The Myth of a Single Asia

First of three-part series on the use and abuse of the word “Asia”

Philip Bowring, Asia Sentinel’s co-founder and consulting editor, recently redefined maritime Austronesia into its own distinct region, known as Nusantaria, in his prize-winning book, Empire of the Winds. Now he takes on a bigger task. In a three-part series, he looks at the use and abuse of the word “Asia,” its origins, history and why it means different things to different people. In the process, it hides the diversity of civilizations into a catch-all which is demeaning and leads to untenable generalizations such as "Asian values" and "the Asian century." 

Asia is a myth, although like most myths it has a seed of truth, and like many myths it has been useful. But even as geography it is an artificial construct, separating one landmass into two very unequal halves. One “half” has one quarter the area and one sixth of the population of the other “half,” and equivalent imbalances in almost every other sphere of life. So it is time to start gradually discarding a word which grew with Western power but loses meaning as that power declines. 

The closer one looks at the components of “Asia,” the less useful the word becomes. It means different things to different people to the point where it exists by not being something else. “Asians” have no common concept of what they mean by the word other than being “not Western or not African or not Hispanic.” Or not something else. A definition based on a negative has scant meaning today beyond being a slogan to appeal to some specific corner of “Asia.” 

The confusion about its meaning is damaging. Diplomats may talk at cross-purposes when they use the world Asia in concepts of strategy; politicians may use it in the context of an opportunity or threat without qualification. Investors may be advised to buy Asian stock markets as though there were common denominator linking Seoul to Oman, Manila to Karachi.

Promiscuous use of the word can also create divides and misunderstandings in western countries with diverse “Asian” populations who identify with a specific place or culture and may resent being bracketed with very different peoples or erstwhile enemies. How much identity is shared between people of Filipino and Korean origin in southern California? Or Sikhs and Pakistani-origin families in Birmingham, England? 

Racist attitudes in the west are easily fostered by lumping Asians into one undifferentiated group. In the US and UK, specific ancestries are often ignored as Asians lumped together with Africans and others in the catch-all “people of color,” though the average person of Korean origin probably has whiter skin than most Caucasians. This group includes mixed race people, many of whom have no wish to be categorized by a term which is in itself discriminatory.

Asia is a word thrown around with an abandon that mystifies those not initiated into relevant codes. Thus the strategic concept of Asia-Pacific actually involves only east Asia and the Pacific. The much-vaunted Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) group includes only countries adjoining the Pacific and Ocean and South China Sea and the quasi-governmental Asia-Europe Foundation includes Australia but nowhere west of Pakistan. These organizations in effect hijack the word for their own specific purposes. 

Non-western countries rightly complain about US and European primacy for top jobs at the likes of the World Bank and IMF, and related issues such as the veto powers of the permanent members of the UN Security Council. Thus being “Asian” is still a rallying point to attack the institutional bias in all international organizations established by World War II. But Asians are seldom determined or united enough to make a big fuss promoting a candidate. National rivalries prevail. 

Thus Asia failed to exploit Europe’s divisions over appointment in 2019 of a new managing director for the IMF for which several from Asia were as qualified as the eventual appointee. Breaking through the western dominance of top jobs at the IMF and World Bank, for example, may be hard but though Asia has had potential candidates there is scant evidence of common fronts. There are too many big players and old rivalries – China and India, Japan and Korea etc. The reality is that deep civilizational as well as national interest divides enable Europe and the US to hold sway over so many top jobs.

It has been argued that “the West” is just as open to interpretation as Asia – though being a concept more than a piece of geography it is flexible. Some may see the West as referring to apparent supremacy of western Europe and later the USA over the past two centuries, a word related to imperialist actions, and since 1945 comprising rich and technologically-advanced western Europe, the US and Canada. But seen from an historical and cultural perspective, ”the west” clearly expresses the cultural, linguistic and religious heritage which the slice of the landmass which called itself Europe took to North America and Australasia but also to Latin America where it remains dominant even in countries such as Peru and Mexico where pre-Hispanic culture and languages still thrive.

Predominantly Slav eastern Europe has not been part of this modern political west but, though divided between Roman and Greek Christian heritage has mostly felt more in common with the societies to the west than to the pastoralists and steppe peoples of the landmass to the east or the Islamic world to the south.

Naturally within the whole “west” there are huge differences, and various marginalized minorities. Whole countries are not part of the prosperous and arrogant west of Google, Tesla, McDonalds and Dior. But the differences are variations on a theme, not the separate themes which differentiate the civilizations of Asia. 

As for Europe itself, its history of wars belies the common themes reflected in its history of cross-continent royal marriages and, at least until recently, the role of the Roman Catholic Church.

How did we get to this situation of using a single word to cover the diversity of cultures, histories, language groups and human features occupying the vast land mass from the Pacific to the Urals? The name Asia dates at least to ancient Greece, and probably earlier. Its clearest surviving mention was by the 5th century BCE historian Herodotus referring to what is now Turkey and probably also to the Persian lands further east. He described Cyrus, the founder of the Achaemenid empire, as having “secured the rule of Asia” by defeating the Medes who had dominated Anatolia. At peak its peak around 500 BCE the Achaemenid empire stretched from Egypt to Babylonia and the Indus valley. Herodotus’s home town Helicarnassus, near Bodrum in Turkey, was in a Greek state under Persian suzerainty. 

Herodotus in turn may have got the name Asia from Assuwa as it was known to earlier some rulers, the Hittites. Later Greeks added “mikra” or minor to describe this same region so the Latin “Asia Minor” came into common use in Europe. Asia Minor implied there was a bigger but undefined Asia Maior to the east. 

Asia was the mainland to the east of the Aegean Sea. Europa, a name probably originally associated with a Phoenician daughter of a deity, became, for some unknown reason, to denote the western shore of that sea, or more specifically to Thrace, the north western part of modern Greece. This was also the location of the Roman province of Europa, roughly equivalent to European Turkey, crucially bordering Constantinople, the Black Sea, Sea of Marmara and the Aegean. Herodotus saw Europe extending to the Rioni river which flows into the Black Sea from the Caucasus. Later Greek geographer defined its eastern border as the river Don, which also flows into the Black Sea. Only later was the border pushed a little farther east, to the Ural river which flows from the Ural mountains in Russia via the Kazakh steppe to the Caspian.

The wars between the Greeks and the Persians became fundamental to European history and mythology so over time, two or more millennia, grew the notion of this great divide between Europe and Asia. Ancient Greeks were sea-going, city-state peoples. Persians were land-focused, centralizing empire-builders. Even when the Persians retreated the gap was widened as Christianity split between Rome and a predominantly “Asian” Byzantium.

The emergence of Islam and Arab conquests drove another wedge.

So perhaps it is not surprising that Europe as a concept appears on the other side of the continent where Christians were battling Muslims in Spain in the 8th century while during Charlemagne’s time it referred to western as opposed to eastern Christendom, rather than the Greco-Roman geographical version between a Pillar of Hercules (Gibraltar) and the river Don.

The Greeks also used the word Anatolia, meaning the sunrise, in reference to the Asia Minor peninsula. In turn the Romans used Orient (rising or east) for the same reason. Both perceptions were the east as viewed from the west. The Arabs had a similar concept which is with us today. What is mostly known in English as ISIS – Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in Arabic is called Daesh – literally Dawlah el-Islamiya Iraq esh-Sham. Sham means the (rising) sun the equivalent of Levant, a French word now also used in English.

Such basic terminology can however be misinterpreted. According to the Asia Society in New York, use of oriental to describe east Asians is demeaning, alleging that it has colonialist overtones and implies something exotic and mysterious. The word has thus acquired a negative connotation, at least in the US, illustrating how perceived meanings change even though the fact underlying the word has not. Orient simply means (from Latin) where the sun rises, ie the east. 

In the same way the Chinese gave Japan its name by reference to where the sun rises. It stuck. Hence Nihon in Japanese, Riben in Mandarin and, by a contorted route involving Marco Polo, the Portuguese and changes in Chinese pronunciation, to Japan in English, Westerners from the ancient Greeks onward have regarded Asians as being from somewhere to the east. But beyond that, people from different parts of the “Asian” continent view it, if at all, as being a reference to themselves rather than to a region which supposedly stretches from the Urals and Caspian to Japan and New Guinea. “Asians” had no sense of being Asian until, as non-westerners, they could find a common identity in opposition to foreign rule and racist assumptions about European/Caucasian superiority. Peoples who previously had no common identity could now find one as non-Europeans. 

The Japanese for example had no indigenous concept of Asia so in the 19th simply borrowed the European word. Initially many disliked the idea of seeing themselves as Asian as they saw it as backward while looked to be the equal of the Europeans. However, that aim was not reciprocated due to European racism.

Japan added geographical subdivisions such as Tonan Ajiya (southeast Asia), even though this was to the west of Japan and hence a western concept. This was then borrowed by the British and Americans during the Pacific war and has since become embodied in concepts such as the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and in the creation innumerable university departments to study this motley assemblage of mainland and maritime nations.

Since 1945, definitions of Asia have become even more diverse because of the establishment of large “Asian” communities in western countries over recent decades. For these groups, identity as non-western is of lesser importance than in colonial times and, as a result, identity confusion reigns.

The US version of Asia starts in Japan and stops at the Khyber Pass and the Baluchistan desert. There are at least 500,000 Iranian Americans, and possibly more than 1 million according to some sources. But they do not show up in the statistics of Asian Americans. Nor do the approximately 100,000 Afghans. Is this because they are viewed, or view themselves, as white or Caucasian? They certainly belong geographically. So do most Arabs, as do Israelis. In common understanding in the US, Asian usually refers to east Asian. 

In popular understanding, – Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese and (usually) Filipinos while those from the Indian sub-continent may or may not be viewed separately. At the same time, self-definitions are often different from official ones. Thus half of Filipinos in California are reported to define themselves as something other than Asian – some as Hispanic, some as Pacific Islander.

In the United Kingdom a different understanding of the word prevails. “British Asian” as reflected in common usage (and in Wikipedia) refers entirely to people of South Asian origin. The media generally reflects this assumption though sometimes sub-dividing Asian into Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan origin. 

Chinese in the UK in the past were treated separately from other Asians or lumped into “Oriental” along with Japanese and Vietnamese. But definitions keep changing. In the UK census in 2001, Southeast Asians were counted among “Chinese and others” but in 2011 under the heading Asian/British Asian there was a choice of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Chinese and a place to write in any other Asian birth or descent.

“Asian” is thus being gradually broken down into its constituent parts. That is as it should be and is beginning to undermine the myth of an Asia. To complicate matters further, Arabs in the UK are treated as a separately, not as Asian or African. There were 366,000 according to the 2011 census. But roughly half of these were from Africa, principally Somalia – though the main language there is Somali not Arabic. 

Canada’s version of Asia is different again. At the broad level there are just three categories: East and Southeast Asia, Central West Asia and South Asia. More significant are detailed breakdowns by ethnicity and origin. The largest groups in order are Chinese, Indian, Filipino, Vietnamese, Lebanese, Pakistani, Iranian and Korean but there are also large groups who define themselves a Bengali, Punjabi, Tamil etc rather than Indian. 

There are almost a million from Arabic-speaking countries but little over half of them identify as Arab. Chinese in effect divide themselves into language and origin groups as do many Indians – the Sikhs are now political force themselves. In short, Canada’s Asian community is exceptionally diverse to the point where the word Asian is meaningless at least for those so categorized, if not for others.

Like the US, Australia excludes Iranians and Arabs from its version of Asia. They come into the “Middle East and North Africa “category. The division between Asian and African origin is one reason. But another may be, consciously or not, that the majority of Arabs in the US and Australia are Christian not Muslim, mainly due to the exodus of ancient Christian communities from Lebanon, Syria and Egypt resulting from wars and radical Islam. By Australia’s definition, Asia has three broad categories, East, Southeast and Southern and Central Asian. But in popular understanding, “Asian” refers to east and southeast Asian while south Asians are usually defined by their place of origin – India, Sri Lanka etc. 

In short, the western world is now wholly confused about its meaning beyond a vast chunk of geography yet uses it as though it were well-defined. Not surprisingly Asians are at least as confused because Asia exists only because people in the western extremity of the globe’s major landmass decided to separate nine-tenths of the landmass from themselves.

Tomorrow: Part 2