Korea

Three Kingdoms Period

The Three Kingdoms of Korea included the Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla Kingdoms from roughly the first century BCE to the 7th century CE.

Learning Objectives

Outline the Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla periods that made up Korea’s Three Kingdoms

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The concept of the Three Kingdoms of Korea refers to the kingdoms of Goguryeo (37 BCE – 668 CE), Baekje (18 BCE – 660 CE), and Silla (57 BCE – 935 CE).
  • The Baekje and Silla Kingdoms dominated the southern part of the peninsula, while the Goguryeo Kingdom controlled the Liaodong Peninsula, Manchuria, and the northern half of the Korean Peninsula.
  • The spread of Buddhism inspired the Goguryeo kings to commission art and architecture dedicated to the Buddha.
  • Baekje Buddhist sculpture is characterized by its naturalness, warmth, and harmonious proportions that exhibit a unique Korean style .
  • In the 7th century, allied with China under Tang dynasty , Silla unified the Korean Peninsula for the first time in Korean history, forming a national identity.

Key Terms

  • archaic: Of or characterized by antiquity; old-fashioned, quaint, antiquated.
  • Silk Road: An ancient network of trade routes which for centuries were central to cultural interaction through regions of the Asian continent, connecting the West and East from China to the Mediterranean Sea.

The concept of the Three Kingdoms of Korea refers to Goguryeo (37 BCE – 668 CE; later known as Goryeo, from which the name Korea is derived), Baekje (18 BCE – 660 CE), and Silla (57 BCE – 935 CE). The three kingdoms occupied parts of Manchuria, present-day China and Russia, and the Korean Peninsula. The Baekje and Silla Kingdoms dominated the southern part of the peninsula while the Goguryeo Kingdom controlled the Liaodong Peninsula, Manchuria, and the northern half of the Korean Peninsula. In the 7th century, allied with China under Tang dynasty, Silla unified the Korean Peninsula for the first time in Korean history, forming a national identity.

After the fall of Goguryeo and Baekje, the Tang dynasty established a short-lived military government to administer parts of the Korean peninsula. However, as a result of the Silla-Tang Wars (670–676 CE), Silla forces expelled the Protectorate armies from the peninsula in 676. All three kingdoms shared a similar culture and language. Their original religions were shamanistic, but were increasingly influenced by Chinese culture, particularly Confucianism and Taoism . In the 4th century, Buddhism was introduced to the peninsula and spread rapidly, briefly becoming the official religion of all three kingdoms.

Goguryeo

Goguryeo was located in the northern and central parts of the Korean Peninsula and the southern and central parts of inner and outer Manchuria. The Kingdom was an active participant in the power struggle for control of the Korean peninsula and was also associated with the foreign affairs of neighboring polities in China and Japan. Goguryeo was a powerful empire and one of the great powers in East Asia until it was defeated by a Silla–Tang China alliance in 668. After its fall, its territory was divided among the states of Later Silla, Balhae, and Tang China.

Art in Goguryeo

Buddhism was introduced to Goguryeo in 372 CE because of its proximity to the northern Chinese states such as the Northern Wei. Buddhism inspired the Goguryeo kings to commission art and architecture dedicated to the Buddha. Notable aspects of Goguryeo art include tomb murals that vividly depict everyday aspects of life in the ancient kingdom as well as its culture. Goguryeo painting was influential in East Asia, including Japan, as seen in the wall murals of Horyu-ji. Mural painting spread to the Baekje and Silla kingdoms as well. The murals portray Buddhist themes and provide valuable insight into the kingdom, such as knowledge about architecture and clothing. These murals also marked the early beginnings of Korean landscape paintings and portraiture.

Painting depicts a woman with a snake’s body holding a circular object on her head.

Goguryeo Moon: A Goguryeo tomb mural.

Baekje

Baekje, located in southwest Korea, alternately battled and allied with Goguryeo and Silla as the three kingdoms expanded control over the peninsula. At its peak in the 4th century, Baekje controlled most of the western Korean peninsula, expanded as far north as Pyongyang, and may have even held territories in China. It became a significant regional sea power with political and trade relations with China and Japan.

Art in Baekje

Baekje is considered the kingdom with the greatest art among the three states; it also introduced a significant Korean influence into the art of Japan. Baekje Buddhist sculpture is characterized by its naturalness, warmth, and harmonious proportions that exhibit a unique Korean style. Another example of Korean influence is the use of the distinctive “Baekje smile,” a mysterious expression found on many Baekje statutes. While there are no surviving examples of wooden architecture, the Mireuksa site holds the foundation stones of a destroyed temple and two surviving granite pagodas , suggesting what Baekje architecture may have looked like. The tomb of King Muryeong also held a number of artifacts preserved from the Baekje era, including flame-like gold pins, gilt-bronze shoes, gold girdles (a symbol of royalty), and swords with gold hilts decorated with dragons and phoenixes.

Silla

The Silla Kingdom was the most isolated from the Korean peninsula because it was situated in the southeast; the kingdom was also the last to adopt Buddhism and foreign cultural influences. Silla eventually conquered the other two kingdoms, Baekje in 660 and Goguryeo in 668. Thereafter, Unified Silla (or Later Silla) occupied most of the Korean Peninsula, while the northern part re-emerged as Balhae, a successor-state of Goguryeo. After nearly 1,000 years of rule, Silla fragmented into the brief Later Three Kingdoms, Silla, Hubaekje, and Taebong, handing over power to its successor dynasty Goryeo in 935.

Art in Silla

The Silla Kingdom tombs were mostly inaccessible to looters, so many examples of Korean art have been preserved. The Silla craftsmen were famed for their gold-crafting ability, which has similarities to Etruscan and Greek techniques as exemplified by gold earrings and crowns. Silla crowns were made from pure gold and had tree and antler-like adornments, suggesting a shamanistic tradition. Because Silla gold artifacts bear similarities to European techniques and glass and beads depicting blue-eyed people were found in royal tombs, many believe the Silk Road extended all the way to Korea.

Architecture and Art in the Unified Silla Period

The Silla craftsmen were famed for their gold-crafting ability and Buddhist architecture.

Learning Objectives

Describe the gold-crafting, Seokguram grotto, and Bulguksa temple of the Unified Silla Period

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Silla craftsmen were famed for their gold-crafting ability, which shares similarities with Etruscan and Greek techniques as exemplified by gold earrings and crowns.
  • The most notable objects of Silla art are its crowns made from pure gold. They have tree and antler-like adornments, suggesting a shamanistic tradition.
  • Unified Silla was a time of great artistic output in Korea, especially in Buddhist art. Famous examples include the Seokguram grotto and the Bulguksa temple.
  • Bulguksa is a head temple of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism in the North Gyeongsang province in South Korea, home to seven national treasures .
  • The Seokguram Grotto is a hermitage and part of the Bulguksa temple complex, exemplifying some of the best Buddhist sculptures in the world.

Key Terms

  • hermitage: A house or dwelling where a hermit lives.

The Silla Kingdom was the most isolated of the Three Kingdoms Period because it was situated in the southeast part of the peninsula. As such, the kingdom was the last to adopt Buddhism and foreign cultural influences. Silla eventually conquered the other two kingdoms, Baekje in 660 and Goguryeo in 668; thereafter, Unified Silla occupied most of the Korean Peninsula for close to 1,000 years.

Unified Silla Art

Unified Silla was a time of great artistic output in Korea, especially in Buddhist art. Because Silla Kingdom tombs were mostly inaccessible to looters, many examples of Korean art have survived from this era. The Silla craftsmen were famed for their gold-crafting ability, which shares similarities with Etruscan and Greek techniques as exemplified by gold earrings and crowns. Silla gold crows were made from pure gold and had tree and antler-like adornments, suggesting a shamanistic tradition. Because Silla gold artifacts bear similarities to European techniques—and because glass and beads depicting blue-eyed people were found in royal tombs—many believe that the Silk Road extended all the way to Korea.

Examples of Unified Silla art include the Seokguram grotto and the Bulguksa temple. Two pagodas on the ground , the Seokgatap and Dabotap, are also unique examples of Silla masonry and artistry. Craftsmen created massive temple bells, reliquaries , and statutes. The capital city of Unified Silla was nicknamed the “city of gold” because of the use of gold in many objects of art.

Bulguksa Temple

Bulguksa is a head temple of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism in the North Gyeongsang province in South Korea. It is home to seven national treasures, including the Dabotap and Seokgatap stone pagodas, Cheongun-gyo (Blue Cloud Bridge), and two gilt-bronze statues of Buddha. The temple is classified as Historic and Scenic Site No. 1 by the South Korean government, and in 1995, Bulguksa was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List together with the Seokguram Grotto.

The entrance to the temple, Sokgyemun, has a double-sectioned staircase and bridge that leads to the inside of the temple compound. The stairway is 33 steps high, corresponding to the 33 steps to enlightenment . There are two pagodas on the temple site, which is unusual. The three-story Seokgatap (Sakyamuni Pagoda), which stands at 8.2 meters, is a traditional Korean-style stone pagoda with simple lines and minimal detailing. Dabotap (Many Treasure Pagoda) is 10.4 meters tall and dedicated to the Many Treasures Buddha mentioned in the Lotus Sutra . In contrast to Seokgatap, Dabotap is known for its highly ornate structure.

Daeungjeon, the Hall of Great Enlightenment, is the main hall, which enshrines the Sakyamuni Buddha and was first built in 681. Behind the main hall stands Museoljeon, the Hall of No Words, which gets its name from the belief that Buddha’s teachings could not be taught by words alone. It is one of the oldest buildings in the complex and was probably first built in 670. The Gwaneumjeon (Avalokitesvara’s Shrine) houses an image of the Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Perfect Compassion, and stands at the highest point of the complex.

Exterior view of the temple.

Bulguksa Temple: Together with the Seokguram Grotto, the Bulguksa Temple was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1995.

Seokguram Grotto

The Seokguram Grotto is a hermitage and part of the Bulguksa temple complex. It lies four kilometers east of the Bulguksa temple on Mt. Tohamsan, in Gyeongju, South Korea. The grotto overlooks the East Sea (Sea of Japan) and rests 750 meters above sea level. It is classified as National Treasure No. 24 by the South Korean government, and in 1995 it was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List together with the Bulguksa Temple. It exemplifies some of the best Buddhist sculptures in the world.

An India tradition of carving the image of Buddha in stone and stupas in cliff walls and natural caves spread to China and Korea. The geology of the Korean Peninsula, which contains an abundance of hard granite, is not conducive to carving stone images into cliff walls, and so Seokguram is an artificial grotto made from granite and is unique in design. The small size of the grotto indicates that it was probably used exclusively by the Silla royalty.

The grotto is symbolic of a spiritual journey into Nirvana. Pilgrims were to start at Bulguksa or at the foot of Mt. Tohamsan, a holy mountain to the Silla. There was a fountain at the entrance of the shrine where pilgrims could refresh themselves. Inside the grotto, the antechamber and corridor represented the earth while the rotunda represented heaven. The grotto is shaped by hundreds of granite stones; no mortar was used and the structure was held together instead by stone rivets . The construction of the grotto also utilized natural ventilation.

The basic layout of the grotto includes an arched entrance which leads into a rectangular antechamber and then a narrow corridor lined with bas-reliefs leading into the main rotunda. The centerpiece of the granite sanctuary is a Buddha statue seated on a lotus throne with legs crossed. The Buddha has a serene expression of meditation; it is surrounded by fifteen panels of bodhisattvas, arhats, and ancient Indian gods and accompanied by ten statues in niches along the rotunda wall. The grotto also contains 40 different figures representing Buddhist principles and teachings; the grotto itself was built around these statues in order to protect them from weathering. The ceiling of the grotto is decorated with half moons, and the top is decorated with a lotus flower. Silla architects used symmetry and employed the concept of the golden rectangle.

image

Seokguram Buddha: Buddha at Seokguram in South Korea, World Heritage picture.

The Gorguryeo Tombs

Notable aspects of Goguryeo art can be found in tomb murals that vividly depict everyday aspects of life in the ancient kingdom.

Learning Objectives

Describe the famous tomb murals of the Goryeo Dynasty

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Goguryeo Kingdom, which ruled from 37 BCE–668 CE, spanned much of Manchuria and the northern half of Korea.
  • Because of its proximity to the northern Chinese states such as the Northern Wei, Buddhism was first introduced to the Goguryeo Kingdom in 372 CE. Buddhism inspired the Goguryeo kings to commission art and architecture dedicated to the Buddha.
  • Notable aspects of art from this kingdom can be found in the Complex of Goguryeo Tombs, which was designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
  • It is thought that the complex was used as a burial site for kings, queens, and other members of the royal family.
  • Tomb murals vividly depict everyday aspects of life and culture in the ancient kingdom, and Goguryeo painting was highly influential to other art throughout East Asia, including the wall murals of Horyu-ji in Japan.
  • Goguryeo tomb paintings are noted for their vigor, imagery , detail, and originality.

Key Terms

  • artifact: An object such as a tool, weapon or ornament of archaeological or historical interest, especially such an object found at an archaeological excavation.

Background: The Goguryeo Kingdom

The Goguryeo Kingdom, which ruled from 37 BCE–668 CE, spanned much of Manchuria and the northern half of Korea. Goguryeo was an active participant in the power struggle for control of the Korean peninsula and was also associated with the foreign affairs of neighboring polities in China and Japan. Goguryeo was a powerful empire and one of the great powers in East Asia until it was defeated by a Silla–Tang China alliance in 668. After its fall, the territory was divided among the states of Later Silla, Balhae and Tang China.

Because of its proximity to the northern Chinese states such as the Northern Wei, Buddhism was first introduced to the Goguryeo Kingdom in 372 CE. Buddhism inspired the Goguryeo kings to commission art and architecture dedicated to the Buddha.

Goguryeo Tombs

Notable aspects of art from this kingdom can be found in the Complex of Goguryeo Tombs, designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. It is thought the complex was used as a burial site for kings, queens and other members of the royal family. Tomb murals vividly depict everyday aspects of life and culture in the ancient kingdom, and Goguryeo painting was highly influential to other art throughout East Asia, including the wall murals of Horyu-ji in Japan. Goguryeo tomb paintings are noted for their vigor, imagery, detail, and originality.

While looting of the tombs has left little physical evidence of the kingdom, the murals portray varied Buddhist themes and provide valuable insight into the kingdom, including details such as its architecture and clothing. These murals also illustrate the early beginnings of Korean landscape paintings and portraiture. The murals are strongly colored and depict people of Goguryeo dancing, wearing elaborate white dresses, enjoying festivities such as the annual Dongmaeng Festival (held in October to worship the gods and ancestors), and hunting. Religious practices, from Buddhism to traditional mythologies, are also illustrated. The people of Goguryeo worshiped ancestors and considered mythical beasts and animals to be sacred, frequently depicting them in tomb paintings. The phoenix and dragon were both worshiped, while the Samjogo, the three-legged crow that represented the sun, was considered the most powerful of the three.

image

Goguryeo Mural Art: The murals of Goguryeo are strongly colored and show daily life and Korean mythologies of the time.