East Asia is located in Eastern Asia and comprises China, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Mongolia and Taiwan. It is approximately 12, 000, 000 square kilometers and has a population of 1.5 billion people. It is among the most populated regions in the world. The East Asian region has evolved over the years with some of its states such as China and Japan being major world super powers. A number of failures and success have characterized its development. For instance, the Chinese had one of the greatest ancient civilizations that spread widely in Asia. However, in the late 18th and early19th centuries, East Asia experienced significant transformations. Therefore, the aim of this paper is to examine why the late 18th and 19th centuries have been regarded as important pivotal transition periods in the history of East Asia.
Evolution of the East Asian States
East Asia is one of the most important regions in the world due to its ancient civilization. Its history can be traced back to the evolution of different Chinese dynasties. One of the ancient Chinese dynasties was the Xia dynasty, which ruled for 500 years. Its inhabitants were mainly farmers, who also specialized in manufacturing weapons and silk clothing. The Shang dynasty succeeded the Xia (Holcombe 25). “After conquering the Xia, the Shang gained control of Chinese civilization and ruled for 600 years” (Holcombe 26). Eventually, the Zhou overthrew the Shang (Holcombe 30-31). This dynasty lasted longer than other Chinese dynasties. It was during the reign of the Zhou dynasty that Taoism and Confucianism were introduced as the two basic ideas of the Chinese philosophy (Holcombe 34).
In Japan, the Yamato was the first royal dynasty (Gordon 2-3). The Yamato dynasty was a small clan that comprised extended family members. It was highly influenced by Chinese culture during its reign. For instance, it incorporated various elements of the Chinese culture such as Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Chinese calendar and governance style. Later, the Japanese also began to develop their culture. This culminated to the emergence of the Samurai clan (Gordon 14-15).
They later ascended to power and introduced Feudalism, which lasted for approximately 700 years. During this period, various Shoguns ruled Japan. The Tokugawa had one of the most influential regimes. It ascended to power in the 17th C and ruled up to late 19th C. The Tokugawa regime was characterized by harsh rules that restricted its inhabitants from social and geographical mobility (Gordon 1). However, Japan attained a number of economic developments in trade and transportation during the Tokugawa’s reign.
In Korea, the Tan’gun myth has been used to explain its origins. According to the Tan’gun myth, the Emperor Yao, Tan’gun founded the state of Chaoxian, which refers to Korea (Seth 16). “The name was derived from the geographic position of Korea in relation to China” (Seth 17). Originally, it was located in the Southern part of Manchuria. The state played a significant role in facilitating Chinese-Korean relations. For instance, “it brought Chinese into direct involvement with Korea” (Seth 17-18). Another dynasty that had a remarkable influence in Korea was the Joseon dynasty. It reigned between 918 and 1897. The conquest of the Goryeo dynasty led to the establishment of the Joseon dynasty. It encouraged the entrenchment of Chinese Confucian and Taoism ideals into the Korean society and managed to consolidate its rule over Korea (Gray 141). However, it was severely weakened by invasions from its neighbors.
East Asia’s Internal and External Relations before Late 18th C
The internal relations between East Asian states were often characterized by civil wars and succession disputes. For instance, a number of warlords who controlled small kingdoms constantly fought each other (Holcombe 35). This was particularly evidenced when the Zhou’s control was weakened. Some of the states also engaged in warfare with other states such as Mongolia.
The advancement of the transport industry in the East Asian region significantly promoted its internal interactions and foreign relations. During the Tokugawa regime in Japan, overland transport was well developed (Gordon 24). Japan had an extensive road network that facilitated the movement of goods and people from one region to another. Additionally, a number of inns were established in order to accommodate travelers and long distance traders (Gordon 25). The development of overland transport system facilitated trade between different states (Gordon 26). Migration also encouraged internal relations between East Asian states. Consequently, this led to the spread of its great civilization. For instance, Korean and Chinese immigrants to Japan introduced Chinese writing style and cultures in Japan (Gray 157).
East Asia during Late 18th and 19th Centuries
Before late 18th C, East Asia was one of the regions that had isolated itself from the rest of the world. It remained self-contained and evolutionary with little influence from foreign cultures. Most of its states interacted amongst themselves. In some instances, they engaged in indirect foreign relations with Europe and regional states through trade. However, from the late 18th C, East Asia underwent significant transitions and transformation. Chinese and Japanese relations with the expanding Western polities intensified leading to drastic changes that were both revolutionary and evolutionary. This marked a new era in East Asian history.
However, the Koreans were initially reluctant to expand their relations with the West. They continued to apply their isolationist policy, which they believed would protect them against external influence. Some of the strategies that they used to bar European influence were reformation of the Korean bureaucracy, introduction of new forms of taxation and exploitation of new talents. Nonetheless, its isolationist policy ended when it split into different factions. This led to its annexation by Japan; hence, leading to the introduction of Western influence.
Generally, the late 18th and 19th centuries have been regarded as the most important periods in the history of East Asia. This phenomenon has been explained in varied ways. For instance, during the 19th C, Europe attained a number of technological and scientific advancements that led to efficient social, economic and political organization in Europe. Thus, the economic and political might of the Western states acted as a threat to East Asian countries. “The countries of East Asia suddenly found their defenses crumbling, their economies disrupted, their governments threatened and social systems undermined” (Holcombe 170). Therefore, a revolutionary response towards the West became inevitable.
One of the major responses towards the West was by adopting Western technology and various forms of organization. For example, East Asian states adopted European military technologies such as ships and firearms because they felt threatened by European military might. They then proceeded to acquire material means of building their own industries. Consequently, this necessitated the acquisition of Western learning and new institutional models in governance, education and business. In some instances, the East Asian states studied Western religious and social values. Some of the Western values were incorporated into East Asian culture and belief system.
Adoption of Western ideals and technologies was challenging to the East Asian states because of cultural differences. They had to modify them in order to fit their values and culture. Therefore, the integration of Western ideals to East Asia significantly transformed its forms of organization, which led to modernization. Since the 19th C, the process of modernization has been ongoing in East Asia. However, they have largely retained their values despite embracing Western techniques. For example, Western religious beliefs have not had a major impact on the Confucian philosophy and Buddhism. They have also been selective in borrowing Western ideals.
From the above discussion, it is evident that East Asia is one of the regions with a fascinating history. The region evolved through several dynasties characterized by succession wars, imperialism and feudalism. Despite these challenges, the region is recognized for having attained one of the greatest ancient civilizations. However, its social, economic and political achievements were threatened partly due to a long period of self-alienation. During the late 18th and 19th centuries, the East Asian states expanded their relations with the outside world especially Europe. Therefore, the late 18th and 19th centuries have been regarded as the most important periods in the history of East Asia because it led to significant changes such as adoption of modern technologies and forms of organization.
Gordon, Andrew. A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present. New York: Oxford, 2003. Print.
Gray, Jack. Rebellions and Revolutions: China from the 1800 to 2000. New York: Oxford, 2002. Print.
Holcombe, Charles. A History of East Asia. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Print.
Seth, Michael J. A Concise History of Korea: From the Neolithic Period through the Nineteeth Century. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Pbublishing Group, 2006. Print.