The earliest known extant Buddhist sculpture found in Korea is a small gilt-bronze image of a seated Buddha, discovered at Ttuksôm, near the Han River in modern-day Seoul, part of the ancient territory of the Paekche Kingdom. The Ttuksôm statue may be a copy of a Chinese figure from the late fourth or early fifth century. If it is indeed a Korean statue, it could be a Paekche piece, based on its provenance, or a Koguryô piece, based on its stylistic affinities with northern Chinese models resulting from Koguryô’s frequent contacts with the northern nomadic states.
The armies of Koguryô sweep into Paekche’s Han River valley heartland, capture its capital, Hansông (modern Seoul), and execute its reigning monarch, King Kaero (r. 455–75). Silla dispatches troops to assist its ally Paekche, but they arrive too late to prevent the absorption of the entire lower Han River valley into Koguryô’s domain. Surviving members of the Paekche court flee south to establish a new capital at Ungjin (modern Kongju).
“Korea, 1–500 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=05®ion=eak (October 2000)