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 this stage in history (3500 BC) both regions were home to well-established farming communities.
Agriculture was beginning to spread to neighbouring regions of ancient East Asia. Millet farming had recently arrived in the Korean peninsula from northern China, while wet-rice cultivation was beginning to spread from southern and eastern China. Japan, meanwhile, remained home to the ancient hunter-gatherer Jomon culture.
Read more on this early period of East Asian history
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 widely dispersed areas; and East Asia is also receiving influences from further west: skills in metallurgy cross central Asia from the Middle East and appear in western China at around this time.
To the north east, millet cultivation has spread across the Korean peninsula, whilst in Japan, the ancient Jomon hunter-gatherer culture continues to thrive.
Read more on this early period of East Asian history
One of the greatest civilizations in world history is beginning to dawn in ancient Chinaclick to view China 2500BC
One of the earliest civilizations in world history has emerged in ancient India, the Indus Valley civilizationclick to view India and South Asia 2500BC
Major population movements begin to affect this region, as peoples orginally from southern China enter the South East Asia along its coasts and islands - they are the ancestors of today's Malays and Polynesiansclick to view South East Asia 2500BC
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 ancient 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 and ancient Jomon hunter-gatherer culture continues to thrive there.
Read more on Ancient East Asian history
The Shang dynasty, the first dynasty for which there are records in Chinese history, now rules Ancient Chinaclick to view China 1500BC
The great Indus Valley civilization of ancient India has vanished and a new people, the Aryans, are moving into the subcontinentclick to view India and South Asia 1500BC
A second population movement is affecting the region, as peoples from inland southern China move down into Burma and Laos; these are the ancestors of today's Mon and Khmerclick to view South East Asia 1500BC
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. The Zhou will be the longest-lasting dynasty in China's history
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.
Read more on Ancient East Asian history
The Zhou dynasty, the longest-enduring dynasty in Chinese history, have replaced the Shang rulers of Ancient Chinaclick to view China 1000BC
The Aryan peoples are spreading across northern India; an early form of the Hindu religion, which will be a defining element in Indian civilization, is evolvingclick to view India and South Asia 1000BC
Bronze Age technologies are now becoming established among the peoples of South East Asiaclick to view South East Asia 1000BC
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.
In central Asia a momentous development has taken place, as the nomads of the steppes have taken to riding horses rather than using them to draw carts and chariots. This makes them much speedier in battle, and therefore much more formidable opponents. They will play a huge role in east Asian history for the next two thousand years.
Read more on Ancient East Asian history
With the Zhou dynasty of Ancient China weak, one of the great philosphers of world history, Confucius, preaches a message of loyalty and humanityclick to view China 500BC
City-based civilization is reappearing in India; this process is accompanied by developments leading to the founding of a great new religion, Buddhismclick to view India and South Asia 500BC
The Malays and Javanese now inhabit their modern homes, and the Iron Age has come to the regionclick to view South East Asia 500BC
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, known to Chinese history as the "Warring States" period, 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 the fall of the ruthless Qin dynasty, the Han dynasty emperors now rule Ancient Chinaclick to view China 200BC
The Bronze Age, rice-farming Yayoi culture is spreading throughout Japanclick to view Japan 200BC
Korea is covered by many warlike tribal kingdomsclick to view Korea 200BC
India has seen a great empire, the Mauryan, cover much of the subcontinentclick to view India and South Asia 200BC
Indian traders are bringing Hinduism, Buddhism and other elements of Indian civilization to South East Asiaclick to view South East Asia 200BC
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 their stable government - based on a sophisticated bureaucratic system of government - has led to internal peace and an upsurge in the prosperity of China. 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, eastern central Asia has been drawn deeply into its orbit. This has enabled the Chinese to develop commercial relations with western Asia via trade routes which would become known to history as the Silk Road. Korea in the north and Vietnam in the south have also come within the Chinese sphere of influence, with large portions of both coming under Chinese direct rule. Japan feels China's influence to a lesser degree. This country has seen the rise of powerful and warlike chiefdoms, some of whom pay tribute to the imperial Chinese court.
Internally, Han dynasty rule has been the most tranquil period in the history of ancient China, but externally the Chinese empire has expanded greatlyclick to view China 30BC
Japan is divided into numerous warlike chiefdomsclick to view Japan 30BC
Northern Korea is occupied by the Han empireclick to view Korea 30BC
The Mauryan empire fragmented into different kingdoms; since then invaders from the western and central Asia have conquered much of northern and central Indiaclick to view India and South Asia 30BC
The first urban civilization of South East Asia has appeared, in Burmaclick to view South East Asia 30BC
The Han dynasty has now governed China for 400 years. It will not do so for much longer. Forces are at work which are tearing it's empire apart and will lead to the next phase of Ancient China's history, one of division and weakness.
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 civilization. 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 dynasty of Ancient China is now in its death throes, its empire is breaking up, and a troubled period in Chinese history is dawningclick to view China 200AD
Japan is divided into numerous warlike chiefdoms, which have close links to Koreaclick to view Japan 200AD
Powerful and well-organized kingdoms are beginning to emerge in Koreaclick to view Korea 200AD
The Kushana empire of ancient India is important to world history as a centre for the spread of Buddhismclick to view India and South Asia 200AD
Indian-style kingdoms and principalities are appearing in South East Asiaclick to view South East Asia 200AD
Four centuries of unity for ancient China, under the Han dynasty, came to an end in AD 220, as government weakness and peasant revolts shattered the empire. China has since experienced a history of barbarian invasion, internal warfare and division between several kingdoms. Unlike in Europe, however, these states, even the barbarian-ruled ones, maintain comparatively high levels of literacy and sophisticated administrations.
Buddhism has now become a major influence within China, reaching all levels of society.
China's cultural influence upon neighboring peoples has not waned. Kingdoms in Japan and Korea are modelled along Chinese bureaucratic 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.
A troubled period of ancient China's history began when the empire of the Han dynasty fell, to be followed by centuries of division, invasion and barbarian ruleclick to view China 500AD
In Japan, the numerous warlike chiefdoms have fallen under the authority of the Yamato kingdomclick to view Japan 500AD
Powerful and well-organized kingdoms are beginning to emerge in Koreaclick to view Korea 500AD
This period of India's history has seen the rise of the Gupta dynasty, under whom ancient Indian civilization reaches its peakclick to view India and South Asia 500AD
Indian civilization exerts a deep influence upon the kingdoms and peoples of South East Asiaclick to view South East Asia 500AD
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 run long the centralised, bureaucratic lines first pioneered almost a thousand years before by the Han dynasty, and is home to the wealthiest and most advanced civilization of the time. The Chinese have ever since regarded the Tang era as one of the 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.
Further afield, China's contol over much of central Asia expands her contacts with western Asia along the Silk Road.
China is now united under the great Tang dynasty, which presides over one of the most brilliant periods in Chinese historyclick to view China 750AD
The kingdom of Silla has united most of the Korean peninsula under its ruleclick to view Korea 750AD
In Japan, a state modelled on Chinese lines has emergedclick to view Japan 750AD
Powerful regional kingdoms now divide the Indian subcontinent, while the western parts have been absorbed into the Islamic caliphateclick to view India and South Asia 750AD
Chinese influence is now growing in South East Asia, and ocean-going trade has led to the rise of the maritime empire of Sri Vijayaclick to view South East Asia 750AD
In China, the great Tang dynasty has, after a brief period of division, given way to the Song, a dynasty which will not experience the same degree of military success as the Tang but will preside over a great period of economic advance in Chinese history.
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 the time of the Han dynasty.
The dynastic cycle of Chinese history repeats itelf with the fall of the Tang dynasty, and the rise of the Song to rule most of Chinaclick to view China 979AD
The Fujiwara family preside over a period in which the Japanese break free from the cultural dominance of Chinaclick to view Japan 979AD
The Koryo dynasty has now united all Korea under its ruleclick to view Korea 979AD
This period of the subcontinent's history sees southern kingdoms emerging as major centres of Indian civilizationclick to view India and South Asia 979AD
The kingdoms on the island of Java have won their independence from the Sri Vijayan empire, and the remarkable Buddhist temple complex at Borobodur has been constructedclick to view South East Asia 979AD
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, this period is probably the one in which Chinese civilization has made the most dramatic technological and economic advances in all its history: printing, the compass and gunpowder have all been developed by now.
Both Korea and Japan experience political instability and civil war - though Korea in particular makes important contributions - most notably in printing - 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 technological progress in China's historyclick to view China 1215AD
A civil war has brought to power a military leader called the Shogunclick to view Japan 1215AD
A military government now rules Koreaclick to view Korea 1215AD
India has entered a new phase in its history as a Muslim state, the Delhi sultanate, establishes itself over much of the north of the subcontinent
click to view India and South Asia 1215AD
The Khmer empire is at the height of its power, and the great temple of Angkor Wat has been builtclick to view South East Asia 1215AD
The last two centuries have seen, for the first time in its history, the whole of East Asia feel the direct impact of one state: the Mongol empire. In the 13th century its armies conquered all China, Korea and Tibet, and mounted huge but unsuccessful invasions of Japan, Burma, Vietnam and even Java. The fact that this empire also ruled large parts of the Middle East and Russia means that contacts between eastern Asia, western Asia and Europe along the Silk Road were greater than they had ever been before (and would be again for several centuries). This allowed technological developments from China and East Asia, such as firearms and probably printing, to make their way to the Middle East and later Europe.
From the mid-14th century, however, the Mongols were pushed back to their homelands in central Asia. Native rulers, most famously the Ming dynasty of China, have regained 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 inner Asia, the Mongols and other peoples remain a real threat. In the coming centuries China will again fall victim to invasion from this direction.
Japan is slipping into a long period of civil warclick to view Japan 1453AD
China was conquered by the Mongols and became part of their vast empire, but is now under the native Chinese Ming dynastyclick to view China 1453AD
Movable type printing is invented in Koreaclick to view Korea 1453AD
In the wake of the rise and decline of the Delhi sultanate, Muslim-ruled states now cover most of the Indian subcontinentclick to view India and South Asia 1453AD
Muslim merchants have established a network of small sultanates in the regionclick to view South East Asia 1453AD
The past two centuries of its history have seen great changes taking place 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 worldclick to view Japan 1648AD
The Qing dynasty is now taking control of the Chinese empire from the Ming, opening a new phase in China's historyclick to view China 1648AD
Korea is the first country in the world to build iron warshipsclick to view Korea 1648AD
The Mughal empire now rules much of the sub-continent, marking a high point in the history of Indian civilizationclick to view India and South Asia 1648AD
Europeans are beginning to make their presence felt in this regionclick to view South East Asia 1648AD
This point in its history marks the high point of East Asian civilization before it feels the winds of change sweep through it from the West.
During the past century and a half, almost the whole of the region, and much of South East Asia, has either (like Tibet and Mongolia) come under the direct rule of the Qing emperors of China, or (like Korea, Vietnam and Burma) 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 are 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 empireclick to view Korea 1789AD
The Qing dynasty is the most powerful and effective dynasty China has ever knownclick to view China 1789AD
The Tokugawa shogunate has brought Japan stability and prosperityclick to view Japan 1789AD
India has entered a new chapter in its history with the expansion of the British empire in the subcontinentclick to view India and South Asia 1789AD
Dutch commercial and political influence now spreads far and wide throughout the islands and coasts of South East Asiaclick to view South East Asia 1789AD
On the face of it, much in East Asia remains the same as it has been for a long time. The Qing dynasty of China is still vigorous, its empire 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 most of the states of this vast region - Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Burma. Japan remains the one notable exception, continuing the self-imposed aloofness it has maintianed through centuries of history.
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.
Factors both familiar and new to China's history are at work in weakening the Qing dynastyclick to view China 1837AD
Japan's isolation continuesclick to view Japan 1837AD
Korea remains a tributary state of the Chinese empireclick to view Korea 1837AD
The British empire now dominates most of India, marking the most radical change in the long history of the subcontinentclick to view India and South Asia 1837AD
The British are acquiring more territories in the regionclick to view South East Asia 1837AD
In a radical depature from the age-long history of the region, recent decades have seen Westerners finally manage to push open the doors of the East Asian nations to trade and missionary activity.
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 dynasty has become more and more discredited in the eyes of its Chinese subjects.
The Qing dynasty is shaken by a great rebellion and imperial China has entered the final phase of its historyclick to view China 1871AD
Japan's isolation has been forcibly shatteredclick to view Japan 1871AD
Korea remains secluded from the outside worldclick to view Korea 1871AD
The history of British India almost ended in a great rebellion, but the British were able to regain controlclick to view India and South Asia 1871AD
European power is growing in South East Asiaclick to view South East Asia 1871AD
Over the last few troubled decades the old tributary system, which was centred on China and which for the last few centuries of its history had dominated 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 Qing dynasty, along with the entire age-old imperial system, has now gone, 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.
The 2000 years of China's imperial history have come to an end with the fall of the Qing dynastyclick to view China 1914AD
Korea is now under Japanese ruleclick to view Korea 1914AD
Japan has created a modern society in the space of one generationclick to view Japan 1914AD
The history of the British empire in India reaches its height - but it will shortly come to an endclick to view India and South Asia 1914AD
The European powers have shared out most of South East Asia amongst themselvesclick to view South East Asia 1914AD
In the past decades have been amongst the most intensively turbulent periods in all East Asia's history. Much of the region 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.
After some of the most turbulent decades in China's history, the Communist Party now rules the vast countryclick to view China 1960AD
Korea is now divided into North and South Koreaclick to view Korea 1960AD
Japan has become the first country in world history to have A-bombs dropped on itclick to view Japan 1960AD
The long history of India and South Asia has entered a new chapter with the replacement of the British empire by independent republicsclick to view India and South Asia 1960AD
The countries of South East Asia have become independent from their Western mastersclick to view South East Asia 1960AD
The later 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 its during recent history. 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 1970s, with their nation becoming the second largest economy in the world. Even Vietnam has experienced a large measure of economic growth since the late 1970s. North Korea remains stuck in the 1950s, however: the country remains isolated and impoverished under what must surely be the most destructive regime in the world.
Under Communist rule, China has seen the biggest economic expansion in world historyclick to view China 2005AD
Korea is divided between one of the richest and one of the poorest countries in the worldclick to view Korea 2005AD
Japan has become the second biggest economy in the worldclick to view Japan 2005AD
The history of India and Pakistan has been characterised by mutual hostilityclick to view India and South Asia 2005AD
South East Asia has experienced dramatic economic growthclick to view South East Asia 2005AD
Hover MAP for summary and tap to zoom. MAP < and > buttons change date. TIMELINE icons jump to date. See below for historical summary.