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
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
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
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
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!