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Understanding Ancient Societies

Most historians would say ancient documents are the best way to get a piece of a

society's history, and others would say physical artifacts are the way to go since these are

solid evidence. Anthropologists are a lot more accepting of various kinds of sources since

they usually take everything into consideration when creating analysis or ethnographies. The

Korean and Japanese society would be good examples of how varying sources can be used to

gather data on a place's history.

Obviously, there are written records that one can use as a source when understanding

the history of Korea. However, one of the best ways to study Korean history and establish

their transformation as a society would be through its language. It should be noted that

Korean is not closely related to any other languages, even though most linguists would relate

it to Japanese (Seth 9), but one could argue that that is because of the presence of Chinese

characters (Hanja) in the Korean language and in the Japanese language (Kanji). If the

linguistic relationship analysis is accurate, then it would mean that the ancient ancestors of

contemporary Koreans came from Central Asia and were able to enter the peninsula by going

through Manchuria (Seth 9). Apart from studying the language, there is also the option of

looking into genetic evidence. Interestingly, there is existing analysis of Y-chromosome

DNA that backs the theory regarding ancient Koreans entering through Manchuria.

Looking into early writings is a also a tried an tested way of piecing together a

society's history. The Kojiki, or the Records of Ancient Matters and the Nihongi, which

translates to the Chronicles of Japan, are one of the great native chronicles that remains from
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early Japan. Through its content, it has been established that they were completed by around

the first couple of decades during 8 C.E. The writings show how the Japanese were already

greatly influences by Chinese traditions, which makes it a bit difficult to determine which

traditions are really Japanese and which ones are Chinese (de Bary 627). Unlike analyzing

language and looking into genetics, these writings tend to be less reliable since they are

subjected not only to the biases of the affected culture, but of the person writing them down

as well.

Different sources have varying degrees of reliability, so it would be important for one

to evaluate which kind of source would be best for the task at hand. DNA sources tend to be

the most reliable because they are virtually impossible to fake, but they also tend to be the

scarcest. Written sources like chronicles tend to be the most abundant source, but their

reliability can often be questioned. One can decide to use language, but that would entail

substantial understanding of how language work and how transition occurs [in languages].

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There are a lot of things a society needs in order to become a long-lasting ruling

dynasty. Off the top of my head, they would need strong leader, a skilled and sizeable army

as well as strategic territory. While there may be little choice for some regarding territory, a

strong leader and an excellent army are necessary in any case. In order to understand how

important leadership, control [of the people] and military prowess is, we will compare the

feudal state of Qin that rose during the Zhou dynasty under King Cheng and the society of

Korea that has survived from the Choson until the present, although of course now it is far

from a dynasty.
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King Cheng of the feudal state of Qin (not to be confused with the Qin dynasty) was

able to become a successful leader through "strong centralization of power, regimentation of

its people, and aggressive warfare" (de Bary 115), allowing King Cheng to change his title to

Qin Shihuangdi as the First Exalted Emperor of the Qin. He was able to rise to the top

through the support of certain key people, among which was Li Si, who became the new

prime minister of the newly established empire. Qin Shihuangdi was "a man of extraordinary

vision and demonic energy" (de Bary 115), working tirelessly to increase the power and

prestige of his rule. He directed campaigns, constructed defences and put up grand palaces for

himself and the people close to him. However, his death would reveal the weakness of his

newly established empire. His advisers would turn against each other; ultimately resulting to

the suicide of the Second Emperor and the fall of the dynasty in less than fifteen years (de

Bary 116) after it had been established. The treachery and fight for power within the court

ultimately affected the stability of the dynasty until it was destroyed.

The history of Korea is wrought with war. They were invaded by both the Chinese

and Japanese. In particular, the Chinese had substantial power and influence in Korea (Seth

18-19), but ultimately the Korean empire survived despite of Chinese substantial influence.

They were able to continue growing despite the multiple colonizers of the country, unlike the

Qin who imploded because of its officials. What made Korea more stable despite the

interference of outsiders like ironically Chinese from the Qin dynasty was that it had

remained (mostly) united throughout everything. Certainly, North and South Korea

eventually split, but not before attaining freedom from the colonial powers (albeit not fully at

the time of the split).

The main thing that keeps a dynasty or nation intact is the unity of the people. Not

only will a dynasty face conflicts from the outside, but it is imperative for the dynasty to

contain conflicts that may arise from within, which will arguably lead damage that is harder
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to repair given that the problem is within the state and not because of people outside of it.

Ultimately, a state needs to be unified and maintain control of land and the people as well as

have a stabilized form of military.


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Works Cited

de Bary, William Theodore. Sources of East Asian Tradition, Vol. 1. New York: Columbia

University Press, 2008.

Seth, Michael J. A History Of Korea: From Antiquity To The Present. Lanham, Maryland:

Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2010.