Chinese and Korean Civilizations: Comparing Areas of Influence and Divergence during Tang and Silla Dynasties

Introduction

The incredible vitality and suppleness of Chinese culture and civilization have had a profound influence in the whole of East Asia region and beyond in ways that no other civilization can match in global history, anywhere.

Although it’s full influence on world history had not been understandably felt or experienced until the last couple of centuries, the transmission and adoption of fundamental elements of Chinese culture to other regions in East Asia, specifically Korea, Japan and Vietnam, undoubtedly provide one of the most essential illustrations of the spread of civilization from an inner core locale to other neighboring and distant regions (Adler & Pouwels 214).

It is fascinating how the Chinese culture has been able to spread its wings beyond the East Asia region to find homage in other civilizations thousands of miles away from mainland China. This essay aims to prove that the Koreans have been greatly influenced by the Chinese culture and civilization due to close geographical proximity and recurrent cultural communications between China and Korea in ancient times.

Historians trace the interactions between the countries – China and Korea – back to the Han Dynasty due to its great expansion into Manchuria and Korea (Gernet 121). However, others are of the opinion that it is difficult to lay a definite timeline on when the two countries started interacting since Korea was greatly viewed as an extension of China during ancient times (Sterns et al 299).

It is worthwhile to note that dynasties formed the basic political units in the history of ancient China, with the government being led by an emperor who, “although by no means divine, was able to inspire the loyalty of a great many talented and ambitious servants in his bureaucracy” (Adler & Pouwels 214).

These bureaucracies, based more on merit than on characteristics such as family connections, played a significant role in spreading the influence of Chinese culture to other regions. Due to the increased overtures of these dynasties in attempting to conquer new regions, the Koreans and Japanese have no less understanding and perception of ancient Chinese culture than the Chinese themselves.

Comparisons between Korean Culture and Civilization with the Tang Dynasty

A majority of historians consider the Tang Dynasty (618-907) as the epitome of all Chinese civilizations throughout history (Forte 297). It was during this era that reforms intended to centralize all government functions were carried out, and a large civil service initiated to run government affairs. The Dynasty also engaged in an ambitious territorial expansion, thereby spreading its philosophies, especially the Confucian principles, further into the Diaspora.

The Tang Dynasty flourished mainly through education, agriculture, trade, craftsmanship and inventions. This particular Dynasty was able to influence other civilizations within the region by employing a friendly foreign policy as well as intense trading with over seventy countries. It is imperative to note that the Tang Dynasty was also influenced by the cultures and civilizations of the trading partners.

For example, the Chinese were able to incorporate mathematics and astronomy into their education system by interacting with trading partners during this era (Forte 299). The Tang Dynasty was once disrupted by Wu Zetian, the only distinguished female empress in the history of China. However, she was ousted, and the Dynasty continued to rule (Benn 26).

Neighboring countries, specifically Korea, Vietnam and Japan, respected the Tang Dynasty and its emperors to an extent of paying them tribute (Adler & Pouwels 220). According to Gernet, “…China’s influence in Asia [during the Tang Dynasty] was at its Zenith” (258). Various kingdoms and countries within the region paid homage to the Tang court, assimilating a multiplicity of legal and cultural elements in the process.

Many historians will buy the argument that besides political domination, the Tang Dynasty also exercised a powerful cultural influence over Korea (Forte 297). For example, the Korean traditional architecture was developed through the absorption or adaptation of various cultural rudiments learned from ancient Chinese culture originating from the Han Dynasty (Sup para. 3).

It is worth noting that the Korean architecture surpassed its preceding rustic simplicity immediately after the amalgamation of the Three Kingdoms by the famous Silla Dynasty in 668 C.E. as a direct result of constant interaction between the two cultures (Sup para. 4). The architecture influence is still felt and witnessed to date. For instance, the Pulguk temple, located in Kyonju, mirrors the marvelous architecture of the Tang Dynasty.

Buddhism, introduced in China from India and adopted by Tang rulers, played an important function in the cultural transformation that took place in ancient Korea. The religious doctrines practiced by Buddhists had great ramifications on Koreans, including influencing their way of life, religious orientation, art, education, lifestyle and architecture. Indeed, Buddhism can be credited for providing the vital links of Chinese culture and civilization to the Koreans.

For instance, Buddhism played a fundamental artistic influence during the period of Tang, Silla and Koryo dynasties. The artistic themes mainly originated from India, passed through Central Asia and China before being adopted or assimilated in Korea (Hadar para. 2). The artistic expertise of making household items such as porcelains was assimilated from mainland China and mixed up with local Korean technology and expertise to occasion superb results.

For example, the outstanding bluish-green porcelains made by the Koryo Dynasty were originally modeled around Chinese porcelains. However, the masses under the Tang dynasty engineered a revolt against Buddhism in 845 due to its foreign origins and teachings that went against the Chinese traditional concept of family life (Adler & Pouwels 221).

The Koreans accomplished their historical duty of assimilating the entry of foreign cultural elements with traditional and inherent aspirations under the cultural manipulation of the Tang Dynasty (Sup Para. 4).

In education, Tang rulers in the indigenous Koguryo kingdom had endeavored to introduce the Chinese examination system and writing style immediately before the Chinese domination over Korea started to wane during the Tang Dynasty (Stearns et al 269). However, a determined resistance to Sinification by aristocratic leaders in the peninsula led to the collapse of the plan.

The bureaucratic structure of the Tang Dynasty was also adapted by the Koreans. It was during the Tang dynasty that government functions were fully structured and organized to include a civil service that was evaluated based on merit rather than social status or family linkages.

Citizens aspiring for imperial offices had to first undertake competitive examinations based on Confucian classics to determine their suitability (Hearne para. 8; “Medieval China,” 14). In Chinese, the imperial examinations were known as Jinshi. During this era of Chinese civilization, the military found themselves losing power and influence to the trained civil servants.

All the above elements – bureaucratic structure, robust civil service, and education system – soon found their way into mainstream Korean culture through assimilation. Although the Koreans made several innate changes and innovations into the assimilated elements, it is safe to assume that their ancient bureaucratic structure, civil service and education system were modeled around the Chinese structures (Adler & Pouwels 221).

A general assessment of the Tang Dynasty would not be complete without making reference to the invariable enrichment guaranteed by the contacts of the Tang law codes with civilizations alien to the dynasty in terms of culture and way of life. The ancient Koreans and Japanese were especially known to pay tribute to Tang courts.

As such, they became accustomed to the Tang law codes that had been revised by emperor Tang Taizong, also known as the Great ancestor (“Medieval China,” 10). Some of these law codes are still in use in China today. The legal codes served as models across East Asia, including Korea. To date, some of the Tang law codes assimilated by Koreans during Tang dynasty continue to inform legal matters in the peninsula.

There were very few areas of divergence between ancient Chinese culture and civilization on the one hand and what was assimilated or absorbed by Korean culture on the other. This is initially because the Tang dynasty was very strong, and expanded its tentacles deep into these regions using an elaborate civil service, robust trade strategies and good international relations (Benn 16).

Still, there exist some areas of divergence. For instance, although the Korean spoken language was heavily influenced by the Chinese language, it still remained unique to the Koreans and genetically unrelated to Chinese (“Chinese Language Facts,” para. 5).

Divergent architectural decorations and colors used in China and Korea especially during the Tang dynasty points to the fact that Koreans maintained independence when assimilating some Chinese elements. During the Tang rule, decorations tended to be exceptionally complicated and superfluous.

However, Koreans maintained the splendid exquisiteness of moderation in their application of color and decoration. Lastly, despite undertaking Confucian examinations, government positions in Korea were determined by such characteristics as birth and family connections rather than meritocracy (Stearns et al 300).

The Silla Period and Areas of Influence between Chinese and Korean Culture

The Korean Peninsula has an elongated and interesting history, albeit catastrophic at times and desolately divided to this day. Korea has witnessed constant divisions followed by reunifications over many centuries (Lee & Yi 72).

Although the peninsula has been ruled by numerous kingdoms and monarchies, this section will focus on the Silla period between 668 and 935 C.E., a period in history that was deservedly known as Korea’s Golden Age. The Silla Kingdom was located in Gyeongju, approximately 45 miles north of Busan (Freedman para. 2). It is of significance to note that the Silla Kingdom allied itself with the Tang emperors in the latter’s attempt to conquer Korea for the second time after the Han dynasty (Adler & Pouwels 222).

The Tang rulers decided to distinguish the Silla Kingdom as a vassal on condition that the latter would reciprocate by paying tribute to the Tang Dynasty and its courts. However, the Chinese withdrew their military personnel in 668 C.E., effectively leaving the Silla rulers to run their own jurisdiction independently.

The Korean culture and mode of life was heavily influenced by the much more developed and complex Chinese culture, especially during the interactions that took place between the Tang Dynasty and the Silla Kingdom. Indeed, the Koreans had already assimilated many Chinese elements long before Tang rulers disembarked from Korea in 668 as they were expected to pay tribute to the Tang Dynasty, including the courts and government structures (Lee & Yi 74).

This section will focus on three critical areas of interest – religion, government, and economy – to prove that the Koreans were greatly influenced by the Chinese culture due to close geographical proximity and constant cultural communications between the two neighbors.

In religion, it is safe to postulate that the Silla period (668-935) was one of religious maturity. The period characterized the culmination of Buddhist influence in the peninsula due to close interactions with Tang China. It is imperative to note that Buddhism was also alien in China as it originated from India and the Middle East. However, it found its way into China and later into Korea due to close geographical proximity and constant cultural communications.

The Tang dynasty spread the Buddhist religious philosophy into Korea after they conquered the country for the second time. Furthermore, Korean monks and scholars journeyed to Tang China for purposes of studying Buddhist philosophy and Confucius classics (Lee & Yi 73). On their return, the monks and students contributed immensely to the cultural development of Korea. As such, Buddhism copiously blossomed and flourished in many regions of the Peninsula.

Seondeok, Queen of Silla between 632 and 647, contributed immensely to the growth of Buddhism in Korea. Seondeok, also known as Sondok, served as the twenty-seventh ruler of the kingdom, and the first queen to ever rule Silla (Woo 27). Her reign coincided with a period of rivalry between the three kingdoms – Silla, Baekje Kingdom and Goguryeo.

It was during her reign that Seon (Zen) Buddhism was fully initiated in Silla, a direct result of the interactions between her kingdom and the Tang Chinese. She encouraged monks to travel to China so that they may have a deep understanding of the religion, and supervised the construction of temples. On their return, the monks brought many scriptures about Buddhism, further facilitating the cultural borrowing. She was also instrumental in sending numerous Hwarang warriors to China for purposes of studying martial arts.

The Hwarang signifies a military community of professional Buddhist warriors in the Silla and later day Unified Silla Kingdoms who played an influential function in Silla’s victories (Eckert 37). Indeed, the Hwarang, also known as righteous soldiers, assisted Silla to evade being subdued by the Tang Chinese.

In government, it is imperative to note that the liaison of Koguryo, Paekche and Silla on the one hand and Tang China on the other hand during the Three Kingdoms period was predominantly based on armed conflict (Lee & Yi 73). However, contact of the Three Kingdoms with Tang Dynasty took other forms such as diplomatic coalitions and cultural borrowing especially after the Silla Unification.

All this was made possible due to the close geographical proximity and continued communications between the two neighbors. After the Unification, Silla gained authority over a larger territory and population, and as such, a new government structure and dispensation was needed to run the administrative affairs of the peninsula. According to Lee & Yi, “…a growing authoritarianism in the power exercised by the throne was the most important change accompanying the Silla Unification” (74).

In consonance with the hugely reinforced authority of the throne, immeasurable changes were initiated on the functions of the main organs of the central government. However, of importance is the fact that the Unified Silla retained most organs assimilated from the Tang Dynasty during the Three Kingdom era (Lee & Yi 75).

For example, the administrative structure adopted by the Unified Silla was predominantly similar to that of Tang Chinese in terms of main organs such as the ministries of “military affairs, disbursements, rites, tax collections, official surveillance and justice” (Lee & Yi 75).

Contact with the Tang Dynasty also introduced other political advances such as the civil service, written examinations and a more ordered government. However, Silla upheld an exclusive political mechanism referred to as the ‘bone-rank’ system. Through this political approach, three women led the monarchy as a sovereign to safeguard stability.

A council of nobles known as the hwabaek aided in the preservation of peace and stability by allowing people to appeal and participate in all government functions (Eckert et al 34). Despite encouraging students to undertake Confucian examinations, most government positions in Silla were determined by innate characteristics such as birth and family connections (Stearns et al 300)

The economic exchange between the two neighbors was implemented within the structure of Tang’s tributary system. Here, the Silk Road was fundamentally important in ensuring the exchange of goods and services between Silla and the greater China. The distribution of economic exchange inarguably favored China, with much of Korea’s export comprising of raw materials, glass, silk and handcrafted items (Lee & Yi 73).

According to the authors, “the demand for imported goods remained the stronger impetus for Korean trade with China, as many kinds of luxury fabrics and handcrafted goods were eagerly sought for consumption by members of the [Korean] aristocracy” (73). To date, many Korean fabrics, handcrafted items, and general merchandise such as porcelains bear all the hallmarks of Chinese models. The Silla also built the capital, Kumsong, and other economic markets using Tang models.

The Silk Road played a pivotal role in Silla’s economic exchange and development. Indeed, the road can be credited for Silla’s golden age, a period in history exhibited by numerous cultural exchanges as a result of communications and interactions between the two neighbors.

But it should not escape mention that not only did the Silla Kingdom reap many benefits from Tang China due to the latter’s dazzling culture, politics and economy, but the kingdom also assimilated many economic activities from China, further spurring Korea’s economic wellbeing (Eckert et al 39).

Conclusion

From the discussion, it is evidently clear that Chinese culture and civilization have had a profound influence on Korean civilization mainly because of the countries’ close geographical proximity as well as constant cultural communications during ancient times, especially during the Golden era of the Tang Dynasty.

Through political, military and powerful cultural dominations and manipulations, the Tang Dynasty was able to penetrate the Korean socio-economic, religious and political fabric, triggering large-scale adaptations and assimilations of Chinese elements (Eckert et al 32). For instance, An Lushan, a military leader during the Tang Dynasty, helped greatly to protect the Northeastern border from attacks after the invasion, an act that made him secure the favor of emperor Xuanzong (Benn 9)

The influences discussed in this paper are many and varied. However, the Chinese culture and civilization during the Tang Dynasty influenced Korean culture in areas of traditional architecture, Buddhism, artistic expertise, education and examination system, writing style, government bureaucracy, civil service and Tang law codes.

However, despite adopting the Chinese model of examination system, government positions in Korea were still determined by birth and social status other than meritocracy as it was the case in Tang China.

The Korean spoken language and architectural decorations also maintained their originality. The essay has also discussed three critical areas – religion, government and economy – to put to rest the argument that Chinese culture and civilization indeed influenced the ancient Korean culture and way of life by virtue of the countries’ close geographical proximity and recurrent cultural communications.

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