The Neolithic age in Korea (circa 8000 BC – circa 1000 BC) dates almost as far back as in Japan and China, yet it wasn’t until the 3rd century AD that the first significant political entities made their appearance, and soon divided the peninsula into three states (the Three Kingdoms period: 1st century BC – AD 668): the Koguryǒ (Goguryeo) kingdom occupying an extensive area of the north, the Paekche (Baekje) kingdom in the centre and south-west, and the Silla kingdom in the south-east. The rich Koguryǒ tombs with their mural paintings and the complex structures of the Paekche tombs reflect the high degree of refinement of these courts. Buddhism was also introduced in Korea during this period, of which vestiges remain in stone or brick pagodas and bronze sculptures.
The Silla kingdom eventually absorbed the two others, forming Unified Silla (668-935). Its capital, built on the model of the Chinese capital of Chang'an, was located in Kyongju (Gyeongju) in south-east Korea, and became the centre of a cosmopolitan culture, inspired by Tang dynasty China and Siberian cultures. Among its vestiges are the fine gold and jade crowns found in the tombs.
Peasant revolts contributed to bringing an end to this golden age, and a new ruling line established their seat in Kaesong (north-west Korea), founding the kingdom of Koryŏ (918-1392). Koryŏ was soon facing assaults by the same nomadic tribes that were attacking the north of China: the Khitan, the Juchen and the Mongols. Despite the difficulties encountered by the court, this period was rich in a new artistic creativity, particularly in the field of ceramics, notably the celadons that were widely prized as far away as China.
In the second half of the 14th century, Korea again faced attacks by the Japanese pirates infesting the China Sea and the Yellow Sea. Taking advantage of the confusion, a military leader seized power, establishing the kingdom of Chosŏn (1392-1910). The capital was again moved, this time to Hanyang (present-day Seoul). Buddhism was officially abandoned in favour of Neo-Confucianism, which radically transformed society. Temples that no longer had the support of the State fell into decline. In the 15th century, King Sejong (1397-1450) created an alphabetic system, Hangul, which enabled the Korean language to be transcribed, thereby providing access to education for the social classes that had not learnt Classical Chinese. The art of this period reflects new orientations: paintings that drew their imagery from Korean customs and landscapes, stoneware and porcelain featuring decoration that was unrelated to the Chinese influence, objects and furniture designed to meet the needs of Confucian literati, lacquerware inlaid with mother-of-pearl.
The 20th century was a turbulent period in the history of Korea, with Japanese colonisation (1910-1945), the Korean War (1950-1953) and the partition of the peninsula into two countries, which would develop independently although both saw the establishment of a dictatorship, one Communist, the other right-wing. The stability of the regime in the North and the democratisation of South Korea in the 1980s reflect the separate paths taken by the two Koreas, which had a strong impact on the development of the arts.