East Asia

History of East Asia

History of religions

Ancestor worship

What we know today as the ancient Chinese culture were developed in the northern area of modern China. The southern or western people spoke different languages and had their own cultures. Other areas, both the China today and other countries adopted the language, culture and thought of the northern China area gradually. The bronze products of Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 BCE) tell us the Chinese in that period, thus the people who lived in the northern China today, sacrificed people for their gods and ancestors. In that period, getting "barbarians" for sacrifice was one of main purposes of warring. This way of worship seemed to be abolished in the early period of Zhou Dynasty (1122–256 BCE), but ancestor worship has been the main feature of Chinese religion in more sophisticated and peaceful forms.

In other regions, including Korea, Japan and Vietnam, ancestor worship is the oldest form of religion in the record. Their ways of worship has been influenced Chinese religions which we handles on the below, and gradually synthesized into those religions or remains as an alternative. In Japan, ancestor worship was combined with animistic notions and developed into a polytheistic religion which we know as Shinto (literally Way of Deities).


Confucianism, more elaborated form of ancestor worship was a major influence on East Asian history. It was originated in the northern China in the 5th century BC and based on the Zhou Dynasty social system, including the ancestral worship. Confucianism showed a strong adherence toward existing hierarchy and respect for the authorities: aged, ancestor and political authority considered authentic by blood.

Debated during the Warring States Period and forbidden during the short-lived Qin Dynasty, Confucianism was chosen by Emperor Wu of Han for use as a political system to govern the Chinese state. Despite its loss of influence during the Tang Dynasty, Confucianist doctrine remained a mainstream Chinese orthodoxy for two millennia until the 20th century, when it was attacked by radical Chinese thinkers as a vanguard of a pre-modern system and an obstacle to China's modernization, eventually culminating in its repression during the Cultural Revolution in the People's Republic of China. After the end of the Cultural Revolution, Confucianism has been revived in mainland China, and both interest in and debate about Confucianism have surged.

The cultures most strongly influenced by Confucianism include those of Chinese culture, Korean culture, and Vietnamese culture. On the other hand, while Confucianism as philosophy was introduced in Japan, as well as its ritual tradition, the latter didn't become popular in Japan.


Buddhism, also one of major religion in East Asia, was introduced into China during the Han dynasty through Pakistan in the 1st century BC. Buddhism was originally introduced to Korea from China in 372, and eventually arrived in Japan around the turn of the 6th century.

For a long time Buddhism remained a foreign religion with a few believers in China, mainly taught by immigrant Indian teachers. In the mid of Tang dynasty, a fair amount of translations from Sanskrit into Chinese were done by Chinese priests, and Buddhism became one of major religions of Chinese as well as other two indigenous religions.

In Korea, Buddhism was surpassed by Confucianism and lost its actuality.

In Japan, Buddhism and Shinto was combined by a theological theory "Ryōbushintō", which says Shinto deities are avatars of various Buddhist entities including Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. This became the mainstream notion of Japanese religion and until when the Meiji government declared their separation in the mid 19th Century, for many Japanese people Buddhism and Shinto were one same religion.


The third philosophical element of East Asia is Taoism. In China, it affected Buddhism and develop the thought of void which would later ripe as Zen Buddhism. Also Taoism combined with the rural and vulgar religious feelings and developed its pantheon. Taoism is still widely believed in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Fengshui, a fortune telling related to location and colors is one of derivatives of Taoism.

Taoism was introduced to Korea from China during the Three Kingdoms period, and remains as a minor but significant element of Korean thought. Although Taoism did not dominate over Buddhism or Confucianism, it permeated all strata of the Korean populace, integrating with its native animism as well as Buddhist and Confucian institutions, temples, and ceremonies.

History before the 3rd Century


In East Asia, the Neolithic period may have began as early as 7500 BC. The earliest evidence suggests the existence of Pengtoushan culture in northern Hunan province around 7500 BC to 6100 BC, and Peiligang culture in Henan province around 7000 BC to 5000 BC.

The Jeulmun pottery period is sometimes labelled the "Korean Neolithic", but since intensive agriculture and evidence of European-style 'Neolithic' lifestyle is sparse at best, such terminology is misleading. The Jeulmun was a period of hunting, gathering, and small-scale cultivation of plants . Archaeologists sometimes refer to this life-style pattern as 'broad-spectrum hunting-and-gathering'.

The Jōmon period is a similar era in prehistoric Japan, with some characteristics of both Neolithic and Mesolithic culture.

Two civilizations in China

Civilizations were developed along two big rivers. In the northern area we would see dynasties which would invent Chinese characters or later Confucianism.The southern area whose people spoke different languages or dialects was gradually incorporated until the 2nd century BC, at least politically.

Chinese writing and language

The Chinese Script was historically used throughout the region, and is still used to some extent in most countries of the region. In most cases, the meaning of the characters remain unchanged, but the pronunciation differs between regions. Even within China, for example, a Cantonese person and a person from northern China probably cannot hold a conversation, but they can certainly understand each other by passing notes. The Chinese writing system is the oldest continuous writing system in the world (but by no means primitive). It was passed on first to Korea, and was part of the writing system there until the end of World War II, and to Japan, where it now forms a major component of the Japanese writing system. In Vietnam, classical Chinese (Han Tu) was used during the millennium of Chinese rule, with the vernacular Chu Nom script replacing it later on. However, this has now (since the early 20th century) been replaced completely by the Latin Alphabet-based Quoc Ngu. In these cultures, especially in China and Japan the educational level of person is traditionally measured by the quality of his or her calligraphy, rather than diction, as is sometimes the case in the west.

Though Korea, Japan, and Vietnam are not Chinese speaking regions, their languages have been heavily influenced by Chinese. Even though their writing systems have changed over time (with limited use of Chinese characters in Korea and none at all in modern Vietnam), Chinese is still found in the historical roots of many borrowed words, especially technical terms.

All under heaven

In classical Chinese political thought, the Emperor of China would nominally be the ruler of All under heaven. (That is, the entire world.) Although in practice there would be areas of the known world which were not under the control of the Emperor, in Chinese political theory the political rulers of those areas derived their power from the Emperor, and those monarchs were therefore his subjects. A great deal of East Asian history is affected by the efforts of Imperial China to exert influence over its neighbors.

The beginnings of Imperial China are typically associated with the unification of China in 221 BC under the First Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi.

Chinese influence to Korean Peninsula

Records of the Grand Historian and other sources state Chinese political influence stretched toward the South Manchuria and Northern Korea in the 3rd century BCE, as a part of Yan kingdom. In the 2nd century BCE, after Qin destroyed Yan, the Yan emigrant founded Wiman Joseon in the northern Korea, the oldest Korean kingdom whose existence is assured by archeology. In 108 BC Wiman Joseon was destroyed by Emperor Wu of Han and its territory was incorporated into Han. Han settled Lelang Commandery. While Lelang Commandery and its successive four commanderies aimed to govern Manchuria and North Korea originally, it was losing control of Manchuria and then of North Korea and finally abolished in 313 AD. The administrative office of Lelang Commandery was situated in the location of the modern Pyongyang. The Chinese Commanderies brought many Chinese cultural elements to the surrounding area.

Silk Road

Many large empires, civilizations and cultures have existed on the Asian continent. Many ancient civilizations were influenced by the Silk Road, which connected China, India, the Middle East and Europe. The religions of Hinduism and Buddhism, which began in India, were an important influence on South and East Asia. Christianity, Nestorianism in particular, came to China via the Silk Road. While it had a significant presence in the Central Asia, but didn't got any significance in China and East Asia until modern missions from Europe and North America came in the 19th century. On the contrary, Silk Road passed Chinese products and inventions to the Western regions, including paper: papermaking was originated in China and considered one of Four Great Inventions of ancient China and known in the Middle East after Battle of Talas between the Arabs and the Chinese Tang Dynasty in 751.

Silk Road was also a way for intruders, or Turkic peoples from Central Asia. For Chinese dynasties one of their main foreign affairs were how to defeat those "barbarians". The Great Wall, started in the 2th century BC by the Qin dynasty, was one such attempt.

3rd Century to 16th Century

Introduction of the stirrup

The first dependable representation of a rider with paired stirrups was found in China in a Jin Dynasty tomb of about A.D. 322. This technology quickly spread throughout East Asia and eventually the rest of the world. It empowered the Mongol Empire to conquer a large part of Asia in the 13th century, an area extending from China to Europe.

Chinese political situation: Divisions and re-unification

China, Japan, and the wars of Korean unification

In 660 A.D., the Korean peninsula was divided into three kingdoms, Baekje, Silla and Goguryeo. Although they shared a similar language and culture, these three kingdoms constantly fought with each other for control of the peninsula. Furthermore, Goguryeo had been engaged in constant wars with the Chinese. This included the Goguryeo-Sui Wars, where the Kingdom of Goguryeo managed to repel the invading forces of the Sui Dynasty.

As the Kingdom of Silla conquered nearby city-states, she gained access to the Yellow Sea, making direct contact with the Tang Dynasty possible. The Tang Dynasty teamed up with Silla and formed a strategy to invade Goguryeo. Since Goguryeo had been able to repel earlier Chinese invasions from the North, perhaps Gorguryeo would fall if it were attacked by Silla from the south at the same time. However, in order to do this, the Tang-Silla alliance had to eliminate Goguryeo's nominal ally Baekje and secure a base of operations in southern Korea for a second front.

In 660, the coalition troops of Silla and Tang of China attacked Baekje, resulting in the annexation of Baekje by Silla. Together, Silla and Tang effectively eliminated Baekje when they captured the capital of Sabi, as well as Baekje's last king, Uija, and most of the royal family.

However, Yamato Japan and Baekje had been long-standing and very close allies. In 663, Baekje revival forces and a Japanese naval fleet convened in southern Baekje to confront the Silla forces in the Battle of Baekgang. The Tang dynasty also sent 7,000 soldiers and 170 ships. After five naval confrontations that took place in August 663 at Baekgang, considered the lower reaches of Tongjin river, the Silla-Tang forces emerged victorious.

The Silla-Tang forces turned their attention to Goguryeo. Although Goguryeo had repelled the Sui Dynasty a century earlier, attacks by the Tang Dynasty from the west proved too formidable. The Silla-Tang alliance emerged victorious in the Goguryeo-Tang Wars. Silla thus unified most of the Korean peninsula in 668.

But the kingdom's reliance on China's Tang Dynasty had its price. Silla had to forcibly resist the imposition of Chinese rule over the entire peninsula. Silla then fought for nearly a decade to expel Chinese forces to finally establish a unified kingdom as far north as modern Pyongyang.

Silla'a unification of Korea was short lived. The northern region of the defunct Goguryeo state later reemerged as Balhae, due to the leadership of former Goguryeo General Dae Joyeong.

Civil service

A government system supported by a large class of Confucian literati selected through civil service examinations was perfected under Tang rule. This competitive procedure was designed to draw the best talents into government. But perhaps an even greater consideration for the Tang rulers, aware that imperial dependence on powerful aristocratic families and warlords would have destabilizing consequences, was to create a body of career officials having no autonomous territorial or functional power base. As it turned out, these scholar-officials acquired status in their local communities, family ties, and shared values that connected them to the imperial court. From Tang times until the closing days of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, scholar officials functioned often as intermediaries between the grassroots level and the government. This model of government had an influence on Korea and Japan.

Printing Press

The first known movable type system was invented in China around 1040 AD by Pi Sheng (990-1051) (spelled Bi Sheng in the Pinyin system). Pi Sheng's type was made of baked clay. As described by the Chinese scholar Shen Kuo (1031–1095):

Invasions from Central Asia


Most sources credit the discovery of gunpowder to Chinese alchemists in the 9th century searching for an elixir of immortality. The discovery of gunpowder was probably the product of centuries of alchemical experimentation. Saltpetre was known to the Chinese by the mid-1st century AD and there is strong evidence of the use of saltpetre and sulfur in various largely medicine combinations. A Chinese alchemical text from 492 noted that saltpeter gave off a purple flame when ignited, providing for the first time a practical and reliable means of distinguishing it from other inorganic salts, making it possible to evaluate and compare purification techniques. By most accounts, the earliest Arabic and Latin descriptions of the purification of saltpeter do not appear until the 1200s.

The first reference to gunpowder is probably a passage in the Zhenyuan miaodao yaolüe, a Taoism text tentatively dated to the mid-800s:

Some have heated together sulfur, realgar and saltpeter with honey; smoke and flames result, so that their hands and faces have been burnt, and even the whole house where they were working burned down.

The earliest surviving recipes for gunpowder can be found in the Chinese military treatise Wujing zongyao of 1044 AD, which contains three: two for use in incendiary bombs to be thrown by siege engines and one intended as fuel for poison smoke bombs. The formulas in the Wujing zongyao range from 27 to 50 percent nitrate. Experimenting with different levels of saltpetre content eventually produced bombs, grenades, and land mines, in addition to giving fire arrows a new lease on life. By the end of the 12th century, there were cast iron grenades filled with gunpowder formulations capable of bursting through their metal containers. The 14th century Huolongjing contains gunpowder recipes with nitrate levels ranging from 12 to 91 percent, six of which approach the theoretical composition for maximal explosive force.

In China, the 13th century saw the beginnings of rocketry and the manufacture of the oldest gun still in existence, a descendant of the earlier fire-lance, a gunpowder-fueled flamethrower that could shoot shrapnel along with fire. The Huolongjing text of the 14th century also describes hollow, gunpowder-packed exploding cannonballs.

In the 13th century contemporary documentation shows gunpowder beginning to spread from China to the rest of the world, starting with Europe and the Islamic world. The Arabs acquired knowledge of saltpetre—which they called "Chinese snow" (thalj al-Sīn) —around 1240 and, soon afterward, of gunpowder; they also learned of fireworks ("Chinese flowers") and rockets ("Chinese arrows"). argues—contra the general notion that Arabic alchemy and chemistry did not know of saltpetre until the thirteenth century—that Arabs were purifying saltpetre by the eleventh. Gunpowder arrived in India by the mid-1300s, but could have been introduced by the Mongols perhaps as early as the mid-1200s.

16th century to 1945

1945 to present

During the Cold War, the northern parts of Asia were communist controlled with the Soviet Union and People's Republic of China, while western allies formed pacts such as CENTO and SEATO. Conflicts such as the Korean War, Vietnam War and Soviet invasion of Afghanistan were fought between communists and anti-communists.

See also

Histories for East Asia are listed by area in alphabetical order:


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