East Asian cultural sphere
East Asian Cultural Sphere.svg
East Asian cultural sphere
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese東亞文化圈
Simplified Chinese东亚文化圈
Literal meaningEast Asian cultural sphere
Chinese character cultural sphere
Vietnamese name
Vietnamese alphabetVùng văn hóa Á Đông
Vùng văn hóa chữ Hán
Chữ Nôm塳文化亞東
Korean name
Japanese name
East Asian Dragons are legendary creatures in East Asian mythology and culture.
East Asian Dragons are legendary creatures in East Asian mythology and culture.
The ways of saying and writing "Sinosphere" in major languages of the Sinosphere
The ways of saying and writing "Sinosphere" in major languages of the Sinosphere

The East Asian cultural sphere, also known as the Sinosphere, the Sinic world, the Sinitic world, the Chinese cultural sphere, or the Chinese character sphere, encompasses multiple countries in East Asia and Southeast Asia that were historically influenced by Chinese culture. The East Asian cultural sphere is made up of several countries and territories: Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, Japan, South Korea, North Korea, and Vietnam.[1][2] Other definitions may include Mongolia[3][4][5] and Singapore, because of limited historical Chinese influences or increasing modern-day Chinese diaspora.[6] The East Asian cultural sphere is not to be confused with the Sinophone world, which includes countries where the Chinese-speaking population is dominant.[7]

Imperial China was a regional power and exerted influence on tributary states and neighboring states, among which were Japan, Korea, and Vietnam.[a] These interactions brought ideological and cultural influences rooted in Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. During classical history, the four cultures shared a common imperial system under respective emperors. Chinese inventions influenced, and were in turn influenced by, innovations of the other cultures in governance, philosophy, science, and the arts.[10][11][12] Written Classical Chinese became the regional lingua franca for literary, cultural, scientific, and economic exchange,[13] and Chinese characters (Hanzi) became locally adapted in Japan as Kanji, Korea as Hanja, and Vietnam as chữ Hán.[14][15]

In late classical history, the literary importance of classical Chinese diminished as Japan, Korea, and Vietnam each adopted their own literary device. Japan developed the Katakana and Hiragana scripts, Korea created Hangul, and Vietnam developed chữ Nôm (which is now rarely used; the modern Vietnamese alphabet is based on the Latin alphabet).[16][17] Classical literature written in Chinese characters nonetheless remains an important legacy of Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese cultures.[18] In the 21st century, ideological and cultural influences of Confucianism and Mahayana Buddhism remain visible in high culture and social doctrines.


Ancient China has been regarded as one of the centers of civilization, with the emergent cultures that arose from the migration of original Han settlers from the Yellow River generally regarded as the starting point of the East Asian world. Today, China's population is approximately 1.402 billion.[19]

Japanese historian Nishijima Sadao [ja] (1919–1998), professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo, originally coined the term Tōa bunka-ken (東亜文化圏, 'East Asian Cultural Area'), conceiving of a Chinese or East Asian cultural sphere distinct from the cultures of the West. According to Nishijima, this cultural sphere—which includes China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam—shared the philosophy of Confucianism, the religion of Buddhism, and similar political and social structures stemming from a background of historical scholars in Classical Chinese.[20]


Sometimes used as a synonym for the East Asian cultural sphere, the term Sinosphere derives from Sino- ('China, Chinese') and -sphere, in the sense of a sphere of influence (i.e., an area influenced by a country). (cf. Sinophone.)[21]

As cognates of each other, the "CJKV" languages—Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese—translate the English term sphere as:

Vietnamese does not use 'khuyên' 圈 to mean sphere or area (this word is not used for 'sphere or circle' in Vietnamese, rather it means an earring; the 'sphere' sense is only found in Hán văn texts written by Vietnamese). Vietnamese uses 'vùng', meaning a region or area.

Victor H. Mair discussed the origins of these "culture sphere" terms.[22] The Chinese wénhuà quān (文化圈) dates back to a 1941 translation for the German term Kulturkreis, ('culture circle, field'), which the Austrian ethnologists Fritz Graebner and Wilhelm Schmidt proposed. Japanese historian Nishijima Sadao [ja] 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 China later re-borrowed as loanwords. The Sinosphere may be taken to be synonymous to Ancient China and its descendant civilizations as well as the "Far Eastern civilizations" (the Mainland and the Japanese ones). In the 1930s in A Study of History, the Sinosphere along with the Western, Islamic, Eastern Orthodox, Indic, etc. civilizations is presented as among the major "units of study".[23]

Comparisons with the West

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 definition of "Far Eastern civilization" and proposed that they grew out of the "Sinic civilization" that originated in the Yellow River basin.[24] Toynbee compared the relationship between the Sinic and Far Eastern civilization with that of the Hellenic and Western civilizations, which had an "apparentation-affiliation".[25]

American sinologist and historian Edwin O. Reischauer also grouped China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam into a cultural sphere that he called the "Sinic world", a group of centralized states that share a Confucian ethical philosophy. Reischauer states that this culture originated in northern China, comparing the relationship between northern China and East Asia to 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.[26]

American political scientist Samuel P. Huntington considered the Sinic world as one of many civilizations in his book 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",[27] Huntington's Sinic civilization includes China, North Korea, South Korea, Vietnam, and Chinese communities in Southeast Asia.[28] Of the many civilizations that Huntington discusses, the Sinic world is the only one that is based on a cultural, rather than religious, identity.[29] Huntington's theory was that in a post-Cold War world, humanity "[identifies] with cultural groups: tribes, ethnic groups, religious communities [and] at the broadest level, civilizations".[30][31] Yet, Huntington considered Japan as a distinct civilization.[32]


Imperial City, Huế , Vietnam. Chinese architecture has had a major influence on the East Asian architectural styles of Vietnam, Korea,  and Japan.
Imperial City, Huế , Vietnam. Chinese architecture has had a major influence on the East Asian architectural styles of Vietnam, Korea, and Japan.



Main article: East Asian cuisine

See also: Chinese cuisine, List of Chinese dishes, Vietnamese cuisine, Japanese cuisine, Korean cuisine, and Taiwanese 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.[35] The use of soy sauce, which is made from fermenting soybeans, is also widespread in the region.[36]

Rice is the staple food in all of East Asia and is a major focus of food security.[37] People who have no rice are often seen as having no food. Moreover, in East Asian countries such as Japan (御飯; gohan) and Korea (밥; bap), the word for "cooked rice" can embody the meaning of food in general.[35]

Popular terms associated with East Asian cuisine include boba, kimchi, sushi, hot pot, tea, dim sum, ramen, as well as phở, sashimi, udon, and chả giò, among others.[38]



Main article: Adoption of Chinese literary culture

East Asian literary culture is 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.[40]

Throughout East Asia, Literary Chinese was the language of administration and scholarship. Although Vietnam, Korea, and Japan each developed writing systems for their 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.[41] Though they did not use Chinese for spoken communication, each country had its 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.[42]

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 Buddhist scriptures, but later secular works were also printed. By the 13th century, metal movable type was used by government printers in Korea but seems to have not been extensively used in China, Vietnam, or Japan. At the same time, manuscript reproduction remained important until the late 19th century.[43]

Japan's textual scholarship had Chinese origins, which made Japan one of the birthplaces of modern Sinology.[44]

Four Books and Five Classics are the authoritative books of Confucianism, where it was used to study for civil service examinations in China, Korea, and Vietnam.

Philosophy and religion

Main articles: East Asian religions, East Asian philosophies, and Three teachings

The Art of War, Tao Te Ching, I Ching, and Analects are classic Chinese texts that have been influential in East Asian history.[45]


Main article: Taoism

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The countries of Taiwan, China, Korea, Vietnam, and Japan have been influenced by Taoism. Developed from an Eastern philosophy known as Tao, the religion was created in China from the teachings of Lao Tse. It follows the search for the tao, a concept that is equivalent to a path or course and represents the cosmic force that creates the universe and all things.

According to this belief, the wisdom of the tao is the only source of the universe and must be a natural path of life events that everyone should follow. Thus, the adherents of Taoism follow the search for tao, which means path and represents the strength of the universe.

The most important text in Taoism, the Tao Te Ching ("Book of the Way and Virtue", c. 300 BC), declares that the tao is the "source" of the universe, thus considered a creative principle, but not as a deity. Nature manifests itself spontaneously, without a higher intention, and it is up to humans to integrate, through "non-action" (wu wei) and spontaneity (zi ran), to its flow and rhythms, to achieve happiness and a long life.

Taoism is a combination of teachings from various sources, manifesting itself as a system that can be philosophical, religious, or ethical. The tradition can also be presented as a worldview and a way of life.


Mahayana Buddhism, particular to East Asian religion
Mahayana Buddhism, particular to East Asian religion

Main article: East Asian Buddhism

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Buddhist philosophy is guided by the teachings of the Buddha, which lead the individual to full happiness through meditative practices, mindfulness, and reflection on their daily actions. The belief is that physical and spiritual awareness leads to a state of enlightenment called nirvana, which, according to Buddha, is the highest state of meditation. In this state the individual finds peace and tranquility above the oscillations of thoughts and emotions and is rid of the inherent suffering of the physical world.


Confucianism plays a crucial part in East Asian culture.
Confucianism plays a crucial part in East Asian culture.
Temple of Literature, Hanoi. Confucian education and imperial examinations played a huge role in creating scholars and mandarins (bureaucrats) for East Asian dynasties.
Temple of Literature, Hanoi. Confucian education and imperial examinations played a huge role in creating scholars and mandarins (bureaucrats) for East Asian dynasties.

Main article: Confucianism

The countries of China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam share a Confucian philosophical worldview.[26] Confucianism is a humanistic[46] philosophy that believes that human beings are teachable, improvable, and perfectible through personal and communal endeavor, especially including self-cultivation and self-creation. Confucianism focuses on the cultivation of virtue and maintenance of ethics, the most basic of which are:[47]


Main article: Neo-Confucianism

Mid-Imperial Chinese philosophy is primarily defined by the development of neo-Confucianism. During the Tang dynasty, Buddhism from Nepal 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 forebear of the neo-Confucianists of the Song dynasty.[48] The Song dynasty philosopher Zhou Dunyi is seen as the first true "pioneer" of neo-Confucianism, using Taoist metaphysics as a framework for his ethical philosophy.[49]

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. In Vietnam, neo-Confucianism, along with Taoism and Buddhism, were also developed into Vietnam's own Tam giáo, which together with Vietnamese folk religion contributed to perfecting Vietnamese philosophy.

Other religions

Though not commonly identified with that of East Asia, the following religions have been influential in its history:[citation needed]


Numbers in Chinese and Sinoxenic languages
Numbers in Chinese and Sinoxenic languages
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in CJKV languages. Shared vocabulary is coloured. From left to right, Vietnamese (Tiếng Việt) using the obsolete Chu nom script, Korean (Han'gugeo; 한국어), Japanese (Nihongo; にほんご), and Chinese (Zhōngwén; ㄓㄨㄥ ㄨㄣˊ).
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in CJKV languages. Shared vocabulary is coloured. From left to right, Vietnamese (Tiếng Việt) using the obsolete Chu nom script, Korean (Han'gugeo; 한국어), Japanese (Nihongo; にほんご), and Chinese (Zhōngwén; ㄓㄨㄥ ㄨㄣˊ).

Languages and language families

The following language families are found in and around the East Asian cultural sphere. Some have historically contributed to the vocabulary or development of Sinitic languages, and others have been influenced to some degree by them. Only some of these languages are highly indebted to Literary Chinese and thus relevant to the East Asian cultural sphere.

  1. Sino-Tibetan: spoken mainly in China, Singapore, Myanmar, Christmas Island, Bhutan, northeast India, Kashmir, and parts of Nepal. Major Sino-Tibetan languages include the varieties of Chinese, the Tibetic languages, and Burmese. These are thought to have originated around the Yellow River, north of the Yangtze.[52][53]
  2. Austronesian: spoken mainly in what is today Taiwan, Brunei, East Timor, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, Christmas Island, Madagascar, and most of Oceania. Major Austronesian languages include the Formosan languages, Malay, Filipino, Malagasy, and Māori.[54][55]
  3. Turkic: spoken mainly in China, Russia, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Iran, Cyprus, and Turkey. Major Turkic languages include Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Uyghur, Tuvan, and Altai.[56][57][58]
  4. Austroasiatic: spoken mainly in Vietnam and Cambodia. Major Austroasiatic languages include Vietnamese and Khmer.
  5. Kra-Dai: spoken mainly in Thailand, Laos, and parts of southern China. Major Kra-Dai languages include Zhuang, Thai, and Lao.
  6. Mongolic: spoken mainly in Mongolia, China, and Russia. Major Mongolian languages include Oirat, Mongolian, Monguor, Dongxiang, and Buryat.
  7. Tungusic: spoken mainly in China and Russia. Major Tungusic languages include Evenki, Manchu, and Xibe.
  8. Koreanic: spoken mainly in Korea. Major Korean languages include Korean and Jeju.
  9. Japonic: spoken mainly in Japan. Major Japonic languages include Japanese, Ryukyuan, and Hachijo.
  10. Ainu: spoken mainly in Japan. The only surviving Ainu language is Hokkaido Ainu.

Core languages of the East Asian cultural sphere are predominantly Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese, and their respective variants. These are well-documented to have historically used Chinese characters, with Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese each having roughly 60% of their vocabulary derived from Chinese.[59][60][61] There is a small set of minor languages that are comparable to the core East Asian languages, such as Zhuang and Hmong-Mien. They are often overlooked, since neither have their own country or heavily export their culture, but Zhuang has been written in Hanzi-inspired characters called Sawndip for over 1,000 years. Hmong, while having supposedly lacked a writing system until modern history, is also suggested to have a similar percentage of Chinese loans to the core CJKV languages.[62]

Writing systems

Writing systems around the world
Writing systems around the world
Writing systems of the Far East
Writing system Regions
Logograms (Hanzi and its variants) China, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam*, Taiwan
Logograms (Dongba symbols) China (used by the Naxi ethnic minorities in China)
Syllabary (Kana) Japan
Syllabary (Yi script) China (used by the Yi ethnic minorities in China)
Semi-syllabary (Bopomofo) Taiwan and historically Mainland China. (Used to aid in the learning of Hanzi, especially reading and writing, in elementary schools. On the mainland, it is used only in the Xiandai Hanyu Cidian.)
Alphabet (Latin) Vietnam, China (used by some ethnic minorities in China, such as the Miao people); Taiwan (Tâi-lô Latin script for the Taiwanese Hokkien language)
Alphabet (Hangul) Korea, China (used by the Choson ethnic minorities in northeastern China)
Alphabet (Cyrillic) Mongolia (though there is a movement to switch back to Mongolian script)[63]
Alphabet (Mongolian) Mongolia*, China (Inner Mongolia)
Logograms (Chữ Nôm) Vietnam*, China (Dongxing, Guangxi), still used by the Gin people today
Abugida (Brahmic scripts of Indian origin) Singapore, China (Tibet, Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture)
Abugida (Pollard script) China (used by the Hmong ethnic minorities in China)
Abjad (Uyghur Arabic alphabet) China (Xinjiang)
* Official usage historically. Currently used unofficially.

Character influences

Development of kana from Chinese characters
Development of kana from Chinese characters
Countries and regions using Chinese characters as a writing system:Dark Green: Traditional Chinese, used officially (Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau)Green: Simplified Chinese, used officially, but traditional form is also used in publishing (Singapore, Malaysia)[64] Light Green: Simplified Chinese, used officially, traditional form in daily use is uncommon (China, Kokang and Wa State of Myanmar)Cyan: Chinese characters are used in parallel with other scripts in respective native languages (South Korea, Japan)Yellow: Chinese characters were once used officially, but this is now obsolete (Mongolia, North Korea, Vietnam).
Countries and regions using Chinese characters as a writing system:
Dark Green: Traditional Chinese, used officially (Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau)
Green: Simplified Chinese, used officially, but traditional form is also used in publishing (Singapore, Malaysia)[64]
Light Green: Simplified Chinese, used officially, traditional form in daily use is uncommon (China, Kokang and Wa State of Myanmar)
Cyan: Chinese characters are used in parallel with other scripts in respective native languages (South Korea, Japan)
Yellow: Chinese characters were once used officially, but this is now obsolete (Mongolia, North Korea, Vietnam).

Hanzi (漢字 or 汉字) is considered the common culture that unifies the languages and cultures of many East Asian nations. Historically, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam have used Chinese characters. Today, they are mainly used in China, Japan, and South Korea, albeit in different forms.

Mainland China, Malaysia, and Singapore use simplified characters, whereas Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau use Traditional Chinese.

Japan still uses kanji but has also invented kana, inspired by the Chinese cursive script.

Korea used to write in hanja but has invented an alphabetic system called hangul (also inspired by Chinese and phags-pa during the Mongol Empire) that is nowadays the majority script. However, hanja is a required subject in South Korea. Most names are also written in hanja. Hanja is also studied and used in academia, newspapers, and law—areas where a lot of scholarly terms and Sino-Korean loanwords are used and necessary to distinguish between otherwise ambiguous homonyms.

Vietnam used to write in chữ Hán (Chinese characters) in Classical Chinese texts (Hán văn). In the 8th century, they began inventing many of their own chữ Nôm characters. Since French colonization, they have switched to using a modified version of the Latin alphabet called chữ Quốc ngữ. However, Chinese characters still hold a special place in these cultures, as their history and literature have been greatly influenced by them. In Vietnam (and North Korea), chữ Hán can be seen in temples, cemeteries, and monuments as well as serving as decorative motifs in art and design.

Zhuang people are similar to the Vietnamese in that they used to write in Sawgun (Chinese characters) and have invented many of their own characters, called Sawndip. Sawndip is still used informally and in traditional settings, but in 1957, China introduced an alphabetical script for the language, which is what it officially promotes.[65]

Economy and trade

During the Industrial Revolution, East Asia modernized and 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 the North Atlantic area.[66]

Japan often features hierarchically organized companies, and Japanese work environments place a high value on interpersonal relationships.[67] Korean businesses, adhering to Confucian values, are structured around a patriarchal family governed by filial piety (孝順) between management and a company's employees.[68]

Post-WW2 (Tiger economies)

Hong Kong became one of the Four Asian Tiger economies, developing strong textile and manufacturing industries.[69] South Korea followed a similar route, developing the textile industry.[69]

Since the 1990s, Japanese growth has stagnated (see also Lost Decade), and present growth in East Asia has now shifted to China and to the Tiger Cub Economies of Southeast Asia, particularly Vietnam.[70][71][72][73]

The impact of the Vietnam War on the country was devastating. Vietnam only started opening its economy through "Đổi Mới" reforms in 1986, and the US only lifted the embargo on the Asian nation in 1995. Over the last few decades, however, Vietnam has been developing at a fast pace.

Modern era

Up until the early 2010s, Vietnamese trade was heavily dependent on China, and many Chinese-Vietnamese people speak both Cantonese and Vietnamese, which share many linguistic similarities. Vietnam, one of the Next Eleven countries as of 2005, is regarded as a rising economic power in Southeast Asia.[74]

See also


  1. ^ Vietnam and Korea remained tributary states of China for much of their histories, while Japan only submitted to Chinese regional hegemony during 1404–1549.[8][9]



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