South Korea Table of Contents
That the Korean kingdoms were strongly affected by Chinese civilization and its institutions was not surprising. Not only were the Chinese far more numerous and often more powerful militarily than the Koreans, but they also had a more advanced technology and culture. Chinese supremacy in these realms was acknowledged not only by the Koreans, who were militarily inferior, but by those who were powerful enough to conquer China, such as the Kitan Liao, who ruled parts of northern China, Manchuria, and Mongolia between 907 and 1127; the Mongols who ruled China from 1279 to 1368; the Jurchen tribes, who later seized northern Manchuria; and the Manchus, who ruled China between 1644 and 1911. The adoption of Chinese culture was more than simply an expression of submission to China, it also was the indispensable condition of being civilized in the East Asian context. This situation continued until the inroads of Western civilization substantially altered the political and cultural map of Asia in the latter part of the nineteenth century.
The adoption of Chinese culture and institutions by the Korean kingdoms, however, did not obliterate the identity of the Korean people. Koguryo had risen against the Chinese conquerors, and Silla had stubbornly resisted Chinese attempts to turn it into a colony. While Silla and subsequent dynasties were obliged to pay tribute to the various Chinese, Mongol, and Jurchen dynasties, and although Korea was subjected to direct overlordship by the Mongols for a century, the Korean kingdoms were able to survive as independent entities, enabling their citizens to maintain an identity as a separate people.
Further contributing to the maintenance of this identity was the Korean language, which linguists generally agree belongs to the Altaic language family of Inner Asia. There is no doubt that the indigenous language was deeply affected by the country's long contact with China. Not only did its written form rely on Chinese characters until the fifteenth century, but about half of its vocabulary was of Chinese origin. Nevertheless, the language is very different from Chinese in its lexicon, phonology, and grammar. Although at one time the ruling classes were set apart from the rest of the population by their knowledge of Chinese characters and their ability to use Chinese in its written form, since the unification of the peninsula by the Silla Dynasty all Koreans have shared the same spoken language.
Data as of June 1990