Asia is to all appearances just a sloppy state of mind. As a term it lacks a constant connotation. As the possible provenance of a composite, supra-national identity it is and has been an abject failure. As an ill-advised cultural metaphor invented by uncomprehending Europeans, it betrays too many contradictions to have any consistent value. As a geographical designation it is no more than a lexical dustbin for the untidy residuum of an imprecise scheme of continental classification.
Asia is altogether too casual about itself. The regions into which it is currently divided do not aggregate into a continental totality. Those who have assembled this disembodied whole through the designation of its parts – the merchant-warriors of the colonial enterprise and merchant-academics of more recent vintage – have been singularly thoughtless in their nomenclatures.
There is a distressing lack of rigour when identifying Asia’s current regional denominations. The relational coordinates are hyper-absurd. From a strictly European point of view, the Middle East makes sense only on the condition that there is a Near East. Unfortunately for the Middle East, the western end of the Near East turned out to be so near that it is busy trying to get into the European Union. As for the Far East, it is considerably nearer east than Alaska or the Siberian outposts.
When the cardinal coordinates are invoked, the outcome is a caricature. There is vast stretch of the Pontic and Caspian steppe that is called Central Asia, but this appellation lacks its justifying complement, namely North Asia. Central Asia is central in relation to nothing in particular. The lands immediately adjacent, to the east of the steppe, do not fall within Central Asia. Instead they are called Mongolia and China. The land to the west, bordering the Caspian Sea, is Europe. There is also a South Asia whose southern tip is a long way north of the southern edge of the continent taken as a whole.
The net result is ludicrously designated set of contiguous regions which involuntarily, almost distractedly, constitutes a nebulous landmass without a west and a north, which lies almost entirely north of the equator but is deemed to belong economically to the southern hemisphere and culturally to the eastern hemisphere. Clearly, in a world that is only physically round, but culturally and economically flat, ‘Asia’ is a ‘continent’ with which a great many liberties can be taken.
There are many logical and historical factors that violate the notion of a separate Asia. Logically, the differentiation of comparables can only be on the basis of commensurable differentia, that is, the separate constituents of a class must be distinguishable from each other by specific, non-transferrable and non-overlapping characteristics.
Therefore, if a certitude called Asia is postulated, it should be possible to predicate on it attributes of so singular and uniformly prevalent an order as to purposively distinguish it from other equally coherent, contiguous geographical entities. By this token, it will be necessary to furnish constitutive attributes that are not only uniquely specific to Asia, and hence absent from Europe and Africa, but are also uniformly characteristic of the entire landmass. It follows, as a logical corollary, that there cannot be differences within Asia that are of a magnitude that overrides the unifying pan-continental criteria.
In Asia, these logical demands are not met. It is difficult to identify a single principle of Asiatic uniformity, other than those fabricated by European prejudice – notably the idea of a continent populated by wily, inscrutable, lazy, deceitful and barbaric orientals. In a real historical sense Asia’s currently designated regions have been fluctuating zones that overlapped culturally and politically, not only with each other, but also with cultural and political zones deep inside Africa and Europe.
Historically, the different ‘regions’ of Asia violate the conditions of a rigorously coherent continental definition. The first of these are the so-called Near East and Middle East, which stood at the confluence of the Afro-Eurasian civilisation, in the lap of Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, (excluding the Indic religions — Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism) and in the mutating cusp of pastoralism and sedantrism, in which the organising principle of life struggled between the imperial pomp and nomadic simplicity that lay on either side. Today West Asia cannot be detached from the larger preoccupations of the West, particularly its hydrocarbon enthusiasm.
The other region that deviates historically from the rigidities of both regional and continental demarcation is Central Asia, again a zone of Eurasian convergence, whose relatively more rudimentary culture gave rise to empires in Eurasia to the west and north, eastwards in China, southwards in Persia, south-eastwards in the Indo-Gangetic regions. The first and only time that Asia ever came close to achieving a continental political unity was under one of the khanates of the imperial nomads of Central Asia. Yet, Central Asia was so comprehensively integrated into the Russian empire, and subsequently the Soviet Union, that it was unwilling to disengage from even a collapsing USSR. Central Asian republics voted by overwhelming majorities to stay with the union in the referendum to decide the future of the USSR.
The third region that defies the continent of Asia is the continent of China. Standing at the eastern edge of the Central Asian political formations and the northwestern edge of the Persian, China partook of some of the artefacts of external history, including Buddhism, Christianity, Islam. But the ‘middle kingdom’ was also careful to maintain its distance, only occasionally intervening, for its own purposes, in the business of others, and, for the most part, remaining disdainful of the surrounding barbarians. In the process, it insulated itself to a greater degree than its neighbours from the upheavals in the vicinity that intermittently brought about the collapse of other empires, notably the Persian, the Roman, the Arab, the Byzantine, the Central Asian and the Indo-Gangetic. China’s modern history has been dominated by a concern for internal stability and more recently a search for external markets.
Meanwhile, Japan and South Korea, which participated in the history of the landmass in their own detached but real ways, have practically seceded from Asia over the last century. Japan, in fact typifies the paradox of Asia. Having intellectually stimulated the concept of Asia for the first time, following its military victory over Russia in 1905, it was also the first to launch a modernisation drive that was explicitly based on the idea of escaping Asiatic backwardness.
Southeast Asia to all outward appearances presents the picture of being a self-contained region, largely because of its recent history of economic cooperation and its collective plunge into a globally publicised financial crisis. But the appearance is deceptive. Southeast Asia is unique for having seriously attempted to constitute itself into a region, but the effort has not been entirely successful. And, to the limited extent that a region has been moulded, its orientation is westward economically, and in, a more ambiguous fashion, culturally. Curiously, while the term Asia has more popular currency here than elsewhere, the definition here tends to be narrower and more self-referential than inclusive.
A possible Asia
The evidence of history is stacked against the idea of Asia. But this historical lack of an Asian coherence is not a necessary impediment to the realisation of a continent of the future. The European experience offers conclusive proof that history can be overcome. History weighed just as heavily against Europe as it does against Asia. Europe was just as similarly lacking in coherence and definition until just after an internecine war that brought it practically to the brink of extinction a little over five decades ago. Yet Europe today has a greater clarity about itself and its past than it or any other continent has ever had. It is the only continent of which it is legitimately possible to refer to in any collective sense.
The post-war European identity carved itself out of a reconstructed historical imagination. In the process of defining itself, it posited some of the most divisive aspects of its history as the defining characteristics of its continental unity. Christianity, colonialism, the invention of capitalist competition and nationalism, political philosophy and the classical heritage have all become monopolies of the European sensibility. Clearly, neither the rules of formal logic nor the contradictions of history need come in the way of successful experiments at conjuring social collectivities out of the hostilities of the past.
But for that to happen the mentality of a collective must first be forged. Europe admittedly had historical advantages of the kind that Asia lacks. At various points in its past, starting with the ‘Renaissance’, Europeans have assiduously rewritten history, detaching classical antiquity from the its Afro-Asiatic influences, and instituting it as the childhood of Europe, to create a fictitious common sense of the past as the basis of a common identity. Classical antiquity was as far removed from the heritage of large parts of Europe as the Mesopotamian civilisation was from the heritage of Southeast Asia. But, politics, as has been repeated ad nauseam, is the art of the possible and from this unlikely heritage of civilisational genius, the historically counter-intuitive idea of a united Europe, with an overriding identity and interest that simultaneously admits of internal differentiation, was realised.
The idea of Asia seems on current evaluation to be more compellingly counter-intuitive than the idea of Europe. Yet the potential for an Asian confederacy is not entirely exhausted either by history or by the current politics of the world. The colonial experience had stimulated the intellectual articulation of an Asian solidarity opposed to the West. The period of post-colonial national anxieties precluded the pursuit of this idea, particularly given the decolonising machinations of departing Europeans and the geopolitical manipulations of the advancing superpowers. But today, the fresh onslaught of the globalising West renews the context and perhaps imparts the impetus for giving meaning to the idea of Asia.
If the possibility of an Asia exists, it cannot be brought into existence through the conventional politics of existing state systems. Nor can it be based simply on the reflected glory of an ancient and overlapping heritage. It will have to configured on the practical foundations of radically defined material interests and minimally defined cultural identity. In the age and zone of dependent capitalism this is a task that the bureaucratic and commercial imagination of Asia is unequal to. The vision of crony capitalism is circumscribed by the calculus of its profits.
Consequently, Asia can only be conceptualised against the intrigues of both neo-imperial North America and Europe (including Japan), and outside the existing state structures of the continent. The unequal division of the world is sustained through the national client state and its personnel of purchased elites. The intellectual articulation and social energy for the elaboration of a unified Asia will have to be marshalled through civil networks that must quell the comprador tendencies of the state, and redirect it towards the welfare functions it is mandated to undertake.
West or Asia?
Two millennia of history have clearly played havoc with both the idea of a rigorously defined continent and the possibility of sustaining some of its geopolitical categories in any meaningful sense. West Asia, inclusive of ‘Asia Minor’ and the larger Asian ‘Near East’ exemplifies this best. It is a moot point whether there is a distinctive ‘West Asian’ identity common to the diverse sub-areas of this region which can be annexed to a larger Asian one?
The cultural cross-fertilisations of the region are not surprising considering that the earliest civilisations to emerge in West Asia grew out of Mesopotamia and Egypt, the second of which lies in northeast Africa. These two centres of power, which over two millennia of periodic conflict with each other for regional dominance, strongly shaped the social and cultural contours of the areas closest to them. As Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilisations went into gradual decline in the mid-first millennium BCE, new powers, the most important of which were Achaemenid Persia and Greece, made inroads into West Asia and established empires.
Central Asian influences continued to flow into the region as the Parthians replaced the post-Alexandrine Selucids, in an empire that stretched all the way to Taxila, while the Tocharian nomads established the Kushan empire that extended from northwest India to the edge of the Black Sea. The Roman conquest of West Asia from the first century BCE briefly displaced Greek influence along the eastern Mediterranean coast, while further to the east, the rise of the Sasanians in the fourth century CE revived Persian influence in the Graeco-Asian interior. However, about the same time the Roman empire gradually separated into two halves, and by the fifth century the collapse of the western part shifted the imperial centre of gravity to the Byzantine or eastern Roman empire, which increasingly became less Roman and more Greek.
The Byzantine influence spread over the eastern Mediterranean region, including its Greek orthodox Christianity, which was distinct from the Roman variant. Christianity, which grew out of Roman Palestine, had became the dominant religion of West Asia within a few centuries of its appearance in the first century CE and gained numerous adherents in parts of Asia, including India’s southwest coast, before travelling to Europe and northern and eastern Africa. The tradition of Asia re-importing its own products from the West evidently began with the arrival of Byzantine Christianity.
In the course of West Asian history, there were moments when ‘Asia’ could potentially have been realised. The rise of Islam in the seventh century was one such moment. Unlike Christianity, which increasingly drifted westward before returning east in later centuries as missionary cargo, after having been reverse engineered in Europe in the intervening period, Islam, by contrast, gave rise to an Arab-led religio-political empire that, at its height, stretched from Central Asia to Sindh to Spain, making inroads as far north as France, Sicily and Italy.
Within a few centuries, however, the Islamic religious-secular authority, the caliphate, lost control of most regions beyond West Asia, while within the region a fierce schism had emerged between the Persian Shias and orthodox Arab and Turkic Sunnis. Following the collapse of the Arab imperium, beginning in the 10th century and accelerating in succeeding years, Turkic-speaking Central Asians migrated to, settled in and periodically ruled over portions of present-day Turkey, Iraq and Iran. In the Levant, to the south of Turkey, on the other hand, the external influences of Egyptian power and European crusaders left their mark on cultural and social developments.
As West Asia approached the modern era, the two most important powers were the Safavid empire of Persia and the Ottoman Turks who had replaced the Byzantine empire in the eastern Mediterranean. But as these entities gradually weakened in power, the region came increasingly within the Western sphere of influence. Though the Persian empire survived the European colonial era complete and intact, if reduced in size, the Ottoman empire’s control over West Asia dissipated with the emergence of a strong, quasi-independent Egypt in the 19th century and eventually collapsed after the first world war. With the creation of modern Turkey in the early 20th century, Britain and France gained mandates over newly carved out Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, with Britain also enjoying control of the foreign affairs of the Persian gulf emirates through a series of treaties. West Asian states put under colonial rule all gained their independence within a decade of the close of the second world war.
History provides some bases for claims of a West Asian identity and the attachment of that identity to a larger Asia, although both cases are weak. The first could include the traditional role the region played as an overland trade route between the Mediterranean and Arabian seas, which distinguishes West Asia from northeast Africa and areas north and east of Iran. More striking, perhaps, is the region’s role as the birthplace and incubator of the world’s three dominant monotheistic faiths, and the ongoing geographical importance of West Asia to those three religions. No empire, however, has ever created a political unit composed of an exclusive and complete West Asia. And the region’s politics, largely as an outcome of geography, have often been controlled by forces to the north, south and west. In the current configuration of world politics, West Asia belongs almost exclusively to the Western sphere of influence, its connection to Asia being restricted to the employment of blue-collar workers from all corners of the rest of the continent.
The reluctant Asians
Central Asia, like West Asia, began life as a fluid zone, with the difference that it also possessed a highly mobile culture, which included the frequent intermingling of people of different physical types and languages. As the times became more modern, life and its history in the region became more rigid. Central Asia from the 19th century wears on its surface a tidy look, being divided into Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan. But this neat division conceals wide variations in its culture and particularly its history, and is an outcome of imperial Russian colonisation that started in the 18th century under Catherine.
Prior to that, Central Asia was simultaneously the habitat of nomads and the crucible of empires. For over a millennium, the region was marked by the hectic mobility of pastoral peoples, elastic boundaries, shifting political units, constant wars for territory in the heartland, the formation of great tribal confederacies, and the ethno-linguistic amalgamation of peoples. But the most marked feature of steppe life which impinged on the world outside, and one which remained inexplicable to the surrounding sedentary peoples, was the periodic and seemingly sudden out rush of great bands of nomads from their homelands into neighbouring regions of more settled life.
Due to the fragile demographic equilibrium of the steppe, small dislocations in the core areas, arising from conflicts over space, generated great outwards ripples that had far-reaching consequences, as tribes displaced by wars poured out from their territories and attacked the surrounding sedentary empires. These great movements of people may have had the appearance of sudden spontaneous eruptions but were actually often the result of protracted processes of change in the Central Asian interior and the marches between the steppe and the settled world of the Chinese, the Persians and the Graeco-Romans.
Hence the implacable hostility of the sedentary and the imperial to nomadism as a way of life, which carries on as a deep-rooted prejudice well into modern times. These movements of nomadic people have left their mark on the Indo-Gangetic plain, Persia, the Graeco-Asian formations that followed the conquests of Alexander, the Anatolian region, various Chinese dynasties and most notably the western Roman empire and the Byzantine empire. The Kushan empire, which for the first time politically connected the northwestern parts of India with the regions bordering the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, was the creation of the Yueh-chi or the Tocharians after they were defeated by the Scythians in the Mesopotamia of the Amu and Syr Darya.
Likewise, the military collapse of Europe’s favourite empire, Rome, began with the declining fortunes of the Hsiung-nu on the northwestern borderlands of China. The Hsiung-nu confederacy, which included Mongol and Iranian nomads, was the core of the Huns who in the fifth century CE moved through Russia into the Danubian plains and disturbed the equilibrium of the Germanic tribal world, which in turn set off the great ‘barbarian’ movements in Europe that led to the break up of the Western empire of Rome.
Many of the empires surrounding the steppe, in turn, made repeated defensive or offensive forays into Central Asia at various point with varying degrees of success. As a result, till the colonisation by the Russians, the steppe was in a more or less continuously hostile relationship with sedentary civilisations, being either colonised by the Persians, Greeks, Romans, Chinese or Arabs, or in turn raiding them. As a consequence, the region not only received a great many distinct influences from the east, west, south and north but also exported its culture to other regions of the Asian landmass, most notably Turkicising Anatolia and creating external empires, particularly when an internal unity was imposed on the steppe.
When such a Turko-Mongol unity emerged in the early 13th century under Chingis Khan, the most persistently nomadic region of the world created the largest land empire in history, stretching all the way from China to West Asia on the east-west axis, and extending into Russia in the north. The Mongol foray went as far as Japan, Korea and Java in the east and Austria in the west. The Indian Subcontinent was the only significant region to remain outside the Mongol empire, its defence having been successfully conducted by the Turkic sultanate of Delhi. To make up for this lapse, the Turko-Mongol chieftain, Babur, set up the Mughal empire in India a couple of centuries after the collapse of the Mongol domination of Asia.
The creation of the Mongol empire was only the second, and culturally more eclectic historical instance, after the Arab-Islamic empire, when Asia, momentarily, if a shade incompletely, came into existence. With the collapse of the Mongol empire, Central Asian residues were deposited in some parts of Asia, most notably the stretch from Afghanistan to the Deccan, and parts of northwestern China, while the independence of the homeland itself withered away under the onslaught of Russian imperialism.
Since then, Central Asia’s history and its relationship with Asian neighbours have been mediated by Europe, and its resources in the latest instant have come under the watchful care of Western global corporations. It is an irony of history, that the only region that came close to creating a pan-Asian political formation should be so completely absorbed by Europe that it has since not looked back at its past.
The continent of China
While in many respects China remained more isolated throughout its lengthy historical development than other parts of Asia, it nonetheless was influenced by and did influence other parts of the continent. The first Chinese dynasty, the Shang, marked China’s arrival into the Bronze Age in the mid-second millennium BCE. Given that West Asians had first used bronze 1500 years earlier, some historians argue that its adoption in China grew out of cross-cultural contact. In the following dynasty, the Chou, China entered the Iron Age, and the Chou’s short-lived successor, the Ch’in, successfully expanded its influence to most parts of present-day eastern China in the third century BCE.
During the five-century long rule of the Han dynasty, which is divided into two periods, China expanded its perimeters to the Pamir mountains of Central Asia. The Chinese had some vague idea of India and the Roman world at this time, but the rise of the Hsiung-nu in Central Asia proved to be of far greater significance, leading to competition and conflict along China’s northwestern frontier. Buddhism, which first appeared in the Subcontinent in the sixth century BCE, reached China within five centuries and won converts, as result of which Chinese Buddhists made pilgrimages to India. Buddhist influence continued in a diluted, Sinicised form after Han power collapsed in the early fourth century CE and political authority was divided among three regional competitors.
In the late sixth century, a Chinese leader at the head of a ‘barbarian’ northern army established the Sui dynasty, though instability provoked by Central Asian Turks led to its quick demise. The succeeding dynasty, the T’ang, also became entangled with its neighbours to the west, suffering invasions in 622 and 624. Tensions along the western frontier persisted, and in 705 a new threat to stability arrived in the form of Arab missionary-warriors emanating from West Asia. In a 751 battle, China lost control of west Turkestan to the Arabs. Paper made its way out into the rest of the world after this as captured Chinese soldiers spread the technology via West Asia.
In one if its rare moments of adventure, China sent a diplomatic mission and an army to north India in the seventh century to intervene in the succession crisis in the Harshan empire, where the scholar Hsuan Tsang had taken up residence. Christianity and Zoroastrianism, two West Asian exports, enjoyed three centuries of modest success till the ninth century, though Buddhist influence survived. (Christianity reappeared in the 16th century through European missionary activity.)
With the collapse of centralised power in the ninth century, decades of upheaval ensued, with a partial reunification of the country in 960 under the Northern Sung dynasty. China’s population expanded rapidly under Sung rule to around 100 million by the early 12th century, facilitated by the introduction of early-ripening rice from Southeast Asia. But the Sung dynasty lacked its predecessors’ military vigour, and by the mid-12th century, China was divided between the Tungusic-speaking Jurgen tribes of Manchuria, who formed the Chin dynasty, and the southern Sung empire.
This unsteady balance was unhinged in the early 13th century by the emergence of, quite possibly, the only pan-Asian power in history, the Mongols. The Chin dynasty fell to the Mongols in 1234 with the help of the Sung, who were in turn defeated in 1279. The Mongols established the Yuan dynasty, the first foreign regime to administer the whole of China, and incorporated it into an empire including Central Asia, West Asia and eastern Europe. This period also witnessed the arrival of numerous foreign visitors to China, including Muslims from north Africa and Europeans from as far away as the Adriatic and possibly Scandinavia.
The Chinese chaffed under foreign rule, and by 1382, the Ming dynasty completed its usurpation of the Mongols. During the early Ming period, the Mongol threat remained, but the Chinese also ventured out of the ‘middle kingdom’ by sending naval expeditions to West Asia and the eastern African coast. The Portuguese, however, followed soon after by the Spanish and the Dutch, eclipsed China’s naval efforts, and took possession of the lucrative East-West trade. In 1644, after decades of Ming decline, a Manchurian dynasty, the Chi’ing, took control of the country, though Manchurians represented only two percent of the Chinese population.
As in other parts of Asia, Chinese power in the 18th and 19th centuries gradually weakened in the face of Western encroachment, though China did not face outright colonisation. By the end of the 18th century, China’s population had reached 300 million, but its administrative structures had remained largely unchanged for two millennia. The British forced the Chi’ing to capitulate on trade issues in 1842, and a series of rebellions, the most serious of which was the Taiping, highlighted the country’s collapsing central authority. China suffered an embarrassing defeat by the Japanese in 1895, and Chi’ing rule collapsed in 1911, ushering in a turbulent four decades of political struggle.
Following the death in 1916 of China’s first president, Yuan Shih-k’ai, the country witnessed the period of warlordism, as military chiefs carved up their regions of control. Warlordism was brought to an end by Sun Yat-sen’s nationalist Kuomintang party and the country was reunified in 1928 under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek. China gained international diplomatic recognition even as the shadow of communist takeover under Mao Tse-tung loomed. Internal opposition, particularly from persecuted communists, grew in the following years, setting the stage for a decisive fight for control of China in the years after the Japanese invasion of the second world war. Mao Tse-tung, drawing on the imported ideas of Marx and Lenin, prevailed over Chiang Kai-shek in 1949, and set out to revitalise Chinese unity and power through the peasant route to revolution that has since given way to the state sponsored capitalist route.