How has the Chinese population changed the demographics in Asia?

Chinese culture
[1] The Chinese always had a migration to other Asian countries, but for what exact reasons?

Have you ever encountered a time when someone asked you where you were from, and they told you you were from a different country? For example, you would say you were from Shanghai, China and someone would mutter, Is that in Japan? Certainly, when you are not accustomed to a set of people you would mistaken them easily. Bringing this into context, how and why exactly do the Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Malaysians and Singaporeans look so similar? In this article, I hope to explore the impetuses and effects of Chinese migration throughout Asia, namely countries like 1) Japan, 2) Vietnam, 3) Malaysia and Singapore.

1) Japan
Map of Japan - Ryukyu Islands
[2] A map of the Ryukyu Islands, Japan.

One of the earliest migration of the Chinese people was to Japan. As Chinese legend has it, a sorcerer named Xu Fu was sent abroad by the stern Emperor Qing Shi Huang to Mount Fuji. Xu’s mission was to retrieve an elixir of life for His Majesty. [3] However, despite his efforts, the sorcerer was unable to find anything and was reluctant to return, as execution would await him. Eventually, Xu stayed in Japan and began a new wave of Chinese migration to Japan. [3]

The Ryukyuan Islands was believed to have remained undeveloped until around the 12th century. It was not until after many Chinese Civil Wars under the Chinese Emperor Taizu (1368-1398) that there was a change in the demographics of the Japanese island. [4] It has to be noted that the Taizu’s legacy, or indeed, the Ming Dynasty, was to rule for three centuries. Keeping in mind that China was deemed as the middle country or 中國 then, the powerful Chinese ruler called all barbarian states in the region to submit to China, prohibiting the free sea navigation and trade routes within the region. This was key, as according to Belgian historian Katrien Hendrickx, it could be seen as a civilising and diplomatic mission. [4]

In Okinawa, one of the main islands, it was divided into three main principalities – Hokuzan (北山), Chuzan (中山) and Nanzan (南山). [4] These would translate directly from Chinese or Japanese as North, Middle and South Mountain or constituencies. China’s diplomatic prestige in the South Seas were key, as Satto gave an oath of allegiance, offering gifts and in return, was offered the title of King of Chuzan, or the Middle Mountain region of the Okinawa Islands. Moreover, in 1392, the Ming Emperor had sent 36 families, as a symbol to imply many people for colonisation in the region. [4] These families were key, as they were to administer the Nahan border within the Ryukyuan Islands. Eventually, this opened the door for increasingly more seamen and merchants, who travelled to and fro, finding entrepreneurial routes between the islands and China. From then onwards, this developed a strong Chinese community, one that maintained their own modes of life, customs and dresses. [4]

2) Vietnam
Map of Southern Chinese territories
[5] The highlighted region showing the Nanyue colony, comprising of south Chinese regions (Guangdong, Guangxi and Yunnan) and north Vietnam.

In 207 BCE, under the Chinese general Zhao Tuo, the southern Chinese regions of Guangdong, Guangxi and Yunnan, together with northern Vietnam was conquered and administered principally by himself. [6, 7] This was named, according to American academic Walker, Au-lac, signifying a pacified southern region. We have to be vigilant here though, as there were many names given to this region – for example Nanyue as well.

Vietnam was split into two main ethnic constituencies – Lac Viet and Au Viet. [7] This colony was to be a centre of refugees, convicts and officers of the Han Dynasty for a full 1,000 years, of which most were men. This was significant, as men married Viet local women, and their offspring became part of the local population. Throughout the Han rule, the Vietnamese rose up through Ngo Quyen in 939 A.D. and Nguyen Trai, as part of a political struggle to gain full sovereignty for their nation. [7] This was key, as until 1829, the Vietnamese people wanted to establish a distinct Vietnamese identity amongst the Ming-Huong or Sino-Vietnamese people. Moreover, they were allowed local political rights, and assimilate to their local culture, customs and etiquette, only if they did not return to China. [6]

3) Malaysia/Singapore

[8] Map of Malaysia and Singapore.

Malaysia and Singapore have been grouped as they were both common destinations for employment in the Asian continent by the Chinese. The Malaysian Peninsula’s demographics divided into the Chinese North, Indian West, and the Dutch East Indian or Indonesian South. Since the 14th century, there has been immigration to Temaisik or Old Singapore. [9] Eventually, the Chinese diaspora expanded to Penang, Malacca and Singapore. Under British, Portuguese and Dutch rule in each of these areas, compounded with the aftermath of the Great Depression in 1929 and the outbreak of World War Two in the Asian theatre (1941-1945), the Chinese travelled from their native Guangdong and Fukien provinces for employment, family visits and retirement purposes. [9] This was fundamental, as there were kheh thaws who were professional recruiters, and the sin khah who were the new recruits or contracters.

Under the Chinese Immigration and Alien Ordinances inaugurated in 1887 and 1933 respectively, this was to limit the outflow of Chinese male immigrants to the Malaysian Peninsula. However, this was key again, as the Indian community, being part of the British royal subjects were not affected. [8] This problem prolonged until the independence of Singapore in 1966 under Lee Kwan Yew and the People’s Action Party (PAP) for Chinese sovereignty over the other Indian and Malayan inhabitants.

The Chinese diaspora to various countries namely Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore were down to colonisation, imperialism and in search of employment. In Japan and Vietnam alike, we have seen two examples of how the Ming and Han Dynasties have sent merchants, civilians or armies to spread their sphere of influence within the region. In turn, these Sino-Japanese and Sino-Vietnamese families blended together as one distinct culture, both of which were free to practise their own type of religion and customs. With Malaysia and Singapore, there has not been as significant of a population exodus by the Chinese community until the aftermath and outbreak of the Great Depression and the Second World War, in search of employment, family visits and retirement. Similar to their early Sino-Japanese and Sino-Vietnamese counterparts in Okinawa and northern Vietnam, the Chinese migrants in Malaysia struggled to find their equality amongst the locals, which caused a lot of politico-social struggles, and the eventual Singaporean independence in 1965 by Lee Kwan Yew and the PAP.

In my personal opinion, I think that through many modes of colonisation and employment opportunities, the Chinese were able to achieve their own sphere of influence within the Asian continent. Obviously, when we speak of colonial powers, we tend to get winded up in the great maritime powers – Great Britain, France, Spain, Portugal and Holland. China can be regarded differently with their impetus of spreading their cultural and economical influences across others, so that trade can flow readily back to the mainland. This is key, as this could be applied to the modern globalised world, where China is an imperial power, in the sense of being an economic and imposing country on weaker and considerably poorer countries found in Africa, South America and Asia. That might be a pointer for how to understand the notion behind encouraging the diaspora of the Chinese communities abroad not only in Asia, but perhaps in another article, to other continents and countries like America, Europe and Canada. I do not want to be far-fetched in my article, but many questions arise from this and we, particularly, as the global audience, could question the effects of these mixed societies that the Chinese bring in abundance to their adopted countries.

Right that is it from me for now, as the university year is fast approaching. I really hope you have enjoyed all my reads so far, despite it being difficult to find a suitable and encapsulating enough of a topic to analyse. If there are any comments you like to say, do not forget to write them below. Thanks a lot and bye for now! 🙂

Signed from your respective blogger,


[3] Lee, C. K., Japan: Between Myth and Reality, (London, World Scientific Publishing Ltd., 1995), Pages 7-8,, date of access: 20/9/2013
[4] Hendrickx, K., The Origins of Banana-Fibre Cloth in the Ryukyus: Japan, (Leuven, Leuven University Press, 2007), Pages 38-41,, date of access: 20/9/2013
[6] Phuong, H. T., “Chapter 8: Ethnic Chinese in Vietnam and Their Identity”, in Suryadinata, L., Ethnic Chinese as South-East Asians, (ed.), (Singapore, South East Asian Studies, 1997), Pages 267-272,, date of access: 20/9/2013
[7] Walker, D. H., East Asia: A New History, (Bloomington, Author House Ltd., 2012), Page 107,, date of access: 20/9/2013
[9] Saw, H-S., The Population of Peninsular Malaysia, 2nd ed., (Singapore, ISEAS Publishing, 2007), Pages 10-18,, date of access: 20/9/2013


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