Greco-Roman civilization is the basis of Western culture. What about East Asia?

Table of Contents

The temporary presence of Buddhism

The journey to the east

The Greco-Roman civilization implies the appearance of two societies in a strategic geographical area coveted in these struggles by many peoples.

These societies were the starting point of the so-called Western world, represented by Greece and Rome, the great shapers of Western culture.

What about East Asia?

Buddhism was so relevant in China as to give rise to the Journey to the West, one of its great classics, which recounts the adventures of the perilous journey of Monk Hsuan Tsang and his four colourful traveling companions, very especially the Monkey King

They were treated like heroes on their return who brought back an extensive library of sacred texts in the early fifth century.

However, Buddhism remained was one of the many currents that came to China and eventually disintegrated in the face of influential Chinese culture.

Retrato de Xuanzang en ruta hacia la India

Cultural assimilation of Southern China, Korea and Japan

Korean ambassadors during a audience with king Varkhuman of Samarkand. They are idenfied by the two feathers on top of their head. 648-651 CE, Afrasiyab murals, Samarkand.

Other East Asian peoples also accepted China’s central weight in the region. Regional leaders of bordering countries continued to respect these multiple overlords of «all under Heaven» as if they were a single Han empire. For example, the «Korean» Koguryo kingdom went so far as to send nearly ninety tribute missions to the Northern Wei kingdom. And in many cases, the local kings sought titles from the powers that be and sought titles from the various Chinese kings. As early as the fifth century, a Japanese queen sought recognition from China to gain political authority and support against other local powers vying for control of the various forces in Japan.

Similarly, the fledgling kingdoms of Korea also sought this political support.  In the late 4th century, the leader of the nascent kingdom of Paekche in the southern Korean peninsula was appointed deputy king by the Eastern Jin dynasty. By gaining Chinese approval, they were able to raise the profile of these kings both at home and abroad.

All these countries, especially Korea and Japan, created political and administrative systems in the image of the Chinese kingdoms – which followed the same pattern – because, even in times of instability and disunity, they remained the wealthiest, most powerful, most cultured, and politically advanced kingdom.

China had already influenced the Korean peninsula during the conquest of North Korea under Emperor Wu (1st century BC). The significant Chinese immigration to the area brought with it language, literature as well as systems of government and palace protocols.

Early Kingdoms in Korean Peninsula: Koguryo, Paekche, Kaya and Silla

The rise of the Koguyro kingdom ensured political independence from China, but they continued to copy Chinese system of government and social organisation. The application of state-building methods in their government helped their political growth. The Koreans implemented the legal code and founded a Chinese-style imperial academy.

Something similar happened in the south of the peninsula, although the Chinese never managed to control that area. The Silla kingdom, located on the southern and central parts of the Korean Peninsula, assimilated in the fifth-century Chinese customs, protocols, and institutions and a body of criminal and administrative law, court dress styles, or royal funeral rites.

Relevance of Chinese writing in China´s influence

But the basis of Chinese influence in their environment was due to the relevance of Chinese writing.

For much of China’s early history, neighbouring countries did not write, with Chinese texts being the basis of their information. When they succeeded in integrating writing, they chose to write with Chinese characters.

A stele with texts in Chinese characters found near the Yalu River in Korea is the earliest writing on that peninsula in the early 5th century, almost seventeen centuries after the first Chinese texts were written.

The Japanese began writing around this time, most likely with the help of Korean scribes. The oldest writings found in Japan and Chinese characters are found in the inscriptions on a sword after the 5th century.

Copy of Wang Xizhi’s Preface to the Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion (Source: Wikisource)

The fact that they used Chinese characters is most probably because there was no other writing system, and there was no question of starting from scratch. When they subsequently tried to create their own national writing system, they used different tricks, sometimes quite forced. Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese do not come from the same linguistic group as Chinese, and their grammar and pronunciation are also very different.

Therefore, the academics in charge of developing the local writing did not have it easy and continued to use Chinese characters for a long time after they already had their writing and alphabet. Nowadays, Around 60-70% of the Korean vocabulary is derived from Chinese, 50% in the case of current japanese.

Chinese writing consequently also positioned China at the cultural center of East Asia. Unlike alphabets, Chinese characters can be combined in different ways according to need. Each symbol represents a word, and in this way, each character can carry an idea – something that does not have an alphabet letter.

The Kojiki, the most ancient written text in Japan that has reached us. It is written in Chinese characters. It dates back to 712. “Records of Ancient Matters” are a collection of myths about the origins of the archipelago islands and kami (the gods).


The influence of Chinese writing also carried the concepts associated with society, its government, and its social structure -Chinese concepts- that created a cultural base that bridged languages, borders, and ethnicities.

It is very typical to find specific characters used for the same concept in Japanese, Korean or Vietnamese, although they are pronounced differently. A large amount of Chinese vocabulary was also borrowed from Chinese and integrated into local languages with the characters.

Influence on Chinese diplomacy in foreign relations

During the 19th and beginning of the 20th, French was the diplomatic lingua franca; it was spoken in the French court and English, Russian or Prussian. French was the language of the educated class that differentiated the elite from the rest; something similar happened with the Chinese in East Asia. Chinese writing brought the Chinese language, and it became the diplomatic and elite language in that region of the world. As is now the case with nowadays English speakers, the Chinese had no need and did not show interest in learning other languages.

All this led to the fact that all the foundational documentation in Korea and Japan that constitute access to their origins are not in their languages ​​but Chinese. As the academics and officials of their administrations read Chinese classical texts, they became part of education in these states. Therefore, the intellectual elite of all East Asia stepped into the same history, philosophy, and primary cultural references who also learned from the same books.

Mural from tomb of Li Xian depicting Korean ambassadors visiting the court of Tang China. 706 CE

As Europe’s cultural foundations are Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian (as well as Islamic in Spain), we find the framework of region-wide Chinese world order in the sixth century. East Asia, an area very different from the rest of the world – Europe, South Asia, Central Asia, and Western Asia- was created with China civilization as the center of it.


And here we come to the end of another travel note, but the Journey to the East continues so…


… If you want to know how our Journey to the East continues, be sure to read the next post carefully, and if you have any questions, comments, suggestions, or inputs, please email us at We will be happy to hear from you!

Daniel echeverria

Daniel Echeverría-Jadraque

If you want to know how our journey to the East continues, be sure to read the following post carefully… If you have any questions, comments, suggestions or contributions, please send us an email to Hsuan Tsang, the Monkey King, the Pig, the Sand, the Dragon Horse and myself will be happy to hear from you!

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