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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: May 2018

1 - The Origins of Civilization in East Asia


“Out of Africa”: The First East Asians

According to a now lost Old Record cited in the thirteenth-century Korean history Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms (Samguk yusa), the divinity Hwanung descended from heaven to Mount T'aebaek, a sacred peak at the source of the Yalu and Tumen rivers on the border between present-day Korea and China, where he mated with a she-bear he had helped transfigure into human shape. From their union was born the great Lord Tan'gun, supposedly in the year 2333 BCE, who founded the country known as Old Chosŏn and who is widely celebrated today as the father of the Korean nation.

Meanwhile, according to a quite different Record of Ancient Matters (the Japanese Kojiki, compiled in 712 CE), the grandson of the sun goddess Amaterasu was sent down to earth from heaven, bearing the three sacred Japanese imperial regalia – the curved magatama bead, bronze mirror, and sword – to become the founder of the Japanese imperial line (the same line that still occupies the Chrysanthemum throne in Tōkyō today) and the origin of the Japanese nation.

Much earlier, in China, various ancient royal houses also typically claimed divine or miraculous origins, although Western scholars have generally been more impressed by the relative absence of important creation myths from the dawn of Chinese history. The traditional version of China's story begins, instead, with a more apparently human age of (legendary) cultural heroes, starting with Fuxi (supposedly dating from 2852 BCE), who first domesticated animals; Shennong (from 2737 BCE), who invented farming; and the Yellow Emperor (ruling from 2697 BCE), who is popularly viewed as the ancestor of the Chinese people.

Though the Japanese emperor officially renounced his divinity after World War II, in 1946, and few people today are likely to believe literally the story of Japanese imperial descent from the sun goddess, some of these myths and legends are still quite charming. It is doubtful, however, that many nonnatives, coming from different religious and cultural traditions, ever gave much literal credence to such stories of divine descent. Early modern Europeans, for example, brought their own quite different sets of expectations about possible East Asian origins.