Development of Eastern Civilization: Key Figures & Events

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Eastern civilizations are unified by a series of cultural and historic similarities. In this lesson, we are going to explore major moments and figures in the history of East Asia.

Eastern Civilization

Confucius says: the East rules and the West drools. Okay, Confucius never said that. But had he lived today, he might have. Cultures of East Asia have a long history behind them and while each is unique, many of their beliefs and traditions can be loosely categorized into what we call Eastern Civilization. Just as Western Civilization is largely based around some very influential powers, Eastern Civilization traditionally circles around the nations of China, Korea, and Japan. From ancient beginnings to their modern cultures, these regions have impacted millions of lives over time and had major impacts on the rest of the world as well.

Prehistoric Asia

Our story starts way back with the arrival of the first cultures in the region. The first people in Asia are traditionally assumed to have settled in China, considered one of the origins of human civilizations in the world. People were in China roughly 125,000 to 80,000 years ago, and arrived in Korea and Japan by roughly 35,000 BCE.

Around 6,000 BCE, early peoples were developing agriculture along the Yellow River of China. One of the oldest cultures we can clearly identify are the Jiahu, who lived roughly 5,000 BCE and may have developed China's first writing system. Korea's oldest culture is generally considered to be the Jeulmun people, and Japan's are the Jomon.


Development of Historic Asia

According to Chinese traditions, the oldest major kingdom of Asia was the Xia dynasty, said to rule around 2200 BCE. Koreans trace their cultural history back to Gojoseon, the first Korean kingdom which was founded around the same time as the Xia state. Japan's first kingdom is called Kofun by historians, and dates to roughly 250 CE. The exact origins, locations, and sizes of all of these are shrouded in mythologies and mysteries, but their existence is important to the national histories of each country today.

Early kingdoms grew in size and established some very important traditions that would later define Eastern civilization. Around 1000 BCE, the king of the Chinese kingdom of Zhou justified his power by claiming the Mandate of Heaven, an idea that rulers had divine authority, but that they could lose it if they were unjust. The Mandate of Heaven became one of the most important concepts in Chinese politics. A few centuries later, Chinese society would gain more philosophical guidance through the teachings of Confucius, who argued that harmony came from an ordered society, and Lao Tzu, who taught on the relationship between spiritual forces in the doctrine of Taoism.

Major Historic Eras


A lot changed over the next centuries. Around 221 BCE, a ruler named Qin Shi Huangdi unified China as we know it into a single, massive state. This is considered to be the official formation of Imperial China, ruled by a powerful emperor who was responsible for commissioning arts and major public works projects. It was Qin Shi Huangdi who started the Great Wall.

Qin Shi Huangdi

Fast-forward a few centuries. In the 13th century CE, China was conquered by the Mongol Empire under Kublai Khan. Kublai opened China and the rest of continental Asia to international trade, forming the trade networks we call the Silk Roads. After the Mongols were kicked out of China a century later, China became much less interested in world affairs and largely isolated itself under the Ming Dynasty.


Japan had a very different experience. The Japanese emperors were figures of immense cultural power but very little political control. Instead, powerful families controlled Japan as advisors to the emperor. This began with the Fujiwara clan in the 9th century CE. Under Fujiwara control, Japan became a major intellectual center that brought in many ideas from Korea and China.

The power of the Fujiwara clan would later be emulated by others. In the 12th century, Minamoto no Yoritomo became the new military ruler of Japan under the new title of shogun. Under the shoguns, Japan's military culture flourished. It was during this time that an elite class of educated warriors called samurai came to dominate Japanese life.

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