Historical Character of the Lelang Commandery

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The “Four Han Commanderies” – known as Nangnang (樂浪, Lelang), Imdun (臨屯, Lintun), Hyeondo (玄菟, Xuantu), and Jinbeon (眞蕃, Zhenfan) – were established by the Han dynasty of China in 108 BCE in the northwestern part of the Korean peninsula and southeastern Manchuria. It was when Han invaded north through its own Great Wall and briefly conquered areas civilized by proto-Korean tribal federations, including Gojoseon. Three of them disappeared over the next few decades, while Lelang survived for some 400 years. Until its fall to the fledgling Goguryeo kingdom in 313, Lelang was an important center of political, economic, and cultural exchange between Korea and China.

The Four Han Commanderies were first grouped together this way by Japanese historians to argue that Korean history was passive and driven by external forces, in support of its colonial ambitions. Chinese history, emphasizing the existence of the commanderies, describes the whole Korean peninsula as under Han influence at the time.

The commanderies were administrative units set up under the control of the central government of China, but it cannot be said that Lelang was established for direct control over the Gojoseon region or for territorial expansion. The political system of Lelang was a mixture of Chinese and Korean systems. The autonomy of the local people was recognized and many administrative positions were filled by the native people.

There are two views on the historical character of Lelang, First, that it was a Chinese political center, just like any other commandery under Han control; and second, that it was a center for trade with the Han dynasty located on the Korean peninsula, not a colony.

Though views of archeologists from various nations differ, Lelang was most likely located in the present day Pyeongyang area, as evidenced by the related tombs and other relics found near Pyeongyang.

The love story of a Princess Nangnang and Goguryeo's Prince Hodong represents Lelang's attempt to form ties with powerful Goguryeo. Prince Hodong tells the Princess Nangnang that if she wants to marry him she must destroy the drum that notifies Lelang of enemy attack. The princess does so, helping the demise of her own country. Koreans see this story as a metaphor for the expulsion of Chinese forces from the Korean peninsula by Goguryeo and other rising nations.

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