L. Shelton WOODS

A statue of the Manjusri bodhisattva, or guardian king, from Mahayana Buddhism, to which Korean Buddhists belongs. The bodhisattva sits astride a lion. Buddhism spread from China into Korea and Japan. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

During most of the recorded history of East Asia (Japan and Korea), China was the dominant force and exerted a great influence on the culture—religion, government, art, communication—of the other two nations.

In the seventeenth century, when European scholars presented their latest maps to the Chinese court, the Chinese were impressed with the scholars’ skill and technological sophistication. However, court officials were offended because China was not depicted at the center of the world. After all, historically China viewed itself as the Middle Kingdom; its centrist worldview was based on objective criteria. As late as the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), China continued to be the world’s most powerful nation in terms of population, commerce, size, wealth, technology, learning, fine arts, and literature. For most of the recorded history of East Asia (Japan and Korea) China was supreme. China was the source, not the recipient, of culture.

Periods of time have come and gone, like the waxing and waning of the moon, when Japan and Korea have resembled “little Chinas” because of their deliberate imitation of China, whereas other periods have had minimal interaction between these nations. China’s most significant influence on East Asian nations came during the early years of their recorded histories. For that reason Chinese culture remains at the root of East Asian society. Just as people are more influenced by experiences in their early years, Korea’s and Japan’s early years were marked by their acceptance of Chinese political, economic, ideological, and social patterns. What Korea and Japan adopted during their early civilizations became the foundation for their more mature civilizations.

Migrants from northern China were among the first inhabitants of Japan and Korea, where during the first millennium BCE these migrants developed a hunter-gatherer culture. The religion of the region was animistic (relating to the doctrine that the vital principle of organic development is immaterial spirit) and had an apparent reverence for nature and ancestors. Because Korea was attached to the continent, it (more than Japan) was influenced by the political machinations of China. During its Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) China directly ruled the Korean peninsula. However, early on a pattern between China and East Asia developed: When China faced internal crisis, its political influence in Japan and Korea diminished. Thus, the fall of the Han dynasty coincided with the increased power of the indigenous Korean kingdoms of Koguryo (37 BCE–668 CE), Paekche (18 BCE–663 CE), and Shilla (57 BCE–935 CE).

Economic stability, spurred by the development of rice agriculture, shifted the social structure of East Asia from a nomadic existence to a sedentary existence with geographical boundaries. As East Asian clans competed for supremacy over a particular state, they sought legitimacy for their positions by their affiliation with China. The political tug-of-war among the three native states in Korea and the emerging Japanese state of Yamato (300–552 CE) produced political hierarchies and centralized powers. The development of dominant states in East Asia coincided with China’s golden age—the period of the Sui (581–618 CE) and Tang (618–907 CE) dynasties. During this time Japan and Korea adopted Chinese patterns in philosophy, political structure, religion, and literature.

Spread of Buddhism

India is the homeland of the Buddha. However, by the Han dynasty Buddhism was beginning to flourish in the Middle Kingdom as its influence declined in India. Buddhism continued to move eastward. In 372 CE Buddhism was introduced to the Koguryo court in Korea. The religion spread throughout the peninsula as Chinese monks proselytized throughout Korea. At the same time Koreans traveled to China to study at influential monasteries. The implications of the Korean states’ acceptance of Buddhism as the metaphysical explanation of reality were great. The ties between China and Korea were now cemented by a shared religion. The sacred scriptures of Buddhism were written in Chinese characters, and the Koreans’ wish to understand Buddhism solidified the use of Chinese as the means of written communication throughout Korea. In addition to adopting the Chinese written language (which is a significant measure of Chinese influence) the Korean states adopted the architecture and art that accompanied Buddhism. Dominant Korean art forms reflected Chinese works—palaces and temples were built according to popular styles in China.

Elements of Buddhism migrated from Korea to Japan during the fifth century, but Buddhism’s official introduction did not occur until 552. Historians note that during the first half of the sixth century the state of Paekche was at war with Koguryo and Shilla and that, in an effort to bring Japan into the war, Paekche offered to introduce a glorious new truth to the islands if Japan offered its assistance. Thus, Buddhism was introduced to the Japanese court officially through Korea. The religion was adopted by the most powerful families at the court, who were relatively recent emigrants from the peninsula. As in Korea, Japan’s adoption of Buddhism affected art, language, and architecture in Japan. Chinese written language was the modes of written communication throughout the islands; Japanese art was hardly distinguishable from Chinese art.

Buddhism’s influence on East Asia occurred from the top down. The elite families first adopted it, although eventually it moved into all social classes. The prominent states sponsored the spread of Buddhism by building monasteries and providing economic relief to those people tending the temples. The state paid artisans to create Chinese-style Buddhist art pieces, and these media filtered down to the general population. Buddhism spread throughout East Asia because indigenous religions were still evolving and lacked the sophistication of Buddhism. The elaborate rituals, scriptures, art, and mantras that Buddhism offered were accompanied by other cultural influences from China.

Mere decades after Buddhism was introduced to Japan, China was united under the glorious Tang dynasty. The states of East Asia imitated the economic and political grandeur of Tang China. In politics Korea and Japan adopted the Tang concept of the state’s supremacy and the emperor’s complete authority. In Japan this concept firmly established the still-extant imperial throne. Korea and Japan also adopted the Tang form of taxation, which necessitated a more sophisticated way of assessing the land’s resources. The rulers of Japan and Korea partitioned their land into provinces, prefectures, and districts with the assumption that all land belonged to the state and that taxes were needed from those who worked the land. In Japan and Korea, as in China, rice was the currency of the day, and approximately 40 percent of a harvest was paid to the state. The adoption of Chinese economic and political patterns increased the political stability in East Asia. Korea and Japan, increasingly sinicized, continued to look to China for legitimacy, learning, and culture.

e degree of China’s influence during this time is shown in Japan’s so-called seventeen-point constitution, which was developed during the seventh century. The first point was the Confucian injunction that the goal of the state is to establish harmony above and friendliness below. The second point asserted that conversion to Buddhism would straighten everything crooked. In Korea academies were established just to teach the Confucian classics, and similar academies were established in Japan. The Confucian principles of filial piety and the rigid rules that govern relationships were spread through these institutions.

Transformation of Political Institutions

During the Tang dynasty political institutions were transformed in Korea and Japan. In Korea the government adapted the six ministries of the Tang government. In Japan the ministries of a central secretariat and the imperial household were added to the conventional six ministries of the Tang government. Chang’an, the capital of China, was the most cosmopolitan city of the eighth century. Korea and Japan sent ambassadors to Chang’an. Not only did Korea and Japan borrow the art and architecture of Chang’an but also they laid out their capitals in the checkerboard fashion of the Tang capital. Japan during the eighth century established Nara in the fashion of Chang’an. On the northern end of the Kyoto Plain the city of Heian was founded in 794 with dimensions of just over 5 by 5 kilometers, a bit more modest than the Chang’an dimensions of approximately 9.5 by 8 kilometers.

Japan and Korea also sought to establish a bureaucracy based on merit, as was the case in China. Japan and Korea set up positions in government structures with the understanding that the positions would be filled by men of rank. In 958 the Korean civil service exam was based on the Confucian classics, and a man advanced through knowledge of these Chinese works. However, by the tenth century an atrophy of Chinese influence was occurring in Korea and Japan. This atrophy was caused by the hard times that faced China after the fall of the Tang dynasty as well as by a fundamental shift in China’s state revenue system.

Although Korea and Japan emulated Tang China, aspects of the Chinese world did not quite fit the Korean and Japanese models. For example, China’s neighbors never fully integrated the merit-based bureaucracy system. Aristocratic families dominated the economic and political worlds of Japan and Korea, and an exam to level the playing field did negate the dominant role of the aristocrats. However, the true breakdown of the Chinese system in East Asia was caused by the increase of tax-free lands. In Japan and Korea parcels of land were given to monasteries and to families to whom the court owed favors. At the beginning these tax-free lands were minimal in size. However, they grew into enormous tax-free estates. The state could do nothing about its declining tax revenues because the estate owners either were under the patronage of the elite families or were from the elite families themselves. By the twelfth century tax-free religious or estate zones perhaps accounted for more than 50 percent of the land in Japan and Korea. With the steady decrease of revenue, the states found it difficult to respond to internal crises, particularly in trying to maintain peace in an time when marauding gangs preyed on farming villages. Villagers and estate owners turned away from the impotent state and to the warrior class for protection. Thus, the pattern of state control and a scholar-led bureaucracy subtly changed. In Japan true power moved from the imperial family to the bakufu (tent government) or military government led by the seii taishogun (barbarian-suppressing generalissimo, commonly called simply “shogun”), who was headquartered with his retainers and advisors.

Japan’s and Korea’s departure from the Chinese model in politics coincided with their adoption of indigenous written languages. The Chinese character-based written language was always a difficult fit in the Japanese and Korean polysyllabic and inflected languages. One compromise was to use Chinese characters to represent sounds rather than words. During the tenth century in Korea a system called idu—wherein Chinese characters represented sounds—became the means of written communication. By the fifteenth century a Korean phonetic system known today as “hangul” replaced the Chinese character-based written language on the peninsula. In Japan the women of the eleventh-century court led the way in writing Japanese, whereas the men continued to use Chinese characters. Moreover, the literature that the men produced was inferior to that of the more adaptable, but new, Japanese written language.

During the Yuan (1279–1368), Ming (1368–1644), and Qing (1644–1912) dynasties Korea and Japan continued to acknowledge the supremacy of China in East Asia. Granted, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537–1598) of Japan dreamed of invading China at the end of the sixteenth century, but his irreverent approach to China was the exception, not the rule. Buddhism, especially the Chan sect from China (called “Son” in Korean and “Zen” in Japanese), greatly influenced society in art, architecture, and philosophy during the premodern era of Korean and Japan. During the Tokugawa period (1600/1603–1868) of Japan the prevailing ideology was neo-Confucian thought because it validated the division among the elite, farmers, artisans, and merchants. In Korea the Choson dynasty (1392–1910) continued to defer to China. Three times a year the “little brother” sent tributary missions (goods or money paid in deference to and with respect for China), to the “elder brother.” During the time Confucian ideology was more thoroughly integrated into Korean society than it was in China.

Confirmation of China’s Weakness

However, East Asian nations noticed that during two of its last three dynasties China was ruled by outsiders: first the Mongols of the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) and then the Manchus of the Qing dynasty (1644–1912). China’s weakness was confirmed by humiliating defeats in its wars against the British during the nineteenth century. China made concessions to foreigners, and China’s undisputed leadership of East Asia was soon just a memory. During the last half of the nineteenth century both China and Japan sought to strengthen themselves. China wanted to stave off the Western imperial countries, and Japan wanted to be a first-class nation. Japan’s lack of respect for the once-proud leader of East Asia was shown in the 1894–1895 First Sino-Japanese War and subsequent severe Treaty of Shimonoseki (1895). Korea, the pawn in the game, was forced to recognize Japanese dominion.

The First Sino-Japanese War was a precursor to a much bloodier war between the two nations. Between 1937 and 1945 China and Japan fought in the War of Resistance against Japan, known outside China as the Second Sino-Japanese War. The tragedy at Nanjing—often referred to as the “Rape of Nanjing,” where Japanese soldiers butchered Chinese civilians—showed the animosity that Japan felt toward its old tutor. Some scholars speculate that this animosity was rooted in the Japanese embarrassment and disgust that the source of Japan’s culture had sunk so low. By contrast, Korea was made part of the Japanese empire (1910–1945). The Koreans, too, were treated harshly by their new colonial ruler.

East Asia after World War II can be understood only in the light of the Cold War. Sino-Japanese relations remained sour because of the memory of Japanese brutality during the war and because the United States for decades insisted that Japan not have relations with Communist China. The Korean Peninsula was partitioned into two countries, with North Korea having warmer relations with China. However, as China emerged as a free-market state, its relations w
ith South Korea improved, whereas North Korea continued to flounder because of its large military budget and the collapse of its once-powerful ally, the Soviet Union.

Korea and Japan have experienced a sweet-and-sour relationship with China. However, China’s influence on the two countries is beyond estimation because of the adoption of the Chinese pattern by the early civilizations of East Asia.

Transfer of Chinese Sugar-Making Technology to East and South-East Asia

Using the Chinese sugar-making technology as an example, China scholar Joseph Needham relates the importance of the transfer of technology from China to other countries in East and Southeast Asia.

In recent times concern with the transfer of Western technology to Third World countries seems to have diverted the attention of scholars away from the significant role played by technology transfer in the economic and social development of pre-modern Asia. In the following pages I will consider East and South-East Asia, demonstrating how individual States borrowed or received, a single agro-industrial sugar technology from China to aide their economic development.

As remarked earlier, domestic sugar production in China began to increase from the +16th century and expanded greatly with the immigration of Fukienese peasants to Taiwan, Chiang-Hsi and Kuang-Tung during the +17th century. Individuals or groups of people with knowledge of, or access to, all the component elements of the technological package effected the transfer and diffusion. Chinese immigrants took the package overseas from the late +16th century, and laid the technological foundations of pre-modern East and South-East Asian sugar production that lasted until the +20th century.

Source: Needham, J.. (1996) Science & civilisation in China, vol VI:3. Cambridge, U. K.: Cambridge University Press, 411.

Further Reading

Barnes, G. L. (1993). China, Korea and Japan: The rise of civilization in East Asia. London: Thames & Hudson.

Fairbank, J. K. (Ed.). (1968). The Chinese world order: Traditional China’s foreign relations. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Fogel, J. A. (1995). The cultural dimension of Sino-Japanese relations: Essays on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. New York: M. E. Sharpe.

Howe, C. (Ed.). (1996). China and Japan: History, trends, and prospects. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kim, J. H. (1978). The prehistory of Korea. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Lardy, N. R. (1987). China’s entry into the world economy: Implications for northeast Asia and the United States. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

Lee Chae-Jin. (1996). China and Korea: Dynamic relations. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press.

Pollack, D. (1986). The fracture of meaning: Japan’s synthesis of China from the eighth through the eighteenth centuries. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Sansom, G. (1958). A history of Japan to 1334. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Tanaka, S. (1993). Japan’s orient: Rendering pasts into history. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Tsunoda, R. (1968). Japan in the Chinese dynastic histories. Kyoto, Japan: Perkins Oriental Books.

Vasey, L. R. (1993). China’s growing military power and implications for East Asia. Honolulu, HI: Pacific ForumCSIS.

Yu Ying-shih. (1967). Trade and expansion in Han China: A study in the structure of Sino-barbarian economic relations. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Source: Woods, L. Shelton (2009). East Asia, Chinese Influence in. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 659–664. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Illustration from a Japanese book about China: The emperor gives amnesty to General Pang De. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

The white-robed bodhisattva of compassion (known in China as Guanyin and in Japan as Kannon). Hanging scroll, ink, color, and gold on silk. Japanese, Muromachi period, first half of the sixteenth century.

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