Is there an ancient Korean equivalent to Japanese samurai?
December 6, 2011 8:09 PM   Subscribe

I'm taking a class this year studying the history of samurai and was wondering why I didn't know of a Korean equivalent. I know we Koreans love martial arts and fighting just like the Japanese, judging by the dozens of sageuks produced every year.

Doing some research I've come upon a group called the Hwarang but there seems to be a severe lack of information in comparison to the Japanese samurai. But all those flashy fighting scenes in Korean dramas have to be based in some kind of history, no? Or is it to compensate for a lack thereof?

If there is no close Korean equivalent, why is that?

Any opinions appreciated, as well as both sources in Korean and in English. Cheers!
posted by qvinx to Society & Culture (6 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I dunno, but there seems to be a lot of different interpretations of what the Hwarang actually were, and they also existed a long, long time ago (whereas the samurai, or bushi existed as a caste for nearly one thousand years in Japan).

The Joseon Dynasty in Korea lasted for about 500 years, and it was mostly peaceful, and it seems that Yangban took the place of samurai in Korea as administrators.

Just like China, there were examinations to accredit Yangban, so it was a more bureaucratic system.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:24 PM on December 6, 2011

Keep in mind that during the Edo period the samurai in Japan had also become administrators. They existed as a warrior class during times when there was an absence of central governing authority. Unless a similar situation existed in Korea, a samurai class there would not make sense.
posted by twblalock at 9:40 PM on December 6, 2011

Was there a period in feudal Korea where everybody was fighting everybody else?

Remember that samurai originally means "servant" (coming from "saburau", or to serve), and that they only really make sense in the context of serving a feudal lord who must defend or attack other feudal lords. At least originally; as stated above they evolved into something else, but at that point it doesn't even really mean much to call them samurai.
posted by zachawry at 10:48 PM on December 6, 2011

Let's turn to wiki! I love getting lost in wikipedia.

Of the wikis for each of the three ancient kingdoms of Korea, Goguryeo seems to have the most developed section about military history.

The military section for Silla mentions the Hwarang, which in later iterations, seems to be the closest thing to a perceived class of elite fighters. The article indicates that their "code of conduct" was written by a Buddhist monk sometime during the 6th or 7th century. That might place it before bushido on a timeline, but I'm not sure.

(their maxims sound pretty warrior-like, with a good 'ol twist of filial piety thrown in)
1. Loyalty to one's lord/king
2. Devotion towards one's parents
3. Trust among friends
4. Never retreat in battle
5. Be selective in the taking of life

What did you think of the article about Korean martial arts in general? It looks meaty, a bit tl;dr for me though.
posted by hellomina at 11:13 PM on December 6, 2011

Best answer: My guess: warrior castes/classes are not the same across cultures. Some get super entrenched and become nobility or at least a nominal ruling class, like knights and samurai. Some become more of a tool for the ruling class and hadn't much prestige, like the military of Ming Dynasty China. This wikipedia article on the Muyedobotongji, a Korean martial arts manual, suggests there may be similar stuff going on for as late as 18th century Korea.

I've only done some poking around on wikipedia and other martial arts related forums.

But all those flashy fighting scenes in Korean dramas have to be based in some kind of history, no?

Sure, but you don't have to have a warrior class like samurai for a culture to have warriors of a high level of fighting ability. Contrast the history of the rise and rule of samurai versus the history of the Roman Legion. Both had highly trained warriors, but the social, and historical context of each led to very different sorts of roles in the culture that created them.

This is all speculation. I don't know a whole lot about Korea's history. I mostly dig into reading about Europe's non-knightly martial arts, or Chinese sword art reconstructions. That last link may be of useful to you, as it has some info on Korean martial arts manuals. There seems to be a bit of cross pollination in between China and Korea during the Imjin-War in that regard. I'd personally be interested in what you find out, since I like reading about warrior in various cultures and martial arts in general.
posted by Mister Cheese at 1:38 PM on December 13, 2011

Response by poster: @twblalock and @zachawry: Yes I'd say Korea/Chosun has gone through plenty of times of feudal war as well. But most of my knowledge of pre-modern Korean history comes from romanticized television dramas so...

@Mister Cheese: Thank you for the link to the muyedobotongji! I will look more into your links.

I'll have to do a lot more research for a better answer but it seems the Hwarang were the closest equivalent. Though it's interesting that this is a term I've never heard of before. Amazing how the word samurai alone is immediately recognized all over the world and conjures up some sort of image, whether historically accurate or not. What wonders the western media can do.
posted by qvinx at 5:19 PM on January 21, 2012

« Older "This is not grade school; there are no effort...   |   Bagged popcorn better than microwave? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.