I have done a quick Bing search, and the term refers to the Middle Ages, a time period in Western European history. It has the alternative meaning of "very old-fashioned or primitive".

Yet, people talk of "Medieval Japan" or "Medieval China". Not to mention, the Middle Ages seems to only apply to Western Europe, not Eastern Europe. I found one source that seems to pinpoint "Medieval China" as the time period between the fall of the Han Dynasty and the fall of the Yuan Dynasty, but why? That seems to be pretty arbitrary to me. In Chinese, people may use 清朝末年 and 民國初 to refer to the end of the Qing dynasty and the early Republic of China - a dramatic shift from the old imperial system to the modern system.

Obviously, the term "medieval" is English, so whoever coined the term is a Westerner or a person who is born and raised in the West, specifically the Anglophone world.

I just can't seem to understand why a specific time period in China or Japan is chosen and called "Medieval".

Maybe, the term "medieval" is used because the society has cool-looking castles and big armies that Westerners can relate to?

I just googled "Medieval China" and "Medieval Japan".

  • 1
    Well, for Japan, the medieval ages is considered to start with the establishment of Kamakura shogunate, where there was a power shift from the imperial court to the warrior classes. But, yes, I agree that it looks arbitrary (and somewhat western centric) – ThirstforKnowledge Mar 14 at 4:34
  • Btw. your conclusion that "medieval is an English word, so the whole concept was invented by speakers of English" is invalid. See e.g. "socialism with Chinese characteristics" for a simple counter example. – Jan Mar 14 at 11:33
  • @Jan WTF? I never said "the whole concept was invented by speakers of English". My meaning originally was the term was English, so obviously the term was coined in English. There should be no counter-argument, because the English term was coined in English. Just restating the fact. I never spoke of any concept. – Double U Mar 20 at 12:30
  • @MarkC.Wallace I just googled "Medieval China" and "Medieval Japan". – Double U Mar 20 at 12:34
  • @ThirstforKnowledge Yeah... and the first response also hints at Western European-centricism. – Double U Mar 20 at 12:35

I think there are usually two possible meanings of the term.

  1. In the same time frame as the European.Middle Ages, e.g. somewhere between 500 to 1500 AD

  2. For an era that is deemed to be roughly similar to European feudalism.

See e.g. baike.baidu.com for 中古:


(rough translation: "Middle ages refers to the thousand years between 500 CE to 1500 CE in the history of Western civilization

and further down the same page:

①三古之一,较晚的古代,次于上古的时代。在我国历史分期上多指魏晋南北朝隋唐这个时期。 ②指封建社会时代。 ③指书体演变过程中的大篆。

(rough translation) 1. One of the three ages of old history, before later old history and after early old history. In our country it usually refers to Jin, Wei, Northern and Southern Dynasties, Sui and Tang [Wikipedia says that this time frame covers 266 CE to 907 CE] 2. the era of feudal society 3. (the term for a very ancient Chinese writing style)

  • As a sidenote, that Baidu page has an image from.Berlin subtitled 中古欧洲 and what is depicted there (Museumsinsel + Berliner Dom) is not medieval at all. – Jan Mar 14 at 9:33
  • Okay... so the gist is that it takes a Euro-centric view of the world. It may refer to the time period of non-European history that falls within the European Middle Ages, or the time period of non-European history that is similar to European feudalism. – Double U Mar 20 at 12:25

Simple, because roughly after the Middle Ages comes the Navigations which integrated the world, and a visible European dominance in some important issues.

The history of Asia can not ignore Europe after the XVI c. Before that, Europeans had to travel by land, as Marco Polo and the Franciscans who reached China, and the Muslims separated Europe and East Asia. Thus, Europeans had a relatively smaller influence. Asian story was more localized and independent.

After the navigations, Japan traded and closed itself, India traded and started to be colonized, China had Portuguese in Macau and Mateo Ricci. Spain got into Philippines, Portuguese in East Africa, India, South East Asia, etc. The Ottomans and Muslims were bypassed in trade with loss of wealth. Besides, all of them had their own complex relations with western tech, ships, science, astronomy, firearms, weapons, religion. And obviously this kind of global issues never really stopped.

Studying medieval Asia is relatively more limited to Asian concerns, post-medieval Asia has to take more European and global issues into account. This means that it makes sense to separate the periods when studying history - this is what makes these "period names" relevant or not, even if one chooses different exact dates to mark the transition in different places. These periods are just meant to help our understanding - nobody in the XVI c. had a party to mark the end of the Middle Ages :-)

e.g., if pre-history means 'before writing', this is helpful because historical methods must be different if there is no hope of finding written records. Some may prefer that "pre-history" mean 'before agriculture', it also makes sense, as hunter-gatherer societies are different from settled ones. Separating Modern Age from Contemporary Age in the French Revolution makes sense if one is concerned with political history, about monarchies x republics, and related concepts about human rights and the legitimacy of the state, etc.

EDIT about China/Japan being closed:

there were significant numbers of Christians in China and Japan before persecutions; Jesuits were even present in the imperial and shogunate courts, got involved in big decisions such as agricultural calendars and princely education, besides the Franciscans among the poor; the closed Japanese, besides trading in Nagasaki, still had selected people in Nagasaki watching and studying whatever stuff/tech the Dutch had; silver coins were often traded between china-philippines-mexico; The big decisions about opening/closing, or about tolerance/persecution of Christians were influenced by contacts with Europeans, including personal contacts of the daymo/shogun or imperial officials, dinners between the shogun and strategically drunk ship captains, and paranoid delusions about Spanish invasion from the Philipines or Christian help to the deposed chinese dynasty.

Moreover, even the concept of "closed country" does not make sense unless there is a "why?" or "against whom?" How can one discuss why they closed their countries with no account of what the europeans were doing there before/after the closure, or what people expected to happen if they opened up?

  • I think one could argue that European influence in Tokugawa Japan and Qing China was really quite limited until the mid-19th century. Jesuits and Russians in China and Deshima in Japan notwithstanding. – Jan Mar 15 at 16:32
  • E.g. in pre-19th century China, Western influence meant clocks and some buildings in YuanMingYuan in Beijing. In the 19th century Western influence meant wars, the Taiping rebellion, and eventually the downfall of the Qing dnasty. – Jan Mar 15 at 16:41

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