KEY POINTS across East Asia—by Era

1000-1450 CE


China's “Golden Age”: The Song, the Mongols, and the Ming Voyages

  • This period of Chinese history, from roughly 600-1600 C.E., is a period of stunning development in China.
    • From the Tang (discussed in the unit on the Tang Dynasty)
    • through the "pre-modern" commercial and urban development of the Song, ca. 1000,
    • to the Ming voyages of exploration (1405- 1433) with ships that reach the coast of Africa.
      (The achievements of China under the Song are the subject of Marco Polo's "fantastic" reports when he journeys to China under the Mongols, who rule in China for eighty-nine years (1279- 1368) as the Yuan dynasty, between the Song and Ming)

China's Preeminence under the Song (960-1279) and Commercial Development

  • The Song dynasty (960-1279) follows the Tang (618-906) and the two together constitute what is often called "China's Golden Age."
    • The use of paper money,
    • the introduction of tea drinking, and
    • the inventions of gunpowder, the compass, and printing all occur under the Song.
      (The fact that the dynasty spans the year 1000 may make it easier for students to locate these developments in time.)
  • The Song is distinguished by enormous commercial growth that historians refer to as "pre-modern" in character.
    • The growth in a) the production of non-agricultural goods in a rural and household context ("cottage industries" such as silk), and in b) the production of cash crops that are sold not consumed (tea), leads to the extension of market forces into the everyday life of ordinary people.
    • When this commercial development takes place in European history it is labeled "proto-industrial" growth by historians, important in European history because it is succeeded by industrialization where the production moves to cities. (In Japanese history, historians see these pre-modern and proto-industrial developments taking place in the Tokugawa period, 1600-1868.)
    • In China, the production of nonagricultural goods at the household level begins in Song and remains an important form of production and market development in China until the 20th century. China is distinguished by early development in this area.
    • Students might consider the question: Did commercialization have to lead to industrialization, as it did in the West? This is a common assumption. Were there other factors influencing the economic development of the West? Is the Western pattern the "norm" or the Chinese pattern? What made each country's economic evolution follow the path it took?
  • Urbanization accompanies commercial growth and Chinese cities are the largest and most sophisticated in the world at this time.
    • Marco Polo came from one of the most sophisticated cities in Europe of his time, Venice, and yet he wrote in awe of the organization of Chinese cities which he visited in the 1200s.)
  • During the Song there is enormous growth in Chinese population and a shift in the locus of this population to southern China.
    • Under the Tang dynasty, which precedes the Song, the population is concentrated in the north of China, in the wheat growing area.
    • After 1127 when the Southern Song makes its capital in Hangzhou, below the Yangtze (Yangzi) River, there is a corresponding shift in the concentration of the Chinese population to southern China, below the Yangtze River.
  • Rice is the staple crop of southern China and it produces a higher yield per acre than wheat and supports a larger population.
    • By the end of the Song, 2/3 to 3/4 of the Chinese population is concentrated below the Yangtze.
  • The Grand Canal, built during the Sui Dynasty, connects the Yangtze and the Yellow rivers, facilitating the transport of agricultural production from the south to the north and helping to unify the economy of China.

Mongols in China — the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368)

  • The Mongols invade China from the north, defeat the Song, and establish the Yuan dynasty in 1279, ruling less than one-hundred years, to 1368.
    • Under Khubilai (Kublai) Khan (1215-1294), the supreme leader of the Mongols and a grandson of Chinggis (Genghis) Khan (d. 1227), the Mongols move the Chinese capital to Beijing and establish the capital of their empire there.
    • The Mongol empire spans Eurasia in the 13th and 14th centuries and facilitates trade and exchange across the Eurasian land mass.
    • Marco Polo visits China (from ca. 1275-1291) under the Mongol rule, as mentioned above.

Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) — China at the Time of Columbus

  • The Ming defeated the Mongol conquerors in 1368 and reasserted Chinese military and political authority on land and sea.
  • "China in 1492 was the oldest, largest, and richest civilization in the world.
    • Its command of science and technology far exceeded that of Europe.
    • A strong agrarian economy ensured that its inhabitants were better provided for than those of any other society on earth.
    • The emperors of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) presided over a vast and stable centralized bureaucracy. In addition to a hereditary aristocracy, the governing elite was composed of scholar-officials recruited on the basis of merit through civil examinations open to all.
    • Many Chinese painters of the middle Ming period were themselves officials, a situation unparalleled in the West. The idea of artist-officials arose naturally in China, where candidates for government were expected to practice calligraphy and compose poetry."
      Quoted from Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration (The National Gallery of Art, 1992).

The Ming Voyages

  • The officially sponsored Ming voyages of admiral Zheng He (Cheng He), from 1405-1433, provide an interesting basis to compare and contrast the Chinese and European capabilities and goals of maritime trade and exploration at this time.
    • "... The Ming emperors sponsored an extraordinary series of seven voyages under the leadership of Admiral Zheng He.
    • His huge fleets sailed the Indian Ocean as far as the Persian Gulf and the eastern coast of Africa, proclaiming the magnificence of the empire.
    • The first of the Ming voyages in 1405 consisted of a flotilla of 62 large ships, accompanied by 255 smaller ships, manned by 27,000 men.
    • While Zheng He brought lavish gifts to the states he visited and encourages their leaders to offer tribute to the Chinese emperor, at no time did he seek to extend Chinese territory."
      Quoted from Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration, (The National Gallery of Art, 1992).

European Interest in Chinese Inventions and the Chinese Political System

  • China and Chinese inventions were of interest to Europeans during the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment in Europe;
    • the Chinese inventions of printing, gunpowder, and the mariner's compass were brought to Europe by Arab traders during the Renaissance and Reformation.
    • Francis Bacon (1561-1626), a leading philosopher, politician, and adviser to King James I of England, was unaware of the origins of these inventions but deeply impressed by their significance when he wrote:
      • "It is well to observe the force and virtue and consequence of discoveries. These are to be seen nowhere more clearly than those three which were unknown to the ancients (the Greeks), and of which the origin, though recent, is obscure and inglorious; namely, printing, gunpowder, and the magnet. For these three have changed the whole face and stage of things throughout the world, the first in literature, the second in warfare, the third in navigation; whence have followed innumerable changes; insomuch that no empire, no sect, no star, seems to have exerted greater power and influence in human affairs than these three mechanical discoveries."
        (From The Scientific Revolution by Peter Amey, Greenhaven World History Program, Greenhaven Press, p.23.)
  • During the period of the Enlightenment in Europe (1700s), European thinkers such as Voltaire, Leibniz, Quesnay and the Physiocrats were interested in Chinese philosophy in the 1700s.
    • The role of the Chinese emperor as a ruler responsible for the welfare of all the people,
    • the emphasis on agriculture as the basis of the country's wealth,
    • the importance of education,
    • the use of the civil service exams to select educated men for government service,
    • and other elements of Confucian thought were studied by philosophers in France in the 18th century prior to the French Revolution.
  • This is also the period when the Jesuits are active at the Chinese court (1600s-1700s), serving as advisers particularly in astronomy, and relaying knowledge between Europe and China.


Medieval Japan (1185-1600)

  • In 1185, Japan began to be governed by warriors or samurai.
    • Until this time the government had been bureaucratic in theory, but was actually aristocratic (i.e., people held certain positions because they were born to families entitled to hold those jobs).
    • Even after 1185, civil government at the Emperor's court continued and the law and the state were not changed, but a new samurai class came to power and increasingly became the real rulers of the country.
    • Some form of military leadership remained the form of government in Japan until 1868, when a centralized bureaucratic government came into being with the Meiji Restoration.
  • The feudal structures of Medieval Japan (1185-1600) offer a striking contrast to the earlier classical period of Japanese history:
    • warfare and destruction characterize the medieval era in which samurai warriors became the rulers of the land.
    • The rise of the samurai occurs as political power devolves from court nobles to warrior families;
    • Because the court government had no police force, bands of samurai gained power when the Heian government neglected the administration of the provinces.
    • Samurai strength rested on strong group loyalty and discipline. These bands managed large areas of rice land in eastern Japan, around modern Tôkyô.
    • military leaders rule the land while
    • The emperor and his court remain in place but hold no power.
    • The supreme military leader is called the "Shogun," and
    • The Shogun's government is called the "bakufu," or "tent government."
  • The similarities as well as the differences in historical patterns of medieval Japan and medieval Europe are of interest to historians
    • Feudal political organization, bonds between warriors, and the prominence of religion are characteristic of the medieval periods in both societies.
    • Medieval Japan is often well covered in textbooks because of its similarities to "medieval Europe," with warriors, castles, and feudal structures.
    • **Students gain a more balanced view of the breadth of Japanese history and its culture if teachers first introduce Japan's classical period (topic 5), c. 600 - 1185, which has quite different characteristics than those of the medieval period.
  • Mongol Invasions of Japan
    • The Mongol forces attempt to invade Japan twice, in 1274 and 1281.
    • They led great expeditions across the seas to southwest Japan.
    • Samurai in Kyûshû were greatly outnumbered and technically disadvantaged.
    • In 1274, a great storm arose that destroyed or set to sea the whole invasion fleet.
    • In 1281, after 50 days of fierce struggle, the Japanese were again saved by a great storm.
    • The Mongols were forced to turn back during both attempts by typhoons at sea.
      • These typhoons are called kamikaze, or "divine winds," by the Japanese and are
      • Understood as winds sent by Shinto gods, or kami.
    • The Mongols never occupy Japan
    • The Mongols' attempts to invade Japan united the Japanese against an outside force for the first time in history.
  • 1185-1333 — Kamakura Government
    • In 1185 a new government was founded by the Minamoto family in Kamakura, south of modern Tôkyô.
    • In 1192 Minamoto Yoritomo was given the title 'shôgun' to signify his military control over the country.
    • While it followed the laws of the Heian government, the Kamakura government was run by a network of samurai throughout the country, pledged to keep the peace.
    • Since they exercised real power on the spot, they were able to take over land from rich aristocratic land proprietors and thus caused the Heian government in Kyôto to become even weaker.
    • Gradually the samurai took the lead in developing the law of the nation.
  • 1336-1573 — Ashikaga Government
    • In 1333, the Kamakura shogunate lost control of the country to a rival samurai family, the Ashikaga family.
    • The Ashikaga shogunate moved the capital back to Kyôto, but was not able to assert as much control over the various provinces as the Kamakura government had.
    • In the surrounding countryside, daimyô (provincial barons) ruled the people, and often fought against one other over territorial claims.
    • The daimyô built bureaucratic governments in each province and attempted to bring all elements of society under their military rule.
    • Local rule was more developed than before, but the central government represented by the shôgun was weak.
    • By the 1500s, a class of territorial military lords, or daimyo (die-me-yo), emerges;
      • -- the daimyo establish and maintain their domains (called "han"),
      • -- build castles, and
      • -- establish towns around their castles where their samurai retainers reside and serve in their armies.
    • There is constant warfare in medieval Japan, throughout the 1500s, referred to as “The Sengoku period” or the “Period of the Country at War,” a period in Japanese history of near-constant civil war, social upheaval, and political intrigue
      • Samurai values of service to a lord and personal loyalty become central to Japanese cultural tradition over the centuries.
      • During the period of constant warfare, the society is torn apart by warfare and people seek solace in religion.
  • Buddhism, which had up until the medieval period been primarily the religion of scholars and monks, becomes the religion of ordinary people
    • popular, salvationist sects of Buddhism spread throughout the country
    • Buddhism reached all levels of society during the medieval period;
    • Zen Buddhism spreads among the samurai, emphasizing personal enlightenment through discipline and meditation.
      • Gardens of raked sand (representing water) and rocks (representing mountains) are used as places of meditation within temples.
      • The ceremony of serving tea becomes a formalized Zen ritual.
      • The tea room or tea house, built for this purpose, has tatami or rush mats for flooring, shoji, or sliding paper and wood screens for room dividers, and a tokonoma, or ceremonial alcove, to place scrolls of calligraphy and flower arrangements.
      • **All of these features become central to Japanese architecture and room furnishing.
  • Literature in medieval Japan reflects the influence of Buddhism:
    • Literature expresses the Buddhist notion of the impermanence of life and the need to renounce worldly attachments to gain release from the sufferings of human existence
    • the influence of Buddhism is evident in: Essays in Idleness, An Account of My Hut, and the plays of the Noh drama.
  • The Tokugawa period, 1600 -1868 and the reestablishment of order and peace
    • The warfare in the 1500s is so intense and the society so torn apart that the major goal of the daimyo who reunify Japan in 1600 is the establishment of order.
    • The Tokugawa period, although still feudal in structure, is thus distinguished from the medieval period by
      • the cessation of warfare and
      • the evolution of a pre-modern society marked by commercial development and urbanization, as discussed in subsequent section
    • Shintô priests, involving the country's deities for protection, were richly rewarded.
    • More than 650 years later, when the U.S. and Japan are at war in WW II, the suicide pilots protecting the Japanese island were called “kamikaze.”


Koryo (918 - 1392)

  • In the late ninth century the Silla kingdom declined, and the Korean peninsula fragmented again into three rival states, calling themselves the "latter three kingdoms."
  • The northern-based "latter Koguryo" triumphed, and in 918 latter Koguryo established its rule over the whole Korean peninsula, shortening its name to "Koryo."
    • The capital of Koryo was Kaesong, in present-day North Korea.
    • It was the name of this dynasty, adopted by Portuguese explorers from the Japanese pronunciation of Koryo (Korei), that became the Western name for "Korea."
  • Buddhism is the state religion of Koryo as it was for Silla

Mongol Domination (1231 - 1336)

  • In the thirteenth century the Mongols, a nomadic people from northern Asia who conquered China and much of Asia and Eastern Europe, invaded Korea.
    • Koryo became a vassal state of Yuan dynasty (Mongol) China.
    • The Mongol ruler Kubilai Khan attempted to use Korea as a bridge to conquer Japan, but the Mongol invasions of Japan in 1274 and 1281 both ended in failure.
    • Finally, the Mongols were driven out of Korea in the middle of the fourteenth century.
  • During the Mongol invasions devout Koryo monks transcribed Buddhist scriptures called the Tripitaka onto more than 80,000 wooden blocks...
    • The Tripitaka Koreana, which is currently housed in South Korea, is the oldest extant wood block text of Buddhist scripture in the world.


**Since the history of different parts of what we today call “Vietnam,” we are using a chart to convey developments in different regions over time:


1010-1225, Ly dynasty "1st Golden Age"

Ly dynasty of the Viets established in area called Dai Viet; capital Thang-long ("Emergent Dragon"), today "Hanoi"
Great Buddhist epoch:
• First university established
• Water puppets emerge as dramatic form
• Temple of Literature founded (1070)
• Chu Nom, a set of characters used to write Vietnamese, developed by the Vietnamese