East Asian cultural sphere

"Sinosphere" redirects here. For other uses, see Sinosphere (disambiguation).
For other uses, see Greater China.
East Asian cultural sphere
Chinese name
Simplified Chinese 东亚文化圈
Traditional Chinese 東亞文化圈
Vietnamese name
Vietnamese alphabet Đông Á Văn Hoá Quyển/ Vòng Văn hóa Đông Á
Hán-Nôm 東亞文化圈 , 𥿺文化東亞
Korean name
Hangul 동아시아문화권
Hanja 東亞文化圈
Japanese name
Kanji 東亜文化圏
Kana とうあぶんかけん

The East Asian cultural sphere or Sinosphere refers to a grouping of countries and regions in East Asia that were historically influenced by the culture of China. Other names for the concept include the Sinic world, the Confucian world, and the Chinese cultural sphere, though the last is also used to refer particularly to the Sinophone world: the areas which speak varieties of Chinese.

The East Asian cultural sphere shares a Confucian ethical philosophy, Buddhism, political and legal structures, and historically a common writing system. The core regions of the East Asian cultural sphere are China (PRC), Taiwan (ROC), North Korea, South Korea, Japan and Vietnam, although Mongolia and parts of Central Asia are sometimes included and perhaps more on an ethnic basis than a cultural basis.

The terms East Asian cultural sphere and Chinese character (Hànzì) cultural sphere are used interchangeably with "Sinosphere" but have different denotations.

Academic usage

Arnold J. Toynbee

British historian Arnold J. Toynbee listed the Far Eastern civilization as one of the main civilizations outlined in his book, A Study of History. He included Japan and Korea in his Far Eastern civilization, and proposed that it grew out of the Sinic civilization that originated in the Yellow River basin.[1] Toynbee compared the relationship between the Sinic and Far Eastern civilization with that of the Hellenic and Western civilizations. According to Toynbee, the Hellenic and Western civilizations had an "apparentation-affiliation" relationship, while the Far Eastern world was controlled by the "ghost" of the "Sinic universal state."[2]

Nishijima Sadao

Japanese historian Nishijima Sadao (西嶋定生, 1919–1998) conceived a Chinese or East Asian cultural sphere largely isolated from other cultures. According to Sadao, this cultural sphere shared the philosophy of Confucianism, the religion of Buddhism, and similar political and social structures. His cultural sphere includes China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and areas between Mongolia and the Himalayas.[3]

Edwin O. Reischauer

The American Sinologist and historian Edwin O. Reischauer grouped China, Korea, and Japan together into a cultural sphere that he called the Sinic world. These countries are centralized states that share a Confucian ethical philosophy. Reischauer states that this culture originated in Northern China, and compared the relationship between Northern China and East Asia with that of Greco-Roman civilization and Europe. The elites of East Asia were tied together through a common written language based on Chinese characters, much in the way that Latin had functioned in Europe.[4]

Samuel P. Huntington

Political scientist Samuel P. Huntington considered the Sinic world as one of many civilizations in his The Clash of Civilizations. He notes that "all scholars recognize the existence of either a single distinct Chinese civilization dating back to at least 1500 B.C. and perhaps a thousand years earlier, or of two Chinese civilizations one succeeding the other in the early centuries of the Christian epoch." He comments that he originally used the term "Confucian," but "Sinic" is more accurate because it describes "the common culture of China and the Chinese communities in Southeast Asia and elsewhere outside of China as well as the related cultures of Vietnam and Korea."[5]

Huntington's Sinic civilization includes China, North Korea, South Korea, Mongolia, Vietnam, and Chinese communities in Southeast Asia.[6] Of the many civilizations that Huntington discusses, the Sinic world is the only one that is based on a cultural, rather than religious, identity.[7] Huntington's theory was that in a post-Cold War world, humanity "identify with cultural groups: tribes, ethnic groups, religious communities, and at the broadest level, civilizations."[8] He portrayed the cultural sphere's political culture as one with "little room for social or political pluralism and the division of power" with "international politics as hierarchical because their domestic policies are." Huntington argued that the Sinic world would eventually oppose the West's hegemony in Asia, likely through forming an alliance with the Islamic world.[9]

Cultural commonalities


Countries from the East Asian cultural sphere share a common architectural style stemming from the architecture of ancient China.



Main article: Confucianism

The countries of China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam share a Confucian philosophical worldview.[4] Confucianism is a humanistic[10] philosophy that believes that human beings are teachable, improvable and perfectible through personal and communal endeavour especially including self-cultivation and self-creation. Confucianism focuses on the cultivation of virtue and maintenance of ethics, the most basic of which are rén (仁), (义/義), and (礼/禮).[11] Ren is an obligation of altruism and humaneness for other individuals, yi is the upholding of righteousness and the moral disposition to do good, and li is a system of norms and propriety that determines how a person should properly act in everyday life.[11]


Mid-Imperial Chinese philosophy is primarily defined by the development of Neo-Confucianism. During the Tang Dynasty, Buddhism from India also became a prominent philosophical and religious discipline. Neo-Confucianism has its origins in the Tang Dynasty; the Confucianist scholar Han Yu is seen as a forbear of the Neo-Confucianists of the Song Dynasty.[12] The Song Dynasty philosopher Zhou Dunyi is seen as the first true "pioneer" of Neo-Confucianism, using Daoist metaphysics as a framework for his ethical philosophy.[13]

Elsewhere in East Asia, Japanese philosophy began to develop as indigenous Shinto beliefs fused with Buddhism, Confucianism and other schools of Chinese philosophy. Similar to Japan, in Korean philosophy elements of Shamanism were integrated into the Neo-Confucianism imported from China.

Literary culture

East Asian literary culture was based on the use of Literary Chinese, which became the medium of scholarship and government across the region. Although each of these countries developed vernacular writing systems and used them for popular literature, they continued to use Chinese for all formal writing until it was swept away by rising nationalism around the end of the 19th century.[14]

Throughout East Asia, Literary Chinese was the language of administration and scholarship. Although Vietnam, Korea and Japan each developed writing systems for their own languages, these were limited to popular literature. Chinese remained the medium of formal writing until it was displaced by vernacular writing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.[15] Though they did not use Chinese for spoken communication, each country had its own tradition of reading texts aloud, the so-called Sino-Xenic pronunciations, which provide clues to the pronunciation of Middle Chinese. Chinese words with these pronunciations were also borrowed extensively into the local vernaculars, and today comprise over half their vocabularies.[16]

Books in Literary Chinese were widely distributed. By the 7th century and possibly earlier, woodblock printing had been developed in China. At first, it was used only to copy the Buddhist scriptures, but later secular works were also printed. By the 13th century, metal movable type used by government printers in Korea, but seems not to have been extensively used in China, Vietnam or Japan. At the same time manuscript reproduction remained important until the late 19th century.[17]

Business culture

The business cultures of East Asia remain heavily influenced by Confucianism. In Japan, companies are hierarchically organized and relationships are highly valued.[18] Korean businesses also adhere to Confucian values, and are structured around a patriarchal family governed by filial piety between management and a company's employees.[19] East Asia became an area of economic power starting with the Meiji Restoration in the late 19th century when Japan rapidly transformed itself into the only industrial power outside Europe and the United States.[20] Japan's early industrial economy reached its height in World War II when it expanded its empire and became a major world power. After its defeat and economic collapse after the war, Japan's economy recovered in the 1950s with the post-war economic miracle in which rapid growth in the Japanese economy propelled the country into the world's second largest economy by the 1980s. In the late 20th century and early 21st century, South Korea and China have become the 11th and 2nd largest economies in the world respectively according to nominal GDP.

The former British colony of Hong Kong became one of the Four Asian Tigers economies by developing strong textile and manufacturing economies.[21] South Korea followed a similar route, developing a textile industry.[21] Following in the footsteps of Hong Kong and Korea, Taiwan and Singapore quickly industrialized through government policies. By 1997, the four Asian Tiger economies joined Japan as East Asia's developed economies. Present growth in East Asia has now shifted to China and the Tiger Cub Economies of the Southeast Asia.


Main article: East Asian cuisine

The cuisine of East Asia shares many of the same ingredients and techniques. Chopsticks are used as an eating utensil in all of the core East Asian countries.[22] The use of soy sauce, a sauce made from fermenting soy beans, is also widespread in East Asia. Rice is a main staple food in all of East Asia and is a major focus of food security.[23] In East Asian countries, the word, 'rice' can embody the meaning of food in general (simplified Chinese: 饭; traditional Chinese: 飯; pinyin:  fàn).[22]

Chinese Characters

Main article: Chinese characters

Historically China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam have used Chinese characters. Today, it is mainly used in China and Japan.

Although Chinese Characters have become almost obsolete in Vietnam and Korea, they still hold a special place in the cultures as their history and literature have been greatly influenced by Chinese characters; Chinese characters can be seen in temples, calligraphies, etc. today.

The term Sinosphere is sometimes used as a synonym for the East Asian cultural sphere. The etymology of Sinosphere is from Sino- "China; Chinese" (cf. Sinophone) and -sphere in the sense of "sphere of influence", "area influenced by a country". The "CJKV" Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese languages translate English -sphere as Chinese quān "circle; ring; corral; pen",[24] Japanese ken "sphere; circle; range; radius",[25] Korean gwon and Vietnamese quyển.

Victor H. Mair discussed the origins of these "culture sphere" terms.[26] Chinese wénhuà quān 文化圈 dates back to a 1941 translation for German Kulturkreis "culture circle/field", which the Austrian ethnologists Fritz Graebner and Wilhelm Schmidt proposed. The Japanese historian Nishijima Sadao (西嶋定生, 1919-1998), professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo, coined the expressions Kanji bunka ken (漢字文化圏, "Chinese-character culture sphere") and Chuka bunka ken (中華文化圏, "Chinese culture sphere"), which Chinese later borrowed as loanwords. Nishijima devised these Sinitic "cultural spheres" within his "Theory of an East Asian World" (東アジア世界論 Higashi Ajia sekai-ron).

Chinese-English dictionaries give similar translations of this keyword wénhuà quān 文化圈: "the intellectual or literary circles" (Liang Shiqiu 1975), "literary, educational circle(s)" (Lin Yutang 1972), and "intellectual/literary circles" (John DeFrancis 1996).

This cultural region closely corresponds to the ancient "Sinic civilization" and its descendants, the "Far Eastern civilizations" (the Mainland and the Japanese ones), which Arnold J. Toynbee presented in the 1930s in A Study of History, along with the Western, Islamic, Eastern Orthodox, Indic, etc. civilizations, among the major "units of study" of the world's history.[27]

See also



  1. Sun, Lung-kee (2002). The Chinese National Character: From Nationalhood to Individuality. M.E. Sharpe. p. 154. ISBN 978-0-7656-3936-3.
  2. Sun, Lung-kee (2002). The Chinese National Character: From Nationalhood to Individuality. M.E. Sharpe. p. 188. ISBN 978-0-7656-0826-0.
  3. Wang Hui, "'Modernity and 'Asia' in the Study of Chinese History," in Eckhardt Fuchs, Benedikt Stuchtey, eds.,Across cultural borders: historiography in global perspective (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002 ISBN 978-0-7425-1768-4), p. 322.
  4. 1 2 Edwin O. Reischauer, "The Sinic World in Perspective," Foreign Affairs 52.2 (January 1974): 341-348. JSTOR
  5. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996; ISBN 0684811642), p. 45
  6. William E. Davis (2006). Peace And Prosperity in an Age of Incivility. University Press of America. p. 197. ISBN 978-0-7618-3248-5.
  7. Michail S. Blinnikov (2011). A Geography of Russia and Its Neighbors. Guilford Press. p. 132. ISBN 978-1-60623-933-9.
  8. Lung-kee Sun (2002). The Chinese National Character: From Nationalhood to Individuality. M.E. Sharpe. p. 32. ISBN 978-0-7656-0826-0.
  9. Hugh Gusterson (2004). People of the bomb: portraits of America's nuclear complex. U of Minnesota Press. p. 124. ISBN 978-0-8166-3860-4.
  10. Juergensmeyer, Mark (2005). Religion in global civil society. Oxford University Press. p. 70. ISBN 978-0-19-518835-6.
  11. 1 2 Craig, Edward. Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction. ISBN 0-19-285421-6 Craig 1998, p. 536.
  12. Essentials of Neo-Confucianism: Eight Major Philosophers of the Song and Ming Periods by Huang, Siu-chi. Huang 1999, p. 5.
  13. A Sourcebook of Chinese Philosophy by Chan, Wing-tsit. Chan 2002, p. 460.
  14. Kornicki, P.F. (2011), "A transnational approach to East Asian book history", in Chakravorty, Swapan; Gupta, Abhijit, New Word Order: Transnational Themes in Book History, Worldview Publications, pp. 65–79, ISBN 978-81-920651-1-3.Kornicki 2011, pp. 75–77
  15. Kornicki (2011), pp. 66–67.
  16. Miyake (2004), pp. 98–99.
  17. Kornicki (2011), p. 68.
  18. Where cultures meet; a cross-cultural comparison of business meeting styles. Hogeschool van Amsterdam. p. 69. ISBN 978-90-79646-17-3.
  19. Timothy Book; Hy V.. Luong (1999). Culture and economy: the shaping of capitalism in eastern Asia. University of Michigan Press. p. 131. ISBN 978-0-472-08598-9. Retrieved 26 May 2013.
  20. Aiko Ikeo (4 January 2002). Economic Development in Twentieth-Century East Asia: The International Context. Taylor & Francis. p. 12. ISBN 978-0-203-02704-2.
  21. 1 2 J. James W. Harrington; Barney Warf (1995). Industrial Location: Principles, Practice, and Policy. Routledge. p. 199. ISBN 978-0-415-10479-1.
  22. 1 2 Davidson, Alan (1981). Food in Motion: The Migration of Foodstuffs and Cookery Techniques : Proceedings : Oxford Symposium 1983. Oxford Symposium. p. 22. ISBN 978-0-907325-07-9.
  23. Wen S. Chern; Colin A. Carter; Shun-yi Shei (2000). Food security in Asia: economics and policies. Edward Elgar Publishing. p. 2. ISBN 978-1-78254-334-3.
  24. DeFrancis, John, ed. (2003), ABC Chinese-English Comprehensive Dictionary, University of Hawaii Press, p. 750.
  25. T. Watanabe, E. R. Skrzypczak, and P. Snowden (2003), Kenkyūsha's New Japanese-English Dictionary, Kenkyusha, p. 873. Compare Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.
  26. Victor Mair, Sinophone and Sinosphere, Language Log, November 8, 2012.
  27. See the "family tree" of Toynbee's "civilizations" in any edition of Toynbee's own work, or e.g. as Fig.1 on p.16 of: The Rhythms of History: A Universal Theory of Civilizations, By Stephen Blaha. Pingree-Hill Publishing, 2002. ISBN 0-9720795-7-2.


  • Ankerl, Guy (2000). Coexisting contemporary civilizations : Arabo-Muslim, Bharati, Chinese, and Western. Global communication without universal civilization. 1. Geneva, Switzerland: INU Press. ISBN 2-88155-004-5. 
  • Joshua Fogel, "The Sinic World," in Ainslie Thomas Embree, Carol Gluck, ed., Asia in Western and World History a Guide for Teaching. (Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, Columbia Project on Asia in the Core Curriculum, 1997). ISBN 0585027331. Access may be limited to NetLibrary affiliated libraries.
  • Fogel, Joshua A. (2009). Articulating the Sinosphere : Sino-Japanese relations in space and time. Edwin O. Reischauer Lectures ([Online-Ausg.]. ed.). Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-03259-4. 
  • Holcombe, Charles (2011). "Introduction: What is East Asia". A history of East Asia : from the origins of civilization to the twenty-first century (1st published. ed.). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. pp. 1–10. ISBN 978-0521731645. 
  • Holcombe, Charles (2001). The Genesis of East Asia, 221 B.C.-A.D. 907 ([Online-Ausg.] ed.). Honolulu: Association for Asian Studies and University of Hawai'i Press. ISBN 0824824156. 
  • Reischauer, Edwin O. (1974). "The Sinic World in Perspective". Foreign Affairs. 52 (2): 341–348. doi:10.2307/20038053. JSTOR 20038053. 
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