East Asia is a region with stark contrasts between highly industrialized countries, heavily urbanized areas, poor rural areas, and largely unpopulated mountains and deserts. China is the cultural cradle of the region and today is the country with the largest population and size. Communism dominates in North Korea and China, where the standard of living, health care, and education lag behind that of Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea.
Population Patterns About 25 percent of the world's population lives in East Asia. Most countries are ethnically homogeneous, although minorities, such as the Tibetans in China, are found in each. Most East Asians settle in coastal areas or in fertile areas along rivers. Japan and Taiwan have only limited space available and are mostly urbanized, while Mongolia and the western province of Xinjiang in China have sparse populations. In recent decades many people in China and South Korea have moved from rural, desert, or mountainous areas to find jobs in cities. Population growth also has contributed to overcrowding in cities.
History and Government China became the region's culture hearth, with the earliest civilization developing in the valley of the Wei River. Several dynasties ruled China into the early 1900s, and by A.D. 620 merchants, travelers, and missionaries took elements of Chinese culture to all of East Asia, including Korea and Japan. During the 1800s China and Japan were forced to open their countries to trade with Europe and the United States. During the 1900s East Asia became involved in two world wars. In addition, China saw a long civil war that ended in 1949, when communist Mao Zedong set up the People's Republic of China on the Chinese mainland, while rival Nationalist Chiang Kai-shek and his followers fled to the island of Taiwan. After World War II Japan rebuilt its shattered economy and emerged as a global economic power by the late 1900s. Korea continues to be divided between the American-backed south and the communist-led north. Meanwhile, Mongolia enjoys a democracy since the end of the Soviet Union.
Cultures and Lifestyles The diverse backgrounds of the people in East Asia are reflected in the different languages they speak, although some Chinese words have found their way into the Japanese and Korean languages. Most Chinese speak Mandarin, the northern dialect of Han Chinese. Chinese languages use ideograms in their writing. East Asians hold a variety of religious beliefs, but the communist governments of China and North Korea discourage religious practices. Even though China is now allowing some free enterprise, the Chinese lag behind their richer neighbors in their standard of living. Education and health care also are more available in the richer countries and in urban areas. East Asians engage in a variety of leisure activities, and literature, music, and theater play prominent roles in their lives.