In East Asia, the Neolithic period may have begun as early as 7500 BC. The earliest evidence suggests the existence of the Pengtoushan culture in northern Hunan province from about 7500 BC to 6100 BC and of the Peiligang culture in Henan province around from about 7000 BC to 5000 BC.
The Jeulmun pottery period is sometimes labeled the “Korean Neolithic”, but since intensive agriculture and evidence of European-style ‘Neolithic’ lifestyle is sparse at best, such terminology is misleading. The Jeulmun was a period of hunting, gathering, and small-scale cultivation of plants. Archaeologists sometimes refer to this life-style pattern as ‘broad-spectrum hunting-and-gathering‘.
Ancient civilizations in East Asia
Xia, Shang and Zhou
Even though archaeological evidence has been found at Erlitou that indicate the Xia Dynasty existed from about 2100 BC to 1800 BC, they are not usually considered a true dynasty. The first universally accepted true Chinese dynasty was the Bronze Age Shang Dynasty, 1766-1050 BC. One of their most important accomplishments was the invention of writing. In fact, before it was discovered that Chinese pharmacists were selling oracle bones from Shang times, the Shang Dynasty was considered a myth. Eventually, Shang rule deteriorated. The last Shang ruler, King Zhou was a cruel corrupt despot. Meanwhile, the Zhou, a Shang vassal, grew strong. In 1122 BC, King Wu of Zhou launched an attack on the Shang capital, and the Shang Dynasty collapsed.
There was not much difference between the Zhou and Shang Dynasties, as the Zhou adopted much of Shang lifestyle. To justify their rule, the Zhou introduced the Mandate of Heaven. This stated that the ruler ruled by divine right, but if he is overthrown, that meant he had lost the divine right to the victor. The first part of the Zhou Dynasty is called the Western Zhou. In 771 BC, the Zhou were forced east by northern barbarians. This marked the beginning of Eastern Zhou. During this period, the Zhou king lost power, and many small kingdoms sprang up. This period, known as the Spring and Autumn Period, was when great philosophers of China, such as Confucius, Laozi, and Mozi lived. This flourishing of philosophy is called the Hundred Schools of Thought. Confucianism, Daoism, and Mohism all have their roots during this period. The Warring States period began when the smaller states have all been annexed, and only seven large states remained: Qi, Chu, Yan, Han, Zhao, Wei, Qin.
Confucianism, a more elaborate form of ancestor worship, was a major influence on East Asian history. It originated in northern China in the 5th century BC and was based on the Zhou Dynasty social system, including ancestor worship. Confucianism showed a strong adherence toward existing hierarchy and respect for the authorities: aged, ancestor and political authority considered authentic by blood.
Debated during the Warring States period and forbidden during the short-lived Qin Dynasty, Confucianism was chosen by Emperor Wu of Han for use as a political system to govern the Chinese state. Despite its loss of influence during the Tang Dynasty, Confucianist doctrine remained a mainstream Chinese orthodoxy for two millennia until the 20th century, when it was attacked by radical Chinese thinkers as a vanguard of a pre-modern system and an obstacle to China’s modernization, eventually culminating in its repression during the Cultural Revolution in the People’s Republic of China. After the end of the Cultural Revolution, Confucianism was revived in mainland China, and both interest in and debate about Confucianism have surged.
The cultures most strongly influenced by Confucianism include those of China, Korea, and Vietnam in the East Asian cultural sphere. Korean Confucianism is one of the most substantial influences in Korean intellectual history was introduced through the cultural exchange with China. On the other hand, while Confucianism was introduced as both a philosophy and as a ritual tradition in Japan, the latter did not become popular in Japan.
The third major religion of East Asia is Taoism. In China, it affected Buddhism and develop the thought of void which would later ripe as Zen Buddhism. Also, Taoism combined with the rural and vulgar religious feelings and developed its pantheon. Taoism is still widely practiced in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Fengshui, fortune telling related to location and colors, is one of derivatives of Taoism.
Taoism was introduced to Korea from China during the Three Kingdoms period, and remains a minor but significant element of Korean thought. Although Taoism did not overshadow Buddhism or Confucianism, it permeated through all strata of the Korean populace, integrating with its native animism as well as with Buddhist and Confucian institutions, temples, and ceremonies.
220 BC-220 AD
In 221 BC, the state of Qin succeeded in conquering the other six states, unifying China for the first time. This marked the start of Imperial China, and the Qin Dynasty. Its ruler, Qin Shi Huang, implemented the Legalist system of rule, which was used to rule the former Qin state. All other schools of philosophy were forbidden. Beginning in 213 BC, all books from the Hundred Schools of Thought (except Legalism) were burned. More than 460 scholars were also buried alive. He also standardized writing, currency, and Chinese units of measurement. Qin Shi Huang also reduced the power of the nobility. To defend against barbarian tribes from the north, Qin Shi Huang ordered the old walls of Yan, Zhao, and Qin to be connected. This formed the Great Wall of China. In addition to that, he also built luxurious palaces and a huge tomb for himself. These massive construction projects exhausted resources and labor. Only four years after Qin Shi Huang’s death, revolts and territorial uprisings overthrew the Qin Dynasty.
The Han Dynasty began when Liu Bang defeated the Qin army and other rebel leaders in 206 BC. He established the Han capital at Chang’an. The Han Dynasty was renowned for its cultural, technological, and military advances. China’s most famous historian, Sima Qian, lived during this dynasty. Paper and porcelain were also invented in the Han Dynasty. A civil examination system was initiated. One of the greatest emperors in Chinese history was Emperor Wu Di. He sent Zhang Qian to find allies against the Xiongnu. Zhang Qian did not succeed, but he brought back accurate information about Central Asia. Emperor Wu Di immediately sent envoys to Central Asian countries, and set up Chinese settlements as far as the Tarim Basin. Eventually, the Silk Road was formed. By 22 BC, as taxation rose, revolts broke out across the country. The regent Wang Mang seized control of the government and ruled until AD 23. Floods, famines, and invasions from the Xiongnu all contributed to Wang Mang’s downfall. In AD 23, the Chimei overthrew and executed Wang Mang. The Eastern Han began when Liu Xiu became Emperor Guangwu of Han. In AD 50, the Eastern Han allied itself with some Xiongnu tribes. 40 years later, it attacked the Northern Xiongnu, which was so successful it triggered Xiongnu migrations all the way to Europe. However, the Eastern Han soon had the same problems that the Western Han had suffered. Taxes increased, and many wealthy landowners managed to get out of paying taxes. In AD 184, the Yellow Turban Rebellion broke out. Even though the Han military quickly crushed the uprising, it weakened the Han Dynasty considerably. In AD 220, the Han empire collapsed into the Three Kingdoms.
The Silk Road in the 1st century.
A plethora of large empires, civilizations, and cultures that have existed on the Asian continent were influenced by the Silk Road, which connected China, India, the Middle East and Europe. Hinduism and Buddhism, which both began in India, were important influences on South and East Asia. Christianity, Nestorianism in particular, came to China via the Silk Road. While it had a significant presence in the Central Asia, it did not gain any significance in China and East Asia until modern missionaries from Europe and North America arrived in the 19th century. On the contrary, the Silk Road passed Chinese products and inventions to the Western regions, including paper: papermaking originated in China and is considered one of Four Great Inventions. It gained notoriety in the Middle East after the Battle of Talas between the Arabs and the Chinese Tang Dynasty in 751.
The Silk Road was also a pathway for intruders, namely the Turkic-Mongol peoples of Central Asia. One of the main concerns of the foreign affairs of the Chinese dynasties was how to defeat these “nomadic barbarians”. The Great Wall, begun in the 2nd century BC by the Qin dynasty, was one such attempt to deter invasions from the nomadic groups of Central Asia.
Divisions and re-unification of China
Three Kingdoms Period
The Three Kingdoms Period consisted of the kingdom of Wei, Shu, and Wu. It began when the ruler of Wei, Cao Cao, was defeated by Liu Bei and Sun Quan at the Battle of Red Cliffs. After Cao Cao’s death in AD 220, his son Cao Pi became emperor of Wei. Liu Bei and Sun Quan declared themselves emperor of Shu and Wu respectively. Many famous personages in Chinese history were born during this period, including Hua Tuo and the great military strategist Zhuge Liang. Buddhism, which was introduced during the Han Dynasty, also became popular in this period. Two years after Wei conquered Shu in AD 263, Sima Yan, Wei’s Imperial Chancellor, overthrew Wei and started the Western Jin Dynasty. The conquest of Wu by the Western Jin Dynasty ended the Three Kingdoms period, and China was unified again. However, the Western Jin did not last long. Following the death of Sima Yan, the War of the Eight Princes began. This war weakened the Jin Dynasty, and it soon fell to the kingdom of Han Zhao. This ushered in the Sixteen Kingdoms.
Southern and Northern Dynasties
The Northern Wei was established by the Tuoba clan of the Xianbei people in AD 386, when they united the northern part of China. During the Northern Wei, Buddhism flourished, and became an important tool for the emperors of the Northern Wei, since they were believed to be living incarnations of Buddha. Soon, the Northern Wei was divided into the Eastern Wei and Western Wei. These were followed by the Northern Zhou and Northern Qi. In the south, the dynasties were much less stable than the Northern Dynasties. The four dynasties were weakened by conflicts between the ruling families.
Buddhism, also one of the major religions in East Asia, was introduced into China during the Han dynasty from India in the 1st century BC. Buddhism was originally introduced to Korea from China in 372, and eventually arrived in Japan around the turn of the 6th century.
For a long time Buddhism remained a foreign religion with a few believers in China, mainly taught by immigrant Indian teachers. During the Tang dynasty, a fair amount of translations from Sanskrit into Chinese were done by Chinese priests, and Buddhism became one of the major religions of the Chinese along with the other two indigenous religions.
In Korea, Buddhism was not seen to conflict with the rites of nature worship; it was allowed to blend in with Shamanism. Thus, the mountains that were believed to be the residence of spirits in pre-Buddhist times became the sites of Buddhist temples. Though Buddhism initially enjoyed wide acceptance, even being supported as the state ideology during the Goguryeo, Silla, Baekje, Balhae, and Goryeo periods, Buddhism in Korea suffered extreme repression during the Joseon Dynasty.
In Japan, Buddhism and Shinto were combined by a theological theory “Ryōbushintō”, which says Shinto deities are avatars of various Buddhist entities, including Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. This became the mainstream notion of Japanese religion. In fact until the Meiji government declared their separation in the mid-19th century, many Japanese people believed that Buddhism and Shinto were one religion.
In Mongolia, Buddhism flowered into nomadic land three times; first during the Hunnu (1st-3rd centuries BC), then in the Mongol Empire (13th-14th centuries), and finally in the Manchu Empire (16th-19th centuries) from Tibet in the last 2000 years. It was mixed in with Tengeriism and Shamanism.
In AD 581, Yang Jian overthrew the Northern Zhou, and established the Sui Dynasty. Later, Yang Jian, who became Sui Wendi, conquered the Chen Dynasty, and united China. However, this dynasty was short-lived. Sui Wendi’s successor, Sui Yangdi, expanded the Grand Canal, and launched four disastrous wars against the Goguryeo. These projects depleted the resources and the workforce of the Sui. In AD 618, Sui Yangdi was murdered. Li Yuan, the former governor of Taiyuan, declared himself the emperor, and founded the Tang Dynasty.
Three Kingdoms of Korea
B.C 58, the Korean peninsula was divided into three kingdoms, Baekje, Silla and Goguryeo. Although they shared a similar language and culture, these three kingdoms constantly fought with each other for control of the peninsula. Furthermore, Goguryeo had been engaged in constant wars with the Chinese. This included the Goguryeo-Sui Wars, where the Kingdom of Goguryeo managed to repel the invading forces of the Sui Dynasty.
As the Kingdom of Silla conquered nearby city-states, they gained access to the Yellow Sea, making direct contact with the Tang Dynasty possible. The Tang Dynasty teamed up with Silla and formed a strategy to invade Goguryeo. Since Goguryeo had been able to repel earlier Chinese invasions from the North, perhaps Gorguryeo would fall if it were attacked by Silla from the south at the same time. However, in order to do this, the Tang-Silla alliance had to eliminate Goguryeo’s nominal ally Baekje and secure a base of operations in southern Korea for a second front.
In 660, the coalition troops of Silla and Tang of China attacked Baekje, resulting in the annexation of Baekje by Silla. Together, Silla and Tang effectively eliminated Baekje when they captured the capital of Sabi, as well as Baekje’s last king, Uija, and most of the royal family.
However, Yamato Japan and Baekje had been long-standing and very close allies. In 663, Baekje revival forces and a Japanese naval fleet convened in southern Baekje to confront the Silla forces in the Battle of Baekgang. The Tang dynasty also sent 7,000 soldiers and 170 ships. After five naval confrontations that took place in August 663 at Baekgang, considered the lower reaches of Tongjin river, the Silla-Tang forces emerged victorious.
The Silla-Tang forces turned their attention to Goguryeo. Although Goguryeo had repelled the Sui Dynasty a century earlier, attacks by the Tang Dynasty from the west proved too formidable. The Silla-Tang alliance emerged victorious in the Goguryeo-Tang Wars. Silla thus unified most of the Korean peninsula in 668.
But the kingdom’s reliance on China’s Tang Dynasty had its price. Silla had to forcibly resist the imposition of Chinese rule over the entire peninsula. Silla then fought for nearly a decade to expel Chinese forces to finally establish a unified kingdom as far north as modern Pyongyang.
A government system supported by a large class of Confucian literati selected through civil service examinations was perfected under Tang rule. This competitive procedure was designed to draw the best talents into government. But perhaps an even greater consideration for the Tang rulers, aware that imperial dependence on powerful aristocratic families and warlords would have destabilizing consequences, was to create a body of career officials having no autonomous territorial or functional power base. As it turned out, these scholar-officials acquired status in their local communities, family ties, and shared values that connected them to the imperial court. From Tang times until the closing days of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, scholar officials functioned often as intermediaries between the grassroots level and the government. This model of government had an influence on Korea and Japan.
The first known movable type system was invented in China around 1040 AD by Pi Sheng (990-1051) (spelled Bi Sheng in the Pinyin system). Pi Sheng’s type was made of baked clay. As described by the Chinese scholar Shen Kuo (1031–1095)
Invasions from Central Asia
The expansion of the Mongol Empire.
|This section requires expansion. (May 2008)|
- The Goryeo-Khitan Wars of the 10th and 11th century.
- The Mongol invasions of Korea between 1231 to 1259.
- The Mongol invasions of Japan of 1274 and 1281.
- The Mongol invasions of Vietnam in 1257, 1285 and 1287 AD.
Most sources credit the discovery of gunpowder to Chinese alchemists in the 9th century searching for an elixir of immortality. The discovery of gunpowder was probably the product of centuries of alchemical experimentation. Saltpetre was known to the Chinese by the mid-1st century AD and there is strong evidence of the use of saltpetre and sulfur in various largely medicine combinations. A Chinese alchemical text from 492 noted that saltpeter gave off a purple flame when ignited, providing for the first time a practical and reliable means of distinguishing it from other inorganic salts, making it possible to evaluate and compare purification techniques. By most accounts, the earliest Arabic and Latin descriptions of the purification of saltpeter do not appear until the 13th century.
Some have heated together sulfur, realgar and saltpeter with honey; smoke and flames result, so that their hands and faces have been burnt, and even the whole house where they were working burned down.
The earliest surviving recipes for gunpowder can be found in the Chinese military treatise Wujing zongyao of 1044 AD, which contains three: two for use in incendiary bombs to be thrown by siege engines and one intended as fuel for poison smoke bombs. The formulas in the Wujing zongyao range from 27 to 50 percent nitrate. Experimenting with different levels of saltpetre content eventually produced bombs, grenades, and land mines, in addition to giving fire arrows a new lease on life. By the end of the 12th century, there were cast iron grenades filled with gunpowder formulations capable of bursting through their metal containers. The 14th century Huolongjing contains gunpowder recipes with nitrate levels ranging from 12 to 91 percent, six of which approach the theoretical composition for maximal explosive force.
In China, the 13th century saw the beginnings of rocketry and the manufacture of the oldest gun still in existence, a descendant of the earlier fire-lance, a gunpowder-fueled flamethrower that could shoot shrapnel along with fire. The Huolongjing text of the 14th century also describes hollow, gunpowder-packed exploding cannonballs.
In the 13th century contemporary documentation shows gunpowder beginning to spread from China by the Mongols to the rest of the world, starting with Europe and the Islamic world. The Arabs acquired knowledge of saltpetre—which they called “Chinese snow” (thalj al-Sīn) —around 1240 and, soon afterward, of gunpowder; they also learned of fireworks (“Chinese flowers”) and rockets (“Chinese arrows”). Historian Ahmad Y. al-Hassan argues—contra the general notion—that the Chinese technology passed through Arabic alchemy and chemistry before the 13th century. Gunpowder arrived in India by the mid-14th century, but could have been introduced by the Mongols perhaps as early as the mid-13th century.
Resource: Far East of Asia history