Because of the remarkable durability of Chinese civilization as well as its marvelous technological and economic innovations, other cultures began to imitate China. Japan, Korea, and Vietnam were all drawn into China's cultural and political orbit in the postclassical period. Each of the three areas interacted with China differently. Of the three, Japan was able to retain its complete political independence, while Vietnam and Korea were subjected to varying degrees of Chinese imperialism. The latter two regions had less control over the nature of cultural borrowing than did Japan. In all of the areas, Buddhism played a significant role in cultural transformation. Eventually, adoption of Chinese culture caused Japan, Korea, and Vietnam to remain relatively isolated with the exception of their links to China.
Japan: The Imperial Age
Chinese cultural influence in Japan peaked during the seventh and eighth centuries. In 646 the Japanese emperor introduced administrative reforms, the Taika reforms, intended to realign the Japanese government along Chinese models. Chinese patterns of court etiquette, diplomacy, historical writing, and Confucian philosophy became mandatory aspects of the Japanese court. Buddhism swept into Japan. The attempted wholesale introduction of Chinese culture into Japan met with resistance from the aristocracy. The eventual failure of the Taika reforms implied the weakening of the imperial government and the passage of power to the aristocracy. In the long run, power passed from the imperial court to regional lords, who insisted on a return to Japanese ways.
Crisis at Nara and the Shift to Heian (Kyoto)
The Taika reforms were intended to create an emperor with absolute powers assisted by a Chinese-style bureaucracy and supported by an army of conscripted peasants. Opposition to the reforms came from aristocratic families and from Buddhist monks. Buddhist monks had become so powerful in Japan that one of their number actually conspired to take over the throne in the 760s. With the imperial government under constant threat of Buddhist disruption, the emperor moved the capital from Nara to Heian (Kyoto). The Buddhists who were forbidden to build monasteries within the new capital settled for constructing monasteries on the hills that surrounded the city.
To counterbalance the growing influence of the Buddhists, emperors restored the powers of the aristocratic families, reinforced their traditional control of the imperial government, and permitted them to build up their control of rural estates. Attempts to create a conscripted army were abandoned and military organization was left to members of the rural aristocracy.
Ultracivilized: Court Life in the Heian Era
Although attempts to expand imperial centralization were abandoned at Heian, the imperial court produced a refined culture that set standards for aristocratic life. The court established strict rules of social conduct and a hierarchy of status that defined social relationships. The elite in Heian lived in a complex of palaces and gardens. Poetry was the favorite literary expression at Heian. Women participated in the production of poetry and other forms of literature. For instance, one of the most celebrated literary works of this era was The Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki.
The Decline of Imperial Power
By the middle of the ninth century, the imperial court was dominated by the Fujiwara family. Aristocratic families competed with Buddhist monasteries for control of land around the capital. Both groups sought to frustrate imperial reforms and limit the power of the emperors. Gradually the secular elite within the imperial court at Heian and the Buddhist monasteries began to cooperate. Both groups came into conflict with the growing regional influence of local lords outside the region of Heian.
The Rise of the Provincial Warrior Elite...