Asia, largest of the earth’s seven continents. With outlying islands, it covers an estimated 44,936,000 sq km (17,350,000 sq mi), or about one-third of the world’s total land area. Asia has more than 3.2 billion inhabitants. Its peoples account for three-fifths of the world’s population.
Lying almost entirely in the northern hemisphere, Asia is bounded by the Arctic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. The conventional boundary between Europe and Asia is drawn at the Ural Mountains in Russia. Asia and Africa are separated by the Red Sea. Asia is divided for convenience into five major realms: the areas of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR); East Asia, including China, Mongolia, Korea, and Japan; Southeast Asia; South Asia, including the Indian subcontinent; and Southwest Asia, including much of the Middle East. The continent may also be divided into two cultural realms: that which is Asian in culture (East Asia, Southeast Asia, and South Asia) and that which is not (Asia of the former USSR, and Southwest Asia).
The Natural Environment
Asia’s interior consists of mountains, plateaus, and intervening structural basins. The continent’s physiographic system focuses on the Pamirs, a towering plateau region located where the borders of India, China, and Afghanistan converge. It is known as the Roof of the World. Mountain ranges spiral out from the Pamirs to the west (Hindu Kush), and southeast (Great Himalayas). These ranges form an imposing eastern-western arc, about 2500 km (about 1550 mi) in length, that contains numerous peaks of heights well more than 6100 m (20,000 ft), including the highest peak in the world, Mount Everest. Other ranges extend east and northeast of the Pamirs (Karakorum, Kunlun, and Tien Shan). Between the Himalayan system and the Karakorum-Kunlun ranges lies the high Tibetan Plateau. Around this central core are arrayed four major plateau regions (Siberia, eastern China, southern India, and the Arabian Peninsula) and several major structural basins and river plains.
Several major rivers flow north to the Arctic Ocean, others drain into the great interior drainage basin of Asia. In the south, southeast, and east, rivers such as the Ganges, Mekong, and Huang He (Yellow River) flow through vast lowlands. Climates in Asia range from equatorial to arctic. Vegetation is extraordinarily diverse, ranging from tundra, grasslands, and desert scrub, to coniferous and mixed forests, tropical forest, and equatorial rain forests. Animal life is equally diverse. Asia is enormously rich in mineral resources.
The peoples of Asia are more diverse than those of any other continent, and they are highly concentrated in a small proportion of the total area, chiefly in southern and eastern Asia. Mongoloid peoples are predominant in East Asia and mainland Southeast Asia. Malayo-Polynesian peoples prevail in the archipelagos of Southeast Asia. Caucasoid peoples dominate South Asia, Southwest Asia, Siberia, and much of Central Asia.
Chinese culture permeates East Asia, although the Tibetan, Mongol, Korean, and Japanese cultures have their own languages. Southeast Asia is more diversified, with separate ethnolinguistic groups of Malay, Thai, Vietnamese, and others. In South Asia, Dravidian and Indo-Aryan languages are spoken. In Southwest Asia, Persian (Farsi), Semitic, and Turkic languages identify various ethnic groups. Turkic speakers also are numerous in Central Asia and in western China. Russian is the principal language in Siberia. Islam dominates in Southwest Asia and Central Asia and is of major importance in South Asia and Indonesia. Hinduism is predominant in India. Buddhism extends through interior Asia and into Southeast Asia, China and Japan.
Patterns of Economic Development
Most of Asia is economically underdeveloped, but a number of important exceptions exist. Japan has successfully modernized its economy, as have Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore. The majority of the continent’s population is employed in agriculture characterized by low yields and low labor productivity. Rice is the food-staple crop of the south and east, although wheat and other dry grains are also grown. In Asia’s drier interior regions, the raising of cattle, sheep, and horses is important. Lumbering is an important industry in most Southeast Asian countries. Marine fisheries are extremely important throughout coastal Asia. Japan is the world’s leading fishing country, and China follows closely. Mining also is an important activity in most Asian countries; petroleum is the most important mineral export. Many areas have petroleum resources, but Southwest Asia contains the largest reserves.
Relatively few people in Asia are employed in manufacturing. In general, urban centers and their industries are not well integrated economically with the rural sector, and transportation systems, both within countries and between them, are poorly developed. A very high proportion of Asia’s world trade is with countries on other continents, rather than between Asian countries. The important exceptions are the flow of oil and raw materials from other Asian nations to Japan, and the export of Japanese manufactured goods to Southeast Asia.
The following historical survey attempts to show the interactions, collisions, and successions of Asian civilizations in continental terms. For additional information on countries or regions mentioned, see the history sections of articles on the individual Asian countries.
The earliest known civilizations arose in the great river valleys of Southwest Asia, northwest India, and northern China before 3000 BC. All were agricultural societies that developed advanced social and political structures to maintain irrigation and flood-control systems. Raiding nomadic herders forced the populations to live in walled cities for defense and to entrust their protection to an aristocratic class of leaders. Eventually artisans provided trade items, which brought exchanges between cultures.
From 500 BC to AD 600, the early civilizations expanded and interacted. By AD 500 the major world religions and philosophies, with the exception of Islam (which had not yet been founded), had spread far from their places of origin. In the west and south, elements of Persian, Greek, and Indian culture spread widely. In the east, Chinese influence spread until, in the early centuries AD, waves of Turkic, Mongol, and Hunnish invaders set off tribal movements that pushed through Central Asia. Many Chinese fled south to the Yangtze Valley. Chinese culture spread from there to Korea and Japan.
From the 7th century to the 15th century, two forces dominated Asian events: the spread of the new religion of Islam and the expansion of the Mongols, who conquered much of Asia and threatened Europe. In the 7th century the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, and his successors, the Umayyad caliphs (see Caliphate), spread Islam from India to Spain.
The Mongols who dominated Asia for two centuries originated in the vast Asian steppeland. They came to power under Genghis Khan, who conquered western and North China and parts of Central Asia in the early 1200s. His sons and grandsons expanded the Mongol Empire, which eventually extended from China to the Middle East and the edges of Europe.
Meanwhile, Japan was strongly influenced by Chinese culture, in both government and socioeconomic ideas. As the provincial nobility grew stronger, the Fujiwara clan gained control (794-1185) until the Minamoto clan seized power, ruling through military dictators called shogunshogunsmperors remained powerless figureheads (1185-1333). The Mongols failed to conquer Japan.
After the Mongols were overthrown by the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) in China and by others elsewhere in Asia, rival empires contended for power. The political disintegration closed overland trade just as Europe’s new national states entered an era of exploration and colonialism. The resulting international competition for trade subjected Asia to encroachment by the empire-building Europeans. By the mid-19th century, the major colonial powers in most of Asia were Britain and Russia, with the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, and France holding smaller possessions. By 1850 the British controlled the entire Indian subcontinent, while Russia reached the Pacific in 1632, occupied Turkistan in 1750, and secured claims to the Caucasus in 1828.
China’s experience in this period was quite different. China traded with Europeans but confined them to a few restricted ports to discourage European expansion. In the mid-19th century, armed clashes between China and foreign powers forced China to grant trade and diplomatic concessions. In Japan western trade stopped, with few exceptions, until an 1854 American mission secured a treaty opening relations.
In establishing supremacy, the European colonizers generally took a gradual approach. Requests for trade were followed by demands for forts and land. Advisers were then pressed on local rulers. The ultimate result was annexation and direct rule. The imperialists built railroads, roads, canals, and some schools. They invested in the economy, but most economic profits went abroad. By World War II (1939-1945), nationalism and socialism had spread among the Western-educated Asian elite, and movements for self-government and independence emerged everywhere. The training of native armies and the education of an elite prompted reform and modernization. For example, a revolution in 1911 ended the Qing dynasty in China. However, idealistic reformers were pushed aside, and during World War I (1914-1918) China disintegrated into warlord rule. A long civil war followed between the nationalist Kuomintang and the Communists.
Some nations managed to maintain their independence. Japan prevented foreign encroachment by rapid modernization. A victory over Russia in 1904 and 1905 boosted Japan’s international prestige. During the 1930s ambitious young military officers pressed for ultranationalist policies, which resulted in a buildup in arms and a Japanese colonial expansion in Manchuria, China, and Southeast Asia. World War II catapulted Asia into world prominence. India became a staging area for Allied forces, and the Allies occupied strategic areas in southwestern Asia to protect supply routes. The Allied victory in the war further stimulated Asian expectations for independence and modernization. By the end of the 1950s, militant independence movements had largely ended colonial rule in Asia.
Postwar rivalry between Communist and non-Communist ideologies was part of the global contest between the USSR and the United States. Communism appealed to many Asians eager for independence, participatory government, and social reforms. The victory of the Soviet-supported People’s Republic of China over U.S.-backed Nationalist forces in 1949 was a major Communist triumph. In other locations, such as the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia, Communist forces lost. Other ideological conflicts were fought in Korea, Indochina, and Afghanistan. No Asian country was untouched by the confrontation between Communist and non-Communist ideologies. In recent years, economic and industrial expansion has transformed some Asian areas into world leaders in wealth and industrial output. Despite conflicting ambitions and ideologies, and local problems, wide sectors of Asia in the 1980s and early 1990s enjoyed economic growth, increased democracy, and improved living standards!