Ancient Japanese & Chinese Relations

Ancient Japanese & Chinese Relations

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Relations between ancient Japan and China have a long history, and in certain periods the exchange of political, religious and cultural practices between the two was intense. China, the much older state and the more developed, passed on to Japan (sometimes indirectly via Korea) a long list of ideas including rice cultivation, writing, Buddhism, centralised government models, civil service examinations, temple architecture, clothing, art, literature, music, and eating habits. Trade relations greatly outlasted cultural and diplomatic ties, with Japan beginning to develop its own unique cultural path from the 9th century CE onwards.

Early Contact

At the end of the Jomon Period, from around 400 BCE (or even earlier), Japan's first foreign contact was in the form of migrants who began to arrive from continental Asia, especially the Korean peninsula, probably driven by the wars caused by Chinese expansion and between rival kingdoms. They brought with them new pottery, bronze, iron, and improved metalworking techniques which produced more efficient farming tools and better weaponry and armour.

At a political level, Japan was beginning its first attempts at international relations (kokusai kankei) by the end of the Yayoi Period (c. 300 BCE or earlier to c. 250 CE). According to the c. 82 CE Han Shu ('History Of Han'), envoys and tribute were sent to the Chinese commanderies in northern Korea by the Wa, as the fledgeling confederation of small states in southern and western Japan was then known, the most important of which was Yamato. This is the earliest textual reference to Japan. A second early Chinese source is the 297 CE Wei Chih ('History of Wei'). The first tribute missions to China are recorded in 57 and 107 CE. One Japanese ruler known to have sent embassies to Chinese territory (238, 243, and c. 248 CE) and the most famous figure of the period was Queen Himiko (r. c. 189-248 CE). During the subsequent Kofun Period (c. 250 CE - 538 CE) envoys continued to be sent to China: in 425 CE, 478 CE and then eleven more up to 502 CE. Yamato Japan was slowly establishing an international diplomatic presence.

Asuka Period & Buddhism

The Asuka Period (538-710 CE) saw a stepping up of cultural exchange with the introduction of laws and penal codes based on those in China, the creation of a permanent capital city, and the nationalisation of land. There was also the introduction of Buddhism to Japan sometime in the 6th century CE, traditionally in 552 CE. It was actually introduced by a Korean monk but was seen as a Chinese faith and was officially adopted by Emperor Yomei (r. 585-587 CE). Buddhism reinforced the idea of a layered society with different levels of social status, with the emperor very much at the top and protected by the Four Guardian Kings of Buddhist law. The aristocracy could also conveniently claim that they enjoyed their privileged position in society because they had accumulated merit in a previous life.

Japan's adoption of Buddhism, it was hoped, would be looked on favourably by the more advanced neighbouring cultures of Korea & China.

The adoption of Buddhism, it was hoped, would be looked on favourably by the more advanced neighbouring cultures of Korea and China and enhance Japan's reputation as a rising civilised nation in East Asia. It was for the same reason that Chinese conventions of court etiquette, formal address and titles, and the ceremonies of drinking tea and eating habits were also copied. Once officially adopted, monks, scholars, and students were regularly sent to China to learn the tenets of Buddhism in more depth and bring back that knowledge, along with art and even sometimes relics, for the benefit of the Japanese people.

Buddhism continued to evolve as a faith in both India and China with new sects developing which eventually made their way to Japan via monks who studied abroad. Two of the most noted scholar monks were Kukai (774-835 CE) and Saicho (767-822 CE), who founded the Shingon and Tendai sects respectively. Another important monk was Ennin (c. 793-864 CE) who studied esoteric Buddhism in China for nine years and brought back to Japan these new ideas, original texts, mandalas, and ritual objects.

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Diplomatic Missions

Prince Shotoku, who ruled as regent on behalf of Empress Suiko from 594 until his death in 622 CE, was a great promoter of ties with China and was a keen advocate of all things Chinese from chopsticks to Buddhism. His famous Seventeen Article Constitution of 604 CE was heavily influenced by Taoist, Confucian, and Buddhist ideas. Shotoku also sent official embassies to the Sui court in China from c. 607 CE and then throughout the 7th century CE. There would be 19 state-sponsored missions sent to China between 607 and 839 CE. The missions were led by a high-ranked court official who was accompanied by councillors, scholars, monks, artists, doctors, musicians, diviners, scribes, and interpreters. Thus each embassy could include several hundred people. The important officials had their expenses met by their hosts. 'Tribute' was given and gifts were received in return, especially paintings and books.

Artists copied what works they could to take home as reference works, musicians paid for lessons from famous teachers, and scholars (typically monks) studied under celebrated religious masters. Doctors acquired the arts of acupuncture, moxibustion, massage, and exorcism. Students would spend longer and not return with the main embassy. Studying for several years, their costs were, in most cases, also met by the Chinese government. Those who did take the time to study seriously in China were often rewarded with high positions on their return to Japan, becoming government advisors or heads of institutions such as Nara's university where Confucian principles were taught and the courses in Chinese literature and law were the most popular. Monks would continue to establish and head their own sects of Buddhism which became immensely popular as their new knowledge allowed them to usurp the position of existing schools and abbots.

Throughout the Asuka Period (538-710 CE) Japanese literature and music followed Chinese models as artists brought back ideas from mainland Asia. Similarly, architectural styles came from China. The architecture of the public buildings of Nara and its successor as capital Heiankyo (Kyoto) followed Chinese models with most buildings for public administration having crimson columns supporting green tiled roofs. Heiankyo was laid out on a regular grid plan with right angled streets creating regular-sized blocks along the Chinese model of the Western Capital at Ch'ang-an, just as Nara had been. The royal palace followed Chinese ideas, and the city even had an Academy of Chinese Learning (Daigaku-ryo). In contrast, private homes, storage houses, and farm buildings continued to be built according to the Japanese architectural tradition.

China did send embassies occasionally to Japan and missions are recorded to Kyushu, Nara, and Heiankyo. These, though, were not about the Chinese learning from Japan but rather an official seal of approval of Japan's acceptance as a 'tribute' nation. The Chinese brought valuable gifts and, even more importantly, the merchants who were able to establish lucrative and long-lasting trade relations with their Japanese counterparts. Indeed, the commerce between the two nations would far outlast the diplomatic relations.

Failed Relations

Relations with Japan's mainland neighbours were not always amicable. The Silla kingdom, a longtime rival of Baekje in the Korean peninsula finally overran its neighbour in 660 CE with the help of a massive Chinese Tang naval force. A rebel Baekje force persuaded Japan to send 800 ships under the command of Abe no Hirafu to aid their attempt to regain control of their kingdom, but the joint force was defeated at the Battle of Baekgang (Hakusonko) at the mouth of the Geum/Paekchon River in 663 CE. The success of the Unified Silla Kingdom resulted in another wave of immigrants entering Japan from the collapsed Baekje and Goguryeo kingdoms. Following their defeat, Japan could have been invaded by either Silla, the Tang, or both. A large fortification was built at Dazaifu in the south-east of Japan, but the threat of occupation never materialised.

Heian Period & Cooling of Relations

During the Heian Period (794-1185 CE), following a final embassy to the Tang court in 838 CE, there were no longer formal diplomatic relations with China as Japan became somewhat isolationist without any necessity to defend its borders or embark on territorial conquest. Around 900 CE, the great Tang Dynasty collapsed and China became a disunity of competing states. This fact, the danger of sailing to the continent, and an increasing reaction against Chinese influence with a corresponding desire for the Japanese to exert their own political development meant that diplomatic missions petered out between the two states.

Flourishing Trade

Although political missions declined, sporadic trade and cultural exchanges continued with China, as before. Goods imported from China were largely luxury items, but the list is diverse and included medicines, perfumes, worked silk fabrics, damask, brocades, ceramics, weapons, armour, cloves, musk, lapis lazuli, cinnabar, dyes, and musical instruments. Books came too, a catalogue dating to 891 CE lists more than 1,700 Chinese titles made available in Japan which cover history, poetry, court protocols, medicine, laws, and Confucian classics. Japan sent in return pearls, gold dust, silver, amber, agate, raw silk, camelia oil, mercury, sulphur, paper, and gilt lacquerware. Still, despite these exchanges, the lack of regular missions between the two states from the 10th century CE meant that the Heian Period overall saw a diminishing in the influence of Chinese culture, which meant that Japanese culture began to find its own unique path of development.

In the 13th century CE, at the very end of the ancient period, the Mongols overran China and then set their sights on Japan. When Japan refused to become a subject nation of the mighty Kublai Khan's empire, a massive invasion force was assembled. Twice, in 1274 and 1281 CE, the Mongol fleets were blown back by typhoons - what would become known as the divine winds or kamikaze, sent by the gods to protect Japan in the moment of its greatest danger. The nation had survived and was now ready to flourish in the Medieval period and pursue its own independent and unique cultural destiny.

This content was made possible with generous support from the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation.

China–Japan relations

China–Japan relations or Sino-Japanese relations (simplified Chinese: 中日关系 traditional Chinese: 中日關係 pinyin: Zhōngrì guānxì Japanese: 日中関係 , romanized: Nicchū kankei) are the international relations between China and Japan. The countries are geographically separated by the East China Sea. Japan has been strongly influenced throughout history by China, through the gradual process of Sinicization with its language, architecture, culture, religion, philosophy, and law. When it opened trade relations with the West, particularly western Europe, in the mid-19th century, Japan plunged itself through an active process of Europeanisation during the Meiji Restoration in 1868 adopting the customs of Europe through the process of Modernization, and began viewing China as an antiquated civilization, unable to defend itself against Western forces in part due to the First and Second Opium Wars along with the Eight-Nation Alliance's involvement in suppressing the Boxer Rebellion.

Sino-Japanese relations


Diplomatic mission
Chinese Embassy, TokyoJapanese Embassy, Beijing
Ambassador Kong XuanyouAmbassador Yutaka Yokoi

According to the Chinese government, the relationship between China and Japan has been strained at times by Japan's refusal to acknowledge its wartime past to the satisfaction of China. However, according to the Japanese government, the expansion of People's Liberation Army and its assertive actions have been damaging the bilateral relation. Revisionist comments made by prominent Japanese officials and some Japanese history textbooks regarding the 1937 Nanking Massacre have been a focus of particular controversy. Sino-Japanese relations warmed considerably after Shinzō Abe became the Prime Minister of Japan in September 2006, and a joint historical study conducted by China and Japan released a report in 2010 which pointed toward a new consensus on the issue of Japanese war crimes. [1] [2] The Senkaku Islands dispute [3] also resulted in a number of hostile encounters in the East China Sea, heated rhetoric, and riots in the People's Republic of China (PRC).

China's and Japan's economies are respectively the world's second and third-largest economies by nominal GDP. Also, China's and Japan's economies are the world's first and fourth-largest economies by GDP PPP. In 2008, China-Japan trade grew to $266.4 billion, a rise of 12.5 percent on 2007, making China and Japan the top two-way trading partners. China was also the biggest destination for Japanese exports in 2009. Since the end of World War II, Sino-Japanese relations are still mired in tension, which risks the break-out of a conflict in Asia. The enmity between these two countries emanated from the history of the Japanese war and the imperialism and maritime disputes in the East China Sea (Xing, 2011). Thus, as much as these two nations are close business partners, there is an undercurrent of tension, which the leaders from both sides are trying to quell. China's Paramount leader Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang and Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo have met several times face to face to try to build a cordial relationship between the two countries (Fuhrmann, 2016). The main argument among observers and commentators is whether the relationship between China and Japan would remain stable due to their strong bilateral trades or the relationship would collapse due to the historical rivalry and enmity (Xing, 2011).

There has been increasingly large mutual dislike, hatred, and hostility between Japanese and Chinese people in recent years. According to a 2014 BBC World Service Poll, 3% of Japanese people view China's influence positively, with 73% expressing a negative view, the most negative perception of China in the world, while 5% of Chinese people view Japanese influence positively, with 90% expressing a negative view, the most negative perception of Japan in the world. [4] A 2014 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center showed 85% of Japanese were concerned that territorial disputes between China and neighbouring countries could lead to a military conflict. [5]

Despite the conflicts, China and Japan have been steadily improving their relationships, with both sides remarking that they will be focusing on developing healthy ties, signalling towards a "new start". Both countries have started to cooperate in numerous areas, including boosting global trade and Asia's economic activities, working hand-in-hand on One Belt One Road Initiative, [6] setting up maritime and air contact system for better communication, as well as holding several high level meetings and consultations. [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] In 2018, the two countries pledged to further deepen ties and shares a common ground on the trade war, with Shinzō Abe saying that "Japan–China relations have been moving in the direction of great improvement". [12] [13]

Overview: Foreign Relations through the Four Portals

To assist in visualizing this system, I have prepared two diagrams illustrating Japan's interaction with other countries during the Edo period. Both deal with the period traditionally associated with "national seclusion" in early modern Japan: from 1641, when the Dutch trading post in Hirado was transferred to the island of Dejima off Nagasaki, to 1853, when the arrival of Matthew Perry's ships forced a major shift in the shogunate's foreign policy.

Figure 1 provides a schematic overview of Japan's political (primarily diplomatic) relations with neighboring states and peoples in East Asia during the period. In addition to China and Korea, these neighbors included (clockwise from the top) Santan, the Japanese designation for a Northeast Asian coastal people (predominantly Orok but also Nivkh and Oroqen) engaged in maritime trade Ezo, the land of the Ainu, covering all but the southernmost area of present-day Hokkaidō and the kingdom of Ryūkyū (present-day Okinawa). Ezo and Ryūkyū, though they later became integral parts of Japanese territory, were at the time still regarded as foreign lands, inhabited by non-Japanese peoples with their own national identity. This understanding is basic to my theory of the four portals.

Nagasaki and the Three "Gateway Daimyō"

As I first explained in 1978, each of the four portals played an integral, structural role in the conduct of Japan's foreign relations during the early modern era. In essence, the Tokugawa shogunate delegated the conduct of international affairs to the daimyō of three outlying domains&mdashSatsuma in southern Kyūshū, Tsushima off the northwestern coast of Kyūshū, and Matsumae in southern Hokkaidō&mdashand the special shogunal trading city of Nagasaki. Each of the three "gateway daimyō" had exclusive jurisdiction over relations with a particular country or territory: The Shimazu clan of Satsuma was in charge of relations with Ryūkyū the Sō clan of Tsushima handled affairs with Korea and the Matsumae clan of the Matsumae domain had jurisdiction over dealings with Ezo. Nagasaki differed somewhat in that it had official jurisdiction over foreign relations in general as the seat of the Nagasaki bugyō (governor), a key shogunal official in charge of port administration.

At the heart of these arrangements was the feudal relationship between lord and vassal. As vassals to the shōgun, Nagasaki and the three daimyō oversaw relations with foreign entities as part of the military service they owed the shōgun. As compensation, and to support these functions, they were granted trading monopolies, which were regarded as a special type of fief (more commonly granted to the shōgun's vassals in the form of domains). In this sense, foreign trade was a privilege. But because it helped supply goods that played an important role in Japanese society, it was also regarded as a service the proof of this is that the shogunate was known to issue reprimands when trade was languishing. In the following, we will examine Japan's relations with the rest of the world via each of these portals.

Relations with Korea and Ryūkyū

Korea and Ryūkyū were considered vassal states of China, and as such they sent regular tribute missions to the Qing emperor. But the Joseon kings of Korea also sent missions to the Tokugawa shogunate&mdashreferred to as tsūshinshi (diplomatic missions) from the fourth mission on&mdashand the kings of Ryūkyū sent similar emissaries under the names of shaonshi (gratitude missions) and keigashi (congratulatory missions). Altogether, the Tokugawa shogunate received 12 missions from Korea (beginning in 1607 and ending in 1811) and 18 from Ryūkyū (from 1634 to 1850). The shogunate sent no direct envoys to either kingdom, although the Tsushima domain did send envoys, to Korea in the shōgun's name.

The expense of feeding, lodging, and protecting the missions from Korea and Ryūkyū was borne by the shogunate and the relevant daimyō. Japan also paid all expenses associated with the care and return of shipwrecked mariners from either country. Likewise, Korea provided money and food for Tsushima's envoys, domiciled in Busan, under various budgetary headings. Together with Japanese merchants in Korea, these envoys stayed in a special compound known as the wakan, built by the Korean government. As this suggests, bilateral ties in every area were built on the principle of mutually beneficial, reciprocal ties of friendship between national sovereigns (kokuō, referring to the Tokugawa shogunate as well as the king of Korea). (*2) This type of relationship was later classified as tsūshin (roughly, diplomacy), the same term applied to the ties established with the Western nations via the amity and commerce treaties concluded in 1858.

Relations with the Chinese and the Dutch

Relations with China and the Netherlands via the Nagasaki portal were relegated to the "private sector" to be conducted between the merchants of Nagasaki and their Dutch or Chinese counterparts without direct government involvement. Nonetheless, from the 1630s, the director, or opperhoofd, of the Dutch factory on Dejima was required to make the long journey to Edo once a year, ostensibly to thank the shōgun for the privilege of trading at Nagasaki. From the shōgun's perspective, these visits had the same status as the New Year's courtesy calls paid by officials from Edo, Osaka, and other cities directly under the control of the shogunate. This meant that the costs were shouldered entirely by the Dutch, who were furthermore expected to bring valuable gifts for the shōgun, his immediate family, and his senior advisors and ministers.

Chinese merchants were not required to send yearly emissaries to Edo, (*3) but they were expected instead to lavish expensive gifts on the Nagasaki bugyō and other local officials when they arrived in the port. In addition, a representative of the Chinese factory was expected to convey his gratitude to the shōgun by way of the Nagasaki bugyō each year on the first day of the eighth month, an important holiday for the Tokugawa clan.

In other ways as well, the Dutch and Chinese paid heavily for the privilege of trading at the port of Nagasaki. They were charged rent for their lodgings in their designated compounds and were required to pay a variety of taxes and other charges on incoming and outgoing cargo. They also paid for all food and supplies needed to carry on daily life in the factory, as well as the services of local prostitutes. In addition, the Dutch and Chinese (unlike the Koreans and Ryūkyūans) were charged for the care and return of shipwrecked mariners.

Both the Dutch and Chinese factories were built by order of the shōgun at the expense of Nagasaki's citizens, to whom the Dutch and Chinese paid their annual rent. (The initial construction of Dejima was financed directly by 25 local wealthy merchants, while building of the Chinese factory was carried out with a loan from the shogunate.) As the "landlord" that rented out these facilities, the city of Nagasaki also bore responsibility for their supervision and control specifically, each factory was assigned an otona (supervisor), as well as a crew of official interpreters. (*4) While the Nagasaki bugyō, as the representative of the shōgun, had nominal oversight over Nagasaki's Chinese and Dutch trade, business affairs were basically in the hands of the Chinese and Dutch traders on the one hand and Nagasaki's privileged merchants on the other, with the city of Nagasaki functioning as a kind of intermediary. Under the conceptual framework later developed by the shogunate, these arrangements (closely resembling the Canton System developed by the Qing government to control trade with the European nations in the second half of the eighteenth century) fell under the category of tsūshō, or commerce.

Relations with the Ainu

The Ainu people inhabiting the land then known as Ezo did not send envoys to the shōgun in Edo. In place of such missions, they carried out two ceremonies: the uimamu, in which a representative of the Ainu paid his respects to the lord of the Matsumae domain in southern Hokkaidō each year and the omusha, a tribute ceremony carried out at the border between Ezo and Japanese territory with one of the shogunate's traveling inspectors in attendance. The rationale for this arrangement was that Ezo was a "land with no sovereign," meaning that, in the shogunate's view, the inhabitants had no political sovereignty of their own. The rituals were regarded as an expression of thanks for the privilege of "living under the protection" of the shogunate in the person of the Matsumae daimyō, a relationship referred to as buiku.

The Formation of a Japanocentric Order

The system outlined above, whereby Japan used four portals to carry out three categories of foreign interaction (tsūshin, tsūshō, and buiku) was the basis for a Japan-centered regional order that gradually took shape in the early modern era&mdashin essence, a Japanese version of the Sinocentric world order, with the Tokugawa shogunate at the summit.

The resumption of official relations with Ming China was the single biggest foreign-policy challenge facing three successive Japanese rulers spanning the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries: the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the first shōgun Tokugawa Ieyasu, and Ieyasu's successor Tokugawa Hidetada. Indeed, Hideyoshi's invasions of Korea (1592&ndash98), the arduous peace negotiations following that ill-fated adventure, and the 1609 invasion of Ryūkyū by Satsuma forces were all aimed at this larger goal. However, by the early 1620s, the Japanese government was forced to recognize that all its efforts to resume ties with China had been in vain. Working from the premise of this failure, and from the relationships it had rebuilt with other regional countries through trial and error, it turned its attention to constructing a hierarchical regional system modeled on the Sinocentric model, but with the shogunate at the center. This process (which can only be narrated here in its bare outlines) began in the second half of Hidetada's rule and continued under the third shōgun, Tokugawa Iemitsu, spanning such events as the suppression of the Shimabara Rebellion (1637&ndash38), the ban on Japanese maritime travel in the China seas (1635), the exclusion of Portuguese ships (1639), and the fall of the Ming dynasty (1644). After the defeat of the remaining loyalist Ming rebels at the hands of Qing forces in 1684, this Japan-centered system took root as a fact of international society in East Asia. The establishment of this order heralded Japan's political independence from China, the first step in the process by which the Japanese state achieved full autonomy in the course of the early modern era. (*5)

To be sure, it was not until Japan came under pressure from the Western powers to deregulate its trading system that the shogunate explicitly adopted and set forth this formal classification of foreign interaction based on the three categories of tsūshin, tsūshō, and buiku, and some have argued as a consequence that the entire system I have described, based on four portals and three classes of interaction, did not exist before that time. But the thinking underlying this system had existed from long before the early modern era. Indeed, it constituted the foundation&mdashthe regional grammar, as it were&mdashon which international relations were traditionally built in East Asia. The striking similarity between the system developed by the Tokugawa shogunate and the Canton System by which China sought to control trade with the countries of the West attests to the common grammar on which both systems were built.

Kaikin in Japan, Korea, and China

The centerpiece of the Japanese policy that has been erroneously called "national seclusion" was kaikin, that is, government restrictions on maritime travel and trade. As the table below indicates, China, Korea, and Japan all had comparable restrictions in place, although they differed in their particulars. In fact, the Japanese borrowed the term kaikin from the Chinese haijin, which in turn derived from a provision in the Ming Code.

Japanese, Chinese, and Korean Regulations on Maritime Activity

Focus of regulations China Korea Japan
Ships (domestic) Size, construction
Rigging, etc.
Size of crew, etc.
Items permitted onboard (military weapons saltpeter, sulfur, copper rice, etc.)


Maritime travel Destination


Exports, imports Exported goods
Imported goods

Trade Restrictions on ports open to trade
Foreigners' quarters (designated)
Domestic traders (privileges granted)
Goods, volume, duration
Prohibition on non-official trade

Tribute, missions Restriction to designated countries
Rules governing missions (frequency of tributes, number of members, etc.)
Trade with emissaries

Notes: Information on Korea is from Taejon hoetong (Institutes of the Korean Government) for Japan, Tsūkō ichiran (Survey of Foreign Intercourse), etc. For China, I have relied on a secondary source in the form Masui Tsuneo's article "Kaikin" in Shukusatsu Tōyō rekishi daijiten (Abridged Dictionary of Oriental History) (Rinsen Book Co.), which in turn cites the Da Qing huidian (Collected Statutes of the Great Qing Dynasty) and Da Qing huidian shili (Statutes of the Great Qing Dynasty with Precedents).
Source: Arano Yasunori, Kinsei Nihon to Higashi Ajia (Early Modern Japan and East Asia), University of Tokyo Press, 1988.

The Ming system, which prohibited private citizens from overseas travel or interacting with foreigners, had been effective in controlling the so-called Wokou pirates in the fourteenth century, but that was not its sole purpose. In the Ming Code, the kaikin statute comes under the heading of guanjin, that is, laws pertaining to the control and governance of maritime and land transportation. This grouping confirms the idea that the law was intended to control the flow of people, goods, and information in and out of the country as a basic prerogative of the state (or the head of state), on the principle of "no diplomacy between subjects." While this principle originated in China, it was also operative in Japan from ancient times and should be considered a basic element of the common "grammar" governing international relations in East Asia. The kaikin policy seen throughout East Asia is a systemic manifestation of that concept and thus fundamentally different in its historical and traditional significance from the Dutch meaning of national seclusion on which the term sakoku is based.

Of course, kaikin encompasses a broad range of forms and historical phases, including the situation in medieval Japan, where the government's prerogative was officially espoused but practically ignored the early Qing government's policy requiring coastal residents to move inland (the Great Clearance, 1661&ndash83) the Japanese and Korean practice of using a few "portals" to strictly control movement in and out of the country and the more sophisticated customs and border protection systems employed by modern states in the region.

Be that as it may, at the end of the seventeenth century, the rulers of Japan, Korea, China, and Ryūkyū all enforced kaikin policies that banned or strictly controlled the private movement of people and goods in and out of the country, while simultaneously building a network of official ties&mdashin essence, international relations. Through the exchange of diplomatic missions, trade in goods, agreements regarding the return of shipwrecked mariners, and other understandings, this system functioned effectively to avert serious conflicts between states, as indicated by the long peace that persisted in East Asia until the second half of the nineteenth century.

Chinese influence on Japanese religion: Buddhism

Buddhism was introduced to China through India during the Eastern Han Dynasty, and later from China to Japan.

During Prince Edward’s regency, Buddhism was actively spread. Based on the idea that “the world is false, but Buddha is true.”

Against such a historical background, Japanese culture has achieved considerable development, especially in architecture, sculpture, painting, and decorative arts, and has formed a golden age of Buddhist culture centered around the Prince Edward’s era.

Buddhism promotes the concepts of punishing evil and promoting goodness, reincarnation, moral self-cultivation, etc. so it has played a very important role in protecting the country and benefiting the people in Japanese history.

Buddhism has also played a huge role in the development of Japan. Without the Japanese monks who traveled a long way to China to bring back the superior knowledge, Japan would not achieve its historical development.

Japan Makes War on Big Brother

Though for centuries Japan was in a period of isolation, it was still acutely aware of China’s dominance within its region and perceived China as Big Brother or the Master in the East. As Western nations used trade as a political force from the 16th Century onwards, China was slowly but forcibly opened to the West and its social order and political hegemony threatened by these foreign nations. By the 18th Century the West’s superior technology, particularly in terms of warfare, culminated in colonisation of many parts of China and Asia as a whole. When the Qing Dynasty (1636–1912 AD) attempted weak and ill-conceived revolts against their Western intruders during the mid-19th Century this resulted in humiliating defeat during what have been coined the Opium Wars of 1839–42 and 1856–60.

After the forcible opening of Japan by US Admiral Matthew Perry in 1853, Japan saw it had no other choice but to modernize or face the same humiliation as China. The Meiji Restoration was a direct result of China’s inability to modernise and deflect Western influence. There was a psychological need for Japan to fulfil a gap left by a weakened and humiliated China, a nation that was for millennia the strong man of Asia. At the same time Japan wished to emulate the West’s desire for colonisation and expansion, not simply for wealth creation but also as a form of jingoism.

In 1875 Japan developed a strategy to invade Korea so as to grab rich agricultural lands and other natural resources, this aggression lasted until 1894, with its strategy to control Korea’s sea lanes and cut trade. In 1880 Japan annexed the independent string of islands between Japan and Taiwan, then called Ryukyu Island, and now Okinawa (Liugiu in Chinese). The stand-off in Korea lasted until 1894, when Japan triggered the first Sino-Japanese War by intrusion into Chinese territory during this Korean conflict. After a decisive Chinese defeat an ignominious peace treaty was signed in 1895. Although Korea became an independent nation again, China lost Taiwan and the Liaoning Peninsula to Japan. Japan’s contempt for China’s weakness was fully expressed in the first Sino-Japanese war of 1894–95. The defeat of a once mighty China by the former ‘vassal’ state of Japan was more humiliating than defeat by European powers. On the other hand, Japan’s rapid rise demonstrated how an ancient Asian state could swiftly modernize. After years of war, intimidation and political machinations Japan added Korea to its Empire in 1910. As part of Japan Taiwan was pacified, prospered and modernized under Japanese rule, and this encouraged Japan to believe that further annexations in China would have the same result.

Japan’s belief in its own superiority resulted from its victory in the territorial inflamed Russo-Japanese war of 1904–5 and in Japan’s 1914 capture, in alliance with the British, of the German concession at Tsingritao (today Qingtao) on the Shandong Peninsula. These conquests established Japan as the dominant power in the region, a position confirmed by the decision at Versailles in 1919 to hand Japan the German holdings in China. The annexation of Tsingritao set off the May the Fourth Movement protests[2], which in turn spawned ideas of democracy, science and modernisation, and influenced many young Chinese including Mao Zedong.

As a result of the rise of Fascism in the West in the 1920s and 30s, in 1931 Japan was emboldened to grab Manchuria from the Nationalist regime in China, and then in 1937 launch a war to annex China into Japan’s Empire that lasted until 1945 (now known as the Second Sino-Japanese War). The war is the subject of a new book by Rana Mitter, who also wrote a history of the May the Fourth Movement. China’s War with Japan 1937–1945: The struggle for Survival is multi-faceted in describing the many currents that affected China. On the Chinese side there were the Nationalists, with their stronghold in Chongqing the Collaborationist regime in Nanjing, where the worst single atrocity of the conflict had been committed by the advancing Japanese invaders and the Communists in their base in the north of country, where they fought as little as possible, waiting for a civil war to follow. The Japanese controlled most of the major towns, ports and communication routes.

The 2013 British Museum exhibition, entitled The art of Influence: Asian Propaganda, was organised by propaganda academic Mary Ginsberg. The exhibition strikingly highlighted the periods before, during and after the 1937–45 War. It brought together images from the Nationalist, Communists, Collaborationist and Japanese-held regions of China, along with home front items from Japan. Traditional forms such as Japanese folk tales portrayed in ‘paper theatre’ are used to convey propaganda messages of racial superiority and Chinese children magazines of the Japanese devil. There is a kimono with patriotic inscriptions and a sake cup decorated with invocations of victory and daredevil pilots swooping from the skies, while Chinese posters depict the invaders as fearsome bringers of death and destruction. What the exhibition and Mitter’s book both bring home is the total nature of the Sino-Japanese war, not only in its death toll of between 14 and 20 million, but also in its effect on everyday life with its flood of refugees and societal destruction.

The war left a complex legacy. The War resulted a deeply divided and injured China, and after the war the many power divisions assisted greatly in the rise of the Communists. After the War the Mao’s Communists’ success against the democratic forces of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists saw China withdraw into isolation and attempt to remake itself as a Nation. Re-education of intellectuals and the uplifting of the masses was its communist aim, all the while a deep-seated hatred of Japan’s invasion festered in this wounded ‘dragon’. Even though diplomatic relations were re-established between China and Japan after WWII and financial involvement by Japan in re-construction and economic development was critical to its rise, anti-Japanese feelings have lingered for decades.

After the infamous Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989 ‘patriotic education’ became the norm of Chinese schooling in the 1990s, refocussing the populations’ attention on Japan’s previous crimes and away from any democratic inspirations that had been championed by their intellectual youth and that had the potential of being a true threat to the Communist Party. Chinese government created a new target — a foreign enemy. A resurgence of the deep hostility towards Japan continues to see anti-Japanese demonstrations and boycotts break out regularly throughout China. Even though Japan continues to be a major trading partner with China, over the past thirty years Japan has done little to dispel such anti-Japanese sentiment. Japan continued to fuel the flames with insensitive yet non-intentional incidents such as the photographs of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sitting in a fighter plane with the same number 731[3] as the biological warfare plant where Chinese human ‘guinea pigs’ were experimented. Beijing and Tokyo are at loggerheads over a group of uninhabited islands called Senkaku (or Diaoyu in China) in the East China Sea. Both sides have been stepping up the rhetoric against a backdrop of troubled regional relations — North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, China’s current maritime disputes in the South China Sea with its neighbours as well as China’s more emphatic claims of control over Taiwan.

Japanese Confucianism to 1600

The Confucianism to which the Japanese were first exposed represented more than the humble ethical dicta of Confucius himself. By this time, those doctrines had been overlaid and to some extent obscured by the doctrines of Daoism and Yin-yang dualist speculation, which combined to form a sophisticated cosmology. Prior to the seventh century it is likely that these Confucian teachings remained a virtual monopoly of scribes and literati attached to the Yamato court where they probably assisted with quasi-diplomatic correspondence and record keeping.

Both supporting and being supported by the political forces of centralization in the nascent Japanese state, Confucian teachings first achieved prominence in Japan during the time of Sh ō toku Taishi (573 – 621), who served as regent to his aunt, the empress Suiko (592 – 628). In 604, Sh ō toku Taishi issued the Seventeen-Article Constitution, which was intended to centralize further the administration of Japan by emphasizing administrative efficiency and harmony among contending factions. The constitution reflected the Confucian cosmology that regarded the universe as a triad composed of heaven, earth, and man, with each element having specific and mutual responsibilities. Again under Confucian influence, the cause of centralization and unification was furthered by the Taika Reforms of 646, which asserted the Confucian imperial principle of unified rule, and by the introduction of a complex legal and administrative system patterned after the codes of the Chinese Tang dynasty during the eighth century.

The influence of Confucian principles in government administration declined during the ninth and tenth centuries along with the political power of the imperial court. Confucian advice on how to regulate the state and the affairs of man was secondary to the more superstitious uses to which the Confucian cosmology could be applied. The Korean monk Kwalluk (Jpn., Kanroku) had brought books on geomancy and divination as early as the year 602, and "Confucian" advice on where to build a home or when one might auspiciously marry was more familiar at the popular level than were other Confucian principles. Perhaps disillusioned by this trend, Japanese Confucians of the eleventh and twelfth centuries engaged more in textual analysis and criticism than in original thought or interpretation.

The Neo-Confucian doctrines of Zhu Xi (Jpn., Shuki, more commonly, Shushi 1130 – 1200) were introduced to Japan, if the sources are to be believed, soon after Zhu Xi's death. Institutionally, the doctrines were taught in Zen monasteries where such Neo-Confucian practices as "maintaining reverence and sitting quietly" (jikei seiza ) were regarded as intellectually stimulating variations of what Zen practitioners already knew as "sitting in meditation" (zazen ). Though Neo-Confucian doctrines were from time to time favorably received at the imperial and shogunal courts, particularly during the reigns of the emperors Hanazono (r. 1308 – 1318) and Go-Daigo (r. 1318 – 1339), and despite the attempts of the Ashikaga Academy to propagate Neo-Confucian teachings, Neo-Confucianism would remain largely in the shadow of its Zen patrons through the sixteenth century. Nonetheless, since Neo-Confucianism originally arose in China as a secular and rational alternative to the teachings of Buddhism, it may have been inevitable that a rupture would eventually occur between the two, and it was out of that rupture that Neo-Confucianism achieved independent status in Japan.

The Brutal History of Japan’s ‘Comfort Women’

Lee Ok-seon was running an errand for her parents when it happened: a group of uniformed men burst out of a car, attacked her and dragged her into the vehicle. As they drove away, she had no idea that she would never see her parents again.

That fateful afternoon, Lee’s life in Busan, a town in what is now South Korea, ended for good. The teenager was taken to a so-called 𠇌omfort station”𠅊 brothel that serviced Japanese soldiers—in Japanese-occupied China. There, she became one of the tens of thousands of 𠇌omfort women” subjected to forced prostitution by the imperial Japanese army between 1932 and 1945.

Lee Ok-seon, then 80, in a shelter for former sex slaves near Seoul, South Korea, holding an old photo of herself on April 15, 2007.

Seokyong Lee/The New York Times/Redux

It’s been nearly a century since the first women were forced into sexual slavery for imperial Japan, but the details of their servitude remains painful and politically divisive in Japan and the countries it once occupied. Records of the women’s subjugation is scant there are very few survivors and an estimated 90 percent of 𠇌omfort women” did not survive the war. 

Though military brothels existed in the Japanese military since 1932, they expanded widely after one of the most infamous incidents in imperial Japan’s attempt to take over the Republic of China and a broad swath of Asia: theRape of Nanking. On December 13, 1937, Japanese troops began a six-week-long massacre that essentially destroyed the Chinese city of Nanking. Along the way, Japanese troops raped between 20,000 and 80,000 Chinese women.

The mass rapes horrified the world, and Emperor Hirohito was concerned with its impact on Japan’s image. As legal historian Carmen M. Agibaynotes, he ordered the military to expand its so-called 𠇌omfort stations,” or military brothels, in an effort to prevent further atrocities, reduce sexually transmitted diseases and ensure a steady and isolated group of prostitutes to satisfy Japanese soldiers’ sexual appetites.  

A Nationalist officer guarding women prisoners said to be 𠇌omfort girls” used by the Communists, 1948.

Jack Birns/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

“Recruiting” women for the brothels amounted to kidnapping or coercing them. Women were rounded up on the streets of Japanese-occupied territories, convinced to travel to what they thought were nursing units or jobs, or purchased from their parents asindentured servants. These women came from all over southeast Asia, but the majority were Korean or Chinese.

Once they were at the brothels, the women were forced to have sex with their captors under brutal, inhumane conditions. Though each woman’s experience was different, their testimonies share many similarities: repeated rapes thatincreased before battles, agonizing physical pain, pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases and bleak conditions.

“It was not a place for humans,” LeetoldDeutsche Welle in 2013. Like other women, she was threatened and beaten by her captors. “There was no rest,”recalled Maria Rosa Henson, a Filipina woman who was forced into prostitution in 1943. “They had sex with me every minute.”

The end of World War II did not end military brothels in Japan. In 2007, Associated Press reportersdiscovered that the United States authorities allowed 𠇌omfort stations” to operate well past the end of the war and that tens of thousands of women in the brothels had sex with American men until Douglas MacArthur shut the system down in 1946.

A group of women, who survived being forced into brothels set up by the Japanese military during World War II, protesting in front of the Japanese Embassy in 2000, demanding an apology for their enslavement.

Joyce Naltchayan/AFP/Getty Images

By then,between 20,000 and 410,000 women had been enslaved in at least 125 brothels. In 1993, the UN’s Global Tribunal on Violations of Women’s Human Rightsestimated that at the end of World War II, 90 percent of the 𠇌omfort women” had died.

After the end of World War II, however, documents on the system were destroyed by Japanese officials, so the numbers are based on estimates by historians that rely on a variety of extant documents. As Japan rebuilt after World War II, the story of its enslavement of women was downplayed as a distasteful remnant of a past people would rather forget.

Meanwhile, women who had been forced into sexual slavery became societal outcasts. Many died of sexually transmitted infections or complications from their violent treatment at the hands of Japanese soldiers others committed suicide.

For decades, the history of the 𠇌omfort women” went undocumented and unnoticed. When the issue was discussed in Japan, it was denied by officials who insisted that 𠇌omfort stations” had never existed.

Former comfort woman Yong Soo Lee next to a picture of comfort girls. 

Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Then, in the 1980s, some women began to share their stories. In 1987, after the Republic of South Korea became a liberal democracy, women started discussing their ordeals publicly. In 1990, the issueflared into an international dispute when South Korea criticized a Japanese official’s denial of the events.

In the years that followed, more and more women came forward to give testimony. In 1993, Japan’s government finallyacknowledged the atrocities. Since then, however, the issue has remained divisive. The Japanese government finallyannounced it would give reparations to surviving Korean 𠇌omfort women” in 2015, but after a review, South Korea asked for a stronger apology. Japan recentlycondemned that request𠅊 reminder that the issue remains as much a matter of present foreign relations as past history.

Meanwhile,ਊ few dozen women forced into sexual slavery by Japan are still alive. One of them is Yong Soo Lee, a 90-year-old survivor who has been vocal about her desire to receive an apology from the Japanese government. “I never wanted to give comfort to those men,” shetold the Washington Post in 2015. “I don’t want to hate or hold a grudge, but I can never forgive what happened to me.”

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The Most Dangerous Problem in Asia: China-Japan Relations

China and Japan have a thousand year history of fighting each other. What if that pattern repeats itself?

What is the most worrying relationship in Asia today? Where is there the greatest potential for the most destructive conflict? Would it be from North Korea, with its burgeoning and almost incessant nuclearization program, perhaps, or the ongoing tensions between Pakistan and India? Is a more urgent issue China’s ongoing clashes with the other competing parties in the South China Sea and the potential that this might lead to direct conflict with the United States? Or the real possibility of instability and fragmentation in, for instance, a young democracy like Indonesia, with its internal complexity and lack of institutional strength?

All of these are worrying problems. But if we look at history, the longest standing tensions — the area most strewn with competing, and frankly incompatible, visions for the region –is found in the relationship between China and Japan. It is this relationship that poses the most worrying problems for the future.

Though it is obviously a very complex issue, we can boil the Sino-Japanese conundrum the world and the Asian region have to sort out down to one simple question: in view of their inability to harmoniously exist side by side for the last millennia or so, can we really see ways in which a strong China and a strong Japan manage to exist alongside each other without conflict in the 21st century? If they do achieve this, they will be going against the pattern of their whole history with each other.

And what a terrifying history this has been. As American scholar June Teufel Dreyer shows in Middle Kingdom and Empire of the Rising Sun, a book just published by Oxford University Press, the fight for regional dominance stretches back 1,500 years. Japanese and Chinese imperial disdain for each other manifested itself very early on in prickly protocol, with the Chinese dynastic courts always trying to present Japan as a semi-vassal state, and the Japanese returning the contempt in the earliest dynasties. The documents Dreyer uses in her overview of the first thousand years of this history give ample testimony to this phenomenon. But the real clashes occurred when Japan undertook its rapid, and impressive, modernization in the late 19th century. Its victory in war not just with Qing China in 1895, but against the Russians in 1905, were preludes to a rampant nationalism that engulfed the whole region during World War II.

A long term view of this history shows a clear pattern: fractious troughs followed by warm peaks, before the troughs reoccur again. There were warm moments in the 1970s and into the 1980s, with the odd, short sunny period in the 1990s and mid-2000s. But the recent dip in relations has been a long one, continuing for almost a decade. Such dips and peaks are connected by an internal logic – they are evidence of strategic competition between the two. But the recent downturn occurs in a context in which, for the first time ever, both are modernized, globally significant economies. The risks arising from their inability to create long term, balanced, sustainable relations with each other have therefore escalated.

We know one of the main sources of this recent ill feeling on the Chinese side – the continuing anger over what is seen as Japanese unwillingness to confront their history of aggression in World War II. For Japan, where the vast majority of its people were born long after the tragic events of eight decades ago, however, this persistence by China for greater, continuing penance has clearly started to grate. Japanese irritation toward the Chinese is more recent, and stems from the ways in which former prime ministers from the early 1970s onward into the 1980s made a clear strategic decision to engage and work with China in its modernization process but received a poor return for it. Dreyer quotes one staggering statistic in her book that illustrates this – 70 percent of Japanese aid went to China in the 1980s. But the relationship was about more than mere money Japan was a major technology and knowledge partner. Chinese reform and opening up would not have succeeded as quickly, and as extensively, without this assistance.

In Japan, the consensus has been growing that the whole gamble of engagement with China is starting to look like it was a mistake. Their neighbor has not changed politically, nor has it developed grateful or friendly feelings toward Japan. On the contrary, it has come increasingly to look like Japan’s worst nightmare – a strong, Communist led one party state, angry and harboring revengeful sentiments toward Tokyo. Most worrying of all, China is now building up naval military assets that look increasingly like they are pointed directly at Japan’s interests.

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The ancient Greek historian Thucydides showed long ago that the price for peace is perpetual preparation for war. Complacency about China and Japan being able to just muddle along and never clash with each other again would run against the long history where these clashes and fights happened all too often – with disastrous results for the region, and the two countries themselves. Those that blithely counsel the United States to simply withdraw from Asia have to give reassurances that in the vacuum Japan and China won’t immediately fall directly on each other. Such reassurances are impossible to give. As Dreyer’s book shows, the history of Sino-Japanese relations has proved a terrible and bloody one. Creating a sustainable framework in which, at the very least, they can both manage their problems toward each other without resorting to fighting is the single greatest challenge, and the source of the most worrying instability, in Asia today.

One Thousand Cuts… Terrifying Ancient Chinese Torture and Execution Methods

While today we use boring methods of execution so as to preserve the humanity of both the executioner and the executed, back in the day they really didn’t give a shit about the people they punished. In fact, humiliation and suffering were important aspects of torture and execution, and no one did this better than the ancient Chinese. They were highly creative and seriously sadistic in their methods, and liked to do things slow and steady, often prolonging death for days. Below are some of the methods used in ancient China to torture and execute prisoners:


Also known as “slow slicing” or “death by a thousand cuts,” Lingchi involved the removal by knife of flesh from the body in small pieces and small, non-deadly cuts to limbs and torso. After chunks of flesh had been removed from all of the limbs, they were amputated from the living torso. The executioner made sure not to bleed the victim too much in order to prolong death until the final cuts to the throat or heart were made. Lingchi was brutal and slow, and a punishment that carried on into the afterlife, where it was said that a person killed by lingchi would not be whole after death. According to Sir Henry Norman in his book The People and Politics of the Far East, the executioner sliced off pieces by “grasping handfuls from the fleshy parts of the body, such as the thighs and the breasts…then the limbs are cut off piecemeal at the wrists and the ankles, the elbows and knees, the shoulders and hip. Finally the victim is stabbed in the heart and his head cut off.” Lingchi was one of those brutal torture methods that were photographed in the 1800s with the advent of the camera, so there are a lot of scary photos of this one!

**WARNING** seriously nasty pictures below!

Flaying, or the removal of skin from the face or body of a person, was practiced all over the ancient world, but the Chinese were very fond of it. Customarily, it was done with a sharp knife, carefully slicing into the dermis and removing the skin of the face in one piece. Many Chinese emperors and empresses loved flaying their detractors, The Hongwu Emperor in particular – he ordered the flaying of 5000 women in 1396. The skins were either stuffed with straw or nailed to a wall to show off to any potential enemies of the state. I also found a particularly gruesome story about flaying with mercury, whereby the victim would be buried upright to the neck, and have two cuts made in the scalp and mercury poured into them. The weight of the mercury would cause the skin to separate from the flesh, and when the victim writhed in pain they would slip from their skin like a banana from the peel. I couldn’t find anything to back this up, but it sounds awesomely fucking sadistic.

Bamboo grows at an insane rate, sometimes feet per day, so the Chinese took advantage of this by using it to slowly kill prisoners in an excruciatingly painful way. The prisoner would be suspended above shoots of living bamboo that had been sharpened to a point. As the bamboo grew, it would slowly pierce the victim’s flesh and grow into their bodies to pierce their organs. Nobody had to get their hands dirty, the bamboo did all the work. I can’t imagine the terrifying feeling of the bamboo pressing into my flesh, knowing that it would inevitably enter my body.

The Wooden Horse

According to the Chinese historical documents known as the Twenty-Four Histories, a woman who was convicted of conspiring to kill her husband with her lover was often punished with a device known as a wooden horse. This was basically just a sharpened wooden stake that she was hung above, with the tip in her vagina, and then she was cut down, allowing the stake to enter her body and pierce through it until it came out the top. Holy fucking hell that is disgusting.

The Nine Familial Exterminations

As well as creative torture and execution methods, some Chinese emperors were especially brutal when it came to whom suffered at their hands. The Nine Familial Exterminations is a good example – when a person was condemned for crimes like treason, the emperor may also choose to punish eight other levels of their family, which meant their children, parents, grandparents, siblings, siblings in-law, parents in-law, aunts and uncles, often by a method like lingchi. In one case, that of Fang Xiaoru, a scholar in the Ming Dynasty who refused to write the inaugural address for the incoming emperor, he asked that ten levels be executed, so the emperor also included his students, and executed a total of 873 people.

How an Ancient Kingdom Explains Today's China-Korea Relations

The Goguryeo empire has been gone for centuries -- but it still has a lingering impact on East Asian politics.

Historical narratives lie at the core of national identity. As a result, competing interpretations of the past can come to define international relationships. Nowhere is this more evident than in Northeast Asia, where so-called "history wars," combined with the destabilizing growth of Chinese power, have contributed to a fraught security environment.

The best known of these disputes stem from Japan's annexation of Korea and occupation of much of China in the decades before 1945. But if arguments about the legacy of Japanese imperialism have occasionally united Beijing, Seoul, and Pyongyang against Tokyo, another quarrel with much older roots has the potential to pit both Koreas against China -- and could even play a defining role in Sino-Korean relations in the event of Korea's reunification.

To whom does Goguryeo belong?

In late January, 2013, South Korea's Hankyoreh newspaper reported that an elite group of scholars in the northeastern Chinese province of Jilin was conducting "closed research" on a freshly discovered stele, an engraved memorial stone dating to the fifth century A.D. What interest could the examination of such an artifact hold for contemporary Korean readers? "Concerns are being raised," the Hankyoreh piece noted vaguely, "that with key figures from the Northeast Project taking part in the research, it is very likely that China will use the results of the study . to reinforce its argument that Goguryeo belongs to China."

Understanding the significance of this speculation requires a brief foray into the premodern history of Northeast Asia. For over 600 years, between the first century B.C. and the seventh century A.D., much of the Korean Peninsula and Manchuria were ruled by the kingdom of Goguryeo. Although governed in its final two centuries from Pyongyang, the kingdom's early capitals sat north of the Yalu River, which today demarcates the western portion of the China-Korea border. At its height, in the fifth century, Goguryeo controlled lands that would now include parts of South and all of North Korea, as well as contiguous land in northeast China and a sliver of maritime Russia. Because the Peninsula's south was then split between two other states, Silla and Baekjae, contemporary historians refer to this era as Korea's Three Kingdoms Period. The tripartite division finally came to an end in the second half of the seventh century, when the southeastern kingdom of Silla, having enlisted the assistance of China's Tang Dynasty, absorbed its western and northern rivals.

Tying modern nations to ancient predecessors can be a messy business, but historians generally concur in describing the Goguryeo state as proto-Korean. In 2002, however, this mainstream view came under attack, when the Chinese Academy of Social Science (CASS), a government-backed think tank, launched a re-evaluation of Goguryeo history under the auspices of its "Northeast Project," which sought to recast the pre-modern history of Manchuria and Korea. The Project concluded that Goguryeo had not been an autonomous political entity, but rather a vassal of the Middle Kingdom, "a regional government started by an ethnic group," falling within "Chinese local history."

It is unclear to what degree CASS's work was directed by figures in the central government, but official actions from the time permit an inference of collusion. In 2003 and 2004, while the project was still underway, Beijing applied to the UNESCO to register Goguryeo tombs in Chinese Manchuria as a World Heritage Site, and China's Foreign Ministry conspicuously scrubbed its website of references to pre-modern Korean history.

In South Korea, China's Goguryeo revisionism was explosive. In the popular press, which gave the issue extensive coverage, the Northeast Project was depicted as a negation of Korea's ethno-cultural independence from China. To combat China's version of history, the South Korean government established its own Goguryeo Research Foundation in 2004, and summoned China's ambassador in Seoul to protest the alterations to the Foreign Ministry website. The dispute triggered a near-instantaneous reversal in positive South Korean attitudes towards China, which dated back to the establishment of diplomatic ties in 1992. In the years that followed, the Three Kingdoms era provided fodder for several Korean television dramas. These included the international hit "Jumong," which offered a fictionalized account of Goguryeo's early years, in which the kingdom's founding monarch, Tongmyong, was imagined as an opponent of China's Han Dynasty.

Although it is harder to gauge the effect of the issue in Pyongyang, the North Korean regime -- which filed a UNESCO application for its own Goguryeo tombs in 2001 -- has incorporated Goguryeo themes into its regnant personality cult. The ancient northern kingdom seems to have held a particular fascination for the late Kim Jong-il. Western media outlets made light of the North's claim to have discovered an ancient "unicorn lair" in late 2012, but most missed its political significance: Pyongyang had actually intended to refer to a kirin, the mythical chymeric steed of Goguryeo founder Tongmyong.

Before the announcement of China's research on the Jilin stele this winter, the Goguryeo dispute had lain dormant since 2004, when Chinese diplomats, seeking to quell the growing controversy, promised Seoul that CASS's revisionist account would be kept out of Chinese textbooks. Nevertheless, a series of similar spats over culture and history have continued to roil Sino-Korean relations in the intervening years. In 2011, for example, South Koreans were outraged when Beijing included the quintessentially Korean folk melody "Arirang" on an official list of Chinese cultural assets, purportedly to celebrate an artistic contribution from China's own ethnic Korean population. Just last summer, Seoul again registered formal concern with Beijing after Chinese archeologists claimed to have established that the Great Wall was more than twice its previously-estimated length, extending nearly to the Korean border.

Given the damage these disputes have inflicted on Sino-Korean relations, it is worth asking why some in the Chinese leadership have indulged or even collaborated with such nationalist revisionism. Garden-variety chauvinism presumably plays a role, but the answer may also lie in China's abiding sense of strategic vulnerability. This insecurity is based on a number of contemporary strategic risks, but also has roots in the "century of humiliation" that followed the Qing Dynasty's embarrassing defeat in the First Opium War -- an era that saw China lose its longstanding dominance of the Korean Peninsula to Japan and then, in part, to the United States.

One particular source of Chinese anxiety is the possibility that ethnic Koreans might someday try to annex certain border territories. "Greater Korea" fantasies encompassing a large swath of Manchuria have little currency beyond a nationalist fringe, but many South Koreans reject the validity of a 1962 agreement between Pyongyang and Beijing acknowledging Chinese sovereignty over much of Mount Baekdu, a peak which plays a prominent role in Korean mythology. They also resent the loss of Gando, a marshy plot ceded to the Qing Dynasty by Imperial Japan in 1909. If the peninsula were reunified, these irredentist aspirations could be given greater voice. Even so, China's control of its borderlands is unlikely to face any serious challenge: the population of several million ethnic Koreans in northeast China has never been restive, and they are at any rate far outnumbered by their Han Chinese neighbors.

Invasion or secession may be vanishingly unlikely, but not all of China's fears regarding Korea are groundless. A more pressing threat is instability brought about by a failed North Korea. If the Pyongyang regime crumbles, Goguryeo could figure into China's calculus of intervention. Just as France's colonial rule in North Africa conditioned that nation's voters to support its recent intervention in Mali, the aggrandizement of China's historical role in Korea might make it easier for Beijing to sell intercession on the Peninsula to a skeptical public, should such an expedition -- however unpalatable to China's leaders -- be deemed a necessary evil.

China watchers are quick to dismiss the notion that Beijing has designs on North Korea, noting the risks and costs of occupation. If they are correct, the most significant factor in explaining CASS's assimilation of Goguryeo may lie over two thousand miles away, in China's far west. Beijing is anxious about two active independence movements -- one in Tibet, and the other in the Turkic Uyghur homeland of southwest Xinjiang. Ruling over a vast, multinational civilization-state, Beijing has embraced the modern idea of zhonghua minzu, or "Chinese nationalities," the concept that Chinese identity transcends ethnic and cultural divisions, embracing peoples outside its traditional Han heartland who have long been influenced by Sinic civilization.

Appreciating that any one challenge to this theory could endanger the entire edifice, Beijing regards its minority populations in parallel. Thus, CASS's Northeast Project was accompanied by Southwest and Northwest Projects, situating pre-modern Tibet and Xinjiang within "local Chinese history" as well, and Great Wall "discoveries" near Korea were anticipated by similar findings in Xinjiang. From Beijing's perspective, "splittism" endangers not only China's territorial integrity, but perhaps even the stability of the regime itself. As China scholar David Shambaugh has observed, its Communist Party leaders are "obsessed" with the Soviet Union's disintegration -- a process hastened, as they are surely aware, by the rise of ethnic nationalist movements.

Whatever defensive instincts may have inspired China's Goguryeo revisionism, efforts to downplay the independence of Korean civilization cannot but appear menacing from across the Yellow Sea. In a 2012 poll, nearly three quarters of South Koreans indicated that they perceive China as a military threat. Although some of this growing fear undoubtedly stems from Beijing's ongoing support for Pyongyang, it also reflects a deeper anxiety that a stronger China will seek to revive elements of the Sinocentric regional order that prevailed in East Asia before the arrival of Westerners and the ascent of Meiji Japan, under which Korea's rulers paid tribute to the Manchu Qing.

If the current Chinese investigation of the Jilin stele continues to make news in Korea, it will certainly exacerbate such unease. What remains to be seen is whether Beijing, mindful of its own security imperatives, will determine this a price worth paying. For the moment, at least, the ghosts of Goguryeo can rest. But William Faulkner's familiar observation is as true of Manchuria as Mississippi: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

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  3. Cosmas

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