All the accessible auroral observations recorded in Chinese and Japanese histories during the interval AD 1840–1911 are investigated in detail. Most of these auroral records have never been translated into a Western language before. The East Asian auroral reports provide information on the date and approximate location of each auroral observation, together with limited scientific information on the characteristics of the auroral luminosity such as colour, duration, extent, position in the sky and approximate time of occurrence. The full translations of the original Chinese and Japanese auroral records are presented in an appendix, which contains bibliographic details of the various historical sources. (There are no known reliable Korean observations during this interval.) A second appendix discusses a few implausible "auroral" records, which have been rejected. The salient scientific properties of all exactly dated and reliable East Asian auroral observations in the interval AD 1840–1911 are summarised succinctly. By comparing the relevant scientific information on exactly dated auroral observations with the lists of great geomagnetic storms compiled by the Royal Greenwich Observatory, and also the tabulated values of the Ak (Helsinki) and aa (Greenwich and Melbourne) magnetic indices, it is found that 5 of the great geomagnetic storms (aa〉150 or Ak〉50) during either the second half of the nineteenth century or the first decade of the twentieth century are clearly identified by extensive auroral displays observed in China or Japan. Indeed, two of these great storms produced auroral displays observed in both countries on the same night. Conversely, at least 29 (69%) of the 42 Chinese and Japanese auroral observations occurred at times of weak-to-moderate geomagnetic activity (aa or Ak≤50). It is shown that these latter auroral displays are very similar to the more numerous (about 50) examples of sporadic aurorae observed in the United States during the interval AD 1880–1940. The localised nature and spatial structure of some sporadic aurorae observed in East Asia is indicated by the use of descriptive terms such as "lightning", "rainbow", "streak" and "grid".