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Bringing Color to Ancient Korea

Professor Richard McBride helps readers of his new book explore the influence of ancient Korea.

While watching your favorite Korean drama, attempting to learn Korean on Duolingo, or eating takeout from Cupbop, you probably don’t think about the thousands of years of history behind each of these aspects of Korean culture. However, as Professor Richard McBride (Korean Studies, East Asian Buddhism) explains, Korean language, customs, and food all have roots in a time when Korea was not divided into North and South but separated into three kingdoms: Koguryo, Paekche, and Silla. In his new book, The Three Kingdoms of Korea: Lost Civilizations, McBride describes how these kingdoms shaped many aspects of modern-day Korean culture.

Cover for The Three Kingdoms of Korea: Lost Civilizations.

While he has previously written many books on Korea, McBride’s new book uses around 70 color pictures to connect Korea’s past with visuals, bringing history to life for readers. Having used a myriad of books in his classroom to teach some of this same history, McBride notes that these visuals add a depth to Korea’s history that can’t be found in most textbooks. Additionally, McBride’s book addresses a general audience less familiar with Korea’s past, meaning that the book explains a complex history with simplicity. Though this task proved very different from the academic articles he typically publishes, McBride hopes that a change in the way he communicates this information will allow more individuals to see the beauty he sees in Korean history.

As McBride’s book explains, the Three Kingdoms period (an era traditionally beginning in 57 BC) represents one of the most influential time periods in Korea’s history. McBride argues that it’s essential to study this era because he has found that “this is where a lot of national identity comes from.” Each kingdom had different customs and cultures, and the combination of these resulted in many of the current cultural practices of modern-day Koreans.

McBride explains that a text preserving material from the Three Kingdoms period called Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms (Samguk Yusa) contains songs and poetry that allow readers to dive into “interesting stories about the founding of temples, certain kinds of love stories, and other kinds of things. It preserves the local flavor [more] than the official history does.” As a result, young kids in South Korea often read children’s books that teach the virtues of these stories, helping them create a personal attachment to their home country and its history. These stories also outline the origins of some critical aspects of modern-day Korea. For example, the modern Korean language comes directly from the language of the Silla Kingdom—and with it, surnames currently found throughout Korea—while the name “Korea” originated from the medieval Koryo Kingdom, which took its name from Koguryo.

It preserves the local flavor [more] than the official history does.

While waiting for The Three Kingdoms of Korea to hit the market, these nationwide customs can also be explored in Korean dramas. These dramas, McBride says, show that “early Korea has become increasingly popular and [these shows have] been popularized by having these very attractive men and women on these TV shows.” He continues by saying that “the early Koreans were like the Greeks because the Greeks placed a lot of value on physical beauty,” a trend that lasted beyond the Three Kingdoms period. He says that as a result, “There’s a lot of pressure on people in Korean society [to look attractive]. To get the job, not only do you have to be qualified, but you have to be good-looking; it’s an uncomfortable truth.”

Though much can be learned from these dramas, McBride’s book more fully explains the incredible historical background of modern South Korean culture—a history whose roots reach far beyond the screen. Once published, McBride hopes his readers will learn about the culture and history of Korea and, in doing so, discover its importance for themselves. As he awaits The Three Kingdoms of Korea’s publication on July 1, 2024, he says, “I’m excited about being able to share some of the richness and diversity of early Korean history.”

Click on the link to preorder The Three Kingdoms of Korea today!