The Splendor of East Asian Cultures

Chinese Empires

Sui, Tang and Song Dynasties

A deeper insight into the Empires in China following the Period of Disunion

The Sui Dynasty

Emperor Yang Jian (Wendi)

A northern ruler who reunited China and restored order after 350 years of Disunion, Wendi founded the Sui Dynasty. He aimed to form a centralized government, created a new legal code and reformed the bureaucracy. His kindness as a leader is showcased by his policies that ensure availability of grain and provided all adult males with land.

His son, Emperor Yang Di failed to keep up the Dynasty. Forcing peasants to work on public projects, he was disliked and later assassinated.

The Grand Canal - a 1,000-mile waterway connecting Northern and Southern China. Built during Yang Di's reign, it promoted use of resources.

The Tang Dynasty

Wu Zhao - the only woman to hold the title of emperor in Chinese history

A Sui general seized power and formed the Tang Dynasty that ruled China from 618 to 907. During the Tang rule, expansion and cultural diffusion among Korea and Japanese scholars led to a period of prosperity and growth of foreign trade. Much of this took place during the reign of Taizong. He was successful in military conquests and built a school to help prepare for the civil service examinations.

The Tang rulers created a strong government, making Chang'an and Luoyang the capitals. They created a flexible code of law and expanded the civil service examinations. Buddhism was well established in China and blended with beliefs such as Confucianism and Daoism, but in the mid-800's a Tang emperor fearful of the power of the religious communities, burned Buddhist texts and destroyed Buddhist temples.

Once Taizong's son came to power, he fell ill and his wife Wu Zhao claimed his status. She was an effective but also ruthless ruler who was eventually overthrown. Tang Dynasty reached it's height under Xuangzong.

A weak government, nomadic invasions and peasant rebellions resulting from higher taxes led to the downfall of the Tang Dynasty.

An example of the exquisite culture of Tang Dynasty captured in this musical show

The Song Dynasty

Song Dynasty reunified China after the end of the Tangs. They also ruled for about 300 years. The Song established a capital at Kaifeng and restored government control, enlarging the bureaucracy. They reformed the civil service examination system to include ideas of Confucianism and opened it to ordinary people. Becoming a scholar-official was sought after, as a result, as a means of rising up the social hierarchy. The Song tried to buy peace with the nomads but were still under threat, eventually being conquered by the Jurchen in the 1120s.

During the Song Dynasty, a new form of Confucianism called "Neo-Confucianism" became popular.

Achievements of the Tang and Song

Commerce - Foreign trade took place over land routes, such as Silk Roads. Sea trade became more important later on. Advances in sailing and shipbuilding techniques contributed to this change.

Culture - Literature was celebrated during the Tang Dynasty. Examples of great poets include Du Fu (specialized in horrors of war of Confucianism ideas) and Li Bo (specialized in friendship, joys of life, nature and solitude).

Painting reach it's height. Wu Daozi painted murals that celebrated Buddhism and nature. There were lifelike although surprisingly many artists used black ink. Pottery figurines, and porcelain, a type of ceramic, were also popular.

Inventions -
Magnetic compass
Woodblock printing
Gunpowder mainly used for fireworks, and began to be used in firearms and cannons as it spread.
Movable type printing – used blocks on which individuals letters or characters are carved. (revolutionized printing in Europe)
Paper money

For more information, click on this link: Four Great Inventions of Ancient China

Society - Power of aristocratic families declined and a new class, gentry, including scholar-officials and land owners, gained status.

The role of women declined during the Song Dynasty, who were encouraged to stay at home. They also practiced footbinding as symbol of husband's authority over wife.

Footbinding. Ouch, that looks painful.

The Mongol Empire

Genghis Khan

Nomadic people from Central Asia, the Mongols created the largest land empire in history. Living as pastoralists as a result of the steppes around them, the Mongols traded with settled people and became fierce warriors.

Genghis Khan's conquest

A powerful khan called Temujin began to conquer his rivals and united the Mongol clans, he was called Genghis Khan. He organized them into a powerful, strict and loyal military. The army was extremely mobile and led a bloody campaign, incorporating brutality and psychological warfare. While fighting against the Chinese and Turks, they earned the art of siege warfare and the use of gunpowder.

After his death, the empire was divided into four Khanates, with a Great Khan supervising the whole. Under grandson Kublai Khan, conquest of China Korea, Russia, Poland, India and Western Europe continued.

The fierce Mongolian Army

Mongolians as Rulers

The Mongolian Rulers

Despite their wrath, they ruled very peacefully and established stability across Asia. They were tolerant of other beliefs and allowed local rulers to stay in power as long as they regularly made payments to the Mongols. This period was called Pax Mongolia. The Mongols guarded trade routes such as the Silk Roads, ensured safe travel and allowed goods and ideas to be exchanged.

To keep peace and stop rebellions, Mongols posted soldiers throughout China. However, the Mongols charged the Chinese with high taxes and this revenue was used to build new roads and extend the Grand Canal.

One of the Great Khan's of the Mongol Empire was Kublai Khan. He continued the conquest of China successfully. Instead of forcing his culture, he adopted from the Chinese. In fact, his dynasty had a Chinese name (Yuan Dynasty) He shifted the capital from Mongolia to a new city in China and built a walled city. He also ensured that Mongols were not too absorbed by the Chinese, they lived apart and intimacies between them were discouraged and even forbidden. However, he did not trust the Chinese government and limited their roles to small offices, although foreigners were accepted. An Italian trader from Venice, Marco Polo, admired Kublai Khan's reign and the efficiency of their system. After imprisonment, these experiences were documented by a fellow prisoner.

Page from the 13th century travelogue, "The Travels of Marco Polo"

As a result of military defeats in Southeast Asia and Japan (where the infamous kamikaze or "divine wind" struck them), a falling economy and poor leadership, the Yuan Dynasty came to an end.

Though we have so far seen the Mongolians as a fierce and rigid empire, a small video on their beautiful culture may change your mind. Below is a display of Mongolian music and dancing, both integral to their culture.

Ancient Japan

Land of the Rising Sun

Subjected to frequent natural calamities, limited fertile farmland in the archipelago and isolated from the rest of the world by the sea, Japan developed their culture in isolation. Each clan worshipped spirits of nature, called kami, whom they believed were their ancestors. These beliefs formed the religion of Shinto.

Amaterasu - the sun goddess. The claimed ancestor of the Yamato clan, that established the system of an imperial figurehead for power

Foreign Influences on Japan

Japanese Art - influenced by Buddhism which migrated from China and Korea

Korean scribes introduced the Chinese writing system and their monks brought the religion of Buddhism to Japan as well, which went on to influence Japanese art and architecture.

Prince Shotoku, a regent to a Japanese empress, sent scholars to learn from the Chinese directly. This brought Japan into contact with Chinese food, fashion, entertainment, etiquette and ideas about government, which they adjusted to make their own.

The Heian Period

Map of Heian Japan

An elegant society formed once Japan's emperor moved the capital to Heian (now Kyoto). To take a look at the Heian culture, click the link below!

Women of the Heian court enjoyed reading and writing. Monogatari (fictional prose in Japanese) was extremely popular. In fact, the first full-length novel in the world was written by Lady Murasaki Shikibu. To read her love story, click this link and you will have access to a translated version.

The Tale of Genji

During most of the Heian period, the Fujiwara family controlled Japan. Soon, wealthy land owners with private armies began to seize power and challenged the government


Korea's location between Japan and China allowed the migration of people, culture and ideas possible, but also left it open to invasion.

Majorly covered by rugged mountains, Korea's population centered around the flat lands in the west.

The first Koreans were nomadic peoples from northeastern Asia that formed clans. When the Han dynasty conquered part of Korea in 108 BC, Chinese culture influenced Korean, introducing writing, political institutions, agricultural methods, Confucianism and Buddhism.

After the Han Dynasty's rule ended, Korea broke up into three different kingdoms which eventually came to join and form the Silla Kingdom.

Rebels defeated the Silla Kingdom and formed the Koryo Dynasty, from which Korea gets its name. Koryo rulers adopted to Chinese culture but thrived to build their own as well. They created a civil examination system similar to China's which was only open to nobles. Korean artisans created beautiful celadon pottery and they also formed methods of printing like a metal movable type. To know all about the origins and culture of the Koryo Dynasty, its invasion by the Mongols and the aftermath, watch the above video!

Southeast Asia

A grand temple built during the Pagan Kingdom in Burma

The Pagan Kingdom

Founded by King Anawrahta, he united Myanmar under his rule and allowed prosperous access to trading ports. Theravada Buddhism was widely spread through the Kingdom which became a center as a result of it's magnificent temples. When Kublai Khan, the Mongol king demanded tributes and the Pagans refused, their army was attacked and crushed. Though they survived for a while, their power declined.

The Khmer Empire

Trading Kingdoms


The kingdom of Vietnam was strongly influenced by the Chinese. They adopted the Chinese language, clothing, hairstyles, schools of thinking such as Confucianism, Daoism, government system, Buddhism, art and architecture. However, the Vietnamese people successfully retained their traditional customs and belief systems as well.

When Chinese rule grew weak, Trung Tac and Trung Nhi, two brave sisters raised armies to rebel against them but were defeated. The story of their bravery is still celebrated in Vietnam today. An independent kingdom of Dai Viet was established later on after the fall of the Tang dynasty. The Vietnamese even resisted Mongol invasion and remained independent.

To take a look at their distinct artwork, look at the video below where Curator Nancy Tingley introduces the Asia Society Museum exhibition of Arts of Ancient Vietnam.

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