Cultural Selection: Central Asian Influences in Korean Music

Jongmyo Shrine © Jean-Jacques Gelbart / Editions Gelbart / UNESCO World Heritage Centre
Korean Music originated in the Three Kingdoms Period of Koguryo (37 BC-668 AD), Paekche (18 BC- 660 AD) and Silla (57 BC-935 AD). During this time Korean music was closely related to the musical culture of its immediate neighbour, China, but also to Central Asia through exchanges via the Silk Roads. The Kingdom of Koguryo, bordering on the Asian continent proper, was the first region among the Three Kingdoms to develop Korea’s musical culture via its continual exchanges with western regions. Indeed, during the Three Kingdoms period and the Unified Silla periods, the active assimilation of foreign music was pursued vigorously. 
Frequent exchanges with Central Asia influenced a number of elements of Korean musical culture. For example, the origins of the Koguryo flute and the Chinese traverse flute, which played important roles in the development of the musical culture of the Three Kingdoms period, may both be traced back to Central Asian regions and major cities along the Silk Roads such as Kashghar, Samarkand, Bukhara, and Kucha. The origins of another important instrument, the five-stringed lute, also lie in northern Central Asia (modern Mongolia and Kazakhstan). Similarly, the ancient Korean pomp’ae (Buddhist chant) is known to have been derived directly from the Chinese fanbai initiated during the Wei Dynasty in the 3rd century. If Chinese fanbai was rooted in the Buddhism of India, then it may be reasonable to assume that Korean pomp’ae might also have been historically related to the musical culture of Central Asia. Another example of these exchanges of influences can be seen in the five mask plays, Kumhwan, Wolchon, Taemyon, Soktok, and Sanye which are said to be typical of Silla music (hyangak), but which, evidence in Korean studies suggests, were also derived from the performing arts of Central Asia. 
Furthermore, cultural interactions between the Korean Peninsula and the Tang Empire of China (618-907 AD) were quite active, and musical exchanges were no exception. It can be safely assumed that, from the stand point of the overall context of Asian musical history, some Central Asian music was produced in China in the 8th century, and was adapted as musical culture for the Samjuk (three-bamboo flutes) in the latter Silla period (780-935). The musical features of the three modal systems of Chinese Tang music for Samjuk (three-bamboo flutes) of Silla constitute clear proof that Silla society accepted Chinese Tang music as something new within its own musical traditions. The three modal systems were an outcome of the cultural exchanges undertaken through the Silk Roads between China and Central Asia, and that outcome was accepted by Silla society in the 9th century.  
Consequently, the traverse flute and the five-stringed lute, the Silla pomp’ae, the five mask plays, and the three modal systems of Chinese Tang music are all a testament to Chinese and Central Asian influences, introduced via the Silk Roads, in the development of outstanding performing arts in Unified Silla. Subsequently, a variety of musical traditions also reached Japan via the Korean peninsula, demonstrating cultural transmissions along the Silk Roads.
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