East Asia

December 11 2010

Dong YuanWintry Groves and Layered Banks, Southern Tang, China, c 934-c 962, ink and colour on silk scroll, Kurokawa Institute, Kobe, Japan

Till the 19th century of the Christian era, Chinese culture was the formative influence throughout Eastern Asia. Indian culture, which has been disseminated in Eastern Asia by the Indian religion or philosophy of Buddhism, reached Korea, Japan, and Vietnam via China and in forms in which it had already been given a Chinese impress.

No mention of Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia. They, along with Sri Lanka and, for a time, the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra and Java, adopted forms of Buddhism which came from India directly. The prevailing one was the southern form which Toynbee calls the Hinayana, an obsolete term, and we call Theravada (which is not quite synonymous with Hinayana).

Hinduism also reached parts of southeast Asia from India – eg kingdom of Majapahit (1293-1527) on Java.

Northern Buddhism is the Mahayana, a term still used. The Mahayana travelled to China and beyond from India via Central Asia/Xinjiang. Tibetan Buddhism is part of the Mahayana. Some of the philosophical differences between the two schools are mentioned here.

The sacred texts of Theravada Buddhism are written in Pali, which is closely related to Sanskrit and to the language the Buddha spoke. The sacred texts of the Mahayana are translated from Sanskrit into local languages.

For this reason, the present book [Half the World, a coffee-table book edited by Toynbee, published in 1973] starts by giving an account of Chinese culture, including Chinese Buddhism, in the first six chapters. The Chinese characters (Chapter I) [Signs and Meanings, E Glahn] are something more than a means of communication; they are the expression of an attitude to life, and they have carried this attitude with them into other East Asian countries in so far as they have been adopted there too. The main thread of East Asian history was the political history of China (Chapter II) [“The Middle Kingdom”, DC Twitchett] down to China’s sudden catastrophic demotion, in and after the Anglo-Chinese War of 1839-42, from being “the Middle Kingdom” of Eastern Asia to being a “native state” at the mercy of the Western powers, of Russia, and eventually also of China’s own former cultural satellite, Japan. […]

China’s northern neighbours, before the eastward expansion of Russia to the East Asian shores of the Pacific Ocean, were the nomadic pastoral peoples of the Eurasian steppes (Chapter III) [Beyond the Wall, Owen Lattimore]. Pastoral nomadism is now dying out everywhere, but, for about 4,000 years, it was one of the forces that shaped the history of the Old World. The nomads were the first aliens with a distinctively different culture whom the Chinese encountered, and they were a formidable problem for China till as recently as the 18th century. China’s relations with the nomads have a longer history than her relations with India, and a very much longer history than her relations with the West.

Human life is many-sided, but our various activities are interrelated. In order to understand anyone of them, we have to take a synoptic view of them all. We have to take account of philosophy and religion and science and technology and literature and visual art, besides politics. In this book, visual art is presented in the illustrations, but the other non-political aspects of Chinese culture are discussed in the text (Chapters IV-VI) [The Path to Wisdom, Wing-Tsit Chan; The Empirical Tradition, S Nakayama; Worlds [sic] and Language, James JY Liu].

The historic cultural unity of Eastern Asia is a product of the radiation of Chinese culture into the East Asian countries on China’s fringes (Chapter VII) [Chinese Culture Overseas, Zenryu Tsukamoto]. Chinese culture has been attractive, and China’s neighbours have been receptive, but an imported foreign culture seldom maintains itself unmodified, however great its potency and its prestige may be. It has been noted already that China transformed an Indian religion, Buddhism, into something Chinese before she transmitted it, along with the indigenous components of Chinese culture, to Korea, Japan, and Vietnam; and these non-Chinese East Asian countries, in their turn, did to Chinese culture, including Chinese Buddhism, what China had done to Indian Buddhism. They transformed it to fit their own conditions and to meet their own needs.

Japan, for instance, derived her culture from China, but she developed what she had borrowed from China into something so different from the Chinese pattern that the outcome was virtually an original product of the Japanese genius (Chapters VIII-X) [Feudal Japan, Charles D Sheldon; Cult and Creed, Carmen Blacker; A Literature of Court and People, Donald Keene]. The Japanese changed the centralized bureaucratic Chinese system of administration into a feudal system which, in so far as it had any counterpart in Chinese history, was akin to the feudalism of the period of the “Warring States” which had preceded the establishment of the Imperial regime in China […]. The forms in which Buddhism became a widespread popular religion in Japan had no counterparts in either China or India. Pre-Meiji [pre-1868] Japanese literature was an equally original Japanese creation. Yet some of Japan’s cultural imports from China maintained their identity – for instance the Zen (Dhyana) school of Buddhism [a school of Mahayana Buddhism] and the Confucian philosophy, which, like Zen Buddhism, was adopted (in its crypto-Buddhist neo-Confucian form) by the Japanese military class at a late stage in the evolution of Japanese feudalism.

Zen was introduced from China in 1191, not a “late stage” in feudalism. It soon became popular among the samurai class.

Neo-Confucianism was an important philosophy in Tokugawa Japan (1603-1868). Confucianism had been one of the formative influences on Japan from the sixth century onwards.

The transformation of Chinese culture [including religion and administration] on Japanese soil after its transplantation is not surprising; for, at the date of its introduction – the 6th to the 8th century of the Christian era – the indigenous Japanese way of life was not only very different from the Chinese; it was also very much less sophisticated. The success of the Japanese in adopting and adapting one potent foreign culture perhaps partly accounts for their repetition of this achievement in the 19th century when they decided that they now had to come to terms with the Western civilization. Having already once received an alien civilization and having succeeded in adjusting it to their own way of life, the Japanese did not shrink from doing this for the second time. The Chinese, too, had received a foreign civilization once already before they encountered the West; but the Chinese reception of Indian culture in the form of Buddhism had not been so exacting an experience as the Japanese reception of Chinese culture. China had been on a par with India culturally; the spirit of Buddhism was not aggressive; and the indigenous Chinese attitude to life had a facet, represented by Taoism, to which Buddhism was congenial. Thus China was not so well schooled by her past experience as Japan was for the ordeal of coping with the formidably aggressive civilization of the modern West (Chapters XI-XIII) [Europe Goes East, Paul A Cohen; A New Role for Japan, Y Toriumi; Rebellion, Reform and Revolution, Jean Chesneaux].

Editor, Half the World, The History and Culture of China and Japan, Thames & Hudson, 1973

2 Responses to “East Asia”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    The words omitted in the first of the two ellipses:

    “China’s political history is inseparable from Chinese institutions. It has created these institutions and it has subsequently been conditioned by them.”

    The fact that this banal statement appears here, out of any context, suggests to me that it is the rump of a passage which was taken out, perhaps by the publisher.

    It’s possible to define “Eastern Asia” as Japan, Korea, China, Vietnam, ie the periphery.


  2. […] literary fortunes of the prākrits – which, save for the survival of Pālī as the medium of the Hinayanian Buddhist scriptures, were driven off the field of literary usage by their Sanskrit parent’s […]


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