Hi mr/ms mod! I’ve got a little question, after seeing the last post about Armenia. Is there exactly a kind of… parameter, to decide if a country is asian or european? I’m talking about countries like Russia (all Russia: it’s quite diffcult to decide if it’s european or asian while counting the asian part) and the countries of central asia, near the Caspian Sea (Georgia and Co), and even Turkey, although the argument with this country is quite problematic.
Well, Ms. Mod would like to admit it’s a valid question.
Yes and No. Yes in that there are countries that obviously spread over the Eurasian plate like Russia does. But geopolitical groupings and designations are a tricky thing.
For example, I can use the United Nation’s subregions for a great deal of countries but what happens if a country is not independently recognized by the United Nations? Then I may look towards Academic literature. Or, as someone has mentioned before, Pakistan is in South Asia but many people, including the G-8, refer to it as being “the middle east”, which is West Asia.
There’s a conundrum for you! One designation may be inherently problematic but it also may be designated a certain way to group events or occurrences in regions together.
However, Russia is largely recognized as part of Europe. It falls under the UN designation Eastern Europe 151. Countries considered to be “central Asia” are just that. Central Asia. Turkey is in West Asia, and I would cautiously point out that many of the designations dividing between “Europe” and “Asia” are not divisions based on tectonic plates, seas, distance, or anything else, but a modern designation based off of old Orientalist conceptualizations coming out of Western Europe.
We have mentions of the Orient originally referring to (in the 1300s) countries East of the Mediterranean. You’ll find the rise and fall of Byzantine empire also effects the Turkish designation, as well as Crusades that went through Turkey. This treatment of Orientalism, of exoticizing and othering Turkey as not European continues on in the style of Turquerie, or mimicked style and fashion in Europe in the 16th-19th centuries.
It looks like this:
Madame de Pompadour portrayed as a Turkish lady in 1747 by Charles André van Loo
La Grande Odalisque (Turkish: Odalik, meaning female slave but commonly thought of in Europe as a concubine) by Ingres
Eugène Francois Marie Joseph Devéria (French artist, 1805-1865) Roxane in Jean-Baptiste Racine’s Bajazet.
The problematic aspects generally come from the history of Orientalizing certain countries itself. In fact, Columbia University’s Asia for Educators puts this best:
With one exception, the land masses are called continents. The exception is the largest.
Asia in simple geographic terms encompasses Europe.
- 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?
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.
At its most basic, the word “Asia” just sounds good, appearing to give identity even if such is spurious as a continental concept.
- 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.
This use of the word to suit the occasion is also found in South Asia.
- 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.
The word Asia, like the word Europe, was invented by ancient Greeks.
- 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.
- 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.
— What is Asia?
I’m glad you asked. We may use Asia to mean any number of things, what is “not-European” what has been “orientalized”, what is “east of the Mediterranean” and so on, and so forth. It provides for us an easy distinction that allows us to look beyond “The West” and Judeo-Christian culture, the remains of the Western Roman Empire, and a great deal many things that have been orchestrated and created to give very specific ideas, concepts, and cultures power and institutions that are seen as greater and more important than just about anywhere else on the planet.
It is a word that by very definition can be seen as Euro-centric, but to focus on anywhere but Europe also lends a sense of de-centralizing Europe. There is, I think, no easy answer, no answer that is not problematic in origin, but there you have it. I use “Asia” because I am a United States citizen who grew up learning that Asia was a specific region, who lived in a country that was called part of Asia, because I grew up in a society that defined it for me. And whether or not everyone agrees with the definitions the world “sort-of” agrees upon when defining Asia for this blog isn’t really the point (See: “Armenia isn’t in Asia!”), the point is I created a blog that could focus on someplace that wasn’t Western or Eastern Europe, Africa, Oceania, or the Americas. Most people recognize that space as Asia.
However, designations can at times be arbitrary, confusing, or in flux. There’s really no official parameters that have remained constant out there. This is why I use the United Nations geographic regions as a starting point for what is and is not in “Asia.”