At the beginning of the 16th century, the peoples of Asia remained relatively isolated from the other regions of the world. There was some contact between Asia and the rest of the world as ideas, inventions, and some goods, crops, and animals were shared along the Silk Road. But the Asian world of emerging state forms and culture was shaped almost entirely on its own, led by Chinese Confucian patterns and world view.

As agricultural civilization developed in China, Confucianism emerged as the most effective long-term stabilizer of centralized rule. Starting with the Han era (206 BCE – 220 CE), Confucianism legitimized emperor rule as carried out by (ideally) skilled, trustworthy officials providing the masses with at least some expectation of decent treatment. By the time of the Tang dynasty (618-906 CE), the emerging system of government exams rewarded the best Confucianists with government office while providing limited social mobility. It should also be noted that Confucianism crystallized what was typical all emerging more complex Civilizations – that is, women’s subordinate status. In China, upper-class men were allowed multiple wives and concubines. Women were expected to remain in the home. Their lives revolved around service to their husbands and sons. Perhaps no practice more epitomizes the subordination of women in China than that of foot-binding which emerged among high elites in the Song dynasty (960-1279 CE) and was continued in the Ming dynasty.


A photograph of a Chinese woman with bound feet (Source: Wikimedia)

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Learn more about the practice of footbinding by reading this article in the Smithsonian magazine.

As Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and other states worked towards greater central power elsewhere in Asia, they often adopted the main legitimizing outlines of Confucian rule – usually with the exception that high office usually went only to aristocrats, without the social mobility aspect of Chinese Confucianism. Eventually this led to what Western historians have called China’s Tribute System – the practice of “junior” East Asian Confucian states sending “tribute” missions to express respect to the “senior” font of Confucianism. Over the centuries this worked well for those states, since such missions brought enhanced trade opportunities and the promise of Chinese help if they faced serious military threat. In return, China was the political center of a stable larger world of states friendly, and somewhat beholden to the Chinese state.

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Watch Crash Course in World History #7 to be introduced to the major events, persons, and themes of Chinese history.

CHINA (Ming Dynasty)

The Ming Dynasty continued to rule China in the 16th century and political power was concentrated in the person of the emperor and his imperial Confucian bureaucracy. The focus of state activities was on repairing the damage done by the Mongol invasion of previous centuries. Most importantly, in the 16th century, Ming China was in the midst of a commercial and urban revolution. The introduction of silver in the latter half of the century brought new prosperity to the nation. The Ming attempted to isolate China from Western cultural influences while remaining open to trade. Originally European merchants had few manufactured products of interest to Chinese traders, so they paid in silver for the many Chinese products that were strongly desired in the West. The increasing flow of silver to China both depleted European stocks and inflated currency in China. More importantly, the increased trade in silver allowed a prosperous merchant class to form. Several merchant clans, such as the Huai and Jin, amassed large amounts of wealth. With more wealth they could better educate sons to pass the Confucian exams and join the scholar elite.

The Chinese economy became monetized as silver was used as the medium of exchange in both formal and informal economic transactions. In this way, China became enmeshed in the early modern world economy, on terms that were favorable to its merchant and ruling class. Increasingly dependent on silver imported by both the Portuguese and Spanish, the Chinese opened two ports to trade the tea, silk, and fine porcelain wealthy Europeans wanted. Commerce was stimulated by silver from the Americas, received in payment for these Chinese exports. The thriving of trade and commerce was aided by the construction of canals, roads, and bridges by the Ming government.

Although silver was the chief import to China, the Spanish also introduced new crops to the Chinese diet. These included sweet potatoes, maize, and peanuts. These high nutrition foods could be cultivated in lands where traditional Chinese staple crops—wheat, millet, and rice—could not grow. The new food sources facilitated a significant rise in the population of China. The Ming also imported many European firearms, with the aim of increasing the modernity of their weapons.

Literature, poetry, and painting flourished during the Ming dynasty, especially in the economically prosperous lower Yangtze valley. Yuan Hongdao and his two brothers, Yuan Zongdao (1560–1600) and Yuan Zhongdao (1570–1623), were the founders of the Gong’an School of letters known for its intense sensual lyricism, which was also apparent in Ming vernacular novels such as the Jin Ping Mei (The Plum in the Golden Vase). The new popular romantic literature was especially loved by members of the nobility, merchant class, and scholar-officials who began to seek courtesans as soulmates to reenact the heroic love stories that arranged marriages often could not provide or accommodate.


A porcelain vase from the 16th century (Ming China) Source: Wikimedia

Ming China in the 16th century was also renowned for ceramics and fine porcelains. Imperial kilns at Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province and Dehua in Fujian province served as the major production centers. The Dehua porcelain factories catered to European tastes by creating Chinese export porcelain. Carved designs in lacquerware and designs glazed onto porcelain wares displayed intricate scenes similar in complexity to those in painting. These items could be found in the homes of the wealthy, alongside embroidered silks and wares in jade, ivory, and cloisonné. The houses of the rich were also furnished with rosewood furniture and feathery latticework.


In the 16th century, Li Shizhen wrote his Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing (Compendium of Materia Medica), which contained information about the medicinal use of over 1,200 herbs. There are many medical adaptations from Chinese medicine in the western world, including iron for anemia, castor oil, lanolin, camphor, chaulmoogra oil, ephedra vulgaris and a method of inoculation with smallpox matter for immunization against that disease.

Excerpts from Li Shizhen Compendium:

The Compendium is a medical text with 1,892 entries, with details about more than 1,800 drugs, including 1,100 illustrations and 11,000 prescriptions. The first draft was completed in 1578. The following is an example of the information contained with this book:

ShiDan (Cuprus Sulphate) is sour and a little cold. It mainly brightens the eyes and treats eye pain, incised wounds, and all kinds of epilepsy and tetany. It treats genital erosion and pain in females, stone strangury, cold and heat flooding and precipitation of blood, and various kinds of evil and toxic qi. It makes pregnancy possible. Its other name is Bi Shi (Green Stone). It is produced in mountains and valleys.

Shi Zhong (Stalactitum) is sweet and warm. It mainly treats cough and counterflow qi ascent. It brightens the eyes, boosts the essence, quiets the five viscera, frees the hundreds of joints, disinhibits the nine orifices, and promotes lactation. It is produced in mountains and valleys.

Read an English translation of Shizhen’s book (from which these examples were taken).


By 1500, both Confucianism and imperial rule had been a part of Japan’s political culture for perhaps a thousand years. Early on the ambitious Yamato clan increased its power by imitating China’s centralizing imperial Confucian governments, although without any real opportunity for social mobility by non-aristocrats. By the 12th century, aristocratic elites were losing real power to regional warrior clans, who then created the unique Shogunal system by which the emperors were said to have “delegated” real power to what eventually became three successive ruling warrior “Shoguns.”


A 16th century map of Japan (Source: Wikimedia)

In the 16th century, the second line of Shogunal warrior rulers, the Ashikaga (r. 1336–1573), gradually lost power and influence. They were replaced by a final form of Shogunal rule which combined aspects of Confucianism with more traditional Japanese warrior ideology. Powerful warlords known as Daimyo fought one another for political power and control during a time period called the “Age of Warring States.” From 1467 to 1615, Japanese history is characterized by civil war, social upheaval, and political intrigue. During this period, although the emperor was recognized the official ruler of the nation, his power was largely ceremonial. The warlords possessed real power. This was the situation when, during the second half of the 16th century, Japan reunified under three powerful warlords, Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Oda Nobunaga is usually described by historians in unflattering terms.  It is certainly true that he was brutal in his treatment of those who opposed him.  In his rise to power, he destroyed many Buddhist temples, burning their ancient libraries and murdering monks and their supporters.  On the other hand, Nobunaga was an efficient administrator who established a pattern of loose, feudal rule over semi-autonomous regions.  He also disarmed the peasantry and thus institutionalized the political and social division between the samurai class (who were permitted to carry swords) and the rest of the Japanese population.

Japan’s first significant contacts with Europeans occurred in the 16th century.  In 1543, Portuguese ships arrived in Japan. It was the logical end point of a route that had taken them around the coast of Africa, eastward through the Indian Ocean, and into the Pacific. They wished to trade. They also wished to win converts for the Roman Catholic Church, as they had done elsewhere in Asia. The Portuguese were soon followed by the Spanish in 1549, and on the heels of the Portuguese and Spanish came the Dutch and the English. These last two nations, however, were less interested in religion than in profit.

The Jesuit priests brought by the Spanish and Portuguese aggressively sought to gain converts to the Catholic faith. In 1549, the Jesuit missionary, Francis Xavier, arrived in Japan. Those like Gaspar Vilela, who arrived in Japan in 1556, often learned the Japanese language so they could communicate directly with converts. By 1600, more than 100,000 Japanese had become Roman Catholics, and half the Jesuits serving in Japan were Japanese. Nagasaki, on the southern island of Kyushu, was the most Christianized community in Japan and had ten churches. Although most samurai were not interested in becoming Roman Catholics, they were nevertheless interested in something else the Europeans had to offer—guns. Many daimyos became Christian or offered the missionaries support in an effort to obtain weapons and gunpowder to assist them in their battles with rival samurai.

Guns had a great impact on Japanese warfare even though they were difficult to aim and slow to reload. One gun did not give its possessor an advantage in battle over opponents armed with swords, pikes, or lances. However, when soldiers massed together and groups of them fired in succession, as Europeans fought, they could easily defeat those armed with traditional Japanese weapons. Oda Nobunaga made use of this new style of fighting. In 1575, at the Battle of Nagashino, he and his vassal Tokugawa Ieyasu used companies of samurai armed with European guns to defeat the warriors of the Takeda clan. By 1582, the year he was assassinated by one of his vassals, Oda Nobunaga had unified the central portion of the main Japanese island of Honshu, including the area surrounding Kyoto, the seat of the emperor.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who became the new ruler of Japan,, had served Oda Nobunaga until his death and continued his policies as leader.  In the 1590s, he consolidated his powerful hold over Japan by forcing all the daimyos in Japan to declare their loyalty to him.  His authority was based on a system which combined both punishment and rewards.  Those who supported him and accepted his leadership were richly rewarded with assets taken from those who opposed him.  Hideyoshi, recognizing that the system was sustainable only as long as there were those who opposed him, authorized the invasion of Korea in 1592 and again in 1597.  The purpose of these invasions was to give his supporters new opportunities to profit from their support of his leadership.  Even though these attempts were unsuccessful, they reveal a practice that reappears frequently in modern Asian history.  In the modern period, Asian states have  attempted to deal with domestic discontent by authorizing military activity overseas.  In the case of Japan, as we will see again when we look at the 19th and 20th centuries, the first target has usually been Korea.

Hideyoshi was also concerned about the activities of Christian missionaries whose loyalty he suspected.  A devout Buddhist, he disapproved of Christians’ eating of cattle and horses and was horrified by the destruction of Buddhist temples and objects of worship by some overly zealous converts, acts in which Gaspar Vilela had participated. In 1587, Hideyoshi ordered Christian missionaries to leave Japan. The edict was not enforced, but the Jesuits, alarmed, asked Christian daimyos to help them attack the shogun, which they refused to do. In 1590, the Jesuits in Japan resolved instead to refrain from intervening in Japanese affairs, but they secretly continued to provide funds for Christian daimyos.

In 1598 he died, leaving his five-year-old son Hideyori to inherit his position. However, the five-member council that was to rule until Hideyori came of age was soon divided, and the two sides made war upon each other. In 1600, Tokugawa Ieyasu, a vassal of Hideyoshi, defeated his opponents at the Battle of Sekigahara, and he became shogun in 1603.


Indonesia consists of thousands of islands stretching south of continental Southeast Asia and east towards the north shore of Australia Indonesian culture was shaped by the cultures of India (Hinduism and Buddhism) and then later increasingly by Islam, especially from the 13th century on. Over the 1st millenia, many different states and even empires flourished. Trade was always important, thanks to the area’s location along trading sea lanes and it’s proximity to a number of prosperous civilizations.

By the early 1600s, Islam had become the dominant religion in the Indian Ocean, and only on the island of Bali was Hindu influence still substantial. On Java, the home of the Hindu-Buddhist Majapahit Empire, the adoption of Islam was marked by warfare between Muslims living on the coast and Hindus and animists (people who worship the supernatural power they believe exists in all things in the universe) in the interior. For the most part, however, conversion was peaceful. Merchants were especially eager to convert in order to connect themselves with the established network of merchants in India, Persia, Arabia, and Africa who followed the same faith. They could then also count on the protections of Islamic law. Sufi religious teachers were amenable to adapting Islam to local religious traditions, allowing people in some regions to continue worshiping nature spirits and permitting women to retain an active role in local commerce, as was common in Southeast Asia.


A 19th century map of Indonesia (Source: Wikimedia)


In the 16th century, Portuguese built trading posts on the Indonesian islands of Java and Borneo to consolidate their far eastern trade. Although still not representing enough military or political power to be directly threatening to established states, by the end of the 16th century, the Dutch made their appearance and built a warehouse to facilitate trade on Sumatra. The Spaniards established themselves in the city of Manila in the Philippines. Manila became the center of their commercial efforts in Asia as the Spanish exchanged Mexican silver for Chinese silk with ships sailing back and forth from Acapulco to Manila on a regular basis after 1572.


At the beginning of the 16th century, the world of Southeast Asia was both prosperous and fragile.  Merchants flocked to its markets to gather the region’s unique spices (such as nutmeg, and cloves) as well as its precious woods, resins, and oils.  Arab merchants carried Southeast Asian goods to Europe where they attracted great interest and prompted Europeans to begin to strategize to find a way to access these goods and avoid the Arab middle-men.  The Portuguese were the first to arrive.  By 1511,  they had captured Melaka, the richest commercial city in Southeast Asia.  Other Europeans followed.  Southeast Asian rulers were open to trade, and established opportunistic relations with Europeans from whom they bought guns.  They also enlisted their services as mercenaries and advisors.


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