KEY POINTS across East Asia—by Era



Late Imperial China: The Ming (1368-1644) and the Qing (1644-1912)

  • The Chinese political and social order is at its height in this "late imperial" period of the last two dynasties:
    • The examination system has, from the Tang dynasty onward, created a strong centralized and fully functional civil service in place of an aristocratic elite with a territorial base of power.
    • Scholar-gentry, residing at home as they study for the next level of examination or await official appointment, support the work of the appointed district magistrate (who, by regulation, cannot be from the district) and form one elite class of Confucian literati that governs China.
    • By the 1700s the Chinese governmental practice in general, and civil service examination system in particular, becomes a model for emulation championed by the Physiocrats and other political activists seeking to reform government in Europe, and particularly in France.
  • During the Ming (1368-1644) China was “…the oldest, largest, and richest civilization in the world” with an outstanding naval capacity in the early 1400s (see the discussion of the Ming voyages in the unit Ming Voyages: 1405-1433).
  • Under the Qing dynasty (1644-1912) imperial power reaches its zenith with three strong emperors, who rule in succession:
    • Kangxi (1662-1722), father
    • Yongzheng (1723-1735), son
    • Qianlong (1736-1795) grandson
  • These emperors expand the borders of Chinese territory to the greatest extent since the Han empire.
    • Military campaigns in the 1700s bring Chinese Turkestan (Xinjiang), Outer Mongolia, and Tibet under Chinese domination.
  • Advanced commercial development takes the place of industrial development in China:
    • Geographic unity, river systems, and canals facilitate the development of internal trade in China.
      • The mainland of China forms a natural unit almost cut off by mountains and desert from the Eurasian land mass to the west and south.
    • Its size and the political unity that prevails for much of its late imperial history promote interregional trade within China.
      • The absence of trade barriers within this unified country and
      • the existence of a vast and varied geography meant that shortages in one part of China can be made up through trade with another.
      • Similarly, labor needs in one area can be filled by migration or by shifting manufacture to another area.
    • Geographic factors that facilitate this internal trade are the
      • Yangtze River,
      • the complex network of rivers in the south, and
      • China's long coastline.
    • China thus never feels pressure to develop labor-saving technologies or to engage in extensive expansionist or colonizing activities, in contrast to the West and Japan.
    • Contrast with the political and economic history of Europe, where the existence of many small countries leads to trade barriers and local shortages, prompting individual countries to pursue technological advances, wage costly wars, and engage in imperialism.)
    • A primitive national market, remarkable given China's vast territory, exists in certain essential commodities such as grain, cotton, and tea.
    • The Chinese state does not control commercial development.
      • Responsible for popular welfare, it emphasizes the production of staple food crops;
      • Merchants are viewed as unproductive and constitute the lowest class in the traditional Confucian hierarchy.
      • From the Tang dynasty (618-907) onward, however, with growing population and expansion of territory, state control of the economy is gradually reduced. Except for strategic goods like salt and certain metals like copper and lead needed for currency, the state does little to control commerce.
    • This contrasts with
      • European states where cities are required to be chartered by the royal house, and with
      • Japan, where cities are allowed to develop only in the castle towns of the daimyo and in Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo, which has special functions in the central government.
    • Moreover, the Chinese government does not rely very heavily on commercial taxation;
      • The Chinese government's main source of income is land and salt taxes.
      • This contrasts with Western Europe where government taxes on commerce are heavy.
    • This environment fosters the development of an intricate market network
      • which extends deep into the countryside and
      • which is comprised of periodic village markets with links to regional markets.
    • China is the first country to develop paper money, sophisticated brokerage practices, and banking institutions.
      • A number of factors account for this, including
        • China's size,
        • the difficulties involved in conducting long-distance trade using metal currencies, and
        • the minor role played by government in regulating the economy
  • The Chinese use a tribute system as a basis for trade and restrict access of foreign traders to Chinese markets,
    • particularly by limiting them to specified ports under controls established by the central government.
    • Under the Qianlong Emperor (1736-1795) the Western trading companies are limited to Canton (today, Guangdong) where they have contact only with officially designated Chinese firms, or hong.
    • This comes to be known as the "Canton System" under which the British chafe by the 1790s.

Europeans in China, 1500s-1750

  • The Portuguese, leading the early Western European attempts to reach the Asian markets by sea in the 15th and 16th centuries, first reach China in 1514 in the form of both a formal embassy and trading pirates.
    • The latter provoke the displeasure of the Chinese government by building a fortress on Chinese territory and disrupting established trade patterns, and by buying Chinese children offered by kidnappers.
    • By 1557, however, the Chinese government grants the Portuguese trading rights on the peninsula of Macao (south of Canton).
    • Control over Macao was ceded to Portugal 300 years later, in 1887, under treaties imposed upon the Chinese; the territory is reverting from Portuguese to Chinese control at the beginning of the 21st century.
  • The Portuguese establish themselves as major actors in the "carrying trade," or exchange of goods, between Asian countries, and become involved in trade between China and Japan — thereby earning money to purchase those commodities wanted back in Europe.
  • In 1565, the Spanish — competitors of the Portuguese for territorial and trading rights in the areas newly reached by sea — establish themselves in the Philippines and claim it for Spain.
    • Manila becomes the entrepot for the Spanish in conducting trade with China, as Macao is for the Portuguese.
    • Silver, minted by the Spaniards in their new territories in the Americas eventually travels across the Pacific, through Manila, and into China as the commodity the Europeans can trade for the goods they seek from China (the Spanish or "Mexican dollar")
  • Asia is the center of the world economy at this time and China, a "sink" for silver. (The British eventually find a way to reverse this trade pattern with the introduction of opium in the 1800s.)

The Catholic Controversy over Chinese Rites

  • Catholic missionary orders are central to the Portuguese and Spanish entry into China, attempting to bring the faith and world view of Christian Europe to Asia.
  • The Jesuits, in the person of Matteo Ricci, enter China from Macao in 1582;
    • Ricci receives an audience with the Chinese emperor in 1601.
    • Interested in Chinese rites and customs and knowledgeable about astronomy, the Jesuits are retained in the imperial court and function as court advisors for 150 years, under Ming and Qing emperors.
    • Knowledge of astronomical patterns was essential to Chinese emperors in fulfilling their roles as mediators between heavenly order, natural order, and human order and in performing the annual calendrical rites.
  • The Franciscan and Dominican missionary orders arrived in China in the 1630s with the Spanish.
    • They challenged the Jesuit toleration of Chinese morality as equal to Christian morality and the Jesuit acceptance of Chinese ancestral worship as a civil, not a religious, rite.
    • The Chinese responded by labeling Christianity a heterodox sect (one challenging to official authority).
    • The "Rites Controversy," as it came to be known, lasted for 100 years, from ca. 1640-1742, and involved the Chinese emperors and the Pope.
    • In 1742 the Pope ended the controversy by ruling against the Jesuits and requiring Catholic missionaries to forbid the practice of Chinese "rites and ceremonies."
    • Christian missionary activity subsided in China for the next century,
  • Christian missionaries are able to return to China in the late 1800s, through provisions of the “unequal treaties” that European governments negotiate treaties with the Chinese, beginning with the Opium War (1839-1842) and the Treaty of Nanking (1842),


Japan: The Tokugawa (1600-1868)

  • Japan in the 1500s is locked in a century of decentralized power and incessant warfare among competing feudal lords, a period known as the "Sengoku," or "Country at War" (1467-1573).
    • These are the final years of Japan's medieval period (1185-1600) just prior to the reunification of Japan and the establishment of order and peace under the Tokugawa shoguns (1600-1868).
    • Within this context of feudal civil war of the 1500s, Japanese pirates are active in the trade along the China coast — an alternative to the official relations between China and Japan where trading privileges are awarded to the Japanese in return for tribute acknowledging the ascendancy of the Chinese emperor.
    • Castles are built by medieval lords (daimyo) for defense throughout the period of civil war and their size increases following the introduction of firearms into Japan by the Portuguese in 1543.
  • The reunification of Japan is accomplished by three strong daimyo who succeed each other:
    • Oda Nobunaga (1543-1582),
    • Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598), and finally
    • Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616) who establishes the Tokugawa Shogunate, that governs for more than 250 years, following the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600.
  • The reunification of Japan under the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1600 brings with it an emphasis on the reestablishment of order — in social, political, and international relations — following a century of civil war and turmoil.
  • Under the rule of the Tokugawa shoguns (1600-1868), Japan enjoys a 250-year period of peace and order. Dramatic changes take place within this ordered society, however, particularly those of
    • commercial development
    • the rise of a merchant class,
    • the growth of cities and of a new urban culture.

Tokugawa Government

  • In 1600, one of the powerful military families, the Tokugawa, was able to gain military control over all the local daimyô.
    • The Tokugawa created a much stronger bureaucratic military government in Edo, now named Tôkyô.
    • It controlled — either directly or indirectly — all elements of society, such as the agrarian and commercial sectors.
  • The government legally differentiated four classes of society —
    • samurai,
    • farmers,
    • artisans, and
    • merchants.
  • Edo, the new military capital, became a giant urban center because so many people came to make a living by supplying the huge samurai population.
    • Since it was concerned with a possible samurai rebellion (it had taken away the weapons of all other classes), the Tokugawa government made the daimyô live part of the time in Edo, and leave their families in Edo as hostages whenever they returned to their domains.
    • By 1700 there were about one million people living in Edo.
    • The Edo merchants supplying the military became richer than the samurai, many of whom lived in poverty.
  • The prolonged period of peace fosters great economic and social changes in Japanese society, culture, and the economy, setting the stage for rapid modernization in the subsequent Meiji period.
    • When Commodore Perry came to Japan from the United States in 1853 seeking commercial relations, many groups in society were ready for changes in the old legal and economic systems. Japan's feudal period ended shortly thereafter with the Meiji Restoration in 1868
    • This Tokugawa period is viewed as Japan's "pre-modern" period and is important to historians as they attempt to define what is "modernization" in many contexts.
  • Missionary activity and European presences is curtailed.
    • In 1543 the Portuguese traders reach Japan (are actually shipwrecked there) and are soon followed by the Jesuit missionary order (established in 1540) in the person of St. Francis Xavier who arrives in Japan in 1549.
    • The Jesuits work among the daimyo of the samurai class and are initially well received by leading daimyo, including Nobunaga and Hideyoshi, two daimyo crucial to the reunification of Japan by 1600.
    • The name for the Japanese dish "tempura," batter-fried fish and vegetables, is apparently derived from the Portuguese word "temporas" for "meatless Friday," a Catholic tradition.)
    • Aware of the political and religious domination of the Philippines since the Spanish colonized the country in 1565, however, the Tokugawa political leaders are suspicious of the Dominican and Franciscan missionaries that arrive in Japan from the Philippines and work among the non-samurai classes.
    • The Japanese daimyo move to curtail missionary activity beginning in the 1590s.
      • In 1606, the new Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, proscribes Christianity (just at a time the Jesuits are being received at the imperial court in China), and
      • by 1614 a concerted effort to end all Christian practice is underway.
      • There are an estimated 300,000 Christians in Japan at this time.)
  • the "Act of Seclusion" (1636)
    • The Dutch and the British follow the Portuguese to Japan, battling to break the Portuguese and then Spanish control of the Asian spice trade.
      • The East India companies established by the Dutch andl British, respectively, become active in the early 1600s;
      • the Dutch (1609) and the British (1613) establish trading relations with the Japanese with bases on a Japanese island.
    • In an effort to reestablish order in its international relations, however, the Tokugawa Shogunate
      • prohibits trade with Western nations,
      • prohibits Japanese from going abroad to trade (ending the unofficial piracy and trade on the China coast), and
      • reafirms Japan's official relations with China and Korea within the East Asian international structure.
    • Following the "Act of Seclusion" (1636) setting forth these conditions,
      • Japan is effectively "secluded" from interchange with Western Europe (but not with East Asia) for the next 200 years.
      • Only the Dutch retain a small outpost on an island in Nagasaki Harbor;
        • books obtained from the Dutch are translated into Japanese and
        • "Dutch learning" forms the basis of the Japanese knowledge of developments in the West throughout this period.
      • Trade continues within East Asia, as the Japanese trade continues with the Koreans and Chinese, and
        • Exchange of goods and ideas with China is maintained.
        • The East Asian political order, with China at the center, is reinforced.
  • Literature in Tokugawa Japan
    • The literature of the period gives voice to the culture of the new urban population, the "townsmen".
    • The haiku form is perfected in this period by Bashô (1644-1694) from the linked verse written by townsmen in the new urban culture of the period.


Choson (1392-1910)

  • In 1392 a Koryo general named Yi Song-gye deposed the Koryo king and established a new dynasty, which he called Choson, after the legendary early Korean kingdom.
  • Choson established Confucianism as the state "religion."
    • One of the Choson founders' goals was to eliminate the power of the Buddhist church;
      • consequently, Buddhism was no longer supported by the state,
      • temple lands were confiscated, and
    • Korean state rituals, philosophy, ethics, and social norms were strongly influenced by Chinese Confucianism.
  • Government-sponsored examinations were required for men to enter the state bureaucracy, as in China
    • a position in the government was considered a mark of high status for an individual and his family.
    • But unlike China, the pool of eligible examination takers in Korea was officially limited to members of the upper social class, called yangban.
    • Like China and unlike Japan, there was no entrenched military class in Choson. Rather, Koreans put great emphasis on scholarly learning, in the Confucian tradition, and looked down upon military pursuits..
  • The Choson King Sejong promulgated a phonetic writing system for Korean in 1446.
    • Now called Hangul, the Korean alphabet is one of the simplest and most efficient writing systems in the world.
    • But the scholarly yangban class made limited use of Hangul and continued to write most of its literature, philosophy, and official documents in classical Chinese until the twentieth century.
  • Choson dynasty Korea was characterized by strict social divisions according to
    • status and occupation,
    • close observance of Confucian rituals such as ancestor veneration,
    • separation of male and female with pronounced male domination, and,
  • Invasion by Japan and then the Manchus leads to self-imposed isolation from most of the outside world in the 1700s
    • the Japanese warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi, having recently united the feuding domains of Japan under his leadership, invaded Korea as the first step in his attempt to conquer China.
    • China, then under the Ming dynasty, came to Korea's aid and defeated Hideyoshi's forces, but in the process Korea was devastated by the war.
    • Korea was again invaded in 1627 and 1636 by the Manchus, a nomadic people from continental Asia, who forced Korea to pay tribute to the Manchu king. The Manchus went on to conquer China in 1644.
    • After this, the Choson government followed a policy of seclusion,
      • restricting its interaction with Japan largely to ceremonial contacts through the island of Tsushima, and
      • limiting its contact with China to a few tributary missions a year.
    • By the middle of the nineteenth century, when European powers were encroaching on East and Southeast Asia in pursuit of trade, diplomatic relations, and colonial conquest, Korea's continued seclusion earned it the nickname "Hermit Kingdom."
    • Koreans sometimes refer their country as a "shrimp among whales," the recurrent victim of conflict among larger outside powers.
    • In fact, however, traditionally Korea neither thought of itself as a "small" country nor did it experience a great many wars or invasions, especially compared to Europe at the same time.
  • The Choson dynasty (1392-1910), perhaps the longest-lived actively ruling dynasty in East Asia, experienced more than 250 years of internal peace and stable borders.


**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:


1428-1527, Le dynasty; "2nd Golden Age" in Dai Viet

• Le Loi and Nguyen Trai lead revolt against the Ming (1418-28);
• Independent dynasty established; Confucian-style state with examinations;
• attack on Champa;
• Le Thanh-tong, king who implements changes

1428-1527, Le dynasty; "2nd Golden Age" in Dai Viet

Viets destroy kingdom of Champa

1528-1771, Three families vie for power

• Le family power declines
• Mac and Trinh families compete in north while Nguyen family competes from center and south
• Trinh and Nguyen claim to restore the Le

1528-1771, Three families vie for power

Nguyen compete


Trinh lords


Nguyen lords (also extend Viet influence over Khmer to south); Civil war between Trinh and Nguyen