KEY POINTS across East Asia—by Era

4000 BCE-1000 CE


Early China (c.7000 BCE) and the Shang Dynasty (c.1750-c.1050 BCE)

Early China

  • Chinese civilization is one of the oldest, continuous civilizations on earth.
  • Early settlements from the Neolithic period (such as Banpo in the Yellow River valley and Sanxingdui on the banks of the Yazi river) begin in the river valleys as they do elsewhere in the world.

The Shang Dynasty (c. 1750-c.1050 BCE)

  • The Shang dynasty is an early dynasty (a “dynasty” is succession of rulers of same line of descent)
    • The Shang is marked by
      • impressive bronze technology and
      • the beginning of China’s distinctive writing system.
  • Several elements found in Shang civilization remain important throughout Chinese history. These include:
    • the notion of a supreme heavenly power (referred to as Shangdi, or “God above” a personified, non-corporeal deity; later, by the Zhou dynasty,
    • the term “Tian,” or “Heaven,” is also used);
    • the belief in the power of the spirits of ancestors to affect events on earth; and the importance attached to rituals venerating ancestors and
    • the role assigned to the king in performing these ceremonial rituals.
  • China’s writing system (referred to as Chinese “characters”) first appears in the Shang dynasty on tortoise shells and cattle bones used for divination (called “oracle bones”).
    • Written language is a central determinant of the development of civilization, and the Chinese writing system was the first writing system developed in East Asia.
    • Although there are many mutually unintelligible dialects in China, there is only one system of writing — a major unifying factor in Chinese history.
    • Chinese characters have no set pronunciation; the sound attached to each can vary depending on the dialect. Therefore, all literate Chinese could communicate through writing.
    • Similarly, scholars in Korea, Japan, and Vietnam learned the Chinese written language and were able to participate in an East Asian cultural conversation through writing — even though they spoke languages that, in the case of Korean and Japanese, came from a completely different language family (Uralic) than that of the Chinese language (Sinitic).
    • Colloquial, or spoken, Chinese and the formal grammatical structures used in written Chinese remained distinct until the 20th century, when colloquial Chinese, “baihua,” became the language used in schools).

NOTE: Two systems of rendering Chinese words into English are commonly used: the Wade-Giles system (named after scholar translators) and the Pinyin system (developed more recently by the People’s Republic of China). Refer to the AFE unit on Chinese language for charts showing how spelling conventions of the Wade-Giles system correspond to those of the Pinyin system.

Zhou Dynasty (c. 1050-256 BCE)

  • The Zhou dynasty conquers and succeeds the Shang; later generations seek to reclaim and preserve the idealized peace of the early Zhou (or Western Zhou) period.
  • The Zhou is divided into
    • the Western Zhou (c.1050-771 BCE), when the capital was near Xian, and
    • the Eastern Zhou (770-221 BCE), when the capital was moved eastward to Luoyang.
  • The political system of the Western Zhou was characterized by the establishment of the numerous regional states mainly in East China.
    • This served to stabilize the Western Zhou state, in the first place, but
    • it also planted the seed for the future interstate conflict that took over China after the fall of the Western Zhou capital.
  • Essential components of Chinese civilization that are evident in the Zhou period include:
    • the Chinese notion of the ruler as the “Son of Heaven” who rules with the Mandate of Heaven.
    • The Zhou introduced the concept of “Tian” or Heaven, as a supernatural power and deified physical presence. (Tian or Heaven, as the ultimate physical power, is more powerful than the “Shangdi,” or god on high, which the Shang and then the Zhou understood as a deity from which they claimed their ethnic origins.)
    • The establishment of numerous regional states during the Western Zhou was a process by which a unified elite culture spread all over North China, marked first of all by the casting of inscriptions on bronze vessels, many of which are historically highly important.
  • The Eastern Zhou period was one of political fragmentation with the power of the Zhou in decline;
    • The Eastern Zhou is divided by historians into two sub-periods: known as
      • the Spring and Autumn Period (770-c.480 BCE), named after an historical chronicle kept during the period, and
      • the Warring States Period (c.480-221 BCE).
    • Confucius was alive at the end of the Spring and Autumn Period, during the Eastern Zhou, and argued for a restoration of the social and political order of the earlier Western Zhou period.
  • The Book of Songs, reputedly compiled by Confucius, is a collection of odes from the Zhou period that tells us about the life of the people. (It is also referred to as the Book of Poetry or Book of Odes.)

Spring and Autumn Period (770-c.480 BCE) and the Warring States Period (c.480-221 BCE): Period of 100 Schools of Thought

  • After the displacement of the Western Zhou (c.1050-771) and the movement of the Zhou capital eastward, China was divided into a number of small states competing for power (771-221 BCE).
  • Many philosophic schools of thought emerged during this period of political and social turmoil, a period known as that of the “100 Schools of Thought.”
  • Several of these philosophic schools have had lasting impact on Chinese civilization and political order, among them, Confucianism, Legalism, and Daoism. Leading philosophers in the early history of each school, and the texts associated with them, include:
    • Confucianism
      - Confucius (c. 551-479 BCE) Analects
      - Mencius (371-289 BCE) Mencius
      - Xun Zi (Hsun Tzu) (298-238) Xunzi
    • Legalism
      - Han Fei Zi (Han Fei Tzu) (d. 233) Han Feizi
      - Li Si (Li Ssu) (d. 208) who became the Prime Minister of Qin
    • Daoism (Taoism)
      - Lao Zi (Lao Tzu) “Old Master” (c. 500) Daodejing, also known as Laozi
      - Zhuang Zi (Chuang Tzu) (c. 369-286) Zhuangzi
    • Other schools of thought mentioned from this period are those of
      - Mozi (5th c. BCE), whose philosophy is often called that of “universal love,” and the
      - School of Yin and Yang and the Five Agents.

Confucian Thought

  • The fundamental Chinese world view of this time was that there is a universal order and it is moral,
  • Confucian thought builds on this world view and stresses that:
    • men must find, preserve, and promote this order and
    • that men must educate and cultivate themselves so that their behavior will be consonant with the moral order
    • they will then be able to serve the state as moral leaders.
    • rulers rule with the “Mandate of Heaven” to preserve this order In keeping with the values of universal order,
  • Confucius believes that man is
    • primarily a social being
    • in a set of relationships and
  • Confucius emphasizes
    • moral cultivation of individuals,
    • service to the state, and
    • leadership by ethical, educated men.
  • Confucius propagates this world view and stresses the values of
    • filial piety, or respect of children for their parents (family and hierarchy);
    • humanity [in dealing with others] and
    • the importance of ritual — state rituals and family rituals — for preserving universal order.

The “Axial Age” of Philosophy and Religion Worldwide at the time of Confucius and Laozi

  • Confucius lived during a period which the German philosopher Karl Jaspers has called the "Axial Age," the period between 800-200 BCE which Jaspers said turned on a historical axis of the year 500 BCE when the world’s major religious and thought systems emerged. Figures who lived between 800-200 BCE include:
    • Israel: Isaiah, 770-700 BCE, followed by the “Age of the Prophets,” 650-600 BCE
    • Greece: Socrates, 469-399 BCE; Plato, 427-347 BCE; Aristotle, 384-322 BCE
    • Iran: Zoroaster, ca. 600 BCE
    • India: Buddha, 563-483 BCE, and the Upanishad texts (Hindism) written ca. 550 BCE
    • China: Confucius, 551-479 BCE; and Laozi, 606-530 BCE

Qin and Han Dynasties: the Unification of “China”

  • The Qin (221- 206 BCE) and subsequent Han (202 BCE- 220 CE) dynasties unify China and establish a centralized empire, which endures and evolves down through 20th century.
    • The imperial structure draws on elements of both Legalist and Confucian thought.
    • Note: the Western word for “China” probably comes from the Romanized spelling of Qin, which is pronounced and also spelled “Ch’in,” while the Chinese refer to themselves as “the people of Han.”)
  • The state of Qin founds the Chinese empire when it unites the other Chinese states in 221 BCE and establishes a centralized system of government;
    • Qin Shi Huang (Ch’in Shih Huang), or the First Emperor of Qin, conquers other states.
    • Qin Shi Huang rules for a very short time (221-206 BCE) but lays the foundation for China’s imperial structure and begins construction of the Great Wall for defense to the north.
    • Qin Shi Huang’s burial site includes an army of life-sized terra cotta warriors. (These terra cotta warriors were first discovered in 1974 and have been the subject of exhibitions, magazine articles, and books since that time.)
    • The Qin follows the Legalist proposals for state order and establishes a centralized bureaucracy and a finely detailed law code with specified punishments for each crime.
  • The Han dynasty (202 BCE-220 CE) follows the short-lived Qin and rules China for 300 years.
    • The Han greatly expands the Chinese empire.
    • The Han dynasty retains the centralized bureaucracy and unified political system of the Qin but adopts and grafts upon this the Confucian view that government should be run by educated, ethical men.
  • The Emergence of “Confucianism” in the Han Period… Where did “Confucianism” Come From? [This section is excerpted from faculty consultant Stephen F. Teiser’s essay in Living in the Chinese Cosmos] Stephen F. Teiser is Professor of Religion at Princeton University and Director of Princeton’s Program in East Asian Studies.
    • Under the Han, the codification of Confucian texts takes place.
    • It was only with the founding of the Han dynasty (202 BCE-220 CE) that Confucianism became “Confucianism,” that the ideas associated with Kong Qiu’s [Confucius’s] name received state support and were disseminated generally throughout upper-class society.
    • The creation of Confucianism was neither simple nor sudden, as the following three examples will make clear.
      • The Classical Texts. In the year 136 BCE the classical writings touted by Confucian scholars were made the foundation of the official system of education and scholarship, to the exclusion of titles supported by other philosophers. (Most of [these texts] had existed prior to the time of Kong Qiu [Confucius], and although Kong Qiu was commonly believed to have written or edited some of the five classics, his own statements (collected in the Analects [Lunyu]) and the writings of his closest followers were not yet admitted into the canon.)
          The five classics (or five scriptures, wujing) were the:
        • Classic of Poetry (Shijing),
        • Classic of History (Shujing),
        • Classic of Changes (Yijing), 
        • Record of Rites (Liji), and 
        • Chronicles of the Spring and Autumn Period (Chunqiu) with the Zuo Commentary (Zuozhuan),
      • State Sponsorship. Kong Qiu’s [Confucius’s] name was implicated more directly in the second example of the Confucian system, the state-sponsored cult that erected temples in his honor throughout the empire and that provided monetary support for turning his ancestral home into a national shrine.
        • Members of the literate elite visited such temples, paying formalized respect and enacting rituals in front of spirit tablets of the master and his disciples.
      • Dong Zhongshu’s Cosmological Framework. The third example is the corpus of writing left by the scholar Dong Zhongshu (ca. 179-104 BCE), who was instrumental in promoting Confucian ideas and books in official circles. Dong was recognized by the government as the leading spokesman for the scholarly elite.
        • [Dong Zhongshu’s] theories provided an overarching cosmological framework for Kong Qiu’s ideals, sometimes adding ideas unknown in Kong Qiu’s time, sometimes making more explicit or providing a particular interpretation of what was already stated in Kong Qiu’s work.
        • “Through the interpretation of the scholar Dong Zhongshu…. Confucianism became strongly linked to the cosmic framework of traditional Chinese thought, as the Confucian ideals of ritual and social hierarchy came to be elaborated in terms of cosmic principles such as yin and yang.”
        • Dong drew heavily on concepts of earlier thinkers — few of whom were self-avowed Confucians — to explain the workings of the cosmos.
        • He used the concepts of yin and yang to explain how change followed a knowable pattern,
        • and he elaborated on the role of the ruler as one who connected the realms of Heaven, Earth, and humans.
        • The social hierarchy implicit in Kong Qiu’s ideal world was coterminous, thought Dong, with a division of all natural relationships into a superior and inferior member.
        • Dong’s theories proved determinative for the political culture of Confucianism during the Han and later dynasties.
        • **What in all of the examples above, we need to ask, was Confucian? Or, more precisely, what kind of thing is the “Confucianism” in each of these examples?

        • In the case of the five classics, “Confucianism” amounts to a set of books that were mostly written before Kong Qiu lived but that later tradition associates with his name. It is a curriculum instituted by the emperor for use in the most prestigious institutions of learning. In the case of the state cult,
        • “Confucianism” is a complex ritual apparatus, an empire-wide network of shrines patronized by government authorities. It depends upon the ability of the government to maintain religious institutions throughout the empire and upon the willingness of state officials to engage regularly in worship.
        • In the case of the work of Dong Zhongshu, “Confucianism” is a conceptual scheme, a fluid synthesis of some of Kong Qiu’s ideals and the various cosmologies popular well after Kong Qiu lived. Rather than being an updating of something universally acknowledged as Kong Qiu’s philosophy, it is a conscious systematizing, under the symbol of Kong Qiu, of ideas current in the Han dynasty.
  • The Han Empire and the Roman Empire
    • The Han Empire and the Roman Empire existed simultaneously at opposite ends of the Eurasian continent.
    • The Chinese and Roman empires traded through intermediates on the overland route through Central Asia called the “Silk Road.” Chinese silk was an especially prized commodity in Rome, as silk production (sericulture) was known only to the Chinese. (This is the first of three major periods of Silk Road trade.)

300 Years of Political Fragmentation: from the Han dynasty to the Tang dynasty (220-589 CE)

  • Three Kingdoms and Five Dynasties
    • After the Han dynasty fell and the empire disintegrated in the 3rd century, China experienced a 300-year period of political fragmentation;
    • Federations of nomadic tribes formed and reformed governments in northern China
    • A series of ethnic Chinese dynasties succeeded one another in the south.
    • Period is referred to as that of the “Three Kingdoms” and “Five Dynasties” …and also as the “Six Dynasties”:
      • Three Kingdoms (220-265 CE): the Wei, the Shu, and the Wu (immortalized in the “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” and heroes of Chinese opera)
      • And the Five Dynasties (or “Six,” if beginning with the “Eastern Wu”) beginning with the Jin Dynasty (265-420 CE), the Liu Song Dynasty (420–479), the Southern Qi Dynasty (479–502), the Liang Dynasty (502–557), and the Chen Dynasty (557–589).
  • It is during this period that Buddhism is introduced into China from India, following trade routes.
  • Chinese history is often seen as "Cyclical"
    • Periods of political unity over large portions of what is today “China,” interspersed with periods of political disunity:
      • Political unity under the Han, Tang, Song, Ming, and Qing dynasties, each of which governs for 250-300 years)
      • periods of political disunity, with multiple competing centers of power, come between them
    • Periods when the unified country is ruled by ethnic-Han Chinese dynasties and others where the unified country is ruled by one of China’s neighboring northern, nomadic groups, who, attracted by the wealth of the settled, agricultural civilization of China, have asserted territorial pressure and conquered governing power,
      • Each of these groups rules the unified country it conquered through the Chinese bureaucracy, leading to the expression that China “sinicizes its conquerors.
      • However, just as China may “sinicize” its conquerors, China itself is composed of and enriched by the integration of many different peoples and cultures with which it interacts throughout its history and which form part of China today.
        Examples include:
        • The Tuoba clan, of the Xianbei people (who were northern, nomadic peoples), speaking a Turkic-Mongolian language, united northern China and ruled as the Northern Wei dynasty (386-535), intermarrying many of its princesses with Han Chinese elites from the Southern Dynasties of the same period. This intermarriage informed the heritage of the ruling families of the Sui and Tang dynasties.
        • the Mongols, who conquer China and establish the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368 CE),
        • the Manchus, who conquer China and establish the last dynasty, the Qing dynasty (1644-1911 CE) that rules for 300 years
  • The patterns of cultural continuity endure throughout Chinese history:
    • Periods when the ruling dynasty is at its height, followed by its decline and replacement: what the Chinese refer to as the “dynastic cycle”: dynastic formation, ascendance, and decline
      • The last years of many dynasties were marked by inefficient administration and corruption, which,
      • When compounded by natural calamities such as flood or droughts, led to social unrest among the population
      • Movements and rebellions incorporating popular religious ideas took place in the last years of the Han, Yuan, and Qing dynasties, while
      • Political rebellions brought down the Tang and Ming dynasties. (This is when the Chinese often say a dynasty has lost the “Mandate of Heaven.”)
    • Patterns of cultural continuity endure throughout Chinese history:
      • the evolution of the bureaucratic structure — the civil service examination system, the scholar-gentry who sit for exams and staff the civil administration;
      • the refinement of the Confucian classics as the basis of education and elite selection;
      • the growth of commercial activity and the development of a unified and sophisticated marketing system over the vast, economically diverse area of China;
      • the tendency toward political unification and reunification

Sui and Tang dynasties (581-906 CE): Reunification of "China"

    • The Sui (581-617 CE) and subsequent Tang (618-906 CE) dynasties reunify China, three-hundred years after the fall of the Han dynasty (in 220).
    • The Tang, along with the Song dynasty (960-1279 CE) that follows, is often referred to as China’s “Golden Age” and
    • It is interesting to contrast developments in China with developments in Europe at the same time. (Europe, after the fall of Rome in 410, entered a millennium (c. 400-1400) where disengagement from humanistic learning dominated.)
  • Under the Tang, China becomes the preeminent civilization in East Asia and the world
    • The Tang has links east to Korea and Japan to the east and as well as to the west, along the Silk Route.
    • Poetry, calligraphy, landscape painting, philosophy, political thought, historical writing, scientific advances in astronomy, chemistry, and medicine, and the production of fine silks, porcelain, and teas all flourish, particularly in the period from the 7th to the 12th centuries.
  • The Tang capital of Changan (today, Xian) was one of the most cosmopolitan cities of the time.
    • Changan served as an eastern terminus of the Silk Route.
    • Traders and goods from East, West, and South Asia as well as a variety of religions coexisted in the capital.
    • Religious groups and temples representing Daoism, Buddhism, Islam, Manichaeism, (a Persian sect from the 3rd century CE expounding philosophical dualism), Nestorian Christianity (a sect that separated from Byzantine Christianity in 431 and was centered in Persia), and Zoroastrianism (a Persian religion from the 6th century, named after its founder the prophet Zoroaster) could all be found.
    • An Arab market and mosque, dating from this period when the Chinese capital hosted traders from across Eurasia, remain active in Xian at the beginning of the 21st century.
  • The imperial families of the Sui and Tang intermarried with families of nomadic and Turkic origins in China’s Northwest. Such images should be held in mind when considering presentations of China as a “closed” society throughout history.
    • An Arab market and mosque, dating from this period when the Chinese capital hosted traders from across Eurasia, remain active in Xian at the beginning of the 21st century.
  • Buddhism played a dominant role in Tang dynasty China (618-906 CE),
    • A universalistic religious philosophy that originated in India (the historical Buddha was born in c.a. 563 BCE), Buddhism first entered China in the first century CE with traders following the Silk Route.
    • Buddhist teachings spoke to the concerns of salvation and the release from suffering and flourished during the period of political disunity in China (220-581) after the fall of the Han dynasty.
    • Various schools of Buddhism spread after the reunification of China under the Sui (581), and Buddhist influence reached its height during the three-hundred years of Tang rule (618-907).
    • The influence of Buddhism is evident in poetry and art of the period.
    • The monk Xuanzang (Hsuan Tsang), whose travels to India to bring back Buddhist sutras, or discourses, became the basis for the popular 16th century novel, Monkey or Journey to the West, followed the Silk Route during this period (629-645).
  • Buddhism, religious Daoism, and Confucianism all coexisted as the “three teachings” under the Tang.
    • Compromise between the Confucian emphasis on family and filial responsibilities and the demands of Buddhist monastic life was maintained to varying degrees until 845, when the Tang emperors moved to limit the wealth and economic power of landed Buddhist monasteries.
    • Buddhist religious art of the Tang period is today seen in Japan, where it spread over the course of the Tang period.
  • Poetry reaches it Height during the Tang
    • Poetry is the primary literary form in China from earliest times (not epic or drama as in the West).
    • During the Tang dynasty, poetic form reaches new heights and
    • Everyone who is literate in the society writes poetry; it is an essential element of social communication.
    • China’s three most renowned poets live at this time: Wang Wei, Li Bo, and Du Fu.
  • East Asian Cultural Sphere develops during the Tang
    • The influence of Chinese civilization spreads throughout East Asia as neighboring countries study and borrow from Chinese civilization
    • The Tang dynasty actually sets up a protectorate in northern Vietnam, “An Nan” (Annam) from 617-939 CE
    • Korea, Japan, and what is today Vietnam (especially northern Vietnam) share in Chinese culture and the four countries are united by:
      • Classical Chinese language, script, and literature
      • Buddhism (initial transmission of texts and later dialogue among the elites of East Asian countries was carried out through literature written in Chinese)
      • Confucianism (initial transmission of texts and later dialogue among the elites of East Asian countries was carried out through literature written in Chinese)
      • Some would also add the use of chopsticks as utensils for eating
  • An Outline of Chinese Inventions


Early Japan c. 4000 BCE to 500 CE

  • The prehistoric culture was characterized by handmade pottery with rope pattern design
  • The “Yayoi” Culture, c. 300 BCE, left metals and wheel-turned pottery.
  • The “Tomb Period” in Japanese history (c. 300-700 CE) was marked by the construction of great earthen grave mounds and their funerary objects -- all attesting to emergence of powerful clan rulers.
    • Clay, terra cotta figurines of people and animals, models of buildings and boats were placed in the tombs. These ae called haniwa.
  • Among these clans was the Yamato clan, whose rulers began the imperial dynasty that has continued to the present.

Classical Japan (c. 550-1185 CE)

  • Japan’s classical period (ca. 550-1185), like that of other civilizations, is the period in which the foundation for later historical development is laid.
    • This period in Japanese history precedes the more well known medieval period of the samurai warriors and stands in contrast to that period in terms of values and political structure.
    • Poetry and the refinements of the court are important in the classical period, not the codes of warriors in battle.
    • These classical values remain a very important part of Japanese culture throughout Japanese history, down to the present, so it is worthwhile to introduce this period to students.
  • The classical period of Japanese history is dated from ca. 550 CE when the Koreans introduce Buddhism, and with it Chinese culture, to Japan and the Japanese proceed to study and consciously borrow and adapt elements of Chinese civilization to Japan.
    • In the 6th to the 8th centuries the Japanese study and borrow from the continental culture of China, first introduced to them by Koreans.
    • From the 6th to the 8th centuries the Japanese study and borrow from the continental culture of China, first introduced to them by Koreans.
    • The Japanese then send study missions to China.
  • This is the first of several periods in Japanese history where the Japanese genius for deliberate cultural borrowing and adaptation is evident. (The Japanese refer to this period as the first of three great reform periods; the other two periods of intense, deliberate borrowing are those of the Meiji Restoration, 1868-1912, and the Occupation following WW II).
  • The East Asian cultural sphere evolves when Japan, Korea, and what is today Vietnam all share adapted elements of Chinese civilization of this period (that of the Tang dynasty), in particular Buddhism, Confucian social and political values, and literary Chinese and its writing system. The Japanese borrow:
    • the notion of a centralized state,
    • Confucian values of moral cultivation of individuals in service of the state,
    • Buddhism, and
    • Chinese language.
      • The Japanese use Chinese written and spoken language as an official language of government;
        • the Japanese also take the Chinese writing system and adapt it to develop a writing system for their own spoken language, i.e. Japanese, which up until this time was only spoken.
        • Japanese and Chinese belong to totally different language families; the Japanese language is syllabic and the Japanese develop a system of syllabaries by adapting the Chinese characters.
  • Japanese literature flourishes following the adaptation of the Chinese written script to the Japanese spoken language,
    • Japanese aesthetic tastes are evident in the evolution of waka poetry, a short form that distinguishes it from the longer Chinese poetic writing style at this time.
    • The literary contributions of women are notable during the height of classical Japanese court culture: women, who do not have to write in Chinese for official reasons, are freer to work with the Japanese spoken and written language,
    • Many of the diaries (The Pillow Book), poems (the short form, waka), and the world’s first novel (The Tale of Genji) are written by ladies of the court in Japan at this time.
    • The Tale of Genji is written by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady of the court, in the 11th century.


Origins of the Korean People

  • In prehistoric times the Korean peninsula was populated by nomadic peoples migrating from the Northeast Asian mainland, who developed settled agricultural communities around 4,000-5,0000 years ago.
  • According to Korean legend, a semi-divine figure named Tangun established the first Korean kingdom in 2,333 BCE and named his kingdom Choson, which was also the name of the last Korean dynasty (1392-1910) and the name for Korea currently used in North Korea (in South Korea, the name for Korea is Hanguk).
  • Chinese historical records show the existence of tribal states in northern Korea and Manchuria (northeast China) before 1,000 BCE and parts of the Korean peninsula were occupied by Chinese military forces during the Han dynasty (221 BCE-206 CE).

Three Kingdoms (c. 50 BCE - 668 CE)

  • In the first century BCE numerous tribal states on the Korean peninsula consolidated into three kingdoms:
    • Koguryo in the north (extending into Manchuria),
    • Paekche in the southwest, and
    • Silla in the southeast.
  • All were strongly influenced by Chinese culture and
    • government administration, including the use of the Confucian examination system to train government officials.
    • Buddhism, originally from India, was also adopted from China and became an important part of Korea’s religious culture to the present day.
  • Development of a writing system:
    • Like the Japanese and Vietnamese, Koreans adopted the Chinese writing system for official communications.
    • However, like Japanese, the Korean language is structurally very different from Chinese, and
    • Chinese characters were modified and new characters invented to correspond to Korean grammatical patterns.
    • A modified Chinese writing system called idu was used along with “pure” classical Chinese to write the Korean language, until the invention of an indigenous Korean writing system.
    • This indigenous Korean writing system was called hungmin chongum (meaning “correct sounds for instructing the people”) when it was invented in the mid-fifteenth century but became known as Hangul after 1913. It is a phonetic writing system.

Silla (668-935)

  • In the seventh century, the Korean kingdom of Silla allied with Tang China to defeat its rivals Paekche and Koguryo, and by 668 Silla had conquered most of the Korean peninsula. Historians often refer to the period from the Silla conquest until the end of the Silla dynasty as “Unified Silla,” although the extreme north of the peninsula and a large part of Manchuria were under the control of the Parhae kingdom, which had incorporated part of the Koguryo aristocracy into its ruling elite.
  • The Tang dynasty of China (7th century-10th century) was a “golden age” of Chinese civilization, and Chinese culture strongly influenced China’s neighbors at this time, especially Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. Of the three, Korea was probably the most faithful to the Chinese “model,” although it maintained its cultural distinctiveness and, unlike Vietnam, was never incorporated into the Chinese empire itself.
  • The state religion of Silla was Buddhism, and some of the most impressive Buddhist monuments in Asia were built during the Silla period near the Silla capital of Kyongju in southeastern Korea.
  • Silla was also very active in maritime trade in East Asia, and the kingdom was even known by Arab traders, who were the first to transmit knowledge of Korea, or “al-Sila” as the Arabs called it, to the West.


**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:

Time Period
(Major City: Hanoi)
(Major City: Hue)
(Major City: Ho Chi Minh City,
formerly Saigon)
4000 BCE-1000 BCE

ca. 3000 BCE

Phung Nguyen culture

ca. 1200 BCE

Development of irrigated rice cultivation

1000 BCE-300 CE

ca. 500 BCE

Dongson culture

ca. 500 BCE

Xa Huynh culture

ca. 200 BCE

Kingdom of Nan Yue encompasses northern area of Vietnam along with what today are the two southern Chinese provinces of Guandong and Guangxi

ca. 111 BCE

China’s Han dynasty emperor Han Wudi conquers Nan Yue and divides it into provinces; northern area of Vietnam called "Chiao Chih"

ca. 111 BCE

Funan major outpost of sea trade; Indian influence strong

40 CE

Trung sisters lead revolt against Chinese domination trying to expel the Chinese but fail. (Their exploits and courage are legendary; Trung Nhac and Trung Nhi were daughters of a local Lac lord; they are believed to have committed suicide rather than submit to the Chinese.)

1st centuries CE

Buddhism enters Chiao Chih from both India and China.

192 CE

Lin Yi establishes Cham kingdom around Hue