The Spread Of Chinese Civilization To Japan: Part I



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The Spread Of Chinese Civilization To Japan: Part I
Author: Stearns, Peter N.


The Spread Of Chinese Civilization To Japan

Although its full impact on global history has not been felt until the last century or so, the transmission of key elements in Chinese culture to the offshore islands that came to make up Japan clearly provides one of the most important examples of the spread of civilization from a central core area to neighboring or overseas peoples. In the 1st centuries A.D., the peoples of Japan imported a wide range of ideas, techniques of production, institutional models, and material objects from the Chinese mainland. After adapting these imports to make them compatible with the quite sophisticated culture they had previously developed, the Japanese used what they had borrowed from China to build a civilization of their own. New patterns of rice growing and handicraft production enhanced the economic base of the Yamato clan chieftains who, beginning in the 3d century A.D., extended their control over the most populous regions of the main Japanese island of Honshu.

The Chinese writing system was laboriously adapted to the spoken language of the Japanese and provided key vehicles for intellectual creativity and building a more centralized political system. Often transmitted from China through Korea, Buddhist religious beliefs and art forms enriched Japanese culture at both the elite and popular levels. At the Japanese court and in the peasant villages, these new influences were blended with well-established indigenous traditions of nature worship, which came to be known collectively as Shintoism. Thus, the Japanese developed a unique civilization from a blend of their own culture and a selective importation and conscious refashioning of Chinese influences.

The capacity of the Japanese to adopt Chinese culture distinguishes them
from many of the other peoples who were also strongly affected by the expansion of Chinese civilization from its core regions along the Yellow River. For the most part, this expansion was overland and more or less connected to the regions that formed the original Chinese core. It moved southward to the series of river valleys and coastal plains that stretched from the Yangtze basin to northern Vietnam; eastward to the tributary kingdoms of the Korean peninsula; and west and north to the nomadic peoples, who exchanged goods and borrowed cultural elements from the Chinese but fought to resist their overlordship. Very often Chinese civilization, as in the areas south of the Yangtze River and in Vietnam, was spread by war and conquest and imposed as a unified whole on conquered peoples rather than being selectively adopted by them.

Few of these more typical patterns of Chinese expansion were found in the interaction between China and Japan. The extension of Chinese influences to the Japanese islands was necessarily by sea rather than overland. Instead of conquering armies, merchants and traveling monks - and eventually Japanese students who studied in China - were the most important agents by which elements of Chinese culture were transmitted. Especially in the early centuries of borrowing, from the 1st to the 5th centuries A.D., interchange between China and Japan was largely indirect. It was mediated by the peoples and kingdoms of Korea, who had grafted key aspects of Chinese civilization to their own cultures somewhat earlier than the Japanese.

In contrast to the Vietnamese and the peoples of South China, the Japanese initiated and controlled the process of cultural borrowing from China. Despite a willingness to acknowledge the cultural superiority of the Chinese Middle Kingdom, the Japanese retained their political independence throughout the centuries of intense borrowing. Consequently, the Japanese could be more selective in their adoption of Chinese ideas and institutions than most of the other peoples who came under the influences emanating from China.

Natural Setting And The Peopling Of The Islands

The four main islands that make up the homeland of the Japanese people rise abruptly and dramatically from the Pacific Ocean along the northeast coast of Asia. Formed by volcanic eruptions that still occur periodically, the islands are dominated by mountains and rugged hills. Only a small portion of their surface area is level and extensive enough for the cultivation of wet rice, which from prehistoric times has been the staple of the Japanese diet. Thus, from the period of the earliest settlements, the Japanese have mainly occupied the coastal plains, especially in the south-central portions of the largest island of Honshu, which remain the most heavily populated areas of the islands today.

Though poor in natural resources, the islands are difficult to match in their combination of temperate climate and subtle natural beauty. Their forest-covered and mist-shrouded hills and glittering inland seas have instilled in the Japanese people a refined aesthetic sensibility and sensitivity to the natural world that have been reflected in their religion,


art, and architecture from prehistoric ages to the present. At the same time, the islands' limited resource base nurtured a disciplined, hardworking population that was regulated by strict legal codes and ruled through much of the islands' history by warrior elites. Foreign visitors from the Chinese have commented these characteristics of the Japanese people on in the early centuries A.D. to Europeans and Americans in the modern era.

Archeological evidence suggests that as early as 5000 B.C. the ancestors of the Japanese people had begun to migrate to the islands. Drawn from numerous and diverse East Asian ethnic groups (and perhaps Southeast Asia and Polynesia), the migrants came in small bands and, periodically, larger waves over many centuries. One of these waves of migrants produced the Jomon culture in the 3d millennium B.C. The Jomon were a hunting-and-gathering people, who lived in pits dug in the ground. They produced a distinctive pottery, whose cordlike decoration gave the people their name.

Most of the new settlers crossed to the islands from the Korean peninsula and Manchuria. Because they were relatively isolated from political upheavals and social transformations occurring on the mainland, by the 1st centuries A.D. the diverse migrant streams had blended into a relatively homogenous population with a distinctive Japanese language, culture, and physical appearance. By then they had driven the Ainu, who had settled the islands before them, into northern Honshu and Hokkaido. Over the past two millennia, the Japanese have gradually displaced or absorbed the remaining Ainu, building in the process a strong sense of cultural and ethnic identity.

The critical role played by Buddhism in the transmission of key elements of Chinese civilization to Japan is strikingly illustrated by early Buddhist monastaries and temples such as this one at Nara. Comparison with the Shinto shrine at Ise underscores the contrast between the sparse indigenous art and architectural styles and the more ornate Buddhist structures that were modeled on Chinese prototypes.]



Indigenous Culture And Society

Long before distinctively Chinese cultural influences began to shape Japanese historical development, the indigenous peoples of the islands had taken significant steps toward the creation of a civilization of their own. In the last centuries B.C., migrants from the mainland introduced wet-rice agriculture and iron working into Japan. In this period, which is known as the Yayoi epoch, the Japanese also produced wheel-turned pottery and very sophisticated bronzeware, including elaborately decorated bells that were sometimes four and five feet high.

Until the early 5th century A.D., most of the Japanese population was divided into hundreds of clans, whose members worshiped a clan deity and claimed common descent from a real or fictitious ancestor. Each of these clans was dominated by a small warrior aristocracy. The clan elites drew their support from the peasantry, which made up over 90 percent of the population of the islands. It was also served by slaves, who like their counterparts in China were only a small minority of the Japanese people. Early visitors from the mainland noted the rigid social distinctions, including different sorts of tattoos and other body markings that separated the warrior elite from the mass of the people. They also remarked on the strong position women enjoyed in early Japanese culture, in marked contrast to their clear subordination in China. Early Japanese households appear to have been matriarchal, that is, dominated by childbearing women. Women also played key roles as shamans – who were central to Japanese religious ceremonies and worship - as leaders of some of the clans, and later as empresses.

The importance of women in early Japanese culture is also indicated by their legends regarding the creation of the world. In these tales the sun goddess, Amaterasu, played a central role, and her worship became the central element in the Shinto religion developed by the island peoples. Shinto devotees worshipped numerous gods and spirits associated with the natural world. Some of these deities were identified with objects, such as huge trees or mountains like the famous Mount Fuji. Others were linked to animals, such as foxes and snakes that were believed to possess special powers. Gods and spirits were believed to be capable of doing good or evil to humans. To ensure that they brought blessings rather than misfortune, the Japanese made offerings of food and prayers to the gods and nature spirits at special shrines. These structures were built of unfinished wood and notable for their simple lines and lack of ornamentation. They gave rise to a unique Shinto style of Japanese architecture that persists to the present day and has had a considerable impact on architecture in the modern world.

In the 4th and 5th centuries A.D., when one of the clans, the Yamato, gained increasing dominance over the others, an imperial cult developed around the sun goddess and Shinto worship. A central shrine was established on the island of Ise, and the priest-chief heads of the Yamato clan claimed descent from the sun goddess herself. Building upon this powerful source of legitimacy, the Yamato brought most of the lowland plains of the southern islands under their control through alliances and conquest. By the late 4th century A.D., their sway also extended to southern Korea. Though marginal in the amount of territory involved, this overseas extension of the Yamato domains brought intensified contacts with Chinese civilization, then about to enter into one of its most illustrious phases. The combination of these contacts and the Yamatos' successful campaigns to unify the Japanese people led to profound transformations in Japanese society and culture in the following centuries.



Part I:


  1. Before you read the article, define “cultural borrowing”




  1. What specifically have the Japanese “borrowed” from China? How (and why) did the Japanese differ from other cultures in how they adapted to Chinese culture?




  1. Why do most Japanese live on the coast rather than in the interior?


  1. What innovation in the 4th century AD was a “turning point” in Japanese cultural development and why?


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