Chinese Civilization’s Impact on Japan and Korea


“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” This is not a quote from Confucius—or from any Traditional East Asian member of historical significance, for that matter. However, it perfectly describes the way in which elements of Chinese civilization impacted its neighbors. When a country finds itself on the pinnacle of technological advancement, it can often look down and see the faces of millions watching; these faces are watching not only to better themselves, but in hopes of watching the world-dominators get taken down a notch or two. China, a civilization that was superior to its neighbors in every conceivable way, was emulated by both Japan and Korea. Many aspects of Japanese and Korean culture are traced back to roots in Chinese culture.

Ancient Chinese Text

The written language is often overlooked as one of the most important inventions in the development of mankind. The invention of a written language served as variations of the foundation to basic concepts such as recorded history, basic math, and the creation of paper money[1]. The Chinese written language not only served as the first records of both Japanese and Korean history[2] [3], but was adopted by these countries and served as their first writing systems.  An example of this is the slab that was found in Paekche King Muryeong’s tomb[4]. This slab, erected in 414, serves as the “earliest extant Korean document (written, although, in Chinese)”[5]. More importantly, the use of a written language allowed both Japan and Korea to better their governments. Due to the fact that Japan and Korea both assimilated to the Chinese written language, they both benefited from Chinese culture.

From a political standpoint a written language offered Japan and Korea a way to succeed in establishing strong political states, especially since they were mirrored after the success of Chinese dynasties (such as the Tang dynasty). There were tremendous steps taken to emulate Chinese diplomacy in the institutionalization of governments in both Japan and Korea. However, the nation that most mirrored China best was Korea.

The Korean territory was divided into four parts, the most important of these being Lelang. As Lelang remained under Chinese control, under the Han dynasty[6], until 313 C.E.[7], it should come as no surprise that it was heavily influenced by Chinese culture. Korean rulers had firsthand knowledge and enough foresight to see that the Chinese way of government was needed to establish a long-lasting foundation for Korea.

Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla

During the fourth century, Korea evolved into three distinct territorial states: Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla. All three of these states “borrow[ed] Chinese political practices as ways to strengthen the king’s control”[8] [9]. Part of doing so included setting up ministries of war, the issuance of Chinese-style law codes, and the collection of taxes on agriculture[10]. The most significant example of China’s direct influence on Korea is that of Silla.

When Silla erected their new capital, Gyeongju, in 676, it acquired many of the centralized-government practices that allowed China to thrive: the Tang bureaucratic model, post stations, and the checkerboard city layout that the Tang capital of Chang’an[11]. In analyzing the ways in which Silla succeeded—where Goguryeo and Baekje failed—it was with diplomacy[12] and the foresight of alliance[13], both taken from the Chinese, which allowed Silla to unify Korea.

Whereas some of the Korean states had the Chinese lifestyle, customs, and traditions forced upon them, Japan greeted China’s ways with arms wide open. Between 592 and 756, the Yamato kings transformed themselves into Chinese-style monarchs[14]. One of the staunchest towards the pro-Chinese government was Prince Shōtoku. In 604, Prince Shōtoku enforced his new ideology, based on Confucian and Buddhist thought, with the sole purpose of putting distance between the ruling Yamato line and all other lineages[15]. It was under the Yamato rule that the elite sought out Chinese culture: the written language, Daoism, Confucianism, and the arts [16].

Fujiwara Family Tree

A few decades later, the citizens of the newly-founded Fujiwara lineage fully embraced the Chinese way. An example of this was when they instituted the use of Chinese-style era names[17]. It was with the Fujiwara that a Chinese-style palace was constructed. Moreover, the new capital was divided “into symmetrical halves just as the Chinese-style bureaucratic structure balanced the minister of the left with the minister of the right, lest either monopolize power…”[18]. While Japan took much from China, such as etiquette, ceremony, and other aristocratic forms of behavior[19], they did not take much in the way of government.

[1] Patricia Ebrey and Anne Walthall, Pre-Modern East Asia: A Cultural, Social, and Political History to 1800 (Boston: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning 2014), 147.

[2] Ibid., 103.

[3] Ibid., 125.

[4] Lewis R. Lancaster and Chai-Shin Yu, Introduction of Buddhism to Korea: New Cultural Patterns. (Asian Humanities Press, 1989), 39.

[5] Patricia Ebrey and Anne Walthall, Pre-Modern East Asia: A Cultural, Social, and Political History to 1800 (Boston: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning 2014), 103.

[6] Ibid., 112.

[7] Ibid., 100.

[8] Ibid., 103.

[9] Ibid., 107.

[10] Ibid., 104.

[11] Ibid., 106.

[12] Ibid., 106.

[13] Ibid., 112.

[14] Ibid., 118.

[15] Ibid., 119.

[16] Ibid., 125.

[17] Ibid., 120.

[18] Ibid., 120.

[19] Ibid., 126.

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