East Asian History
The earliest human civilizations in East Asia developed along the Yellow River in central China. Powerful dynasties emerged to rule the vast region, with the first emperor to consolidate rule over the six largest kingdoms being Qin Shi Huang. During his reign, construction on the Great Wall was begun to repel nomadic invaders from the north, and standards were introduced for currency, measures and writing. The Qin Dynasty ended with his death in 210 B.C.
After several years of revolt, the Han Dynasty, from the northern part of China and Korea, began in 206 B.C. and ruled for 424 years. Today, the majority of Chinese and Koreans are considered ethnic Han, making them the largest ethnic group in the world. As the Han spread south, they forced smaller groups, like the Dai, toward the Indian Ocean. Settling in what is now Thailand and Laos, the Dai displaced the Khmer and Viet cultures, which are now found mostly in Vietnam and Cambodia.
In 1206 A.D., a Mongolian chieftain named Genghis Khan united the disjointed Mongol tribes and began a campaign of expansion. His grandson Kublai Khan ruled over the largest contiguous land empire in history, stretching from Mongolia and China across the entire Asian continent to the Black Sea in Eastern Europe. This established unprecedented contact between East and West, opening trade along the Silk Road and allowing for the adventures of Marco Polo, who spent nearly 20 years in Kublai Khan's royal court.
Korea and Japan just managed to survive the Mongol Empire, despite being next-door neighbors to Kublai Khan's Yuan Dynasty. The Kingdom of Goryeo, as Korea was then known, was devastated over the course of six Mongol campaigns but negotiated a treaty that maintained its sovereignty and cultural heritage. Japan's military middle class, the samurai, fought off two waves of naval invasions by the Mongols. The Japanese were finally saved by a typhoon that destroyed the Mongol fleet. The Japanese named the typhoon kamikaze, or “divine wind.”
During the 18th and 19th centuries, most of Southeast Asia and Indonesia was colonized by Europe. Thailand was able to effectively resist, forming a sort of buffer zone between Burma and Malaysia (held by the British) and French Indochina (now Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos). The Dutch established a presence in Indonesia, while Spain controlled the Philippines. World War II saw Japan rapidly expand its empire, occupying Korea, China, the Philippines and most of the Indonesian archipelago. After Japan was defeated, most of the nations in East and Southeast Asia were able to claim independence from colonial rule.