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Asian Studies. Christianity, Nationalism, and Chineseness Research Paper

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Updated: May 12th, 2021

Christian missions in Japan in the early modern period

In 1549, Francis Xavier, a Navarrese Jesuit, arrived in Kagoshima in the company of a samurai whom he had baptized. Though banal, this episode marked the beginning of the Christianization of Japan, an attempt that had uncertain outcomes and lasted 65 years. In 1614, the Shogunate ordered the expulsion of all the Christian missionaries, and further efforts to reinstate some relationships between religious orders and Japan proved unsuccessful. Ucerler offers a historical report on the Christian colonization, but he does not deepen the reasons for what can be defined as a failure.

The Christianization of Japan was a prerogative of the crown of Portugal, which aimed at establishing a profitable trade and at preaching the Christian faith to the native people (Ucerler, 304). The missionaries found a highly advanced civilization, rooted in the Buddhist tradition, and were dominated by different clans fighting each other for supremacy. Through a series of events, Ucerler traces the vicissitudes of the first missionaries, their efforts to establish missions, the persecutions, and the last ban.

However, the cultural differences are not highlighted sufficiently, to the extent that it seems that some events were the result of casualness, as in the episode that took place in Kyoto in 1596 (Ucerler, 323). Also, while the importance of Vallignano is correctly underlined (Urceler, 313), the reaction of the European culture to his vision is not clear. A more in-depth analysis of the coeval Japanese civilization and of the blindness of the European reigns towards an advanced peer society would have provided a more comprehensive framework. (Word count: 256)

Proto-nationalism in premodern Korea

In his work on the rise of national awareness in premodern Korea, Duncan tries to clarify what defines the idea of proto-nationalism, and how it can be applied to the Korean case. The author analyzes the subject through the lenses of four areas: language, ethnicity, religion, and state (Duncan, 201-202). The lack of specific sources, the convulsed history of Korea, and the difficulty of identifying a clear population sample make the task arduous, with no definitive conclusion.

Throughout the text, the importance of the elite class of the yangban emerges. The yangban looked at China as a reference point both as regards the language and the religion, speaking classical Chinese and practicing Confucianism (Duncan, 202; Duncan, 210). However, the transnational character of Confucianism and the existence of an elite language suggest that the mainstream of the population could not understand Chinese and other practices were followed besides Confucianism. Moreover, Duncan himself (210) is aware of the difficulty of classifying Confucianism as a traditional religion, making one of the pillars of his reasoning waver.

After having analyzed the organizational, educational, and ritual aspects during the Koriǒ and Chǒson dynasties, Duncan suggests that these activities might have raised a sense of identity among the broader community in Korea (Duncan, 221). The scarcity of sources forces the author to remain in the field of suppositions, but, the biggest shortcoming of the text is the willingness of applying categories drawn from western historiography to a reality not comparable to any Western civilization. (Word count: 249)

International relationships between Ming China, Chosŏn Korea, and Japan

Understanding the relationships between Ming China, Chosŏn Korea, and Japan is a complex task, that requires knowledge that goes beyond the mere historical facts. First, it is paramount to understand the nature of Ming China and the construct of Chineseness, or central efflorescence, that has permeated Chinese history since the Han dynasty. Secondly, this idea needs to be contextualized in the social and geographical scenario of East Asia, where Chosŏn Korea, Japan, and Ryukyu had created a series of independent tributary relationships within the broader system ruled by China (Robinson, 109). Notably, these relationships mimicked the rules, style, and mode of the Chinese framework.

Chineseness refers to an atemporal set of cultural values dating back to the Huan dynasty and representing the core of the Chinese civilization. From this perspective, China was not a mere geographical location, but a sort of over-category that permeated the spread of Chinese culture, considered central and superior and opposed to the non-Chinese traditions of the barbarian populations both outside and within the empire.

Chineseness influenced the neighboring civilities, including Japan and Korea deeply (Yonglin, 37). Seizing this influence requires a full understanding of the complex system of rituals, recognition, and prestige that underpinned the political and commercial relationships among the Chinese empire and its tributaries. When Ming China and the neighboring nations established regular exchanges of emissaries and set a system of tributes, the interactions followed specific rituals based on the respective hierarchical status (Kim, 3). The recognition was crucial for all the involved parts, as it placed them within a framework where the level of civilization was the determinant to set the political and bargaining power.

In feudal Japan, for example, diplomacy and relationships with the Chinese imperial court played a crucial role in drawing the political map. The investiture process in which China gave the title of king in exchange for gifts and tribute could lead to the supremacy of one or another state, as in the case of the Yamato during the early seventh century (Kim, 4). Being recognized as a king meant having gained the status of a civilized nation that had managed to reach a certain degree of Chineseness, a condition that provided prestige and benefits. On the other hand, the same recognition gave the imperial Chinese court sense of identity and self-awareness.

The concept of central efflorescence and the distinction among civilized and barbarian populations was so important that when the Ming empire fell, both Japan and Korea did not accept the sovereignty of the Qing dynasty, which lacked Chineseness to the eyes of the aristocracy of the two nations (Kim 2-3).

Japan affirmed the centrality of its own Chineseness and started a tribute system independent from Chinese influence. The Chosŏn Korea was too close to the military power of China to make itself free, and the cultural shock among the aristocratic yangban was deep. The Korean society was profoundly shaped upon the Ming model, to the extent that it was known as the Small China (Yonglin, 38). To the Korean elite, Chineseness had died with the seizing of the power by the Qing, and the Chosŏn Korea felt deprived of the power that had validated its Chineseness.

Ming Chinese culture and the idea of Chineseness were the main influences on pre-modern East Asia, and they provided the models for shaping the protocols of international relationships among Korea, Japan, and Ryukyu. The analysis of the diplomatic interactions among these nations and the flourishing of a parallel system of tributes among these states offer further cues on the complexity of East Asia and on the development of trade routes, on the complexity of the etiquette in diplomatic ceremonials, on the phenomenon of repatriation, and on the requests of Sutras.

More remarkably, these tributary activities were concealed from the imperial view, showing that Korea, Japan, and Ryukyu created some alternatives to the Sinocentric model of international relationships (Robinson, 109). All these activities occurred within a maritime region between the Bering Strait to the Malacca Strait.

While Korea Japan and Ryukyu considered the Chinese emperor as hierarchically superior, they looked at each other as equal, as they had all been received the emperor’s investiture as king. They engaged in several diplomatic missions, creating an intricate system of relationships, trade, and rites. The Chosŏn Korea, for example, established diplomatic ties with almost thirty embassies, and each relation followed an own protocol, tailored to the status of the counterpart (Robinson, 110).

The Chosŏn court developed a scale of importance of the missions, with three grades of handling the envoys. Each category followed a specific and precise set of ceremonials, where the reception, entertainment, and trade regulations varied depending on the hierarchical status.

Besides legitimating and enforcing hierarchy, this dense net of relationships had the merit of regulating trade and discouraging piracy. Repatriation of castaways and former captives was a common practice among Korea, Japan, and Ryukyu, and should be interpreted as a willingness of improving peaceful trade while discouraging piracy (Robinson, 112). Another common activity was the search and request for Buddhist Sutras.

This practice was not regulated by the same rites and rules of the diplomatic missions but followed a parallel path: an envoy that was not eligible for a certain level of ceremonials was not even worthy of asking and getting Sutras. Finally, this complex system of recognition and privileges arose a series of an attempt of exploiting tributary relations through false missions, improving the opportunities of trade.


In pre-modern East Asia, the idea of central efflorescence was the core of a Sinocentric system and influenced the development of nations like Korea, Japan, and Ryukyu. Chineseness was a category that went far beyond the border of the empire, becoming a model to adhere to and to aspire to get recognition: in the intricate system of rites and ceremonies that characterized the international relationships more Chineseness meant higher status and more privileges. However, the rise of parallel models of diplomatic boundaries among East Asia countries shows the attempt of eluding imperial control. (Word count: 1000)

Works Cited

Yonglin, Jiang, “Thinking About Ming China Anew: The Ethnocultural Space in a Diverse Empire – With Special Reference to the Miao Territory,” Journal of Chinese History, vol. 2, n. 1, 2018. Web.

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