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Three Kingdoms Period

The Koguryo Kingdom (37B.C.-A.D.668) was the first of the Korean kingdoms to be exposed to Chinese Han culture. Chinese influence made a lasting impression, as evidenced by the construction style of Koguryo's palaces, temples and tombs. Melding Chinese elements with their original type of construction, the people of Koguryo developed their own style. It was characterized by powerful lines and sturdy construction, necessitated by the rugged terrain and harsh climate of the country.

A Chinese historian noted, "The Koguryo people like to build their palaces well." Patterned tiles and ornate bracket systems were already in use in many palaces in P'yongyang, the capital, and other town-fortresses in what now is Manchuria.


The construction of Buddhist temples was enthusiastically undertaken after Buddhism was introduced in 372 by way of northern China. A series of excavations in 1936-1938 unearthed the sites of several major temples near P'yongyang, including those in Ch' ongam-ri, Wono-ri and Sango-ri. The excavations disclosed that the temples were built in a Koguryo style known as "three Halls-one Pagoda," with each hall in the east, west and north, and an entrance gate in the south. In most cases, the centural pagodas had a octagonal plan. Palace buildings appear to have been arranged in this way as well.

Murals in tombs dating from Koguryo also reveal a great deal about the architecture of that period as many of them depict buildings which have pillars with entasis. Many have capitals on top of them. The murals reveal that the wooden bracket structures and coloring on the timbers, all characteristic of later Korean structures, were already in use at that time.

Paekche was influenced by Koguryo as well as by southern China. As it expanded southward, moving its capital to Ungjin (currently, Kongju) in 475 and to Sabi (currently Puyo) in 538, its arts became richer and more refined than that of Koguryo. Also characteristic of Paekche architecture is its use of curvilinear designs. Though no Paekche buildings are extant - in fact, no wooden structure of any of the Three Kingdoms now remains - it is possible to deduce from Horyuji temple in Japan, which Paekche architects and technicians helped to build, that Paekche's architecture came into full bloom after the introduction of Buddhism in 384. What remains in the building sites, patterned tiles and other relics, as well as the stone pagodas that have survived the ravages of time, testifies to the highly developed culture of Paekche.

Many palaces are recorded as having been built in Paekche. Some traces of them can be found at both Pusosansong, the third palace of this kingdom, and at the site of Kungnamji pond, which is mentioned in the Samguk sagi (History of the Three Kingdoms). Kungnamji means "pond in the south of the palace."

The site of Miruksa temple, the largest in Paekche, was excavated in 1980 at Iksan of Chollabuk-do province. The excavation disclosed many hitherto unknown facts about Paekche architecture. A stone pagoda at Miruksa temple is one of two extant Paekche pagodas. It is also the largest as well as being the oldest of all Korean pagodas. Miruksa temple had an unusual arrangement of three pagodas erected in a straight line going from east to west, each with a hall to its north. Each pagoda and hall appear to have been surrounded by covered corridors, giving the appearance of three separate temples of a style called "one Hall-one Pagoda." The pagoda at the center was found to have been made of wood, while the other two were made of stone. The sites of a large main hall and a middle gate were unearthed to the north and south of the wooden pagoda.

When the site of Chongnimsa temple was excavated in 1982, which had also been the site of the other existing Paekche pagoda, the remains of a main hall and a lecture hall arranged on the main axis one behind the other were unearthed to the north of the pagoda. The remains of a middle gate, a main gate and a pond arranged on the main axis one in front of the other were also discovered to its south. It was found that the temple was surrounded by corridors from the middle gate to the lecture hall. This "one Pagoda" style was typical of Paekche, as the excavations of the temple site in Kunsu-ri and in Kumgangsa temple in Puyo in 1964. The building sites of Kumgangsa temple, however, were arranged on the main axis going from east to west rather than from north to south.

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Shilla came under Buddhist influence after 527. Since its temple was separated from China by Koguryo or Paekche, China's cultural influence was much diluted. This probably accounts for the delay in its cultural development compared to the other two kingdoms.

One of the earliest Shilla temples, Hwangnyongsa temple was systematically excavated and studied in 1976, and found to have been of considerable magnitude. It stood in a square walled area, the longest side of which was 288 meters. The area enclosed by corridors alone was about 19,040 square meters. The Samguk yusa (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms) records that there was a nine-story wooden pagoda built here in 645 that was about 80 meters high by today's scale. A large image of Sakyamuni Buddha is also recorded to have been enshrined in the main hall with the stone pedestal still remaining. Constructed in the middle of the sixth century, Hwangnyongsa temple flourished for more than 680 years during which time the halls were rearranged many times. In its prime, immediately before Shilla's unification of the peninsula in 668, it was arranged in the "three Halls-one Pagoda" style, quite unlike the "one Hall-one Pagoda" style of Paekche's Miruksa temple.

Another major Shilla temple was Punhwangsa, on the site of which still stands three stories of what is recorded to have been a nine-story pagoda. As the remains show, the pagoda was made of stones cut to look like bricks. A set of stone flagpole pillars in addition to other stone relics also remain.

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