History

Genealogical research is greatly enriched by the study of history.  Coupling knowledge of when a Korean ancestor lived with a study of Korean history yields a dramatic increase in an understanding, appreciation, and attachment.  Furthermore, the dates contained in older records often cannot be deciphered without a basic knowledge of Korean history.  This is particularly true when dates are recorded based on the years of a monarch’s reign.  Therefore, this chapter introduces a basic Korean history timeline with particular emphasis on the years that monarchs reigned in the Wang and Yi dynasties.

Founding Legends

There are several theories about the origin of the Korean people.  A root grammar that differs from surrounding nations makes the quest to discover the oldest Korean roots quite interesting.  Theories cover a wide range of possibilities, including Mongolian roots, ties to ancient Norway, and even a lost tribe of Israel mixed with ancient Asian cultures.  Traditional legends of Korea’s founding also add to the variety.

One of the earliest surviving records of a Korean founding legend is found in a 13th century A.D. record called SamGukYuSa (三國遺事, 삼국유사).  The god HwanIn (桓因, 환인) had a son named HwanUng (桓雄, 환웅).  HwanUng became the Heavenly King and founded God City (신시, ShinShi) located at White-Head Mountain (白頭山, 백두산, BaekDuSan), which is in modern day North Korea on the northern border by China.  A heavenly lake fills a volcanic crater at the top of BaekDuSan.  HwanUng granted the wish of a bear and transformed her into a woman named UngNyeo (熊女, 웅녀), meaning “bear woman.”  UngNyeo prayed for a child beneath the Godly Birch Tree (神檀樹, 신단수).  The Heavenly King took her as his wife, and she had a son named DanGun WangGeom (檀君王儉, 단군왕검).  DanGun founded the walled city of ASaDal (阿斯達, 아사달), the predecessor of the modern-day North Korean capital city PyungYang.  This was the legendary start of the earliest Korean kingdom called Ancient JoSeon or GoJoSeon.  GoJoSeon was believed to have been established by DanGun in 2333 B.C., which is why the early DanGi (檀紀, 단기) calendar starts with that year.

Early Kingdoms

Korea was made up of smaller kingdoms before becoming one unified empire.  GoGuRyeo, a northern kingdom, had many wars with China and ultimately was weakened and conquered.  That led to a period when Korea was divided into three kingdoms: GaYa, SilLa, and BaekJae.  SilLa, in the south east, was a strong sea power that defeated Japanese pirates.  GaYa was between SilLa and BaekJae.  GaYa was rich in iron, which helped it develop the tools necessary to thrive in agriculture.  GaYa was taken over by SilLa in 562 A. D.  SilLa drove the Chinese kingdoms out of Korea in 676.

GoRyeo

The GoRyeo Empire unified all of Korea.  GoRyeo is the source of the modern day word “Korea.”  GoRyeo was founded in 918 A.D.  Buddhism was the primary religion during this period, which resulted in the publication of the Tripitaka Koreana Buddhist scriptures that were carved into 81,258 wooden blocks.  A printing press with movable-metal type was also developed during this time period.  GoRyeo leadership established a clear Korean identity that continues even today.

The GoRyeo Empire was ruled by the Wang (王, 왕) Dynasty.  The Wang Dynasty monarchs are listed in the following table.  The rulers were given temple or posthumous names after their deaths, which are usually the names used when referencing years.  Emperor names ending in “Jo” (祖, 조) began eras, while those ending in “Jong” (宗, 종) followed them.  “Wang” (王, 왕) is also the Korean word for “king.”

Table 4.1 GoRyeo Monarchs’ Ruling Years

Ruling Years (Years in A.D.) Living Names and Titles

HanJa (HanGul, Romanized)

Posthumous Temple

or Era Names

HanJa (HanGul, Romanized)

918–943 王建  (왕건, WangGeon)

若天 (약천, YakCheon)

太祖 (태조, TaeJo)
943–945 王武  (왕무, WangMu)

承乾 (승건, SeungGeon)

惠宗 (혜종, HyaeJong)
945–949 王堯  (왕요, WangYo)

천의 (천의, CheonUi)

定宗 (정종, JeongJong)
949–975 王昭  (왕소, WangSo)

日華  (일화, IlHwa)

光宗 (광종, GwangJong)

光德 (광덕, GwangDeok)
峻豊 (준풍, JunPung)

975–981 王伷 (왕유, WangYu)

長民 (장민, JangMin)

景宗 (경종, GyeongJong)
981–997 王治 (왕치, WangChi)

溫古 (온고, OnGo)

成宗 (성종, SeongJong)
997–1009 王誦 (왕송, WangSong)

孝伸 (효신, HyoShin)

穆宗 (목종, MokJong)
1009–1031 王詢 (왕순, WangSun)

安世 (안세, AnSae)

顯宗 (현종, YeonJong)
1031–1034 王欽 (왕흠, WangHeum)

元良 (원량, WonRyang)

德宗 (덕종, DeokJong)
1034–1046 王亨 (왕형, WangHyeong)

申照 (신조, ShinJo)

靖宗 (정종, JeongJong)
1046–1083 王徽 (왕휘, WangHwi)

燭幽 (촉유, ChokYu)

文宗 (문종, MunJong)
1083 王勳 (왕훈, WangHun)

義恭 (의공, UiGong)

順宗 (순종, SunJong)
1083–1094 王運 (왕운, WangUn)

繼天 (계천, GyaeCheon)

宣宗 (선종, SeonJong)
1094–1095 王昱 (왕욱, WangUk) 獻宗 (헌종, HeonJong)
1095–1105 王熙 (왕희, WangHui)

天常 (천상, CheonSang)

肅宗 (숙종, SukJong)
1105–1122 王俁 (왕우, WangU)

世民 (세민, SaeMin)

睿宗 (예종, YaeJong)
1122–1146 王楷 (왕해, WangHae)

仁表 (인표, InPyo)

仁宗 (인종, InJong)
1146–1170 王晛 (왕현, WangHyeon)

日升 (일승, IlSeung)

毅宗 (의종, UiJong)
1170–1197 王皓 (왕호, WangHo)

之旦 (지단, JiDan)

明宗 (명종, MyeongJong)
1197–1204 王晫 (왕탁, WangTak)

至華 (지화, JiHwa)

神宗 (신종, ShinJong)
1204–1211 王韺 (왕영, WangYeong)

不陂 (불피, BulPi)

熙宗 (희종, HuiJong)
1211–1213 王晶 (왕오, WangO)

王璹 (왕숙, WangSuk)

王貞 (왕정, WangJeong)

大華 (대화, DaeHwa)

康宗 (강종, GangJong)
1213–1259 王澈 (왕철, WangCheol)

天祐 (천우, CheonU)

高宗 (고종, GoJong)
1259–1274 王倎 (왕식, WangShik)

日新 (일신, IlShin)

元宗 (원종, WonJong)
1274–1308 王椹 (왕거, WangGeo) 忠烈王 (충렬왕,
ChungRyeolWang)
1308–1313 王璋 (왕장, WangJang)

仲昻 (중앙, JungAng)

忠宣王 (충선왕,
ChungSeonWang)
1313–1330
1332–1339
王燾 (왕만, WangMan)

(의효, EuiHyo)

忠肅王 (충숙왕,
ChungSukWang)
1330–1332
1339–1344
王禎 (왕정, WangJeong)

普塔失里 (보탑실리,
BoTapShilLi)

忠惠王 (충혜왕,
ChungHyaeWang)
1344–1348 王昕 (왕흔, WangHeun)

八思麻朶兒只 (팔사마타아지,

PalSaMaTaAJi)

忠穆王 (충목왕,

ChungMokWang)

1348–1351 王蚳 (왕저, WangJeo)

迷思監朶兒只 (미사감타아지,

MiSaGamTaAJi)

忠靖王 (충정왕,

ChungJeongWang)

1351–1374 王祺 (왕전, WangJeon)

伯顔帖木兒 (바얀테무르, BaYanTaeMuReu)
(이재, IJae)

(익당, IkDang)

恭愍王 (공민왕,

GongMinWang)

1374–1388 王禑 (왕우, WangU) 禑王 (우왕, UWang)
1388–1389 王昌 (왕창, WangChang) 昌王 (창왕, ChangWang)
1389–1392 王瑤 (왕요, WangYo) 恭讓王 (공양왕,
GongYangWang)

 

JoSeon

The JoSeon Empire was ruled by the Yi (李, 이) Dynasty beginning in 1392.  JoSeon is also frequently spelled “Chosun” or “Choson.”  TaeJo was powerful in the previous GoRyeo Empire and lead a coup that began the Yi Dynasty and the JoSeon Empire.  The JoSeon Empire had a strong government and class system.  The culture focused on morality with a Confucius influence.  The modern-day Korean focus on scholarship, standardized tests, and the honoring of teachers has many of its roots in this period.  One of the most honored rulers of this period is the fourth ruler — The Great King SaeJong.  King SaeJong is known for adopting the Korean HanGul alphabet.  The scientific and phonetic HanGul alphabet is still credited for Korea’s record-setting literacy rate.

Table 4.2 JoSeon Monarchs’ Ruling Years

Ruling Years (Years in A.D.) Personal Names and Titles

HanJa (HanGul, Romanized)

Temple/Era Names

HanJa (HanGul, Romanized)

1392–1398 李成桂 (이성계, ISeongGyae)

李旦 (이단, IDan)

太祖 (태조, TaeJo)

天授 (천수, CheonSu)

1398–1400 李芳果 (이방과,

IBangGwa)

定宗 (정종, JeongJong)
1400–1418 李芳遠 (이방원,

IBangWon)

太宗 (태종, TaeJong)
1418–1450 李祹 (이도, IDo) 世宗 (세종, SaeJong)
1450–1452 李珦 (이향, IHyang) 文宗 (문종, MunJong)
1452–1455 李弘緯 (이홍위, IHongWui) 端宗 (단종, DanJong)
1455–1468 李瑈 (이유, IYu) 世祖 (세조, SaeJo)
1468–1469 李晄 (이광, IGwang) 睿宗 (예종, YaeJong)
1469–1494 李娎 (이혈, IHyeol) 成宗 (성종, SeongJong)
1494–1506 李隆 (이융, IYung) 燕山君 (연산군, YeonSanGun)
1506–1544 李懌 (이역, IYeok) 中宗 (중종, JungJong)
1544–1545 李峼 (이호, IHo) 仁宗 (인종, InJong)
1545–1567 李峘 (이환, IHwan) 明宗 (명종, MyeongJong)
1567–1608 李蚣 (이연, IYeon) 宣祖 (선조, SeonJo)
1608–1623 李琿 (이혼, IHon) 光海君 (광해군, GwangHaeGun)
1623–1649 李倧 (이종, IJong) 仁祖 (인조, InJo)
1649–1659 李淏 (이호, IHo) 孝宗 (효종, HyoJong)
1659–1674 李棩 (이연, IYeon) 顯宗 (현종, HyeonJong)
1674–1720 李焞 (이순, ISun) 肅宗 (숙종, SukJong)
1720–1724 李昀 (이윤, IYun) 景宗 (경종, GyeongJong)
1724–1776 李昑 (이금, IGeum) 英祖 (영조, YeongJo)
1776–1800 李祘 (이산, ISan) 正祖 (정조, JeongJo)
1800–1834 李蚣 (이공, IGong) 純祖 (순조, SunJo)
1834–1849 李奐 (이환, IHwan) 憲宗 (헌종, HeonJong)
1849–1863 李昪 (이변, IByeon) 哲宗 (철종, CheolJong)
1863–1907 李命福 (이명복, IMyeongBok) 高宗 (고종, GoJong)
1907–1910 李拓 (이척, ICheok) 純宗 (순종, SunJong)

GoRyeo was renamed the Korean Empire in 1897.  Korea was modernizing heavily during this time.  Russian influence grew until the Korean Empire was defeated by Japan in 1905.

Japanese Occupation

The Japanese annexed Korea in 1905 and conquered Korea in 1916.  The annexation was generally considered illegal by the Korean people.  The treaty was not signed with the emperor’s seal.  The annexation treaty was internationally determined to be false in 1965.

The occupation was brutal.  The Korean culture was declared illegal.  Koreans were required to adopt Japanese names.  Korean history was banned from being taught in schools.  Some areas reported people being publicly executed for speaking Korean.  Natural resources and in some cases even people were sent to Japan.  The mountains, once full of trees, were bald.  Today you see many mountains covered with trees in straight lines because of modern re-planting efforts to recover.

The Korean people refused to let their language and culture die.  They formed strong liberation movements.  The March First Movement was the most famous event in the liberation struggle, which took place in 1919 A. D.    Thousands were killed in demonstrations.  This movement was inspired by a speech by President Woodrow Wilson on the right of self-determination, which began Korea’s close ties to the U.S.  The Provisional Government of Korea was set up in China and formally petitioned the U.S. government for help.  Many of those involved were Presbyterians who later helped establish the South Korean government.  The influence of Presbyterians and Christianity are still strong in South Korean culture.

The end of World War II and the surrender of Japan finally enabled Korean liberation.  Due to political struggles between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, Korea was temporarily divided at the 38th parallel.  The U.S. and Soviet Union could not agree on how to set up a unified Korean government, so the issue was taken to the United Nations (U.N.).  Although the U.N. recognized the Republic of Korea (ROK) as the government for all of Korea, Cold War tensions prevented Korea from regaining its unified independence.

Korean War

North Korea attacked the south in 1950, which started the Korean War.  They drove the U.S. and South Korean forces to the southeast corner in PuSan.  General MacArthur, who is still a revered figure in South Korea, led an amphibious attack that trapped the attackers and then drove north.  China joined the north, which quickly destabilized the situation.  The fighting stopped in 1953 with the signing of an armistice agreement.  The agreement did not officially declare the war over, however.

North and South Korea

The Soviet Union set up a communist dictatorship in the north called the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).  The Republic of Korea (ROK) was established in the south.  South Korea modeled its constitution and government after the U.S.  This division remains to the present day without formally closing the Korean War.

Hopes for Reunification

Many Korean songs and proverbs reflect the long struggles of the Korean people to maintain their culture, language, and independence.  One saying reflects the Korean honor particularly well: a mighty tree can break and fall when hit by the wind of a terrible storm, but the humble rice bows its head and rises again when the storm passes.  One can almost feel the pain and wisdom of a peaceful-loving people struggling to maintain their culture and identity as neighboring empires invade and interrupt their peace.  If there is one thing Korean history has taught, it is that the Korean people will bond together and survive despite outside attempts to conquer and divide them.  One can feel the suspense as the world watches to see if the Korean people will ultimately overcome the tensions set up during the Cold War to once again unite as an independent nation.

It is the author’s hope and prayer that the path for a peaceful reunification will one day be realized.  The world watched miraculous events in Europe reunite a divided Germany; perhaps a similar miracle is waiting to unite the humble and deserving people of Korea.  The figurative rice field may have been beaten down by the storm of the Cold War, but surely each stalk of rice will eventually stand again when the storm passes.

One thought on “History

  1. My mother’s name is Choi Moon Ja. Born in Osaka, Japan 1930.
    Her ancestors come from “Kuong Ju”. I would like very much to
    know more about my family history.

    With thanks and kind regards,
    Deborah Lee Garris

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