’Asia is one. The Himalayas divide, only to accentuate, two mighty civilizations, the Chinese with its communism of Confucius, and the Indian with its individualism of the Vedas. But not even the snowy barriers can interrupt for one moment that broad expanse of love for the Ultimate and Universal, which is the common thought-inheritance of every Asiatic race, enabling them to produce all the great religions of the world, and distinguishing them from those maritime peoples of the Mediterranean and the Baltic, who love to dwell on the Particular, and to search out the means, not the end, of life,’’

Thus Okakura Kakuzo paints in his words describing the Eastern World. 

The two mighty civilisations of India and China, both rose to greatness in their own manner. While China’s sphere of influence spread out in East Asia, building on the records of its history, India however, drew people in focusing internally, unbothered to make a note of its greatness or to proclaim it. India did not reach out to the world preaching, rather the world came searching to India and nurtured in all that it had to offer. China comparatively spread instating its presence to establish its authority, as to advocate the legitimacy of its self-proclaimed name of ‘Zhong Guo’. Zhong meaning middle and Guo meaning country, China too thought itself to be the middle kingdom between heaven and terrain, also to be the central kingdom of the earth itself.

Asian countries beside these mighty civilizations developed their own particular identities, however infused much with inspirations from India and China. Japan and Korea, the other two relatively significant countries of the East, although with a distinct culture of their own, were likewise influenced out of Chinese culture. Similar was the case with other South-East Asian countries.

India from the dawn of history, came to cultivate a heterogeneity of religion, language, culture, people etc…, its ethos largely nurtured inside the natural barriers of the Himalayas in the north and the surrounding oceans on the three sides. But however diverse the nature of the ethos was and might be, nevertheless there proved to be an undeniable unity in the goals of these ethos. All throughout the ages, India readily absorbed all that it found extractable amongst the vast influx of knowledge that came from outside, for as long it was knowledge throughout the observable past, it assisted to the integral growth of human beings in one way or another.

Among the numerous things India had to offer, Buddhism fascinated the East most, making an immense impact in East Asia. It was first introduced in China, making its way into Korea and following the natural migratory course, it entered into Japan. Buddhism also found itself adopted in various other South Eastern countries and cultures. 

China although ossified in communism now, was the one responsible for the introduction of Buddhism in the East, along with its native philosophies primarily Confucianism and Taoism. Confucianism, more a way of life aimed at governing and harmonising society rather than a religion per say, although born in China, spread its roots to Korea and Japan, becoming an intrinsic part of both. While Confucianism was more grounded, Taoism emerged as an alternative cultivating the spiritual aspect that the former lacked. When both proved to be opposites in nature, Buddhism was appropriated, though ‘sinified- rendered more Chinese’ to become an intermediate. These two likewise made their way into the Korean and Japanese culture, although Korea had its native religion of Shamanism and Japan had Shintoism.

Japan unlike Korea built itself much from its native religion Shintoism as well Buddhism which was introduced to it through Korea. Japan was more open to metaphysical aspects, therefore it borrowed less from China, some of Taoism, and from Confucianism only that which helped in governing the society. Japan rather than getting ‘sinified’, picked selectively that which suited its existing ethos, enriching itself rather than getting superimposed. This left the Japanese culture with the distinctness that saved it from being assumed as a subordinate of Chinese culture.   

Korea however, suppressed its native religion Shamanism, adopting primarily Confucianism and Buddhism, along with a little of Taoism. Although Korea did have a distinct culture of its own, even now it is considered as the most Confucian in the world, showing the extent of China’s impression in the culture. Throughout history, Korea experienced superimposition of influence and culture of mainly China, and Japan as well during the colonial rule from 1910 to 1945. A country situated in between China and Japan, it’s not surprising the two outreached to overbear Korea with their influences, which would earn them the title of the ‘dominant culture’ in East.

Now divided into two as North Korea and South Korea from the repercussions of war, two countries embracing different ideologies with communism in the North and democratic liberalism in the South, nevertheless display the footprints of Chinese culture in their societies even now. South Korea furthermore displays a greater presence of Japanese influence as well.   

What really bound these three countries was China’s outreach with its Confucianism along with all the other knowledge it offered, as well as trading of commodities which brought the requisite of the Chinese Language. To access that knowledge and to increase trade which required communication, led to the necessity of learning Chinese characters by Korea and Japan. Both adopted the script, known as Hanja in Korea and Kanji in Japan, however they reproduced respective native pronunciations.

Following the script, language, philosophies, subsequently other elements of the Sino-culture also proceeded to influence the East, like that of the social and political institutions, literature, tea, music, pottery, art and architecture, usage of silk, and culinary arts among others. With the already existing similarities in the Asian lifestyle due to the environment and region, as that of agrarian societies leading to staple food habits of rice, wheat and grains, it wasn’t difficult for cultural permeation to happen. Much of the Sino-culture Japan received was first assimilated and modified in Korea. Korea therefore acted as a cultural bridge, sometimes also as a strategic bridge to the power struggle between China and Japan. The Chinese influence however was more than the Japanese, in the other eastern regions. As for the influence of India, it spread throughout Asia, visible even today. Nevertheless, with time a certain kind of cultural proximity developed naturally throughout the regions, forging a connection across parts of the Eastern world.

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The author is presently pursuing post-graduation in East Asian Studies, from University of Delhi. Fascinated with new languages, cultures and societies, her long-standing interest lies in the understanding of East Asia in particular.

By Satyamayee Pattnaik

The author is presently pursuing post-graduation in East Asian Studies, from University of Delhi. Fascinated with new languages, cultures and societies, her long-standing interest lies in the understanding of East Asia in particular.

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