Forces to be Reckoned With:
Japan and China, their influences and inspirations in the medieval period

    In the development of Asian cultures, two emerge as unique amongst the pack. China and Japan, two nations most people think of when they think about what is known to the Western world as the "far East" are the places where those cultures arose. These cultures, however, did not arise and develop in a vacuum. They are conglomerations of many varying ideas, customs, and traditions absorbed not only from the native populations of those nations, but the areas around them as well. These areas include Korea, Vietnam, and India. China and Japan developed unique ideas about religion, government, architecture, and literature based on the ideas and beliefs of their native populations and the ideas and beliefs of the surrounding areas, they in turn influenced the cultures and peoples of the areas surrounding them.
    Many religions took root in the nations of China and Japan. Most prevalent in China was Confucianism, which was a cornerstone of society. However, Confucianism was not the only religion in China. From India came Buddhism, which became so popular that missionaries such as Fa Xian spent years in India learning about the teachings of Buddhism, which they carried back to China. Home-grown in China was Daoism, which lost popularity during the medieval period but never completely died out. One of the most famous Daoists was Li Bo, a brilliant Chinese poet. Japan, likewise, picked up Buddhism by way of China, but later developed its own sects of the religion which traveled back to China. Tenai Buddhism is one such sect that arose in Japan. In parables similar to the Christian Bible's New Testament, Tenai Buddhism explained the concepts and reasons behind Buddhism and why it was good. (Kishlansky, p. 157-159) Shinto was the other major religion in Japan, and was blended with Buddhism to create some of the sects later exported.
    Japan and China had very similar styles of government, likely due to the fact that Japan looked to China almost exclusively for inspiration. However, prior to looking at China, Japan developed a feudal system very similar to that of medieval Europe, where the Emperor ruled over all and the aristocracy created private armies of samurai, which were essentially the Japanese version of knights. Later in the period, after China began to use civil service exams to determine whether or not one was suited to serving in positions of power, Japan looked to China for inspiration in restructuring their government. Later, the nations of Korea and Vietnam also adopted similar systems. In China, these exams became part of the very literature. Tales became a warning to future generation about what should and should not be done. One such tale is that of Hsaio Ying-shih, who insulted a higher-ranking member of the government and as a result "never got anywhere in officialdom, dying as a Chief Clerk in Yang prefecture" (Kishlansky 164). Japan obviously looked to China so much because, for one reason, they were their closest link to the mainland of Asia, aside from Korea, which was little more than an extension of China at many points in its development. Another reason could be that what the Japanese picked up from China were the things that actually worked for China, and as a result could presumably work for Japan.
    Some forms of architecture, however, developed very uniquely in Japan and were later exported to Korea, due to the similar climates of the region, presumably. An excellent example of the Japanese style is the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto. Another architectural and landscaping technique that developed in Japan, as a result of Zen Buddhism from China, is the rock garden, where gravel is raked around rocks to give the illusion of water in the arid areas of Japan. This style spread to other areas, including Korea, where the climate is similarly dry.

    Literature in both nations developed on its own and later spread to other regions, mostly because of the expansionist nature of China and the trade routes that ran through and from the nations. Among famous Chinese literary figures are Li Bo, Hung Mai (A Song Family Saga), Shen-Hui (a writer on Buddhism, Elucidating The Doctrine), and Du Fu. An early novel from China is Tale of the Marshes, which is the first piece to depict daily life in China in prose (Spielvogel, 288). From Japan comes The Tale of the Genji by Lady Murasaki Shikibu, which is the world's first surviving novel, although it was never finished. These tales and styles eventually spread across the globe. The current market for paperback and pulp novels is certainly evidence enough of that.
    China and Japan influenced the world around them, including each other, but were influenced as well by the areas around them, including Korea, Vietnam, and especially India. These two nations - especially China - became major powers in East Asia during the medieval period. Evidence of their widespread influence survives to this day.

Jackson J. Spielvogel and William J. Duiker.  World History to 1500 (Stamford, CT: Wadsworth, 2001)


Picture Sources
Pictures are different angle shots from those found in Spielvogel.

Lynn Perry - (Golden Pavilion)

No photographer listed - (Ryoanji Temple Rock Garden)