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.
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.
My friend and I were also talking about what people of Middle Eastern decent were considered (Asian or European); your FAQ page also somewhat answers that, but I also wanted to know your thoughts on that as well. She told me that geographically speaking, yes, they are Asian, but culturally speaking no. I personally think she’s just on her Oriental high horse v___v”
I’m going to address this one as simply as I can, but it’s going to be rebloggable simply so people can correct me if I make a mistake here:
The term Asian, Asians, Middle East, and so on are all highly Eurocentric and come from a history of Western Imperialism and Orientalism. Different countries on that Eurasian landmass (or Islands included in the geographical region) have had different terms for the areas, and different Countries/Peoples/Lands. Obviously, one Ethnic group from China may have seemingly nothing in common with an Ethnic Grouping in Iran - other than they happen to exist on the same continent. Culturally speaking you might be able to recognize certain geo-regions based in part on Religion (Buddhist countries, Islamic Countries…) or Culture (Countries which utilized Chinese writing in their written language, Nomadic people…) and so on. In my AP world history class, the categorization of Egypt varied wildly depending on the time period. Pre-Islamic Empire? Well, Egypt was in Africa but also part of the Ancient World surrounding the Mediterranean. Modern Era (Egypt under the rule of Islam?) it was now “Middle Eastern” due to significant cultural similarities, not by location. Come to find out, when I take an Intro to African Studies class in college, I had to actually argue in a paper that the Ancient Egyptians were black and/or African! How dreadfully confusing!
There is no “Asian Culture” here. You won’t find it. The monolith of what “Asian” culture is perceived to be does not exist, because it’s a myth popularized by orientalism. I strictly use Asian as a geographical location of the history I cover because Indian history is not like Cambodian history, is not like Japanese history, is not like Pakistani history and so on. Even within each country, there are dozens of different cultures and ethnic groups that are widely different and have a variety of different histories and customs.
Asian is hardly a “race” either, given the context of so many different ethnic groups and a wide expanse of different people, just like anywhere else in the world. If your friend was talking about the U.S. Census, those who are from West Asia/The Middle East are indeed considered to fall under the Caucasian race according to the definitions of the Census. They also include non-black hispanics, which only allows me to affirm that the US Census has ridiculous, arbitrary concepts of racial constructs, and that it has little to do with anything, even descent of genealogy. (Surprise, non-black hispanics aren’t necessarily white or even caucasian. And it’s quite obvious with rampant Xenophobia and Racism in America and Western Europe that people who are not pale are not afforded the same privileges as non-white “Caucasians” To be considered “White/Caucasian” when you’re actually brown - well, the legal definition doesn’t defend you against discrimination, unfortunately.)