Asia in the Middle Ages

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The Tang Dynasty (618-907)

Tang Dynasty map

The Tang dynasty was an imperial dynasty of China that ruled from 618 to 907, with an interregnum between 690 and 705 when the Empress Wu Zetian seized the throne. Generally regarded as a golden age of Chinese culture, it was founded by the Lǐ family, who seized power during the decline and collapse of the previous (Sui) dynasty.

The word interregnum comes from the Latin inter, meaning between, and the regnum, meaning kingship. realm, or rule.

The “reg” in regnum comes from an older root word meaning move in a straight line with derivative words meaning to direct in a straight line/ to lead/rule.

Some words with “reg” as a root:

Henry: Ruler of the house

Regime: System of government rule

Incorrigible: Not able to be ruled

Eldritch: Otherworldly (beyond the realm)

Although she entered Emperor Gaozong’s court as the lowly consort Wu Wei Liang, Wu Zetian rose to the highest seat of power in 690, establishing the short-lived Zhou Dynasty (which lasted only 15 years).

Empress Wu’s rise to power was achieved through cruel and calculating tactics: a popular conspiracy theory stated that she killed her own baby girl and blamed it on Gaozong’s empress so that the empress would be demoted. When the Emperor suffered a stroke, Wu began to make many of his court decisions for him, discussing affairs of state with his councilors, who took orders from her while she sat behind a screen. When Empress Wu’s eldest son, the crown prince, began to assert his authority and advocate policies opposed by Empress Wu, he suddenly died in 675.

Empress Wu (Wu Zetian), the sole officially recognized empress regnant of China in more than two millennia, She first ruled through her husband and sons for almost three decades and then called herself emperor and will rule for another fifteen years.
Empress Wu (Wu Zetian), the sole officially recognized empress regnant of China in more than two millennia, She first ruled through her husband and sons for almost three decades and then called herself emperor and will rule for another fifteen years.

Many suspected he was poisoned by his mother. Although the next heir apparent kept a lower profile, in 680 he was accused by Wu of plotting a rebellion and was banished. (He was later obliged to commit suicide.)

An eventual palace coup forced Empress Wu to yield her position. The next day, her son Zhongzong was restored to power and the Tang Dynasty was formally restored

Historians generally regard the Tang as a high point in Chinese civilization, and a golden age of cosmopolitan culture. Tang territory, acquired through the military campaigns of its early rulers, rivaled that of the Han dynasty.

Through use of the land trade along the Silk Road and maritime trade by sail at sea, the Tang were able to acquire and gain many new technologies, cultural practices, rare luxury, and contemporary items.

You don’t need to watch the entire length of the next video. I recommend stopping when the narration (in Chinese) starts.

The Tang Dynasty after 820 experienced lots of palace intrigue and assassination plots by eunuchs. Around 860, groups of bandits the size of small armies ravaged the countryside. Amid the sacking of cities and murderous factional strife among eunuchs and officials, the top tier of aristocratic families, which had amassed a large fraction of the landed wealth and official positions, were wiped out. In 904 Zhu Wen, originally a salt smuggler and now a powerful warlord, controlled the imperial court and assassinated the emperor. In 907 the Tang dynasty was ended when Zhu deposed the previous emperor’s young son and took the throne for himself.

China would be in a period of political upheaval and division for the next 72 years in what is known as the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period until the Song Dynasty reunified the empire.

The Song Dynasty (960-1270s)

China during the Northern Song Dynasty
China during the Northern Song Dynasty
Song dynasty poet Li Qingzhao

The Song Dynasty began in 960 and lasted until 1279 (319 years). The Song often came into conflict with the contemporaneous Liao, Western Xia and Jin dynasties to its north (see the map above).

The Song government was the first in world history to issue banknotes or true paper money nationally and the first Chinese government to establish a permanent standing navy. This dynasty also saw the first known use of gunpowder, as well as the first discernment of true north using a compass. In north China, the main fuel source for ceramic kilns and iron furnaces shifted from wood to coal. This made the job a lot faster because coal burns quicker.

The population of China doubled in size during the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries. This growth was made possible by expanded rice cultivation in central and southern Song, the use of early-ripening rice from south-east and southern Asia, and the production of widespread food surpluses. The Northern Song census recorded 20 million households, double of the Han and Tang dynasties.

This dramatic increase of population fomented an economic revolution in pre-modern China.

The expansion of the population, growth of cities, and the emergence of a national economy led to the gradual withdrawal of the central government from direct involvement in economic affairs. Merchants engaged in overseas trade through investments in trading vessels and trade which reached ports as far away as East Africa. Combined with a unified tax system and efficient trade routes by road and canal, this meant the development of a truly nationwide market.

These changes made China a global leader, leading some historians to call this an “early modern” economy many centuries before Western Europe made its breakthrough. The Song dynasty had one of the most prosperous and advanced economies in the medieval world. Many of these economic gains were lost, however, in the succeeding Yuan dynasty.

Social life during the Song was vibrant. Citizens gathered to view and trade precious artworks, the populace intermingled at public festivals and private clubs, and cities had lively entertainment quarters. The spread of literature and knowledge was enhanced by the rapid expansion of woodblock printing and the 11th-century invention of movable-type printing. Technology, science, philosophy, mathematics, and engineering flourished over the course of the Song.

People enjoyed various social clubs and entertainment in the cities, and there were many schools and temples to provide the people with education and religious services. The Song government supported social welfare programs including the establishment of retirement homes, public clinics, and paupers’ graveyards. The Song dynasty supported a widespread postal service to provide swift communication throughout the empire. The central government employed thousands of postal workers of various ranks to provide service for post offices and larger postal stations. In rural areas, farming peasants either owned their own plots of land, paid rents as tenant farmers, or were serfs on large estates.

There were many notable and well-educated women, and it was a common practice for women to educate their sons during their earliest youth. There were also exceptional women writers and poets, such as Li Qingzhao (1084–1151), who became famous even in her lifetime and is considered one of the greatest poets in Chinese history.

I always remember the sunset
over the pavilion by the river.
So tipsy, we could not find our way home.

Our interest exhausted, the evening late,
we tried to turn the boat homeward.
By mistake, we entered deep within the lotus bed.
Row! Row the boat!
A flock of herons, frightened,
suddenly flew skyward.

-Li Qingzhao

The visual arts during the Song dynasty were heightened by new developments such as advances in landscape and portrait painting.

Double Happiness by Cui Bai
Double Happiness by Cui Bai
Cats in the Garden, by Mao Yi
Cats in the Garden, by Mao Yi

Song restaurant and tavern menus are recorded. They list entrées for feasts, banquets, festivals, and carnivals. They reveal a diverse and lavish diet for those of the upper class. Diners could choose from a wide variety of meats and seafood, including shrimp, geese, duck, mussel, shellfish, fallow deer, hare, partridge, pheasant, francolin, quail, fox, badger, clam, crab, and many others.

“How do you make a bowl of delicious Song Dynasty pebble soup? Easy. You pick eleven or twelve little white pebbles from a flowing stream — making sure they have moss on them. Then add a scoop of spring water, and simmer until it turns into a broth that tastes “as sweet as escargot” with a hint of spring rain.
This is an actual recipe taken from the pages of Shanjia Qinggong 《山家清供》, the most iconic cookbook of the Song Dynasty.”
Read the rest of the article from RadII here!

The infamous Chinese practice of foot binding became popular for the Chinese elite during the Song Dynasty. Foot binding was the Chinese custom of breaking and tightly binding the feet of young girls in order to change the shape and size of their feet; during the time it was practiced, bound feet were considered a status symbol and a mark of beauty. Feet altered by foot binding were known as lotus feet, and the shoes made for these feet were known as lotus shoes.

In the 13th century, scholar Che Ruoshui [zh] wrote the first known criticism of the practice:

“Little girls not yet four or five years old, who have done nothing wrong, nevertheless are made to suffer unlimited pain to bind [their feet] small. I do not know what use this is.”

A lotus shoe
A lotus shoe
Photograph of feet that  have been bound
Photograph of feet that have been bound
Drawing showing how the foot is altered by foot binding
Drawing showing how the foot is altered by foot binding

The process was started before the arch of the foot had a chance to develop fully, usually between the ages of four and nine. Binding usually started during the winter months since the feet were more likely to be numb, and therefore the pain would not be as extreme.

First, each foot would be soaked in a warm mixture of herbs and animal blood; this was intended to soften the foot and aid the binding. Then, the toenails were cut back as far as possible to prevent in-growth and subsequent infections, since the toes were to be pressed tightly into the sole of the foot. Cotton bandages, 3 m (9.8 ft) long and 5 cm (2.0 in) wide, were prepared by soaking them in the blood and herb mixture. To enable the size of the feet to be reduced, the toes on each foot were curled under, then pressed with great force downward and squeezed into the sole of the foot until the toes broke.

The broken toes were held tightly against the sole of the foot while the foot was then drawn down straight with the leg and the arch of the foot was forcibly broken. The bandages were repeatedly wound in a figure-of-eight movement, starting at the inside of the foot at the instep, then carried over the toes, under the foot, and around the heel, the freshly broken toes being pressed tightly into the sole of the foot. At each pass around the foot, the binding cloth was tightened, pulling the ball of the foot and the heel together, causing the broken foot to fold at the arch, and pressing the toes underneath the sole. The binding was pulled so tightly that the girl could not move her toes at all and the ends of the binding cloth were then sewn so that the girl could not loosen it.

The admiration for small feet already existed as demonstrated by the Tang dynasty in the tale of Ye Xian written around 850 about a girl who lost her shoe and then married a king who sought the owner of the shoe as only her foot was small enough to fit the shoe. This Chinese fairy tale that is one of the oldest variants of Cinderella. In the Song Dynasty and onwards (until the practice was stopped sometime in the early 20th century), small feet were seen as dainty and attractive.

The prevalence and practice of foot binding varied in different parts of the country, with the feet of young women bound to raise their marriage prospects in some areas. However, foot binding was also a painful practice that significantly limited the mobility of women, resulting in lifelong disabilities for most of its subjects, including the inability to walk quickly and significant pain and discomfort while walking.

The Song Dynasty was eventually conquered by the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty. In the Battle of Yamen the Song resistance to Kublai Khan’s invasion was finally crushed. The last remaining ruler, the 13-year-old emperor Huaizong of Song, committed suicide, along 1300 members of the royal clan. On Kublai’s orders, the rest of the former imperial family of Song were unharmed; the deposed Emperor Gong was demoted, being given the title ‘Duke of Ying’, but was eventually exiled to Tibet where he took up a monastic life. The former emperor would eventually be forced to commit suicide under the orders of Kublai’s great-great grandson, Gegeen Khan, out of fear that Emperor Gong would stage a coup to restore his reign.

The Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty began and lasted from 1271 to 1368 (97 years).

The Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368)

Provinces of the Yuan Dynasty

The Yuan dynasty was a successor state to the Mongol Empire after its division and a ruling dynasty of China established by Kublai Khan. Although Genghis Khan (an uprising ex-subject of the Jin Empire and Kublai Khan’s grandfather) had been enthroned with the Chinese title of Emperor in 1206 and the Mongol Empire had ruled territories including modern-day northern China for decades, it was not until 1271 that Kublai Khan officially proclaimed the dynasty in the traditional Chinese style, and the conquest was not complete until 1279 when the Southern Song dynasty was finally defeated.

Kublai Khan, founder of the Yuan dynasty
Kublai Khan, founder of the Yuan Dynasty

His realm was, by this point, isolated from the other Mongol khanates and controlled most of modern-day China and its surrounding areas, including modern Mongolia. The Yuan dynasty was the first time that non-native Chinese people ruled all of China and lasted until 1368 when the Ming dynasty defeated the Yuan forces.

Horse and Groom, handscroll after Li Gonglin by Zhao Yong, China, Yuan dynasty
Horse and Groom, handscroll after Li Gonglin by Zhao Yong, China, Yuan dynasty

The final years of the Yuan dynasty were marked by struggle, famine, and bitterness among the populace. In time, Kublai Khan’s successors lost all influence on other Mongol lands across Asia, while the Mongols beyond the Middle Kingdom saw them as too Chinese. Gradually, they lost influence in China as well. The reigns of the later Yuan emperors were short and marked by intrigues and rivalries. Uninterested in administration, they were separated from both the army and the populace, and China was torn by dissension and unrest. Outlaws ravaged the country without interference from the weakening Yuan armies.

Once the dynasty collapsed, the Ming Dynasty began.

Marco Polo and the Silk Road (1271–1295)

Marco Polo was a Venetian merchant, explorer, and writer who travelled through Asia along the Silk Road between 1271 and 1295. His travels are recorded in The Travels of Marco Polo (also known as Book of the Marvels of the World and Il Milione, c. 1300), a book that described to Europeans the then mysterious culture and inner workings of the Eastern world, including the wealth and great size of the Mongol Empire and China in the Yuan Dynasty, giving their first comprehensive look into China, Persia, India, Japan and other Asian cities and countries.

Marco traveled to China with his father and great-uncle and at the age of 21 met Kublai Khan.

Impressed by Marco’s intelligence and humility, Khan appointed him to serve as his foreign emissary to India and Burma. He was sent on many diplomatic missions throughout his empire and in Southeast Asia, (such as in present-day Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam), but also entertained the Khan with stories and observations about the lands he saw. As part of this appointment, Marco travelled extensively inside China, living in the emperor’s lands for 17 years.

Kublai initially refused several times to let the Polos return to Europe, as he appreciated their company and they became useful to him. However, around 1291, he finally granted permission, entrusting the Polos with his last duty: accompany the Mongol princess Kököchin, who was to become the consort of Arghun Khan, in Persia. After leaving the princess, the Polos travelled overland to Constantinople. They later decided to return to their home.[

They returned to Venice in 1295, after 24 years, with many riches and treasures. They had travelled almost 15,000 miles.

There are a couple of mild curse word in the following video and there is a brief sexual comment from Marco Polo’s book:


The first clear political structure to emerge in Japan is based on large independent clans (or uji) with powerful leaders. By the 4th century the clan occupying the Yamato plain (the region now known as Nara, south of Osaka) established its chieftain as emperor.

The Yamato Clan unified much of Japan after its rise to power under a centralized government, nominally controlled by an Emperor. This hereditary line of emperors began by the Yamato still reign as the world’s longest dynasty.

The word nominal comes from the Latin nomen, meaning name.

Something that is nominally controlled is controlled “in name only.”

The Yamato Clan’s origins were from the Korean kingdom of Baekje (see the map on the right) and their founding ancestor, Prince Junda, settled in Japan after being sent as a hostage to the Imperial Court of Japan.

In 2001, Emperor Akihito told reporters, “I, on my part, feel a certain kinship with Korea, given the fact that it is recorded in the Chronicles of Japan that the mother of Emperor Kammu [Niigasa] was of the line of King Muryong of Baekje.”

It was the first time that a Japanese emperor publicly acknowledged Korean blood in the imperial line. Niigasa is a descendant of Prince Junda.

The 3 kingdoms of Korea, including Baekje
The 3 kingdoms of Korea, including Baekje

The Yamato extended their power across Japan through military conquest, but their preferred method of expansion was to convince local leaders to accept their authority in exchange for positions of influence in the government.

Classical Japan

Classical Japan was a period in Japan’s history that followed the Kofun Period (mentioned in the video above) and lasted from around 538 to 1185. It’s divided into 3 time periods called Asuka, Nara, and Heian.

Asuka period (538–710)

The Asuka period began as early as 538 with the introduction of the Buddhist religion from the Korean kingdom of Baekje.

Since then, Buddhism has coexisted with Japan’s native Shinto religion, in what is today known as Shinbutsu-shūgō. The period draws its name from where the imperial capital was located: Asuka in the Kinai (meaning Capital Region) area of Japan.

Kinai is the orange area
Kinai is the orange area.

When Buddhism was introduced from China in the Asuka period the Japanese tried to reconcile the new beliefs with the older Shinto beliefs, assuming both were true. As a consequence, Buddhist temples (tera) were attached to local Shinto shrines (jinja) and vice versa and devoted to both kami (kami are spirits and/or forces of nature that possess both good and evil characteristics and are venerated in the religion of Shinto) and buddhas.

The local religion and foreign Buddhism never quite fused, but remained inextricably linked to the present day through interaction. The depth of the influence from Buddhism on local religious beliefs can be seen in much of Shinto’s conceptual vocabulary and even the types of Shinto shrines seen today. The large worship halls and religious images, are themselves of Buddhist origin. The formal separation of Buddhism from Shinto took place only as recently as the end of the 19th century; however, in many ways, the blending of the two still continues.

Amaterasu - the goddess of the sun and the purported ancestress of the Imperial Household of Japan - "The Great Kami Who Shines from Heaven"
Amaterasu – the goddess of the sun and the purported ancestress of the Imperial Household of Japan – “The Great Kami Who Shines from Heaven”
Tsuchigumo - A race of spider-like yōkai. Yōkai are supernatural monsters and spirits inJapanese folklore
Tsuchigumo – A race of spider-like yōkai. Yōkai are supernatural monsters and spirits inJapanese folklore.
Fūjin , Also known as Kaze-no-kami, he is the Japanese god of the wind and one of the eldest Shinto gods, said to have been present at the creation of the world. He is often depicted as an oni (a kind yōkai, demon, or ogre) with a bag slung over his back.
Fūjin , Also known as Kaze-no-kami, he is the Japanese god of the wind and one of the eldest Shinto gods, said to have been present at the creation of the world. He is often depicted as an oni (a kind yōkai, demon, or ogre) with a bag slung over his back.

The Buddhist Soga clan took over the government in the 580s and controlled Japan from behind the scenes for nearly sixty years. The Soga clan was one of the most powerful aristocratic kin groups of the Asuka period and played a major role in the spread of Buddhism.

Prince Shōtoku, who was of partial Soga descent and an advocate of Buddhism, served as regent and politician of Japan from 594 to 622. He did so during a time when Japan was ruled by an empress named Suiko.

Suiko was Shōtoku’s aunt, and she was the first of what would be several examples in Japanese history where a woman was chosen to accede to the throne to avert a power struggle.

Although political power during Suiko’s reign is widely viewed as having been wielded by Prince Shōtoku as well as the head of the Soga Clan, Suiko was far from powerless. The mere fact that she survived and her reign endured suggests she had significant political skills.

Prince Shōtoku authored the Seventeen-article constitution, a Confucian-inspired code of conduct for officials and citizens, and attempted to introduce a merit-based civil service called the Cap and Rank System.

In the Cap and Rank System, officials wore silk caps that were decorated with gold and silver, and a feather that indicated the official’s rank. The ranks in the twelve level cap and rank system consisted of the greater and the lesser of each of the six Confucian virtues: virtue (徳, toku), benevolence (仁, jin), propriety (礼, rei), sincerity (信, shin), justice (義, gi) and knowledge (智, chi).

Crown Prince Shotoku (574-622), the seventh-century regent, with his two sons.
Crown Prince Shotoku (574-622), the seventh-century regent, with his two sons.
Empress Suiko
Empress Suiko

The primary distinction between this new system and the old system by which a person’s rank was determined based on heredity, was that the cap and rank system allowed for promotion based on merit and individual achievement.

Envoys and students were dispatched to China to learn about Chinese writing, politics, art, and religion. The art of the Asuka period embodies the themes of Buddhist art. One of the most famous works is the Buddhist temple of Horyu-ji, commissioned by Prince Shōtoku and completed in 607 CE. It is now the oldest wooden structure in the world.

Buddhist temple of Horyu-ji is the oldest wooden structure in the world. It was commissioned by Prince Shotoku and represents the beginning of Buddhism in Japan.
The Buddhist temple of Horyu-ji is the oldest wooden structure in the world. It was commissioned by Prince Shotoku and represents the beginning of Buddhism in Japan.

Let’s wrap up the Asuka Period with this video:

Nara period (710–794)

Japanese society during the Nara period was predominately agricultural and centered on village life. Most of the villagers followed Shintoism.

The capital at Nara was modeled after Chang’an, the capital city of the Chinese Tang dynasty. In many other ways, the Japanese upper classes patterned themselves after the Chinese, including adopting the Chinese writing system, Chinese fashion, and a Chinese version of Buddhism.

Nara was Japan’s first truly urban center. It soon had a population of 200,000 (representing nearly 7% of the country’s population) and some 10,000 people worked in government jobs. Economic and administrative activity increased during the Nara period. Roads linked Nara to provincial capitals, and taxes were collected more efficiently and routinely. Coins were minted, if not widely used.

Factional fighting at the imperial court continued throughout the Nara period. Imperial family members, leading court families, such as the Fujiwara, and Buddhist priests all contended for influence.

The Fujiwara clan was a powerful family of regents in Japan, holding the title of Ason (a prestigious hereditary noble title). The Fujiwara prospered since the ancient times and dominated the imperial court until Meiji Restoration in 1868. The Fujiwara dominated the Japanese politics of Heian period (794–1185) through the monopoly of regent positions. The family’s primary strategy for central influence was through the marrying of Fujiwara daughters to emperors. Through this, the Fujiwara would gain influence over the next emperor who would, according to family tradition of that time, be raised in the household of his mother’s side and owe loyalty to his grandfather. The Fujiwara were the proverbial “power behind the throne” for centuries.

Some of Japan’s literary monuments were written during the Nara period, including the Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters) and Nihon Shoki (The Chronicles of Japan), the first national histories, compiled in 712 and 720 respectively; the Man’yōshū (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves), an anthology of poems; and the Kaifūsō (Fond Recollections of Poetry), an anthology written in Chinese by Japanese emperors and princes.

Facing the End – A Poem from the Kaifūsō

The *golden crow approaching the west building,

The sound of the drum shortening my life,

The road to the underworld is with neither guest nor host,

This evening whose house shall I turn to?

*The golden crow is the sun.

A Section from CXXII of the Kojiki:

His Empress, Her Augustness Iha-no-hime, was exceedingly jealous. So the concubines employed by the Heavenly Sovereign could not even peep inside the palace; and if anything happened, [the Empress] stamped with jealousy. Then the Heavenly Sovereign, hearing of the regular beauty of Princess Kuro, daughter of the Suzerain of Ama in Kibi, and having sent for her, employed her. But she, afraid of the Empress’s jealousy, fled down to her native land…

Another major cultural development of the era was the permanent establishment of Buddhism. A devastating smallpox epidemic spread from Kyushu to eastern Honshu and Nara, killing an estimated one-third of the Japanese population in these areas. The epidemic is said to have led to the construction of several prominent Buddhist structures during this time period as a form of appeasement.

The first authentically Japanese gardens were built in the city Nara at the end of the eighth century. Shorelines and stone settings were naturalistic, different from the heavier, earlier continental mode of constructing pond edges. Two such gardens have been found at excavations; both were used for poetry-writing festivities.

Archaeological excavations uncovered remains of a large garden in the southeast corner of Heijō Palace in Nara. This was named "East Palace Garden" (Tōin Teien) because the neighboring area is considered to be the site of the East Palace. The garden was reconstructed in 1998.
Archaeological excavations uncovered remains of a large garden in the southeast corner of Heijō Palace in Nara. This was named “East Palace Garden” (Tōin Teien) because the neighboring area is considered to be the site of the East Palace. The garden was reconstructed in 1998.

Gagaku 雅楽 court music also flourished during the Nara period. Gagaku was imported from China and was performed at national events, such as the erection of the Great Buddha of Todai-ji Temple. Today, gagaku is performed by the Board of Ceremonies in the Tokyo Imperial Palace. Wind, string and percussion instruments are essential elements of gagaku music.

Tōdai-ji Kon-dō, at Nara Japan
Tōdai-ji Kon-dō, at Nara Japan

Here’s a quick summary of the Nara Period:

Heian period (794–1185)

The Heian period is the last division of classical Japanese history. Heian means “peace” in Japanese. It’s a period in Japanese history when Chinese influences were in decline and the national culture matured. Although the Imperial House of Japan had power on the surface, the real power was in the hands of the Fujiwara clan, a powerful aristocratic family who had intermarried with the imperial family. The capital was moved to Heian-kyō (modern-day Kyoto) during this time.

The Heian period is considered the peak of the Japanese imperial court and noted for its art, especially poetry and literature. Poetry was a staple of court life. Nobles and ladies-in-waiting were expected to be well versed in the art of writing poetry as a mark of their status. Every occasion could call for the writing of a verse, from the birth of a child to the coronation of an emperor, or even a pretty scene of nature. A well-written poem could easily make or break one’s reputation, and often was a key part of social interaction. Poems were often written in the tanka style,  which is 5-7-5-7-7 syllables per line totaling 31 syllables for the whole poem.

Two types of Japanese script emerged during this time, including katakana, a phonetic script which was abbreviated into hiragana, a cursive alphabet with a unique writing method distinctive to Japan. This gave rise to Japan’s famous vernacular literature, many of which were written by court women who were not as educated in Chinese compared to their male counterparts.

Hiragana “ah”

Katakana “ah”

Kanji “ane” (older sister)

The Japanese of this period believed handwriting could reflect the condition of a person’s soul: therefore, poor or hasty writing could be considered a sign of poor breeding.

One of the famous books written during this time is The Pillow Book (Makura no Sōshi), a private journal written by a lady-in-waiting (Sei Shonagon) to the Empress. It’s an interesting read that gives you a glimpse into the thoughts and life of Sei in 990’s Japan. A quote from The Pillow Book:

The cat who lived in the Palace had been awarded the head dress of nobility and was called Lady Myobu. She was a very pretty cat, and His Majesty saw to it that she was treated with the greatest care. One day she wandered onto the veranda, and Lady Uma, the nurse in charge of her, called out, “Oh, you naughty thing! Please come inside at once. But the cat paid no attention and went on basking sleepily in the sun. Intending to give her a scare, the nurse called for the dog, Okinamaro.

Read the rest of Sei’s story about Lady Myobu the cat and Okinamaro by clicking here!

The lyrics of the modern Japanese national anthem, Kimigayo, were written during this time period. Its lyrics are the oldest among the world’s national anthems.

During the Heian period, beauty was widely considered an important part of what made one a “good” person. In cosmetic terms, aristocratic men and women powdered their faces and blackened their teeth, the latter termed ohaguro.

Blackening teeth was done using a combination of iron filings, vinegar, tea, and sake.

The male courtly ideal included a faint mustache and thin goatee, while women’s mouths were painted small and red, and their eyebrows were plucked or shaved and redrawn higher on the forehead (hikimayu). One reason why this was done was that it made applying white rice powder applied to the face (oshiroi) easier. Eyebrows were painted as ovals or smudges.

Hikimayu (引眉) was the practice of removing the natural eyebrows and painting smudge-like eyebrows on the forehead
Hikimayu (引眉) was the practice of removing the natural eyebrows and painting smudge-like eyebrows on the forehead.

There is a mild curse word in the following video:

Women cultivated shiny, black flowing hair and a courtly woman’s formal dress included a complex “twelve-layered robe” called jūnihitoe, though the actual number of layers varied. Costumes were determined by office and season, with a woman’s robes, in particular, following a system of color combinations representing flowers, plants, and animals specific to a season or month.

While on one hand, the Heian period was an unusually long period of peace, it can also be argued that the period weakened Japan economically and led to poverty for all but a tiny few of its inhabitants. The control of rice fields provided a key source of income for families such as the Fujiwara and was a fundamental base for their power.

The aristocratic beneficiaries of Heian culture, the Ryōmin (良民 “Good People”) numbered about five thousand in a land of perhaps five million. One reason the samurai (hereditary military nobility) were able to take power was that the ruling nobility proved incompetent at managing Japan and its provinces. By the year 1000, the government no longer knew how to issue currency and money was gradually disappearing. Instead of a fully realized system of money circulation, rice was the primary unit of exchange. The lack of a solid medium of economic exchange is implicitly illustrated in novels of the time. For instance, messengers were rewarded with useful objects, e.g., an old silk kimono, rather than paid a fee.

The Heian period ended with the Genpei War (a national civil war) between the Taira and Minamoto clans. The Minamoto clan won and declared a government rule under a shogun (military dictator).

The Battle of Akama Strait at Dan no Ura in Choshu in 1185 (Genpei War)
The Battle of Akama Strait at Dan no Ura in Choshu in 1185 (Genpei War)

The end of the Genpei War marked the rise to power of the warrior class (samurai) and the gradual suppression of the power of the emperor, who was compelled to govern without effective political or military power, being effectively reduced to a purely symbolical and ceremonial head of state until the Meiji Restoration over 650 years later.

This war and its aftermath established red and white, the colors of the Taira and Minamoto standards, respectively, as Japan’s national colors. Today, these colors can be seen on the flag of Japan, and also in banners and flags in sumo and other traditional activities.

Let’s wrap up the Heian period with a video!

Feudal Japan

Kamakura period (1185–1333)

The Kamakura period marks the transition to the Japanese “medieval” era, a nearly 700-year period in which the emperor, the court, and the traditional central government were left intact, but were largely relegated to ceremonial functions. It was named for the city where Minamoto Yoritomo set up the headquarters of his military government, commonly known as the Kamakura shogunate.

Civil, military, and judicial matters were controlled by the bushi class, the most powerful of whom was the de facto national ruler. Society also changed radically and a feudal system emerged.

Yoritomo was the first shogun.
Yoritomo was the first shogun.

The term feudalism is generally used to describe this period, being accepted by scholars as applicable to medieval Japan as well as medieval Europe. Both had land-based economies, vestiges of a previously centralized state, and a concentration of advanced military technologies in the hands of a specialized fighting class. Lords required the loyal services of vassals, who were rewarded with fiefs (estates of land) of their own. The fief holders exercised local military rule and public power related to the holding of land.

There was also a cultural shift. Zen Buddhism spread from China and there was a rise in realism in literature and art that catered to warrior tastes.

Kublai Khan demanded tribute from the Japanese.
Kublai Khan demanded tribute from the Japanese.

Japanese relations with China had been terminated in the mid-ninth century after the deterioration of late Tang dynasty China and the turning inward of the Heian court. Some commercial contacts were maintained with the Southern Song dynasty of China in later centuries, but Japanese pirates made the open seas dangerous. At a time when the shogunate had little interest in foreign affairs and ignored communications from China and the Goryeo kingdom (a kingdom of Korea), news arrived in 1268 of a new Mongol regime in Beijing. Its leader, Kublai Khan, demanded that the Japanese pay tribute to the new Yuan dynasty and threatened reprisals if they failed to do so.

Unused to such threats, Kyoto raised the diplomatic counter of Japan’s divine origin, rejected the Mongol demands, dismissed the Korean messengers, and started defensive preparations.

The first Mongol invasion took place in 1274. More than 600 ships carried a combined Mongol, Chinese, and Korean force of 23,000 troops armed with catapults, combustible missiles, and bows and arrows. In fighting, these soldiers grouped in close cavalry formations against samurai, who were accustomed to one-on-one combat.

The Japanese forces, being inexperienced with non-Japanese tactics, found the Mongol army perplexing. The Yuan forces disembarked and advanced in a dense body protected by a screen of shields. They wielded their polearms in a tightly packed fashion with no space between them. As they advanced they also threw paper and iron casing bombs on occasion, frightening the Japanese horses and making them uncontrollable in battle. When the grandson of a Japanese commander shot an arrow to announce the beginning of battle, the Mongols burst out laughing.

A quote from the Hachiman Gudōkun (a two volume book):

The commanding general kept his position on high ground, and directed the various detachments as need be with signals from hand-drums. But whenever the (Mongol) soldiers took to flight, they sent iron bomb-shells (tetsuho) flying against us, which made our side dizzy and confused. Our soldiers were frightened out of their wits by the thundering explosions; their eyes were blinded, their ears deafened, so that they could hardly distinguish east from west. According to our manner of fighting, we must first call out by name someone from the enemy ranks, and then attack in single combat. But they (the Mongols) took no notice at all of such conventions; they rushed forward all together in a mass, grappling with any individuals they could catch and killing them.

By nightfall the Y invasion force had forced the Japanese off the beach with a third of the defending forces dead, driving them several kilometers inland, but in the morning, most of the invader’s ships had disappeared due to a sudden typhoon.

Japanese samurai boarding Mongol ships in 1281
Japanese samurai boarding Mongol ships in 1281

Kublai realized that nature, not military incompetence, had been the cause of his forces’ failure so, in 1281, he launched a second invasion. Seven weeks of fighting took place in northwestern Kyūshū before another typhoon struck, again destroying the Mongol fleet, which was mostly composed of hastily acquired, flat-bottomed Chinese ships especially vulnerable to powerful typhoons.

Although Shinto priests attributed the two defeats of the Mongols to a “divine wind” or kamikaze, a sign of heaven’s special protection of Japan, the invasion left a deep impression on the shogunate leaders. Long-standing fears of the Chinese threat to Japan were reinforced. The victory also convinced the warriors of the value of the shogunate form of government. Taxes levied to pay for defense efforts caused a financial strain and caused a drain on the economy. Inheritances had divided family properties, and landowners increasingly had to turn to moneylenders for support. Roving bands of rōnin further threatened the stability of the shogunate.

Feudal Japan had a distinct social hierarchy illustrated below by a pyramid shape. The number of people increases as each class gets lower.

A special thank you to our son-in-law Masashi Haruna for the graphic’s title translation into Japanese.

The emperor had very little power and control and was more like a figurehead. He acted as the chief priest of the official religion of the country, Shinto. One of the few powers that the imperial house could retain was that of being able to “control time” through the designation of the Japanese Nengō or Eras and the issuance of calendars.

Era names have been used continuously up through the present day. Era names indicate the various reasons for their adoption. For instance, the nengō Wadō (和銅), during the Nara period, was declared due to the discovery of copper deposits in Chichibu. Currently, era names change upon immediate imperial succession. The Emperor Akihito abdicated on 30 April 2019, necessitating a change in nengō. The new name, made public on the morning of 1 April of the same year, is Reiwa (令和).

Below the emperor were the shoguns. Shoguns were appointed by the emperor. The word shogun comes from the Japanese words sho which means commander and gun which means troops. A shogun was a military commander. Legally the emperor was supposed to control the shogunate (the English term shogunate refers to the bakufu) and the shogun was only supposed to have authority over the military forces of the country. However, the feudal system of Japan created the situation where military control was equivalent to controlling the country itself.

The term bakufu (幕府, “tent government”) originally meant the dwelling and household of a shogun, but in time, became a metonym for the system of government dominated by a feudal military dictatorship, exercised in the name of the shogun or by the shogun himself. Various bakufu held absolute power over the country (territory ruled at that time) without pause from 1192 to 1867.

The word metonym comes from the Greek meta meaning change and the Proto-Indo-European root no-men meaning name.

A metonym is a word or expression used as a substitute for something else that it’s closely related to. For example:
Tongue is a metonym for language. They were fluent in many tongues.
Bottle is a metonym for alcohol. He found solace in the bottle.

What are the metonyms in this sentence? The pen is mightier than the sword.

No shogun tried to usurp the throne, even when they had at their disposal the military power of the territory. The two reason for this were:

Theoretically the shogun received the power of the emperor, so this was his symbol of authority.
There was a sentimentalist tradition created by priests and religious who traced the imperial line from the “age of the gods” into an “eternal line unbroken by the times.” According to Japanese mythology, the emperor was a direct descendant of Amaterasu, goddess of the sun.

Today, the head of the Japanese government is the Prime Minister; the usage of the term “shogun” has nevertheless continued in colloquialisms. A retired Prime Minister who still wields considerable power and influence behind the scenes is called a “shadow shogun” (闇将軍, yami shōgun)

The word colloquial comes from the Latin com meaning together and loqui meaning to speak.

Colloquial speech is used in ordinary, casual conversation.

The Daimyo were powerful feudal lords ruled most of Japan from their vast, hereditary land holdings. They were subordinate to the shōgun and nominally to the emperor and the kuge (Japanese aristocratic class). In the term, dai (大) means “large or great”, and myō stands for myōden (名田), meaning “private land”. The word roughly translates to “owner of great land.”

Daimyo often hired samurai to guard their land, and they paid the samurai in land or food as relatively few could afford to pay samurai in money.

Sometimes the daiymo were actually more powerful than the shoguns.

Date Tanemune- a samurai who became a daimyo at the death of his father
Date Tanemune 伊達 稙宗 – a samurai who became a daimyo at the death of his father

 Samurai were the hereditary military nobility and officer caste. In Japanese, they are usually referred to as bushi (武士) meaning ‘warrior’, or buke (武家). They were the well-paid retainers of the daimyo (the great feudal landholders). They had high prestige and special privileges such as wearing two swords. They cultivated the bushido codes of martial virtues, indifference to pain, and unflinching loyalty, engaging in many local battles.

Samurai were rewarded for their loyalty with agricultural surplus, usually rice, or labor services from peasants. In contrast to European feudal knights, samurai were not landowners. The hierarchy that held this system of government together was reinforced by close ties of loyalty between the daimyōs, samurai and their subordinates.

The samurai were usually associated with a clan and their lord, and were trained as officers in military tactics and grand strategy. While the samurai numbered less than 10% of then Japan’s population, their teachings can still be found today in both everyday life and in modern Japanese martial arts.

The philosophies of Buddhism and Zen, and to a lesser extent Confucianism and Shinto, influenced the samurai culture. Zen meditation became an important teaching because it offered a process to calm one’s mind. The Buddhist concept of reincarnation and rebirth led samurai to abandon torture and needless killing, while some samurai even gave up violence altogether and became Buddhist monks after coming to believe that their killings were fruitless.

Samurai holding a severed head. After a battle, enemy's heads were collected and presented to the daimyo.
Samurai holding a severed head. After a battle, enemy’s heads were collected and presented to the daimyo.

The most defining role that Confucianism played in samurai philosophy was to stress the importance of the lord-retainer relationship—the loyalty that a samurai was required to show his lord.

Calligraphy of the word Bushido (武士道)

Bushidō (武士道, “the way of the warrior”) is an informal concept of varying moral codes concerning samurai attitudes, behavior and lifestyle. Some people say it is loosely analogous to the European concept of chivalry, but that’s not exactly correct. Watch the two videos below to separate historical fact from fiction.

As aristocrats for centuries, samurai developed their own cultures that influenced Japanese culture as a whole. The culture associated with the samurai such as the tea ceremony, monochrome ink painting, rock gardens and poetry was adopted by warrior patrons throughout the centuries 1200–1600. These practices were adapted from the Chinese arts. Zen monks introduced them to Japan and they were allowed to flourish due to the interest of powerful warrior elites.

Below the samurai were the  rōnin, samurai without a lord or master. A samurai became masterless upon the death of his master or after the loss of his master’s favor or privilege. The word rōnin literally means “wave man”. It is an idiomatic expression for “vagrant” or “wandering man”, someone who finds the way without belonging to one place (socially adrift).

Because the former samurai could not legally take up a new trade, or because of pride were loath to do so, many rōnin looked for other ways to make a living with their swords. Those rōnin who desired steady, legal employment became mercenaries that guarded trade caravans, or bodyguards for wealthy merchants.

Many other rōnin became criminals, operating as bandits and highwaymen, or joining organized crime in towns and cities. Rōnin were known to operate or serve as hired muscle for gangs that ran gambling rings, brothels, protection rackets, and similar activities. 

famous rōnin Miyamoto Musashi having his fortune told
The famous rōnin Miyamoto Musashi having his fortune told

Below the  rōnin and the most numerous of all Japanese were the peasants. Peasants gave up most of the food they grew to the nobles and were burdened by a crushing tax burden. 90% of the population were peasants. Peasants were highly regarded as they provided rice to the samurai and daiymo. However, they could rarely afford to eat rice themselves!

Artisans were the next social rank. Some of the professions in this class included painters, sword makers, entertainers, etc.

Finally, merchants were the lowest class. People looked down on them because they were selling items that other people made (instead of making those things themselves) and were seen to take money from others in a dishonest way. Many of them were wealthy despite being looked down on.

Let’s wrap up the Kamakura period with a video:

Muromachi period (1333–1568)

During the Muromachi period (also called the Ashikaga period), warriors became a political force, the relationship with China was renewed, there was a time of civil war, Shinto reemerged as the primary religion, and toward the end of the period, Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch traders arrived, followed soon after by Christian missionaries.

Flower arranging, the arts (painting, Noh drama, literature, etc.) thrived. Noh theater (or Nohgaku 能楽) is the oldest surviving dramatic art in the world.

Zen monks also introduced the Chinese custom of drinking green tea during this period, resulting in the development of the Japanese tea ceremony.

The Ōnin War was a civil war that happened during this time and lasted from 1467 to 1477. It began as a controversy over who would succeed shōgun Ashikaga Yoshimasa. In 1464, Yoshimasa had no heir. He persuaded his younger brother, Ashikaga Yoshimi, to abandon the life of a monk, and named him heir. In 1465, the unanticipated birth of a son to Yoshimasa put these plans in question. The infant, Yoshihisa, caused friction between the shōgun, Yoshimi, and Hosokawa against Hino Tomiko, the wife of Yoshimasa and mother of Yoshihisa, and Yamana.

Situation in 1467. Areas loyal to or allied with Hosokawa Katsumoto in pink, areas loyal to or allied with Yamana Sōzen in light green.

Tomiko sought political and military support to rule as regent until the birth of her son, the future shogun Ashikaga Yoshihisa, she secured the support of Yamana Sōzen and other leaders of powerful samurai clans. In contrast to Tomiko and Yamana, Yoshimi had the support of the Hosokawa clan, a powerful clan that had a great influence on the shogunate court. This dispute for succession started the Ōnin War and led to the beginning of the Sengoku period.

The Sengoku period was a time in Japanese history of almost constant civil war. Peasants rose against their landlords, and samurai against their overlords, as central control virtually disappeared. The imperial house was left impoverished, and the bakufu was controlled by contending chieftains in Kyoto. The provincial domains that emerged after the Ōnin War were smaller and easier to control. Many new small daimyo arose from among the samurai who had overthrown their great overlords.

Japan in 1570

Border defenses were improved, and well-fortified castle towns were built to protect the newly opened domains, for which land surveys were made, roads built, and mines opened. New house laws provided a practical means of administration, stressing duties and rules of behavior. Emphasis was placed on success in war, estate management, and finance. Threatening alliances were guarded against through strict marriage rules. Aristocratic society became overwhelmingly military in character. The new daimyo directly controlled the land, keeping the peasantry in permanent serfdom in exchange for protection.

Amid this on-going anarchy, a trading ship was blown off course by a typhoon and landed in 1543 on the Japanese island of Tanegashima, just south of Kyushu. The three Portuguese traders on board were the first Europeans to set foot in Japan.

Within two years Portuguese traders were making regular port calls. The Spanish arrived in 1587, followed by the Dutch in 1609. The Japanese began to attempt studies of European civilization, and new opportunities were presented for the economy, along with serious political challenges.

Portuguese trading ship, a carrack,
Portuguese trading ship, a carrack,

European firearms, fabrics, glassware, clocks, tobacco, and other Western innovations were traded for Japanese gold and silver.

Significant wealth was accumulated through trade, and lesser daimyo, especially in Kyūshū, greatly increased their power. Provincial wars became more deadly with the introduction of firearms, such as muskets and cannons, and greater use of infantry.

Francis Xavier
Francis Xavier

Soon after the European traders, Christian missionaries arrived and began winning converts to their new religion. Christianity had an impact on Japan, largely through the efforts of the Jesuits, led first by Saint Francis Xavier (1506–1552), who arrived in Kagoshima in southern Kyūshū in 1549.

Both peasants and daimyo and merchants seeking better trade arrangements with the Portuguese were among the converts. Xavier wrote of the Japanese that they were “the best who have as yet been discovered, and it seems to me that we shall never find among the heathens another race to equal the Japanese.”

After a few years, as the Jesuits believed that if they understood the language they would achieve more conversions to Catholic religion, Portuguese became the first Western language to have a Japanese dictionary, compiled by Jesuits.

By 1560 Kyoto had become another major area of missionary activity in Japan. In 1568 the port of Nagasaki, in northwestern Kyūshū, was established by a Christian daimyo and was turned over to Jesuit administration in 1579. By 1582 there were as many as 150,000 converts (two percent of the population) and two hundred churches. But bakufu tolerance for this alien influence diminished as the country became more unified and openness decreased. Proscriptions against Christianity began in 1587 and outright persecutions in 1597. Although foreign trade was still encouraged, it was closely regulated, and by 1640 the exclusion and suppression of Christianity had become national policy.

The next period in Japan was the Edo period (or Tokugawa period), which we’ll discuss later!


Delhi Sultanate in the North (1206–1526)

The Delhi Sultanate was an Islamic empire based in Delhi that stretched over large parts of the Indian subcontinent for 320 years.

The context behind the rise of the Delhi Sultanate in India was part of a wider trend affecting much of the Asian continent, including the whole of southern and western Asia: the influx of nomadic Turkic peoples from the Central Asian steppes. This can be traced back to the 9th century when the Islamic Caliphate began fragmenting in the Middle East, where Muslim rulers in rival states began enslaving non-Muslim nomadic Turks from the Central Asian steppes and raising many of them to become loyal military slaves called Mamluks.

Map of the Delhi Sultanate

Soon, Turks were migrating to Muslim lands and becoming Islamicized. Many of the Turkic Mamluk slaves eventually rose up to become rulers, and conquered large parts of the Muslim world, establishing Mamluk Sultanates from Egypt to present-day Afghanistan, before turning their attention to the Indian subcontinent. It is also part of a longer trend predating the spread of Islam.

The economic policy of the Delhi Sultanate was characterized by greater government involvement in the economy relative to the Classical Hindu dynasties, and increased penalties for private businesses that broke government regulations. Alauddin Khalji replaced the private markets with four centralized government-run markets, appointed a “market controller”, and implemented strict price controls on all kinds of goods, from caps to socks; from combs to needles; from vegetables, soups, sweetmeats to chapatis. The price controls were inflexible even during droughts. Capitalist investors were completely banned from participating in horse trade, animal and slave brokers were forbidden from collecting commissions, and private merchants were eliminated from all animal and slave markets.

While the sacking of cities was not uncommon in medieval warfare, the army of the Delhi Sultanate also often completely destroyed cities in their military expeditions. There were several massacres and a campaign of destruction of idols and temples intermixed with certain years when the temples were protected from desecration. In many cases, the demolished remains, rocks and broken statue pieces of temples destroyed by Delhi sultans were reused to build mosques and other buildings.

Rani ki vav was sacked twice by Sultans of Delhi.
Rani ki vav was sacked twice by Sultans of Delhi.

Vijayanagara Empire in the South (1336–1646)

The Vijayanagara Empire, also called Karnata Empire, was based in the Deccan Plateau region in South India. It was established in 1336 by the brothers Harihara I and Bukka Raya I, members of a pastoralist cowherd community that claimed Yadava lineage (an ancient king of India). The empire rose to prominence as a culmination of attempts by the southern powers to ward off Islamic invasions by the end of the 13th century. At its peak it had subjugated almost all of South India’s ruling families and the Sultans of the Deccan region, thus becoming a notable power.

Extent of Vijayanagara Empire
Extent of Vijayanagara Empire

The economy of the empire was largely dependent on agriculture. Sorghum (jowar), cotton, and pulse legumes grew in semi-arid regions, while sugarcane, rice, and wheat thrived in rainy areas. Betel leaves, areca (a type of nut from a palm for chewing), and coconut were the principal cash crops, and large-scale cotton production supplied the weaving centers of the empire’s vibrant textile industry. Spices such as turmeric, pepper, cardamom, and ginger grew in the remote Malnad hill region and were transported to the city for trade. The empire’s capital city was a thriving business center that included a burgeoning market for large quantities of precious gems and gold.

The Hindu caste system was prevalent in the empire, but the Vijayanagara kings were tolerant of other religions. Well-to-do men wore the Petha or Kulavi, a tall turban made of silk and decorated with gold. As in most Indian societies, jewelry was used by men and women and records describe the use of anklets, bracelets, finger-rings, necklaces and ear rings of various types. During celebrations men and women adorned themselves with flower garlands and used perfumes made of rose water, civet musk, musk or sandalwood.

This is a rather long video. You may want to play it at 2x speed.

Southeast Asia

Khmer Empire (802–1431)

The Khmer Empire, or the Angkorian Empire, are the terms that historians use to refer to Cambodia from the 9th century to the 15th century when the nation was a Hindu/Buddhist empire in Southeast Asia. The empire referred to itself as Kambuja.

The empire grew and at times ruled over and/or vassalised most of mainland Southeast Asia and parts of Southern China, stretching from the tip of the Indochinese Peninsula northward to modern Yunnan province, China, and from Vietnam westward to Myanmar.

This map shows the expansion of the Khmer Empire pheripheral to the years 802-1203. It includes expansion North, expansion into Thailand (Lavo Kingdom) and expansion into Champa.
This map shows the expansion of the Khmer Empire pheripheral to the years 802-1203. It includes expansion North, expansion into Thailand (Lavo Kingdom) and expansion into Champa.

Perhaps its most notable legacy is the site of Angkor, in present-day Cambodia, the Khmer capital during the empire’s zenith. The majestic monuments of Angkor, such as Angkor Wat and Bayon, bear testimony to the Khmer Empire’s immense power and wealth, impressive art and culture, architectural technique, aesthetics achievements, and the variety of belief systems that it patronized over time.

Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat

Satellite imaging has revealed that Angkor, during its peak in the 11th to 13th centuries, was the largest pre-industrial urban center in the world.

The ancient Khmers were a traditional agricultural community, relying heavily on rice farming. The farmers, who formed the majority of kingdom’s population, planted rice near the banks of the lake or river, in the irrigated plains surrounding their villages, or in the hills when lowlands were flooded. The rice paddies were irrigated by a massive and complex hydraulics system, including networks of canals and barays, or giant water reservoirs. This system enabled the formation of large-scale rice farming communities surrounding Khmer cities.

Houses of farmers were situated near the rice paddies on the edge of the cities. The walls of the houses were made of woven bamboo, with thatched roofs, and they were on stilts. A house was divided into three rooms by woven bamboo walls. One was the parents’ bedroom, another was the daughters’ bedroom, and the largest was the living area. Sons slept wherever they could find space. The kitchen was at the back or in a separate room. Nobles and kings lived in the palace and much larger houses in the city. They were made of the same materials as the farmers’ houses, but the roofs were wooden shingles and had elaborate designs as well as more rooms.

By the 14th century, the Khmer empire suffered a long, arduous, and steady decline. Historians have proposed different causes for the decline: the religious conversion from Hinduism to Buddhism that affected social and political systems, incessant internal power struggles among Khmer princes, vassal revolt, foreign invasion, plague, and ecological breakdown.

We want to know what you thought of what you just read and watched! Leave us a comment! Please also let us know if a link or video isn’t working. ?

Next: Early Modern Europe

Tang Dynasty: By SY – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Angkor Wat: By Bjørn Christian Tørrissen – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Khmer Empire map: By Thames Mapping – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Khmer Empire:

Vijaya Nagara Empire map: By Mlpkr – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Rani ki vav: By Kshitij Charania – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Delhi Sultanate:

Map of the Delhi Sultanate: By Arab Hafez at English Wikipedia.Later version(s) were uploaded by Beao at English Wikipedia. – Own work, Public Domain,

Todai-ji Kon-do: By Wiiii – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Francis Xiaver: By 『中公バックス 日本の歴史 別巻2 図録 鎌倉から戦国』より。, Public Domain,

Carrack: By Kanō Naizen – Kobe City Museum, Public Domain,

Yoritomo: By Fujiwara no Takanobu – Unknown source, Public Domain,

New World Encyclopedia:,  Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License

Onin war:

Musashi painting: By The original uploader was Kross at English Wikipedia.the author of this drawing is en:Utagawa Kuniyoshi, ja:歌川国芳 (1797 – 1861) – From Thirty-six Famous Battles (Eimei sanjûroku kassen), ca. 1847-1853., Public Domain,


Sengoku period:

Bushido calligraphy: By Norbert Weber-Karatelehrer – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,



Daimyo Date Tanemune: By 仙台市博物館, Public Domain,

Japanese era names:



Japanese boarding Mongol ships: By 竹崎季長 – 『蒙古襲来絵詞』, Public Domain,

Kamakura period:

Battle of Akama Strait: By Utagawa Sadahide (aka Gountei Sadahide, 五雲亭 貞秀) – Touken World Ukiyoe, Public Domain,

Genpei War:

Ugetsu poster: By Daiei Motion Picture Company (大映株式会社, Daiei Kabushiki-gaisha), © 1937, –, Public Domain,


Heian period:

Toin Garden: By 吉田有岐 – 吉田有岐撮影, CC BY 3.0,

Fujiwara Clan:

Empress Suiko:

Empress Suiko picture: By Tosa Mitsuyoshi – The Japanese book “The Prince Shotoku exhibition (聖徳太子展)”, NHK (NHKプロモーション), 2001, Public Domain,

1st paragraph quote underneath the Japan heading: Gascoigne, Bamber. HistoryWorld. From 2001, ongoing.

Baekje map: By Historiographer at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain,

Prince Junda:

Prince Shotoku:

Horyu-ji: By 663highland – Own work, CC BY 2.5,

Cap and Rank System:

Prince Shotoku: By Unknown author – Japanese Painting Anthlogy, publ. by SINBI-SHOIN, TOKYO, 1941, Public Domain,

Soga Clan:

Fujin: By Ogata Korin – This is the right side of the artwork “Wind God and Thunder God” by Ogata Kōrin. Own work, Public Domain,

List of Japanese deities:

Amaterasu: By Shunsai Toshimasa –, Public Domain,

Ground spider: By Tsukioka Yoshitoshi – Art Gallery NSW [1], Public Domain,

Kinai area of Japan: By 百楽兎 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Shinbutsu-shugo info:

History of Japan:

Marco Polo:

Route of Marco Polo: By SY – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Kublai Khan: By Araniko – current version (January 2019)[1]This file has been extracted from another file: YuanEmperorAlbumKhubilaiFull.jpg by Eugene a, Public Domain,

Yuan Dynasty:

Horse and Groom: By Zhao Yong – Freer Gallery, Public Domain,

Footbinding bones: By Own work, Public Domain,

Foot binding photo: By For. Arfo – Feet of a Chinese woman, showing the effect of foot-binding. Photograph, 19–.], CC BY 4.0,

Lotus shoe: By Vassil – Own work, CC0,

Foot binding info:,for%20these%20feet%20were%20known%20as%20lotus%20shoes.

Li Qingzhao painting: By Jiang Xun (1764-1821) –, Public Domain,

Rabbit: By Cui Bai – The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain,

Li Qingzhao info:

Song Dynasty info:

Economy of the Song Dynasty:

Song Dynasty map: By China – Song Dynasty – cs.svg: User:Mozzanderivative work: Kanguole – China 11a.jpg: User:LiDaobingChina – Song Dynasty – cs.svg: User:Mozzan, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Empress Wu: By Unknown author – Image taken from An 18th century album of portraits of 86 emperors of China, with Chinese historical notes. Originally published/produced in China, 18th century. (British Library, Shelfmark Or. 2231), Public Domain,

5 Dynasties Period info:

Tang Dynasty info:

This text was adapted (with permission) from:

  • Western Civilization: A Concise History – Volumes 1-3
    by Dr. Christopher Brooks
  • World History Cultures, States, and Societies to 1500
    by Eugene Berger, Ph.D, George L. Israel, Ph.D., Charlotte Miller, Ph.D., Brian Parkinson, Ph.D., Andrew Reeves, Ph.D, and Nadejda Williams, Ph.D.
    CC BY-SA
  • Modern World History
    by Dan Allosso, Bemidji State University and Tom Williford, Southwest Minnesota State University

I’ve taken excerpts from the above-mentioned resources and heavily edited and added to them for my intended audience. While I’ve received permission to use/adapt these books, none of the above endorses Guest Hollow or my use of their materials.

Information was also taken from Wikipedia under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License and other resources (listed in the individual page credits).

This online book is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Beowulf the Fox Terrier dog and the Greek & Latin roots graphic © Jennifer Guest

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