Timeline Historical Dictionary
First posted on June 13th 2009

Narratives : History of East Asia

China's history goes back more than 4 millennia. At its beginnings are irrigation-based civilizations in the valleys of the Hwangho (wheat cultivation) and the Yangze rivers (rice cultivation). There was a succession of dynasties - Xia, Shang, Zhou, Han, Sui, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, Qing. Korean readers may watch for spelling, as they are accustomed to different pronunciations. The Xia and Shang dynasties are rather legendary, from later Shang onward they are reliably recorded. These dynasties were occasionally interrupted by periods of division.
The Chinese civilization developed script, literature, advanced skills in metalworking; the Chinese invented paper, the compass etc. By comparison to the other early civilizations, China developed less of a concept of religious systems.
In the 6th century B.C., at a time when China was divided in several states, a scholar by the name of Kong Fuzi (Confucius), after failing to be employed in the administration of a state, established a standard for the education of employees in state administration by compiling 4 anthologies, the Book of Rites, Book of Changes, Book of History, the Book of Poetry. The 5th Confucian classic is the Book of Anecdotes, interpreted as a collection of his sayings. The literature from which Confucius took material for his anthologies is lost. Confucius' philosophy emphasizes respect for the older, loyalty to ones parents, it teaches the virtues of a worthy administrator. Early on Confucianism competed with other Chinese philosophies, such as Daoism. In the 4th century, Buddhism arrived in China. But Confucianism, in several phases of Chinese history, became state philosophy, so especially during the Sung, Ming and Qing dynasties. Access to positions in state administration was made dependent on state examinations. Confucian societies (China proper, Korea, Vietnam) thus developed a feudalism which was based on success in state examinations rather than on (mainly military) service. The Confucian classics were studied in Chinese script; when Buddhism arrived in China, Buddhist scripts were translated into Chinese, and spread in the Far East in Chinese translation.
Written Chinese thus became the lingua franca of the region; educated Koreans, Japanese and Vietnamese had to learn to read and write in Chinese, to such an extent that written Japanese still today cannot do without Chinese characters, while Koreans still use many.

The Han Chinese civilization regarded itself as superior to the people in adjacent countries. During the Han Dynasty, China was connected by trade routes (the so-called Silk Road, actually a network of roads and sea routes) with India, Central Asia and the Mediterranean. Central Asian peoples, attracted by China's wealth, occasionally attacked the settlements of the Chinese. To protect China from such attacks, the Great Wall of China was built (c. 220 B.C.). It only temporarily held off the invaders.
Of great importance for China's history is the completion of the Grand Canal in c.645 A.D., connecting the Hwangho and Yangzi river basins. China's coast was unsafe because of the attacks of Japanese pirates.

During the Song Dynasty, a scholar by the name Zhu Xi introduced Neoconfucianism as state philosophy. While the Song Dynasty was conquered by the Yuan Dynasty, which favoured religions such as Buddhism over Confucianism, under the Ming Neoconfucianism was restored. The Ming Dynasty reintroduced Confucianism. It punished the social classes which had been ragarded pillars of Yuan rule - Buddhist monks and merchants - at the bottom of the new social order. The confiscation of the lands owned by Buddhist power provided the new state with revenue.
The early Ming administration developed its foreign relations by sending out expeditions commanded by Zheng He, a Chinese Muslim from the province of Yunnan (1405-1433) who got as far as East Africa. Because of the immense costs, after 1433 these large scale expeditions were discontinued.

Japan is proud of being ruled by the oldest uninderrupted dynasty in history, beginning with the rulers of Yamato, a state in southwestern Japan. The Emperors of Japan (tennos, mikados), for most of the country's history, were generally respected figures with only nominal political power; actual political decisions were made by the Shogun (also called Bakufu). Periods of Japanese history are named after the capital.
Japan was one of the countries affected by Sinification. Japan probably got rice cultivation, sericulture, tea cultivation from China, but also Buddhism and Confucianism, the two latter via Korea (in Japan Confucianism never became state philosophy). In Japan, traditional religious practices, in the form of Shintoism, competed with the imported religions/philosophies.
Despite producing its own tea and silk, in Japan there continued to be a great demand for Chinese silk and tea. Yet Ming China banned trade with Japan due to Japanese piracy. Ming also concentrated all foreign maritime trade on the city of Guangzhou (in English usually Canton).

The Portuguese reached China by sea in 1513, Japan by c.1540. The Portuguese soon figured out that great profit could be made by supplying Japan with Chinese silk; they also provided the Japanese with gun technology. By 1600 the Spanish, Dutch and English also traded with Japan and China. Japan in 1641 excluded the British, Portuguese and Spanish, allowing just one Dutch ship per year. China permitted ships from any western nation to enter the port of Canton. Until into the 19th century, this trade was conducted according to the rules set by the Chinese respectively Japanese.
The Europeans wanted Chinesew quality products, most notably silk, porcelain and tea. The Chinese wanted little from the Europeans, but they did accept payment in silver. So much of the silver the Spanish extracted from their colonies in South America circled for a while in Europe before ending up in China.

In 1644 the Qing (Manchu) Dynasty ousted the Ming Dynasty. Neoconfucianism remained state philosophy. During the early Qing rule, the Empire expanded by conquering adjacent regions (Mongolia, Tibet, Xinjiang). The steady influx of silver contributed to a considerable expansion of the population of Qing China, from c. 100 million in 1700 to c. 300 million in 1795.

In the 16th century, the Jesuits established a mission in China. Under Johann Adam Schall they gained the favour of the Qing Dynasty, by introducing western astronomical findings. The Jesuits, in the following decades, would translate Chinese books into Latin or French, and western books into Chinese. The Japanese bought western books from the Dutch, and translated them on their own (Rangaku books), thus getting access to western scientific knowledge. Korean embassies visiting the Chinese Emperor usually acquired western books translated by the Jesuits into Chinese; the advocates of this western knowledge in Korea were called Silhak scholars.

Western colonial companies, such as the V.O.C. and the E.I.C., were rather dissatisfied with the China trade. For one, the Chinese authorities regarded merchants as lowly creatures; an administrator does not talk to them on the basis of equals, but he gives them commands. Then there was little the Chinese were interested in buying from the Europeans. Western merchants were very observant on the markets of Guangzhou. Finally they found a weed the Chinese, using it for medical purposes, paid high prices for : opium.
The E.I.C. now grew opium in ever-increasing quantities on plantations in British India, and sold the opium on auctions in Calcutta, where it was bought by mostly British merchants and transported to Guangzhou, where the sales of opium increased quickly, causing an addiction problem. The silver flow inverted. When the scale of the problem was reported to the court in Beijing, an official was sent with the instruction to terminate the harmful opium trade immediately. Miscommunication and the lack of established communication channels lead to the First Opium War (1839-1842).
The British easily defeated the Chinese navy, established Hong Kong as a base for operations, and forced the Ming Dynasty to sign peace by sailing up the Yangzi and threatening Nanjing. In the Treaty of Nanjing Ming was to make a number of concessions : (1) cede Hong Kong in perpetuity, (2) open more ports for international trade (among them Shanghai), (3) permit missionaries to enter the country, and (4) to permit British steamers to take care of the transport of goods from Guangzhou to the Yangzi valley. So far this trade had been conducted in part on river barges, in part on the back of human carriers, donkeys etc., across the mountains of southern China, providing large masses with a meager source of revenue. The British steamers were faster and cheaper. Thus millions lost their income.
China already prior to the Opium War had entered a deep crisis. The strong population growth of the 18th century could not be continued; the influx of silver had decreased and then turned into an outflow. The consequences of the Treaty of Nanjing only exacerbated the situation.
Just at that time Britain had outphased slavery in the British Empire. Now agents signed on Chinese indentured labourers who thus were obliged to work for a number of years - the coolies. The coolie trade continued into the late 19th and early 20th century, stopped rather by the anti-Chinese immigrant "Yellow Peril" campaigns in California and Australia, than by political movenents in China.
A one-time student in a missionary school, Hong Xiuquan, implemented a social revolution (Taiping, 1851-1864). Calling himself the brother of Jesus Christ, he surrounded himself with followers, took control of sections of southern China where he implemented a land reform; every head of a family was allocated a farm. He also emphasized gender equality. His movement quickly expanded; the Taiping moved their capital to Nanjing, at one time threatened Beijing. As simultaneously other rebellions took place, the Qing Dynasty did not control much outside of her capital. To make matters worse, 1856-1860 Qing was at war with Britain and France (2nd Opium War), and in 1858 had to cede the Amur Province to Russia, in 1860 the Maritime Province.
Now at the court of Qing it was realized that business as usual no longer worked, political change was necessary. The British were taken by surprise by the sudden territorial increase of Russia. Britain was interested in preventing Russia to make further progress; it seemed, the way to achieve this was to strengthen Qing.
Qing opened up Manchuria (hitherto reserved for ethnic Manchus) to the immigration of Han Chinese. The Tsongli Yamen was established, a kind of ministry of foreign affairs responsible for any contact with westerners. The first Chinese state schools teaching western languages and subjects were opened, the first Chinese students sent abroad to study. Regiments of the Chinese army equipped and trained western style were formed, factories producing weapons and ammunitions established.

Japan, after the failed invasion of Korea 1592-1598, had pursued a policy of almost complete isolation (the Dutch V.O.C. was permitted to send one ship per year). In 1854 the U.S. expedition under Commodore Perry caused Japan to open 4 ports for international trade. In 1868 a coup d'etat ousted the Shogun and replaced him by a parlament western style.
Both Qing and Japan took the path of modernization. While Qing pursued the policy of having one western style ministry coexisting with a number of traditional style ministries, Japan was fully dedicated to modernization.
Both Qing and Japan seemed to make progress. Qing ended the rebellions, restored control of its territory; a campaign into Xinjiang prevented Russian expansion here. Defeats in the Sino-French War 1883-1885 and in the Sino-Japanese War 1894-1895 showed the weakness of Qing. When the East Asiatic Triple Alliance in 1897 forced Japan to give up part of her gains made in the latter war, Russia took Port Arthur (Dalian) and thus acquired a port ice-free year round on the Pacific coast, just what Britain had tried so long to avoid. Britain's China policy since 1860 had been an utter failure, a fact only confirmed by the so-called Boxer Rebellion 1900. Thus Britain looked out for a new partner to keep Russia in check (Anglo-Japanese Alliance 1902, Russo-Japanese War 1904-1905, Russia ceded Port Arthur to Japan).

In late Qing the necessity of reform was felt. Guangxu Emperor implemented the "Hundred Days Reforms" 1898, but was toppled by the Dowager Empress.
In 1911 the Chinese Revolution broke out in Guangzhou, headed by Sun Yat-Sen. In 1912 Yuan Shi Kai proclaimed the republic in Beijing and ousted Sun Yat-Sen. Tibet and Mongolia declared independence in 1912. Yuan died in 1916; Sun Yat Sen returned from Japan. He established the Republic of China and the Kuomintang (People's Party). Sun asked Lenin to send him someone experienced in establishing a political party; Lenin sent Mikhail Borodin, who not only organised the KMT, but also the Chinese Communist Party.
Sun died early, in 1925. He was succeeded by Chiang Kai-Shek. Chiang was less of a politician and more of a military officer. The Kuomintang controlled only the very south of China; many other parts of the country were controlled by regional "warlords". In 1926 Chiang Kai Shek launched the Northern Expedition, bringing central and northern China under Kuomintang control. He broke with the Communists (1927), thus beginning the Chinese Civil War. In 1928 the capital was moved to Nanjing.
The Japanese had regarded Zhang Zuolin, the warlord of Manchuria, as "their man". They regarded his ousture by Chiang Kai-Shek in 1928 as an interference in their affairs, and in 1932 created the "Empire of Manchukuo", a satellite state under Pu Yi, who had been the last Emperor of China. The Communists for a number of years successfully defended their strongholds in Jiangxi, until they were forced to evacuate them (Long March 1934, during which they lost some 90 % of their men). They established a new center in Yenan.
In 1937 the Japanese invaded, committing the Nanjing Massacre and occupying the most productive parts of China. The KMT government withdrew to Chongqing. Cut off from the coast, it had to find new supplies for the foreign imports it depended on in order to be able continue the war. After Pearl Harbour (Dec. 1941) the Japanese cut off the KMT supply lines overland through Burma, and these supplies now were delivered by air (Flying Tigers 1942-1944).
The British, U.S. and Soviet allies insisted that the KMT and Communists should interrupt the civil war ongoing between them and focus on the common enemy - Japan. At the Cairo Conference, Chiang Kai Shek was represented, and succeeded in getting acceptance for the Chinese claim on Taiwan (since 1895 Japanese).

Japan since the Meiji Reform had pursued a policy of expansion - the Ryukyu Islands in 1876, Taiwan in 1895, southern Sakhalin in 1905, Korea in 1910. During World War I it took the Mariana, Carolina and Marshall Islands and Qingdao (in China) from Germany. Following the outbreak of the Russian Revolution, Japanese troops occupied the Russian Far East until Irkutsk (mainland evacuated in 1922, northern Sakhalin in 1926). Japanese troops were stationed in Manchuria.
Until 1914, Japan competed with many colonial powers for territorial expansion in the region. World War I tied the forces of the other powers up in Europe, the taking of the German colonies, the occupation of Russian territory were easy accomplishments; Japan even became one of the leading members of the League of Nations.
Since 1868, Japan had made great economical and technological progress. By the 1930s, Japanese lenses had a reputation worldwide, Japanese artificial pearls had a devastating influence on the pearl fishing industry all over the world. Japanese athletes dominated the swimming events at the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
In her policy to expand into China, Japan was no longer opposed by other colonial powers. But Chinese students demonstrations claimed Qingdao as Chinese (German 1897-1914, Japanese since 1914). The international press sympathized with the Chinese, and Japan gave in (1921). In 1932 the Japanese established the vassal state of Manchukuo, in 1936 the vassal state of Mengjiang, in 1937 they invaded China (2nd Sino-Japanese War).
The west remained neutral. The U.S. cut off oil supplies to Japan, a fact which played a role in the decision of the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7th 1941. Soon after they occupied South-East Asia, trying to convince the native population that they had come to liberate them from colonialism, and that they now were part of the "Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere". While the U.S. pursued the policy "Germany First", in the Pacific the Island Hopping Strategy was pursued, and attempts were made to force Japan to surrender by aerial bombing. As the Japanese houses were build of wood (and usually had no basements), losses among the civilian population were heavy. U.S. air superiority also caused severe losses to Japanese shipping; the dire need for fuel caused the Japanese to have oil seeds grown in place of rice, which in return exacerbated the lack of food. But Japan did not want to surrender, until the explosion of the nuclear bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki left little alternative.

The sudden end of World War II brought a new political situation in the Far East. The USSR had only declared war on Japan a few days before the war was over; Soviet troops occupied Manchuria and North Korea. An Allied military government ruled Japan which was given a Pacifist constitution (1951). The two Koreas - Communist North, Democratic South - were quickly released into independence (1948). In China the truce expired (1946) and the civil war resumed. The country suffered from hyperinflation, U.S. aid was cut, the world attention was focussed on the Berlin Airlift (the planes which had kept China in the war in 1942-1944 were now in the air over Berlin), and in 1949 KMT rule in mainland China collapsed like a house of cards; the KMT only held on to Taiwan.
At the end of 1949 the People's Republic of China was founded, China transformed into a Communist society. In 1950 Tibet was conquered, Chinese troops sent to fight in the Korean War (until 1953). In the late 1950es, China wanted to develop its economy; instead of taking the gradual approach Soviet style (5 year plans), Mao Zedong pursued the "Great Leap Forward", with disastrous consequences. After, the Chinese bureaucracy tried to govern the country without him interfering, tried to keep him busy elsewhere. In 1966 he had enough of being handled that way; he called on China's youth to send the bureaucrats into the ricefields (Cultural Revolution 1966-1967).
Until now, the U.S. had not recognized the PRC. China's seat in the U.N. Security Council was held by Taiwan. In 1971 the U.S. and the P.R.C. launched the Ping Pong Policy; the U.S. and the PRC diplomatically recognized each other (i.e. the U.S. dropped the diplomatic recognition of Taiwan, as the PRC pursues the One China Policy). The U.S. granted the PRC most favoured nation status.
The PRC changed a number of policies. In order to keep population growth in check, the one child policy was introduced. Instead of favouring heavy industries (as done until now) the economic policy shifted toward the production of consumer goods. Reforms providing more room for a capitalist economy in a socialist system were implemented, the One Country - Two Systems policy introduced (special economic zones). The PRC went on a path of sustained economic growth.
While the PRC has made great economic, technological and social progress since the daus of Mao Zedong, the political system is still that of a One Party State; the economic boom has created great discrepancies between a wealthy elite, a prosperous middle class, some comparatively well-paid workers, as well as a mass of workers who struggle to make ends meet and even more who lack jobs or job security, the latter often migrant workers. There are great regional discrepancies, prosperous coastal provinces and backward inland provinces, the ethnic minorities often among the poorest. There are ecological problems as well, such as desertification. Readers have to keep in mind, China is home to one sixth of the world population.

Japan since 1951 has been at peace, has seen great economic development. The Summer Olympics Tokyo 1964 mark a time, from when on Japan no longer was regarded part of the "Third World". When the coal mining industry entered a crisis in the 1960s the Japanese decided against subsidizing it, and invested their state money instead in financing research related to new technologies (MITI). In the 1990s the Japanese economy entered a crisis when the Japanese real estate bubble birst. Since, Japanese banks lent money at almost zero interest, thus affecting the world economy outside of Japan.
Since 1955, Japan for most of the time has been ruled by the LDP; changes in government were mostly not decided in elections, but in backroom deals among political strongmen. The election of a cabinet not lead by the LDP in 1992 marks Japan's transition to a fully dunctional democracy.


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