Samhan refers to the ancient confederacies of Mahan, Jinhan, and Byeonhan in central and southern Korean Peninsula, that eventually absorbed into two of the Three Kingdoms of Korea. This period generally constitutes a subdivision of the Three Kingdoms Period, historians also name the period the Proto-Three Kingdoms Period or the Samhan Period.
Sam (三) means "three," and Han means "great" or "leader" in Korean. Han transliterates into Chinese characters 韓, 幹, or 刊, but distinctive from Han in Han Chinese and the Chinese kingdoms and dynasties also called Han (漢, 韓). The names of those confederacies reflect in the current name of South Korea, Daehan Minguk (literally, "Great Han People's Nation").
Historians believe Samhan formed around the time of the fall of Gojoseon in northern Korea in 108 B.C.E., when the state of Jin in southern Korea also disappeared from written records. By the fourth century, Mahan had fully absorbed into the Baekje kingdom, Jinhan into the Silla kingdom, and Byeonhan into the Gaya confederacy, all later annexed by Silla.
The Samhan, loose confederations of walled-town states, each appear to have had a ruling elite, whose power mixed politics and shamanism. Although each state appears to have had its own ruler, no evidence exists of systematic succession. The name of the poorly understood Jin state continued to be used in the name of the Jinhan confederacy and in the name "Byeonjin," an alternate term for Byeonhan. In addition, for some time the leader of Mahan continued to call himself the King of Jin, asserting nominal overlordship over all of the Samhan confederations.
Mahan, the largest and earliest developed of the three confederacies, consisted of fifty-four minor statelets, one of which conquered or absorbed the others and became the center of the Baekje Kingdom. Historians generally believe Mahan located in the southwest of the Korean peninsula, covering Jeolla, Chungcheong, and portions of Gyeonggi.
Mahan, a loose confederacy of chiefdoms that existed from around the first century B.C.E. to the third century C.E. in the southern Korean peninsula in the Chungcheong Province. Arising out of the confluence of Gojoseon migration and the Jin federation, Mahan constituted one of the Samhan (or "Three Hans"), along with Byeonhan and Jinhan. Baekje began as a member statelet, but later overtook all of Mahan and became one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea.
Mahan probably developed from the existing bronze society of third to second centuries B.C.E., continuing to absorb migration from the north in subsequent centuries. King Jun of the kingdom of Gojoseon in northern Korea, having lost the throne to Wiman, fled to the state of Jin in southern Korea around 194-180 B.C.E. Historians believe that he and his followers established a base within Jin territory, where he called himself the Han King. Whether Mahan conquered or arose out of that entity remains in dispute, but that influx of northern culture certainly influenced Mahan.
Further migration followed the fall of Gojoseon and establishment of the Chinese commanderies in the northern part of the Korean peninsula in 108 B.C.E. The Chinese chronicle San Guo Zhi, and the much later Korean chronicles Samguk Yusa and Samguk Sagi, describe Mahan. Mahan kings originally called themselves "King of Jin," referring to the earlier Jin state and asserting nominal sovereignty over all of Samhan.
A wealth of bronze artifacts and production facilities indicate that Mahan probably developed earliest among of the three Hans. At its height, Mahan covered much of the Han River Basin and the modern-day provinces of Gyeonggi, Chungcheong, and Jeolla, although political unity was strongest in Chungcheong, led by Mokji (목지국, 目支國). In the first and second centuries C.E., with the transition to iron culture, the focus of power shifted from Mokji to Baekje in the Han River region. Baekje eventually absorbed or conquered all of Mahan by the third century, growing into one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, along with Silla and Goguryeo.
According to the San Guo Zhi, Mahan consisted of 54 statelets of up to ten thousand families each:
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- Gamhae (감해국, 感奚國)
- Gamhaebiri (감해비리국, 監奚卑離國)
- Geonma (건마국, 乾馬國)
- Gorap (고랍국, 古臘國)
- Gori (고리국, 古離國)
- Gobiri (고비리국, 古卑離國)
- Gowon (고원국, 古爰國)
- Gotanja (고탄자국, 古誕者國)
- Gopo (고포국, 古蒲國)
- Guro (구로국, 狗盧國)
- Gusaodan (구사오단국, 臼斯烏旦國)
- Guso (구소국, 狗素國)
- Guhae (구해국, 狗奚國)
- Naebiri (내비리국, 內卑離國)
- Noram (노람국, 怒藍國)
- Daeseoksak (대석삭국, 大石索國)
- Makro (막로국, 莫盧國)
- Manro (만로국, 萬盧國)
- Morobiri (모로비리국, 牟盧卑離國)
- Mosu (모수국, 牟水國)
- Mokji (목지국, 目支國)
- Baekje (백제국, 伯濟國)
- Byeokbiri (벽비리국, 辟卑離國)
- Bulmi (불미국, 不彌國)
- Bulsabunsa (불사분사국, 不斯濆邪國)
- Bulun (불운국, 不雲國)
- Biri (비리국, 卑離國)
- Bimi (비미국, 卑彌國)
- Saro (사로국, 駟盧國) (Not to be confused with Saro in Jinhan confederacy; different Hanja)
- Sangoe (상외국, 桑外國)
- Soseoksak (소석삭국, 小石索國)
- Sowigeon (소위건국, 素謂乾國)
- Sokrobulsa (속로불사국, 速盧不斯國)
- Sinbulhwal (신분활국, 臣濆活國)
- Sinsodo (신소도국, 臣蘇塗國)
- Sinwunsin (신운신국, 臣雲新國)
- Sinheun (신흔국, 臣國)
- Arim (아림국, 兒林國)
- Yeoraebiri (여래비리국, 如來卑離國)
- Yeomro (염로국, 冉路國)
- Wuhyumotak (우휴모탁국, 優休牟涿國)
- Wonyang (원양국, 爰襄國)
- Wonji (원지국, 爰池國)
- Ilnan (일난국, 一難國)
- Ilri (일리국, 一離國)
- Ilhwa (일화국, 日華國)
- Imsoban (임소반국, 臨素半國)
- Jarimoro (자리모로국, 咨離牟盧國)
- Jiban (지반국, 支半國)
- Jichim (지침국, 支侵國)
- Cheopro (첩로국, 捷盧國)
- Chori (초리국, 楚離國)
- Chosandobiri (초산도비리국, 楚山塗卑離國)
- Chiriguk (치리국국, 致利鞠國)
Jinhan refers to a loose confederacy of chiefdoms that existed from around the first century B.C.E. to the fourth century C.E. in the southern Korean Peninsula, to the east of the Nakdong River valley, Gyeongsang Province. Jinhan constituted one of the Samhan (or "Three Hans"), along with Byeonhan and Mahan. Apparently descending from the Jin state of southern Korea, Silla, one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea later absorbed Jinhan. Jinhan consisted of twelve statelets.
Jinhan, like the other Samhan confederacies, arose out of the confusion and migration following the fall of Gojoseon and establishment of the Chinese commanderies in the northern part of the Korean peninsula in 108 B.C.E. Although Jinhan's relation to the earlier state of Jin remains unclear, the contemporary Chinese chronicle San Guo Zhi considers Jinhan identical with Jin (while another record describes Jin as the predecessor of the Samhan as a whole). Jinhan and Byeonhan shared essentially the same culture, with varying religious customs, and apparently a poorly defined boundary.
According to the San Guo Zhi, Jinhan consisted of twelve statelets of 600 to 5000 families each:
- Saro (사로국, 斯盧國), in Gyeongju, most powerful, later center of the Silla Kingdom
- Gijeo (기저국, 己柢國)
- Bulsa (불사국, 不斯國)
- Geun-gi (근기국, 勤耆國)
- Nanmirimidong (난미리미동국, 難彌理彌凍國)
- Yeomhae (염해국, 冉奚國)
- Gunmi (군미국, 軍彌國)
- Yeodam (여담국, 如湛國)
- Horo (호로국, 戶路國)
- Juseon (주선국, 州鮮國)
- Mayeon (마연국, 馬延國)
- U-yu (우유국, 優由國)
According to Korean records, Bak Hyeokgeose, who united the leading clans of Jinhan under his rule, founded the Silla Kingdom (around present-day Gyeongju) in 57 B.C.E. with sparse and conflicting records regarding the relationship between the names Jinhan, Saro, Seorabeol, and the later Silla kingdom, historians remained unclear about the development of Jinhan. We know little of the daily life of Jinhan people. The religion appears to have been shamanistic, and to have played an important role in politics as well. Rice, heavily dominated agriculture, which also included substantial rearing of livestock including horses, cattle, and chickens.
Most theories indicate that Jinhan located in the area later occupied by the Silla kingdom: the Gyeongju Basin and adjacent Sea of Japan (East Sea) coast. The Byeonhan confederacy would have bordered on the southwest, and by the much larger Mahan confederacy on the west. The northern border would have been the Chinese commanderies and the small coastal state of Dongye. Some scholars place Jinhan in the Han River valley, bounded by Mahan on the north and Byeonhan on the south.
Byeonhan, also known as Byeonjin, refers to a loose confederacy of chiefdoms that existed from around the beginning of the Common Era to the fourth century in the southern Korean Peninsula. Byeonhan represented one of the Samhan (or "Three Hans"), along with Mahan and Jinhan. Byeonhan consisted of twelve statelets, that later gave rise to the Gaya confederacy, subsequently annexed by Silla, believed located in the south and west of the Nakdong River valley.
Historians call the early part of the Three Kingdoms period the Proto-Three Kingdoms period. Byeonhan, like the other Samhan confederacies, appear to have descended from Jin state of southern Korea. Following the fall of Gojoseon and establishment of the Chinese commanderies in the northern part of the Korean Peninsula in 108 B.C.E., refugee migration and cultural transmission continued to transform the region.
Archaeological evidence indicates an increase in military activity and weapons production among the Byeonhan in the third century, especially an increase in iron arrowheads and cuirasses. That may be associated with the decline of Byeonhan and the rise of the more centralized Gaya Confederacy, which most Byeonhan states joined. Silla, one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea subsequently annexed Gaya.
Culture and trade
The Chinese Records of Three Kingdoms present the language and culture of Byeonhan as essentially the same as Jinhan, and archaeological artifacts show little difference. Byeonhan may have simply referred to the chiefdoms in the south and west of the Nakdong River valley not formally members of the Jinhan confederacy. According to the third century Chinese chronicle Wei Zhi, Byeonhan earned reknown for the production of iron; it exported iron to the Chinese commanderies to the north, Yamato Japan and the rest of the Korean Peninsula. Byeonhan gained a reputation as a center of stoneware manufacture.
According to the Records of Three Kingdoms, Byeonhan consisted of 12 statelets:
- Mirimidong (미리미동국/彌離彌凍國)
- Jeopdo (접도국/接塗國)
- Gojamidong (고자미동국/古資彌凍國), in modern-day Goseong County
- Gosunsi (고순시국/古淳是國)
- Ballo (반로국/半路國)
- Nangno (낙노국/樂奴國)
- Gunmi (군미국/軍彌國)
- Mioyama (미오야마국/彌烏邪馬國), Goryeong County
- Gamno (감로국/甘路國)
- Guya (구야국/狗邪國), Gimhae
- Jujoma (주조마국/走漕馬國)
- Anya (안야국/安邪國), Haman County
- Dongno (독로국/瀆盧國), Dongnae Ward of Busan
Historians dispute the exact locations occupied by the different Samhan confederations. Most likely, their boundaries changed over time. Samguk Sagi indicates that Mahan occupied the northern region later became Goguryeo, Jinhan in the region later occupied by Silla, and Byeonhan in the southwestern region later occupied by Baekje. The earlier Chinese San guo zhi places Mahan in the southwest, Jinhan in the southeast, and Byeonhan between them.
The Samhan villages usually hide deep in high mountain valleys, relatively secure from attack with mountain fortresses constructed as places of refuge during war. Historians and archaeologists believe that the minor states comprising the federations covered about as much land as a modern-day myeon, or township. Based on historical and archaeological records, river and sea routes appear to have been the primary means of long-distance transportation and trade.  Jinhan and Byeonhan, with their coastal and river locations, became particularly prominent in international trade during that time.
The Samhan saw the systematic introduction of iron into the southern Korean peninsula, taken up with particular intensity by the Byeonhan states of the Nakdong River valley. They manufactured and exported iron armor and weapons throughout Northeast Asia. The introduction of iron technology also facilitated growth in agriculture, as iron tools made the clearing and cultivation of land much easier. At this time the modern-day Jeolla area appears to have emerged as a center of rice production.
Until the rise of Goguryeo, Samhan limited foreign relations largely to the Chinese commanderies located in the northern part of the peninsula. The longest standing of those, the Lelang commandery, appear to have maintained separate diplomatic relations with each individual state rather than with the heads of the confederacies as such. In the beginning, Shamhan maintained a tributary relationship was tributary: a political trading system in which China exchanged titles or prestige gifts for "tribute." Official seals identified each tribal leader's authority to trade with the commandery. After the fall of the Kingdom of Wei in the third century, San guo zhi reports that the Lelang commandery handed out official seals freely to local commoners, no longer symbolizing political authority.
The Chinese commanderies also supplied luxury goods and consumed local products. Han dynasty coins and beads have been discovered throughout the Korean peninsula, exchanged for local iron or raw silk. After the second century C.E., as Chinese influence waned, iron ingots came into use as currency for the trade based around Jinhan and Byeonhan. Trade relations also existed with the emergent states of Japan at that time, most commonly involving the exchange of ornamental Japanese bronzeware for Korean iron. Those trade relations shifted in the third century, when the Yamatai federation of Kyūshū gained monopolistic control over Japanese trade with Byeonhan.
- Barnes, 2000
- Yi, 2001, 246
- Kim, 1974
- Yi, 2001, 245
- Barnes, G.L. 2000. Archaeological armor in Korea and Japan: Styles, technology and social setting. Journal of East Asian Archeology 2 (3–4), 61–96.
- Kim, J.B. 1974. Characteristics of Mahan in ancient Korean society. Korea Journal 14(6), 4-10.
- Lee, K.B. 1984. A new history of Korea. Trans. by E.W. Wagner and E.J. Schulz. Seoul: Ilchogak. ISBN 89-337-0204-0
- Yi, H.H. 2001. International trade system in East Asia from the first to the fourth century. Korea Journal 41(4), 239-268.
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