Chapter 12 Transformations in Asia, 220-1350 A.D.

Section 2 Korea, Japan, and Vietnam 

The 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.

The Emergence of Civilization in Korea

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 Korean peninsula.

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 rebellions.

            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.”[9]

Korean 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.

The Rise of Japanese Civilization

Like 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 early days.

            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.

Early 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 society: 

“The 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 purification.”[10] 

            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.

China 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.

The Taika reform.  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.

Imperial 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:  

“Early 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.”[11]  

            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 sensibility.  

The Emergence of Feudal Japan

By 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 government.

            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.  

The shogunate. In 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.

Civilization in Vietnam

Like 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.

The 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.

The 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 kingdom.  

            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.”[12]

            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.

Vietnam gains independence.  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.

Vietnamese 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.