Research Update: Confucianism in Asia

Zhengyuan Ling

Advisor: Professor Eric C. Han

Research Questions

  1. When and how did ethnocentrism arise in Japan?

Thesis 1: I argued in the previous draft thesis that Japanese ethnocentrism arisen after the Meiji Restoration in 1868 C.E. Japanese radical nationalism and aggressive militarism became prominent after the fully centralization of state politics and the reformation of military and industry.

Thesis 2*: Japan was more obedient to China and the tribute system when Confucian scholars dominated the bureaucracy and when Confucian principles were popular in political and social spheres. Japanese central court believed that the conventional international order of East Asian cultural sphere collapsed with the Ming-China under the Manchu iron heels.

*new thesis: the inversion of Hua (civilized)-Yi (barbarian) relations between Qing-China and Japan signaled the origin of Japanese ethnocentrism. Japanese Confucian scholars challenged the Sinocentrism oriented around China and proposed a new East Asian order under Japan’s leadership.

To understand the origin of ethnocentrism in the Japanese diplomatic perspective, it’s vital to define and analyze the conventional international relations within the East Asian cultural sphere (nowadays China, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, and Southeast Asian states). I argue that Confucian ideologies shaped the conventional East Asian diplomatic relations.


  1. What was Japan’s political ideology and diplomatic perspective before the Manchurian invasion of Ming-China? How did the Manchurian invasion of China affect Japan?

Classical Japan (Asuka, Nara, and Heian periods; 538-1158 C.E.):

Japan admired China’s political stability, economic prosperity, and cultural frugality. Therefore, Japan dispatched diplomatic delegations to acquire political system, educational ideology, and religious doctrine from China. China’s political system had been the model of the Japanese counterpart between Sui and Tang Dynasties, when Japanese emperors desired to establish centralized regime alike China.

The political and cultural system in China had been the model of the Japanese counterpart. The Japanese central government dispatched groups of Kensuishi and Kentoshi to Sui and Tang-China. These diplomatic, academic, and also religious delegations introduced Chinese educational ideology, political system, and religious doctrine to Japan. The first Japanese delegation arrived in Sui-China in 600 C.E., and the visit was terminated in 894 C.E. due to domestic turmoil in Tang-China.

The first wave of Japanese adoption of Chinese civilization occurred before the Taika Reform in 645 C.E. The Japanese imperial court led by Emperor Kotoku aimed to establish a centralized state following the model of Tang-China. Prince Shotoku visited Tang-China and introduced Chinese political and judiciary systems, which were implemented in the Taika Reform. The sovereign of Japan was recognized by Tang-China as the “King of Japan (nihhon-kokuo)”. Taika reform’s achievements were codified in the Taiho Code in 703 C.E.

The use of Chinese governance system was ceased in the Heian period, when sekkan seiji of clan rivalries revived and re-dominated the Japanese politics.

Medieval Japan (Kamakura, Muromachi, and Azuchi-Momoyama periods; 1185-1603 C.E.):

Mongols conquered the Song Dynasty of China and invaded Japan but failed twice. Kamakura Shogunate defended Japan from the Mongol invasions and denied the demand to join the East Asian system under Mongol manipulation.

The third shogun of the Ashikaga Shogunate, Ashikaga Yoshimutsu, was entitled the “King of Japan” by the Jianwen Emperor of the Ming Dynasty in 1401. Yoshimutsu’s title was reaffirmed by the Yongle Emperor, who usurped his nephew’s crown in 1402. The Yongle Emperor was pleased about the visiting Japanese diplomatic missions (kenminshi) and reaffirmed the title of Ashikaga Shogun. This ritual continued in the Muromachi period.

While Kenmu Restoration didn’t affect the Sino-Japanese relations, therefore the era would not be discussed.

Pre-modern Japan (Edo period; 1603-1868 C.E.):

Though Qing-Dynasty emperors adopted sinicization of Manchu governance and embraced the Confucian governance. Tokugawa Shogunate disregarded Qing-China as a civilized state. Japanese Confucian scholars persuaded the Shogun to abdicate as the “King of Japan”, as this title should belong to the Emperor. The possession of the title by the Shogunate disrespected the hierarchical doctrine embraced by the Confucian scholars.

Hayashi Goho and Hayashi Hoko argued for the inversion of the Hua-Yi dichotomy (Hua-Yi hentai). Yamaga Soko argued the dominance of Japan in the East Asian cultural sphere in his Chucho Jijitsu. Japanese Confucian scholars in the Edo period urged Japan to substitute China as the cradle of civilization among the world.

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