East Asia

2.3 History and Culture of the Region

Chinese Dynasties and Colonialism

The earliest Chinese dynasty dates to around 2200 BCE. It was located in the fertile North China Plain. Organized as a political system, Chinese dynasties created the Chinese state, which provided for a continuous transfer of power, ideas, and culture from one generation to another. From 206 to 220 CE, the Han Dynasty established the Chinese identity; Chinese people became known as People of Han or Han Chinese. The last dynasty, the Qing (Manchu) Dynasty, which ruled between 1644 and 1911, claimed control of a region including all of China, Mongolia, Southeast Asia, and Korea. Dynastic rule ended in China in 1911.

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In general, the Chinese dynasties were largely isolationist. China has a number of physical barriers that separate it from the rest of Asia, such as the Himalayas, the rugged western highlands, and the Gobi Desert. The only region where it was vulnerable to invasion was its northeastern region. Here, the ruling families of China built a series of walls, known today as simply the Great Wall of China. However, the term the Great Wall of China is a misnomer. In fact, there is a series of overlapping walled fortifications that began being constructed by early dynasties in the 5th century BCE and continued through to the 17th century CE. Walls are a defensive military structure and are thus an expression of a civilization that wished to be left alone. Emperors generally disregarded China’s extensive coastline, and where port cities did emerge, they were primarily used for local trade. (Finlayson, 2019)

Europeans colonized the Americas, Africa, and South Asia, and it was only a matter of time before technology, larger ships, and the European invasion reached East Asia. European colonialism arrived in China during the Qing Dynasty. China had been an industrialized state for centuries; long before the empires of Rome and Greece were at their peak, China’s industrial cities flourished with the concepts of clean drinking water, transportation, and technology. Paper, gunpowder, and printing were used in China centuries before they arrived in Europe. The Silk Road, which crossed the often-dangerous elevations of the high mountain passes, was the main link between China and Europe.

European colonial powers met fierce resistance in China. They were kept at bay for years. Meanwhile, the Industrial Revolution in Europe, which cranked out mass-produced products at a low price, provided an advantage over Chinese production. British colonizers exported opium, an addictive narcotic, from their colonies in South Asia to China to help break down Chinese culture. By importing tons of opium into China, the British were able to instigate social problems. The first Opium Wars of 1839–1842 ended with Britain gaining the upper hand and laying claim to most of central China. Other European powers also sought to gain a foothold in China. Portugal gained the port of Macau, Germany took control of the coastal region of the vibrant North China Plain, and France carved off part of southern China and Southeast Asia. Russia came from the north to lay claim to the northern sections of China. Japan, which was just across China’s waterfront, took control of Korea and the island of Formosa (now called Taiwan). Claims on China increased as colonialism moved in to take control of the Chinese mainland.

Though European powers laid claim to parts of China, they often fought among themselves. China did not produce heavy military weapons as early as the Europeans did and, therefore, could not fend them off upon their invasion. Chinese culture, which had flourished for four thousand years, quickly eroded through outside intrusion. It was not until about 1900 when the Chinese people organized a rebellion against foreigners (known as the Boxer Rebellion) that the conflict reached recognizable dimensions. The Qing Dynasty dissolved in 1911, which signified an end to European colonialism advancements, even though European colonies remained in China.

Three-Way Split in China

European colonialism in China slowed after 1911, and World War I severely weakened European powers. The Japanese colonizers, on the other hand, continued to make advancements. Japan did not have far to travel to resupply troops and support its military. In China, a doctor by the name of Dr. Sun Yatsen promoted the independent Chinese Republic, free from dynastic rule, Japan, or European colonial influence. Political parties of Nationalists and Communists also worked to establish the republic. Dr. Sun Yatsen died in 1925. The Nationalists, under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek, defeated the Communists and established a national government. Foreigners were evicted. The Communists were driven out of politics.

Nationalists, Communists, and Japan conducted a three-way war over the control of China. Japan’s military took control of parts of Northeast China, known as Manchuria, and was making advancements on the eastern coast. Nationalists defeated the Communists for power and were pushing them into the mountains. The Chinese people were in support of the two parties working together to defeat the Japanese. The Long March of 1934 was a six-thousand-mile retreat by the Communists through rural China, pursued by Nationalist forces. The people of the countryside gave aid to the efforts of the Communists. The Chinese were primarily interested in Japan’s defeat, a country that was brutally killing massive numbers of China’s people in their aggressive war.


In 1945, the defeat of Japan in World War II by the United States changed many things. Japan’s admission of defeat prompted the end of Japanese control of territory in China, Tai-wan, Korea, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific. By 1948, the Communists, who were becoming well organized, were defeating the Nationalists. Chiang Kai-shek gathered his people and what Chinese treasures he could and fled by boat to the island of Formosa (Taiwan), which in 1945 had just been freed from Japan. Taiwan was declared the official Republic of China (ROC). The Communists took over the mainland government. In 1949, Communist leader Mao Zedong declared the People’s Republic of China (PRC) with its capital in Peking (Beijing). Japan was devastated by US bombing and defeated in World War II; its infrastructure destroyed and its colonies lost, Japan had to begin the long process of rebuilding its country. Korea was finally liberated from the Chinese dynasties and Japanese colonialism but began to experience an internal political division. Political structures in the second half of the twentieth century in East Asia were vastly different from the political structures that had been in place when the century began.

Communism in East Asia

The second half of the 20th century was a time of significant political change for East Asia. The former colonies of Japan were able to break away from their colonial past and become independent, but as in many other parts of the world, that independence often coincided with political conflict.

For Japan, the end of World War II brought a period of Westernization and rapid economic growth and rapid economic growth. Westernization refers to the process of adopting Western, particularly European and American, culture, and values. Japan adopted a new constitution and embraced democratic principles. It continued to industrialize and would become a global leader in electronics and automotive production. Today, Japan has the fourth largest GDP behind only the United States, the European Union, and China.

In other parts of East Asia, the political changes to the region following World War II tended toward communism, a social, political, and economic system that seeks communal ownership of the means of production. Communism is associated with Marxism, an analysis of social class and conflict based on the work of Karl Marx (1818-1883 CE). In a typical society, factories are owned by a wealthy few who then pay workers a lower wage to ensure that they make a profit. In a communist society, however, the goal of Marxism would be a classless society where everyone shares the ownership and thus receives equal profits.

Marxist ideas spread to China by the early 20th century and found particular support among Chinese intellectuals. The Communist Revolution in Russia inspired Marxists in China who founded a communist political party that would eventually be led by Mao Zedong. The communist party continued to gain traction in China and following a civil war, Mao Zedong established the communist People’s Republic of China in 1949. The previous Chinese government fled to the island of Taiwan, which is officially known as the Republic of China and claims control of the entire mainland. China, however, maintains that Taiwan is part of China.

After securing political control of China, Mao Zedong sought to transform China’s culture by reorienting it around the ideology of communism. One of the first steps in this transformation was the Great Leap Forward from 1958 to 1961 which sought to reshape China’s agrarian society into an industrial power. Unfortunately, the changes led to widespread famine and the deaths of tens of millions of Chinese as a direct result.

Following the failure of the Great Leap Forward, Mao aimed to eliminate any remaining traditional elements of Chinese culture or capitalist thinking through the Cultural Revolution. Millions were imprisoned, forcibly relocated, or tortured, and historical relics and cultural sites were destroyed. After Mao’s death, several leaders responsible for the abuses committed during the Cultural Revolution were arrested and China began a period of modernization and economic reform.

In the Korean peninsula, allied forces divided the former Japanese colony along the 38th parallel. Russia would control the northern portion, where it helped install a communist government and economic system. The United States occupied the southern portion, where it assisted a pro-Western government in its political and economic development. Tensions between the two territories led to the Korean War in the early 1950s. Technically, the two sides are still at war having never signed a peace agreement and simply agreeing to a cease-fire. Today, North Korea, officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), follows a Marxist model of development with state-owned enterprises and agriculture. The government has been accused of numerous human rights violations and the people of North Korea are severely restricted in terms of their economic, political, and personal freedom. In South Korea, on the other hand, officially known as the Republic of Korea, a democratic government replaced a series of military dictatorships and the country is considered one of the most developed in the region according to the Human Development Index.


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Introduction to World Regional Geography by R. Adam Dastrup, MA, GISP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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