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Borrowing From China A. D. 587 – 838

PRINCE SHOTOKU was pleased to see his fellow aristocrats take to his chosen faith so enthusiastically. He wanted them to adopt other ways of living from China, too. Having seen how the Sui emperors had reunified China after three and a half centuries of disorder, he was particularly eager for Japan to copy their strong central government.

In 603 and 604, Shotoku adopted the Chinese calendar, issued a constitution and set up a new civil service system. In the constitution, he left no room for doubt as to the emperor’s supreme position. “A country does not have two lords,” he wrote, “and the people do not have two masters.” His civil service plan, or “court rank system,” was revolutionary. It did away with the government posts held by noblemen who had inherited them from their fathers. In their place it set up twelve ranks of officials to be appointed by the emperor from among the most worthy noblemen he could find. Each rank was named after one of the virtues which Confucius had praised: harmony, sincerity, diligence, and so on.

To make his countrymen thoroughly familiar with Chinese ways, the prince sent missions to the Sui court in 607, 608 and 614. The first group carried a message from “the Son of Heaven in the the land where the sun rises” to “the Son of Heaven in the land where the sun sets.” The next group bore greetings from “the Emperor of the East” to “the Emperor of the West.” Such language struck the Sui emperors as highly impudent, coming from a race of “dwarfs.” Their successors, the T’ang emperors, felt the same way, but the Japanese kept sending missions. Although Prince Shotoku died in 622, thirteen more missions went to China between 630 and 838.

Most of the missions consisted of about five hundred men. They included students of all kinds — young Buddhist monks, scholars of the Chinese classics, painters, musicians and junior government officials. After staying in China for a year or longer, they returned to teach their countrymen what they had learned.

The first missions took ships to Korea and from there traveled overland on horseback. Before long, however, the rulers of Korea became unfriendly and Korean waters were no longer safe for Japanese ships. The missions had to sail directly to China, five hundred miles away, across a stretch of ocean that was often lashed by winds and storms. Lacking compasses or other aids to navigation, the voyagers were in constant danger. Many a ship went down with all hands. Even so, the voyages brought Japan such tremendous benefits that its rulers were quite willing to take the risks and pay the high costs.

Prince Shotoku died before he could rebuild the Japanese government along Chinese lines. He had planted his dream in the minds of other men and between 710 and 784 his dream became a reality. That period was called the Nara Period, after the country’s first permanent capital.

The Nara government was a small-scale copy of the T’ang government. It differed from its model, though, in some ways. Since Japan was cut off by sea from all of its possible enemies, it needed an army only to keep order at home, so the army was small and the generals had little power. Since the aristocrats felt that they alone had the right to govern, the Japanese did not take over the Chinese examination system. Even the officials of the lower court rank were of noble birth.


During the eighth century, the duties of the emperor finally came to be such a burden that the emperors began to resign as soon as their heirs were old enough to take over. As retired emperors they could live in luxury, honoured by everyone, without having to go through the endless rituals that made up an emperor’s life. There was another reason, too, why they retired early. For some time the emperors had ceased to be anything but figureheads. Real power belonged to others — to older relatives, power-hungry officials and well-connected members of the court who knew how to get what they wanted.

Emperors who reigned but did not rule were to be typical of Japan from the Nara Period on. Once in a great while an unusually forceful man would come to the throne. Such a man was the emperor Kammu, who reigned from 791 to 806. After three years in office‚ he had had enough of being told what to do by the Buddhist priests whose temples ringed the capital. To get away from them, he built a new capital, called Heian.

Heian was soon better known as Kyoto. It was to remain the capital of Japan until 1867. It was laid out like a checkerboard, with streets running north and south and avenues running east and west. There were no foreign enemies to be feared, no city walls were built and Kyoto’s appearance was much like that of a modern city.
Kyoto became Japan’s first real city, with a population in the tens of thousands. Its growth was proof that the attempt to create a strong central government was succeeding. For the people who moved to Kyoto did so for only one reason: the city was the national center of power and wealth. The mounting splendour of the imperial court showed that the tax system which worked so well in T’ang China was also working well in Japan.

Japan’s political and economic progress from the seventh to the ninth centuries was remarkable. Its cultural progress was even more so. At first, Japanese sculptors, painters, architects and craftsmen copied Buddhist works brought from Korea or turned out by Korean immigrants. By the eighth century, they were copying directly from Chinese models. Then they began to create works of great beauty which were purer Japanese, without any trace of foreign influence.

Unlike Korean or Chinese sculptors, Japanese sculptors rarely worked in stone. Instead, they used bronze‚ wood, day and lacquer. The best-known early Japanese work of sculpture is the Great Buddha of Nara, finished in 749. This seated figure, fifty-three feet high, took a million pounds of copper, tin and lead to complete. A quarter of a ton of gold went into gilding its surface.

Buddhism affected much more than art and religion. It was opposed to killing people and animals, the Japanese began to banish criminals instead of executing them and to give up eating meat. In many different ways, Buddhism made Japanese life less cruel than it had been. The scholars of Japan were also influenced by Buddhist ideas. What interested them more was Chinese literature as a whole, whether Buddhist, Confucian, or Taoist. Their task, as they saw it, was to make this vast collection of learning available to their countrymen. It was a tall order. Although most educated Japanese could speak, read and write Chinese, there was still no way of writing Japanese.

Having borrowed so much else from China, the Japanese naturally borrowed the Chinese “idea pictures” in their first attempts to write their own language. The ability to write good Chinese and make Chinese characters with brush and ink came to be the mark of an educated man in Japan, just as it was in China. The Chinese rated poetry highly, the Japanese did, too. As in other arts, they proved to be not just good imitators but clever and original in their own right.

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