History of East Asia
*In many ways, China is the heart of East Asia, as it has often controlled and always influence the other nations around it.
*Archaeological evidence suggests that Chinese culture has roots at
least as far back as 3,000 BC along the Yellow River. Some
evidence points to the existence of the Xia dynasty about 2000
*The first good historical records begin with the Shang Dynasty about
1600 BC. Like all China’s ruling dynasties, they faced opposition
from many local lords whom they had to fight or deal with. They
also faced invaders from outside and natural disasters, particularly
floods. When the dynasty was strong, it could deal with these;
when it was not, it collapsed and was eventually replaced by a new one.
*About 1122 BC, the Zhou dynasty began to replace the Shang, but
collapsed itself in 256. During this period, the philosophers
Confucius and Lao-Tzu developed Confucianism and Taoism.
*Confucius lived between 551 and 479 BC, as the Zhou dynasty was
beginning to decline. He worried about the chaotic world he saw
around him, and wrote about the importance of order, respect, learning,
ceremony, ritual, and rewarding merit. He especially believed
that government jobs should be open to everyone, and that people should
be rewarded based on their abilities and accomplishments, not their
ancestry or social class. This eventually led to the creation of
a professional, examined civil service, upon which most of the rest of
the world later based its civil services.
*Taoism is one of many traditional forms of Chinese religion, which
recognises a number of gods and has different ways to worship
them. It is also about finding a way for oneself in the world;
unlike Confucianism, which is about order and belonging to society,
Taoism is more about spontaneity and finding oneself.
*In 221 BC, China was united for the first time under one emperor in
the Qin dynasty (from which China still takes its name). During
this time, construction of the Great Wall of China began.
Although the Qin dynasty itself only lasted until 207 BC, it laid the
foundation for a Chinese empire that would last until 1912.
*The Qin were replaced by the Han dynasty, named after what remains the
predominant ethnic group in China, the Han. The Han dynasties
lasted from 206 BC to 220 AD, when China temporarily broke apart into
three kingdoms which were often at war with one another—therefore the
period between 220 and 280 AD is known as the Three Kingdoms
Period. It was followed by more dynasties.
*Under the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD), China became increasingly
prosperous as the Tang emperors encouraged trade with the outside
world. During this period, Buddhism, which had come to China in
the first century AD, became the predominant religion.
*The Tang were eventually replaced by the Song dynasty (960-1279),
although toward the end of their reign the Song lost control of
northern China to the Jin dynasty (1127-1279). Eventually both
the Song and the Jin were overwhelmed by the Mongol horde.
*In 1206, Genghis Khan united the Mongol peoples of Central Asia under
his leadership, creating the Mongol empire. The Mongols were
fierce and brutal warriors, but extremely effective, being able to
shoot bows and arrows while riding their horses, making them mobile and
deadly. The conquered the largest contiguous empire the world has
ever seen (the Victorian British Empire was larger, but not contiguous)
reaching from China to Persia to Poland, (although they never quite
conquered Europe, due mostly to the death of their general in the area).
*Although Genghis Khan died in 1227, his sons continued his conquests,
and in 1271, Genghis Khan’s grandson, Kublai Khan founded the Yuan
dynasty in China, holding the country under Mongol rule until
1368. It was during this time that Marco Polo came to China along
the Silk Road.
*Although the Yuan adopted many customs of the Chinese (including the
writing system, most aspects of their government, and their religion),
some Chinese still resented rule by foreigners, especially when they
forced thousands to work on dams and other projects along the Yellow
River, and in 1368 the Mongols were pushed out of China by the a
revolution that created the Ming dynasty.
*Under the Ming, China expanded, finished building the Great Wall, and
developed an even more powerful central government.
However, in 1644, the Manchu of northeastern China invaded, and
overthrew the Ming (the last Han dynasty in China), creating the Qing
dynasty. They also conquered Mongolia and made it part of China
*The Manchu were resented, because they tried to wipe out existing
Chinese traditions, forcing the Chinese people to dress in Manchu
clothing and to wear Manchu-style haircuts, and forbidding any
criticism of the government.
*There were numerous revolts against the Manchu dynasty, and during the
1800s its power began to decline, in part because of the increasing
involvement of European powers in China.
*In the 1800s, trade with China was very valuable for Europeans, but
they could not find much to sell to the Chinese—all they could do was
buy things from them. However, the East India Company found one
thing India could produce that many Chinese people would buy:
opium. However, the Chinese government outlawed the importation
of opium, until Britain fought the First Opium War (1839-1842) to force
the Chinese government to allow the sale of opium within its
borders. It also won control of Hong Kong for Great Britain,
which it would keep until 1997.
*The Manchu armies were defeated easily by the British, and in future
wars and diplomatic manoeuvres, China was slowly divided up into
‘spheres of influence’ where different European powers had special
trading rights and a great deal of control. Most of China was
never colonised outright by Europe, but it ended up being dominated by
*The Chinese people resented European interference (and American,
although the US tried to support an open-door (free trade) policy,
because the USA missed out on a real sphere of influence of its own
(eventually the US got what they wanted)) as much as they had Manchu
rule, and between 1899 and 1901 the Fists of Righteous Harmony rose up
against foreign diplomats, merchants, and missionaries in what was
known as the Boxer Rebellion. Europe, Japan, and the United
States put it down, in part because the Boxers believed that if they
were pure of heart, bullets would not hurt them (they were wrong (or
*Finally tired of both their corrupt and inept government and foreign
interferance, the Chinese people rose up in 1911-1912 in the Wuchang
Uprising, which created the Republic of China in 1912. The
Republican or Nationalist government was led by Sun Yat-Sen, and later
by Chiang Kai-Shek. In the 1920s they worked with, and then later
turned against, the Communist Party of China, which eventually came
under the leadership of Mao Tse-tung during the Long March, a period in
1934 in which they retreated to the desolate mountains of the
northwest. The Nationalists and the Communists would fight each
other until 1949.
*Although Korea has a distinct ethnic, linguistic, and cultural
heritage, it has often been dominated by China. Korea is mostly
Buddhist, and its government system has traditionally been
Confucian. Korea was unified under one government in 688 AD, and
it maintained one government of its own (for the most part) until being
conquered by the Manchu Qing dynasty in 1636.
*Prehistorically, Japan was home to the Ainu people, who still exist as
a minority group in Japan. Modern Japanese people may have
arrived in Japan about 400 BC from Korea, or possibly earlier or from
elsewhere. According the legend, the first Emperor was Jimmu, who
founded Japan in 660 BC, but this date is not necessarily historically
*About 405 AD the Japanese adopted the Chinese system of writing and
some began to practise Buddhism, although Shinto also remained an
important religion in Japan.
*The Japanese emperor was traditionally both a political and a
religious leader, a Shinto high priest or even a semi-divine figure
himself. For centuries the Emperor was a fairly powerful figure
(although after the introduction of Buddhism he often had to compete
with the Buddhist hierarchy for power). However, in the 12th
century the power of the emperor began to decline.
*Between 1185 and 1868, the Emperor remained a figurehead and a
religious leader, but usually had little real political power.
Instead, Japan was ruled by feudal warlords, typically under the
ultimate rule of a major warlord of general called a Shogun.
*There were a series of Shogunates (like dynasties) during this
period. The Shoguns fought off the Mongols, with the help of the
kamikaze (divine wind), a typhoon that destroyed much of the Mongol
fleet in 1281. The Shoguns used this threat (and their successful
reaction to it) as a reason to stay in power and keep the Emperor on
*In 1542, a Portuguese ship blown off course by a storm landed in Japan
and began some trade with the Japanese, including in firearms.
The Dutch later joined the Portuguese, and the East India Company
established a trading post in 1613. Along with traders came
*In the 1600s, the Shoguns feared that the European merchants and
missionaries were spies, preparing the way for a European
invasion. They also did not like what guns did to warfare, or how
European goods and customs were changing society. Therefore, they
outlawed most foreign trade and travel. Between 1641 and 1853 it
was illegal for Japanese people to leave Japan or for foreigners to
enter, on pain of death. The exception was a single Dutch trading
post in Nagasaki. Japan retained a feudal political and economic
system throughout this period.
*In 1853, the United States sent Commodore Matthew Perry to Japan to
attempt to open trade. He did so, threatening Japan with four
modern warships. In 1854 Japan agreed to US demands, and within a
few years was trading with most of the world.
*In the 1860s, the Emperor of Japan, and many other Japanese, were
weary of the current Shogun, and they united against him, restoring the
Emperor to real power in 1868 (the Meiji Restoration). Seeing the
power of Europe and the United States, the Meiji Emperor embarked on a
plan of forced modernisation for Japan, abolishing the feudal system
and creating a modern industrial economy by the end of the century,
basically taking Japan from a mediaeval way of life to a modern one in
*Proud of their new power, and eager to demonstrate it to the world
(and gain a few colonies of their own in an era of colonialism), Japan
went to war with China in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) and the
Russo-Japanese War (1904-05, ended in part by Theodore Roosevelt, who
got the Nobel Peace Prize). Japan also took part in putting down
the Boxer Rebellion. As part of its wars, especially with China,
Japan gained control of Korea, Taiwan, and part of Manchuria.
This was the first modern non-European empire, and it had even beaten a
*Japan joined the Allies late in the First World War, mostly so it
could capture unguarded German colonies in the Pacific. The
Japanese joined the League of Nations and created a two-part
constitutional monarchy. The Emperor was seen as a god, but the
daily operations of government could be handled by the Diet. This
worked more or less as it was supposed to, with one problem—the
military had too much power in government, essentially a veto power in
*Many politicians were corrupt, however, and in the economy had
problems, just as many did in the 1920s. Many Japanese,
especially in the military, were unimpressed by democracy, and, like
the fascists used murder and extreme nationalism as political tools to
*The Japanese had a small empire after WWI ended. They owned
Korea, Formosa, and had a significant presence in China’s Manchuria
province. However, Japan is a resource-poor island, and the
Japanese needed more iron, coal, and other minerals. In 1931, the
Japanese staged an explosion along a railroad in Manchuria, and
immediately invaded to establish peace. They set up a puppet
government led by an heir to the Manchurian dynasty of China, and told
him what to do in the new country of Manchukuo. The League of
Nations criticised Japan, so they walked out of the League.
*In 1937, the Japanese invaded China from Manchukuo. It was a
brutal process. The most infamous atrocity was the ‘Rape of
Nanking,’ in which over 100,000 civilians were killed or brutalised.
*The United States, unwilling to go to war, passed a series of
Neutrality Acts to keep us out of the war, but the Soviets and the
British sent weapons and supplies to the Chinese under Chiang Kai-check
and Mao Tse-tung. Even when a US ship, the Panay, was
accidentally bombed by the Japanese during their attacks on China, the
US did nothing.
*Japan was well on its way to creating its Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, or Asia for Asians, with the Japanese on top.
*In September 1940, the Japanese signed the Tripartite Pact with Italy
and Germany, joining the Axis. Japan also began to move into
Vichy France’s colonies in Indo-China.
*The United States, who had protested but otherwise left Japan alone in
order to avoid war, now cut off American exports of oil shipments and
certain metals to the Japanese, hoping this would force them to stop
attacking their neighbours.
*Instead, the Japanese invaded the Dutch East Indies, which were rich in oil, rubber, tin, and other valuable resources.
*In Japan, a new prime minister was appointed in October 1941.
His name was Tojo Hideki, and he supported going to war with the United
States, and began to make plans.
*The United States had cracked the secret Japanese code, and knew that
the Japanese were going to attack the United States somewhere in the
Pacific, but expected it to be in the Philippines.
*December 7th, 1941 - a date which will live in infamy - the United
States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and
air forces of the Empire of Japan.
*On Sunday morning at 7 o’clock, the Japanese launched an attack on the
US Naval base at Pearl Harbor just outside Honolulu, Hawaii. By
9.45, 2,400 Americans would be dead and 1,200 more wounded, and eight
of our nine battleships, as well as many other ships, would be damaged
or sunk, some with men trapped inside who took days to die of
*Shortly afterwards, the Japanese ambassador brought a message that was
supposed to have been delivered earlier. It made demands that the
US would have been forced to refuse, after which war would have been
declared. Because it got there late, the Japanese were correctly
accused of a sneak attack, and the United States Congress declared war
on Japan on 8 December, 1941.
*The bombing of Pearl Harbor was the first of several attacks on the
United States by the Empire of Japan. They attacked airbases on
Wake Island and on Guam and in the Philippines. Although the
commander of the Philippines, Douglas MacArthur, had heard of the
attack on Pearl Harbor, he did not prepare for an attack in the
Philippines. On 12 December, the Japanese landed on Luzon, the
main island of the Philippines, and moved towards the capital,
Manila. MacArthur withdrew his troops to the Bataan Peninsula
which he hoped would prove more defensible. In March, at the
President’s orders, MacArthur fled to Australia, but he made a
promise: ‘People of the Philippines, I shall return.’
*The Japanese surrounded the American forces, and starvation forced
them to surrender. The Japanese, who followed bushido, the code
of the warrior, considered anyone who surrendered a coward, and
unworthy of decent treatment. A good warrior fought to the death,
or committed seppuku, also known as hari-kari, a form of ritual
suicide. The 76,000 Americans and Filipinos who surrendered were
forced to march in small groups 60 miles to a railroad junction, where
they were sent on to a prisoner of war camp. Along the way the
starving, dehydrated prisoners were guarded constantly and pushed along
as fast or faster than they could march. If any fell down,
stopped for water, or acted disrespectfully towards the captors, they
would be beheaded on the spot with one of the swords that were part of
the Japanese uniform. Of 75,000 prisoners, 10,000 died on what
has come to be called the Bataan Death March.
*The war was a long and bloody one, characterised by island-hopping, as
the US Army and Marine Corps took islands from the Japanese one at a
time. Each time the US took another island, it created another base on
which to store supplies and from which to launch future attacks.
*These campaigns were horrible for both sides. The Japanese would
not surrender. Of 31,629 Japanese on Saipan, approximately 29,500
died. Only 2,100 prisoners survived, many of these only because they
were too wounded to take their own lives or they ran out of the means
with which to kill themselves before being over-run. Even
civilians gave their lives for the Emperor, refusing to surrender, in
part because they assumed Americans would treat them as badly as they
would have treated Americans. In the case of Japanese soldiers
that might be true—Americans often shot them rather than take them
prisoner. Civilians, though, were treated fairly, but most did
not know this. On Saipan, civilians killed themselves by holding
on to hand grenades or by jumping off cliffs to their deaths, even
mothers holding infant children. Supposedly there were so many
bodies off the coast of Saipan after its capture that the Navy had a
hard time navigating the waters.
*After capturing the Mariana Islands, the US was close enough to Japan
to begin bombing her. The US bombed every major city and
industrial area flat, both to destroy Japan’s industry and to terrify
her people. Whereas the US did not use firebombs in Europe, they
did in Japan, creating terrible firestorms, killing 100,000 people in
one night in Tokyo, on just one of many occasions.
*By the end of the war, the Japanese economy was so badly injured that
Japanese school children made huge balloons out of paper and glue,
which the military then tied to bombs, and cast into the air, hoping
they might fly across the ocean and all on the US. Besides
starting one forest fire on the Pacific Coast, these did no harm.
*In October 1944 Americans invaded the Philippines. MacArthur
landed on the beach and announced for the benefit of the news cameras,
‘People of the Philippines, I have returned.’
*As part of the reconquest of the Philippines, the Americans faced a
new weapon, the kamikaze. More than any other Japanese soldier,
these suicide pilots were ready to die for the Emperor by diving
bomb-laden planes into American ships. Despite this, the
Americans won the battle. Of 80,000 Japanese in the Philippines,
1,000 were captured, and the rest would die bravely fighting on into
*As Americans got closer to the Home Islands, the Japanese resistance
grew stronger. In the Battle of Iwo Jima in February 1945,
Americans won 27 Medals of Honor, the most in any campaign. Of
25,000 Japanese on the island, 216 were take prisoner, and it took
110,000 men to beat them. When the island was taken, the Marines
raised the flag on the peak of Mount Suribachi.
*The last island before hitting Japan itself was Okinawa. It was
defended by 100,000 troops who swore to defend it to the death.
The US gathered 1,300 warships and 180,000 combat troops, making the
invasion second only to that at Normandy. 2,000 kamikaze attacks
were made on American ships. The battle lasted from April to June
1945, and 50,000 Americans were killed or wounded and only 7,200 of
100,000 Japanese surrendered.
*The home islands were next. The problem was that the Japanese
fought so hard, and were willing to die to the last man. Military
experts said it would probably take at least three million men just to
start the invasion and that one third of them would be killed and
*Fortunately, America had an alternative. Starting in 1939, under
top secret security, scientists worked on the Manhattan Project, trying
to make an atomic bomb. The first research and tests were done at
the University of Chicago. Once they knew a bomb could be made,
they needed fuel. Plutonium was refined at Hanford, Washington,
and uranium in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The bombs were assembled in
Los Alamos, New Mexico, and tested nearby at Alamogordo. This was
the most powerful bomb ever built. The qestion was: should
it be used on Japan?
*In April, 1945, just over a month after winning his fourth
presidential election, FDR had died of a brain hemorrhage while on
vacation at Warm Springs, Georgia, and Harry Truman became
president. The atom bomb was a surprise to him, and he only knew
it as a powerful weapon. Under the advice of experts, he chose to
use it for three main reasons:
1. To end the war with as few American casualties as
possible. The invasion of Japan was expected to cost one million
killed and wounded.
2. To end the war quickly before the USSR could get involved and end up sharing Japan with the US.
3. To test the bomb on a real target.
*On 6 August 1945, the Enola Gay dropped a uranium bomb on Hiroshima,
killing about 80,000 Japanese and later infecting many with radiation
*On 9 August, another plane dropped the plutonium bomb on Nagasaki, killing 39,000.
*On 14 August, Japan surrendered on the one condition that they could
keep their emperor, and on 2 September 1945 the Japanese formally
signed the surrender agreement, ending WWII.
*The end of WWII did not end tension in East Asia, however. Japan
was occupied by the US Army, Korea was partitioned between the USA and
USSR, and in China the Nationalists and Communists fought each other
with the support of the US and Soviet Union.