Chapter 12 Transformations in Asia, 220-1350 A.D.
flowering of Chinese civilization under the Tang and Song dynasties had a
profound effect on neighboring Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. Exposed to the
grandeur of Chinese culture, these countries adopted many Chinese ways. Yet each
country also retained elements of its own culture, blending these with Chinese
customs to create a unique cultural synthesis.
Emergence of Civilization in Korea
is a rugged, mountainous peninsula that juts south from Manchuria into the sea
between China and Japan. Because of its location, Korea has long served as a
bridge between the two countries, allowing the passage of people and ideas from
one nation to the other.
Nomadic peoples from northeastern Asia, who entered the peninsula in
prehistoric times, first settled Korea. Later,
in the 300s B.C., Chinese migrants began to arrive, bringing with them a
knowledge of metalworking and agriculture. Not long afterward, the first strong
Korean kingdom, Choson, emerged in the northern part of the country. By the late
100s B.C., Choson was strong enough to exert some control over much of the
growth of Korean kingdoms.
In 108 B.C. troops from Han China conquered Choson and turned it into a
Chinese colony. For the next four centuries, the Chinese imposed tight control
over northwestern Korea, looking down on native Koreans and allowing them little
say in government.
Elsewhere on the peninsula, however, three Korean kingdoms—Koguryo,
Paekche, and Silla—developed in opposition to Chinese rule. These kingdoms
were ruled by Korean aristocrats who were influenced by Chinese culture but who
rejected Chinese political control. Because these kingdoms also fought each
other, however, they were unable to challenge China’s position of dominance in
Korea until after the fall of the Han dynasty. Finally, in 313, Koguryo invaded
the Chinese colony and took it over.
For the next several centuries, Korea’s three kingdoms continued to
fight among themselves. During the early 600s China, under Sui rule, again tried
to conquer Korea, but failed. In 660, though, the rulers of the southern kingdom
of Silla made a strategic alliance with the Tang ruler of China. Working
together, the armies of Silla and China conquered Paekche and Koguryo. Silla
then turned on the Chinese forces and drove them from Korea. By 676, Korea was
united for the first time.
Although Silla was independent, its leaders agreed to pay tribute to
China to ensure the goodwill of their powerful neighbor. They also embraced many
aspects of Chinese culture, in effect creating their own version of Tang China.
They developed a centralized state much like the Tang government, and they
adopted Buddhism as the state religion. The age of Silla, which roughly matched
the era of Tang rule, was a peaceful, prosperous time in Korea. As with Chinese
dynasties, however, Silla eventually grew weak and was shaken by internal
In the early 900s a new kingdom, Koryo (from which the name Korea comes),
rose up and challenged Silla’s power. By 935, Koryo had taken control of the
Korean peninsula, which it would rule until 1392. Like Silla, Koryo adopted many
elements of Chinese culture, while trying to maintain a sense of Korean
identity. As one ruler of Koryo proclaimed in 982: “Let us follow China in
poetry, history, music, ceremony, and the five relationships [of Confucius], but
in riding and dressing let us be Koreans.”
culture and society.
The influence of Chinese civilization on Korea is deep-rooted. The first
Korean kingdom, Choson, was founded in part by immigrants from China and bore
the imprint of Chinese culture. Because the early Korean language had no written
form, Korean rulers adopted Chinese as their written language.
Korean rulers also looked to China for their model of government. They
established dynasties controlled by hereditary kings and supported by a
Chinese-style bureaucracy. The rulers of Koryo established a Confucian
examination system to train their officials and built an elaborate capital city
much like Chang`an, the Tang imperial city. Korean kings embraced Chinese
Buddhism as the state religion, building enormous temples that became major
centers of learning. As in China, printing in Korea was first used for the
publication of Buddhist texts.
Despite these similarities, however, ancient Korea was not a carbon copy
of China. Korean Buddhism, for example, also included elements of the
country’s traditional animism—the belief that spirits reside within objects
of the natural world, such as rocks, trees, and water. Another important
difference in Korea was the presence of a powerful nobility, descended from the
tribal chieftains of prehistoric times, which maintained its power to a greater
degree than did the nobles of China. This aristocracy continued to exert great
influence over politics and limited the power of Korea’s Confucian
bureaucracy. As a result, a significant scholar-gentry class never developed in
Korea. Unlike China, where the gentry formed a kind of middle class between the
traditional noble families and the peasantry, Korean society was more sharply
divided between a small upper class and a very large lower class.
As in China, the age of Silla and Koryo was a time of great artistic
achievement. Korean artists produced beautiful landscapes in the Tang and Song
styles, and Korean writers produced great works of literature and historical
scholarship. Korean craftsmen of this period created fine pottery that rivaled
Song porcelain in beauty and function. Overall, the cultural growth of Korea
during this period represents a blend of Korean and Chinese traditions that
resulted in a unique Korean culture.
Rise of Japanese Civilization
Korea, Japan has been strongly influenced by its geography and location. A chain
of several thousand islands stretching over a distance of nearly 1,400 miles,
Japan has always been wedded to the sea. Even on the largest islands—Honshu,
Kyushu, Shikoku, and Hokkaido—no one is more than 100 miles from the ocean.
Because Japan is very mountainous—only one-sixth of the land is good for
farming—the sea has been a vital source of food and means of transport from
Japan was first settled thousands of years ago by Stone Age peoples who
migrated from the Asian mainland. By the first century B.C. these early
inhabitants were crafting tools and weapons from bronze and iron and practicing
early forms of agriculture. These cultural developments probably came from China
and were reinforced by continued migration from the mainland.
Japanese society and religion.
By the first centuries A.D. the Japanese people were organized in clans,
the most powerful of which were located on the island of Honshu. An early
Chinese account of Japan, which was known as Wa in China, described Japanese
land of Wa is warm and mild. In winter as in summer, the people live on raw
vegetables and go about barefooted. . . . They serve food on wooden and bamboo
trays, helping themselves with their fingers. When a person dies, they prepare a
single coffin, without an outer one. . . . When the funeral is over, all members
of the family go into the water to cleanse themselves in a bath of
Ritual purification was a feature of Japanese religion, known as Shinto, meaning “way of the gods.” The gods of Shinto were
nature spirits called kami, and the
rituals of Shinto were designed to win their favor. Many clans also traced their
origins to a particular kami, which they honored as their special spirit. For
this reason, ancestor worship became an important feature of Japanese life.
Shinto also helped give rise to Japan’s imperial family. According to
legend, the grandson of the Shinto sun goddess, Amaterasu, was the founder of a
powerful clan, the Yamato. By A.D. 400, other clans, accepting the Yamato claim
to divine ancestry, made the Yamato leader the emperor of Japan. Since then, all
Japanese emperors have come from the Yamato line. Until recently, these rulers
claimed to be descendents of the gods, in contrast to the Chinese emperors, who
only claimed to have the favor of the gods.
and Japanese civilization.
Like Korea, Japan has long been influenced by Chinese civilization. Much
of that influence first came through Korea. For example, it was Koreans who
first introduced Chinese writing into Japan. Because Japan had no written
language, Chinese soon came into wide use by the Japanese nobility. Also, in
A.D. 552 a Korean ruler sent Buddhist texts as a gift to the Japanese emperor.
Buddhism soon caught on in Japan, and along with it came styles of literature,
architecture, sculpture, and painting associated with Chinese Buddhism.
The person most responsible for promoting Chinese civilization in Japan
was Prince Shotoku, the main figure in Japanese politics from 593 to 622.
Shotoku introduced laws modeled on Confucian thought and encouraged the growth
of a strong central government led by the emperor. Under Shotoku’s leadership,
Buddhism also gained strength and impressive temples sprang up across Japan.
Japanese missions to China brought back knowledge about engineering, medicine,
weights and measures, and agriculture. The Japanese absorbed these influences
and eventually transformed them into a culture that was uniquely Japanese.
Prince Shotoku died before he was able to carry out many of his planned
reforms. In 645, however, other reformers put forth a plan calling for more
changes on the Chinese model. This plan, the Taika
Reform Edict, was designed to transplant the centralizing ideas of the Tang
government to Japan. It declared all land to be the property of the state and
established a census to allow fair distribution of land to peasants. It also set
up a uniform system of taxes and a nation-wide system of roads.
The Taika plan was ambitious and was never enforced completely. For
example, the transfer of land from private hands to the state was strongly
opposed by the Japanese nobility and never fully implemented. This fact
underscores one of the main differences between Japan and China. In Japan, noble
families continued to exert great power and influence. A tradition of
“indirect government” developed, in which the emperor was honored as a
figurehead but others exercised the real power. One powerful family, the
Fujiwara, controlled the reigns of government for 1000 years.
Nevertheless, the Taika reforms did establish the idea of imperial rule
in Japan and introduced many important principles of government. The reforms
also led to the creation of new capital cities, first at Nara and then at Heian,
today known as Kyoto.
Japanese society and culture.
Heian was a beautiful city, modeled on Chang`an and filled with
magnificent temples, palaces, and gardens. During the Heian period, a golden age
lasting from 794 to 1185, Japanese culture flourished. This cultural flowering
was most evident in and around the royal court. There, members of noble families
cultivated the refined tastes and love of beauty so important in Japan.
Life at court was marked by great elegance and style. Men and women
lavished attention on their appearance and even turned such activities as
gift-wrapping into an art. The ability to write poetry was deemed essential to a
well-bred person. Sei Shonagon, a lady-in-waiting to the empress, conveyed a
sense of the gentility of court life in a passage from her memoir:
one morning, when a pale moon still hung in the sky, we went out into the
garden, which was thick with mist. . . Her majesty got
up herself, and all the ladies in attendance joined us in the garden. As
we strolled about happily, dawn gradually appeared on the horizon. . . . ‘So
you have been out moon-viewing,’ said [a gentleman] admiringly and composed a
poem in praise of the moon.”
Women during the Heian age were held in high esteem, in large part
because of their refinement and beauty. Women also created some of the first
true Japanese literature, writing in a phonetic script called kana
instead of the formal Chinese of male scholars. They composed tanka,
five-line poems on love and nature, and they wrote the first prose works in
Japanese. The most famous of these, and considered the world’s first novel, is
The Tale of Genji, by Lady Murasaki Shikibu, which describes
life at the Heian court. By this time, Japanese culture had moved well beyond
its early Chinese influences to reflect a truly Japanese world-view and
Emergence of Feudal Japan
the mid-1100s, the Fujiwara family, which had once served as regents for the
imperial family, came to dominate the emperors through a string of marriages
between their daughters and the imperial family. As the central authority of the
emperors declined, eventually a great struggle developed for control of the
The struggle was increasingly waged by armies of warriors called samurai.
Samurai were rather like the knight in Western Europe—wearing armor, wielding
swords, and often mounted on horseback. As the samurai developed as a fighting
class they also developed a strict set of rules governing their behavior. These
rules became known much later as bushido, or the “way of the warrior”. Both men and women
from samurai families were expected to follow the code of behavior.
The main elements of the code were courage, honor, unflinching acceptance
of hardship, instant obedience to a superior’s orders, and— above
all—loyalty to one’s overlord. The life of the samurai in a sense belonged
to the lord. In exchange for this loyalty, the lord also had an obligation to
provide for the samurai and reward them appropriately for services rendered. If
samurai disobeyed or failed a lord, they might be ordered to commit seppuku,
suicide by means of ritual disembowelment. If the lord did not order seppuku,
often a samurai would request the privilege of committing suicide rather than
living with the shame of failure.
Like European knights, samurai warriors were expensive to keep—they
required expensive armor and weapons, as well as horses. They were maintained
primarily through a land tenure system based on the shoen,
or estate. A shoen was not quite the same thing as a manor in medieval
Europe. Those who held a shoen from a lord did not necessarily live on it
or directly work it, rather they simply had a right to its income or its
produce, usually in rice. Often, many people would have a share in a single shoen,
and most would also have shares in other shoen. Such shares were called shiki, or rights. Although
many samurai had once held interests in the productivity of certain lands, by
the late 1400s most were paid in rice or cloth.
1156, civil war broke out between the Taira and Minamoto clans. After
considerable intrigue and fighting, in 1192 Minamoto Yoritomo forced the emperor
to grant him the title of shogun,
or supreme general. Although the imperial court remained the spiritual heart of
Japanese society, the real power and the government lay with the shoguns.
Yoritomo established a military government, called the bakufu, meaning literally “tent” government, at the
family estate at Kamakura. Consequently, historians call this the Kamakura shogunate.
Eventually, however, the shogunate too fell prey to the same kind of power politics that had stripped the emperors of authority. In the provinces, military governors and those responsible for overseeing tax collection and the proper running of estates soon made their positions hereditary. Then, in 1219, the shoguns themselves were turned into little more than figureheads by the Hojo clan, who came to rule the shogunate by acting as “regents.”
In the mid and late 1200s, the ill-fated Mongol invasion of Japan
seriously undermined the Hojo regency and the shogunate itself. In several great
battles the regents were able to turn the Mongols back, and in the end the
Mongol fleet was destroyed by a great storm, which the Japanese thereafter
called kamikaze, or “divine wind.”
With little or no booty from the struggle, however, the Hojo could not properly
reward their samurai. Over the next century, amidst increasing dissatisfaction
on all sides, the entire system began to break down.
By 1331, Japanese society was like a seething cauldron. The samurai class
had grown considerably—though the land could not sustain it. Consequently,
samurai warriors had begun to offer their loyalty to anyone who could afford to
maintain them. As more and more local lords gained samurai retainers, the
potential for violence also grew. Finally in 1331, the emperor Go-Daigo set
Japan ablaze by trying to regain power for the imperial court itself.
As all factions began to maneuver for power, Japan burst into a major
civil war among many factions—from the emperor to the shogun to the local
lords, even the Buddist monasteries were involved. Although Go-Daigo succeeded
in destroying the Kamakura shogunate, he was unable to regain power. In the end,
one of his generals, Ashikaga Takauji, forced him to restore the shogunate—but
this time under the Ashikaga. The Ashikaga
Shogunate lasted nearly two and a half centuries, from 1338 to 1573.
Although the Ashikaga claimed the shogunate, however, they did not in fact restore any sort of central authority. Instead, they allowed local lords to run their own affairs. Gradually, with little central control, stronger lords began to overcome weaker ones, forcing them into client relationships. Soon, only strong lords, called daimyos remained, supported by many client families and their own personal samurai. Under the Ashikaga shoguns, the samurai became the most important class in Japanese society.
Japan and Korea, Vietnam was strongly influenced by Chinese civilization. In
fact, China ruled Vietnam for 1000 years. The Vietnamese maintained many of
their customs, however, and eventually threw off Chinese domination.
land and people.
Located just south of China, Vietnam is a long, curved strip of land that
runs along the South China Sea. It is the easternmost country of Indochina, a
peninsula of Southeast Asia that includes the countries of Laos, Burma,
Cambodia, Thailand, and the Malay Peninsula. Much of Vietnam is mountainous,
except for a narrow coastal plain and two large river deltas: the Red River
delta in the north and the Mekong delta in the south.
Vietnam’s geography has given rise to two distinct types of people:
lowland dwellers, who occupy the coastal plain and river deltas, and mountain
people, who inhabit the more remote highland areas. Historically, it is the
lowland peoples who have been most open to outside influence and who have
dominated national life.
early history of Vietnam.
The origins of the Vietnamese are shrouded in myth. One legend claims
that a Chinese god-king mated with a mountain spirit of Vietnam and gave birth
to the first inhabitants of the land. These people, known as the Lac, eventually
formed a kingdom in the Red River delta of northern Vietnam, where they
practiced rice farming and developed simple stone and bronze tools.
In 207 B.C. the Lac kingdom was taken over by a Chinese general named
Trieu Da, who broke with China and formed the new kingdom of Nam Viet, which
included parts of northern Vietnam and southern China. Trieu Da adopted the
customs of the local people and consulted with the Lac lords in running the
A century later, in 111 B.C., the armies of Han China overran Nam Viet
and turned it into a Chinese colony. Thus began a 1000-year period of Chinese
rule in Vietnam. At first the Chinese ruled with a light hand. Although they
brought in Chinese ideas of government, arts, and culture, they allowed the Lac
lords to control their villages. In this way the Chinese confirmed an old
Vietnamese saying: “The King’s laws bow before village customs.”
Eventually, though, the Chinese began to tighten their control over
Vietnam. Vietnam had mineral resources and a sizable population that could be
taxed and put to work for the Chinese empire. Under tighter controls, the
Vietnamese people began to rebel. In A.D. 39 two women, the Trung sisters,
organized a revolt and overthrew the Chinese colonial rulers. The Trung sisters
ruled Vietnam for two years before China regained control. Over the next several
centuries other Vietnamese uprisings occurred, though with little success.
The fall of the Tang dynasty in the early 900s provided the Vietnamese
with another chance for independence, and this time they succeeded. In 939 a
Vietnamese general named Ngo Quyen rose up and defeated the Chinese forces. He
ruled for only a short time, however, before the country fell into chaos. For
the next two decades local warlords fought each other for power. Finally strong
rulers established a series of dynasties that brought some stability to Vietnam
and allowed the nation to develop.
One of the strongest dynasties, the Ly, ruled from 1009 to 1225. The Ly
built canals and roads, and developed agriculture. They also established a civil
service system with trained officials. But during this time Vietnam was attacked
repeatedly by China and other neighboring kingdoms. Over time these attacks
weakened the dynasty and hastened its collapse.
Under succeeding dynasties, however, Vietnam began to expand southward.
Attacking the kingdoms of Champa and Khmer—both areas of strong Indian
influence—Vietnam added new territory. Eventually it captured the Mekong delta
area and established borders much like those of modern Vietnam.
culture and society.
Because of its long occupation by China, Vietnam absorbed many traits of
Chinese civilization. The Vietnamese adopted Chinese as their writing system and
incorporated many features of Chinese government, including a Confucian-style
bureaucracy. Vietnam also embraced Chinese Buddhism. Buddhist learning, art, and
architecture became predominant features of Vietnamese culture.
Yet, as in Korea and Japan, Vietnam’s admiration for Chinese culture
did not lead to assimilation with China. The Vietnamese maintained many of their
traditional customs, such as the worship of nature spirits, practicing these
alongside Chinese customs. Chinese rule, while it left a strong cultural
imprint, actually made the Vietnamese more determined to preserve their own
culture and nation.