East Asia in Geographic Perspective | Asia for Educators (2023)

What is "Eurasia"?

  • Eurasia is a land mass that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean, in the west, to the Pacific Ocean, in the east. [Genesis, p. 1]
  • It is divided into two "continents": Europe and Asia. [Genesis of EA, p. 1]

What is "Asia"?

  • Asia, a label that conventionally includes both an enormous continent and far-flung island chains, such as Japan, Indonesia, and the Philippines, is much too large and heterogeneous an area for the label "Asian" to signify much more than "not European." [Genesis of EA, p. 1]

What is "East Asia"?

  • If there is no meaningful "Asia," THERE IS a reasonably coherent East Asia (however arbitrary and exotic the English label "East Asia" may be). [Genesis of EA, p. 3]
  • This East Asia could even be said to be older than the nation-states it subsumes and in some ways more fundamental. [Genesis of EA, p. 3]
  • East Asia [encompasses] ... the modern countries that can trace some degree of evolutionary continuity back to the earliest Neolithic and Bronze Age developments in what is now China ... [Genesis of EA, p. 3] The four countries of East Asia today:
    • China
    • Japan
    • Korea
    • Vietnam

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What role does a common writing system play in defining "East Asia"?

  • East Asia may, in fact, be defined precisely as that part of the world that once used Chinese writing. [Genesis of EA, p. 5]
  • No tool was more critical to the spread of this common East Asian civilization than the extension, throughout the entire region, of the Chinese script and classical written language. [Genesis of EA, p. 5]
  • Chinese language inscriptions, and therefore Chinese history in the truest sense, first appear on the Central Plain around 1200 B.C. This was a development whose significance cannot be overstated. [Genesis of EA, p. 8]
  • The continuous use for over 3,000 years of this same language and this same script (with some modifications) lies at the very heart of the Chinese cultural tradition, and literature written in the classical Chinese language also forms the most critical link binding China to the other, non-Chinese, parts of East Asia, very visibly demarcating them from the rest of the world. [Genesis of EA, p. 8]
  • The East Asian (Chinese-based) scripts have been called the only writing systems on earth still in normal use today that did not derive ultimately from Egyptian. [Genesis of EA, p. 8]
  • To be sure, new ways of writing the different Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese spoken languages did gradually develop ... ["Rethinking East Asian History," p. 9]
      • Note on spoken languages (Select "Expand" at right to see text) ... East Asia does not coincide, even roughly, with any major linguistic frontiers. East Asia includes ...

        Eurasiatic- (or Altaic-) speaking Korea and Japan
        Sino-Tibetan-speaking China ...
        Austroasiatic-speaking Vietnam

        but it excludes a huge number of other Eurasiatic-speaking areas, a somewhat more limited range of other Sino-Tibetan-speaking regions to the west and south, and the vast Austroasiatic- and Autstronesian-speaking arc of modern Southeast Asia.

        Therefore, language, at least spoken language, was clearly not a determining factor in giving shape to the East Asian region.

        Written language, on the other hand, was decisive. East Asia exists, despite enormous internal linguistic diversity, in large part because of the universal application throughout the region—and only this region—of the Chinese writing system.

        — Excerpts from Genesis of EA, p. 61

  • ... classical Chinese remained [however] the most prestigious written language throughout the East Asian region until as late as the nineteenth century—the visible insignia of a common literate standard of civilization. [Genesis of EA, p. 8]
  • ... Since then, literary Chinese has been rejected or abandoned everywhere, even in China itself, and replaced by modern national vernaculars. ["Rethinking East Asian History," p. 9]
      • Examples (Select "Expand" at right to see text)
        • The shogunal library in Edo (Tokyo) Japan, for example, according to its last catalog compiled in 1864-1866, still contained 65 percent "Sinological" (i.e., Chinese) material.
        • In Korea, classical Chinese remained both the official and the most prestigious written language until China's shocking defeat in the Sino-Japanese war of 1895, which shifted dominance over the Korean peninsula from China to Japan and sparked novel sentiments of modem nationalism in Korea.
        • In Vietnam, the prestige of Chinese letters was only undermined by French colonial policy and colonial force, beginning in the 1860s, and even then encountered some resistance.
        • Within China itself, the final abandonment of the classical written language and move to a modem Chinese vernacular was associated with the radical westernization of the May Fourth movement in the early twentieth century.

        — Excerpts from Genesis of EA, p. 5

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[What other commonailities mark "East Asian" civilization?]

The text in this section is an additional note and is not from either publication by Professor Holcombe.

  • Classical Chinese language, script, and literature
  • Buddhism (initial transmission of texts and later dialogue among the elites of East Asian countries was carried out through literature written in Chinese)
  • Confucianism (initial transmission of texts and later dialogue among the elites of East Asian countries was carried out through literature written in Chinese)
  • Some would also add the use of chopsticks as utensils for eating
      • How do these compare with those that mark "European"/"Western" civilization?
      • One might compare and contrast a similar set of commonalities—linguistic, religious, and philosophical—that are often held to mark "European" or "Western" civilization, namely

        • Latin as the lingua franca
        • Christianity
        • Greco-Roman traditions of philosophy and law
        • Use of forks and knives as eating utensils (most cultures in Africa, South America, South and Southeast Asia traditionally use the right hand with bread to eat)

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How did East Asian civilization expand from its origins in what is now Central China?

[The expansion of East Asian "civilization" occurred both within what we think of as "China" today and to Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.]

  • China was first unified into one empire ... by the series of conquests completed by the kingdom of Qin in 221 B.C. ... (and even then it was a classic multiethnic conquest empire rather than an ethnically homogeneous nation-state, as modern imagination would have it). [Genesis of EA, p. 2]
  • These Qin conquests, in turn, set off political, military, and economic repercussions that impacted what we think of today as Vietnam and Korea directly and indirectly reverberated as far as the Japanese islands. [Genesis of EA, p. 2]
  • The various peoples inhabiting what we now think of as Japan, Korea, and Vietnam were each subsequently transformed over the course of the next roughly 1,000 years from obscure prehistoric societies into members of a broadly (though far from completely) uniform East Asian civilization under the looming shadow of this enormous Chinese empire. [Genesis of EA, p. 2]
  • By the tenth century, when the fall of the Tang dynasty in China in A.D. 907 and the rise of a new Song dynasty in 960 marks a major watershed (between what might be styled the early imperial and later imperial epochs), Japan, Korea, and Vietnam had each generated independent native states and begun to evolve along their own, sometimes quite divergent, historical trajectories. [Genesis of EA, p. 3]

Within China

  • The absorption of what we think of now as "southern China" into a Chineseempire that had previously been concentrated only in the north, parallels the Roman expansion of Hellenistic civilization into Western Europe [roughly 200 B.C.–200 A.D.]. [Genesis of EA, p. 5]
  • The spread of East Asian "civilization" to Japan, Korea, and Vietnam might be viewed as merely a further, weaker extension of the same process by means of which East Asian civilization had already (and was still continuing to) spread, also incompletely and imperfectly, within what we now think of as China itself. [Genesis of EA, p. 5]

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Is there regional variation within East Asia? Within China itself?

  • It bears emphasizing ... that East Asia is, internally, a tremendously diverse region, as richly complicated as the West. [Genesis of EA, p. 4]
  • No two places in East Asia are altogether similar. [Genesis of EA, p. 4]
  • Even China, by itself, is a realm of many realms ... [Genesis of EA, p. 4]
  • Everywhere in premodern East Asia, including internally within China, we find shared "universal" East Asian core elements overlapping local cultural peculiarities—at multiple levels. [Genesis of EA, p. 6]
  • The broad "national" distinctions among China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam that seem so glaring today are only one level of local variation—tremendously important, to be sure, but also to some extent deliberately exaggerated for political purposes. [Genesis of EA, p. 6]
  • It is no great overstatement to say that the nations of East Asia, like all other nations everywhere, were semiconscious political creations. [Genesis of EA, p. 6]
      • Vietnam as a case in point (Select "Expand" at right to see text)
      • Vietnam is an interesting case in point.

        • Until the very end of the period ... [10th century A.D.], there literally was no Vietnam, and
        • the territory that is today northern ... Vietnam was merely a remote southern salient of the Chinese empire ... (since Vietnam's own southward expansion is yet another, later story).
        • The people who lived there were no less "Chinese" than many of the people who lived elsewhere within the empire, albeit (as was also true of many if not all other parts of the empire) with an undertow of local popular subcultures and languages.
        • Even within the southernmost part of the Chinese empire that would eventually become exclusively Vietnamese, there existed simultaneously a considerable range of ethnocultural variation, stretching from the educated local Chinese imperial elite at one extreme to residual tribal minorities at the other.
        • Nor should it be supposed that these tribal minorities preserved the essence of some eternally distinctive Vietnamese national identity, since they were themselves internally diverse and scarcely distinguishable from the tribes on what is today the Chinese side of the border.
        • In 939, however, local strongmen achieved what turned out to be permanent political independence, and what would eventually (in the 19th and 20th centuries) come to be known as Vietnam was born.
        • It is also worth keeping in mind that the southern portions of what is now Vietnam were never part of the Chinese empire and represent a set of quite different cultural influences. There was, after all, a reason why the French called the region "Indo-China," and why Vietnam is also commonly considered to be part of "Southeast Asia."

        — Excerpts from Genesis of EA, p. 6, except the final, italicized point, which comes from Professor Holcombe via email communication.

These excerpts are taken from two fascinating publications by Charles W. Holcombe, professor of history at the University of Northern Iowa:The Genesis of East Asia, 221 B.C.– A.D. 907 (University of Hawai'i Press, 2001) and "Rethinking East Asian History" (Education about Asia, vol. 11, no. 2, Fall 2006). These excerpts provide only a taste of the riches of these publications. Teachers and students are urged to explore further the development and characteristics of East Asia explained in the works of Professor Holcombe.

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