Chopstick Cinema

Celeste Heiter's Adventures in Asian Food & Film

The History and Culture of Korea

The nation of Korea is steeped in ancient history and tradition, and is a source of interest for many devoted scholars of Asian culture. The following is a brief synopsis of Korean history from its creation myth to the present day.


Korea, now divided into the northern nation known as the People?s Democratic Republic of Korea, and the southern nation, known as the Republic of Korea, is located on a peninsula of land, 600 miles long, and 135 miles at its widest point. It extends south from the Chinese province of Manchuria, and borders both China and Siberia to the north, the Sea of Japan to the east, the Korean Straits to the south, and the Yellow Sea to the west. Its 1700-mile coastline is surrounded by hundreds of tiny islets, and 200 major islands, most of which are volcanic formations and two-thirds of which are inhabited.

The interior landscape is steeply mountainous, with no plains of any significance. The lofty Paik-tu San Mountains are the source of the Yalu and Tumen Rivers, and from them, toward the south, extends a range that divides the peninsula into two unequal regions. The eastern region is fertile but difficult to access, and the western region is steeply ridged with spurs from the main range that form deep gorges. In the south, the Diamond Mountain range slopes toward the coast. Most of Korea?s rivers are rocky and unnavigable, with the exception of the Yalu, Tumen, Tai-dong, Naktong, Mok-po, and Han. The Han River flows from Kang-won-do in the east to Chemulpo in the west, dividing the country in half, and serving as an important commercial thoroughfare.

Climate and Wildlife

The climate of Korean peninsula is temperate for most of the year, with a three-month rainy season, during which the weather is hot and humid. Indigenous plants include pines and juniper, walnuts and chestnuts, persimmons, ginseng, bamboo, and hibiscus. Native animals include tigers, leopards, deer, boars, bears, antelopes, beavers, otters, badgers, martens, sables, striped squirrels, black eagles, peregrines, turkey buzzards, pheasants, swans, geese, teal, mallards, mandarin ducks, ibis, cranes, storks, egrets, herons, curlews, pigeons, doves, magpies, rooks, crows, orioles, kingfishers, jays, nut-hatches, redstarts, snipe, grey shrikes, hawks, and kites.

Agriculture and Industry

Korean soil is composed of fertile loam, enriched with lava and river silt. Rainfall is abundant during the growing season, and most farms produce two crops annually, including rice, millet, beans, ginseng, cotton, hemp, oil-seeds, bearded wheat, oats, barley, sorghum, and sweet and Irish potatoes, cotton, and tobacco. Domesticated animals include sheep, goats, workhorses, pigs, and poultry. Fishing is a major industry. Coal, iron, copper, gold, silver, lead, talc, and crystal are abundant for mining. Other indigenous products include sea salt, paper, silk, bamboo crafts, and pottery. And since the Republic of Korea has become more active in the global economy, its exports now include automobiles, electronics and other industrial products.


Korea uses both the solar and lunar calendars, and celebrates holidays based on both, most notably, the Lunar New Year celebration called Seol-nal, and the Harvest Moon Festival called Chuseok. During national holidays, all government offices and most businesses are closed, with the exception of a few shopkeepers and large department stores. However, during the 3-day celebration of the Lunar New Year, and Harvest Moon Festival, all commerce except public transportation is shut down.

Korea functions within a single time zone, 9 hours ahead of GMT. Most Koreans work Monday through Friday from 9:00-6:00, and a half day on Saturday from 9:00-1:00. The academic year in Korea is divided into two semesters. The first semester begins on March 1 and ends on August 31. The second semester begins on September 1 and ends on the last day of February.

Traditional Clothing

Like many Asian cultures, the Korean people have assimilated many Western elements into their traditional culture. Therefore, most Korean people prefer contemporary Western clothing such as suits and jeans. However, the national costume, the hanbok, is worn by many people during national holidays. White garments are typically worn by commoners, and colors are reserved for the upper class or for festive occassions. Shoes, whether traditional sandals or modern footwear, are removed upon entering a house.

Traditional Korean clothing has its roots extending back at least as far as the Three Kingdoms Period (57 B.C. - 668 A.D.), and the hanbok is one of the most identifiable elements of Korean culture. The top is a long-sleeved tunic called a jeogori. Women wear skirts called chima, while men wear loose-fitting pants called paji.

Traditional Korean Houses

A traditional Korean house is made of natural materials and has a straw or tile roof. One element unique to Korean building design is the use of ondol, flat stones beneath the floor which retain heat for warming the living area.

In modern times however, contemporary architecture is becoming increasingly popular, and is rapidly replacing traditional-style houses. And although the ondol method is still used to heat modern buildings, a system of water pipes has replaced the use of stones.

In a traditional Korean family, several generations live together under one roof. However, as each new generation of Korean people adapt to Western ways, the nuclear family is becoming increasingly common.

The Korean People

According to a 1999 census, the population of Korea is estimated to be approximately 47 million. The majority of the Korean people are descended from the prehistoric Mongolian race, and throughout history, they have been occupied by both the Chinese and the Japanese, and therefore have been both genetically and culturally influenced by them to some degree. Nevertheless, the Koreans have maintained their native language and customs. The Korean culture has always been strongly based on a closely-knit family structure, which is still maintained even in modern times.

The Korean Language

The Korean language is classified among the Ural-Altic family of languages which also includes Turkish and Mongolian. The Korean language has its own unique syllabary alphabet called hangeul, comprised of 24 letters: 14 consonants and 10 vowels. The Korean language also contains many words derived from Chinese, and the written language uses the Chinese pictograph alphabet to express those words. However, the grammatical structure of the Korean language is more similar to Japanese than to Chinese.

Chinese writing was first introduced to Korea around 2,000 years ago, during the Chinese occupation of northern Korea from 108 BC to 313 AD. In the 5th century, Classical Chinese was common as a written language, and the Koreans later developed three different systems for writing Korean with Chinese characters: Hyangchal, Gukyeol and Idu.

The Idu system combined Chinese characters with special symbols to indicate Korean grammatical endings, and was used for both official and personal documents for many centuries. The Hyangchal system used Chinese characters to represent all the sounds of the Korean language, and was used for aesthetic purposes such as poetry.

The Koreans borrowed extensively from the Chinese language, and assigned Korean pronunciation to many Chinese characters. The Korean alphabet was invented in 1444 and was originally called Hunmin jeongeum, which means "Proper sounds for instruction of the people.? The Korean alphabet has also been referred to as Eonmeun, or vulgar script, and Gukmeun, national writing. Hangeul, the modern name for the Korean alphabet, Hangeul, was first used around the turn of the 20th century by Ju Si-gyeong, A Korean linguist.

However, even after the introduction of a unique Korean alphabet and writing system, most Koreans who were able to read and write continued to use Classical Chinese or the older the Gukyeol and Idu systems. The Korean alphabet was mainly used by people of low social status, including women, children and those with no formal education. During the 20th century however, a mixed writing system came into common usage, and similar to the Japanese writing system, combined Chinese characters with Korean Hangeul.

In South Korea, students must memorize 1,800 Chinese hanja by the end of high school, however, most modern Korean literature is composed in hangeul, while academic papers and official documents are written using a combination of Korean hangeul and Chinese hanja.

Korean can be written in vertical columns from top to bottom and right to left, like Chinese, or in horizontal lines from left to right, like English.


In the early period of its history, the Korean people developed an indigenous religion based on shamanism. Buddhism was introduced to Korea from China in 372 A.D. In 1394, Confucianism was declared the official religion of Korea, causing a sharp decline in Buddhism. Christianity also has its place in Korean history when it was first introduced to Korea in 1770 by a Korean envoy to China that returned with Catholic religious tracts. And the city of It'aewon-dong features a mosque for the practice of Islam. Many Koreans practice multiple faiths, incorporating the religious ideology of Christianity or Islam with Buddhist rites and the ancient practice of ancestor worship.


The Korean people believe that an education is crucial for a successful life, and that the quality of school a student attends plays a significant role in whether that student will go on to become a success. Therefore, Korean parents go to great lengths and sacrifices to ensure that their children attend the best schools they can afford to get the best education possible.

The Korean education system provides six years of primary school, three years of middle school, and three years of high school. Students who wish to attend college must take a national exam to go on to a 4-year college or university. Other students attend 2-year junior colleges, while others go directly to work without attending college. Traditionally, middle and high schools were segregated by gender, until recently. However, due to significant differences in education levels between the schools for boys and those for girls, and potential socialization difficulties later in life, most schools have converted to co-ed.

The Korean Flag

With increasing interaction with the outside world during the 19th century, the Korean government recognized the need for an international symbol, and the first Korean flag was created in 1882. Over the years, the design has varied, and after a brief interim during which the Japanese military occupied Korea and the Korean flag was banned, the present-day flag was created in 1948 by the South Korean government.

Known as the T'aegukki, the Korean flag represents the complementary philosophies of yin and yang, and the concept of five directions, known as Ohaengsol. The circle in the center is divided into two parts, with the red half representing yang, and the blue, yin. The circle is surrounded by hexagrams from the I-ching, with the upper left corner symbolizing the east, heaven, spring, and gentility; the lower right corner symbolizing the west, earth, summer, and justice; the upper right corner symbolizing the north, moon, winter, and wisdom, and the lower left corner symbolizing the south, sun, autumn, and courtesy.

The Korean Creation Myth

Long ago, when heaven and earth were one, Hwan-in ruled the eastern heavens where day begins each morning and the five mystic creatures stood at the four corners of the world, the Blue Dragon in the East, the White Tiger in the West, the Red Phoenix in the South and the Tortoise and Snake in the North. Hwan-in, Ruler of Heaven, sent his son, Hwan-ung, to earth to build a new kingdom there. Hwan-ung was both wise and powerful, and his father sent him to earth with three divine spirits: the Teacher, who creates the clouds; the General, who stirs the winds; and the Governor, who brings the rains.

Hwan-ung and his divine ministers were accompanied by 3,000 other spirits, an entire race who populated the earth. Hwan-ung settled with his followers in the shade of an ancient birch tree on the slopes of Mount T'aebaek, a lofty peak on the border between Korea and Manchuria. There Hwan-ung establilshed a divine city that he named Shinshi. With the help of his divine ministers, he set forth laws and moral codes, and introduced the arts, medicine, and agriculture to the inhabitants of Shinshi.

In a nearby cave, there dwelled a bear and a tiger, who prayed every day to Hwan-ung to become human. Hearing their prayers, Hwan-ung summoned them and gave them sacred foods, garlic and mugwort. He commanded them to remain in the cave for 100 days, avoiding sunlight and eating only the sacred foods. After only 20 days, the tiger gave up and left the cave to become the fiercest creature in all the land. However, the bear was dedicated to the task of becoming human and persevered to complete the term of seclusion ordered by Hwan-ung. Finally, on the 100th day, the bear emerged from the cage in the form of a beautiful maiden, who offered thanks to Hwan-ung.

Hwan-ung named her Ung-yo, which means, "the girl transformed from a bear." Ung-yo grew more beautiful with each passing day, until Hwan-ung took her hand in marriage. Soon thereafter, Ung-yo gave birth to a son they named Tan-gun, which means Prince of the Birch Trees. Tan-gun grew to become a man of great wisdom and a powerful leader, who in 2333 BC, in the region of P'yongyang, established the Joseon or Choson Kingdom, which means Land of the Morning Calm. After a reign of nearly 2000 years, in 425 BC, Hwan-ung returned to Mount T'aebaek, where he became god of the mountain once again.

After Hwan-ung's ascension to Mount T?aebaek, in the 25th year of the reign of Emperor Yao in China, 2333 B.C., Tan-gun, the first great ruler of Korea, united the six tribes and established the first kingdom in Korea. Tan'gun called his land Choson, which means "Land of the Morning Calm," and built a capital city at Asadal, now P'yong'yang. Tan'gun instructed the Korean people in matters of government, marriage, agriculture, cooking, housing, worship, and the way of right-living. Today, Tan-gun is still regarded as the founding father of Korea.

The History of Korea

The history of Korea is divided into six chronological periods: Three Kingdoms, Silla, Goryeo, Choson, Japanese Occupation, and Republic of Korea.


This period provides evidence of human inhabitants in Korea from as early as 4000 B.C. Also at this time, according to legend, Tan Gun, son of the mountain god Hwan-ung, and grandson of Hwan-in, the Ruler of Heaven, founded the Joseon or Choson Kingdom in 2333 B.C.

The Three Kingdoms (57 B.C. ? 668 A.D.)

Three Kingdoms, known as Silla, Goguryeo, and Baekje were established in Korea. The Koguryo Kingdom occupied the northern part of the peninsula from the Chinese border to the Han River, and Silla and Baekche divided the southern regions. All three kingdoms were strongly influenced by China. Buddhism was introduced to Koguryo in 372, and over the next 700 years, the Three Kingdoms formed alliances either with each other against the Chinese, or with the Chinese against each other. In 660, the Kingdom of Silla allied with China to overthrow the Kingdom of Baekje, and the Kingdom of Goguryeo was overtaken in 668.

Silla (668 - 935)

During the period in which the Silla Kingdom dominated Korea, its cultural development began. The Buddhist religion grew in strength, and many temples were constructed for its practice. Many early works of art were strongly influenced by Buddhism as well. The Kingdom of Silla was composed of large tribal clans, and was divided into social classes, with a feudal system of laborers and tradesmen who provided life?s necessities and luxuries for the aristocracy. Toward the end of the Silla period, powerful warlords established strongholds in the north and overthrew the Kingdom of Silla in 918.

Goryeo (918 ? 1392)

The period that followed was called Goryeo, from which Korea?s modern English name is derived. During the Goryeo period, an organized government, legal and civil system was established, Buddhism continued to flourish, and the celadon pottery for which Korea is known was also developed. However, the nation was plagued by civil unrest and threats from invaders. In 1231, the Mongols seized power and the royal family of Korea fled to the south. Over the next 150 years, the Mongols ruled Korea, but with gradually declining power, until 1392, when Korean General Yi Song-gye, on a mission to China to fight against the rulers of the Ming Dynasty, he forged an alliance with them instead and returned to Korea to overthrow the Mongol king.

Choson (1392 ? 1910)

King Yi Song-gye moved the capital to Hanyang-gun, now known as Seoul, and in 1394, Confucianism was declared the official religion of Korea, causing a sharp decline in Buddhism. During this period that the Korean alphabet, Hangeul, was invented by King Sejong the Great. Foreign invaders still posed a threat, including invasions by the Japanese in 1592, and the Manchus in 1627. With the increase in foreign trade during the 19th century, Korea closed its borders, until 1876, when Japan imposed a series of trade agreements on Korea. Despite the efforts of King Kojong to resist by forming an independent Korean empire called Taehan, in 1910, after fighting for a year against the Russians on the Korean peninsula, Japan declared sovereignty over Korea.

Japanese Occupation (1910 - 1945)

Japan occupied Korea for the next 35 years, during which the Korean people were forced to adopt Japanese customs, including the Japanese language and alphabet, the Shinto religion, and even personal names. During a revolt by the Koreans in 1919, thousands of people were killed, injured and imprisoned, and hundreds of churches, schools, and homes were destroyed. During World War II, Japan utilized much of Korea?s natural resources to fuel the war effort, and many Korean people were relocated to Japan to serve as forced laborers.

Republic of Korea (1945 - present)

When Emperor Hirohito of Japan surrendered to Allied forces on August 15, 1945, Korea was divided in half, with the USSR occupying the north, from the 38th parallel, and the U.S. occupied the south. In 1948, the United Nations helped establish the Republic of Korea in the south, while the Soviet Union formed the Democratic People?s Republic of Korea in the north. Seoul became the southern capital, while P?yongyang became the capital in the north.

However, just two years later, on June 25, 1950, the North Korean Army invaded South Korea, which instigated the Korean War. UN forces came to the aid of South Korea, while Communist China allied with North Korea. The Korean War continued for three years, during which millions of soldiers and civilians were killed.

In 1960, under pressure from student protests President Syngman Rhee resigned. For a brief time, South Korea was ruled by a civilian government, until May 16, 1961, when General Park Chung Hee staged a military coup, established martial law, and became president. For the next 20 years, South Korea functioned under Park?s military rule, and although by means of oppression, Korea began to thrive as an industrialized nation. However, On October 26, 1979, General Park Chung Hee was assassinated by the chief of the Korean CIA.

The unexpected vacancy in the seat of political power provided a perfect opportunity for General Chun Doo Hwan to enact a military coup and seize power on May 17, 1980. Martial law was restored and Chun became the new President of the Republic of Korea. His term of office was marked by violent student protests, and finally in 1988, a presidential election was held.

Chun?s chosen successor, General Noh Tae-woo, won the election virtually unopposed. Over the next four years, he established diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union, and the 1988 Olympic Games were held in Seoul.

In 1992, Kim Young-sam was elected president, marking the reestablishment of civilian rule. During his term of office, thousands of outdated laws and regulations were abolished, and a new economy was set in motion. However, Korea did not flourish as hoped under President Kim, and by the time he left office in 1997, the economy was in the throes a serious recession.

He was succeeded by President Kim Dae-jung, the first opposition party leader ever to be elected by popular vote. Since then, the Korean government has liberalized many existing economic policies and has continued to encourage foreign investment and trade.