“The Three Kingdoms of Korea: Lost Civilizations” by Richard D McBride II

Silla Kingdom (57 BCE–676 CE) (Metropolitan Museum) Silla Kingdom (57 BCE–676 CE) (Metropolitan Museum)

Even academic books need to be aware of the prevailing zeitgeist. Richard D McBride begins his history of first-millennium Korea with a pop-culture reference to K-Drama.

 

In recent years, people throughout the world have become exposed to the stories and society of Korea’s lost early civilization through such engaging historical dramas as Jumong (2006–7), Queen Seondeok (2009) and Hwarang: The Poet Warrior Youth (2016–17). Besides enamouring outsiders with fascinating and captivating aspects of ancient Korean history, these dramas breathe life – as well as a good measure of spectacular imagination – into some of the most compelling narratives that have shaped Koreans’ views of themselves and the earliest descriptions of their culture.

 

The “Three Kingdoms” were

 

the militaristic Koguryŏ (traditionally dated from 37 BCE to 668 CE) in the north, the culturally sophisticated Paekche (traditionally 18 BCE to 660 CE) in the southwest, and the highly socially stratified Silla (traditionally 57 bce to 935 ce) in the southeast …

 

which curiously mirrors the current North/South divisions of the Peninsula. McBride adds to this troika the somewhat amorphous territory of Kaya which was, for the most part, absorbed into Silla a few centuries in.

For the uninitiated (of which I was one), the period overlaps to some extent that of Anglo-Saxon England, a history with it holds some (probably superficial) similarities: it is a story of competition until one, Silla conquers its rivals to create a single kingdom, only to be conquered in turn by Koryŏ, generally considered to be the foundation of the modern country. McBride, does not make this analogy, but with an eye clearly out for the uninitiated, he does draw others

 

Similar to how Christianity served as a conduit to introduce advanced Roman culture to the fledgling Germanic states of medieval Europe and strengthen notions of kingship, Buddhism was the vehicle by which refined aspects of Chinese culture and technology and Confucian statecraft entered and transformed Northeast Asia.

 

It’s a relatively straightforward story: Koguryŏ and Paekche bumped heads until both falling within a decade to Silla in the 660s, who had allied itself with Tang China. Silla expelled the Tang a few years later. Indeed, it is Tang China, rather than Germany, that is likely to be the more useful historical touchstone for most readers.

For those with wider regional interests, the book helps explain the historical, political and ethnic overlap between Korea and China in the region that now lies north of the border.

 

The Three Kingdoms of Korea: Lost Civilizations, Richard D McBride II (Reaktion, July 2024)
The Three Kingdoms of Korea: Lost Civilizations, Richard D McBride II (Reaktion, July 2024)

McBride covers a lot of ground in just 200 pages, not just the history, but also creation myths, successor states (notably Parhae in the North) and religion; the result is relatively dense compendium of rulers, names, dates, deaths, alliances and sieges. Only rarely does McBride indulge the reader with stories of interesting characters or incidents. One of the most extensive of these is that of late 9th-century Silla Queen Chinsŏng, at whose feet blame for the decline and later fall of Silla is conventionally laid; McBride feels she been somewhat unfairly maligned. Queens, indeed, feature more in this history that one might have expected.

The serviceable prose is straightforward although the lack of definitions for some terms like “commandery” perhaps assume a bit too much background knowledge for what is in effect a primer. The photographs seem a missed opportunity. They appear to have been chosen largely at random; only rarely is there a direct connection with text.

The Three Kingdoms of Korea is probably best described as a “survey” and is, indeed, part of a series called “Lost Civilizations”. As this, it functions well enough: one comes away with a rough understanding of the dynamics of the periods and of Korea’s relations with countries and peoples in its region, including Japan and the tribespeople to the peninsula’s North. The drama and romance of the TV series and films will perhaps have to wait for another book.


Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.