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History of East Asia from 1600 to the Present

The period of time from 1600 to the present days is very large in the terms of a state history. Naturally, a great number of changes happen in the human history regardless of the selected country. This paper focuses on the research and exploration of the changes experienced by the countries of East Asia such as Korea, Japan and China over the period between 1600 and the present days. The three states managed to stay relatively isolated from the rest of the world and especially its Western part for multiple centuries. They built their own authentic cultures, political systems and societies which functioned for hundreds of years without many radical changes. Yet, the habitual for the Europeans way of dividing history into ancient, medieval and modern is inapplicable in case of the East Asian history (Holcombe 160).

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Of course, the gradual evolution of the cultures and societies of Korea, China and Japan took place, but in my opinion, the histories of these three states can be generally viewed as consisting of two periods. The development of Korea, Japan and China from 1600 to the present can be clearly divided into the periods before and after Westernization. The influence of the Western imperialistic powers coming from such countries as the United States, Great Britain, Russia, France started to affect Korea, China and Japan at the same time and led to numerous and unexpected changes. The impact created by the western imperialism on Japan, Korea and China has changed their social, political and cultural lives drastically and forever, as the countries of Asia which considered themselves as balanced and powerful states faced new and more aggressive powers forcing them to adjust, adopt the new rules and survive, or resist and be taken over.


Before Westernization

In the period between 1600 and 1900 China was ruled by the Qing dynasty. During that time the country was composed of numerous territories controlled by various kings and generals. These rulers often clashed with each other which led to the division of spheres of influence. One of the biggest clashes was recognized as the Revolt of the Three Feudatories. During the revolt the three leaders from the South of the country demanded larger portions of land which the current emperor did not grant them. The Qing Emperor Quianlong was the ruler who built and maintained one of the strongest and largest empires of the human history which was known for its powerful economy.

The Chinese population started to grow in the 18th century, so in the 19th the country had to deal with overpopulation, weakening economy, series of rebellions and the decline of the Qing rule (Seth 218). Among the first and the largest peasant uprisings was the White Lotus Rebellion of 1796-1804. Trying to deal with the social unrest and support the economy the emperor gradually emptied the imperial treasury (Gray 3).

During Westernization

During the late 1700s China became the target of a number of the Western powers coming from the industrializing Europe and the United States. The establishment of the new world’s economy required, according to their idea, required the participation of the most powerful states of East Asia. The offers concerning trading agreements kept coming to China along with the European and American and ships, the offers faced rejection as the Chinese rulers did not see many opportunities for their economy coming from these trading relationships. It did not take the Western powers long to apply military force.

Since China was much weaker in this aspect than Europe, soon it was forced to open its ports to the Western traders. The first such conflict is known as the Opium War followed with series of other clashes with the Germans, French, British, Americans and Japanese which resulted in the division of China into spheres of influence. Internally, China became divided between the supporters and opposition to the changes coming from the West such as alteration of political, legal and economical systems and even the doubt concerning the Confucian moral values put at the root of the Chinese culture.


The Chinese Self-strengthening reforms were directed at the improvement of military power and modernization of the state. Since the level of corruption was still very high none of these changes went as successfully as they were expected to. As a result, China was defeated in the Sino-Japanese war of 1894-1895. Massive dissatisfaction with the policy of the rulers and weakness of the state led to the overthrown of the emperor and the formation of the Republic of China. Yet, this did not end the internal conflict between the nationalists and the supporters of the supporters of the Western philosophy.

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The Chinese struggled to find a way to be strong and unified without losing the cultural essence. In 1920s, the conflict let the Communist influence of the Soviet Union into the country as a force supporting westernization. As a result, the Communist party of China was created and gradually obtained enough power and influence to bring the whole country under its rule after a massive confrontation with the Nationalist party which led to multiple victims among the civilian population.


Before Westernization

Globally, Korea was recognized at the Hermit Kingdom unknown and closed down for the Western explorers. After a series of invasions from the side of the Chinese and Japanese rulers during 16th and 17th centuries, the state became extremely careful concerning the contacts with foreigners. In fact, contacts with the outside powers were legally restricted in Korea (Seth 221). The population of Korea grew significantly during the 17th century and leveled off by the middle of the 18th century.

The Korean agricultural production managed to address the population growth and reduce the number of famines. Yet, the growth of the Korean economy did not follow, in the 19th century Korea did not demonstrate outstanding success, but it was not suffering from poverty either. Before the strengthening of the influence coming from the Western states Korea managed to maintain harmony within its own society regardless of its division into classes, besides, it managed to trade in a regulated way with Japan, China, Russia, and Britain.

During Westernization

Up to the beginning of the 19th century the state had been politically unified for 1200 years. The Koreans were forced to start trading relationships and open their ports to the representatives of the industrializing West. This change aligned with the crisis of the Korean monarchy which occurred due to the death of the king and absence of a lawful heir.

The penetration of the Western influences strengthened the Christian community within the state and cause religious and cultural clashes and clashes even though before the Koreans were absolutely tolerant towards Christians in the country. Trying to fight the unstoppable westernization disrupting the oriental traditional balance Korean leaders responded with a series of executions of forceful western missionaries and Korea started to be recognized as a barbaric nation. In order to avoid bigger conflicts Korea, just like China engaged into a series of Self-strengthening reforms with the emphasis on diplomatic development (Ebrey and Walthall 373).

Japanese invasion of Korea in 1873 was the result of an attempt of diplomatic interaction with the neighboring state from behalf of the Korean government. Among other reforms there were the Ministry of Culture and Information, publishing of the first newspapers, establishment of the modern post offices, change of the court system, and the State Affair Management Office and a serious research of advanced weaponry.


Compared to China torn apart by the influences coming from the USA and a number of European states, Korean modern history was mainly affected by the other East Asian countries – Japan and China. Sino-Japanese was between China and Japan influenced the relationship of Korea and China. The Chinese impact in Korea strengthened during the end of 1880s which caused riots in Seoul (Seth 241). International relationships of Korea were strictly limited by China, so Koreans engaged into an intrigue and sought help from Russia developing socialist movement (Robinson 69). The defeat of the Chinese brought a new power to influence Korea, so Russian impact gained a new rival – Japan.

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As a result the Korean Independence Club was created in 1896 while Russia and Japan engaged into war. The country lost its independence torn apart by foreign expansions. During the period before the Second World War the military tension in the country grew and the economy went downhill, so the government created the Central Agricultural Association to support the crop production. World War II caused labor shortage since the population was mobilized by Japan. After the Japanese surrendered in 1945, Korea was divided.


Before Westernization

The 17th century in Japan is known for the population boom which affected the 18th century and led to multiple improvements of the Japanese economy, trades, production, education and communication. The urbanization in Japan developed faster than in Europe and most of the population started to relocate to the cities (Gordon 22). In the 18th century the situation changed drastically.

The growth of population facilitated multiple famines which led to extinction of a number of villages. The starvation got so severe that the practice of infanticide spread across Japan. Economical instability in the country caused multiple protests and uprisings and the complex social class hierarchy maintained by the Tokugawa regime at that time was jeopardized together with the authority of the rulers. As a state, Japan was divided into many autonomous domains, each of which had their own army and treasury (Gordon 61). All of the Christian states were considered barbaric in Japan of 1800s, and their influence was feared and avoided at any cost as the “plague” which was likely to spread fast among the population.

During Westernization

The pressure from the side of the Western powers such as Russia, the United States, and Great Britain strengthened very quickly. Very soon Japan was forced to start trading relationship with the West through the treaty ports. The Western expansion in Japan developed based on the similar tendency as it did in case of China. Westernization led to revolutionary changes in Japan undergoing its own domestic crisis. After the establishment of trading relationships Japan strengthened its production in order to avoid even more serious economical problems as many of its merchants were put out of business by the Western traders. Japan started to be called “the Workshop of Asia”, one of the most successfully developing industries was textile (Gordon 94).

Westernization clashed with the Japanese traditionalism, in order to restrict the foreign influences on the Japanese society the state officials developed new stricter morals and behavioral norms. Feeling vulnerable to the Western imperialism the Japanese leaders decided to strengthen its influence in the region and take over China and Korea. This resulted in Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars.


Between 1905 and 1923 Japan was a member of the alliance with Great Britain, under this alliance the country entered the First World War and took over the German bases located in China. In 1919 Japan became a member of the League of Nations and was recognized as a Big Five participant. During the 1920s and 1930s the situation in Europe became tenser and Japan became affected y the Great Depression undergoing an economic crisis. During this period the military influences in the state grew. Japan invaded the Chinese coast, and took over Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. It also expanded to Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei in a series of confrontations with the major European forces such as France, and Holland. The main confrontation Japan took part in during the Second World War was with the United States.

The countries clashed economically and then the conflict escalated and led to the application of the armed force. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was had a goal to weaken the American fleet. The atomic bombing and the attacks of the Soviet Union led to the death of hundreds of thousands of military and civilian people. The country was devastated by the war and after it was over Japan focused on the improvement of its economy, the establishment of democracy and new Constitution.


The three of the East Asian countries reviewed in this paper demonstrate similar cultural and economical development before the 1800s. The major changes were brought to Japan, Korea and China by the influences coming from Russia, Europe and the USA. The changes affected every single aspect of life in these countries – their political systems, social built, class hierarchy, religions and cultures, their view of international relationships, morals and, of course, their economies.

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The transformations happened rapidly. Any of the three countries demonstrated incredible metamorphoses which only took a couple of decades to completely disrupt the old balance and establish new one. The most fascinating part is that after one decade was over, the next one would bring even more changes. This way, viewing one country before the 1880s and after 1900s one would see two completely different states. The main cause of the revolutionary changes in Japan, China and Korea were the industrializing Western states. Without their influence, without the pressure they created in order to open the three states up and engage them into the international relationships Korea, Japan and China would not be states they are now.

Works Cited

Ebrey, Patricia and Anne Walthall. East Asia: A Cultural, Social, and Political History: From 1600. Boston: Cengage Learning, 2013. Print.

Gordon, Andrew. A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. Print.

Gray, Jack. Rebellions and Revolutions: China from the 1800s to 2000. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. Print.

Holcombe, Charles. A History of East Asia: From the Origins of Civilization to the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Print.

Robinson, Michael Edson. Korea’s Twentieth-Century Odyssey. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2007. Print.

Seth, Michael J. A Concise History of Korea: From the Neolithic Period Through the Nineteenth Century. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006. Print.

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