East Asia was one of the cradles of world civilisation, with China developing its first civilisations at about the same time as Egypt, Babylonia and India. China stood out as a leading civilisation for thousands of years, building great cities and developing various technologies which were to be unmatched in the West until centuries later. The Han and Tang dynasties in particular are regarded as the golden ages of Chinese civilisation, during which China was not only strong militarily, but also saw the arts and sciences flourish in Chinese society. It was also during these periods that China exported much of its culture to its neighbours, and till this day, one can notice Chinese influences in the traditional cultures of Vietnam, Korea and Japan.
Korea and Japan had historically been under the Chinese cultural sphere of influence, adopting the Chinese script, and incorporating Chinese religion and philosophy into their traditional culture. Nevertheless, both cultures retain many distinctive elements which make them unique in their own right.
However, Chinese dominance was to end during the 19th century, when Western powers arrived and forced the various East Asian states to sign unequal treaties. It first started with Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States forcing Japan, which had adopted an isolationist policy for centuries, to open up to the West, which eventually resulted in collapse of the Tokugawa Shogunate and started the Meiji restoration. China was also not spared from Western imperialism, and by then, government corruption had reduced what once was one of the world's greatest civilisations to a sorry state. As a result, China lost several wars to the Western powers as well as its newly modernised neighbour, Japan. As a result of these wars, China lost Hong Kong and Weihai to Britain, while Taiwan, Manchuria and the Liaodong peninsula were ceded to Japan. China also lost control of its tributaries, with Vietnam being annexed by the French, and Korea and the Ryukyu Islands being annexed by the Japanese. Shanghai was also divided among eight different countries (France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, the United States, Russia, Austria-Hungary and Japan).
World War II was to have disastrous consequences on East Asia, as Japan's drive to modernise turned into a drive to colonise its neighbours. The war brought great suffering to many, and destroyed much of East Asia's infrastructure. Japan itself was also not spared, as much of the nation was destroyed by American carpet bombing, and the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki destroyed by atomic bomb attacks. Japan's defeat after World War II forced it to give up its colonies, with Taiwan being returned to China, and Korea regaining its independence. However, the end of the war was anything but peaceful. The Chinese Civil War continued, which resulted in victory for the Communists, led by Mao Zedong, giving them control of much of the mainland, and the nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-Shek, forced to retreat to the island of Taiwan and several offshore islands of Fujian, where they remain in control to this day. Korea was split after World War II, with Kim Il-Sung establishing a Communist regime in the north with the support of the Soviet Union, and Syngman Rhee establishing a capitalist regime in the south with the support of the United States. The Korean War began when Kim Il-Sung attacked the south. The war lasted for 3 years and had disastrous consequences, which ended with neither side making any significant territorial gains. North Korea and the United States signed an armistice in 1953 which ended the armed conflict, with South Korea refusing to sign, but no peace treaty was ever signed and the two Koreas remain officially at war with each other to this day.
Despite decades of turmoil, East Asia has begun to grow into one of the most prosperous and technologically advanced regions in the world. Japan was the first to rise from the ruins of World War II, rapidly modernising in the 1950s-1960s and eventually conquering the world's marketplaces with its automobiles and advanced consumer electronic products to become the world's second largest economy after the United States. This was followed by the rise of the Asian Tigers, which included South Korea, Taiwan and the British colony of Hong Kong, who overcame war and poverty to achieve unprecedented growth rates during the 1970s-1980s, earning their places among the world's richest economies. Today, South Korea and Taiwan are among the world leaders in consumer technology, while Hong Kong remains a leading financial center of the world. More changes were to come at the end of the 20th century, with China regaining control of the British and Portuguese colonies of Hong Kong and Macau respectively, and China also abandoning a hardline Communist policy to introduce market-oriented reforms. Economic reforms by Deng Xiaoping have allowed China to develop rapidly, making it one of the world's fastest growing economies. While the larger cities near the coast like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou have grown to become rich and modern, much of the country still suffers from poverty and current president Hu Jintao has pledged to modernise the more inland parts of the country, though whether or not China can rise from the ashes to achieve its past glories during the Han and Tang dynasties remains to be seen. Pretty much the only exception to East Asia's economic success is North Korea, which has refused market-oriented reforms and continues to adopt a hardline Stalinist policy to this day.
The Most Frequently Asked Travel Questions about East Asia
Where To Stay & Best Hotels in East Asia - updated Mar 2023
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