1.1 Developments in East Asia from 1200-1450

11 min readmarch 16, 2023

Riya Patel

Riya Patel


William Dramby

AP World History: Modern 🌍

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Developments in East Asia

Sui, Tang, and Song Dynasty Overview

Sui Dynasty

The Sui Dynasty was a short-lived imperial dynasty of China that was founded by Yang Jian (Emperor Wen) in 581 and ended with the assassination of Yang Guang (Emperor Gong) in 618. The Sui Dynasty is notable for reuniting China under a single imperial rule after several centuries of political fragmentation, and for its role in the construction of the Grand Canal, which was a major engineering feat that linked the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers and facilitated trade and communication between northern and southern China. The Sui Dynasty was also known for its military campaigns, particularly the conquest of the Chen Dynasty, which led to the reunification of China. However, the Sui Dynasty was ultimately marked by internal conflict and a lack of stability, and it was succeeded by the Tang Dynasty in 618.

Tang Dynasty

The Tang Dynasty was a Chinese imperial dynasty that ruled from 618 to 907. It is considered one of the greatest periods of peace and prosperity in Chinese history, and it is remembered for its cultural achievements and its strong and centralized government. The Tang Dynasty is known for its cosmopolitan culture, which was influenced by trade and cultural exchange with other parts of Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. The Tang Dynasty is also known for its literature, art, music, and dance, which are considered some of the finest examples of Chinese culture. The Tang Dynasty is also remembered for its military conquests, particularly the campaigns against the Turks in Central Asia. However, the Tang Dynasty eventually declined due to a combination of internal conflicts, economic problems, and external invasions. It was succeeded by the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period in 907.

Song Dynasty

The Song Dynasty was a Chinese imperial dynasty that ruled from 960 to 1279. It followed the Tang Dynasty and was succeeded by the Yuan Dynasty. The Song Dynasty is known for its cultural achievements and technological innovations, which had a significant impact on the development of China and East Asia. The Song Dynasty is also known for its economic growth, which was spurred by an expansion of trade and the adoption of a paper money system. The Song Dynasty is also remembered for its military struggles, particularly the wars against the Jurchen-led Jin Dynasty, which eventually conquered the northern part of China and established the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234). The Song Dynasty is also remembered for its strong and centralized government, which implemented a number of reforms and was known for its bureaucratic and merit-based system of administration.

Government Developments in the Song Dynasty

The Sui and Tang Dynasties were able to reunite China after centuries of war. The Song Dynasty, starting in 960, was able to build on this stability and help advance the government of China.
A bureaucracy is a large, complex organization that is characterized by a hierarchical structure, a division of labor, and a set of rules and procedures that govern the way it operates. Bureaucracies are typically found in governments, but they can also be found in other types of organizations, such as businesses, educational institutions, and non-profit organizations. The main features of a bureaucracy are:
  1. A clear hierarchy: Bureaucracies are organized into a pyramid-like structure, with each level of the organization having a specific set of responsibilities and authority.
  2. A division of labor: Bureaucracies are divided into specialized departments or units, each of which has a specific area of expertise or responsibility.
  3. Standardized procedures: Bureaucracies have detailed rules and procedures that govern how work is to be done and decisions are to be made.
  4. An emphasis on efficiency: Bureaucracies are designed to be efficient and to accomplish their goals in a systematic and organized way.
  5. Formalized communication: Bureaucracies rely on formal channels of communication, such as written memos and reports, to convey information and coordinate activities.
A meritocracy is a society or organization in which individuals are selected and promoted based on their merit, or their ability and talent. In a meritocracy, people are judged and rewarded based on their individual achievements, rather than their social class, wealth, or connections. The idea of a meritocracy is that it allows individuals to rise to positions of power and influence based on their abilities, rather than on their social status or family background. Meritocracies are often seen as more fair and just than societies that are based on inherited privilege, because they give everyone an equal opportunity to succeed. However, some critics argue that meritocracies can be elitist and can create a culture of competition and individualism, and that they can also perpetuate existing inequalities if the criteria for measuring merit are biased or unfair.
The Civil Service Exam system started under the Han Dynasty and reemerged under the Tang and Song.  Chinese men would spend years learning the Chinese classics like The Analects by the famous Chinese philosopher Confucius.  Based on their abilities, they would take a series of exams that would award them greater power and influence. 
A person who passed any one level of these exams entered a new social class: the scholar gentryThe scholar-gentry, also known as the literati or shidafu, were a social class in ancient and imperial China that comprised well-educated individuals who were involved in the administration of the government. The scholar-gentry were typically members of the elite and were often drawn from the ranks of the aristocracy or the wealthy merchant class. They were known for their love of literature, art, and philosophy, and they played a key role in the cultural and intellectual life of China. The scholar-gentry were also involved in the civil service, and many of them held positions in the bureaucracy or served as advisers to the emperor. The scholar-gentry were highly respected in Chinese society, and they were often seen as a model of virtue and learning. However, they were also criticized for their privileged status and for their lack of practical experience. This approach to governing lasted until around 1900!

Chinese Scholar Gentry. Image Credit: Wikipedia

Economic Development

The stability of the Tang and Song Dynasties allowed for the Chinese to economically develop. A lot of this development was based on their new technologies, regional trade, and their growing dominance.
Below are a series of new developments that helped the Chinese to have the strongest economy between 1200-1450.

Economic Developments in China, 1200-1450

Grand Canal 🌅 The Grand Canal is a massive engineering project that was built in ancient China to link the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers and facilitate trade and communication between northern and southern China. The Grand Canal is the longest and oldest canal in the world, and it stretches over 1,100 miles from Hangzhou in the south to Beijing in the north. The Grand Canal was built over the course of several centuries, beginning in the 5th century BC and continuing through the Sui and Tang Dynasties. It was a massive undertaking that required the construction of hundreds of bridges and the excavation of thousands of miles of waterways. The Grand Canal was used to transport a variety of goods, including grain, timber, and minerals, and it played a key role in the development of the Chinese economy. It is still in use today and is an important transportation route in China.
Gunpowder 💣 Gunpowder, also known as black powder, is a mixture of sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate that is used as a propellant or explosive. Gunpowder was invented in China in the 9th century and was initially used for medicinal and religious purposes. However, it was eventually discovered that gunpowder could be used as a weapon, and it was adopted for use in guns, cannons, and other types of firearms. Gunpowder revolutionized warfare and had a significant impact on the development of modern societies. It was also used for a variety of other purposes, including mining, fireworks, and rocketry. The Chinese kept the formula for gunpowder a closely guarded secret for many years, but it eventually spread to the Middle East and Europe, where it was further developed and refined.
Champa Rice  🍚 Champa rice is a type of aromatic rice that is grown in the Champa region of Vietnam, which is located in the central part of the country. Champa rice is known for its fragrant aroma and sticky texture, and it is often used in traditional Vietnamese dishes, such as xôi (sticky rice), and com (steamed rice). Champa rice is also popular in other parts of Southeast Asia and is often used in a variety of dishes, including desserts, snacks, and main dishes. In Vietnam, Champa rice is typically grown in the lowland areas of the Mekong Delta, which has a warm, humid climate that is well-suited for rice cultivation. Champa rice is typically grown using traditional methods, and it is often irrigated using water from rivers and canals.
Coal ⛏ Coal has been an important resource in China for many centuries. China has some of the largest coal reserves in the world and is one of the world's leading producers and consumers of coal. Chinese coal is primarily used to generate electricity, and it is also used as a raw material in the production of steel, iron, and other industrial products. Most of China's coal is mined in the northern and northwestern parts of the country, and it is transported to other parts of the country by rail and truck.
Artisan 🍶 Chinese artisans were skilled craftsmen and women who created a wide range of fine and decorative arts, including ceramics, textiles, woodcarving, metalworking, and painting. Chinese artisans were known for their high level of technical expertise and artistic skill, and their work was highly prized both within China and abroad. Chinese artisans often worked in guilds or workshops, where they learned their craft from master artisans and produced goods for sale. In ancient and medieval China, artisans were considered an important part of the economy and society, and they played a key role in the development of Chinese culture and technology. Many Chinese artisans were also involved in the production of luxury goods, such as jade, silk, and porcelain, which were highly prized by the elite and were often used as symbols of wealth and status.
Public Works 🛣 Throughout its history, China has undertaken a number of large-scale public works projects for a variety of purposes, including irrigation, transportation, flood control, and defense. Some notable examples of Chinese public works projects include: The Great Wall of China: This iconic fortification was built over the course of several centuries to protect the Chinese Empire from nomadic invaders. The Great Wall stretches over 13,000 miles and is one of the most famous public works projects in the world. The Grand Canal: This massive engineering project, which was completed in the 7th century AD, linked the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers and facilitated trade and communication between northern and southern China. The Dujiangyan Irrigation System: This ancient irrigation system, which was built in the 3rd century BC, is still in use today and has played a vital role in the development of agriculture in the Sichuan Basin.
Tribute System 💰 The tribute system was a system of international relations in which one state, typically a smaller or weaker state, paid tribute to a more powerful state in exchange for protection or recognition. The tribute system was common in ancient and medieval societies, particularly in East Asia. Under the tribute system, the tributary state would send gifts or other valuables to the receiving state as a sign of submission or respect. The tribute system was often used as a way for the tributary state to demonstrate its loyalty and avoid military conflict with the receiving state. The tribute system could also be seen as a way for the receiving state to exert its influence and control over the tributary state. However, the tribute system was often seen as exploitative and unbalanced, and it was eventually abolished in most parts of the world as states developed more modern systems of international relations.
Paper 📜 Paper was first invented in China in the 2nd century AD, and it played a significant role in the development of Chinese civilization. The Chinese initially used paper for a variety of purposes, including writing, printing, and packaging. The production of paper in China was initially a labor-intensive process that involved pounding and pulping plant fibers, such as bamboo, mulberry, and hemp, to make a pulp, which was then spread out on a mold and pressed to form sheets of paper. Over time, the Chinese developed a number of innovations in papermaking, including the use of animal hides and fishnets as molds and the use of bronze and iron tools to process the fibers. The Chinese also invented the world's first printing technique, woodblock printing, which was used to produce religious texts and other documents. The spread of papermaking and printing techniques from China to the rest of the world had a profound impact on the development of culture, education, and commerce.

Social Structures in China

The social structure of China has been extremely stable since the Han Dynasty. This is because it is very hierarchical. A hierarchy is a system of ranking or organizing things in which people or things are ranked according to status or importance. Hierarchies can be found in many different types of organizations, including governments, businesses, and social groups. In a hierarchy, people or things are typically ranked according to a set of rules or standards, and those at the top of the hierarchy have more power, authority, or privileges than those lower down. Hierarchies can be based on a variety of factors, including job title, education, wealth, and social status. Hierarchies are often used to establish order and to assign roles and responsibilities within an organization. However, they can also create inequalities and lead to conflict if there is a perception of unfairness or favoritism.

China's social hierarchy circa. Han Dynasty

Part of this hierarchy is the fact that China is a patriarchal society where men dominate most systems of power.  Though women were charged with raising the children, they rarely were given political or economic roles.  This is exemplified in the process of foot binding. Much like modern-day cosmetics, foot binding was done to make women more desirable for men as well as a sign of wealth.   🎥Watch: WHAP - China in the Global Middle Ages
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Periphery of China

A core society impacts the societies in its periphery.  Much like how the US impacts nations around it and New York City impacts communities around it, China has had a long-lasting impact on the development of Japan, Korea, and Vietnam:

Post-Classical Japan, Korea, and Vietnam

This archipelago (series of islands) region has unique elements to it like the religion of Shintoism, stories like The Tale of Genji, and a unique feudal hierarchy.  The Emperor and Shogun (military leader) would rule over various Daimyo (landowners) who would all hire Samurai to protect their land.  The Samurai would practice a unique brand of chivalry called the Bushido Code.  Though feudal and largely decentralized, Japan was able to develop its own unique society.
Though Buddhism did spread to Japan, the Japanese government did not embrace the civil service system nor did the society accept Confucianism.
Korea has been the most influenced by China, adopting Confucianism, Buddhism, and the civil service system.  However, the aristocracy in Korea did not allow for social mobility or true unity of the Korean peninsula.
Vietnam has tried very hard to maintain its own independence from China.  Though closely translating to ‘southern people’, the Vietnamese do not think of themselves as Chinese.  They do not have as a hierarchical society; rather life is dominated by villages and smaller nuclear families.  Though Confucianism and Buddhism spread there, the impact of Confucianism is limited.
Browse Study Guides By Unit
🐎Unit 1 – The Global Tapestry, 1200-1450
🐫Unit 2 – Networks of Exchange, 1200-1450
🕌Unit 3 – Land-Based Empires, 1450-1750
🍕Unit 4 – Transoceanic Interactions, 1450-1750
✊🏽Unit 5 – Revolutions, 1750-1900
🚂Unit 6 – Consequences of Industrialization, 1750-1900
💣Unit 7 – Global Conflict, 1900-Present
🥶Unit 8 – Cold War & Decolonization, 1900-Present
✈️Unit 9 – Globalization, 1900-Present
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