What is Asia? Where does it begin and where does it end?

Table of Contents

The journey to the east

Asia and the Greeks

In our previous post, we talked about the real existence of Europe and how it was constructed as a social and political entity. In this post, we will discuss Asia and the reality of this concept.


Two powerful myths about Asia permeate any discussion of its very existence as a region. One of them sees Asia as essentially an outsiders’ invention. The other conflates it with «Asia’s rise.» Both of them are either delusive or misleading, with the latter even more so than the former. Asia’s name comes from Greek mythology: Asia referred to a nymph, daughter of Oceanus and Titis. But probably, the term, derived from the Assyrian «aszu» (East or dawn), was incorporated by the Greeks in its rich mythology.

Nevertheless, for the Greeks, Asia was separated from Europe by the Bosphorus Strait. Herodotus, the Greek historian, referred to Anatolia as Asia, modern Turkey, during the Greco-Persian Wars. However, Asia was, in many ways, was re-invented and «improved» by colonialism. Although there is a growing search for an Asian identity today, the suspicion persists that Asia is a Western construct.

The world as the Greeks viewed it

Asia's rise and a stronger Asian identity

Some speak of Asia’s rise and a stronger Asian identity,

but they still predict a prospect of rivalry and conflict. Take «The New Asian Renaissance,» a book on Asia by Bill Emmott, former editor of The Economist.  Emmott recognizes Asia’s economic integration and the emerging sense of a regional identity grounded in the overlapping interests of its major powers – China, Japan, and India. He predicts, however, that the prevailing trend will be rivalry rather than cooperation.

Compounding the problem, Asia itself has had multiple names and identities. At least thirteen different ways we can count in which Asia has been described: Asia, Asia-Pacific, Asia-Pacific, Asia-Pacific, Asia and the Pacific, Asia/Pacific, East Asia, East Asia, the Far East, Greater East Asia, Pacific, Pacific Asia, and Pacific Rim.

Like Europe, however, Asia is, admittedly, not a given. Like most regions, it is constructed. Some powerful forces work against the concept, foremost being diversity (geographic, cultural, and political), regional rivalries, and the absence of European-style regional integration. Nevertheless, to see Asia simply as a Western construct is misleading.

In a fascinating book called Narratives of Asia, Brij Tankha, a University of Delhi Japan specialist, and Sinologist Madhavi Thampi compare the Indian, Chinese and Japanese narratives on Asian identity. It claims that «although «Asia» was in many ways a colonial construct, yet it is important just to remember that it has an earlier genealogy that continues to express itself in forms.»

Every big Asian empire considered theirs were the true Asian values

Though the myriad of people and cultures in what is now loosely known as Asia may not have named themselves as such – that is, as Asians – the idea of Asia, far from being simply an invention of Westerners, was also solidly imagined within. First-generation Asian nationalist mainstream thinkers and leaders, such as Okakura Tenshin of Japan, Sun Yat-sen of China, Jawaharlal Nehru of India, and Aung San of Burma, imagined some of them. Some of their ideas were self-serving, while the colonial context was important, but these leaders were Asians who realized Asia’s rising place in the global system. They used a Western term to address a shifting local awareness and context.

Europa Asia Silk Road
Okakura Tenshin : Japanese scholar who contributed to the development of arts in Japan. Outside Japan, he is chiefly remembered today as the author of The Book of Tea
Europa Asia Silk Road
Sun Yat-sen : Provisional first president of the Republic of China and the first leader of the Kuomintang

Naming a region, is not the same as crafting it.

While the term Asia may be extraneous, Asia’s reality is not. Often, the regional Asian institutional arrangements that would help legitimize the idea of Asia are in themselves a stark remembrance of Asia’s diversity, not least among the subregions.

Chinese rise to power prompted some to challenge whether an independent Southeast Asian «region» was meaningful. But ASEAN will not embrace China, India, or even Sri Lanka, which in 1967 was invited to join ASEAN as dialogue partners.

Whatever the case, we should have no concern whether Asia is too diverse to deserve a single name or Asia’s rivalries are a reason to disregard the significance of the concept. An idea of Europe was already in place at the peak of the European internal wars, preceding the EU-built peace.

More troubling, however, is the blurring of Asia with the rising Asian power. Earlier imaginings of Asia were partly a defensive response to Western domination: they had ideological and spiritual substance. In contrast, by both Westerners and Asians, Asia’s new image seems to be intrinsically linked to both power politics (at the international level) and, in some cases, to authoritarian politics (at the national level). For example, if we were to take the notion of «Asian values,» which is integral to some discourses of the «rise of Asia» discourse. Economic growth in Asia appears to be sustained by shared values, which have laid the foundations for an Asian century. But such Asian clichés misrepresent the narrative and risk hurting rather than helping the idea of Asia.

Europa Asia Silk Road
Le Kuan Yew was a Singaporean statesman and lawyer who served as Prime Minister of Singapore from 1959 to 1990, and is recognised as the nation's founding father

Contemporary discourse on Asian values, for example, is based on Lee Kuan Yew’s notion of Confucian values: respect for authority, high savings rates, society above self, etc. 

Among the first Asian leaders to address Asian values was India’s Jawaharlal Nehru, who nobody would consider a rogue dictator. He spoke of democracy and what he hoped would be India’s and Asia’s democratic order. In addition, early Asian leaders in India, Burma, and China talked about Asian values in spiritual and empowering, more than simply material terms, with their goal being freedom from Western domination.

In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, addressing the Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi in 1947 (the first gathering of liberated Asian nations): «The message of Asia…is not to be learned through European spectacles, nor by imitating the vices of the West, its gunpowder and its atomic bomb. If an important message is to be given to the West, it must be a message of love, it must be a message of truth.» By contrast, current discourse of the «rise of Asia» is marked by its own instrumental and material character.

Europa Asia Silk Road
Jawaharlal Nehru was an Indian independence activist and, subsequently, the first prime minister of India

Affirming that Asia was built from within is not to say that this inner construction was not, and is not, troublesome. It was tinted with both national centrism and domination.

Japan’s Okakura Tenshin considered Japan the best of Asian civilization and to «reflect the totality of Asian consciousness. » His idea of Asia thereby paralleled the rise of Japan. Specific accounts of Japanese pan-Asianism remained overtly hegemonic; Japan espoused Japanese pan-Asianism to counter Occidental dominance.

Chinese New Asianism showed too Sinocentrism. The initial issue of Xinyaxiya (New Asia) magazine, which was launched in China in 1930 to advance Sun Yat-sen’s cause of nationalism, held that «the regeneration of China is the starting point for the regeneration of the Asian peoples.»

Nehru saw India itself as the birth center and natural focal point of many forces at play in Asia,» including geography. He stressed both geography and the flows of civilization coming into and going out of India.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN, was established on 8 August 1967 in Bangkok, Thailand, with the signing of the ASEAN Declaration (Bangkok Declaration)

Fears of Indian and Chinese domination prompted a group of Southeast Asian delegates 

who attended the New Delhi Conference into imagining a distinct regional association of their own: Southeast Asian countries minus India and China. In a sense, this was a springboard to ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations).

Therefore, whoever celebrated the decline of Western rule over Asia also imagined, to some extent, the dominance of their own countries and cultures over the rest of Asian countries (just as the United States had dominated the European states).

Therefore, not geography and geopolitics, not power and prosperity, provide a sufficient ground for claiming Asia’s regional relevance. Instead, Asia is and will remain a controversial idea. But three things do stand out regarding the present and the prospect of the concept of Asia: 1) Asia as a picture is not only a growing force. It is both an ideological and material construction; 2) Asia is not just a sum of its various components. National and subregional diversities neither hide nor prevent an Asian construct of identity; 3) Asian identity will be built more and more internally rather than externally.

Nonetheless, Asia’s image and local building cannot and need not be captured by a limited regional elite attached to a discourse of «emerging Asia.» Such imagery must be more people-centered and broader-based, reflecting a true sense of Asian universality.

Europe, Asia, Eurasia. Where does Asia begin and end?

The delimitation of Europe and Asia as different continents is an arbitrary fiction with no geological but socio-cultural basis.

It happens that the geographical delimitation of the continents that we handle (from the 18th-19th centuries) is prior to Wegener’s theory of continental drift (1912), and to the scientific delimitation of the tectonic plates (1960). According to this, it would make more sense to distinguish the Indian or Arabian peninsulas from the Asian continent than Europe.

Conventionally and for historical and cultural reasons, Europe is considered a continent, following the delimitation made by the Russian geographer Vasily Tatishchev, who wanted to point out Russia’s belonging to Europe and Asia.

Europe Asia Silk Road
One or two continents? Eurasia is the largest of the continents and occupies 37% of the planet's emerged lands, and is made up of two subcontinents: Europe and Asia

It does not look easy to define what is Asia as there is not a clear geographical delimitation and cultural and historical views from the main Asian empires does not converge. As Brij Tankha wrote:

“What is Asia? Where does it begin, and where does it end? Does it have either cartographic or intellectual boundaries; does it refer to a supra-regional community bound by spiritual, social and cultural affinities? Or, it is merely ‘this en-mapped place [which] has never been more than a simulacrum of something that has no substance’ (H. Haratoonian), an invention of Orientalism and inseparable from Euro-American power over Asia (Edward Said, Orientalism). Geographical boundaries are drawn based on political and intellectual principles and are not merely markers of natural boundaries. Yet, these constructed identities and territories are not illusory. Increasingly, the notion of an Asian community has become common currency. Politicians and intellectuals within Asia use terminology that comes straight out of the Orientalist lexicon, and yet they use it to underline differences”

And here we come to the end of another travel note from our Journey to the East. But the Journey to the East continues so… … If you want to know how our Journey to the East continues, be sure to read the next post carefully, and for any clarifications, comments, suggestions, or inputs, please email us at info@danielecheverria.com

Daniel echeverria

Daniel Echeverría-Jadraque

If you want to know how our journey to the East continues, be sure to read the following post carefully… If you have any questions, comments, suggestions or contributions, please send us an email to info@danielecheverria.com. Hsuan Tsang, the Monkey King, the Pig, the Sand, the Dragon Horse and myself will be happy to hear from you!

Deja una respuesta

Tu dirección de correo electrónico no será publicada. Los campos requeridos están marcados *

Acepto la Política de privacidad

Publicar comentario