Little China (ideology)

Little China[1] is a term referring to a politico-cultural ideology and phenomenon in which various Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese regimes identified themselves as "China" and regarded themselves to be legitimate successors to the Chinese civilization.[2][3][4][5][6] Informed by the traditional Chinese concepts of Sinocentrism and Hua–Yi distinction, this belief became more apparent after the Manchu-led Qing dynasty had superseded the Han-led Ming dynasty in China proper, as Tokugawa Japan, Joseon Korea and Nguyễn Vietnam, among others, perceived that "barbarians" had ruined the center of world civilization.[2][3][6][7][8][9][10]

Little China
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese小中華
Simplified Chinese小中华
Vietnamese name
Vietnamese alphabetTiểu Trung Hoa
Chữ Hán小中華
Korean name
Japanese name
Graphical representation of the Sinocentric world order:
China (中華)
Greater China (大中華)
Little China (小中華)
Barbarians (夷狄)
Beasts (禽獸)

Little China ideology in the SinosphereEdit

Since ancient times, the realm of "China" has not been a fixed or predetermined concept based on ethnicity or geographical location. According to the Spring and Autumn Annals, "Chinese" people who adopt the ways of the "barbarians" would be considered "barbarians", whereas "barbarians" who adopt the ways of the "Chinese" would be accepted as "Chinese".[11] Hence, the idea of "Chinese-ness" is a fluid concept and is defined through self-identification and cultural affiliation.

Having been heavily influenced by Chinese culture and political thoughts, numerous Korean, Vietnamese and Japanese regimes identified themselves with names that are traditionally associated with and used by China. At the same time, these regimes considered themselves as legitimate successors to Chinese culture and civilization.

Names of China adopted by Korea, Vietnam and Japan
Traditional name of China Rendition in Korean Rendition in Vietnamese Rendition in Japanese
Mandarin: Zhōngguó

MC: Ʈɨuŋkwək̚

Trung Quốc
Trung Quốc
Mandarin: Zhōnghuá

MC: Ʈɨuŋɦˠua

Trung Hoa
Trung Hoa
Mandarin: Huáxià

MC: ꞪˠuaɦˠaX

Hoa Hạ
Hoa Hạ
Mandarin: Zhōngxià

MC: ƮɨuŋɦˠaX

Trung Hạ
Trung Hạ
Mandarin: Zhōngcháo

MC: Ʈɨuŋʈˠiᴇu

Trung Triều
Trung Triều
Mandarin: Shénzhōu

MC: ʑiɪnt͡ɕɨu

Thần Châu
Thần Châu
Mandarin: Huá

MC: Ɦˠua




Mandarin: Xià

MC: ꞪˠaX





According to the History of the Three Kingdoms, Silla adopted the clothing and customs of the Tang dynasty as a way of transforming its people from "barbarians" into "Hwa" ():

[...] Gim Chun-chu entered the Tang dynasty, requested for [the right to] adopt Tang customs. The Emperor Taizong [of Tang] issued an edict in approval and bestowed [upon Gim Chun-chu] clothes and belts. [Gim Chun-chu] thus returned [to Silla] and enforced [Tang clothing and customs], thereby transforming barbarians into Hwa. Four years into the reign of King Munmu [of Silla], the clothing [style] of women was once again adjusted. The clothing and headwear [of Silla] became the same as those of Jungguk ever since.[12]

In the Ten Articles for Instruction, the King Taejo of Goryeo expressed his wish for the Goryeo dynasty to follow the example of the Emperor Yao and highlighted the influence of the Tang dynasty on Korea:

[...] while succession to the throne by one's eldest legitimate issue should be the rule, Yao abdicated in favor of Shun, for Danzhu was unworthy [of the throne]; this was indeed putting the interests of the state [ahead of one's personal feelings]. If the eldest legitimate son is unworthy [of the throne], let the second eldest succeed to the throne; if the second eldest, too, is unworthy [of the throne], select the brother the people consider the best qualified for the throne.[13][14]

[...] we the Orient, for our admiration for the ways of the Tang dynasty, have emulated its writings, objects, rites and music.[15][16]

The King Injong of Goryeo once issued an edict that urged the Koreans to discard the ways of the Khitan "barbarians" in favor of Chinese traditions:

[...] replicate and follow the ways of Hwaha, forbid the traditions of the Khitan barbarians [...][17]

The Veritable Records of the Joseon Dynasty labelled Korea as "Sojunghwa" (小中華) and highlighted the relations between China and Korea:

Ever since Jizi arrived in the East, [his] enlightenment became widespread; males exhibited the qualities of martyrs, while females were chaste and upright; [hence Korea is] known in historiography as 'Sojunghwa'.[18]

"Ever since Jizi was enfeoffed, every [Korean] dynasty has been regarded as part of the realm [of China]. The Han dynasty established four commanderies [on the Korean Peninsula], while the Tang dynasty established an additional Fuyu Commandery. During the [extant] Ming dynasty, all eight provinces [of the Joseon dynasty] are placed under [the administration of] Liaodong; all [Joseon] clothing, headwear, writings and objects follow the style of Hwa; [the Ming dynasty] conferred upon the [Joseon] king a seal, appointing him [the responsibility of] governance [...][19]

The court-commissioned Comprehensive Mirror of the Eastern State by Seo Geo-jeong highlighted the Chinese influence on Korea:

All [Joseon] clothing and institutions mirror that of Jungguk, thus [the Joseon dynasty] is known as 'the state of poetry, books, rites and music', and 'the state of benevolence and righteousness'; these were introduced by Jizi, so how could these be untrue![20]

In the 17th century, when the Manchu-led Qing dynasty replaced the Han-led Ming dynasty as the ruling dynasty of China proper, the Joseon dynasty believed that the Qing dynasty was unworthy of succeeding the politico-cultural orthodoxy of "China". Instead, the Confucianist Joseon dynasty asserted itself as the legitimate heir to the Chinese civilization and termed itself "Little China".[1] In 2010, scholar Brian Reynolds Myers stated in reference to the move that:

[T]he national identities of literate Koreans and Chinese [were] mutually indistinguishable. Believing their civilization to have been founded by a Chinese sage in China's image, educated Koreans subscribed to a Confucian worldview that posited their country in a position of permanent subservience to the Middle Kingdom. Even when Korea isolated itself from the mainland in the seventeenth century, it did so in the conviction that it was guarding Chinese tradition better than the Chinese themselves.[21]


Numerous Vietnamese dynasties attempted to replicate the Chinese tributary system in Southeast Asia, whilst maintaining tributary relations with Chinese dynasties.[22] Vietnamese monarchs of multiple dynasties adopted the imperial title "hoàng đế" (皇帝; "emperor") domestically, but reverted to the royal title "vương" (; "king") when dealing with China—a policy known as "emperor at home, king abroad". On many occasions, Vietnamese dynasties styled themselves as "China" and referred to various Chinese dynasties as "Bắc Triều" (北朝; "northern dynasty") in relation to Vietnam, self-styled as "Nam Triều" (南朝; "southern dynasty").[23] Although this ideology is not as affirmed in post-dynasty eras, a shadow of this legacy exists today in the form of how places and names from the "North dynasty" were rendered in Vietnamese e.g. Qing Dynasty in Vietnamese was Nhà Thanh or Triều Thanh, names such as Lee Kuan Yew were transliterated as Lý Quang Diệu in Vietnamese. Likewise, whilst Vietnam had a "North" and "South" dichotomy with China, Korea's Little China ideology meant that names like Lee Kuan Yew were rendered "리콴유" in Hangul instead.

In 1010, Lý Thái Tổ issued the Edict on the Transfer of the Capital that likened himself to Chinese monarchs who initiated the relocation of the capital, effectively positioning the Lý dynasty within the politico-cultural realm of China:

In the old days, until [the reign of] Pan Geng, the Shang dynasty shifted [its capital] five times; until [the reign of] the King Cheng [of Zhou], the Zhou dynasty relocated its capital three times. How could the monarchs of the Three Dynasties [of Ancient China] who moved [their capitals] be motivated by personal gains? They did so [out of a desire] to expand their territories or [in search of] a centralized location [for better governance], all for the good of the people.[24]

The Complete Annals of Đại Việt used "Trung Quốc" (中國) to refer to Vietnam:

[...] [the Lý dynasty] once again launched a massive attack on the Song dynasty in the Qin Prefecture and the Lian Prefecture, with the intent of rescuing the people of Trung Quốc afflicted by Song's implementation of the Green Sprouts Law.[25]

[...] [Lý Nhân Tông] ordered Lý Thường Kiệt to launch a campaign against Champa. At the start, Lý Giác fled to Champa and disclosed information on Trung Quốc [...][26]

Amidst Hồ's usurpation of the Trần throne, the Ming dynasty [launched] a southward invasion, annexed our territories, subjugated our people, [enforced] strict laws and punishments, [implemented] heavy taxes and labor. The heroic individuals of Trung Quốc frequently feinted as [submissive] officials [of the Ming dynasty] to keep the North at ease.[27]

Lê Thái Tổ once issued an edict that adopted "Trung Quốc" (中國) as an alternative name for Vietnam:

The [Ming] larcenists were in Trung Quốc, [the livelihood of] the people were still unstable, did you have a peace of mind? Previously [when] the Hồ clan was immoral, the [Ming] larcenists thus seized our country. The abuses [perpetuated by the Ming dynasty] were witnessed by all.[28]

In 1470, in preparation for his invasion of Champa, Lê Thánh Tông issued an edict which referred to the Later Lê dynasty and earlier Vietnamese regimes as "Trung Quốc" (中國):

Since ancient times, barbarians have posed a threat to Trung Quốc; thus the sage-king embarked on military campaigns to deter all under Heaven.[29]

In 1479, Lê Thánh Tông issued an edict to justify his invasion of Muang Phuan. In the edict, "Trung Hạ" (中夏) was used to refer to the Later Lê dynasty:

I [intend to] follow the pioneering steps of my ancestors, propagate and implement a magnificent plan, rule over Trung Hạ, pacify the outer barbarians.[30]

The Nguyễn dynasty considered itself the legitimate heir to the Chinese civilization.[31] Gia Long Đế once used "Trung Quốc" (中國) and "Hạ" () to refer to the Nguyễn and earlier Vietnamese dynasties:

Trung Quốc vis-à-vis the outer barbarians [is akin to] the [properly] governed vis-à-vis the ungoverned [...][32]

The late king governed all under Heaven [by adhering to the principle that] Hạ should not intermix with the barbarians [...][33]

The Imperially-commissioned Annotated Text Reflecting the Complete History of Việt referred to the Nguyễn dynasty as "Thần Châu" (神州):

Until the numerous sages of our dynasty laid the foundation in the South, our Thế Tổ, the Emperor Cao, pacified Thần Châu and ruled over the entirety of Việt, [with Nguyễn territories] bordering the sea to the east, Yunnan to the west, the Khmer barbarians to the south and Liangguang to the north. The expansiveness of [Nguyễn] territories was hitherto unmatched [by prior Vietnamese dynasties].[34]

In the Poems on the Way to Min, Lý Văn Phức (a descendent of Ming Chinese refugees) escorted some stranded Chinese sailors back to Fujian province. However, when he arrived there, the guesthouse where he was supposed to stay had a sign over it which indicated that it was for “barbarians.” Lý Văn Phức defended his position with an essay that highlighted that Vietnam followed the ways of China without the Manchurian influences of the 17th century and therefore should be considered "Hoa" ():

In terms of governance and law, [Vietnam] follows [the ways of] the Two Emperors and Three Kings [of Ancient China]; in terms of [Confucian] orthodoxy, [Vietnam] adheres to [the teachings of] the Six Classics and Four Books, and subscribes to the schools of thought of Confucius, Mencius, Cheng Hao, Cheng Yi and Zhu Xi. In terms of knowledge, [Vietnam] consults The Commentary of Zuo, Discourses of the States and [the works of] Ban Gu and Sima Qian; in terms of writings, [Vietnamese] poetries and rhapsodies imitate [the styles of] the Selections of Refined Literature and that of Li Bai and Du Fu; in terms of calligraphies and paintings, [Vietnamese works] emulate [the styles of] the Rites of Zhou and the Six Methods and that of Zhong Yao and Wang Xizhi. [The procedures of] selecting the virtuous for government positions [in Vietnam have their roots in] the Han and Tang dynasties; the belts and headwear [of Vietnam originate from] the clothing [styles] of the Song and Ming dynasties. Since [Vietnam] follows the ways [of China], yet if [China considers the Vietnamese] as barbarians; how, then, do you define the meaning of Hoa?[35]


Fujiwara no Hirotsugu once presented a memorial to the throne, referring to Japan as "Chūgoku" (中國) and adopted the Chinese worldview of treating surrounding ethnic minorities as "barbarians":

The northern barbarians Emishi and the western barbarians Hayato, [with] natural dispositions [akin to] wolves, revolt easily and whose wild ambitions cannot be easily tamed. Since ancient times, [whenever] Chūgoku has sages, [the barbarians] would subsequently submit; [whenever] the court experiences [political] instability, [the barbarians] would rebel at the earliest opportunity [...][36]

The Chronicles of Japan used "Chūgoku" (中國) to refer to Japan:

[...] Silla refused to submit to Chūgoku.[37]

The Extended Chronicles of Japan referred to Japan as "Chūgoku" (中國):

This [marked] the start of contact between the Tokan Island and Chūgoku.[38]

When the Empress Genmei yielded the throne to the Empress Genshō, Japan was referred to as "Kaka" (華夏) in an edict issued by the former:

[Her] wisdom, lenience and kindness [are] bestowed by Heaven. [She is] placid and personable. Kaka [will last] an eternity. [She is] widely praised. Today, the imperial throne [will be] passed to the princess.[39]

After the Qing dynasty had replaced the Ming dynasty in China proper, Japanese scholars declared that the Qing dynasty did not have the legitimacy to represent the politico-cultural realm of "China" whilst simultaneously explicitly identified Japan as "China". In Kai Hentai by Hayashi Gahō and Hayashi Hōkō, it was argued that Japan had replaced the Qing dynasty as the center of Chinese civilization.[40] In Chūchō Jijitsu by Yamaga Sokō, "Chūchō" (中朝; used in a similar sense as "Middle Kingdom"), "Chūka" (中華) and "Chūgoku" (中國) were adopted as alternative names for Japan, while "Gaichō" (外朝; "outer dynasty") was used to refer to the Qing dynasty.[41]

During the Meiji Restoration, the Emperor Meiji once issued an edict that referred to Japan as "Ka" ():

[There is a] need to urgently rectify the nominal relations between the monarch and the officials, to make clear the distinctions between Ka and the barbarians and between the inner and outer domains, so as to uphold the cardinal principles of all under Heaven.[42]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ The prefix So- (; ), meaning "little", is sometimes affixed to Junghwa in Korean writings to refer to Korean dynasties.


  1. ^ a b Chan, Robert Kong (2017). Korea-China Relations in History and Contemporary Implications. p. 10. ISBN 9783319622651.
  2. ^ a b Kim, Youngmin (2018). A History of Chinese Political Thought. p. 220. ISBN 9781509523160.
  3. ^ a b Wang, Q. Edward; Fillafer, Franz; Iggers, Georg (2007). The Many Faces of Clio: Cross-cultural Approaches to Historiography. p. 251. ISBN 9781845452704.
  4. ^ Kelley, Liam (2005). Beyond the Bronze Pillars: Envoy Poetry and the Sino-Vietnamese Relationship. p. 9. ISBN 9780824874001.
  5. ^ Alpert, William (2005). The Vietnamese Economy and Its Transformation to an Open Market System. p. 17. ISBN 9780765606693.
  6. ^ a b Fong, Brian; Wu, Jieh-min; Nathan, Andrew (2020). China's Influence and the Center-periphery Tug of War in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Indo-Pacific. ISBN 9781000284263.
  7. ^ Horesh, Niv; Kim, Hyun Jin; Mauch, Peter (2014). Superpower, China? Historicizing Beijing's New Narratives Of Leadership And East Asia's Response Thereto. p. 82. ISBN 9789814619172.
  8. ^ "Seoul Journal of Korean Studies". 2004.
  9. ^ Berger, Stefan (2007-07-12). Writing the Nation: A Global Perspective. ISBN 9780230223059.
  10. ^ Lee, Jeong-Mi (2010) "Choso˘n Korea as Sojunghwa, the Small Central Civilization: Sadae kyorin Policy and Relations with Ming/Qing China and Tokugawa Japan in the Seventeenth Century" Asian cultural studies (36), 305-318, International Christian University
  11. ^ Zhang, Yun (2006). 西藏历史问题研究. p. 201. ISBN 9787800577475. 夷狄入中国,则中国之,中国入夷狄,则夷狄之。
  12. ^ History of the Three Kingdoms. Vol. 33. 金春秋入唐,請襲唐儀,太宗皇帝詔可之,兼賜衣帶,遂還來施行,以夷易華,文武王在位四年,又革婦人之服,自此已後,衣冠同於中國
  13. ^ History of Goryeo. Vol. 2. 傳國以嫡,雖曰常禮,然丹朱不肖,堯禪於舜,實爲公心。若元子不肖,與其次子又不肖,與其兄弟之衆所推戴者,俾承大統。
  14. ^ Lee, Peter (2010). Sourcebook of Korean Civilization. Vol. 1. p. 264. ISBN 9780231515290.
  15. ^ History of Goryeo. Vol. 2. 惟我東方,舊慕唐風,文物禮樂,悉遵其制。
  16. ^ Kang, Jae-eun (2006). The Land of Scholars: Two Thousand Years of Korean Confucianism. p. 77. ISBN 9781931907378.
  17. ^ History of Goryeo. Vol. 16. 景行華夏之法,切禁丹狄之俗
  18. ^ "Veritable Records of Seongjong". Veritable Records of the Joseon Dynasty. 吾東方自箕子以來,教化大行,男有烈士之風,女有貞正之俗,史稱小中華。
  19. ^ "Veritable Records of Seonjo". Veritable Records of the Joseon Dynasty. 我國自箕子受封之後,歷代皆視為內服,漢時置四郡,唐增置扶餘郡。至於大明,以八道郡縣,皆隸於遼東,衣冠文物,一從華制,委國王御寶以治事
  20. ^ Comprehensive Mirror of the Eastern State. 衣冠制度,悉同乎中國,故曰詩書禮樂之邦,仁義之國也,而箕子始之,豈不信哉!
  21. ^ Myers, Brian Reynolds (2010). The Cleanest Race. pp. 25–26.
  22. ^ Ngaosīvat, Mayurī; Ngaosyvathn, Pheuiphanh (2001). Vietnamese Source Materials concerning the 1827 Conflict between the Court of Siam and the Lao Principalities. Vol. 1. p. 28. ISBN 9784896561111.
  23. ^ Complete Annals of Đại Việt. Vol. Prologue. 北朝歷代主皆書帝,以與我各帝一方也。
  24. ^ Edict on the Transfer of the Capital. "昔商家至盤庚五遷。周室迨成王三徙。豈三代之數君徇于己私。妄自遷徙。以其圖大宅中。爲億万世子孫之計。"
  25. ^ Complete Annals of Đại Việt. Vol. 3. 又大舉伐宋欽、廉州,聲言宋行清苗役法,殘害中國民,興師問之,欲相救也。
  26. ^ Complete Annals of Đại Việt. Vol. 3. 命李常傑伐占城。初,李覺亡占城,言中國虛實
  27. ^ Complete Annals of Đại Việt. Vol. 10. 時胡簒陳祚,明人南侵,郡縣我彊域,臣妾我兆庶,法峻刑苛,賦繁役重。凡中國豪傑之士,多陽假以官,安𢮿于北。
  28. ^ Complete Annals of Đại Việt. Vol. 10. 賊在中國,民猶未定,於汝安乎。昔胡氏無道,賊因此而奪我國家。虐害之中,爾眾已見之矣。
  29. ^ Zhu, Yunying (1981). 中國文化對日韓越的影響. 蓋自古夷狄為患中國,故聖王弧矢以威天下。
  30. ^ Xie, Xuanjun (2017). 少数民族入主中国史略. p. 6. ISBN 9781387255351. 朕丕绳祖武,光御洪图,莅中夏,抚外夷
  31. ^ Xie, Xuanjun (2016). 第三中国论. p. 202. ISBN 9781329800250.
  32. ^ 中華文化復興月刊. Vol. 88–93. 1975. 中國之於外夷,治以不治
  33. ^ Xie, Xuanjun (2016). 第三中国论. p. 202. ISBN 9781329800250. 先王经理天下,夏不杂夷
  34. ^ Imperially-commissioned Annotated Text Reflecting the Complete History of Việt. Vol. 1. 逮我國朝列聖,肇基南服,奉我世祖高皇帝大定神州,奄有全越,東際大海,西接雲南,南接高蠻,北接兩廣,幅員之大,前此未之有也。
  35. ^ "Discourses on the Barbarians". Poems on the Way to Min. 以言乎治法,則本之二帝三王;以言乎道統,則本之六經四子,家孔孟而戶朱程也。其學也,源左國而溯班馬;其文也,詩賦則昭明文選而以李杜為歸依;字畫則周禮六書而以鍾王為楷式。賓賢取士,漢唐之科目也;博帶峩冠,宋明之衣服也。推而舉之,其大也如是。而謂之夷,則正不知其何如為華也。
  36. ^ Great History of Japan. Vol. 117. 北狄蝦夷、西戎隼俗,狠性易亂,野心離馴。往古已來,中國有聖則後服,朝堂有變則先叛
  37. ^ The Chronicles of Japan. Vol. 14. 新羅不事中國。
  38. ^ Extended Chronicles of Japan. Vol. 1. 其度感嶋通中國於是始矣。
  39. ^ Extended Chronicles of Japan. Vol. 6. 天縱寛仁。沈靜婉孌。華夏載佇。謳訟知歸。今傳皇帝位於内親王。
  40. ^ Ng, Wai-ming (2019). Imagining China in Tokugawa Japan: Legends, Classics, and Historical Terms. p. xvii. ISBN 9781438473086.
  41. ^ Davis, Bret (2019). The Oxford Handbook of Japanese Philosophy. p. 294. ISBN 9780199945726.
  42. ^ "明治時代における史学の確立に関して ― 漢学、国学とランケ史学の狭間に" (PDF): 1. 須ク速ニ君臣ノ名分ノ誼ヲ正シ、華夷内外ノ弁ヲ明ニシ内外ノ命ヲ明ニシ、以テ天下ノ綱常ヲ扶植セヨ。 {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)