Chinese Civilization's Influence in East Asia: Korea & Japan

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  • 0:01 Chinese Cultural Influence
  • 0:59 Korea & Chinese Culture
  • 2:38 Japan & Chinese Culture
  • 4:56 Common Themes
  • 5:53 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

China's influence on the cultures of its neighbors is impossible to overstate and nowhere is this more true than in Korea and Japan. That said, those two countries managed to still develop very distinctive cultures.

Chinese Cultural Influence

It is difficult to overstate the level of influence that Chinese culture had on surrounding countries. Most notably, in Vietnam, the government was not only a protectorate of the Chinese Emperor for much of the last two thousand years, but many aspects of Vietnamese culture, from food and social customs, to government and philosophy, have come almost exclusively from China.

In fact, during the one period of foreign occupation in China, when the Mongols ruled China as the Yuan Dynasty, Chinese cultural norms ended up besting the Mongols, having a role in their inability to govern the vast country as their own and resulting in their downfall. This lesson will take a look at how China's culture permeated two other regions of the Middle Kingdom: Korea and Japan.

Korea and Chinese Culture

Of the two countries in question, Korea certainly had the greater exposure to Chinese culture. For starters, the Koreans had been home to Chinese military colonies during the Han Dynasty and maintained strong cultural ties to China throughout the Tang period. One of Korea's original three kingdoms, the Goguryeo, was itself heavily influenced by China. And another, the Silla, openly allied with the Tang against its foes. Korea also adopted new philosophies via China: first, Buddhism and later, Confucianism.

Yet Korea was still strongly independent and rejected Chinese domination, both politically and culturally. Perhaps the most startling example of this is that the Koreans endeavored to create their own writing system at a time when other cultures simply borrowed Chinese characters. Known as Hangul, this syllable-based system was designed to provide another layer of cultural protection by limiting the influence of the Chinese language on Korean.

Politically, it was impractical for Korea, a small country in comparison to China, to adopt too aggressive a stance against its neighbor. So instead, the Koreans opted for a strategy based on the Confucian paradigm of how an elder brother, here China, should treat his younger brother, or Korea. By embracing this Chinese philosophy, the Koreans were able to ensure their independence from China, both culturally and militarily.

Japan and Chinese Culture

The Japanese were quite distant from China, lacking the border that the Koreans had with the Middle Kingdom, but still felt the cultural influence from the Imperial throne. Even with the 120 miles of open water between China and Japan, the distance was still short enough to allow the Japanese to take the best of what they saw in Chinese culture.

In fact, while relatively few Chinese would come to Japan, the Japanese sent envoys to learn everything they could about China, picking the best aspects to adopt in their homeland. Much of this involved philosophical issues, since the Japanese were quite keen to adopt more of the tenets of Buddhism. However, they added many native Japanese elements to the practice. This resulted in a style of belief known as Zen Buddhism, which was quite different from the other varieties of that religion. Further, the Japanese clung to the idea of the Emperor as above the fray of political strife, but this was less from a philosophical love of the Emperor and more from a desire to limit the influence of that office on the political movements of the dominant clan in Japan, the Fujiwara.

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