Stone-Age farming cultures had emerged in the two great river valleys of China by around 6000 BC. On the Yellow River plains of northern China millet was the main crop, whilst in the Yangze Valley to the south wet-rice cultivation predominated. By 3500 BC, both regions were home to well-established farming communities, and agriculture was beginning to spread to neighboring regions. Millet farming had recently arrived in the Korean peninsula from northern China, while wet-rice cultivation was beginning to spread into southern and eastern China. Japan, meanwhile, remained home to the oldest and most advanced hunter-gatherer culture in the world, the Jomon.
The past thousand years have seen the two farming traditions, the one based on millet, the other based on rice, continue to expand in East Asia. In particular wet-rice agriculture is spreading outwards from its core area in the Yangze Valley in all directions. From the southern China region will spring two major migrations down into South East Asia, one moving down from South West China, the other from the south China coast. The end point of these migrations will occur thousands of years hence, as far afield as Africa and Hawaii.
In both northern and southern China, material culture is advancing, and both have seen the rise of powerful chiefdoms who can support the services of skilled craftsmen. Trade routes cover the entire East Asia region (except Japan), leading to cultural and technological exchanges between the widely dispersed areas; and East Asia has also received influences from further west: horse-riding nomads from the steppes of Central Asia arrive bringing with them skills in metallurgy.
To the north east, millet cultivation has spread across the Korean peninsula, whilst in Japan, the Jomon hunter-gatherer culture continues to thrive.
Over the past thousand years trade networks have grown to cover the area of present-day China, which results, amongst other developments, in the spread of metallurgy into the Yellow River and then the Yangze Valleys. This coincides with the emergence of urban civilization in these two regions. In particular, the rise of the Shang dynasty in northern China marks the beginnings of written history in China.
Meanwhile, rice farming is spreading into South East Asia from the present-day south China. Rice cultivation also appears in Korea. Japan, on the other hand, remains beyond the reach of agriculture, and the elaborate Jomon hunter-gatherer culture continues to thrive there.
The first great dynasty of China, the Shang, now rules the Yellow River region. click to view
The Indus Valley civilization has vanished, for reasons as yet unknown, and Indo-European tribes are moving into the sub-continent. click to view
Major population movements affect this region from both east and west.. click to view
In the centuries since 1500 BC, the first dynasty in the history of ancient China, the Shang, has now given way to the Zhou. Under the Zhou, who have come from the fringes of the old Shang world, the various characteristics of Chinese civilization which developed under the Shang remain in place, though material and artistic culture may have declined somewhat for a time.
In southern Korea, wet-rice cultivation has established itself as the staple crop, though in the north millet and soybeans retained their dominance. Bronze technology reaches the Korean peninsula about now, from northern China. In Japan, the late Jomon people appear to be taking up farming as a minor part of their food culture, cultivating some local wild plants, such as yams and taro, as well as rice. Hunting and gathering remain the major preoccupations, however.
The past centuries have seen the Zhou kingdom of northern China fragment into a number of large, highly organized states. These are continually at war with one another. Despite this, civilization has made huge strides in all spheres. Iron farming tools have come into widespread use, greatly increasing food production; commerce and industry have expanded greatly. This is leading to widespread social change, and into this fluctuating environment comes one of the most important philosophers in world history, Confucius. His teachings will be hugely influential on the life and thought of the peoples of East Asia from ancient times right up to the present day.
Bronze age Korea is divided into numerous small but warlike chiefdoms, whose aristocracies have developed a fashion for large stone-built graves (dolmens), often furnished with bronze weapons, fine ceramics and jade objects as burial goods. Contacts between Korea and Japan are growing. At this time groups of Koreans are migrating to Japan, introducing their culture, based on rice cultivation, and their knowledge of bronze working, to the southern Japanese island of Kyushu.
With the Zhou kingdom now divided into many competing states, the great philospher Confucius preaches a message of loyalty and humanity. click to view
In the age of the Buddha, urban civilization has again appeared in South Asia. click to view
The Malays and Javanese now inhabit their modern homes, and the Iron Age has come to the region. click to view
Civilization has continued to make remarkable advances within the Chinese world in recent centuries. A centuries-long phase of continuous warfare between large, well-organized states has led to the emergence of one super-state covering the whole of ancient China. This is ruled by the Han dynasty.
These developments within China have been matched by the union of nomadic tribes on the eastern steppes of central Asia under Hun leadership. This is the first of a series of warlike nomadic confederacies that will have a profound impact on east Asian history.
The use of iron has spread to both Korea and Japan by this date. In Korea, powerful chiefdoms centred on small walled towns have appeared, while in Japan, the rice-growing culture brought from Korea in about 500 BC - which in Japan is called the Yayoi culture - is gradually spreading north and east.
After centuries of warfare, the whole of China, first unified by the Qin dynasty, now knows peace under the rule of the Han dynasty. click to view
The Bronze Age, rice-farming Yayoi culture is spreading throughout Japan. click to view
Korea is covered by many warlike tribal kingdoms. click to view
The great Maurya empire has conquered most of the Indian sub-continent. click to view
Indian traders are bringing Hinduism, Buddhism and other elements of Indian civilization to South East Asia. click to view
The Han dynasty has now ruled a united China for 200 years. Externally, the Han emperors have presided over a huge expansion of the Chinese empire, and the internal peace they have maintained has led to an upsurge in prosperity and in material civilization. The Han government has adopted Confucianism as its official ideology, and in this as in many other ways it lays the foundation for much future history, of China as well as other East Asian nations.
With China now unified and able to exert great power beyond its borders, central Asia in the west, Korea in the north and Vietnam in the south have been drawn deeply into its orbit, with a large portion of each becoming integral parts of the Chinese empire. Japan, also, has come to some extent under China's influence. This country has seen the rise of powerful and warlike chiefdoms, some of whom pay tribute to the imperial Chinese court.
The Han empire has brought peace and stability to China, allowing trade, industry and technology to advance. click to view
Japan is divided into numerous warlike chiefdoms. click to view
Northern Korea is occupied by the Han empire. click to view
The Mauryan empire has fragmented into many small states, and invaders from Central Asia now occupy much of northern India. click to view
The first urban civilization of South East Asia has appeared, in Burma. click to view
The Han empire has now governed China for 400 years. It will not do so for much longer. Forces are at work which will tear it apart and divide China for several centuries.
China’s long-lasting influence upon the East Asian world continues to grow, however. In Korea, the Chinese occupation has led to the growth of the powerful kingdom of Koguryo; here and elsewhere in the Korean peninsula the tribal aristocracies are adopting many elements of Chinese material culture. Furthermore, links between the Korean peninsula and Japan remain very strong, and these act as a conduit for Chinese influences into these islands.
By this date, Buddhism has begun to reach East Asia, with missionaries arriving from Central Asia.
The Han empire is now in its death throes. click to view
Japan is divided into numerous warlike chiefdoms, which have close links to Korea. click to view
Powerful and well-organized kingdoms are beginning to emerge in Korea. click to view
The Kushana empire is a centre for the spread of Buddhism into central and eastern Asia. click to view
Indian-style kingdoms and principalities are appearing in South East Asia. click to view
Four centuries of unity under the Han dynasty came to an end in AD 220, as government weakness and peasant revolts shattered the empire. China has since then experienced centuries of barbarian invasion and internal warfare.
Buddhism has now become a major influence within China, reaching all members of society, from top to bottom.
China's cultural influence upon neighboring peoples has not waned. Kingdoms in Japan and Korea are modelled along Chinese lines, and the elites of these countries have adopted Chinese culture wholesale. Most importantly, both Confucianism and Buddhism have been imported into Korea and Japan from China, and have made great headway there.
The Han empire has been followed by centuries of division, invasion and barbarian rule. click to view
In Japan, the numerous warlike chiefdoms have fallen under the authority of the Yamato kingdom. click to view
Powerful and well-organized kingdoms are beginning to emerge in Korea. click to view
Under the Gupta empire, north Indian civilization reaches a peak of achievement, while in south India there is a developing trade with SE Asia. click to view
Indian civilization exerts a deep influence upon the kingdoms and peoples of South East Asia. click to view
In China, centuries of disunity have given way to unity, under the Tang dynasty (618-907) - one of the greatest empires in world history. It is home to the wealthiest and most advanced civilization of the time. The Chinese have ever since regarded the Tang era as one of their most glorious in their history.
It is no surprise that this period sees the high watermark of Chinese cultural influence upon neighboring countries. The Japanese and Korean states have all consciously modelled themselves upon the Tang empire, and Confucianism and Buddhism, both Chinese imports, will endure as key elements within their societies right up to modern times. Much of East Asia belongs to an international political and exchange system, with states in Japan, Korea, Vietnam and other regions paying tribute to the imperial Chinese court in Changan.
China is now united under the great Tang dynasty, and enjoys a golden age of peace and prosperity. click to view
The kingdom of Silla has united most of the Korean peninsula under its rule. click to view
In Japan, a state modelled on Chinese lines has emerged. click to view
Powerful regional kingdoms now dominate northern and central India.. click to view
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In China, the great Tang dynasty has given way to the Song, a dynasty which will not experience the same degree of military success as the Tang but which will preside over a period of great economic and technological advance.
Korea and Japan are both loosening their ties with China, politically and culturally. Their aristocracies now play a much more prominent role in their societies than has been the case in China, where the civil service has been the key power broker, since at least Han times.
The Tang dynasty has fallen, and the Song dynasty now rules most of China. click to view
The Fujiwara family preside over a period in which the Japanese break free from the cultural dominance of China. click to view
The Koryo dynasty has now united all Korea under its rule. click to view
Rajput princes now rule many states in northern India,while in south India the Cola dynasty is dominant. click to view
Old kingdoms are disappearing and new ones emerging. click to view
China has experienced mixed fortunes over the past two centuries. The Song dynasty has shrunk drastically in terms of its geographical reach, now ruling only southern China; however, it continues to rule a society experiencing unprecedented technological and economic advance. Both Korea and Japan experience political instability and civil war - though Korea in particular makes important contributions to the technological advances taking place in East Asia at this time. Chinese cultural and political models continue to make headway to the south, in Vietnam - but for all the nations of East Asia, developments are taking place in central Asia which will leave none of them unaffected. This is the rise to power of the great Mongol leader, Genghis Khan.
The Southern Song dynasty has presided over one of the greatest periods of economic and technological progress in Chinese history. click to view
A civil war has brought to power a military leader called the Shogun. click to view
A military government now rules Korea. click to view
Rajput princes rule much of northern India, while in the south the Chola empire has flourished. click to view
The Khmer empire is at the height of its power, and the great temple of Angkor Wat has been built. click to view
The last two centuries have seen the whole of East Asia feel the impact of the Mongols in the 13th century; their armies conquered all China, Korea and Tibet, and they mounted huge but unsuccessful invasions of Japan, Burma and even Java. In the mid-14th century, however, the Mongols' power declined, and they were pushed back to their homelands in central Asia. Native rulers, most famously, the Ming dynasty of China, were again in control of all the countries of East Asia.
The rulers in Korea, Vietnam and Burma all acknowledge the superiority of the Chinese emperor, and their countries are deeply influenced by Chinese political and cultural ways. Regular missions between these tributary countries and China stimulate much international trade.
The Japanese stand aloof from this system, whilst in central Asia, the Mongols remain a real threat. In the coming centuries China will again fall victim to invasion from outside its borders.
Japan is slipping into a long period of civil war. click to view
The Chinese have freed themselves from the Mongols and are now ruled by the Ming dynasty. click to view
Movable type printing is invented in Korea. click to view
Indian civilization is becoming a fusion of Muslim and Hindu elements. click to view
Muslim merchants have established a network of small sultanates in the region. click to view
The past two centuries have seen great changes in East Asia. In China, the Ming dynasty has very recently been replaced by the Manchus. The Manchus, a people of central Asian origin who, having developed a Chinese-style state in Manchuria, took advantage of rising chaos in China to march on the capital and seize the throne. They are now in the difficult and long-drawn-out process of pacifying the entire country, under their regent, Dorgon. They call their dynasty the Qing.
After more than 100 years of civil war, Japan was at last re-unified under a military dictatorship. This then embarked on two ferocious wars in Korea before being driven out by Chinese and Korean forces. These wars left Korea in ruins, and led that country to become a vassal state of the Chinese. Japan, meanwhile, has effectively isolated itself from the outside world to preserve its feudal society under its Tokugawa shoguns.
The Tokugawa shoguns have isolated Japan from the rest of the world. click to view
A foreign dynasty, the Qing, is now taking control of China. click to view
Korea is the first country in the world to build iron warships. click to view
The Mughal empire now rules much of the Indian sub-continent. click to view
Europeans are beginning to make their presence felt in this region. click to view
During the past century and a half, almost the whole of East Asia, and much of South East Asia, has now either come under the direct rule of the Qing emperors of China, like Tibet or Mongolia, or belongs to the Qing tributary system. In this, the rulers of the different states acknowledge the overlordship of the Qing emperors, whilst running their own affairs more or less unhindered. Korea, Vietnam, Burma and even states further afield all belong to this far flung system, in which international diplomacy and trade is carefully regulated.
Japan has remained isolated from the outside world. Under the Tokugawa shoguns the old feudal order is carefully preserved, free from foreign interference.
Korea is a tributary state of the Chinese empire. click to view
The Qing dynasty is the most powerful and effective dynasty China has ever known. click to view
The Tokugawa shogunate has brought Japan stability and prosperity. click to view
The Mughal empire has declined and the British empire is growing. click to view
Dutch commercial and political influence now spreads far and wide throughout the islands and coasts of South East Asia. click to view
On the face of it, much remains the same as it has been for a long time in East Asia. The Qing empire of China is as vast as it has ever been, except for a small, remote notch taken out of it by a peace treaty with Russia. The Qing-dominated tributary system still covers all the states of this vast region - Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Burma. Japan remains the one notable exception, continuing its self-imposed isolation.
Westerners, however, are an increasingly troubling presence in the region. Their notion of international trade and diplomacy knows nothing of the carefully regulated relationships involved in the tribute system; for them, commercial and political relations between nations are conducted on equal terms. They are knocking more and more clamorously on the doors of East Asian countries to be let into their markets and mission fields. The ruling elites of these nations - conservative Confucians - all react with a mixture of disdain, bafflement and fury. They are determined to keep the Westerners out, especially as many of the European traders - particularly the British - are little better than drugs pushers trying to create a market for opium.
The Qing dynasty is beset by difficulties. click to view
Japan's isolation continues. click to view
Korea remains a tributary state of the Chinese empire. click to view
The British now control most of India. click to view
The British are acquiring more territories in the region. click to view
In recent decades the Westerners have finally managed to open the doors of the East Asian nations, to trade and missionary activity. They have done so with complete ruthlessness.
In China, the Opium Wars (1839-42 and 1858-60) led to several "unequal treaties" being imposed on China, entirely favorable to the Europeans. In 1853 Japanese isolation was suddenly ended by a show of force by an American naval squadron, and a similar set of treaties were imposed on Japan as on China. Korea has been the only country in East Asia to successfully isolate itself from the unfriendly forces swirling around it.
What has happened in China and Japan could barely have been in greater contrast. While Japan has single-mindedly set about modernizing herself, China has struggled to deal with the Western challenge. Her attempts at modernization have been fitful and uncoordinated, and she has been handicapped by rebellion on a massive scale (notably the Taiping rebellion, 1850-65). This has gravely dislocated the enormous country, and allowed foreign nations to further impose their will on her government. As a result, the Qing regime has become more and more discredited in the eyes of its Chinese subjects.
The Qing dynasty is shaken by a great rebellion. click to view
Japan's isolation has been forcibly shattered. click to view
Korea remains secluded from the outside world. click to view
The British almost lost control of India in a great rebellion, but were able to reimpose their rule. click to view
European power is growing in South East Asia. click to view
Over the last few troubled decades the old tributary system, which was centred on China and which for centuries spanned almost all East Asia, has now well and truly vanished. The smaller countries have mostly fallen under Western control (Vietnam, Burma and Laos). China herself has been unable to find an effective answer to the Western challenge, to the extent that the old imperial system has now vanished, replaced by a republic. Japan has been the outstanding success story of the region, having created a modern, industrial nation on the foundations of a feudal society, in the space of one generation. This has enabled it to build a powerful military machine, which it has used to take its place alongside the Western powers seeking "spheres of influence" in China. It has in fact become the most aggressive of these powers, having conquered Korea and other territories, and defeated, first China, and then Russia, in war.
2000 years of imperial rule have come to an end. click to view
Korea is now under Japanese rule. click to view
Japan has created a modern society in the space of one generation. click to view
British rule in India is at its height. click to view
The European powers have shared out most of South East Asia amongst themselves. click to view
In the past decades, much of East Asia has been torn apart by a succession of great wars. China was engulfed in civil warfare from 1916 onwards, first between the various warlords who had divided the country between them (1916-26) and then between Nationalists and Communists (1926-37). Then Japan, having secured control of Manchuria, launched a major invasion of China, which convulsed much of that country in more bitter fighting (1937-45). Between 1941 and 1945 Japan contrived to involve herself in a war for the Pacific with the USA and her Allies in World War 2; this only ended in her becoming the first country in the world to have an A-bomb dropped on her soil. In the post-war years, the civil war in China flared up again, ending in the Communist takeover of the whole country in 1949 (except Taiwan). Korea was torn apart by a terrible war between the Communists of the North, supported by China, and the people of the South, supported by America and her UN Allies (1950-52). Finally, since 1955 Vietnam has experienced almost continual war against her colonial masters, France.
The Communist Party now rules China. click to view
Korea is now divided into North and South Korea. click to view
Japan has become the first country in world history to have A-bombs dropped on it. click to view
The British have left the Indian subcontinent, which is now divided amongst different nations. click to view
The countries of South East Asia have become independent from their Western masters. click to view
The latter decades of the 20th century and the first years of the 21st century have been a much happier time for most East Asians than the preceding ones. With the exception of Vietnam, where American forces were heavily engaged against Communist guerillas until 1973, peace has been the normal condition in this vast region during this period. The peoples of Japan and South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong, have all become amongst the wealthiest in the world. The Chinese have also seen a massive rise in wealth since the late 1970's, with their nation becoming the second largest economy in the world. Even Vietnam has experienced a large measure of economic growth since the late 1970's. North Korea remains stuck in the 1950's, however: the country remains isolated and impoverished under what must surely be the most destructive regime in the world.
China has seen the biggest economic expansion in history. click to view
Korea is divided between one of the richest and one of the poorest countries in the world. click to view
Japan has become the second biggest economy in the world. click to view
Tension remains high between Pakistan and India, both now nuclear-armed states. click to view
South East Asia has experienced dramatic economic growth. click to view
INSTRUCTIONS: Hover map for summary and tap to zoom. Press icons to change the date of the map. Drag timeline for more historical periods.