Asian Archaeological and Textual Tensions


Understanding Tensions between Hegemonic Texts and Archaeology in East Asia

My encounter with the tension between texts and archaeology began with my interest in early relations between the Korean peninsula and the Japanese archipelago in the 4th – 7th centuries, during the critical period of “Korean” and “Japanese” state formation. During a stay in the historical city of Gyeongju, in the southeastern part of South Korea, a colleague of mine suggested that I read the Samguk sagi (lit. “Records of the Three Kingdoms”). Compiled in 1145 CE during the Koryŏ dynasty (918-1392 CE), it is the earliest extant Korean history and one of the few sources on Korean history prior to the 10th century CE. According to its preface, the drive to create such a historical work arose from lamentations about Koryŏ’s lack of a comprehensive history when compared to China. Using one of China’s most famous histories, the Shiji (compiled c. 91 BCE), as a model, Koryŏ official Kim Pusik and his team of scholars created a narrative that covered the rise and fall of three “Korean” kingdoms (Silla, Paekche, and Koguryŏ) from 57 BCE until the early 10th century CE.

At the time, I was amazed at how well the information in the Samguk sagi accorded with Chinese historical documents after the 4th century CE. The simple format of date and description of events satisfied my obsessive-compulsive needs to order the past. If there were any inaccuracies to be found, I thought that they probably were due to improper dating or incorrectly transcribed records. It was not until later that I discovered that the compilers of the Samguk sagi liberally copied and modified content from the Chinese dynastic histories, nevertheless, that did not deter me from rejecting the text as a whole. Later, when I began to read the earliest Japanese historical sources, such as the Nihon shoki (compiled 720 CE), my analysis remained limited to textual exegesis. Graduate school trained me to critically handle historical texts, but I quickly realized that relying solely on written evidence to understand Korean-Japanese relations in the 4th – 7th century was problematic as I only had the Samguk sagi, the Nihon shoki, and a few contemporary Chinese dynastic histories to work with. Furthermore, the Samguk sagi and the Chinese dynastic histories barely mentioned the Japanese archipelago. Although the Nihon shoki was relatively rich in descriptions of the relations between the Korean peninsula and Japanese archipelago – just as the Samguk sagi and the Chinese records – it was still a political document that focused exclusively on the court with very little information on the day-to-day life of commoners or regions outside the capital domains. I knew I needed some additional material and a different approach; so I turned to archaeology.

Originally, I naively believed archaeology’s usefulness would be limited to resolving conflicts between two textual narratives. In this way, I was following Ivor Noël Hume’s rather outdated model of using archaeology as the “hand-maiden” to history (Hume 1964). I was not alone in using this approach, however, but found that most scholars in Korea and Japan shared this view. The Samguk sagi and the Nihon shoki have been incorporated into the nationalist histories of Korea and Japan respectively and were treated as canonical texts. Thus, students of history in South Korea and Japan automatically begin their training by learning the historical texts first, regardless of the many problems and inaccuracies these written sources entails, and many historians selectively use archaeological findings to support their theories based on the historical texts. Although the situation has improved over the past decade or so, views derived from textual sources continue to dominate the interpretation of the archaeological data in Korea and Japan for the historical period of the 4th – 7th century CE, effectively silencing alternative narratives that may present themselves in the material record. This dominance of hegemonic texts in interpreting the past has created tensions between scholars favoring the textual perspective and the growing number of voices favoring revision based on new archaeological findings. A long tradition of historiography in Korea and Japan and its cooptation by nationalism has made it difficult to allow the archaeology to “do the talking” without their data first being filtered through a textual lens. With the quantity of archaeological material coming out of the ground far exceeds the existing historical textual data in South Korea and Japan, the need to address this issue of hegemonic textual interpretations of the early Korean-Japanese relations becomes even more important.

One major problem that I noticed in the course of my research was that these early texts give the impression that there were only three “Korean kingdoms” (Koguryŏ, Paekche, and Silla) and a single “Japanese empire” (i.e. Wa or Yamato), since at least the late 3rd – 4th centuries CE until the 7th century CE. Although early Chinese dynastic records, such as the 3rd century CE Sanguozhi, depict dozens of polities on the Korean peninsula and hundreds on the Japanese archipelago, Chinese dynastic records after the late 4th century CE likewise only mention the three above-mentioned kingdoms on the Korean peninsula and a monolithic entity called Wa on the Japanese archipelago. This idea is also echoed in the Nihon shoki. Although the Nihon shoki does refer to various polities in the southern part of the Korean peninsula, the main players were always described as Paekche, Silla, and later Koguryŏ. The earliest extant Korean history, the Samguk sagi further reinforces this idea through its title which literally translates as “Records of the Three Kingdoms.” Even now, the period in Korean history between the 4th – 7th centuries CE is called the “Three Kingdoms Period.” From the textual perspective, Paekche, Silla, and Koguryŏ were the only political entities in existence at the time.

As I began my training in archaeology and started evaluating reports from excavations on the Korean Peninsula and in Japan, it immediately became clear to me that there were a lot more entities than just three “kingdoms” on the Korean peninsula and a single unified Japan. Unfortunately, the general response from nationalist historians or archaeologists in Korea as well as Japan is to assign place-names found in the historical texts on any newly discovered archaeological site or attempt to explain their particularities away within the framework of the historical texts. In the 19th century, for example, the Imperial Household Agency arbitrarily selected the largest of the massive keyhole-shaped tombs on the Japanese archipelago and declared them to be the resting places of early Japanese “emperors” described in the Nihon shoki without there being any basis for such an assignation. Since the Imperial Household Agency forbade and continues to forbid any archaeological investigation of these tombs, there is no evidence to test these designations.

Dissatisfied with the limitations placed by the historical texts, I began to investigate the borderlands of the historical states solely through the archaeological data, since the historical texts make no references to the region at all. In this process, I began to take an interest in the material culture of the Yŏngsan River basin in the southwestern part of the Korean peninsula, which features jar burials like they have never been found anywhere else on the Korean peninsula. The past inhabitants of this river basin seemingly had closer contacts with Kyushu (present-day Northwest Japan) than with its Paekche neighbors to the north and its Silla neighbors to the east. These groups flourished well into the early 6th century CE and constructed massive tombs that rivaled those of Paekche and Silla. The same can be said of Kyushu, which archaeologically seemed autonomous or semi-autonomous from the central authority in Yamato during the same period. Yet, these local authorities on the borders of regions described in historical records are textually invisible. In the course of my research, I found that many scholars claim these regions to have been inhabited by minority groups under the political control of the historical states either of Paekche or Yamato, yet their assumptions were completely based on highly problematic passages in the historical texts that are at best unclear. The results of my investigation into the material record, however, strongly suggests that Paekche had very little authority over the Yŏngsan river valley until the mid-6th century CE. The same can be said for Kyushu and its relation to the Yamato court. So instead of three “Korean” kingdoms and a single “Japanese empire,” I would argue that archaeological evidence suggest that up until the early 6th century CE throughout the Korean peninsula and the Japanese archipelago there existed many different polities.

Although I have emphasized the hegemonic role that historical texts play in research on early East Asia, I by no means want to discount their value. Nevertheless, the sometimes overwhelming reliance on historical texts in the analysis of archaeological data remains to be one of the main concerns in studying the past in East Asia. At the same time, there are also many cases of archaeologists selectively quoting passages from historical texts to explain the material record instead of critically evaluating the texts in their own right. Most of the time, however, historical texts continue to be the starting point of historical investigations. On the other hand, the almost unending stream of archaeological data coming out of the ground all over East Asia has helped challenge and complicate our previously textually-based understanding of premodern societies living on the Korean peninsula and the Japanese archipelago. It is also important to note that archaeology is in no way a monolithic field but composed of a dizzying array of theories and approaches, ranging from bioarchaeology to semiotics. With archaeological data and novel approaches quickly outpacing the available historical texts, the need to let the archaeological data tells its own story without being a “hand-maiden” to historical texts grows stronger. Although fervent nationalism may make it difficult to truly break away from nationalist narratives based on hegemonic historical texts, I am hopeful that new interpretations of the archaeological record can give us a more complete understanding of the early East Asian past and its development.

Dennis Lee
Korea Institute
Harvard University

Hume, I. 1964. Archaeology: Handmaiden to history. North Carolina Historical Review 41(2): 215–225.

Image: Photograph by author.

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