Our professor of Chinese History (in a document you can't access without a university account) when talking about feudal age China (before 221 BCE) makes a passing remark. She says in Ancient China the fiefs near the capital were probably given to the most trusted nobles. In an other paper I remember reading the exact opposite about feudal Japan. Namely that the least trusted nobles were kept close to the capital. This also ties with what I read in Wikipedia about the European Marquess:

The theoretical distinction between a marquess and other titles has, since the Middle Ages, faded into obscurity. In times past, the distinction between a count and a marquess was that the land of a marquess, called a march, was on the border of the country, while a count's land, called a county, often was not. As a result of this, a marquess was trusted to defend and fortify against potentially hostile neighbours and was thus more important and ranked higher than a count

Given that some countries mostly suffer from internal unrest and others mostly from external enemies, this is not necessarily a contradiction. Still I am fairly sure China fought external enemies far more frequently than Japan, thus I wonder: Is it true that China and Japan used a completely opposite rationale in assigning the fiefdoms and were both well chosen for the country in question?

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    What proportion of the total armed forces was directly controlled by the central government in each country? For example, in France the King's army was an insignificant fraction of that of the Court - I believe in England the opposite was true.
    – MCW
    Aug 23, 2017 at 17:58
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    @Ludi - Can I clarify, you are comparing Classical Chinese (pre-221 BCE) vs Heian feudal system?
    – J Asia
    Aug 23, 2017 at 18:22
  • @JAsia since it makes no sense to compare the same epoch, we may as well choose the heian period. Good point!
    – Ludi
    Aug 23, 2017 at 21:13
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    Japan being an island does not have hostile neighbors. Could that be the answer?
    – sds
    Aug 23, 2017 at 21:52
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    @sds doesn't that mean the Chinese, who have hostile neighbours, should send trusted marquises to the border?
    – Ludi
    Aug 23, 2017 at 22:01

3 Answers 3


It would be incorrect to say, ' ... China and Japan used a completely opposite rationale in assigning the fiefdoms and were both well chosen for the country'. It did happen this way but for the Japanese, it developed as a result of a weakened central government.

The classical Chinese Imperial system was based largely on kinship, and family tended to live closer to the Court. In this sense, yes, the system was chosen. On the side of the Japanese, however, it was not the intention to create an 'exact opposite about feudal Japan' as much as it was the unique Japanese circumstance (of Insei or 'cloistered rule') that caused the rise of Daimyōs in Japan - who had land that were far away from the Emperor's Court.


For Chinese, the system that has been identified as “feudalism” was termed in the Warring States tradition as “Fengjian” - where the granting of land for loyalty is often based on kinship and familial relations. A good example of how important family ties are in Chinese culture, is the Chinese funerary tradition. Hence, fiefdoms that were closer to the Emperor (Imperial court) will almost always denote closer relationship. In other words, the centre/middle-point is the power -- the Chinese Well-Field system of land distribution is the best example here.

For Japanese, 'feudalism' started in late Classical Japan, during the Heian period. Due to many reasons, but principally the usurpation of political power by the (commoner) Fujiwara clan, who were effectively regents on behalf of the Japenese emperors, there developed a system of monastery administration ('cloistered rule' or Insei) by Japanese emperors (note the plural). The result of this was a weak central government. This resulted in the rise of warlords (daimyos) who had moved away from the Japanese imperial court, which allowed them space to create their own armies even as they administered the land of the Imperial court. These distant lands eventually became known as Shōen, private-lands held by Daimyos.


The chosen period (time) does not match, but comparative historians have used such comparison because the concept of feudalism matches well. This context of this answer is therefore a comparison of Imperial power structure, i.e. feudalism, in China and Japan:

  • Chinese perspective: Zhou dynasty (c.1050-256 BCE), which started with the Western Zhou (c.1050-771 BCE) but comprehensively implemented under the later Zhou dynasty - also known as Warring States Period (c.480-221 BCE).
  • Japanese perspective: Heian period (794 to 1185 CE), the final stages of classical Japanese history and the early stage of (proto-) Feudal Japan, which is Kamakura period - Kamakura shogunate being the first military government of Japan.
  • Really splendid answer.
    – MCW
    Aug 24, 2017 at 12:15
  • Thanks mate. Were you stating an answer to a hypothetical question in your first comment (above), re medieval armies of Europe? I want to know too ... :-)
    – J Asia
    Aug 24, 2017 at 12:18
  • It was a real question -Is the distribution of strong armies controlled by geography, relative strength of king vs court, or by some effectively random factor such as the personality of the ruler, or accidents of time? Interesting question.
    – MCW
    Aug 24, 2017 at 12:29
  • @MarkC.Wallace - Asked it. Give it a shot?
    – J Asia
    Aug 24, 2017 at 12:41

China is a large country with even larger borders. Enemies are likely to come from far away, and they are likely to be people that are "unlike" you. So you want your "last line of defense," nearest the capital, to be manned by your closest friends, to give you the best chance to survive when the external enemy comes. On the other hand, a distant enemy can be a "good" enemy because they may have other targets in mind.

Japan is a small,crowded place with a limited land area. "Everyone" (of consequence) knows everyone else. There is no place to hide. All enemies will be "internal."

If you are the Emperor, and you are overthrown, it will likely be by someone you know, not by some unknown Mongol or Manchurian tribal leader from someplace in the vast wilderness. In that case, "the best defense is a good offense." Keep your enemies in a position where you can watch them, and kill them before they can kill you. The further away they are, the easier it is for them to plot or otherwise hide their evil intent.

Both ideologies made sense for their respective countries.

  • "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer" Aug 24, 2017 at 7:57

TL;DR Chinese and Japanese feudal lords are very different in origin. The King of Zhou is tied to his subjects over trust and ritualistic relationships and had to assume most subjects are trustworthy, but the Japanese shogun ruled more by military might had better assume that many subjects are rebellious.

Chinese feudal lords are, well, closer to the feudal lords in the European sense. When the King Wu of Zhou (周武王) defeated the Shang and established the Zhou kingdom, he gave out feudal fiefs to a bunch of people. He gave the Prince of Shang a fief around the former Shang capital of Yin, and gave his brothers nearby fiefs to deter former Shang royals from uprising.


(He) granted to the son of King Ch'ou of Shang, Lu-Fu, the remaining people of Yin. As the King Wu had just taken Yin and not solidified his rule, he made his brothers Kuan Shu-hsien and Ts'ai Shu-tu assist Lu-Fu in ruling Yin.

(Sima Qian, Records of the Grand Historian, Annals of Zhou 史記/周本紀)

He also granted land to the descendants of the legendary leaders of the antique, his other relatives, and his generals/statesmen:


The King Wu remembers of the ancient wise kings, and thus awarded Chiao to the descendant of Shen-nung, Chu to the descendant of the Yellow Emperor, Chi to the descendant of the Emperor Yao, Ch'ên to the descendant of the Emperor Shun, and Ch'i to the descendant of the Emperor Yü. Then, he granted (land) to his honored statesmen and counsellors, and Shih Shang Fu was the first of them. He granted Ying-ch'iu to Shang Fu, and gave (his fief) the title Ch'i. He granted Ch'ü-fu to his brother Chou Kung Tan, and gave the title Lu. He granted Yen to Chao Kung Shih, Kuan to his brother Shu Hsien, and Ts'ai to his brother Shu Tu. Others were also granted land.


It was not necessarily true that all fiefs close to the Zhou capital (in modern Xi'an) were given to his relatives. To the south of his royal fief lies Ch'u (楚), which was granted to the descendants of the Yellow Emperor. Many of King Wu's close relatives, however, were actually given land far away from the royal capital, such as Yen (modern Beijing) and Lu (centered around the northeast of modern Shandong).

Moreover, it's hard to determine trustworthiness just based on kinship. In the early days of Zhou, King Wu's brothers, who were supposed to deter the former Shang royals, actually rebelled against King Wu's heir, King Ch'eng (周成王) - later known as the Rebellion of the Three Guards (三監之亂).

It was exactly this impossibility to determine trustworthiness in feudal Zhou that led to the demise of the feudal system in China. Kinships, trust relationships, and ritualistic/religious ties binds the feudal system, but those ties are simply untrustworthy. Of course the Kings of Zhou tried to grant fiefdoms close to the capital (or, actually, all fiefdoms) to trusted allies (e.g., brothers) so that his subjects would protect him, but how does he know if they will remain trustworthy? The King Zhou had little military capability of his own, and had to rely on his subjects to protect him and suppress rebellions. What if his subjects refuse to do so, or even worse, what if his own subjects decide to march on him? This eventually led to the end of the Zhou dynasty.

On the other hand, the feudal system in Japan was much different from the Zhou system. It had little to do with kinship relations and ritualistic ties, and were much less reliant on trust relationships. Instead, it was, to a large extent, based directly on military (and economic) might. The shogun was nothing divine or paternal; he was just a very powerful military leader, and so were the daimyos. Instead of relying on (not so) trustworthy subjects, he had to maintain his own military - by literally having the largest military and a large enough economic base to fund that military.

To stop rebellions, the shogun could not depend on trust relationships at all, as many subjects can be quite overtly rebellious (e.g., the Satsuma Shimazu clan 薩摩島津氏). What he had to do is to assert his dominance - by defeating his enemies. Minamoto no Yoritomo (源頼朝) had to defeat his archenemies, the Fujiwara Clan, in the Battle of Ohshu (奥州合戦), before controlling all of Japan under the Kamakura Shogunate. Tokugawa Ieyasu had to defeat the West Army at Sekigahara to establish his leadership. Later, the Tokugawa clan remained the most powerful clan - because he was so powerful, daimyos had to think twice before rebelling.

On the other hand, in the rare case that a rebellion really happened, the shogun would want that rebellion to be as far from his capital as possible, so that rebel armies don't march into his capital easily. Instead, he would have more time to prepare his army and quash the rebels, as he is the strongest military power. Many Tokugawa policies like sankin-kōtai (参勤交代) and ikkoku-ichijō (一国一城, "one castle per fief") were also based on this logic. The King of Zhou though would probably never announce such policies: even if his subjects listened to him, such policies would be undesirable as such policies would render him unprotected and even weaker.

What if the shogun is no longer the strongest military power? Well, then he's no longer shogun. This happened thrice in Japanese history (the Genkō War 元弘の乱, the Sengoku Era and the Boshin War 戊辰戦争), which led to the end of the shogunate, and in the former two cases the establishment of a new one.

  • you have good points but it does require a bit more knowledge to appreciate your explanation. You should setup some questions and answer it yourself (if you want). Easier to spread the knowledge that way. Also most here don't read Chinese, putting them in answers intimidates the reader (or worse, might be seen as posturing). In any case, the translation is highly nuanced so it gets lost.
    – J Asia
    Aug 28, 2017 at 14:42

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