The Early Relations between China and Japan

Between China and Japan, there has been a complicated relationship. The two countries in the East Asia sometimes were hand-in-hand friends and sometimes were absolutely irreconcilable opponents. In the friendly years, the people from the two nations often agreeably talked about the long history of the two nations’ friendship. In the hostile years, the people from the two nations were often involved in furious conflicts around the war history. Conflicts often cause extremism, and the exchanges of thoughts always promote common understanding. Why do Chinese people and Japanese people have so complex feelings for each other? The underlying reason is that, the relations between China and Japan have existed for thousands of years, and the very long complicated history formed the complex feelings. Now, let’s look back on the history of the early relations between China and Japan. The early historical information also shows the developing way of the Japanese nation.

Almost all of official historical works of ancient China have records about Japan. In the books written before the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618 - 907) of China, the Japanese people is named “Wa” (倭). About the origin of the name “Wa”, there are two viewpoints. The first viewpoint is that, “Wa” means “short stature” because the normal stature of ancient Japanese people was not high. The second viewpoint is that, “Wa” is the pronouncing inflexion of the word “Ainu” (アイヌ) in ancient Chinese language, because “Wanu” (倭奴), the name of an early Japanese country which is recorded in an important historical book of ancient China, is phonetically similar to the word “Ainu” in ancient Chinese language. Ainu is the indigenous people of Japan. Originally the Ainu people lived in the major islands of modern-day Japan, and later they were exiled to the northern islands by the Yamato (和) people who were the offspring of the immigrants from the mainland of the East Asia. Now the Ainu people mainly live in Hokkaido (北海道). The second viewpoint seems to be more reasonable.

According to a book "Lunheng" (论衡) written by Wang Chong (王充, who lived in the first century A.D..) in the Eastern Han Dynasty of China, the Wa people gave presents to Zhou Cheng-King (周成王), the second king of the Western Zhou Dynasty, who was reigning in the 11st century B.C.. If this record is true, it shows China and Japan had contact three thousand years ago.

"The Classic about Mountains and Foreign Lands" (山海经), a mythological geographical book written in the Pre-Qin Era (the times before 221 B.C.) of China, had such a record, “Wa belongs to the Yan (燕) State.” The Yan State was a northeast feudal country in the Zhou Dynasty, and its territory included the major part of modern-day Hebei Province and a part of modern-day Liaoning Province. Why did the book have such a record? Perhaps at that time some tribes of Wa sent messengers to pay tribute to the Yan State, and declared that they were willing to be the dependencies of the Yan State. So, the monarchs of the Yan State thought that the land of Wa belonged to their country.
The Golden Seal of the Wanu's King of Japan

The reliable history about ancient Japan was recorded in a famous historical work “the History of Han” written by Ban Gu (班固, A.D. 32 - 92) in the Eastern Han Dynasty. The book detailedly records the history of the Western Han Dynasty. In this book, a chapter “Geography (地理志)” records, “In the Lelang Sea (乐浪海), there is a people known as Wa. They had more than one hundred countries. Every year they come to offer tribute to our empire.” The Lelang Sea was the modern-day Sea of Japan. In 108 B.C., Han Wu-Emperor (汉武帝) sent two armies to attack Joseon (朝鲜, an ancient country in modern-day North Korea) by sea and over land simultaneously. After occupying Joseon, the emperor established four Jun (“Jun”[郡] was the name of medium administrative regions) in Joseon. Lelang Jun (乐浪郡) was one of the four regions. The modern-day Sea of Japan was near Lelang Jun, so the sea was named “the Lelang Sea” at that time. “Lelang” was a romantic name, and it means happy waves. Nowadays the sea is called “the Sea of Japan”, but Korean people want to call it “the Sea of Korea”. In fact, more than two thousand years ago, the Chinese nation gave it a romantic name “the Sea of Lelang”. This name is good, because it means peace and happiness. From the Western Han Dynasty to the Eastern Jin (东晋) Dynasty, the officials from China had managed the north of the Korean Peninsula for about five hundred years. Anyway, they transmitted the advanced culture of China to the land.
The Golden Seal of the Wanu's King of Japan

“The History of the Later Han” (後汉书), a historical book written by Fan Ye (范晔, A.D. 398 - 445) in the Song Dynasty (A.D. 420 - 479) of the Southern Dynasties (A.D. 420 - 589) of China, records the details about the customs and manners of the Wa people. Fan Ye mentioned that there were many persons of longevity in the Wa people. This historical book records that, the Yamato (邪马台) State was one of the countries founded by the Wa people, and the supreme king of the Wa people lived in this state. In A.D. 57, the Wanu (倭奴) State, a southern Japanese country in modern-day Fukuoka (福岡), sent envoys to offer tribute to Han Guangwu-Emperor (汉光武帝), the first emperor of the Eastern Han Dynasty. Han Guangwu-Emperor gave a seal to the king of Wanu. The seal was unearthed in Sikanosima (志賀島), Japan in 1784. The seal is golden and has such inscriptions: “The King of the Wanu State of Han.” (漢委奴國王. Here “委” is used as “倭”.) The Golden Seal of the Wanu's King of JapanThe title shows that the Han emperor regarded the Wanu State as a tributary of the Han Empire. In A.D. 107, Suisyou (帥升), a king of the Wa people, offered one hundred and sixty persons as tribute to the Han Empire. In the times of Han Huan-Emperor (汉桓帝, who was reigning from A.D. 147 to 167) and Han Ling-Emperor (汉灵帝, who was reigning from A.D. 168 to 189), there were long-term wars between the countries of the Wa people for the supreme throne. Finally, Himiko (卑弥呼), a single woman who could enchant others by witchcraft, was supported to be the supreme king of the Wa people.

“The History of the Three Countries” (三国志), a historical book written by Chen Shou (陈寿, A.D. 233 - 297) in the Western Jin (西晋, A.D. 265 - 316) Dynasty of China, records the detailed geography and customs of the Wa people. In A.D. 238, Himiko, the supreme woman-king of the Wa people, who lived in the Yamato State, sent her ministers Nashime (难升米) and Tushi Gori (都市牛利) to pay tribute to the Wei (魏) State, the strongest country in the Three-Empires Period (A.D. 220 - 265) of China. Wei Ming-Emperor (魏明帝), the second emperor of the Wei State, praised the loyalty and piety of Himiko and gave her a title “the Wei’s Friend and the Wa’s King” (亲魏倭王) and a golden seal with a purple ribbon. The Golden Seal of Himiko of JapanNashime and Gori each got a title and a silver seal with a cyan ribbon. The emperor gave many presents to Himiko, and told her that these presents showed the empire was much concerned about her.

In A.D. 240, Cao Fang (曹芳), who just now ascended to the throne of the Wei State, sent envoys to visit the Yamato State and give Himiko a new seal and presents. Himiko felt very excited, and sent envoys to express her profound gratitude to the emperor. In 243, Himiko sent eight ministers to pay tribute to the Wei State. The eight ministers were given titles and seals by the emperor of Wei. In 245, the emperor of Wei bestowed a yellow ritual streamer on Nashime. In 247, there were armed conflicts between the Yamato State and the Kunu (狗奴) State, because Pimikuku (卑弥弓呼), the king of the Kunu State, were not willing to obey Himiko. Himiko sent envoys to complain to the Wei State about the attack of Pimikuku. The emperor of the Wei State then sent envoys to the Yamato State for mediating between Yamato and Kunu. At that time, Himiko was very old and seriously ill. Later, she died, and a man became the king. The people of the Yamato State didn’t obey him, and there was a serious unrest in the state. Iyo (壹与, written as ”壱与” in Japanese language), a girl from the clan of Himiko, was supported to be a king at the age of 13, and then the situation in the Yamato State became stable. Iyo sent twenty ministers to escort Chinese envoys home and offer her tribute to the emperor of the Wei State.

“The History of Jin” (晋书), a historical book written by Fang Xuanling (房玄龄, 579 - 648) in the Tang Dynasty, gives an important information about the origin of the Japanese people: “The Wa people said that they were the offspring of Taibo (太伯).” The name “Taibo” is pointed to Wu Taibo (吴太伯). Wu Taibo lived in the last days of the Shang (the 16th century B.C. – the 11th century B.C.) Dynasty. He was the eldest son of Zhou Tai-King (周太王), and his younger brother was named Jili (季历). Jili was the father of Zhou Wen-King (周文王) and the grandfather of Zhou Wu-King (周武王). Zhou Tai-King thought highly of Jili, and hoped to give the throne to him. Wu Tai-bo understood his father’s mind, so he left the Zhou Kingdom. He went to the far south, and founded the Wu (吳) State. The Wu State was annexed by the Yue (越) State in 473 B.C.. Chen Shou and Fan Ye once said that some customs of the Wa people were similar to ancient Wu State. Perhaps the Wa people was really related to the people of ancient Wu State. In the period of Tokugawa Shogunate (德川幕府, or called 江戶幕府), some Japanese such as Kumazawa Banzan (熊沢蕃山) and Yamaga Sokou (山鹿素行) denied the traditional viewpoint that the Japanese people was from ancient Wu State, and they said, “The viewpoint seems not to be fabricated by Chinese, and it must be from the frivolous Japanese who wanted to ingratiate themselves with that nation. Such kind of Japanese not only existed in ancient times but also live in modern days.”

The book “the History of Jin” records that, in the early days of the Western Jin Dynasty, the king of the Wa people sent envoys to pay tribute to the Jin (晋) Empire. This king was supposed to be the woman king Iyo in her thirties. After that time, there were no messages about the woman king Iyo any longer. Perhaps her country was annexed by a newly rising country. In A.D. 413, the Wa (倭) State paid tribute to the Jin Empire. It seems that the Wa State had taken the place of the Yamato State. According to a historical book “the History of Liang” (梁书), the Wa’s king at that time was named San (讃).

“The History of Song” (宋书), written by Shen Yue (沈约) in the Liang (梁, A.D. 502 - 557) Dynasty of China, is a historical work about the Song Dynasty of the Southern Dynasties. The book records the detailed contact between the Song Empire and the five kings of the Wa State.

In A.D. 421, San, the king of the Wa State, sent envoys to offer tribute to the Song Empire. Song Wu-Emperor (宋武帝), the first emperor of the Song Dynasty, praised the sincerity of San. In 425, San sent envoys to pay tribute to Song Wen-Emperor (宋文帝), the second emperor of the Song Dynasty.

After the death of San, his younger brother Chin (珍) ascended to the throne. Chin sent envoys to pay tribute to the Song Empire, and called himself as “Shichijie (使持节); the Military Governor (都督诸军事) of the six states including Wa, Paekche (百济), Silla (新罗), Imna (任那), Jinhan (秦韩) and Mohan (慕韩); the Great General of Steadying the East (安冬大将军); the King of the Wa State (倭国王)”. “Shichijie” was a privileged title. If a governor got this title, he would have authority to inflict death on any officer with a middle rank or an inferior rank. Paekche, Silla, Jinhan and Mohan were the countries founded by the Korean people, and they kept good relations with China, so Chinese emperor was not willing to offend these friendly countries. Imna was a dependency of the Wa State in the south of the Korean Peninsula. Chin asked Song Wen-Emperor to give the titles what he called himself to him. But Song Wen-Emperor only gave him two titles “the General of Steadying the East” (安东将军) and “the King of the Wa State”. Chin asked Song Wen-Emperor to give his thirteen ministers the titles of “General” (将军), and the emperor agreed.

In 443, Sai (済), the new king of the Wa State, sent envoys to offer tribute to the Song Empire, and got the two titles “the General of Steadying the East” and “the King of the Wa State”. In 450, in order to liberate the northern Chinese people from the oppression of other ethnic groups, the Song Empire levied a large-scale war against the Northern Wei (北魏) Empire which was founded by a nomadic ethnic group named Sibo (鲜卑). Finally the Song Empire was tragically defeated and lost heavily. The influence of the Song Empire was weakened seriously. In 451, Sai sent envoys to pay tribute to the Song Empire. Song Wen-Emperor felt touched, and added the titles “Shichijie” and “the Military Governor of the six states including Wa, Silla, Imna, Kara (加罗, a Korean country), Jinhan and Mohan” to Sai, and gave titles to twenty-three ministers of Sai.

After the death of Sai, his heir Ko (兴) sent envoys to offer tribute to the Song Empire. In 462, Song Xiaowu-Emperor (宋孝武帝), the third son of Song Wen-Emperor, praised the loyalty of Ko, and gave him the two titles “the General of Steadying the East, and the King of the Wa State”.

After the death of Ko, his younger brother Bu (武) ascended to the throne. Bu was very ambitious, and called himself as “Shichijie; the Military Governor of the seven states including Wa, Paekche, Silla, Imna, Kara, Jinhan and Mohan; the Great General of Steadying the East; the King of the Wa State”. In 478, Bu sent envoys to take his letter to Song Shun-Emperor (宋顺帝), the grandson of Song Wen-Emperor and the son of Song Ming-Emperor (宋明帝). In this letter, Bu described the achievements that his country had subjugated 216 countries in modern-day Japanese islands. And he complained to Song Shun-Emperor, that Koguryo (句骊, a strong Korean country) often obstructed his envoys who were sent to China, and the kings of Koguryo tried to annex his colony. Bu asked the emperor for military assistance. But at that time, the Song Empire was resisting the invaders of the Northern Wei Empire, so it was impossible to give military assistance to a remote foreign country. The Song Empire even wanted to get military assistance from foreign countries. The Song Empire was now very weak and the territory was seriously reduced. But, in the heart of Bu, the Song Empire was still an orthodox empire with a great civilization, so he thirsted for the titles which were conferred by the Song Empire. Bu believed that, if he got the titles, he would have authority to subjugate Korean countries. The emperor of the Song Empire now didn’t mind the titles what Bu wanted to get, because he also couldn’t control the Korean countries. So the emperor generously gave Bu the titles “Shichijie; the Military Governor of the six states including Wa, Silla, Imna, Kara, Jinhan and Mohan; the Great General of Steadying the East; the King of the Wa State”.

“The History of the Southern Qi” (南齐书), written by Xiao Zixian (萧子显, A.D. 487 - 537), and “the History of Liang”, written by Yao Cha (姚察, A.D. 533 - 606) and his son Yao Silian (姚思廉, A.D. 557 - 637), have very simple records about the relations between China and Japan. In 479, Qi Gao-Emperor (齐高帝, who was reigning from A.D. 479 to 482), the first emperor of the Southern Qi (南齐, A.D. 479 - 502) Dynasty, ascended the throne, and accepted the tribute of the Wa State. The emperor felt glad, and gave the Wa’s king Bu the titles “Shichijie; the Military Governor of the six states including Wa, Silla, Imna, Kara, Jinhan and Mohan; the Great General of Steadying the East”. But Bu was not contented, and he called himself as “the Great General of Holding the East” (镇东大将军). In 502, Liang Wu-Emperor (梁武帝, who was reigning from 502 to 549), the first emperor of the Liang Dynasty, ascended the throne. Bu paid tribute to the emperor, and Liang Wu-Emperor gave him a title “the General of Subduing the East” (征东将军).

In 589, the Chen (陈, A.D. 557 - 589) Dynasty, the last one of the Southern Dynasties, was annexed by the Sui Empire, a newly rising dynasty. In 592, a woman king named Suiko (推古) ascended the throne of the Wa State, and she let her nephew Shotoku Taishi (聖德太子) assist her to manage her country. The Wa people now named themselves “the Yamato People” and named their country “Nippon” (日本) which means “the place where the sun comes from”. Since then, what the Japanese people wanted was not to follow China, but to become a great country as China. A new chapter of the relations between China and Japan was opened.


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