Ancient Choson culture (2333 to 108 BC)
The Korean peninsula was invaded by successive waves of Neolithic peoples, but the culture of the area changed little until the use of bronze implements began around the fifteenth century BC. The Bronze Age brought significant change to Korea. Recovered bronze spear points and arrowheads indicate conquest and warfare were widespread. Towns protected by earthen walls appeared. Funerary dolmens (rock shelters covered by enormous capstones) indicate the rise of a stratified political and social structure.The Bronze Age in Korea lasted until the fourth century BC. During the Bronze Age, the first large political groupings of walled town states arose. The most advanced of these was Ancient Choson.
The state of Ancient Choson was located in the valleys of the Liao and Taedong Rivers, in the southwestern part of what is now North Korea. It occupied the Taedong River basin originally and spread its influence gradually over a large region of the peninsula.
The Ancient Choson capital was Wanggom-song, now modern P’yongyang (the capital of North Korea).
Rise to power
The power of Ancient Choson grew from around 2333 BC to the end of the fourth century BC. The Ancient Choson expanded possibly due to better agriculture and population growth, better use of newly available iron weapons, better leaders, or all of the above. When the Chinese kingdom of Yen encountered the Ancient Choson culture, they referred to them as being arrogant and cruel, which suggests that the Ancient Choson were formidable warriors.Despite the apparent strength of Ancient Choson at the end of the fourth century BC, they went into decline, nevertheless, following the arrival of the Yen kingdom across the Liao River. The Chinese overlord in control of the Liaotung Peninsula changed several times during the next century and the political upheaval fostered an immigration of Chinese political, military, and economic power into Ancient Choson. One refugee, named Wiman, built a power base among the other refugees and eventually drove the Ancient Choson king from his throne around 190 BC.The new kingdom, called Wiman Choson, was a hybrid of Korean and Chinese influences. Due to its superior military and economic strength, it subjugated smaller Korean states to its north, east, and south. This placed the Wiman Choson between the now dominant Han Chinese and the remaining Korean states in the south, allowing it to control trade between the two regions. For three generations, the Wiman Choson dominated north central Korea.
The principal economic activity of Bronze and early Iron Age Korea was agriculture. Rice was the main food crop of southern Korea. Raising livestock (oxen, horses, pigs, and dogs) was more important in the north. The basic farming unit was the village, made up of headmen, free peasants, and a few slaves. Peasants and slaves worked mainly on communal farms. There were some peasant-owned lands as well. The free peasants were heavily taxed and provided labor to the state. They were not permitted to bear arms or serve in the armies.
Religion and cultureThe leaders of the early walled towns in Korea performed both political and religious functions. The dignity and authority of these leaders was enhanced by their acknowledged descent from a sun god. Political and religious power split gradually into two separate functions as the confederation grew in size. Rituals were thereafter directed by specialists.The primitive religion of prehistoric Korea was based on animism and shamanism. Primitive priests were magicians who attempted to move the gods by evocation. By the time of Ancient Choson, priests prayed to the gods humbly and earnestly for favor.The ancient Koreans believed in the immortality of the soul and buried their elite with elaborate ritual. They also practiced divination. The two most important festivals of the year were tied to the growing season. In the spring they prayed for abundance and in the fall they celebrated thanksgiving.
Village communities were governed by a ruling elite that kept order, allocated land and resources, collected taxes, and provided security. The individual communities were held together in confederation by military and economic means. Ancient Choson took the name wang (king) for its leader about the time that the nearby Chinese kingdom of Ye employed the same title.
Little is known about the armies of Ancient Choson except that they were standing armies and not levies of peasants. Evidence of horses and chariots is not widespread, suggesting that only the richest warriors could afford these enhancements. Bronze spear points and arrowheads from the early days of the Ancient Choson suggest an army of spearmen and archers. Later finds include bronze daggers and spears of distinctive styles, iron daggers, and iron spear points. The daggers suggest that these short weapons were used by infantry for close combat in addition to spears.The prowess of Ancient Choson armies can be inferred from their expansion and dominance of the region and the comments about Ancient Choson recorded by their Chinese neighbors.
Decline and fall
Unified China under the Han Dynasty was not pleased by Wiman Choson’s growth and control of eastward trade, and was concerned about a possible alliance between Wiman Choson and the Hsiung-nu (barbarians then expanding out of Mongolia into Manchuria). The aggressive Emperor Wu of Han launched an attack against the Wiman Choson when diplomacy failed to bring them to heel. The Wiman Choson were a tough adversary but were weakened by defections and collaborationists among the nobility. The Wiman Choson capital fell in 108 BC, and the kingdom came to an end.
The legacy of the Ancient Choson was a Korean culture that remained separate from that of China, despite the proximity and influence of that enormous neighbor.
Return to Home Page
The Babylonians | The Ancient Choson | The Egyptians |The Hittites | The Minonians | The Persians |
The Phonecians | The Senate and People of Rome & The Roman Empire | The Greek Cities | The Carthaginians |
The Shang Dynasty | The Summerians | The Yamato