To what extent did Chinese models determine developments in the Korean peninsula and the Japanese archipelago before 1000?

To what extent did Chinese models determine developments in the Korean peninsula and the Japanese archipelago before 1000?
By Libin Farah

During the classic period of East Asian history there was much cultural borrowing by Japan and Korea from the greater civilisation of China. Chinese culture became an export item that was popular and well received in East Asia.

The impact of Confucianism in the political sphere, the spiritual appeal of Buddhism and the beginning of history marked by the writing system spread to Korea and Japan. Chinese culture did in many ways provide a political, religious and social model which was then emulated by the Korean and Japanese.

However, despite foreign influence it is important to note that there was resistance to complete sinicization in an attempt to preserve and protect existing cultures. Chinese culture laid the foundation for development but it was the indigenous stamp put on it that made Confucianism, Buddhism and the writing system uniquely Korean and Japanese.

In this way it could be argued that Chinese models incited developments and it was the domestic receptivity of these models that determined its longevity and the extent to which they would be integrated into socio-political sphere.

The Chinese writing system was adopted throughout East Asia however the survival of pure Chinese script in Korea is unlike other countries within the region. The grasp of Chinese culture on Korean civilization was to a much greater extent than that of Japan. Firstly, China was Korea’s only bordering neighbor.

Additionally, Chinese military bases during that Tang period were stationed in northern Korea therefore as they had greater direct relations with Chinese people culture was easily exchanged.

In terms of the writing system, Chinese characters became the official writing of the government and was studied amongst the elites. All official documents in the Korean bureaucracy were in Chinese. Much of Korea’s ‘literary production is almost indistinguishable from the writings of Chinese authors.’

Unlike the Japanese who incorporated Kana (Japanese characters) into their writing in the 9th Century, Hangul (Korean characters) was only developed in the 15th century highlighting the tenacity and the receptivity of the Chinese model of writing in Korea.

The Japanese adopted Kanji (Chinese characters) which became the official writing system in Japan. The Japanese intentionally borrowed and adapted aspects of Chinese written expression to merge with the indigenous Japanese spoken language. This process of transliteration highlights how the Chinese model of writing helped to determine developments in Japan.

However, the transliteration of Japanese spoken language onto Chinese written form was combined with the addition of new syllables that were unique to Japanese expression (Kana). These additional symbols bare significance as their function was to convey sounds whereas Chinese writing contains meaning rather than focusing on sounds.

This demonstrates that Japan was not simply aiming to copy but rather accustom Chinese influence with the existing domestic language. The addition of Kana, inherently Japanese, combined with Kanji, originally Chinese, showcases the cultural fusion and development of the greater Chinese civilisation with the neighbouring region of Japan.

Although it is important to note that Kana began to emerge in the 10th Century indicating that for most of the first millennium they were using the Chinese model of writing and even through transliteration Chinese characters still form the basis of Japanese writing.

In this way ‘a fundamental aspect of Japanese culture has foreign roots but [remains] a uniquely Japanese expression’. This is accentuated in Waka poetry which is a basic and early form of poetry based on the number of syllables in a line.

In looking at this it could be argued that the Chinese model of writing shaped developments in Japan as it enabled them to develop their own language and in turn their own artistic expression in the form of poetry.

Japan was highly interested in Chinese Confucianism as a philosophy which they then adopted as the ideology behind their first state. The creation of a centralised imperial government was built on the Tang model in Japan’s first capital Fujiwara-kyo. This mirrored the architectural grid design which is a perfect square that faces south in line with Chinese cosmology.

The Taika reforms 646 AD introduced legislative reforms shifting the balance of power solely to the emperor’s family, thus creating a Japanese imperial family in the image of Tang model.

However, there is a significant difference in the way Japan legitimises their rule which differs from China. The notion of myths was central to forming an administration in East Asia as it legitimised authority. In China this was known as the Mandate of Heaven which can be withdrawn and length of an emperor’s reign was determined by his virtue.

This differs to the Japanese myth which states ‘the supreme deity, The Sun Goddess, sent her grandson to Japan and his descendants were regarded as the imperial family which was to rule Japan eternally.’ This difference is noteworthy as they are distinguishing the beginning of a Japanese dynasty and creating their own history which is distinctly different from the Chinese.

Therefore, it is significant to understand that although Chinese Confucianism was the guiding political creed of the first unified Japanese state they were also explicit in carving their own legacy. However, not all aspects of the Chinese model determined developments in Japan.

Imperial examinations, created during the Han period and utilised by the Tang, did not last long and was ‘replaced with a hereditary system’ demonstrating that the Japanese were selective regarding which aspects of Chinese culture they wanted to embrace.

Therefore, the Japanese were able to deconstruct the Chinese model and chose aspects of it that were in accordance with Japanese thinking and incorporate those into their state.

Unlike Japan Korea was not under one unified state and was composed of three kingdoms: Silla, Goguryeo and Baekje and the extent to which they were all impacted by Confucianism differs.

Despite the emergence of Confucian schools such as Taehak in 372 in Goguryeo it ‘refused to be totally Sinicized, and so the impact of Confucianism was highly limited.’

Contrastingly in Baekje ‘Confucianism also prospered, producing a large number of eminent scholars’ depicting their receptivity to it. Furthermore, as Silla is located in the most southern part of Korea Confucianism was introduced much later.

The internal makeup of the administration under the United Silla kingdom in Korea was created in the image of the Tang model. ‘The Tang Dynasty government had three basic departments that created policies and laws [and] these frameworks of laws were administered by six ministries.’

This inspired the Korean government to expanded its role by creating departments to exercise control over Buddhist monasteries and also to promote Confucian education, both Chinese cultural imports.

Despite Korean administrations mirroring the Chinese model they refused to be under complete Chinese control. The Silla-Tang war is evidence that Korea was fighting to culturally protect and preserve their identity and not subjugate to the Tang.

This demonstrates that despite the deep and profound impact that Chinese culture had on the peninsula they were determined to resist complete sinicization and safeguard domestic beliefs and identity.

Therefore, it is significant to note that although the Chinese model helped determine developments in Korea, they actively ensured that their native identity was retained against absolute Chinese influence and in this way Korea was directly rebelling against the Chinese model.

Buddhism can be seen as the unifying principle in East Asia however the introduction of Buddhism into Japan was not without controversy. The Chinese model was met with opposition from many clans as it was a threat to the indigenous religion of Shinto.

Buddhism can be seen more as a philosophy rather than a religion, therefore in East Asia people were able to incorporate Buddhism into their existing local beliefs. Buddhism was able to accommodate local deities and existing worship thus making Buddhism unique and also abstract. In this way the Buddhist practice underwent an identity modification in China and a further transmutation in Japan.

In order to preserve Shinto, as well as being enriched by Buddhism, Japanese people were able to make both belief systems coexist. Hence, the Japanese had adopted Buddhism, a Chinese cultural import, however they merged it with their existing domestic beliefs which differ altogether from the Chinese.

While Buddhism deals with reaching enlightenment Shinto has deities and emphasises on relationships. Resultantly, they complement each other and are compatible as many of the rituals are similar and many Buddhist temples contain Shinto shrines.

Nevertheless, it is important to note that whole sects of Buddhism such as Tendai and Shingdon, whose ‘basic doctrines were developed in China and imported directly into Japan’. Japanese missionaries actively went to China to become well educated and versed in Confucian and Buddhist texts.

This demonstrates how the Chinese model was ardently being sought out by missionaries with the sole intention of spreading it across Japan thus Buddhist schools of thought emerged which were made in the image of the Chinese model.

Similarly, in Korea, the indigenous religion of Shamanism was concerned with spirits and the supernatural realm that simultaneously exists with the human realm.

However, it was only in the Goryeo dynasty that it began to decline in light of Buddhism and Confucianism indicating that existing religious beliefs began to deteriorate towards the end of the millennium.

Although it is important to note that initially Confucianism and Buddhism were the doctrine of the aristocracy. To the rural masses Shamanism was still the prominent religious force which caused division as Buddhism was only popular with the elites and through a gradual process was brought down to grass roots level.

When Buddhism did reach mass population, similar to Japan, it was woven in with the existing religious beliefs. ‘Indeed, folk religion had long been an eclectic mix of shamanism, animism, simplified Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, and this is evidenced in the equally eclectic imagery seen in Korean folk art’.

Shaman art depicts images of Buddha alongside Shaman deities such as the Seven Star spirit Chilsong and other Shaman symbols. Under the unified Silla government Buddhism was popular and flourished which is evidenced in the government building temples such as Bulguksa and Seokguram.

In conclusion, the impact of the Chinese model in East Asia cannot be downplayed although it is equally as important to recognise that the model was significant in prompting developments rather than determining them completely.

In many respects the great civilisation of China was the benchmark for other countries in the region and the cultural goods that they exported were indeed emulated. The writing system, Buddhism and Confucianism were consumed heavily in Japan and Korea however they simply laid the foundations for which Japanese and Korean societies could developed their own crafts.

In this way the Chinese model was enabling although it was not received in its entirety. It was dismantled and the aspects which were in accordance with existing beliefs and traditions, and most importantly did not threaten their prevailing cultural identity, were then optimised and assimilated into Korean and Japanese culture.

Furthermore, Chinese influence had varying levels of impact more so in Korea than Japan. Korea had greater exposure to Chinese culture. Alternatively, Korea acted as a cultural bridge between China and Japan. Therefore, many Chinese influences had been adapted by Korea before being introduced into Japan.

Ultimately, it is empirical to note that both Korea and Japan refused complete sinicization. In this context cultural borrowing does not simply mean copying rather adapting Chinese culture so that it coincides with existing practices. In this light they reworked the Chinese model and transformed it so it became uniquely Korean and Japanese.


“Asian Topics On Asia For Educators || Classical Japan”. N.p., 2016. Web. 15 Nov. 2016.

Cartwright, Mark and Mark Cartwright. “Shamanism In Ancient Korea”. Ancient History Encyclopedia. N.p., 2016. Web. 14 Nov. 2016.

Liu, Haifeng, Influence of China’s Imperial Examinations on Japan, Korea and Vietnam -Frontiers of History in China
Nicolas Levi. “The Impact of Confucianism in South Korea and Japan”
“Paekche | Ancient Kingdom, Korea”. Encyclopedia Britannica. N.p., 2016. Web. 13 Nov. 2016.

Reischauer, Edwin O and John King Fairbank. East Asia: The Great Tradition. 1st ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960. Print.

“Shingon And Tendai Buddhism”. N.p., 2016. Web. 14 Nov. 2016.

“The Chinese Tang Dynasty Government System & Laws”. N.p., 2016. Web. 15 Nov. 2016.

More Articles

Any serious analysis of war must begin with the body

Examine the causes of the partition of India

How useful is liberalism as a framework for thinking about war in world politics?

How important is gender in explaining why people fight?

Colonialism is only one of many ways of practicing imperialism

Secularisation has led to the rise of religion in politics

How did the Cold War affect the Middle East?

Discuss the impact of neo-conservatism on the foreign policy of the United States towards Middle East

Why has gender tended to replace women as a category of historical analysis?

What was the importance of prophet Muhammad for the success of the Arab conquests?

Was the first world war a catalyst for change in the Middle East?

Anarchy is what States Make of it”. Do you agree?

What did it mean to be modern in early twentieth century East Asia?

Colonialism, far from being over and in the past, continues to hold us and our futures in its thrall. Do you agree?

Discuss the idea of Middle East as a colonial invention?

what kinds of similarities are evident between how systems of rule operated practically?