[KS] Koguryo part of China?

jamieson jamieson at netvigator.com
Fri Jan 2 20:28:56 EST 2004


The question above began with the assumption that the Chinese were heisting
Koguryo from Korea's past, and if UNESCO endorsed the theft in the process
of registering frescoed Koguryo murals (in China's northeast) as World
Heritage sites it would be "difficult to undo the damage".  Two specialists
have responded by dressing down Chinese claims to Koguryo, Mark Byington
saying they were "weak and defensive" and that conversely "Koguryo has long
been embedded in what WE (upper case letters mine) see as Korean
historiography".  Gari Ledyard echoes Mark Byington, getting a bit more
specific about the long embedding when he says "from the time of the Later
Three Kingdoms (890-935), Koguryo has always been historiographically
treated in Korea as one of the ancestral states of the Korean historical
tradition."  He goes on to tell us that "everyone has to acknowledge that
they (Koguryo sites) are a very important part of the cultural and
historical patrimony of the Korean people".

A third specialist, Andrei Lankov, got to the germane issue here in my view
when he said that "while Chinese attempts to claim the Koguryo heritage are
unfounded, the similar Korean claims are also not without serious flaws."
The objective historian cannot discount one set of claims without critically
examining the counter-claims.  Many relevant questions come to mind.  The
"long embedding", for one, has to be put in the context of a tradition that
"historiographically" claims it began in the 3rd millennium BC.  Relatively,
in that span, the embedding isn't long at all.  When did the
historiographical tradition genuinely begin, and if it were in the Later
Three Kingdoms, why then?   It has been forcefully argued that southern
expansion at that time (Silla-based), meeting the coalescence of foreign
forces to the north (Khitan), not only defined borders but sensitized a need
for more defined national identity.  The implications of this are clear, and
would include the usefulness of conjoining as heritage the three largest
states that had existed in whole or part within contemporaneous national
boundaries, superimposing culture onto territory.  Is the conjoining of the
three, Koguryo, Silla and Paekche, a product of that time?   Our earliest
preserved Korean version of their institutionalization as a unit is from the
12th c. AD  "History of the Three Kingdoms" (Samguk sagi), a weak and
largely second hand work.  How did the Chinese prototypes, historiographical
(Shiji, Sanguo zhi, etc.) and political philosophical (notions of
legitimacy) that so influenced its author and, in the case of the former, he
so heavily cut and pasted from, prescribe the "three kingdoms" format?

Equally plausible, and defensible, is the argument that Koguryo was part of
a coherent pastoral/agricultural northern continuum that inhabited what is
today China's Three Northeastern Provinces.  It gradually moved into the
present Korean peninsula from the north, then southward to the Taedong River
basin before again migrating northward upon its mid-7th c. defeat, melding
with the Sumo Mohe peoples in populating the Kingdom of Bohai.  The peculiar
coherence of that territory is one that gave rise serially, following
Koguryo and Bohai, to more powerful and expansionist groupings, the Khitan,
Jurchen, Mongols and Manchus who encroached on China and Korea, in part or
in whole, throughout the entire last millennium.  Andrei Lankov's points as
to Koguryo's dissimilarity with the Korean peninsula's early southern states
interlaces with this argument.

In any event, Chinese scholars are far from unanimous in supporting a
cultural claim to Koguryo.  Following the Cultural Revolution and as soon as
open expression became more possible in the early 80's, historians such as
Xue Hong, now deceased, former Dean of the College of Letters at
Northeastern Normal University, lampooned the line that (1) foreign groups
in Chinese territory were "minorities" and (2) China had existed as an
entity composed of numerous minorities since time immemorial.  He, and many
like him, wrote thoughtfully and powerfully on such matters.   In striking
imbalance, their Korean counterpart is rare.  Certainly in North Korea there
is unanimity of interpretation regarding early Korea and the position of
Koguryo, and excepting Korean scholars abroad (Hugh Kang, Hyung Il Pai as
examples) the south is little different.

Koguryo was of course a part of what is now Korea, and important to its
history.  It was also a part of what is now China, and important to its
history.  The issue is one of careful analysis of what that part signified,
avoidance of distortion caused by the assumption that culture, heritage and
history are one in the same with territory, and avoidance of the "backward
projection into ancient times" that Gari Ledyard points to.  Patrimony is
not sacrosanct, and is often a much younger construct than meets the eye.
At the same time, it must be acknowledged that the nationalist "Koguryo as a
Chinese minority" voice is influential in China, politically if not in other
spheres.  It is important that the UNESCO authorities be aware of disparate
views.  The Korean Studies group would be an authoritative voice to help
make them aware.

John C. Jamieson

-----Original Message-----
From: Koreanstudies-bounces at koreaweb.ws
[mailto:Koreanstudies-bounces at koreaweb.ws]On Behalf Of Gari Keith Ledyard
Sent: Thursday, January 01, 2004 2:46 PM
To: Korean Studies Discussion List
Subject: Re: [KS] Koguryo part of China?

        Mark Byington throws a lot of very useful commentary on the
question of the alleged Chineseness of Koguryo generally and Koguryo-
related cultural properties in China in particular.  When I made a tour of
Korean Studies centers in Liaoning and Jilin provinces in the fall of
1986, I heard aggressively articulated views that Koguryo was simply a
"minority people" (shaosu minzu) within the Chinese dynasty of the time
(Han, Western Jin, Tuoba Wei, Sui, and Tang being cited as applicable
        This represented a backwards projection into ancient times of a
present-day PRC political institution, attributing to the past ideas and
concepts that either did not exist anciently or would have to be
considered within quite different contexts.  Even according to China's own
dynastic histories Koguryo was almost always in a state of war with four
of those Chinese dynasties, and Tuoba Wei, in the context of its time (the
period of north-south division in China) Tuoba Wei was hardly a Chinese
dynasty if one recognized that the Chinese legitimacy succession
(zhengtong) passed through the southern dynasties, not the northern ones.
The only case of protracted tributary status on the part of Koguryo was
indeed the Tuoba Wei dynasty.  The Han and Tang dynasties made efforts to
subject Koguryo to tributary status, but those episodes were relatively
short; constant Chinese-Koguryo warfare was the more general rule if you
credit the Chinese dynastic histories.  One also has to acknowledge that
for long periods in China's past up into the Ming dynasty, China had
little or no political control over what is now the Dongbei area.  It was
the Ming dynasty which built the existing version of the Great Wall, and
the area protected by it certainly did not include any Koguryo historical
        On the other hand, from the time of the Later Three Kingdoms (Hu
Samguk, ca. 890-935), Koguryo has always been historiographically treated
in Korea as one of the ancestral states of the Korean historical
tradition.  Such organized history as Koguryo has has been of Korean
authorship, even if a large part of the source material used for Koguryo
in the <Samguk sagi> was extracted from Chinese sources by its author, Kim
Pusik, who indeed evidenced considerable critical judgment in selecting
his materials.
        I remember in 1986 visiting the historical museum of Jilin
Province in its capital, Changchun, and being struck by the fact that all
Koguryo-related exhibits (and there were many of them) were marked on the
exhibition label with a terminal date no later than 427 AD.  Since Koguryo
existed as a state until 668, this left a considerable gap in coverage.
What about all those last 241 years?  The curator explained to me that in
427, the capital of Koguryo had been removed from its old center at
Kungnaesong (modern Jilin Prov., Ji'anxian, on the northern bank of the
Yalu River) to P'yongyang in Korea, and so "it was no longer Chinese."  I
wonder what he is saying now, and if those labels have changed???
Ironically, the only source from which the curator could have gotten the
date of 427 was from the <Samguk sagi>!  You won't find it even reflected,
let alone stated, in any Chinese hsitorical source.

        It would be a nice project for North-South cooperation for Seoul
and P'yongyang to jointly press the Korean case on UNESCO through their
respective representatives at the UN.  That probably won't happen though,
because right now the north has to keep disagreements with China to a
minimum, and South Korea probably feels that it cannot afford to endanger
its economic ties with its No. 1 trading partner.  China has them both
over a barrel.  But as Mark says, it is in fact a good thing that the
Koguryo sites in China's Dongbei area be designated as important world
cultural properties recognized by the UN though UNESCO.  But UNESCO should
be urged to recognize some of the major Koguryo sites in the DPRK along
with those north of Yalu.  Everyone has to acknowledge that some Koguryo
sites are on Chinese territory, but everyone also has to acknowledge that
they are a very important part of the cultural and historical patrimony of
the Korean people.
        But if my memories of my discussions with Chinese scholars in
Dongbei are accurate, this is not an admission that China is ready to
make.  In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the origin of China's
application doesn't come not from Beijing but from Dongbei regional
pressures.  During my conversation in 1986 with the scholars in Changchun,
I suggested that if they went and talked to anybody in Seoul or P'yongyang
about China's Koguryo remains, they would be told that, even though they
are in what is now China, those remains are part of a Korean heritage and
and are prominent elements in modern Korean identity, north and south.
To this one of the Chinese scholars said that they were an important part
of HIS identity too.  When I expressed doubt that the average Chinese in
say, Beijing or Shanghai or Xi'an, would consider them part of his
identity as a Chinese, the scholar said in so many words and with what I
felt to be utter sincerity, "I'm not talking about my identity as a
Chinese!  I'm talking about my DONGBEI identity."  And indeed, at that
time and I'm sure at most times, there was and has been considerable
regional pressure on the national government in competition for national
resource allocations to get more favorable treatment for Dongbei.  And if
Dongbei self-respect requires better maintenance for those Koguryo
cultural properties--and it's certain they need it--that would be wholly

Gari Ledyard

On Thu, 1 Jan 2004, Mark Byington wrote:

> Dear List,
> The official Chinese position regarding the proper historical place of
> Koguryo is a natural outcome of current Chinese views of how an early
> "Chinese nation" might have existed in antiquity. This view is a direct
> projection of the current conception of the multiethnic PRC state backward
> in time. In other words, the way minority nationalities are conceived of
> as forming part of a greater Chinese nation today has been imposed on the
> China of the remote past, to make "tributaries" and client states appear
> as though they formed part of a greater Chinese nation and were, by the
> way, quite conscious of their role as such. This  view of the past has
> been prominent most especially since the 1980s. The 1982 PRC constitution
> and the Minority Region Autonomy Law of 1984 codified the place of ethnic
> minorities within the greater China, and many Chinese historians of
> premodern periods have even invoked the exact phrases used in these very
> modern documents to describe the early and premodern state. Since the
> northern part of Koguryo territories are now within PRC borders, Koguryo
> was therefore a minority nationality of ancient China. So are all the
> other peoples who once lived in what is now the PRC, and for the most part
> nobody today cares to expend much time and energy arguing against this
> view. But since Koguryo territories spanned both sides of the Yalu, and
> since Koguryo has long been embedded in what we see as Korean
> historiography, it presents a problem. And the historians in China know
> this.
> I would disagree with the article Sem cited when it speaks of the relative
> quiescence of historians in the Koreas regarding the Chinese position.
> North Korean archaeologists butted heads with Chinese counterparts in the
> 1960s over interpretations of Parhae's place in history, and a North
> Korean complaint (more of an accusation, really) at an academic conference
> in China in 1993 prompted a very defensive reaction on the part of Chinese
> historians, who had previously not been so insistent (or at least vocal)
> on Koguryo's having been a "Chinese" state. South Koreans have not been
> silent either, though I suspect that tourists (including academics)
> visiting Koguryo archaeological sites in China have caused more general
> aggravation to museum officials than have any academic exchanges. I
> suspect that most South Korean scholars who try to get work done in China
> are sensitive enough to know not to complain too loudly, lest the doors of
> access to sites and data in China be closed for good (a real possibility,
> some restrictive measures having been in place for almost a decade now,
> a direct result of a perceived South Korean encroachment on China's
> proprietary rights to Koguryo's material remains in China).
> The Chinese argument for Koguryo's Chinese-ness is a pretty flimsy one.
> The two main arguments are, 1) that the Koguryo state grew out of the Han
> Chinese commandery of Xuantu (i.e., out of Chinese territory), and 2) that
> Koguryo kings acknowledged their places as "minority nationalities" of
> China by accepting investiture from Chinese emperors. The problems with
> this are obvious. There are even weaker arguments than this: for example,
> more Koguryo refugees wound up in Tang China than in Silla after 668,
> therefore Koguryo was more Chinese than Korean - this argument comes from
> a prominent historian in Shenyang. The weaknesses of the arguments are
> well known to the Chinese historians who promote them (and not all
> historians in China support the "official" position, by the way, but there
> are two or three very vocal ones who do). The fact that the two core
> arguments listed above could also be made to apply to Paekche  (and even
> to Silla, with a little extra twisting of the source materials) is also a
> troubling matter to the Chinese historians I described above, who want to
> make clear that Paekche was NOT a Chinese state.
> The gist of my long-winded statement above is that the Chinese argument
> regarding Koguryo is weak and defensive, but it accords with current
> practice in the PRC in making ancient "tributaries" out to be "minority
> nationalities" of a very vaguely defined greater Chinese nation of the
> remote past. I do not believe the Chinese position toward Koguryo is an
> especially sinister one, but is rather one that must exist in order to
> fall into line with current Chinese views of the Chinese past, which can
> be traced ultimately, I think, to concerns about territorial security of
> the present. I would certainly hope that the UNESCO treatment will avoid
> the pitfall that exists here. But my understanding (which could be
> mistaken) is that UNESCO did not exactly have an easy time getting the
> Chinese to accept the registration of the Koguryo murals. And I am quite
> certain that any hesitation on the Chinese side would have been due to the
> uncomfortable matter of Koreans' views toward Koguryo and to potential
> (and already voiced) challenges to the Chinese position. Any UNESCO
> dealings with China would have had to take these sensitivities into
> account, and I suspect that some "glossing over" of the "who owns Koguryo"
> question would have been necessary. I would certainly like to hear more on
> this from anyone who was involved.
> Personally, I think the registration of the murals in China is likely to
> be a good thing, especially if it affords some measure of protection to
> the tombs and assists in their preservation. I know of at least three
> successful mural robberies in Ji'an in the past decade (the last one
> followed by some thirty convictions, I'm told), and some of the loudest
> complaints I have heard in South Korea regarding the Chinese treatment of
> Koguryo is the apparent Chinese inability (or unwillingness) to provide
> adequate protection for the murals. Although the mural tombs in Ji'an
> (with one exception) are officially sealed to offset deterioration of the
> murals, tourist groups to Ji'an, most usually from South Korea, regularly
> gain access to the tombs by making "donations" to the appropriate persons,
> which further damages the murals. Hopefully, the UNESCO World Heritage
> registration of the mural tombs will do some good in this regard?
> Best wishes to all for the New Year,
> Mark Byington

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