History of East Asia

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The history of East Asia goes back as far as 7500 BC in the prehistoric Neolithic period, includes the empire period of China and continues into the present day.


Main article: Prehistoric Asia

Homo erectus ("upright man") is believed to have lived in East and Southeast Asia from 1.8 million to 40,000 years ago.[1] Their regional distinction is classified as Homo erectus sensu stricto.[2]

Fossils representing 40 Homo erectus individuals, known as Peking Man, were found near Beijing at Zhoukoudian that date to about 400,000 years ago. The species was believe to have lived for at least several hundred thousand years in China,[1] and possibly until 200,000 years ago in Indonesia. They may have been the first to use fire and cook food.[3]

Homo sapiens migrated into inland Asia, likely by following herds of bison and mammoth and arrived in southern Siberia by about 43,000 years ago and some people move south or east from there.[4][5]

The earliest sites of neolithic culture include Nanzhuangtou culture around 9500 BC to 9000 BC,[6] Pengtoushan culture around 7500 BC to 6100 BC, Peiligang culture around 7000 BC to 5000 BC.

The Jeulmun pottery period is sometimes labeled the "Korean Neolithic", but since intensive agriculture and evidence of European-style 'Neolithic' lifestyle is sparse at best, such terminology is misleading.[7] The Jeulmun was a period of hunting, gathering, and small-scale cultivation of plants.[8] Archaeologists sometimes refer to this life-style pattern as 'broad-spectrum hunting-and-gathering'.

The Jōmon period occurred in Japan from circa 14,000 BC to 300BC, with some characteristics of both Neolithic and Mesolithic culture.

Ancient civilizations in East Asia[edit]

Ancient Chinese dynasties[edit]

Main article: History of China

The Xia dynasty of China (from c. 2100 to c. 1600 BC) is the first dynasty to be described in ancient historical records such as Sima Qian's Records of the Grand Historian and Bamboo Annals.[9][10]

Following this was the Shang dynasty, which ruled in the Yellow River valley. The classic account of the Shang comes from texts such as the Classic of History, Bamboo Annals and Records of the Grand Historian. According to the traditional chronology, the Shang ruled from 1766 BC to 1122 BC, but according to the chronology based upon the "current text" of Bamboo Annals, they ruled from 1556 BC to 1046 BC.

The Zhou dynasty of (c. 1046–256 BC lasted longer than any other dynasty in Chinese history. However, the actual political and military control of China by the dynasty, surnamed Ji (Chinese: ), lasted only until 771 BC, a period known as the Western Zhou. This period of Chinese history produced what many consider the zenith of Chinese bronze-ware making. The dynasty also spans the period in which the written script evolved into its modern form with the use of an archaic clerical script that emerged during the late Warring States period.


Main article: Confucianism

Confucianism is an ethical and philosophical system developed during the Spring and Autumn Period. It later developed metaphysical and cosmological elements in the Han Dynasty.[11] Following the official abandonment of Legalism in China after the Qin Dynasty, Confucianism became the official state ideology of the Han. Nonetheless, from the Han period onwards, most Chinese emperors have used a mix of Legalism and Confucianism as their ruling doctrine. The disintegration of the Han in the second century CE opened the way for the soteriological doctrines of Buddhism and Taoism to dominate intellectual life at that time.

A Confucian revival began during the Tang dynasty. In the late Tang, Confucianism developed aspects on the model of Buddhism and Taoism and was reformulated as Neo-Confucianism. This reinvigorated form was adopted as the basis of the imperial exams and the core philosophy of the scholar official class in the Song dynasty. The abolition of the examination system in 1905 marked the end of official Confucianism. The New Culture intellectuals of the early twentieth century blamed Confucianism for China's weaknesses. They searched for new doctrines to replace Confucian teachings, some of these new ideologies include the "Three Principles of the People" with the establishment of the Republic of China, and then Maoism under the People's Republic of China.

Historically, cultures and countries strongly influenced by Confucianism include mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, as well as various territories settled predominantly by Chinese people, such as Singapore. In the 20th century, Confucianism’s influence has been greatly reduced. More recently, there have been talks of a "Confucian Revival" in the academia and the scholarly community.[12][13]


Main article: Buddhism

Buddhism has also been a major influence on east Asian culture. It was introduced to China during the Han dynasty.


Main article: Taoism

The first organized form of Taoism, the Tianshi (Celestial Masters') school (later known as Zhengyi school), developed from the Five Pecks of Rice movement at the end of the 2nd century CE; the latter had been founded by Zhang Daoling, who claimed that Laozi appeared to him in the year 142.[14] The Tianshi school was officially recognized by ruler Cao Cao in 215, legitimizing Cao Cao's rise to power in return.[15] Laozi received imperial recognition as a divinity in the mid-2nd century BCE.[16]

Taoism, in form of the Shangqing school, gained official status in China again during the Tang Dynasty (618–907), whose emperors claimed Laozi as their relative.[17] The Shangqing movement, however, had developed much earlier, in the 4th century, on the basis of a series of revelations by gods and spirits to a certain Yang Xi in the years between 364 to 370.[18]

Qin and Han Dynastys[edit]

Extent of Qin Dynasty
Main article: Qin Dynasty
Main article: Han Dynasty

In 221 BC, the state of Qin succeeded in conquering the other six states, creating the first imperial dynasty of China for the first time. Following the death of the emperor Qin Shi Huangdi, the Qin dynasty collapsed and control was taken over by the Han dynasty in 206 BC. In AD 220, the Han empire collapsed into the Three Kingdoms. The series of trade routes known as Silk Road began during the Han dynasty.

Divisions and re-unification of China[edit]

Three Kingdoms Period[edit]

Three Kingdoms on the eve of conquest of Shu by Wei
Main article: Three Kingdoms

The Three Kingdoms Period consisted of the kingdom of Wei, Shu, and Wu. It began when the ruler of Wei, Cao Cao, was defeated by Liu Bei and Sun Quan at the Battle of Red Cliffs. After Cao Cao's death in AD 220, his son Cao Pi became emperor of Wei. Liu Bei and Sun Quan declared themselves emperor of Shu and Wu respectively. Many famous personages in Chinese history were born during this period, including Hua Tuo and the great military strategist Zhuge Liang. Buddhism, which was introduced during the Han Dynasty, also became popular in this period. Two years after Wei conquered Shu in AD 263, Sima Yan, Wei's Imperial Chancellor, overthrew Wei and started the Western Jin Dynasty. The conquest of Wu by the Western Jin Dynasty ended the Three Kingdoms period, and China was unified again. However, the Western Jin did not last long. Following the death of Sima Yan, the War of the Eight Princes began. This war weakened the Jin Dynasty, and it soon fell to the kingdom of Han Zhao. This ushered in the Sixteen Kingdoms.

Southern and Northern Dynasties[edit]

Northern and Southern Dynasties

The Northern Wei was established by the Tuoba clan of the Xianbei people in AD 386, when they united the northern part of China. During the Northern Wei, Buddhism flourished, and became an important tool for the emperors of the Northern Wei, since they were believed to be living incarnations of Buddha. Soon, the Northern Wei was divided into the Eastern Wei and Western Wei. These were followed by the Northern Zhou and Northern Qi. In the south, the dynasties were much less stable than the Northern Dynasties. The four dynasties were weakened by conflicts between the ruling families.


Buddhism, also one of the major religions in East Asia, was introduced into China during the Han dynasty from Nepal 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. During the Tang dynasty, a fair amount of translations from Sanskrit into Chinese were done by Chinese priests, and Buddhism became one of the major religions of the Chinese along with the other two indigenous religions.

In Korea, Buddhism was not seen to conflict with the rites of nature worship; it was allowed to blend in with Shamanism. Thus, the mountains that were believed to be the residence of spirits in pre-Buddhist times became the sites of Buddhist temples. Though Buddhism initially enjoyed wide acceptance, even being supported as the state ideology during the Goguryeo, Silla, Baekje, Balhae, and Goryeo periods, Buddhism in Korea suffered extreme repression during the Joseon Dynasty.

In Japan, Buddhism and Shinto were 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. In fact until the Meiji government declared their separation in the mid-19th century, many Japanese people believed that Buddhism and Shinto were one religion.

In Mongolia, Buddhism flourished two times; first in the Mongol Empire (13th-14th centuries), and finally in the Manchu Qing Dynasty (16th-19th centuries) from Tibet in the last 2000 years. It was mixed in with Tengeriism and Shamanism.

Sui Dynasty[edit]

Main article: Sui Dynasty

In AD 581, Yang Jian overthrew the Northern Zhou, and established the Sui Dynasty. Later, Yang Jian, who became Sui Wendi, conquered the Chen Dynasty, and united China. However, this dynasty was short-lived. Sui Wendi's successor, Sui Yangdi, expanded the Grand Canal, and launched four disastrous wars against the Goguryeo. These projects depleted the resources and the workforce of the Sui. In AD 618, Sui Yangdi was murdered. Li Yuan, the former governor of Taiyuan, declared himself the emperor, and founded the Tang Dynasty.

Three Kingdoms of Korea[edit]

Map of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, at the end of the 5th century.

B.C 58, 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, they 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[edit]

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[edit]

Jiaozi (currency), 11th century paper-printed money from the Song Dynasty.

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).[19] Pi Sheng's type was made of baked clay. As described by the Chinese scholar Shen Kuo (1031–1095)

The world's first metal-based movable type printing press was invented in Korea in 1234. That was 210 years before Johannes Gutenberg from Germany did.

Jikji is the world's oldest extant movable metal print book. it was published in Heungdeok Temple in 1377, 78 years prior to Johannes Gutenberg's "42-Line Bible" printed during the years 1452-1455.

Invasions from Central Asia[edit]

The expansion of the Mongol Empire.
Main article: Mongol Empire


Main article: History of gunpowder
A Mongol bomb thrown against a charging Japanese samurai during the Mongol invasions of Japan, 1281.

Most sources credit the discovery of gunpowder to Chinese alchemists in the 9th century searching for an elixir of immortality.[20] The discovery of gunpowder was probably the product of centuries of alchemical experimentation.[21] 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.[22] 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.[21] By most accounts, the earliest Arabic and Latin descriptions of the purification of saltpeter do not appear until the 13th century.[21][23]

The first reference to gunpowder is probably a passage in the Zhenyuan miaodao yaolüe, a Taoism text tentatively dated to the mid-9th century:[21]

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.[24]

The earliest surviving recipes for gunpowder can be found in the Chinese military treatise Wujing zongyao[21] 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.[25] The formulas in the Wujing zongyao range from 27 to 50 percent nitrate.[26] 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.[21] By the end of the 12th century, there were cast iron grenades filled with gunpowder formulations capable of bursting through their metal containers.[27] 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.[26]

In China, the 13th century saw the beginnings of rocketry[28][29] and the manufacture of the oldest gun still in existence,[21][30] 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.[31]

Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD) matchlock firearms

In the 13th century contemporary documentation shows gunpowder beginning to spread from China by the Mongols to the rest of the world, starting with Europe[23] and the Islamic world.[32] The Arabs acquired knowledge of saltpetre—which they called "Chinese snow" (Arabic: ثلج الصينthalj al-ṣīn) —around 1240 and, soon afterward, of gunpowder; they also learned of fireworks ("Chinese flowers") and rockets ("Chinese arrows").[32][33] Persians called saltpeter "Chinese salt" [34][35][36][37][38] or "salt from Chinese salt marshes" (namak shūra chīnī Persian: نمک شوره چيني‎).[39][40] Historian Ahmad Y. al-Hassan argues—contra the general notion—that the Chinese technology passed through Arabic alchemy and chemistry before the 13th century.[41] Gunpowder arrived in India by the mid-14th century, but could have been introduced by the Mongols perhaps as early as the mid-13th century.[42]

16th century to 1945[edit]

See also[edit]

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


  1. ^ a b Peking Man. The History of Human Evolution. American Museum of Natural History. April 23, 2014.
  2. ^ Evolutionary Tree Information. Human Origins. Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved April 23, 2014.
  3. ^ Homo erectus. London: Natural History Museum. Retrieved April 23, 2014.
  4. ^ By Land and Sea. American Museum of Natural History. Retrieved April 23, 2014.
  5. ^ Steppes into Asia. American Museum of Natural History. Retrieved April 23, 2014.
  6. ^ http://www.pnas.org/content/109/10/3726.full
  7. ^ Lee 2001
  8. ^ Lee 2001, 2006
  9. ^ "Public Summary Request Of The People's Republic Of China To The Government Of The United States Of America Under Article 9 Of The 1970 Unesco Convention". Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, U.S. State Department. Archived from the original on 15 December 2007. Retrieved 12 January 2008. [dead link]
  10. ^ "The Ancient Dynasties". University of Maryland. Retrieved 12 January 2008. 
  11. ^ Craig 1998, p. 550.
  12. ^ Benjamin Elman, John Duncan and Herman Ooms ed. Rethinking Confucianism: Past and Present in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam (Los Angeles: UCLA Asian Pacific Monograph Series, 2002).
  13. ^ Yu Yingshi, Xiandai Ruxue Lun (River Edge: Global Publishing Co. Inc. 1996).
  14. ^ Robinet 1997, p. 54
  15. ^ Robinet 1997, p. 1
  16. ^ Robinet (1997), p. 50.
  17. ^ Robinet (1997), p. 184.
  18. ^ Robinet 1997, p. 115
  19. ^ Needham, Volume 5, Part 1, 201.
  20. ^ Bhattacharya (in Buchanan 2006, p. 42) acknowledges that "most sources credit the Chinese with the discovery of gunpowder" though he himself disagrees.
  21. ^ a b c d e f g Chase 2003:31–32
  22. ^ Buchanan. "Editor's Introduction: Setting the Context", in Buchanan 2006.
  23. ^ a b Kelly 2004:23–25
  24. ^ Kelly 2004:4
  25. ^ Kelly 2004:10
  26. ^ a b Needham 1986:345–346
  27. ^ Needham 1986:347
  28. ^ Crosby 2002:100–103
  29. ^ Needham 1986:12
  30. ^ Needham 1986:293–294
  31. ^ Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 264.
  32. ^ a b Urbanski 1967, Chapter III: Blackpowder
  33. ^ Needham 1986:108
  34. ^ Peter Watson (2006). Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud. HarperCollins. p. 304. ISBN 978-0-06-093564-1. The first use of a metal tube in this context was made around 1280 in the wars between the Song and the Mongols, where a new term, chong, was invented to describe the new horror...Like paper, it reached the West via the Muslims, in this case the writings of the Andalusian botanist Ibn al-Baytar, who died in Damascus in 1248. The Arabic term for saltpetre is 'Chinese snow' while the Persian usage is 'Chinese salt'.28 
  35. ^ Cathal J. Nolan (2006). The age of wars of religion, 1000–1650: an encyclopedia of global warfare and civilization. Volume 1 of Greenwood encyclopedias of modern world wars. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 365. ISBN 0-313-33733-0. Retrieved 2011-11-28. In either case, there is linguistic evidence of Chinese origins of the technology: in Damascus, Arabs called the saltpeter used in making gunpowder " Chinese snow," while in Iran it was called "Chinese salt." Whatever the migratory route 
  36. ^ Oliver Frederick Gillilan Hogg (1970). Artillery: its origin, heyday, and decline. Archon Books. p. 123. The Chinese were certainly acquainted with saltpetre, the essential ingredient of gunpowder. They called it Chinese Snow and employed it early in the Christian era in the manufacture of fireworks and rockets. 
  37. ^ Oliver Frederick Gillilan Hogg (1963). English artillery, 1326–1716: being the history of artillery in this country prior to the formation of the Royal Regiment of Artillery. Royal Artillery Institution. p. 42. The Chinese were certainly acquainted with saltpetre, the essential ingredient of gunpowder. They called it Chinese Snow and employed it early in the Christian era in the manufacture of fireworks and rockets. 
  38. ^ Oliver Frederick Gillilan Hogg (1993). Clubs to cannon: warfare and weapons before the introduction of gunpowder (reprint ed.). Barnes & Noble Books. p. 216. ISBN 1-56619-364-8. Retrieved 2011-11-28. The Chinese were certainly acquainted with saltpetre, the essential ingredient of gunpowder. They called it Chinese snow and used it early in the Christian era in the manufacture of fireworks and rockets. 
  39. ^ Partington, J. R. (1960). A History of Greek Fire and Gunpowder (illustrated, reprint ed.). JHU Press. p. 335. ISBN 0801859549. Retrieved 2014-11-21. 
  40. ^ Needham, Joseph; Yu, Ping-Yu (1980). Needham, Joseph, ed. Science and Civilisation in China: Volume 5, Chemistry and Chemical Technology, Part 4, Spagyrical Discovery and Invention: Apparatus, Theories and Gifts. Volume 5 (Issue 4 of Science and Civilisation in China). Contributors Joseph Needham, Lu Gwei-Djen, Nathan Sivin (illustrated, reprint ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 194. ISBN 052108573X. Retrieved 2014-11-21. 
  41. ^ al-Hassan, Ahmad Y.. "Potassium Nitrate in Arabic and Latin Sources". History of Science and Technology in Islam. Retrieved 2007-07-24. 
  42. ^ Chase 2003:130

Further Reading[edit]