Culture History

Origin of the name ‘Korea’? Korea in different times and Yi Sun-Shin’s ‘turtle ship’

CONTINUED FROM What is the ‘Three Kingdoms Period’ 삼국시대 samguksidae? Goguryeo 고구려 / Baekje 백제 / Shilla 신라 Learn their scintillating cultural achievements through amazing Korean historical dramas and movies.

Parts of the text have been adopted in full or with modification for optimal reading experience from the following sources under the CC-BY-SA license. wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_Kingdoms_of_Korea, wikipedia.org/wiki/Goguryeo, wikipedia.org/wiki/Baekje, wikipedia.org/wiki/Silla, wikipedia.org/wiki/Goryeo, wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseon, wikipedia.org/wiki/Korean_Empire

Origin of the name ‘Korea’


918 – Founding of Goryeo by Taejo
1033 –
Goryeo builds the Cheonri Jangseong (lit. “Thousand Li Wall”), a massive wall running along the northern border
1145 –
Kim Bu-sik compiles the Samguk Sagi, Korea’s oldest extant history text
1231 –
The Mongol invasions of Korea begin
1234 –
Choi Yun-ui’s Sangjeong Gogeum Yemun is published, world’s first metal-block printed text
1251 –
Goryeo completes the Tripitaka Koreana, the most comprehensive and oldest intact version of the Buddhist canon in Chinese script
1270 –
Goryeo signs a peace treaty with the Mongols, beginning an 80-year period of Yuan overlordship. The Sambyeolcho Rebellion lasts for three more years
1285 –
Il-yeon compiles the Samguk Yusa, record of history and legends
– General Yi Seonggye, ordered to engage China in a border dispute, turns his troops against the Goryeo court

Origin of the name 'Korea'
Goryeo Celadon Prunus Vase with Inlaid Cloud and Crane Design. National Treasure No. 68

Silla, which unified the Three Kingdoms and established itself as a powerful kingdom, began to crack in the 9th century due to internal strife. As a result, Baekje and Goguryeo, which had been destroyed, were revived under the names referred to as Hubaekje 후백제 (Later Baekje) and Hugoguryeo 후고구려 (Later Goguryeo). Eventually, in 918, King Taejo 태조 established Goryeo 고려 and absorbed them (Later Baekje and Later Goguryeo) to create a new unified dynasty. During the Goryeo Dynasty, Buddhism reached its zenith. It was designated as a state religion and more than 70 temples were located in the capital, enough to be called the “Golden Age of Korean Buddhism.” Among many, the Tripitaka Koreana in Haeinsa Temple 해인사 is a great cultural achievement, which was created with the hope of using the power of Buddha to fight against the war of invasion by the Khitan people.

Here’s a beautiful replica of the vase you can get – Korean Celadon Prunus Vase with Inlaid Cloud and Crane Design [Amazon]

Korean Celadon Glaze Inlaid White Fish Design Green Porcelain Ceramic Inlay Pottery Kitchen Home Decor Decorative Round Globe Jar [Amazon]

Taejo of Goryeo 태조

Taejo 태조 (reigned. 918-943, birth name Wang Geon 왕건), was the founder and first king of the Goryeo Kingdom which unified and ruled ancient Three Kingdoms of Korea from 918 to 1392. The posthumous title, Taejo means “Great Founder,” and he laid the foundation stones for his Dynasty which witnessed an unprecedented flourishing of Korean culture. The Unified Silla Kingdom (668-935) ruled over the Korean Peninsula for nearly three centuries but started to decline as rebellions broke out frequently from the peasantry and the aristocracy. During the time, Gyeon Hwon 견훤, a peasant leader, rose to power amid the political turmoil in 892 and revived the old Baekje kingdom. A little later in 901, Gung Ye 궁예, an aristocratic Buddhist monk leader who was supported by his first minister and general Wang Geon, proclaimed a new Goguryeo state.


Wang Geon succeeded Gung Ye, who was killed by the hands of his people due to his fanatical tyranny, in 918. Wang Geon attacked Later Baekje, founded by Gyeon Hwon, and the declining Silla. In 935, Silla finally surrendered and Wang Geon unified the kingdoms once again, under a new name, 고려 Goryeo (High and Beautiful), whose name implies that it’s the successor of the previous kingdom, Goguryeo. He kept a large portion of the Silla institutions of government and distributed lands and high government positions to former Baekje and Silla elites. He also continued the endorsement of Buddhism and Confucianism.

Taejo Wanggeon 태조왕건 (2000, KBS1)
KBS Taejo Wang Geon opening (태조 왕건 오프닝)


During the Goryeo Dynasty commerce flourished (commercial and natural trades alongside exchanges with foreign countries were very active) with merchants coming from as far as the Middle East. From then on, the national name of Goryeo became widely known and it continued to become the “Korea” of today.

Samguksagi 삼국사기 and Samgukyusa 삼국유사

The Samguk Sagi, literally meaning “History of the Three Kingdoms,” is a collection of historical records of the Three Kingdoms. It’s the oldest surviving chronicle of Korean history, and the compilation project was ordered by King Injong 인종 of Goryeo and was undertaken by the government official and historian Kim Busik 김부식 and a team of junior scholars. The purpose of the project, which was completed in 1145, was to create a complete compilation of Korean history, whose different versions were scattered among the Three Kingdoms and lost due to the continued wars. At the same time, by incorporating in the text the Korean exemplars of Confucian virtues, it also served as an educational resource, which is considered to have helped establish Korean nationalism and identity. The Samguk Yusa 삼국유사, literally meaning “Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms,” is a compilation of the history and legends of Korea, starting all the way from the founding of the very first nation, Gojoseon, all the way up to the Three Kingdoms Period. Written by the Buddhist Monk Il Yeon 일연, it differs from the Samguk Sagi as it covers various areas of history, with a focus on Buddhist legends and the folk tales of the Silla Dynasty, with a relatively smaller coverage on the other two kingdoms. Despite its limits, it remains an invaluable historical source and a component of Korean literature.

Mongol Invasions and Sambyeolcho 삼별초

Source: Jeju Provincial Government

From 1231, Goryeo was sporadically but continuously invaded by the Mongol Empire (1206~1388), who devastated a significant portion of the lands of Goryeo and its population throughout a series of invasions which lasted for nearly three decades (1231~1259). To escape from the attacks, the Goryeo government, who controlled the military regime led by the 최 Choi family, decided to give up the land and flee to Ganghwado Island 강화도, where the Mongolian horse riders were unable to land on. Naturally, it became a resistance base against the Mongol invasion. Unfortunately, Goryeo faced frequent rebellions from its own people, and struggled internally, due to the fragile foundation of the government. In 1258, a large rebellion broke out and resulted in the establishment of Dongnyeong Prefectures 동녕부 by the Mongols. Meanwhile, the sambyeolcho 삼별초 (Three Elite Patrols’), was organized by the Choi clan to maintain order and security on the island base by performing roles as police and combat forces. Even after the Goryeo kingdom fell to the hands of the Mongols, they continued to fight back tenaciously, moving bases multiples times, including Jindo 진도 and Jejudo 제주도 Island (JEJUDO 제주도 – The most popular tourist destination for newlyweds, couples, and families).

Palman Daejanggyeong / Tripitaka Koreana 팔만대장경

Haeinsa Temple, Tripitaka Koreana
Arian Zwegers at flickr.com/photos/azwegers licensed under CC BY 2.0 (creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)

The Palman Daejanggyeong 팔만대장경 or Tripiṭaka Koreana(“Eighty-Thousand Tripiṭaka”) is a compilation of the Buddhist scriptures, carved onto 81,258 wooden printing blocks in the 13th century. According to the records, the work began in 1011 during the Goryeo–Khitan War and was completed in 1087. During the wartime, Goryeo believed the act of carving the scriptures onto the woodblocks would bring about a divine intervention (i.e., Buddha’s help), which would help the kingdom persevere through the difficult times. The original Tripitaka Koreana contained around 6,000 volumes, but they were destroyed by fire during the Mongol invasions of Korea in 1232. Seeking divine assistance once again with fighting the Mongols, King Gojong 고종 ordered the revision and re-creation of the Tripiṭaka, and the carving began in 1237 and was completed 12 years later, and the result is the world’s most comprehensive and oldest intact version of Buddhist canon in hanja (Chinese Characters incorporated into the Korean language) script. Surprisingly, of the 52,330,152 characters carved, there are no known errors or errata found. Each woodblock is 24 centimeters(9.4 inches)  high and 70 centimeters (27.5 inches) long, as thick as 4 centimeters (1.6 inches). With over 1,496 titles and 6,568 volumes, they weigh 280 tons total (that’s 140 elephants piled together!). The most amazing part is they still remain in pristine condition – no warping/deformation despite its creation 750 years ago, thanks to the special treatment the craftsmen incorporated. The production of the Tripiṭaka Koreana is a symbol of national commitment and desire to fight off the invaders. For that reason, it was designated as Korea’s National Treasure in 1962 and was inscribed in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register in 2007. Currently, it’s stored in Haeinsa 해인사, a Buddhist temple in South Gyeongsang Province, in South Korea.

Copy of Tripitaka Koreana woodblock
Image by Steve46814 licensed under CC-BY-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons (creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/)


landscape water building bridge
Hyangwonjeong Pavilion 향원정 inside Gyeongbokgung Palace
Photo by 김 대정 on Pexels.com

Joseon Dynasty was founded by General Yi Seong-gye 이성계 who brought the collapse to the Goryeo Dynasty through a military coup. Joseon Dynasty embraced Neo-Confucianism as national ideology, and Confucian culture, which still affects much of the lives of modern-day Koreans, was able to fully blossom during this period. It lasted over 500 years, from 1392 to 1897, leaving numerous cultural heritages including the creation of hangul 한글 the Korean alphabet until it was taken over by the Japanese Imperialists. Currently, the five grand royal palaces of the Joseon Dynasty remain in downtown Seoul.

RELATED : Who invented hangul 한글 the Korean alphabet? Do Koreans speak Chinese or Japanese? Why Chinese characters are seen everywhere in Korea?

How to Read and Pronounce Korean alphabet Hangul – Consonants & Vowels.

1392 – Yi Seonggye is crowned king, officially beginning the Joseon Dynasty
1396 –
Capital moved to Hanyang. (modern day Seoul)
The use of paper currency is initiated
The Hangul alphabet, created 3 years earlier, is promulgated by King Sejong the Great
The Japanese invasion of Korea begins under the command of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Admiral Yi Sun-Sin employs the Turtle ship to repel Japanese naval forces
Dutch ship, with Captain Hendrick Hamel, gets wrecked on Jejudo Island
Persecution of Catholicism begins
Gojong ascends the throne with his father, Daewongun, as Regent
French Campaign against Korea
United States expedition to Korea
Kim Okgyun leads the Gapsin coup. In 3 days, Chinese forces are able to overwhelm the Progressives and their Japanese supporters
Donghak Rebellion prompts the First Sino-Japanese War and Gabo Reforms
China recognizes Korean independence in the Treaty of Shimonoseki. Empress Myeongseong was murdered by Japanese assassins
King Gojong flees to the Russian legation in Korea (Seoul)

Taejo / Yi Seong-gye 태조 / 이성계

Taejo 태조, birth name Yi Seong-gye 이성계 (1335 – 1408), was the founder and the first king of the Joseon Dynasty, reigning from 1392 to 1398, and was the main figure in overthrowing the Goryeo Dynasty. By the late 14th century, the Goryeo Dynasty was beginning to fall apart, with its foundations collapsing from years of war against the Mongol Empire. During the time, General Yi Seong-gye gained power and was respected for pushing the Mongol remnants off the kingdom and repelling Japanese pirates. When the newly rising Ming Dynasty demanded the return of a significant portion of Goryeo’s northern territory, Goryeo was split into two factions – anti-Ming who argued to fight back and those who sought peace. Yi, the latter, however, was chosen to lead the invasion. At Wihwado Island 위화도 on the Amnok River 압록강, he decided to revolt and withdrew the troops, and headed back to the capital. The military coup succeeded, and he dethroned the King. He first put a puppet king, but later exiled him, and ascended the throne, and began the Joseon Dynasty.

“Let’s go back to our families!” The wihwado retreat 위화도 회군 scene from Yukryongi nareusha 육룡이 나르샤 (Six Flying Dragons, 2015, SBS)
Yukryongi nareusha 육룡이 나르샤 (Six Flying Dragons, 2015, SBS)
K-Drama series about Yi Seong-gye’s Military Coup & The Beginning of the Joseon Dynasty

Yi Sun-Shin 이순신 – The Legendary Korean War Hero

Myeongryang 명량 (The Admiral : Roaring Currents, 2014)

Yi Sun-shin (Yi Sun-sin) 이순신 (1545 – 1598) was a Korean naval commander/admiral and is arguably the most beloved and revered figure in the entire Korean history. Famed for his incredible victories against the Japanese navy during the Imjin Waeran 임진왜란 (Imjin War – Japanese invasion of Joseon 1592 – 1598), as well as his exemplary moral conduct on and off the battlefield. 

Here’s an amazing book on the history of the Imjin War by Samuel Hawley – The Imjin War: Japan’s Sixteenth-Century Invasion of Korea and Attempt to Conquer China [Amazon]

His title of Samdo Sugun Tongjesa 삼도수군통제사 (Naval Commander of the Three Provinces) was the title for the commander of the Korean navy until 1896. Yi Sun-shin’s most remarkable military achievement, which has been made into a movie as well, occurred at the Battle of Myeongnyang 명량, where the Joseon navy was outnumbered by 133 warships to 13, and forced into a last stand. But without losing a single ship, he led the navy to repel the Japanese force, destroying and impairing 31 of the 133 enemy warships. Behind the incredible victory was the construction of armored warship, Geobukseon 거북선 (“turtle ship”), whose original design was suggested during the reign of King Taejong 태종.

16th century Korean turtle ship in a depiction dating to 1795. The woodblock print is based on a contemporary, late 18th century model.
PHGCOM, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons

Here’s a hardcover picture story book The Turtle Ship [Amazon]

Using his creative mind, the armored ship was brought back to life and played a crucial role in defeating the Japanese. On the verge of completely expelling the Japanese force, he was mortally wounded by an enemy bullet at the Battle of Noryang 노량 on December 16, 1598. During his last moments, he ordered the subordinates to not announce his death. After death, he was rewarded with various honors from the royal court, including a posthumous title of Chungmugong 충무공 (Duke of Loyalty and Warfare).

EPIC BATTLE SCENE from The Admiral – Roaring Currents

Admiral Yi Sun-sin remains a venerated hero among Koreans, and you can find his face and the turtle ship on the 100 Korean Won and 5 Korean Won coins today (Who are the people on the Korean currency notes?). You can also find his statue at the Gwanghwamun Square. Standing 17 meters (56 ft) tall with a sword in his hand is the bronze statue of the legendary war hero, Admiral Yi Sun-shin. A miniature Geobukseon, the armored “turtle” warship, along with a pair of war drums are also found underneath. The statue was erected in 1968, after President Park Chung Hee ordered to “build a statue of a figure most feared and admired by the Japanese.” The floor fountain is named “12.23 Fountain,” symbolic of the 12 ships he fought to repel the Japanese invaders and 23 victories he achieved.

Check out this book Tokens of Korea, featuring a catalog of 307 Korean tokens covering the years from 1960 – 2000. Tokens of Korea Paperback [Amazon]

DID YOU KNOW? The Story of Yi Soon-shin has been made into a cartoon series by Onrie Kompan Productions.


Yi Soon Shin: Fallen Avenger OGN Hardcover [Amazon]


Imperial family of Korea, tasting Japanese cuisine at Deoksugung on Jan 20, 1918.
From left to right, Crown Prince Uimin, Sunjong of the Korean Empire, Gojong of the Korean Empire, Empress Sunjeong, Princess Deokhye of Korea.

Daehanjeguk 대한제국 (The Great Han Empire), or the Korean Empire, was the new name which the 26th King of the Joseon Dynasty, and the first Emperor of the Empire, King Gojong 고종 renamed the Joseon Dynasty from on October 12th, 1897. In the turbulent late 19th century East Asia, the Korean Empire proclaimed itself as an independent country and promoted modernization in various fields such as the military, economy, land system, and education through the Gwangmu Reformation 광무개혁, but was eventually annexed by the Japanese Empire and collapsed in 1910.

1897 – Proclamation of the Empire – King Gojong returns after 1 year of refugee at the Russian Legation
1905 –
Korea-Japan Treaty of 1905 gives Japan complete power for Korea’s foreign affairs and placed all trade through Korean ports under Japanese supervision
1907 –
June – The Hague Secret Emissary Affair / July – Emperor Gojong abdicated by the Japanese Imperialists, and Gojong’s son Sunjong succeeded to the throne
1909 – Ito Hirobumi (Japanese Resident-General of Korea) assassinated by Korean general and independence activist An Jung-geun
1910 –
The Japan-Korea Treaty of 1910 started the annexation of the Korean Empire by Imperial Japan

Emperor Gojong 고종 황제

Gojong, the Gwangmu Emperor 광무대제 (1852 – 1919), was the 26th and final king of the Joseon Dynasty. During his reign, he was influenced by Empress Myeongseong 명성황후 (Queen Min), and unlike his father Heungseon Daewongun 흥선대원군, who maintained a closed-door/national-isolation policy, he adopted an open-door foreign policy. He signed a Treaty of Amity and Trade with the US in 1882, although it was done in hopes of gaining protection from Imperial Japan, China, and Russia. While the conflict among three neighboring powerhouses was rising, Gojong proclaimed Korea an empire in 1897, and became the first Emperor, and the Joseon Dynasty ended at the same time. In an effort to maintain Korean sovereignty, he played and leveraged on the power struggle among the rivals, effectively preventing each of them from having total control over Korea. His efforts finally came to an end after the Russo-Japanese War (1904–05).

Seokjojeon 석조전 in the Deoksugung Palace 덕수궁, the last residential quarter of King Gojong

Empress Myeongseong 명성황후

Empress Myeongseong 명성황후 (1851 – 1895) was the first official wife of King Gojong 고종, the 26th king of Joseon and the first emperor of the Korean Empire. The government of Meiji Japan was ambitious with overseas expansion and saw her as an obstacle,  putting efforts to remove her but failed. After the first Sino-Japanese War which ended with Japan’s victory, Joseon came under the Japanese influence. As a result, the Empress argued for stronger ties between Korea and Russia as a means to block Japanese influence. The efforts to remove her from the political arena, orchestrated through failed rebellions prompted by Heungseon Daewongun (an influential regent working with the Japanese), compelled her to take a harsher stand against Japanese influence. The Japanese government sent a group of ronins (assassins) and assassinated the Empress. This horrendous incident ignited outrage among other foreign powers, and the Joseon people’s anti-Japanese sentiment soared.

Korean Traditional Handicraft Hanbok Dolls Empress Myeongseong 15″ Figure Gift [Amazon]

Eulsa Treaty 을사조약

Victorious Japan forced Emperor Gwangmu (King Gojong) to accept pro-Japanese advisors to the royal court, which in turn, led him to sign the Protectorate Treaty of 1905, more commonly known as Eulsa Joyak 을사조약 (Eulsa Treaty) between Korea and Japan. As a result, Korea lost its status and rights as an independent sovereign nation.

The Hague Secret Emissary Affair

Emperor Gwangmu (King Gojong) secretly sent representatives (Yi Jun 이준, Yi Sang-seol 이상설 and Yi Wi-jong 이위종) more commonly known as “Hague Secret Emissary Affair,” to the Hague Peace Convention in 1907, to assert the Korean sovereignty and to declare the invalidity of Japanese diplomatic maneuvers, including the Eulsa Treaty of 1905. At the convention, the representatives asserted the Emperor’s rights to rule Korea independent of Japan. Sadly, the emissaries were not allowed by the nations to take part in the conference. Eventually, though, they managed to hold interviews with newspapers and spoke out about the unfairness being done by the Japanese. As a result, the enraged Japanese forced Emperor Gwangmu to abdicate and his son Sunjong 순종 was put to the throne and ruled for just three years before the Korean Empire got annexed by Japan in 1910.

Yi Wan-yong 이완용 The Worst Traitor in Korean History

이완용 Yi Wan-yong (1858 – 1926), also known as Ye Wanyong, is one of the Five Eulsa (Japan-Korea Protectorate Treaty of 1905) Traitors and is considered the worst traitor who sold his country out to Japan. He threatened King Gojong to sign the Eulsa Treaty and changed the State Council of Joseon to the cabinet system of which he became the Prime Minister. After the Hague Secret Emissary Affair, he held King Gojong accountable and forced him to step down, and crowned King Sunjong. As the Prime Minister, he signed a Korea-Japan annexation.

Mr. Sunshine 미스터션샤인 (2018, tvN)
A story of “Righteous Army (civilian militia)”
during the Korean Empire period.
Deokhye Ongju 덕혜옹주 (The Last Princess 2018)
A story of Princess Deokhye who was taken to Japan as a hostage.

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