Chapter 13, The Spread of Chinese Civilization: Japan, Korea, and Vietnam Summary

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Chapter 13, The Spread of Chinese Civilization: Japan, Korea, and Vietnam

The people on China’s borders naturally emulated their great neighbor. Japan borrowed heavily from China during the 5th and 6th centuries when it began forming its own civilization. To the north and west of China, nomadic people and Tibet were also influenced. Vietnam and Korea were part of the Chinese sphere by the last centuries B.C.E. The agrarian societies of Japan, Korea, and Vietnam blended Chinese influences with their indigenous cultures to produce distinctive patterns of civilized development. In all three regions, Buddhism was a key force in transmitting Chinese civilization.

Key Concepts:

Japan: The Imperial Age:

  • The Chinese influence on Japan came to a peak in the Taika, Nara, Heian periods, (645-857). The Taika reforms restructured the government following the Chinese model. Confucianism permeated Japanese culture from top to bottom.

  • The Taika reforms were not completed because of resistance form the nobles and Buddhist monks. Moving the capital to Heian (Kyoto), the emperor Kammu hoped to avoid monastic opposition. Failing in this, he restored to the aristocracy all of their rights.

  • Heian society was extremely mannered and sophisticated, developing a poetic tradition in a Chinese script tailored to the Japanese language. The classic Tale of Genji symbolizes the aesthetic of the period, in particular the important, albeit limited, role of women at the Heian court.

  • The Fujiwara family was one of the most powerful, but typical in their cooperation with Buddhist monasteries to reduce the power of the emperors.

  • A new force came to challenge the court aristocracy: the bushi, or warrior leaders. Some were of noble origin, some not, but they had in common increasing power in their small domains, and the loyalty of samurai troops. Unchecked use of force led to the preeminence of a warrior class and a warrior culture. The code the samurai followed included the practice of seppuku, or ritual suicide following defeat. Growth of Samurai power accompanied the reduction of peasant status.

The Era of Warrior Dominance:

  • Chinese influence, and direct contact with China, waned in the 9th century. From the 11th century, court families, in conjunction with bushi allies, split the court with open rivalry. Eventually, open war broke out between the Taira and Minamoto families in the 1180’s.

  • The Gempei Wars ended with the ascendancy of the Minamoto at their new capital at Kamakura.

  • The bakufu government of the first Minamoto ruler, Yoritomo, was supported by shoguns, military leaders. The following centuries saw a complex system with titular emperors and Minamoto shoguns, real power being wielded by the Hojo family. The latter were supplanted by the Ashikaga Shogunate. Royal authority was a mere shadow, but the shoguns also lost power in the late 15th century, replaced by 300 daimyo kingdoms.

  • Court manners became irrelevant as making war took center stage. The plight of the peasants became desperate, leading to unsuccessful revolts. At the same time, the dynamism of some daimyos led to economic growth and the emergence of a merchant class. Among the merchant and artisans, women had a more prominent role, while women of elite families saw their lives constrained.

Korea: Between China and Japan:

  • Korea, although strongly linked to Chinese cultural and political developments, had distinct origins, and long followed its own path of development. The peninsula’s first kingdom, Choson, was conquered by China in 109 B.C.E., and subsequently Chinese settlers arrived. Korea broke form Chinese dominance, forming three kingdoms: Koguryo, Silla, and Paekche. As in Japan, Sinification adoption of Chinese culture was largely mediated by Buddhism. The Koguryo ruler applied a Chinese style law code.

  • Internal conflict int eh Three Kingdoms Era left Korea vulnerable to Chinese attack. The Tang allied with the Silla to destroy Paekche and koguryo, leaving the Silla a subject kingdom.

  • Sinification peaked under the Silla and Koryo rulers. Tribute and acknowledgement of Chinese authority created peaceful relations that stimulated Korean borrowing from Chinese culture.

  • Under the Silla, their capital at Kumsong copied the Tang capital. Both the royal family and the Korean elite supported Buddhism. While Korean borrowing from China was heavy, in the areas of pottery and printing, they exceeded their teachers.

  • Sinification was limited to Korean elite, while indigenous artisanry was allowed to decline. All of Korean society was arranged to serve the needs of the aristocracy.

  • Periodic popular revolts were successful only in weakening the Silla and Koryo monarchies. The Mongol invasion in 1231 began a period of strife, ending with the founding of the Yi dynasty in 1392.

Between China and Southeast Asia: The Making of Vietnam

  • The early history of the Viet people is little known. Early Chinese raids into Vietnam in the 220’s B.C.E increased trade. Intermarriage with Mon-Khmer and Tai language groups furthered the development of a distinct Vietnamese ethnicity. Many early traditions separated them from the Chinese, such as the nuclear family pattern and a greater role for women.

  • The Han became dissatisfied with merely exacting tribute from the Viet rulers and began direct rule in 111 B.C.E Sinification increased, and was used by the Viet rulers to consolidate their power over both their own peoples and those to the west and south.

  • In spite of Chinese expectations, the Viets never became assimilated to Chinese culture. Indeed, a culture of anti-Chinese resistance developed. The rising of the Trung sisters in 39 C.E. underlined the continuing prominent role of Vietnamese women.

  • Continuing Chinese influence in Vietnam depended on overcoming physical barriers, and on the competence of Chinese rulers. Following the fall of the Tang, the Vietnamese freed themselves completely by 939. Yet Chinese influence continued, particularly in the administration. An important exception was the scholar-gentry who never gained an important role in the Vietnamese regime.

  • The lands of the Chams and Khmers attracted the Vietnamese. From the 11th to the 18th centuries, the latter steadily expanded their territory at the expense of the Chams. Subsequently, they attacked the Khmers in the Mekong delta.

  • The new southern territories were controlled only with difficulty by Hanoi. The Trinh family, ruling the north, was challenged by the southern Nguyen family. The conflict left the Vietnamese oblivious to an outside threat: the French and the Catholic Church.

Key Terms:

Taika Reforms

Fujiwara Family



Tale of Genji

Middle Kingdom



Trung Sisters

Yi Dynasty

Essay Questions:

  1. How did the Japanese importation of Chinese culture differ from that of Vietnam and Korea?

  2. Discuss the government of Japan between the Gempei wars and the Tokugawa Shogunate.

  3. How did the social development of post classical Japan differ from the development of Korea during the period of Chinese influence?

  4. Why was China unable to assimilate the Vietnamese despite direct rule for almost a millennium?

  5. How did the extension of Chinese culture to its satellite civilizations differ from other global civilizations such as Islam?

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