[KS] Koguryo part of China?

Mark Byington byington at fas.harvard.edu
Sat Jan 3 00:18:17 EST 2004

Dear List,

I would like to offer some additional comments on this very interesting 
thread. First, the provincial museum of Jilin (and all other museums in 
that province) presently give Koguryo's dates as 37 BC to 668. It does not 
surprise me to hear that the signs read 37 BC to 427 when Gari Ledyard 
visited in 1986 - this, I believe, was a conscious gesture to North Korean 
sensitivities. As noted in a previous posting, the fact that Koguryo 
territories straddled the current Yalu River border between China and 
North Korea, making Koguryo into an minority nationality of China's 
distant past involved some problems. If Koguryo was part of China, what 
message does that send to Pyongyang today? For a while scholars in China 
tried to skirt the issue by offering a kind of compromise, first proposed 
in 1981 (I believe) by none other than Tan Qixiang, of Fudan University. 
Tan suggested that Koguryo be considered part of China's history from 37 
BC until 427, and as part of Korean history afterward, when its capital 
was in P'yongyang. I strongly suspect that the museum placards that Prof. 
Ledyard saw were a reflection of these times, when academic interchange 
between China and North Korea was more frequent. By the early 1990s, and 
especially after the explosive exchange between Chinese and North Korean 
scholars in 1993, such a compromise was probably no longer seen as 
necessary. By about 1995 (by my own observations) there was no longer much 
of a North Korean academic presence in Jilin Province.

As John Jamieson has pointed out, part of Koguryo (Gaogouli) was a part of 
what is now the PRC, and its place in the regional history of Dongbei must 
of course be acknowledged. But I would suggest that there are some 
qualitative differences in the ways that Koguryo is understood in China 
and in the Koreas. First, and not surprisingly, Koguryo's significance in 
Chinese history textbooks is limited primarily to the regional history of 
the Northeast. Students studying Chinese history in Yunnan would probably 
never have heard of it (so I assume - please correct me if I'm mistaken). 
Second, regional identity notwithstanding, I would estimate that nine out 
of ten people on the streets of Changchun would offer only a puzzled 
expression if the name Koguryo were mentioned (not including ethnic 
Koreans, of course). South of the Yalu one would be hard pressed to find 
anyone with more than a grade school education who couldn't tell us 
something about Koguryo. In China, only if one goes to Ji'an or Huanren, 
sites of old Koguryo capitals, would the majority of the population likely 
know what Koguryo was. Koguryo is, in short, part of the regional history 
of the Northeast, but, I argue, it is not significantly implanted in the 
cultural identity of the average Han Chinese in the Northeast.

All of this might suggest only that Koguryo is a more significant 
component in Korean national sentiments than in Chinese, and given 
Koguryo's place in Korean historiography, this is not surprising. But I 
think there are several levels to the Chinese treatments of Koguryo, and 
it may be useful to distinguish between Koguryo as part of the regional 
history of the Northeast, and a primarily political element, associated 
with territorial concerns, that underlies much (but not all) of what is 
currently written about Koguryo in Chinese newspapers and academic journals. 
(I do not, however, suggest that Korean treatments of Koguryo are free of 
political elements!) I also stand by my original statement that the arguments 
offered for proving that Koguryo was a minority nationality of early China 
(as opposed to its being part of the regional history of Dongbei) are both 
defensive and historically weak - one need only read the many papers on the 
topic written by Sun Jinji and Zhang Boquan, the two most vocal and articulate 
proponents of the "Chinese Koguryo" position, to illustrate my claim.

What many find objectionable in this is the insistence of some Chinese 
scholars of "proving" that Koguryo was Chinese - not just a state that 
once occupied part of what is now Dongbei, but an indivisible part of 
early China. This view results in a denial of the Korean association with 
Koguryo, and its "proving" necessitates a serious warping of history. Why 
don't these scholars (and, again, not ALL Chinese scholars hold this view!) 
simply admit that Koguryo was its own state, that Koreans also view it as 
part of their own past, but since its history is part of the history of the 
Northeast, it belongs also to the regional history of a part of China? Part 
of the answer is that Koguryo must take its place with all other ancient 
neighboring states and peoples in the current view that makes those 
states and peoples out to be minority nationalities of early China. 
Another reason, closely associated with the first, is that a solid claim 
(loudly stated, if not convincingly proven) to Koguryo and its territories, 
at least those north of the Yalu, are viewed in China as necessary to ensure 
the security of its borders in the Northeast. A simple recognition of 
Koguryo as part of the regional history of the Northeast would not 
accomplish this objective.

Mark Byington

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