The Myth of a Single Asia: Part 2

Second 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 usage and abusage 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."

Europeans had a reason to define themselves by a Greco-Roman history, culture, language and then by Christian identity as well as by geography -- the Atlantic to the Urals. Christianity, which was at best a minority belief much beyond the Urals and eastern shores of the Mediterranean. Europeans created a continent out of what was only a subcontinent.

The Indian subcontinent could equally easily be deemed a separate continent, well-defined by mountains, deserts and seas. These are at least as clear as Europe’s borders. The Indian subcontinent also mostly shares common linguistic roots and a predominant religion. Given its political divisions this subcontinent needs a name which defines it without some version of “India.” How about Gondwana, reflecting its origin in the piece of Gondwanaland which drifted north till it joined Eurasia?

Han China and its Confucius-influenced neighbors too may be considered a subcontinent, which it essentially was until the Qing dynasty extended it (perhaps only temporarily) from the lands of settled agriculture bordered by sea, deserts and high plateau to beyond the Great Wall into Manchuria and north and west into the lands of the herders – Mongols, Tibetans, Uighurs and Kazakhs. China has always seen itself as separate surrounded by lesser states rather than as part of a bigger entity, Asian or otherwise. So, let it be so. Confuciana? Hanosphere?

Another candidate for separate subcontinental status is what is now being called Nusantaria, or island realm, a word dating to the Java-based Majapahit empire and referring to the Malay peoples of the great archipelago now comprising most of Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia. These people, now numbering more than 400 million, share a common Austronesian linguistic and cultural heritage and a history of seafaring and trading which linked scattered islands to each other and the world beyond.

Not being part of the Eurasian landmass should anyway set them apart in the same way as Australasia, or be part of Oceania, reflecting their cultural links to Polynesia. Indeed, the Musee Quai Branly in Paris, which focuses on traditional, non-western cultures from around the world, places the archipelago firmly in Oceania, not Asia.

Although from Greek times Asia was recognized as a geographical term, usage of it was limited. Indeed, the more the Europeans knew of the east, the less they used it. Their ever-improving maps seldom were concerned with specifics. Most broad were references to Arabia, India, India Orientalis (places east of Bengal) and Insulae India, now the Indonesian archipelago.

Shakespeare made only a single mention of Asia, in the context of a reference that implied Asia Minor. There were East and West Indies but no larger Asia. Shakespeare’s contemporary John Fletcher wrote a whole play “The Island Princess” about encounters between Portuguese and indigenous rulers at Tidore in the Maluku islands. But the word Asia never appears. Sixteenth-century Portuguese wrote at length about places from east Africa to the Malukus without mentioning the word Asia. Indeed for another 200 years maps mostly referred to the Indies or more specific locations – Bengal, Persia, Japan, etc.

By the late 17th century European maps defined most of what is now Southeast Asia as East Indies, with Siam being part of that, while the Indonesian archipelago was referred to as the Sunda islands. The Indian Seas included what is now referred to as the South China Sea.

These were the regions which mattered to European traders and travelers, not the great land northern mass over which Russia was extending control, reaching the Pacific at Okhotsk in 1647 in what is now the Russian Far East. “Far East” was another term which avoided the name Asia and was the norm in western usage until well after the Pacific War. It then came to sound colonial if assumed to be “far” from Europe. It is less so if one thinks of the globe. Japan was the “extreme east” by its own definition – Land of the Rising Sun, where the day began. The US likewise had its Midwest and West. The globe is round but for practical and reference purposes the day has to start somewhere. The international date line, the current divider, is merely a reflection of assumptions equally common to ancient China and ancient Greece.

At the height of western imperialism in the 19th century, Asia as a term was still not much used. There was the Near East (essentially the shores of the eastern Mediterranean), the Middle East, referring to the region roughly ending at Afghanistan, and the Far East – China, Japan etc. In between Middle and Far was India. Maps also made a distinction between “China” and “Chinese empire,” the latter encompassing Chinese Turkestan, and Manchuria. “Asia” was only used in very broad geographical terms. Political and commercial realities mostly demanded more ,They were in Asia geographically, but that had no relevance.

However, over the past century use Asia has become far more common as “Asians” have taken to referring to it. Ironically, the word rooted in European exceptionalism acquired a new significance as peoples ruled by alien Europeans sought a common identity which was non-Western. “Asian” solidarity was a rallying point against colonialism and provided a counter to Western identity. The white racism of imperialism was a spur to all non-whites.

Early modern nationalists such as Jose Rizal in the Philippines recognized a shared identity with a modernizing, independent Japan, and the revolutionary, anti-Qing stirrings in China. Many Japanese intellectuals resisted the idea that Japan was “Asian,” rejecting the geographical concept of Asia and wishing to identify with a modernized west -- including its own rights to acquire colonies.

However, the Asian identification eventually prevailed as the Japanese sensed they were not viewed as equals by the west. This perception of themselves as Asians was, ironically, to fuel Japan’s own imperial ambitions. It led to Japan’s own attempt to create an empire by “liberating” Southeast Asia from the white man’s yoke, attracting the support, for a while, of nationalists such as Subash Chandra Ghose in India and Aung San in Burma (now Myanmar) proclaiming a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

Independence after 1945 also required more specifics than Indochina or India now that they were divided into multiple new post-colonial states. So “Asia” became a useful stepping-stone to a bigger world. Wider use however necessitated a variety of sub-divisions based loosely on geography. For example, in the 1940s the British and Americans began to use the term “Southeast Asia” borrowing the term from the Japanese.

Japan’s rule was brief but engineered the collapse of the European empires and hence of the terminology used by western map makers – Indochina, Dutch East Indies, Philippine Islands, Malay States etc. In came not only new states but also an all-embracing “Southeast Asia.”

This was then further subdivided to create ‘Maritime Southeast Asia,” meaning the Indonesian and Philippines archipelagos and Malay peninsula which previously had been known as the “Malay archipelago”

In most cases the sense of Asian-ness was forged in opposition to European and later American domination. Korea’s experience however was of domination by “Asian” neighbors, most recently Japan and previously by China and the Mongols. So while there were cultural links via history and writing, Buddhism and Confucius with their larger neighbors, there was also actual or latent hostility.

Meanwhile the west was an attractive source of progress, of a Christianity adopted voluntarily, and the US helped underwrite the South’s remarkable recovery from the Korean war. That said, Koreans did identify with Asia by choosing Asiana as the name of their second international airline. This was once the name of a Roman province located in what is now southwest Turkey.

South Koreans followed the Japanese in maintaining a very strong sense of national identity while buying into the concept of an Asia which in many cases responded enthusiastically to Korea’s modern popular culture. Meanwhile in the west, Korea was the successful, advanced but unthreatening Asia of top-class golfers and pianists. Hence it readily gained top jobs at international institutions looking to have Asians for top jobs. Asia might mean little but was useful to Korea.

At the other end of the continent, despite the impact of western imperialism, Asian identity was weak for different reasons. The term West Asia is an even newer creation than Southeast Asia and was an attempt to move away from terms such as the Middle East which were seen as indicating a European imperial perspective. India is particular is wedded to it.

However, West Asia has never fully caught on for two reasons. First, Middle East was more a geopolitical than geographical term in a region where geopolitics was more important than geography. Second was the role of the Arabs and Islam. The original Arabs were the Semitic tribes from the Arabian peninsula, which was sometimes seen as a kind of island, as indeed it was in geological time. The peninsula plus much of what are now Iraq and Syria was a separate tectonic plate which split from the African plate and moved northward what had been a sea named Amara. It is still moving. Arabs today though are defined by language not original Amara location and are now not only the largest group in a region which extends across northern Africa.

With the spread of Islam and its language, the Arabic-speaking world came to use the term as-Sharq al-Awsat, or Middle East to describe the core Arab lands. The London-based Arabic paper covering the region is called just that. Arabs divided their region into Mashriq (east or rising sun) and Maghreb (where the sun sets – the west).

Consciousness of being part of Asia barely exists. One reason is the strength of Arabic-speaking identity in which Egypt and the Maghreb play as large role as the eastern Arab world – Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, etc. Second, Islam provides at least a theoretical unifying identity. This has been enhanced by the rise of more radical Islam at the expense of secular nationalism, and the decline in the Christian populations of Palestine, Iraq and Syria due to emigration to the west because of wars and persecution.

Muslims in theory are supposed to yearn for a caliphate, uniting them all under one political and legal system. But the nearest they ever got was the Abbasid caliphate which joined the Arab world to Persia and the Turkic peoples of south-central Asia. The long-lasting Ottoman caliphate, abolished by Ataturk in 1924, also gave a political framework to the concept, albeit excluding Persia, within an inclusive form of Islam and one which could tolerate non-Muslims within its realm. Recent attempts by ISIS (Dowlah Islamiyah fil Iraq wa Shams -- DAESH) to re-invent the caliphate on the basis of an exclusivist and extreme doctrine were destined to be self-defeating.

Islam provides identity vis a vis a Christian Europe just as it did during the Crusades.

But Islam itself is divided between Sunni and Shia. Ethnic identity however – Arab, Persian, Turk, Kurd usually transcends any sense of Umma or pan-Islamic community other than when dealing with non-Muslims.

Asia as a concept is almost an irrelevance in this region. The UN’s Economic and Social Commission for West Asia (ESCWA) is composed mainly of countries in Africa! At the same time, despite the strength of Islam In Africa, links between Arab and sub-Saharan Africa are minimal compared with the pan-Arab bonds. The rest of Asia/Oceania from Turkey to Tuvalu is in the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) but Turkey only joined late in the day and Iran has never played much of a role. Turkey is only in the Asian Development Bank as a non-regional member and Iran never joined. Thus for many Asia begins somewhere to the east of Iran, maybe the Khyber Pass or the Indus, the eastern extremities of Asia as known to the ancient Greeks.

South Asia is also a newish term, a convenience for bundling the nations of the Indian sub-content, and Northeast Asia for adding Japan and Korea to China. But given the individual importance of those three countries, the term is of limited value. So far, there is no Southwest Asia, but it could be used to for the countries of the Arabian Peninsula.

The term Northwest Asia is so far redundant – it is all Russian. But that brings up the biggest anomaly of all in referring to Asia. Russia is the largest state in Europe and second only to China in Asia. Even shorn of the four “Stans” and the Caucasus states, it incorporates huge areas of steppe and forest which for millennia have seen the coming and going of a great variety of peoples and retains large minorities of non-Slav peoples.

A vast chunk of Russian/Central Asia can only be defined as Eurasia where at different times Scythians (Iranian speaking horsemen), Mongols, Turks and others have held sway, ruling all of what is now Russia and reaching to the borders of Hungary, Bulgaria and Poland. Russia’s 200 years under the Mongol yoke are seared in the Slav, Christian Russian memory yet today’s Russia is a land where non-Slavs, mostly Turkic and Muslim, remain a significant part of the population in European Russia, in some cases with considerable local autonomy. For example, Tatarstan with its capital at Kazan on the Volga has a Muslim Tatar majority is in Europe but traditionally “Tartary,” extends across Turkic-speaking Central Asia into what is now China.

Russia, Imperial or Soviet, was in principle a multi-ethnic empire, albeit one which Russians conquered and dominated. Moscow has long been a crossroads in touch with the Baltic with a river which flows east into the Volga and then the Caspian. Its non-Russian heritage is reflected in some of its street names. Yet Putin’s Russia seem ever more white, Slav and Orthodox Christian in its orientation. Minorities, who are about 20 percent of the population, especially Muslim ones, from Chechnya, Dagestan, Tatarstan, are often viewed with suspicion.

In short, Russia exemplifies the problem of dividing Eurasia into two very unequal halves.