Goguryeo's relationship with China
The tributary relationship that Sui and Tang dynasties demanded of Goguryeo, was of a different nature from previous practices. As unified dynasties in Middle China they tried to wield absolute power over the surrounding states. They formally demanded Goguryeo to become a tributary state in fact. When Goguryeo refused this demand, the two dynasties constantly attempted to subdue Goguryeo by use of force to realize a Sino-centric order in the Middle Kingdom. This is the background of the series of conflicts between Goguryeo and the Sui and Tang dynasties.
Chinese scholars argue that Goguryeo was a provincial regime of various dynasties in "Middle China," and try to incorporate the history of Goguryeo into that of China.
Their rationale is based on the tributary relationship between the Chinese dynasties and Goguryeo at the time in which Goguryeo paid tributes and received investitures from the Chinese dynasties. Their argument derives from various historic materials and Chinese documents, which basically treat Goguryeo as a vassal state under the philosophy of "Middle-Kingdom," and describe Goguryeo's diplomatic relations with China in terms of a tribute-investiture system. A superficial reading of Chinese accounts of this system would make Goguryeo a clear case of suzerain-vassal relationship. Let's examine the Chinese argument in more detail.
The Chinese argue that Goguryeo started out in the Chinese domain because it was founded in Xuantu Commandery, one of the Four Han Commanderies of China. Goguryeo, in other words, since the founding, always belonged to Han Dynasty China. Furthermore, the Chinese scholars dismiss the many conflicts that took place between Goguryeo and Chinese dynasties simply on account of their brief durations. They would either ignore or negatively interpret the documents about Goguryeo's invasions of Xuantu and Liaodong Commanderies.
The tribute-investiture system became universal during China's "Southern and Northern Dynasties" period. For this reason, the Chinese historians also treat this period as one in which the practice of investiture was strengthened. They maintain that Goguryeo was subject to Chinese investitures well beyond the fourth century, and that the kings of Goguryeo ruled their people in their capacity as officers of the dynasties in Middle China. The Chinese further insist that there had been no major conflicts between Goguryeo and the Chinese dynasties during this period, thanks to the enlightened policies of friendship and exchange pursued by the Chinese dynasties. With regard to the wars between Goguryeo and Sui (A.D. 581-618) and Tang (A.D. 618-907), the Chinese emphasize that the Chinese expeditions were justified because Goguryeo violated the suzerain-vassal relationship.
The Chinese argument that Goguryeo was a provincial regime of Chinese dynasties is based simply on the tributary relationship. In order to refute this argument, a clear explanation of the historical reality of this system should suffice. It is well known that the tributary system originally was a political order between the Chinese emperor and peripheral provinces. The system subsequently evolved into a diplomatic practice between China and other states.
First, the relationship between Goguryeo and Chinese Xuantu Commandery (during Eastern Han Dynasty A.D. 25-220) was not feudatory as the Chinese insist. On the contrary, Goguryeo was established and saw progress in the process of confrontation against Xuantu.
In short, Goguryeo's relations with Chinese provinces were not peaceful but tension-ridden and confrontational, resulting in a series of conflicts. A clear example of this confrontational situation is the invasion of Goguryeo in AD 244-245 by Kuan-qiu Jian (?-AD 255), a Wei Dynasty (AD 220-266) general.
Second, let's review the Period of Southern and Northern Dynasties in Chinese history, which saw an expansion of the tribute system. The Chinese insist that the system was strengthened and expanded during this period. The reality, however, was that the Chinese power was experiencing break-ups during this period and its grip over the peripheral states was weakening. So, the tributary practice became more of a diplomatic formality between China and the neighboring states, not a prerequisite for dependency. The expansion of tribute-investiture arrangements during this period, in other words, was a phenomenon that appeared as a result of difficulties of the waning Chinese dynasties in maintaining control over the neighboring states.
For example, the number of contacts and frequency between Goguryeo and Northern Wei were so high that no other case could come even close. The contacts between Toyokhon in western China and Northern Wei were the second highest and showed a relatively higher density than other states. Superficially, these frequent contacts seem to represent a faithful practice of the tributary relationship. The reality, however, was exactly the opposite. Goguryeo and Toyokhon were among the strongest of the states surrounding Northern Wei, and so these two states were able to assert their political independence more strongly than any other state in Wei's periphery.
The Northern Chinese dynasties used to recognize Goguryeo's independence through the investiture of titles. But, there is factual evidence that show Northern Wei's affirmation of Goguryeo's independent sphere of power: In many cases the investitures Wei offered to Goguryeo were the highest ever in history; Among Wei's investitures conferred on Goguryeo, many were the highest titles authorizing the exercise of exclusive responsibilities for external relations over the Eastern states; Furthermore, Wei did not offer any investiture to any other state or political entity in the Northeastern region.
Most importantly, the tributary relationship was simply a diplomatic formality that was practiced among all East Asian states at the time. It is, therefore, logically inconsistent to single out Goguryeo and treat it as China's provincial regime simply on the basis of tributary relationship. The tributary relationship between the Chinese dynasties and Goguryeo was no different from those practiced between China and Baekje, Silla and old Japan. If Goguryeo were treated as one of Chinese provincial regimes on account of such a nominal formality, then, logically Baekje, Silla and old Japan should also be treated as such.
Another notable fact is that even though Goguryeo was a tributary state of China, it did embrace a number of states and political forces within its own sphere of influence and maintained a self-reliant world-view. In other words, Goguryeo had set up its own sphere of influence and instituted a tributary relationship of its own with Silla and Baekje.
Consequently, it is difficult to believe that Goguryeo voluntarily complied with China's tributary system and behaved as a vassal state serving the various dynasties in Middle China.
Meanwhile, the tributary relationship that Sui and Tang dynasties demanded of Goguryeo, was of a different nature from previous practices. As unified dynasties in Middle China they tried to wield absolute power over the surrounding states. They formally demanded Goguryeo to become a tributary state in fact. When Goguryeo refused this demand, the two dynasties constantly attempted to subdue Goguryeo by use of force to realize a Sino-centric order in the Middle Kingdom. This is the background of the series of conflicts between Goguryeo and the Sui and Tang dynasties.
This analysis demonstrated that the logic behind Chinese argument to claim the history of Goguryeo as part of its own on account of tributary relationship is based on a highly vulnerable ground because it lacks the evidence-based analysis of historical materials, which should be the basic approach to interpretations of history. Indeed, the real historical facts concerning tributary relationship do provide a basis that will confirm the self-reliant world Goguryeo had built in East Asia.
Chinese views on the origins of Goguryeo
The Chinese have traditionally perceived history in terms of a dichotomy of "Middle Kingdom vs. Barbarians." They insist that only the dynasties on the Chinese continent (or, Inner China) prospered and were civilized "Middle Kingdom(s)" and the nations on its periphery were uncivilized "Bowmen/Barbarians." According to this line of outlook, the purview of Chinese history should be confined to the dynasties in "Middle China" and all the nations around its periphery should, by definition, be excluded.
But, China today is a multi-ethnic nation composed of Han Chinese and 55 other ethnic minorities. For this reason, since the inception of its present government in 1949 China embraced a theory that maintained the idea, "Since the beginning of history, China has been a unified multi-ethnic nation." The Chinese then assumed that histories of all ethnic nations in China as well as all history that unfolded within the Chinese domain were properly part of Chinese history.
As a result, the histories of numerous ethnic minorities that should have been excluded from Chinese history under the traditional discipline of history came to don the cloak of Chinese history simply because they took place within the Chinese sphere. The theory of a unified multi-ethnic nation is nothing more than a "territory-first historical outlook" that attempts to determine the nature and course of history solely on the basis of contemporary domain, ignoring the legitimate movers and flows of history.
Until the 1980s, the Chinese, too, had regarded Goguryeo history as part of Korean history. Evidently, they could not exercise arbitrary judgment on history on the basis of "current territory." Then, there were genuine ethnic links between the Goguryeo nation and contemporary Koreans and unshakable facts proving that Korea was the sole and legitimate successor to the Kingdom of Goguryeo.
Nonsense of Chinese
Since the 1990s, the Chinese have attempted to incorporate Goguryeo history into Chinese history. As part of this effort, Chinese researchers conducted a variety of studies aimed at separating the tribal origins of Goguryeo, or the starting point of Goguryeo history, from Korean history.
In the early 1990s, Chinese scholars emphasized the fact that Goguryeo was one of the minorities in China's northeastern region, treating the Goguryeo tribe as a Yemaek or Buyeo tribe. This has always been the traditional consensus among historians. This being the case, however, the Chinese came to realize that they would not be able to completely disconnect Goguryeo's relationship from Korean history.
Thus a novel hypothesis appeared presuming that ancestors of Goguryeo had come from China's Eun dynasty. This theory arbitrarily installed Goi appearing in the Wanghoe Chapter of 'Iljuseo,' a history book of the Zhou Dynasty, as the progenitor of the Goguryeo tribe, and argued that Goguryeo became a vassal state of China since the Western Zhou era.
Furthermore, a Chinese argument gaining currency in recent years holds that Goi was a descendant of China's legendary figure Zeonwook, who also goes by the name of Go Yang, and that the Goguryeo royal family were the descendants of Go Yang, hence their family name Go.
The Hongsan Culture once prospered in China's Liaosi region in the late Neolithic Age.
The Chinese assume this region to have been home to the Zeonwook Go Yang's tribe. At about the time when the tribe moved to "Middle China" or central China, they argue, part of the Go family migrated east, eventually settling in as progenitors of Goguryeo.
Forefathers of Goguryeo
As mentioned above, since the 1990s the Chinese academic community began distortions of history, defining the Goguryeo tribe as the descendants of Hwaha tribe (or, ancient Han Chinese). This argument is based on the Wanghoe chapter of Iljuseo, which is widely known as a fictitious fabrication written during China's Warring States period, hence a crucial flaw in its credibility.
Chinese scholars also highlight the point that 'Go' (in Chinese character) is also the first syllable of Goguryeo, the name of the Korean kingdom. But, during its early days the dynasty called itself 'Guryeo' and the 'Go' was added much later.
Clearly, then, there is absolutely no genuine link between the last name Goi and the state title Goguryeo. Furthermore, there is no evidence whatsoever to show that Zeonwook Go Yang is the progenitor of Goi, because he is a legendary figure, whose existence in history remains unknown.
Saying that the Hongsan Culture in Liaosi was a product of the Zeonwook Go Yang tribe, Chinese scholars contend that Goguryeo ancestors had branched out from the tribe. But, the cairns of the Hongsan Culture were built around 3000 B.C., while those of Goguryeo were built in the third and second century B.C. A gap of almost 3,000 years makes it difficult to establish connection between the two sets of relics, unless there was evidence that linked them.
The argument of Chinese academic circles that Goguryeo ancestors were descendants of China's Hwaha tribe has absolutely no basis. It is only wishful thinking on the part of Chinese scholars in their attempt to detach Goguryeo history from Korea's and incorporate it into Chinese.
Founders of Goguryeo
The forefathers of Goguryeo were the Yemaek tribe, an agricultural people based in Manchuria and northern part of the Korean Peninsula since the Neolithic Age. Among the Yemaek tribe, those inhabiting the Liaodung and northwestern part of present-day North Korea saw a rapid progress and founded the first Korean state called Gojoseon.
Subsequently, a group of inhabitants residing in the Songhua River basin created a state called Buyeo.
A group of the Yemaek tribe, who later became Goguryeo ancestors, thrived along the mid-section of the Amnok River (the Yalu). They then developed agriculture based on ironware culture in the third and second century B.C., and formed their unique culture as shown in the cairns. Subsequently, their unique culture prompted them to separate from other Yemaek groups.
Goguryeo was called 'Guryeo' until the latter part of the second century B.C. Subsequently, when this Guryeo was changed into Goguryeo as state name, these people called themselves the Maek tribe.
So, Goguryeo ancestors branched out from the Yemaek tribe, as did the ancestors of Gojoseon and Buyeo. Not only did they differ from China's Hwaha tribe, but they also were distinct from the hunting tribe of Eopru (the ancestors of Manchurian tribe) based in eastern Manchuria and the nomadic tribe of Dongho (the ancestors of Seonbi and Georan) in western Manchuria.
Goguryeo absorbed the Yemaek
Furthermore, Goguryeo grew up into a great empire commanding Manchuria and the Korean Peninsula. In the process, it absorbed and consolidated numerous pockets of the Yemaek tribe in its domain. In addition, groups of Han Chinese also joined from the south.
Goguryeo also put Malgal (descendants of Eopru) and Georan (a branch of Seonbi) tribes under its control, but the Yemaek tribe always retained the mainstream of ethnic Goguryeo people.
The unification of three kingdoms (Baekje and Goguryeo) by Silla in 668 A.D. served as a historic occasion to consolidate Koreans into one nation. The formation of the Korean people was roughly completed when masses of Goguryeo descendants upon the downfall of Balhae fled south to join the new kingdom of Goryeo, the successor to Unified Silla. In short, Goguryeo is an indispensable element of Korean history and played an essential role in the process of forming the Korean nation by consolidating the otherwise scattered Yemaek tribe.
No other nation, neither China, Japan nor Manchuria inherited Goguryeo culture in its entirety but Korea, and we continue to preserve its legacy. For these reasons, it is absolutely clear that the Goguryeo people are ancestors of Korean people. The history of Goguryeo is in the mainstream of Korean history, and in no other.