The Ancient Relationship Between China and Korea

People who know me well know that I like to go into a country and figure out where the people came from. I like to know their history, even to the most ancient. Many would like to think the Koreans originally came from China because there has been so much influence from China in Korea, but actually, the Koreans originally came from Mongolia.  The Mongolians were the big barbarians on horseback that used to invade China, the reason China built the Great Wall of China.

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Some Mongolians made it into China and stayed. There is a group among the many ethnic and language groups in China called the Han Chinese.  There was also a Han dynasty at one time.  The Han Chinese are Korean Chinese.  They speak Korean at home.  When Koreans go to China to visit, they like to go to the area of China where there are Han Chinese because they can understand the people when they speak.  After the Han Chinese made it to China and settled, many didn’t stop. They headed even further south and ended up on the Korean Peninsula and became known as Koreans.

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The original name of Korea was Koro, and that is why we call Korea. However,  Korea actually calls itself “Hangook.”  “Han” is the kind of people they are, and “gook” means country. The name of the Korean alphabet is “Hangul.”  If they want to tell you someone is a Korean, they say they are a “Hangook saram.”  “Saram” is the word for person.


The Chinese were not done, and neither were the Koreans when the Koreans came to the Korean Peninsula.  The Chinese initially considered themselves as ruling Korea.  After a while, there were several kingdoms set up in Korea, and they no longer wanted outside influence.  You can go into ancient buildings now that are built on top of a hill, and then built so that the only way to get in was to go up very steep, steep steps.  They say they built them like that because when the Chinese invaded, it was harder for them to get to them.

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It wasn’t just the Chinese who had a hard time letting go in ancient times.  The Mongolians wanted Korea.  I visited a war museum here that was dedicated to the people who fought off the Mongolians, the big guys on horseback in ancient times.  It was full of spears, bows and arrows, etc.

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(I didn’t take this picture, but all oriental food includes a bowl of rice.  The stuff in the pan looks like a Korean dish made with beef called galbee that is good. What is in the other dish, is not Korean.  I have never seen green beans in Korea.)

Eventually, things calmed down between China and Korea, and they began trading and sharing things back and forth.  A lot of the food that one group eats, the other group also eats, but it is not all the same, just some of it.  The Koreans love spicy food, and there is a section of China who also eats spicy food.  For both groups, they consider rice to be a major staple.  However, there are other dishes they have in common too. There is one where they put a big pot of water in the middle of the table and boil strips of meat, leaves, and other vegetables in the pot and then take it out and dip it in a sauce. It originally came from China, then to Japan where they changed it slightly, and then to Korea. The mandu that the Koreans make were also originally made in China.  However, Koreans are not just a copy of China. In many ways, they have surpassed China.

Korean chopsticks and a Korean spoon. The handle on the Korean spoon is much longer than spoons in the west, and I actually like their spoons better because of the handle. I turned one of the chopsticks on its side so you could see they are thin and flat.


The brown chopstick is a Chinese chopstick, and the smaller stainless steal chopstick is a Korean chopstick.

The chopsticks differ from China to Korea also.  The Chinese chop sticks are plastic or wooden, and they are very long.  The Korean chopsticks are not as long at the Chinese chopsticks.  And on top of that, the Korean chopsticks are usually made of stainless steel and are not rounded like Chinese chopsticks, but are flat.  The Koreans also use a spoon that other Oriental cultures don’t use when they eat.

The traditional clothing between Korea and China also evolved in different directions.


All of these people are wearing Hanbok (traditonal Korean clothing). The women’s dresses are almost like long empire waiste dresses from the west with a jacket.  The Chinese traditional clothing is not as long and full as this.  The Chinese women wear straight dresses with a high neck collar. The black hat that the man is wearing is only in Korea. There is a very funny story about how those hats came about, and I might tell it to you one day.


This comes from a Japanese book I studied. It explains the Chinese character for leg or foot.  All the Chinese characters originally come from some sort of logical picture trying to draw a picture of what is happening or what exists.  However, they have no definitive pronunciation, so the Japanese, the Chinese, and the Koreans can all use the same Chinese characters with a different pronunciation.  The Chinese characters have meaning, not sound.  The Korean letters, the hangul, has sound like the English letters. I met Chinese people when I was in Japan who told me they could read the Japanese signs because they use Chinese characters, but they had no idea how the Japanese pronounced those Chinese characters.

As far as the language, in ancient times, they used the Chinese pictographs in Korea, but they are hardly used at all any more. The only people who can read them now are scholars.  Only Korean scholars can read their ancient books.  My Korean son in law can read many of the ancient Chinese pictographs because his dad is a Hanmoon professor, and he has set in on his dad lessons.  Hanmoon is what the Koreans call the Chinese characters used in Korea.  Now a days, most of the population can’t read the ancient books because they no longer study Hanmoon as a required subject at school.  However, to really understand the Korean language well, the Hanmoon is very helpful.

If you look up an English word in the Korean dictionary, there will probably be two words.  One is the Korean word, and the other is the Chinese word used in Korea.  You can learn the meaning of these words in English, but if you speak Korean, it is really hard when they switch the words around if you have only learned one of the words like foreigners usually do.  At my house, I am pretty lucky because even my daughter has attended her father in law’s Hanmoon classes. If I am struggling with a word, I ask her, and she usually knows because she knows both the Korean meaning and the Chinese meaning of words.  My daughter can pull the Korean Chinese words apart like the Korean scholars do.  They take a word that has two syllables, then they pull it apart and attach the different parts to other words, and if you can do that in Korean, you can cause your vocabulary to really jump.  Koreans get disgusted with one another because they do this, and I have heard them complaining about people pulling words apart and making new words by attaching them to other words and driving them crazy until they can figure out what the new word is.


The thing is, though, it has been so many years since the Koreans came from China to the Korean Peninsula that the Chinese characters the Koreans use and the Chinese characters the Chinese use are two different characters even though at one time, they were the same character.  I am very glad the Koreans dropped using the Chinese characters on a regular basis because the Korean language is hard enough without having to master the Chinese characters too. Hangul, the Korean alphabet, really simplifies trying to get into Korean.


I wrote this for you so you could see the relationship between the word order in Korean and English.

There are other similarities between the Korean language and the Chinese language.  When I taught at the university here, I had friends among the Chinese teachers, and some of them explained a few things about Chinese to me.  When you speak Korean, the articles go after the nouns instead of before like in English.  In English, our articles are words like “the” and “a.”  Korean and Chinese both have articles too, but when we put “the” and “a” before the noun (the person, place, or thing), they put their articles after the noun.  They also put prepositions after the nouns when we put them before the nouns. Some examples of prepositions are words like these:  to, at, from, in, on, around, between, under, etc.  In English, we would say ” I go to school.”  “To” is the preposition that comes before the noun, “school.”  However, in Korean and Chinese that “to” would be found after “school,” and not before.

Even though they have post positioned articles and prepositions in both Chinese and Korean, there is a major difference in their grammar: the word order.  In Korean, like in English, the sentences start with a subject, the main noun or pronoun of the sentence that does the action of the verb. In this sentence, “I go to school,”  “I” is the subject, and “go” is the verb.  In Chinese, when they say the words, the word order except for the word “to” in that sentence would be said exactly how we say it in English: “I go school to.”  However, it is not that way in Korean.  If you were to use the Korean word order on the English sentence above, it would come out like this: “I school to go.”  If you speak Japanese, Mongolian, or Bangla, you will recognize it is the same word order used in those languages.  I don’t speak Mongolian or Bangla, but I have talked to people who do who tell me their word order is the same as Korean. I suspect that also the Hungarian word order is the same as Korean, but I don’t know enough about Hungarian to actually know.

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This woman is Chinese. You can see that her dress is more form fitting and she has a high collar. Her skin is also very white. Red it is color of the bride in China.  With the slit up the side of her dress, there is probably a pair of long pants underneath, and that is actually the national dress of Vietnam who also has influence from China.

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You can see that this Korean child’s skin is much darker than the skin of the woman in the picture above. Koreans really prize lighter skin, but it is common for them to have skin like this girl.

The original Chinese people grew up around the Yellow River, and they were small white people.  The Koreans are not for the most part small white people.  Some of them are short, and that may be for mixing with the Chinese.  They prize white skin in Korea, but not all of them have white skin.  Many have a natural tan.  When I came to Korea, I had already lived in Japan for a while, and I was struck that these people are bigger than the Japanese.  They are taller.  The Japanese also originally came from China into Japan.  However, I suspect they had more original Chinese blood than the Koreans did. Now a days, you can actually find fat Japanese since the advent of McDonalds in Japan, but they were not always that way.  There are more similarities between the Koreans and the Mongolians than between the non Han Chinese and the Koreans.

Sometimes the Korean mothers are responsible for making their kids grow up to be small.  They are so worried about the fact that they are Oriental, and Orientals are supposed to be small, so many Koreans are afraid to eat much.  Many Korean mothers are afraid to let their kids have things like flour or sugar because they are afraid they are bad for them.  Some Korean mothers watch everything their kids eat, and their kids hardly eat because many Koreans have a skin problem I have only seen in Korea that is like a rash.  They try to control it with diet, but when they control the kids’ diets, they cause them to be small.  My Korean son in law was an extremely small kid because his mother was always worried and not wanting him to eat because he has the skin problem, but it stopped him from growing. In junior high, his parents took him to the doctor because he just wasn’t getting any bigger, and the doctor said to let him eat, and when he began eating, he grew to 5’9″ in just a short time. He towers over both of his parents now.  The Chinese may be originally genetically small, but the Koreans are not.

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The symbol of Taoism/ It represents the balance of opposites, black and white, hot and cold, large and small, male and female, etc.

Buddhism also came into Korea from China,but it only became one of the religions in Korea.  Confucianism came from China too.  Confucianism has influenced the whole structure of the Korean society. It is not a religion, but a philosophy of how thing should be done, especially in the structure of society. Taoism also came from China to Korea. It is also not a religion, but a philosophy.  It talks about the balance of things. For everything feminine, there must be also a masculine.  For anything black, there should also be white.  If there is noise, there must also be quiet.  They like this philosophy so much it is on the Korean flag.


As you can see, there has been a very, very long relationship between Korea and China.  In some ways, some Koreans look at China like a mother country like Americans look at England.  However, others don’t like China at all.  I have a friend in Seosan here in Korea  who visited China, and when she came back, all she could talk about was how dirty and smelly it was.  I haven’t been to China, but after talking to Koreans, I am under the impression that Korea is much cleaner than China.  There has always been a connection between these two countries ever since the first barbarians invaded China, but the Chinese and Koreans no longer invade one another’s countries.


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