History of East Asia


Cultural Foundations

Greco-Roman culture is the foundation of Western civilization; all Western nations (despite their immense diversity) therefore have much in common, culturally speaking. Several other large regions of the world, namely South Asia, East Asia, and the Middle East, also feature a shared cultural foundation (see Global Civilizations). The unifying foundation of South Asia is Indian culture; of East Asia, Chinese culture; of the Middle East, Islamic culture.


East Asia consists of China, Mongolia, Japan, and Korea.

South, East, and Southeast Asia

In historical discussion, "China" refers mainly to the eastern half of modern China. This region, pierced by the great Yangtze and Yellow Rivers, is the heartland of Chinese civilization. Only late in Chinese history was the western part of the nation firmly acquired.

Eastern China is a temperate, forested region (see Climates and Biomes). This makes it far more hospitable to civilization than the western part, most of which is covered by the Tibetan Plateau (the world's largest and highest plateau) and the mountains surrounding it (which include the Himalayan range, along the plateau's southern edge); moreover, the far north of western China is largely desert. Consequently, urbanization has always been much weaker in the western half of China.

The region of Tibet, which corresponds roughly with the Tibetan Plateau, was generally governed by native kingdoms until permanent Chinese conquest in the eighteenth century. Culturally speaking, Tibet was strongly influenced by both South Asia (to this day, Tibet is predominantly Buddhist) and East Asia.

World Biome Map

Relief Map of China

Location of Tibet

Main Article

Formative Chinese Civilization

Timeline of China
ancient China
2000 BC-500 AD
medieval China
modern China
1 2 3 4 5 4 6 4 7 8 9 10 11 12
dynasties 1 2 3 5 6 7 8 9 10
Xia Shang Western Zhou Han Tang Song Yuan Ming Qing
4 periods of major disunity
11 Republic of China
12 People's Republic of China
Summary of Chinese History
ancient China
ca. 2000 BC-500 AD
formative age of Chinese civilization (Xia > Shang > Western Zhou > Han)
medieval China
ca. 500-1500
"golden age" of China (Tang and Song) > age of Mongol rule (Yuan)
modern China
ca. 1500-present
Early Modern China (Ming and Qing) > Republic (interwar government) > PRC (modern China)

Civilization in East Asia began ca. 2000 BC, with the rise of the city of Erlitou by the Yellow River.54 The culture that flourished at this city (and peripheral settlements) is known as the Erlitou civilization. It is uncertain whether this marks the birth of Chinese civilization.

Location of Erlitou

The oldest historical dynasty of China is the Shang dynasty, which began ca. 1600 BC. It is "historical" in that written records of the dynasty have been confirmed by archaeological evidence; thus, the history of the state of China definitely extends back to at least 1600 BC. Written records also claim that the Shang were preceded by the Xia dynasty, which spanned ca. 2000-1600 BC. This period roughly matches the lifespan of the Erlitou civilization.

Consequently, it has been proposed that the "Erlitou civilization" was simply the first phase of the Chinese state, ruled by the Xia dynasty. Physical evidence for this claim is scarce, however; Erlitou may have been a distinct state that preceded China. Regardless, Erlitou civilization should be included in a summary of Chinese history, as it exerted strong cultural influence on the Shang dynasty.

The resilience of the Chinese state is truly remarkable. Time and again, the nation was torn apart by civil war, peasant revolt, and/or foreign invasion, and each time it recovered and prospered once more. Invaders came from only one place: the Eurasian Steppe (see History of the Steppe).A76,14

Chinese history can be divided into ancient, medieval, and modern periods. The ancient period was the formative age of Chinese civilization; in other words, it was during this period that China grew into a strong, centralized state, and the core elements of Chinese culture developed. These elements include the Chinese writing system, Confucianism, and a professional civil service.14,16,23

Shang Dynasty

Western Zhou Dynasty

Han Dynasty

Since ancient times, Confucianism has remained the most influential school of philosophy in China. Though not a religion (see Religion), it has served an equivalent role, given that it provides detailed guidance on how people should live. Confucianism is primarily concerned with social order; it assigns everyone a rank within a social hierarchy (including within the family) and prescribes duties for each rank, as well as rules for interaction between and within ranks.A75

Confucianism encourages preservation of traditional ways and obedience to one's "betters" in the social hierarchy. It could therefore be argued that, while effective for maintaining political and social order, Confucianism inhibits progress. Innovation is discouraged, foreign ideas are rejected, and questioning of authority is unthinkable.A75-76,A203,A483-85

Another key feature of Chinese civilization was a professional, merit-based, and extremely powerful civil service. Civil servants enjoyed generous salaries and staff, and were considered to occupy the second tier of Chinese society (beneath the royal family). Thanks to competitive evaluations (for admissions and promotions) and anti-nepotism laws, corruption was a minor problem, at least in times of peace and stability.A196

These competitive evaluations were based primarily on written exams that tested knowledge of Confucian texts, which ensured that a strong Confucianist focus was maintained throughout the entire civil service. Perhaps this is the secret to China's longevity: though often torn apart by invasion or civil war, the civil service (unified by the ideals of Confucianism) was always there to put the nation back together and restore traditional society, regardless of which dynasty was in charge.A75,A194-96

The ancient period began with three long dynasties: Xia, Shang, and Western Zhou. Throughout these dynasties, Chinese union was only loosely achieved. The Western Zhou dynasty was succeeded by a long period of civil war.

Civil strife was finally ended by the Qin dynasty, which lasted less than two decades. It was succeeded by the much longer Han dynasty, under which China finally became a strongly unified state, and Chinese civilization emerged in its fully mature form.A69,19,48 (Given the brevity of the Qin dynasty, it is omitted from the timeline at the beginning of this section.)

Starting with the Han dynasty, and continuing throughout the medieval period, Chinese technological progress was unmatched anywhere in the world. Gunpowder, paper, the compass, the mechanical clock, and the blast furnace were all invented in China, centuries before they came into use by Europeans.A193 Indeed, gunpowder and paper (to take two key examples) were invented exclusively by China.

Mature Chinese Civilization

Timeline of China
ancient China
2000 BC-500 AD
medieval China
modern China
1 2 3 4 5 4 6 4 7 8 9 10 11 12
dynasties 1 2 3 5 6 7 8 9 10
Xia Shang Western Zhou Han Tang Song Yuan Ming Qing
4 periods of major disunity
11 Republic of China
12 People's Republic of China
Summary of Chinese History
ancient China
ca. 2000 BC-500 AD
formative age of Chinese civilization (Xia > Shang > Western Zhou > Han)
medieval China
ca. 500-1500
"golden age" of China (Tang and Song) > age of Mongol rule (Yuan)
modern China
ca. 1500-present
Early Modern China (Ming and Qing) > Republic (interwar government) > PRC (modern China)

The Han dynasty was followed by another long, politically fractured age, which spanned the remainder of antiquity and stretched into the medieval period. China was finally reunited by the Sui dynasty (which lasted only decades), followed by the much longer Tang dynasty. (Due to its brevity, the Sui dynasty is omitted from the above timeline.)

The Tang dynasty and its successor, the Song dynasty, are often together considered the golden age of China. Chinese science, art, and literature all flourished brilliantly during this period. Moreover, the golden age witnessed the diffusion of Chinese culture to Korea and Japan, thus adding those regions to the sphere of East Asian civilization.29

Tang Dynasty

Song Dynasty

Mongol Empire

Yuan Dynasty (post-Mongol Empire)

China fell completely under foreign rule for the first time when it was conquered by the Mongol Empire (ca. 1200-1300). When this happened, the capital of the Mongol Empire was moved to China, and the Mongol emperor took on the additional role of Chinese emperor. Thus began the Yuan dynasty (aka Mongol dynasty). By the time China had been conquered, however, the Mongol Empire was on the verge of falling apart; when this occurred (ca. 1300), the Yuan dynasty's power became limited to China and Mongolia.

Native Chinese rule resumed with the Ming dynasty, which carried China into the modern period. Together, the Ming and Qing dynasties comprise early modern China, which featured unprecedented prosperity, stability, and expansion of population and territory.49,50 The Ming moved the Chinese capital to Beijing (where it has remained), at the heart of which they built the Forbidden City, a palace complex that served as the centre of Chinese government throughout the Ming/Qing period.

By this time, China had developed a strong commercial naval presence in the waters of Southeast Asia. Chinese voyages seeking trade (or demanding tribute) plied this region, and even ventured westward as far as Arabia and East Africa. Unlike Europe, however, China showed no interest in overseas conquest or colonization.A203,K238-39

Another mysterious feature of early modern China is the seizing-up of technological progress. As noted earlier, China was the clear technological leader of the medieval world. Yet in the Early Modern period, Chinese invention stagnated, while Europe entered a permanent state of rapid scientific progress.

This dramatic historic reversal may be explained by the exceptional conservatism that emerged in the late Ming dynasty and persisted throughout the Qing dynasty. It included a policy of extreme isolationism, which prohibited most international trade and travel; consequently, the aforementioned merchant navy was dismantled. Although China was already resistant to foreign ideas, this heightened isolationism virtually guaranteed that European advances would remain unknown. (Meanwhile, Europe adopted foreign advances at every opportunity, including those of China.)

Perhaps the sheer prosperity and stability of the Ming/Qing period was detrimental to technological progress. In a Confucianist society, stable conditions are ideal for the strict maintenance of tradition. Arguably, only an environment of conflict and uncertainty can interrupt this tradition sufficiently to generate innovation.

The Qing dynasty (aka Manchu dynasty) was China's second period of foreign rule. The Manchu are the native people of Manchuria; today, they constitute an ethnic minority within China.27 Although the Qing brought China to new heights of peace and prosperity, this dynasty eventually declined to overpopulation, famine, and government corruption, leaving the nation vulnerable to European imperialism. The culmination of this decline was the Taiping Rebellion, the bloodiest civil conflict in history.B283,26

Ming Dynasty

Qing Dynasty


Japan and Korea

The history of Korea will be given only the briefest of treatments here. From ancient times, various native kingdoms emerged in this region. Starting with the Han dynasty, China intermittently fought with these kingdoms, sometimes gaining partial control of the Korean peninsula. Multiple kingdoms ruled Korea until the late medieval period, when the peninsula was united as a single state (Choson). This state endured until the Second World War, after which the peninsula was divided into North and South Korea.56

A Japanese state did not emerge until the early medieval period, when the Yamato clan achieved loose control over much of Japan (ca. 500). As Chinese influence radiated from the west, the Yamato chief adopted the title of emperor, and a Chinese-style bureaucratic government was established (though the actual governing power of the Japanese emperor would never rival that of his Chinese counterpart).31 The "age of Yamato rule" (ca. 500-800) was the formative period of Japanese civilization.

Timeline of Japan
medieval Japan
ca. 500-1500
modern Japan
ca. 1500-present
1 2 3 4 5
1 age of Yamato rule ca. 500-800
2 Heian period ca. 800-1200
3 shogunate ca. 1200-1870
4 imperial Japan ca. 1870-WWII
5 modern Japan ca. WWII-present
Summary of Japanese History
age of Yamato rule
ca. 500-800
the Yamato clan (with its chief as emperor) rules Japan
Heian period
ca. 800-1200
nobles of the Fujiwara clan rule Japan
ca. 1200-1870
warlords rule Japan
(civil war between regional warlords > unity under the Tokugawa)
imperial Japan
ca. 1870-WWII
Japan, ruled by an oligarchy, modernizes and amasses a Pacific empire
modern Japan
ca. WWII-present
Japan flourishes as a democracy

In terms of protection from hostile foreigners, geography was kind to Japan. Whereas China and Korea endured frequent invasions by Steppe nomads, Japan experienced only two. Both were attempted by the Mongols during the Mongol Empire period, and both were repelled.A209,A275

Ca. 800, the emperor became a figurehead as power was usurped by royal officials, especially members of the Fujiwara clan, who fractured the nation into semi-independent regions; thus did Japan become a decentralized oligarchy. (All emperors from this point forward in Japanese history are figureheads.) The era of Fujiwara rule, known as the Heian period (ca. 800-1200), witnessed the maturation of Japanese civilization, in which adopted Chinese cultural material developed into uniquely Japanese forms.31

The Heian period ended in civil war.30 It was succeeded by the shogunate (ca. 1200-1870), a military dictatorship ruled by the "shogun", whose actual ruling power was initially limited.43 During the first half of the shogunate period, Japan was torn apart by civil war between independent regions, each ruled by local captains and their soldiers.31

The shogunate, like Ming/Qing China, banned virtually all contact (including trade) with the outside world. This plunged Japan into centuries of isolation. As in China, the ruling elite was determined to maintain stability and order, to which the outside world was perceived as a serious threat.A275,B211

The second half of the shogunate period, known as the Edo period (aka Tokugawa period), witnessed the firm union of Japan under the Tokugawa dynasty. The stability of this period has earned it the nickname Great Peace. Moreover, despite Japan's severe isolation, the Edo period featured vibrant economic growth.A274,K242-43

In the mid-19th century, Japan's destiny was changed forever when it was forced (by the United States) to open trade relations with the West, conducted under severely lopsided agreements. Soon after this traumatic event, the shogun was deposed by an oligarchy of nobles (i.e. clan leaders) who set Japan on a path of rapid modernization, military build-up, and expansionism. (This reaction to Western imperialism contrasts sharply with that of China, where modernization would not be embraced for some decades.)

The ensuing period may be termed the imperial age of Japan (ca. 1870-WWII). An early victory was the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), in which Japan battled Russia for control of Manchuria and Korea. Japanese victory came as a surprise to the world, and announced the nation's rise as a great power.A392-3,3,30

Japan fought with the Allies in World War I. During the interwar period, the nation prepared to assemble a massive Pacific empire; allying with Germany and Italy, these plans were executed during World War II (see World War II).3 After the war, Japan was subject to American occupation, which was withdrawn only gradually.30

Postwar Japan served as a key American ally during the Cold War. The nation also embraced democracy and achieved a tremendous economic recovery.42 As of 2012, Japan was the world's third-largest economy.

Modern China

Unlike South Asia, China was never added to a European empire. In the nineteenth century, however, China faced the same inescapable fate as Japan, as European powers (especially Britain) forced the nation to open trade relations under skewed terms; early Chinese exports (of which tea was the largest) flowed mainly to Britain. With the fall of the shogunate, China also had to contend with Japanese expansionism.K240-41,15

When the Qing dynasty was finally overthrown, a nominal republic (actually a dictatorship) was established, though its governing power was limited by internal dissent and a rival party (the communist party). This Republic of China spanned roughly the interwar period. The country became sharply divided, as the government maintained popularity in the cities but faced a surging tide of rural unrest, due to neglect and mistreatment of the agricultural population.A447-48,15,40

For several years after World War II, war raged within China between the Republic government and the aforementioned communist party; this struggle is known as the Chinese Civil War. The communists ultimately won, largely by garnering rural support via promises of land redistribution. They subsequently established the current Chinese government: the People's Republic of China (also a dictatorship). The ousted republic government took refuge on Taiwan (along with some two million supporters), which it continues to govern to this day.K424-25 (The name "Republic of China" now denotes Taiwan.)

The leader of the communist party was Mao Zedong, who ruled China until the 1970s.45 Though his reign was incredibly brutal, Mao remained in power until his death from natural causes.

China thus became a Cold War enemy of the United States (see Cold War). While Chinese relations with the USSR were initially strong, they quickly deteriorated, leaving China in the unusual position of being a communist Cold War nation outside the Soviet sphere. Two main factors in this deterioration may be identified: imperial rivalry and disagreement over Marxist policy. The first factor is evident enough, as Russia had been eroding Chinese territory for centuries.A482

The disagreement over Marxist policy requires a more detailed explanation. Marxism is a political theory that capitalist governments will eventually be overthrown by the working class, who will establish a "dictatorship of the proletariat" (see Marxism). This dictatorship will proceed to transform the nation into a communist state (in which there is no government: everything is owned in common, and all production and distribution is conducted according to ability and need).

The USSR was the first country to put this theory into practice; this nation's approach to Marxism is often referred to as orthodox Marxism (or "Leninism", or "Marxism-Leninism"). According to this approach, city workers (as opposed to rural workers) will be the driving force behind the creation of a communist state; therefore, one prerequisite to communism is a large urban working class, which means that a Marxist nation must pursue rapid industrialization. Orthodox Marxism also calls for a large bureaucracy, for although the "dictatorship of the proletariat" will be overseen by the working class, the administration of this dictatorship will be conducted by a bureaucracy of highly-educated intellectuals.A482-84,51

At first, Mao's government embraced orthodox Marxism, and consequently enjoyed a rich flow of Soviet funding and technological expertise. Before long, however, Mao alienated Russia by shifting to a starkly different vision of the path to communism, which came to be known as Maoism. This unorthodox version of Marxism was limited mainly to Mao-era China.A482-84,44

Mao had watched as Soviet Marxism, despite its lofty stated intentions, gave rise to widespread government corruption and economic stagnation. This contributed to his view that intellectuals and bureaucrats cannot be trusted, as they are only interested in seizing power for themselves. Indeed, he came to argue that any political or economic centralization would generally result in corruption and poor economic growth.A482-84,44,46

Mao claimed that the true force for communist reform lay in the country rather than the city; a natural opinion for Mao to hold, given the political division of China (which, as noted earlier, consisted of rural support for the communists and urban support for the Republic). Instead of urban workers and intellectual-bureaucrats, Mao argued that the communist transition would be led by rural workers (i.e. the Chinese peasantry) guided by their own simple wisdom (and, of course, Mao's enlightened rule).46

Mao first put his views into action with the Great Leap Forward, a several-year program implemented ca. 1960. It was intended to boost economic growth via rapid decentralization, including small-scale communal farms and factories. One infamous example of the latter is Mao's plan for national steel production, which was to be achieved in thousands of tiny backyard furnaces. Apart from being massively unrealistic, the Great Leap Forward was poorly and hastily implemented, ultimately begetting a terrible famine that killed tens of millions.A482,45

The other principal event of Mao's reign was the Cultural Revolution, which spanned his final ten years in office.46 It was essentially a massive campaign of violence against intellectuals, bureaucrats, and political rivals, resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions imprisoned or driven from the country. Universities were shut down, traditional and foreign art and literature were widely destroyed, and Mao's personal writings became compulsory study material.A483,47

Although China has remained a dictatorship since the age of Mao, state control of the economy has been relaxed, allowing for foreign investment and privatization of much industry.40 China's economy has since taken a dramatic upturn, currently reigning as the world's second-largest.

Asian Tigers

In the late twentieth century, four Asian nations apart from the three giants (Japan, China, and India) achieved extraordinary economic growth and development.3 These so-called Asian Tigers are South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. (While actually part of China, Hong Kong is largely autonomous, and is thus often discussed as though it were a separate nation.) In the view of the IMF, the Asian Tigers are the only countries in East/South/Southeast Asia apart from Japan to reach "developed" status.52

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