The Spread Of Chinese Civilization To Japan
Author: Stearns, Peter N.
Date: 2000

The Spread Of Chinese Civilization To Japan

Although its full impact on global history has not been felt until the
last century or so, the transmission of key elements in Chinese culture to the
offshore islands that came to make up Japan clearly provides one of the most
important examples of the spread of civilization from a central core area to
neighboring or overseas peoples. In the 1st centuries A.D., the peoples of
Japan imported a wide range of ideas, techniques of production, institutional
models, and material objects from the Chinese mainland. After adapting these
imports to make them compatible with the quite sophisticated culture they had
previously developed, the Japanese used what they had borrowed from China to
build a civilization of their own. New patterns of rice growing and handicraft
production enhanced the economic base of the Yamato clan chieftains who,
beginning in the 3d century A.D., extended their control over the most
populous regions of the main Japanese island of Honshu.

The Chinese writing system was laboriously adapted to the spoken language
of the Japanese and provided key vehicles for intellectual creativity and
building a more centralized political system. Often transmitted from China
through Korea, Buddhist religious beliefs and art forms enriched Japanese
culture at both the elite and popular levels. At the Japanese court and in the
peasant villages, these new influences were blended with well-established
indigenous traditions of nature worship, which came to be known collectively
as Shintoism. Thus, the Japanese developed a unique civilization from a blend
of their own culture and a selective importation and conscious refashioning of
Chinese influences.

The capacity of the Japanese to adopt Chinese culture distinguishes them
from many of the other peoples who were also strongly affected by the
expansion of Chinese civilization from its core regions along the Yellow
River. For the most part, this expansion was overland and more or less
connected to the regions that formed the original Chinese core. It moved
southward to the series of river valleys and coastal plains that stretched
from the Yangtze basin to northern Vietnam; eastward to the tributary kingdoms
of the Korean peninsula; and west and north to the nomadic peoples, who
exchanged goods and borrowed cultural elements from the Chinese but fought to
resist their overlordship. Very often Chinese civilization, as in the areas
south of the Yangtze River and in Vietnam, was spread by war and conquest and
imposed as a unified whole on conquered peoples rather than being selectively
adopted by them.

Few of these more typical patterns of Chinese expansion were found in the
interaction between China and Japan. The extension of Chinese influences to
the Japanese islands was necessarily by sea rather than overland. Instead of
conquering armies, merchants and traveling monks - and eventually Japanese
students who studied in China - were the most important agents by which
elements of Chinese culture were transmitted. Especially in the early
centuries of borrowing, from the 1st to the 5th centuries A.D., interchange
between China and Japan was largely indirect. It was mediated by the peoples
and kingdoms of Korea, who had grafted key aspects of Chinese civilization to
their own cultures somewhat earlier than the Japanese.

In contrast to the Vietnamese and the peoples of South China, th-
Japanese initiated and controlled the process of cultural borrowing from
China. Despite a willingness to acknowledge the cultural superiority of the
Chinese Middle Kingdom, the Japanese retained their political independence
throughout the centuries of intense borrowing. Consequently, the Japanese
could be more selective in their adoption of Chinese ideas and institutions
than most of the other peoples who came under the influences emanating from
China.

Natural Setting And The Peopling Of The Islands

The four main islands that make up the homeland of the Japanese people
rise abruptly and dramatically from the Pacific Ocean along the northeast
coast of Asia. Formed by volcanic eruptions that still occur periodically, the
islands are dominated by mountains and rugged hills. Only a small portion of
their surface area is level and extensive enough for the cultivation of wet
rice, which from prehistoric times has been the staple of the Japanese diet.
Thus, from the period of the earliest settlements, the Japanese have mainly
occupied the coastal plains, especially in the south-central portions of the
largest island of Honshu, which remain the most heavily populated areas of the
islands today.

Though poor in natural resources, the islands are difficult to match in
their combination of temperate climate and subtle natural beauty. Their
forest-covered and mist-shrouded hills and glittering inland seas have
instilled in the Japanese people a refined aesthetic sensibility and
sensitivity to the natural world that have been reflected in their religion,
art, and architecture from prehistoric ages to the present. At the same time,
the islands' limited resource base nurtured a disciplined, hardworking
population that was regulated by strict legal codes and ruled through much of
the islands' history by warrior elites. These characteristics of the Japanese
people have been commented on by foreign visitors from the Chinese in the
early centuries A.D. to Europeans and Americans in the modern era.

Archeological evidence suggests that as early as 5000 B.C. the ancestors
of the Japanese people had begun to migrate to the islands. Drawn from
numerous and diverse East Asian ethnic groups (and perhaps Southeast Asia and
Polynesia), the migrants came in small bands and, periodically, larger waves
over many centuries. One of these waves of migrants produced the Jomon culture
in the 3d millennium B.C. The Jomon were a hunting-and-gatheridg people, who
lived in pits dug in the ground. They produced a distinctive pottery, whose
cordlike decoration gave the people their name.

Most of the new settlers crossed to the islands from the Korean peninsula
and Manchuria. Because they were relatively isolated from political upheavals
and social transformations occurring on the mainland, by the 1st centuries
A.D. the diverse migrant streams had blended into a relatively homogenous
population with a distinctive Japanese language, culture, and physical
appearance. By then they had driven the Ainu, who had settled the islands
before them, into northern Honshu and Hokkaido. Over the past two millennia,
the Japanese have gradually displaced or absorbed the remaining Ainu, building
in the process a strong sense of cultural and ethnic identity.

[See Temple At Nara: The critical role played by Buddhism in the transmission
of key elements of Chinese civilization to Japan is strikingly illustrated by
early Buddhist monastaries and temples such as this one at Nara. Comparison
with the Shinto shrine at Ise underscores the contrast between the sparse
indigenous art adn architectural styles and the more ornate Buddhist
structures that were modeled on Chinese prototypes.]

Indigenous Culture And Society

Long before distinctively Chinese cultural influences began to shape
Japanese historical development, the indigenous peoples of the islands had
taken significant steps toward the creation of a civilization of their own. In
the last centuries B.C., migrants from the mainland introduced wet-rice
agriculture and iron working into Japan. In this period, which is known as the
Yayoi epoch, the Japanese also produced wheel-turned pottery and very
sophisticated bronzeware, including elaborately decorated bells that were
sometimes four and five feet high.

Until the early 5th century A.D., most of the Japanese population was
divided into hundreds of clans, whose members worshiped a clan deity and
claimed common descent from a real or fictitious ancestor. Each of these clans
was dominated by a small warrior aristocracy. The clan elites drew their
support from the peasantry, which made up over 90 percent of the population of
the islands. It was also served by slaves, who like their counterparts in
China were only a small minority of the Japanese people. Early visitors from
the mainland noted the rigid social distinctions, including different sorts of
tattoos and other body markings, that separated the warrior elite from the
mass of the people. They also remarked on the strong position women enjoyed in
early Japanese culture, in marked contrast to their clear subordination in
China. Early Japanese households appear to have been matriarchal, that is,
dominated by childbearing women. Women also played key roles as shamans - who
were central to Japanese religious ceremonies and worship - as leaders of some
of the clans, and later as empresses.

The importance of women in early Japanese culture is also indicated by
their legends regarding the creation of the world. In these tales the sun
goddess, Amaterasu, played a central role, and her worship became the central
element in the Shinto religion developed by the island peoples. Shinto
devotees worshipped numerous gods and spirits associated with the natural
world. Some of these deities were identified with objects, such as huge trees
or mountains like the famous Mount Fuji. Others were linked to animals, such
as foxes and snakes, that were believed to possess special powers. Gods and
spirits were believed to be capable of doing good or evil to humans. To ensure
that they brought blessings rather than misfortune, the Japanese made
offerings of food and prayers to the gods and nature spirits at special
shrines. These structures were built of unfinished wood and notable for their
simple lines and lack of ornamentation. They gave rise to a unique Shinto
style of Japanese architecture that persists to the present day and has had a
considerable impact on architecture in the modern world.

In the 4th and 5th centuries A.D., when one of the clans, the Yamato,
gained increasing dominance over the others, an imperial cult developed around
the sun goddess and Shinto worship. A central shrine was established on the
island of Ise, and the priest-chief heads of the Yamato clan claimed descent
from the sun goddess herself. Building upon this powerful source of
legitimacy, the Yamato brought most of the lowland plains of the southern
islands under their control through alliances and conquest. By the late 4th
century A.D., their sway also extended to southern Korea. Though marginal in
the amount of territory involved, this overseas extension of the Yamato
domains brought intensified contacts with Chinese civilization, then about to
enter into one of its most illustrious phases. The combination of these
contacts and the Yamatos' successful campaigns to unify the Japanese people
led to profound transformations in Japanese society and culture in the
following centuries.

The Chinese Model And The Remaking Of Japan

Though trade and the continued influx of migrants from the mainland had
brought the Japanese peoples into contact with Chinese civilization from the
last centuries B.C., the introduction of the Chinese script in the 4th century
A.D. marks a major turning point in Japanese cultural development. Writing
with the Chinese characters, which were adapted only with great difficulty to
the Japanese language, made it possible for the Yamato to begin to build a
real bureaucracy and thus more firmly establish their control over vassal clan
heads and the peasantry. The use of the Chinese written language also meant
that the Japanese could learn from Chinese texts on all manner of subjects,
from science and philosophy to art and religion. These works, as well as
Chinese scribes to make additional copies and interpret them, were imported
from the 5th century onward. Later, Japanese students and scholars who were
fluent in Chinese were sent to China to acquire new learning firsthand.

From the middle of the 6th century, the Buddhist religion became a
pivotal factor in the transmission of Chinese influence to Japan. In the
period of disunity and chaos that followed the fall of the Han dynasty in the
early 3d century A.D., Buddhism was widely adopted by the distressed populace
of China and the rulers of the warring kingdoms that succeeded the Han. The
pervasive influence of thehreligion in China in this era and the powerful
position of Buddhist monks at the courts of Chinese rulers gave great impetus
to its spread to Korea and Japan. In the middle of the 6th century, a Korean
ruler sent Buddhist images and scriptures as presents to the Japanese emperor
and urged him to adopt the religion and convert his subjects to it. After
considerable debate and even open strife among the families serving the
imperial household over the advantages and dangers of introducing Buddhism
into Japan, it was officially adopted as the religion of the Yamato domains in
the late 580s.

From that time onward, Japanese rulers sought to propagate the new
religion among their subjects. Warrior aristocrats and peasants converted to
the new beliefs, but without giving up their long-standing reverence for
Shinto spirits and deities. Thus, Shintoism and Buddhism developed side by
side as twin pillars of state and society in Japan. The Japanese elite
supported the efforts of Buddhist monks to spread their faith, and the monks
in turn served as advisors to the emperor and regional lords. In their
teachings of Buddhism the monks stressed scriptural passages and Buddhist
ethical prescriptions that supported rule by a strong monarch and a unified
and centralized state. In addition, Buddhist monks provided the emperor with a
calendar based on that devised by the Chinese. The monks also greatly
increased the number of Chinese texts available to Japanese scholars, and
introduced the Chinese chronicles that served as the models for the first
written histories of Japan.

Though converts from aristocratic Japanese families studied the complex
beliefs of Buddhist philosophy and practiced its highly developed meditation
techniques, to the illiterate mass of the Japanese people Buddhism was little
more than a magical cult. Buddhist monks provided colorful rituals that
enriched the peasants' monotonous lives and charms to ward off sickness or
evil spirits, but the common people knew little of Buddhist teachings beyond
highly mythologized versions of the Buddha's life. Nonetheless, the growing
importance of the new faith was brought home to peasants as well as educated
aristocrats by the construction of Buddhist monasteries and shrines throughout
the islands. Buddhist sculptures and paintings of scenes of the Buddha's life
or the heavens and hells of the supernatural world became major preoccupations
of Japanese artists. Here again, Chinese influence was evident, particularly
in architecture. In fact, because many of the great Buddhist centers in China
have been destroyed by periodic persecutions and warfare, the great Buddhist
temples and monasteries at former Japanese court centers, such as Nara,
provide some of the best examples of early Chinese architecture in existence
today.

Political And Social Change

Beginning in the early 7th century, the Yamato rulers proclaimed
themselves absolute monarchs in imitation of the emperors of China. They
styled themselves the "emperors of the rising sun" in official letters to (one
imagines) the somewhat dismayed Chinese "emperors of the setting sun."
Inspired by Chinese examples, they established councils and government
departments and sought to introduce genuine bureaucratic control at the local
level. At Nara and later Heian, the Japanese emperors laid out courts and
capital cities patterned after the ancient imperial centers of China. The
Yamato rulers strove to build a peasant conscript army and impose legal codes
and a landholding system similar to those found in China.

In the centuries after the introduction of Buddhism, Chinese influences
were felt in virtually all spheres of Japanese society. Alongside the
traditional warrior elite, a class of monks and scholars developed that for
several centuries exercised considerable power at the imperial court. Trade
with China and Korea and improved communications within Japan enriched
existing merchant groups and led to their emergence as a distinct class. New
tools and techniques imported from the mainland increased the output of
Japanese cultivators and made possible a great expansion of the islands'
previously marginal mining industry. All social classes benefited greatly from
the introduction of China's advanced medicines and methods of treating
diseases and bodily injuries resulting from accidents or warfare.

The introduction into Japan of the ideal of the patriarchal and
patrilineal family, which had long been dominant in China, presented a major
challenge to traditional Japanese approaches to gender roles and
relationships. For some centuries, the position of women within the family
remained strong, and the ideal of wives and lovers who were accomplished in
literature and the arts was preserved by the courtly elites at the imperial
capitals of Nara and Heian. But the adoption of Chinese law codes eroded first
the control that Japanese women were able to exercise with regard to their own
children, and eventually their overall status relative to males. These changes
were reflected in the spread of polygamy among the Japanese aristocracy. From
the early 9th century, the changes were even more emphatically underscored by
the elite's refusal to allow women from the imperial family to rule in their
own right, as they had periodically in the early centuries of Japanese
history. Increasingly Japanese women, like those in China and India, were
subordinated to their fathers and husbands and valued mainly for their
domestic skills and ability to produce many healthy sons. As in China and
India, entry into religious orders or successful careers as courtesans
provided virtually the only alternatives to careers as subordinated wives and
mothers.

Chinese Influence And Japanese Resistance

Contacts with China and innovations based on the Chinese model were
pushed, from the 4th century A.D. onward, by those at the top of Japanese
society. Japanese rulers and their chief advisors were motivated mainly by the
desire to increase the power of the state to control the warrior nobles and to
extract resources from the peasantry. Buddhist ethics and Confucian legal
codes enhanced the rulers' legitimacy; Chinese rituals gave a new dignity and
luster to court routines; and the growth of a Chinese-style bureaucracy
provided the means for the creation of the first genuine state in Japanese
history. Because the Japanese remained politically independent from China,
their rulers could convincingly argue that the adoption of Chinese ways was
voluntary and carefully controlled. Only imports that would strengthen the
Japanese state or contribute to the well-being of the Japanese populace need
be accepted. Chinese ideas and institutions could be reworked to suit
conditions in Japan and fit the needs of the Japanese people. Selective
borrowing from their ancient and advanced Chinese neighbors, the innovators
argued, allowed the Japanese to become fully civilized without destroying
their own culture and identity.

Because Japanese rulers lacked the resource base of the Chinese emperors
and worked with a society that differed greatly in scale and organization,
many of their efforts to imitate Chinese patterns ended in failure. The
bloated bureaucracies that resulted from the imitation of China were top-heavy
and a growing burden for the peasants who had to support them. Efforts to
establish local control and reorganize landholding along Chinese lines
floundered due to the opposition of regional lords and their retainers. The
warrior elite also frustrated the attempt to make soldiers of the peasantry.
Conscripts in Japan in this era were little more than forced laborers. Many of
the imported Chinese legal injunctions bore little relation to social
conditions in Japan and were simply not enforced. The impressive capital
cities laid out by the emperors' architects remained half-built and
underpopulated, even at the height of the early dynasties' power.

More than differences in scale and social compatibility limited the
extent to which Japan could be remade in the image of China. From the outset,
the introduction of writing, Buddhism, and other imports from China had given
rise to intense debate and bitter divisions within the warrior elite that
ruled Japan. Fears of the changes the new ideas and institutions were setting
in motion, as well as concerns about preserving Japan's own culture, produced
continuing opposition to foreign influences.

At times, as in the 580s and the mid-7th century, controversy over the
extent of foreign influences became a central element in violent factional
struggles between the aristocratic families closest to the throne. But until
the 8th century each struggle resulted in the victory of the forces favoring
continuing imports from abroad and the further transformation of Japan along
Chinese lines. We will explore the rise and full flowering of the ultrarefined
pattern of courtly life that these victories made possible between the seventh
and ninth centuries. We will also consider the forces that eroded both the
power of the court and factions that resisted influences from China with
increasing success. As the landholding, aristocratic families around the
throne reasserted their power from the eighth century onward, there was a
conscious effort to restore what were believed to be indigenous customs and
institutions at the expense of Chinese imports and to refashion Buddhism into
a distinctively Japanese religion.

Polynesia

The cultural interaction between the Chinese civilization and Japan was
paralleled in other areas of Asia by the outward spread of ideas, products,
skills, and peoples from China or India. Sometimes this diffusion was
accomplished through trade and borrowings, and sometimes it was the result of
military action, but the spread of Indian civilization into Southeast Asia or
of Chinese civilization into Vietnam and Korea underlined the process.

The peoples of the far Pacific who had departed the Asian mainland prior
to the rise of classical China and India were unaffected by the spread of
Chinese and Indian civilization. They had brought with them the cultural
features of Late Neolithic Asia, and in relative isolation had developed these
features on the islands of the vast Pacific.

Certainly one of the great epics of human achievement for which we have
only fragmentary evidence is the peopling of the islands of the Pacific Ocean.
The distance across the Pacific from Southeast Asia to Central America is some
20,000 miles, and the waters of that ocean are dotted with thousands of
islands. These islands vary in size from tiny atolls formed by coral reefs, to
large "high" islands with volcanic peaks and lush valleys, to the great
continent of Australia. Most of these islands lie in the tropics, although
some, such as New Zealand, do not. They are inhabited by a variety of peoples
of quite different physical appearance, language, and culture, but whose
origins for the most part seem to be in Asia.

We cannot deal with all the peoples of the Pacific, but the remarkable
story of the Polynesians can serve as a case study of the spread of culture by
long-distance maritime migration. Here we are not dealing with the spread from
a great center of civilization, but with the migration of peoples and their
adaptation to new challenges in relative isolation.

Roughly between 1500 B.C. and A.D. 1000 almost all the major islands west
of New Guinea were visited, and many were settled, by the ancestors of the
peoples we call Polynesians. They left no written records, so we must depend
on the evidence of archeology and linguistics, their own oral traditions, and
the observations of Europeans who first contacted them in order to reconstruct
the history of their societies.

Linguistic evidence is a starting point. The Polynesians speak about 30
related languages from a family of languages called Austronesian, which is
also found in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Southeast Asia. The
Austronesians were clearly peoples from Asia, but they were not the first
migrants in the Pacific. By the time of their expansion about 4000 years ago,
New Guinea and Australia had already long been settled (probably since 38,000
B.C.) by dark-skinned peoples who spoke languages unrelated to Austronesian.

The Great Migration

Groups of these Austronesians, speaking a language ancestral to the
Polynesian languages, began to expand eastward from Melanesia to Fiji, Tonga,
and Samoa. By the time of this expansion, these people practiced agriculture
of yams, taro (a tuber), and other crops, raised dogs, pigs, and chickens, and
had already developed a variety of complex fishing techniques. Archeologists
can identify their scattered settlements by a distinctive type of pottery
called Lapita, with stamped decorations, and by the polished stone adzes,
fishhooks, and other implements.

From Tonga and Samoa, these peoples began to spread eastward to Polynesia
proper. Polynesia includes the islands contained in a rough imaginary triangle
whose points lie at Hawaii to the north, New Zealand to the south, and Easter
Island far to the east. Another group of these peoples seems to have moved
westward, eventually settling on the island of Madagascar off the African
coast.

On the widely dispersed islands of the Pacific, each culture and language
began to adapt and evolve differently, and thus to diverge from the ancestral
Polynesian forms. There remained some constants in the shared heritage of the
ancestral Polynesian culture that also provided similarities. For example, the
English explorer Captain James Cook in the 18th century was surprised to find
that the words he had learned from the Tahitians were understandable to the
Hawaiians, although almost 2500 miles separated those two island groups; also,
a Tahitian named Tupia served Captain Cook effectively as a translator when he
contacted the Maoris of New Zealand.

Basic principles of economy and social organization could also be found
throughout Polynesia, especially on the larger islands. From relatively small
groups of original colonists, island populations grew in size and density. By
the late-18th century the island populations totaled perhaps 700,000. While
the making of pottery was abandoned or forgotten, in many places agriculture
became increasingly complex and intensive. Stratified societies with powerful
chiefdoms based on lineage characterized many Polynesian islands and in some
places, such as Hawaii, they became extremely hierarchical. Chiefs were able
to mobilize their followers to build ceremonial or public architecture, or for
wars and interisland raiding. Ritual and religion oriented many aspects of
life and served as the basis of chiefly power.

The Voyagers Of The Pacific

How did these ancient Polynesians discover and occupy the islands of the
vast Pacific? The Polynesians knew how to make a variety of seaworthy vessels.
Small outrigger canoes were used for fishing and moving along island coasts,
but for long-distance voyaging, they used great double canoes, or pahi. These
vessels usually carried a platform between the two hulls on which shelter
could be given to the passengers - people, animals, and plants. With large
triangular sails, these vessels, some of which were between 60 and 100 feet
long, were capable of long voyages at sea and could travel over 200 kilometers
a day in good weather. They were capable of sailing to the windward, against
the winds and tides of the Pacific, which tend to move from east to west. They
were impressive craft, as the first European visitors to Hawaii and Tahiti
noted enthusiastically.

Navigation was naturally a problem. Some scholars have held that the
voyages were accidental - boats blown off course, which led to the occupation
of new islands - but Polynesian traditions and the continuing ability of some
Pacific islanders to navigate long distances by observing the stars, wave
patterns, and other techniques of observation support the idea that voyages of
colonization were planned. Moreover, sometimes they were two-way. For example,
Hawaiian traditions commemorate the arrival of Tahitian chiefs who made
voyages to and from Hawaii for about 200 years (A.D. 1100-1300). In 1976, to
establish the possibility of such voyaging, the Hokule a, a reconstructed
double canoe based on traditional proportions and using only traditional
navigational techniques, was sailed from Hawaii to Tahiti in about 35 days. In
the main, however, much of the voyaging seems to have been sporadic as groups
pushed by war, population pressure, famine, or a spirit of exploration
followed a chief or a navigator into the unknown. In the 18th century when the
Europeans arrived, in much of Polynesia such long-range voyaging was rarely
practiced. By that time, however, the Polynesians had explored and colonized
almost every habitable island in the vast Pacific.

Ancient Hawaii

We can use the widely separated large islands, New Zealand and Hawaii, as
examples of Polynesian societies that developed in relative isolation in
response to particular environmental conditions. Hawaii includes eight major
islands in a chain about 300 miles long. The volcanic nature of the islands
and the tropical climate created an environment of great beauty and majesty
that impressed the early inhabitants. The islands were probably settled in at
least two migratory waves beginning around A.D. 300. There, early Polynesian
culture was adapted and elaborated in relative isolation over a long period of
time. The islands had good soil, and the population grew large, reaching, at
contact in the 1700s, about 200,000 people. Towns and cities were absent, and
houses, here as elsewhere in Polynesia, were scattered along the coast and in
valleys leading to the higher interior. Islands were divided politically into
wedge-shaped territories, broadest at the coast and narrowing toward the
less-desired interior. A number of chiefly families competed for control of
the islands. It was not until after European contact that in 1810 King
Kamehameha I united all the islands under his control.

Of all the Polynesian societies Hawaii became the most hierarchical. The
high chiefs, or ali'i claimed descent from the gods and rested their claims on
their ability to recite in great detail their genealogical lineages. In some
cases, marriage to their sisters ensured the purity of the chiefly family.
Their power, authority, and sacredness, or mana, emanated from their lineages
and enabled them to extract labor or tribute from their susjects or even take
their land. Feathered capes and helmets as well as tattoos distinguished the
chiefs. The ali'i were revered and feared. They were above and beyond the
constraints of society. "The chief is a shark that swims on land," was a
Hawaiian proverb. A class of lesser nobility and subchiefs of their relatives
supported the rule of the ali'i.

Society rested on the commoners who tilled the fields of taro and sweet
potatoes, raised the pigs and chickens, and exploited the resources of the
sea. Hawaiian society was intensely agricultural and the community's control
of land was a central aspect of social and political relations. Within the
hierarchy, commoners were viewed almost as a separate people or at least as a
people lacking in lineage. Their lives were constrained and limited by a
complex set of kapu (tapu in Tahiti), or taboo, which forbade certain
activities and regulated social discourse. It was kapu for women to eat
certain foods, to enter the house of a chief, to eat together with men, to
view certain ceremonies limited to the chiefs, or even to cast a shadow on a
chief. And there were many other limits imposed according to rank. Violations
could lead to death. The number of kapu surrounding a chief was a measure of
his status and his sanctity, as much a sign of his position in his society as
materials goods might be in our society.

Many aspects of life were ritualized. The numerous gods were honored at
ceremonial centers whose precincts were sacred. Ritual feasting and hula, or
dancing, accompanied many ceremonies. Human and other sacrifices were offered
to Ku, God of War, and to the other deities. Lono, the God of Fertility and
Agricultural rebirth, held special importance to the Hawaiians. The great
Makahiki festival of thanksgiving, which lasted for four months and at which
the chiefs received their tribute from the commoners, was celebrated in honor
of the annual return of Lono. During this time war was kapu, hulas were
danced, and sexual activity was engaged in frequently in hopes of stimulating
fertility. In fact, lovemaking was an art and a preoccupation of the
Hawaiians, with important religious, kinship, and political meanings.

Of the various Polynesian societies, Hawaii perhaps can be seen as the
most successful in terms of its political and social complexity, its economic
foundations, its art and material culture, and its religion. With a neolithic
technology, the Hawaiians created a complex culture on their islands. Lacking
a written language, their legends and oral histories, which could trace the
genealogies of chiefly families back to the original canoes of the first
migrants, were remarkable achievements that formed and preserved their
culture.


 

Back to Main menu

A project by History World International

World History Center