Print | Close

What Is "Asia"? by Philip Bowring

from the February 12, 1987 issue of the Far Eastern Economic Review (v. 135 n.7)
Note: This article has been re-formatted for the purposes of this unit.
1. There are many ways to dissect the globe. But by the visual geography of the school textbook, one is very easy: There are four major landmasses.
  • The largest stretches east-west from the Korean to the Iberian peninsula, with the isles of Japan and Britain as respective appendages (Eurasia).
  • There are two land masses of roughly equal size, one running north/south, almost from pole to pole but nearly divided in the middle, and one as broad as it is long lying mostly within the tropics (North and South America; Africa).
  • The fourth is a much smaller mass in the Southern Hemisphere (Australia).
2. With one exception, the land masses are called continents. The exception is the largest.
  • For some reason one-fifth of it has been lopped off at a line joining the Urals with the Caucasus and the Black Sea.
    • West and north is Europe, east is Asia.
    • Why, it may be asked, draw a line there rather than, say, one formed by the Himalayas, the Baluchistan desert and the hills which form the Brahmaputra/Chindwin watershed — the borders of the “Subcontinent”?
    • This area has as much cultural identity as Europe while being equally fragmented in linguistic and — for most of history — political terms.
  • The answer is simple: The word "Asia" was invented by Europeans, and its concept has been propagated by European geographers, politicians and encyclopedia writers.
  • The concept did not exist among Asian civilisations, and even now the Chinese use a character which simply denotes the sound "A."
  • To talk of Asia at all may even be to talk in Eurocentric terms.
  • That does not necessarily invalidate the word, but it does make it necessary to ask:
    • What does it mean?
    • Does it mean different things to different people?
3. Asia in simple geographic terms encompasses Europe. So if the two are to be set apart from each other, there must be sufficient common denominators on each side of the Ural line which do not exist on the other.
  • Does Asia have such a common identity, some positive denominators?
  • Or is it too big, the home of too many civilisations?
  • If so, Asia exists only in the negative sense of being non-European — which is the European definition.
4. Even if this is the case [i.e., that Asia exists only in the negative sense of being non-European], it does not necessarily diminish the power of the name or its force as a rallying cry in the days of European colonialism. And today, it is often a handy term for describing a local situation in a way which contrasts it to a Western — derived from Europe — counterpart.
  • Thus a Chinese may describe himself as Asian, in contrast to European or Western, without feeling any need to identify with, say, Indians or Iranians.
  • Or, he may make his own definition of what is Asian to include East Asian countries with which China has strong historical connections or which are inhabited by “Oriental-looking” people.
  • He may specifically exclude West or even South Asia from his definition of Asia, especially if they have features such as big noses and lots of body hair, which are part of the local stereotype of Europeans.
  • Other "Asians" similarly may provide their own definitions, usually featuring their own nation or culture at the centre of Asia.
5. At its most basic, the word "Asia" just sounds good, appearing to give identity even if such is spurious as a continental concept.
  • There are many publications, for example, which incorporate the word "Asian" but seldom cover anything west of Phuket.
  • Hong Kong has a TV channel called "Asia Television," a name which sounds nice and marks it out in a vague way as local rather than British or Australian in character without any way committing itself to pan-Asianism.
6. This use of the word to suit the occasion is also found in South Asia.
  • There it is normal to use the term West Asia to describe a region which they used to call the Middle East.
    • "Middle East" is now rejected as Eurocentric, which indeed it is.
    • This new formula is not necessarily any better and shows a fixation with "Asia" rhetoric rather than reality.
    • The phrase Middle East (esh-sharq el-awsat in Arabic) continues to be widely used in that area itself because it describes a geo-political region rather than a precise but artificial piece of geography which excludes the most populous half of the Arab world.
    • Indeed "West Asia" ignores the fact that the most powerful nationalist movement transcending state boundaries and geography has been pan-Arabism, defined by language and culture and largely oblivious of Asia as a concept.
7. The word Asia, like the word Europe, was invented by ancient Greeks.
  • They knew very well what they meant by it: The land to the east, where they had established small colonies but which was inhabited by people who were often their enemies.
  • The western part, now Turkish Anatolia, they called Asia Minor, while Asia Major was the heartland of the Persian Empire, then the world's largest.
  • The people of Asia were mostly subjects of the Persian Empire. Anything further east or north was outside Asia.
  • Meanwhile, Europe for the classical Greeks did not extend beyond the northern shores of the Mediterranean, where they were the predominant cultural influence.
8. Two thousand years later, when it began to expand overseas and over Asia, the concept of Europe had been enlarged to include the formerly barbarian northern and eastern parts.
  • The term Asia had expanded, with geographical knowledge, to cover the whole of the land mass east of Europe.
  • By then Europe itself was identified with two traditions which gave it cultural unity.
    • One was the Graeco/Roman tradition, which was, at least originally, pragmatic, austere and republican and for which, as for China, religion was never doctrinaire and less important than law and philosophy.
    • The second was Christianity.
      • This was the religion which Graeco/Roman civilisation adopted in its declining years, but there was nothing very European about Christianity, which originated from the Semitic world and borrowed heavily from two more eastern religions, Zoroastrianism and Buddhism.
9. Islam had similar Semitic origins, but 1,000 years of religious warfare between Christianity and Islam helped solidify the identity of Europe in a way not seen since Persian/Greek rivalry.
  • That only made Islam and the caliphate (Arab or Turkish) Asian from a European viewpoint.
    • Islam had little in common with the Graeco/Roman world view.
    • Islam had a lot more similarity with Christianity than the predominant religions of South and East Asia.
      • Dogmatic, monotheistic, believing in salvation for the select, the Semitic religions and Zoroastrianism (and also subsequently Marxism) were built around the struggle between good and evil.
      • That made them very different from the predominant religions of the Indian and Chinese worlds, Buddhism, Taoism and Hinduism, with their quest for harmony and emphasis on the inter-relationship between the spiritual and the material.
10. The other grounds for finding an all-purpose divide between Europe and Asia are even flimsier.
  • One is the word "Caucasian," frequently used to describe people who look European.
    • But it is really only of any practical use in East Asia to distinguish Orientals from people who could come from almost anywhere west of the Indus.
    • Complicating the situation is the fact that the last phase of European expansionism came from northern Europe, so "Caucasian" or European came to be associated with pale skin and fair hair.
    • These characteristics were distinguishable from most Asians.
    • In southern Europe telling Turks and Greeks or Spaniards or Syrians apart on the basis of physical characteristics is very difficult.
  • Certainly there is no ready differentiation of people from one side of the Caucasus compared with the other except by religion.
    • Indeed in the days of the shah, Iranians sometimes referred to themselves as "the original Caucasian race."
    • Pre- Khomeini, many Iranians regarded their nation's golden age as the pre-Islamic era when, at its peaks, it (Persia/Persian empire) stretched from the Indus to the Mediterranean.
  • To the extent that race and language have some common origins, Iranians were right about their golden age.
    • Iran stands roughly at the centre of the Aryan language belt which covers the whole of Europe, crosses the Caucasus and extends to the Bay of Bengal and the Deccan hills.
  • Language group may be a minor unifier compared with religion or physiognomy.
    • The British imperialist legacy is not the only reason why Indians learn English more readily than Chinese.
11. Asia would have been no more than a geographical concept but for Europeans deciding they were something different.
  • They, Europeans, have their own identity but no more than, say, the Chinese.
  • In reality they, Europeans, are not more or less "Asian" than the Chinese.
  • In the European era of expansionism and technical superiority, Europeans virtually invented the catch-all term "Asians" (or, sometimes, "Asiatics," a vague term often reserved for the peoples of central Asia) for all non-Europeans on the landmass.
  • The term started with a negative connotation, and still has it.
12. Asia only developed a common identity in reaction to European actions and attitudes.
  • That was natural, and the sense of a common Asian identity helped the overthrow of European colonialism.
  • Japan first rejected Asia as a link with "backwardness." By the time it tried in the 1930s and 1940s to exploit pan-Asianism, its own position was compromised by its behavior in China.
  • Nonetheless, the idea of pan-Asianism flowered briefly while there were common interests in humbling Western powers.
  • The fact that pan-Asianism has not achieved political shape does not invalidate the notion any more than Europe's political divisions and incessant wars have killed the notion of Europe. [The expansion of the European Union and the evolution of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) — plus three (China, Japan, and South Korea), at the beginning of the 21st century suggest new developments in identity may be at work in both regions of the world.]
13. The concept of Asia is to some extent sustained by Western cultural predominance.
  • North and South America may be different continents, but they are rightly perceived by non-Europeans to be cultural extensions of Europe.
  • As Africa [has been] of scant consequence, [this has left] most of the world divided between east and west.
  • But there is an anomaly — the [previous] Soviet empire [and what is now Russia] ignore the traditional divide between Europe and Asia, the Urals. Predominantly European in character, [Russia] is subject to strains of local nationalisms.
14. Indeed, it may prove that the old, fixed notions of Asia and Europe are no longer relevant, just as for centuries, no one, friend or foe, saw anomaly in the fact that the Turkish Ottoman Empire straddled three continents.
  • Perhaps in wars to come a revived (most likely neo-Confucian) East will drive the West out of Europe and create a new front line at the Atlantic.
  • Equally, completely new divisions of the world may again become predominantly based on religion (such as [Islam]) or some other characteristic in which Asia and Europe, East and West, are irrelevant.
  • Maybe dominant civilizations will always be defined by what they are, while others are given common identity by what they are not. In which case, as some nations in Asia rise to global ascendancy the notion of Asia will fade away.

Print || Close