AsiaAsia, largest of the earth’s seven continents. With outlying islands, it covers an estimated 44,936,000 sq km (17,350,000sq mi), or about one-third of the world’s total land area. Asia has morethan 3.
2 billion inhabitants. Its peoples account for three-fifths of theworld’s population. Lying almost entirely in the northernhemisphere, Asia is bounded by the Arctic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. The conventional boundary between Europe and Asia is drawn at the UralMountains in Russia. Asia and Africa are separated by the Red Sea.
Asiais divided for convenience into five major realms: the areas of the formerUnion of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR); East Asia, including China,Mongolia, Korea, and Japan; Southeast Asia; South Asia, including the Indiansubcontinent; and Southwest Asia, including much of the Middle East. Thecontinent may also be divided into two cultural realms: that which is Asianin culture (East Asia, Southeast Asia, and South Asia) and that which isnot (Asia of the former USSR, and Southwest Asia). The Natural EnvironmentAsia’s interior consists of mountains,plateaus, and intervening structural basins. The continent’s physiographicsystem focuses on the Pamirs, a towering plateau region located where theborders of India, China, and Afghanistan converge.Order now
It is known as the Roofof the World. Mountain ranges spiral out from the Pamirs to the west (HinduKush), and southeast (Great Himalayas). These ranges form an imposing eastern-westernarc, about 2500 km (about 1550 mi) in length, that contains numerous peaksof heights well more than 6100 m (20,000 ft), including the highest peakin the world, Mount Everest. Other ranges extend east and northeast ofthe Pamirs (Karakorum, Kunlun, and Tien Shan). Between the Himalayan systemand the Karakorum-Kunlun ranges lies the high Tibetan Plateau. Around thiscentral core are arrayed four major plateau regions (Siberia, eastern China,southern India, and the Arabian Peninsula) and several major structuralbasins and river plains.
Several major rivers flow north to theArctic Ocean, others drain into the great interior drainage basin of Asia. In the south, southeast, and east, rivers such as the Ganges, Mekong, andHuang He (Yellow River) flow through vast lowlands. Climates in Asia rangefrom equatorial to arctic. Vegetation is extraordinarily diverse, rangingfrom 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 PeopleThe peoples of Asia are more diverse thanthose of any other continent, and they are highly concentrated in a smallproportion of the total area, chiefly in southern and eastern Asia. Mongoloidpeoples are predominant in East Asia and mainland Southeast Asia. Malayo-Polynesianpeoples prevail in the archipelagos of Southeast Asia. Caucasoid peoplesdominate South Asia, Southwest Asia, Siberia, and much of Central Asia. Chinese culture permeates East Asia, althoughthe Tibetan, Mongol, Korean, and Japanese cultures have their own languages.
Southeast Asia is more diversified, with separate ethnolinguistic groupsof Malay, Thai, Vietnamese, and others. In South Asia, Dravidian and Indo-Aryanlanguages are spoken. In Southwest Asia, Persian (Farsi), Semitic, andTurkic languages identify various ethnic groups. Turkic speakers also arenumerous in Central Asia and in western China.
Russian is the principallanguage in Siberia. Islam dominates in Southwest Asia and Central Asiaand is of major importance in South Asia and Indonesia. Hinduism is predominantin India. Buddhism extends through interior Asia and into Southeast Asia,China and Japan. Patterns of Economic DevelopmentMost of Asia is economically underdeveloped,but a number of important exceptions exist.
Japan has successfully modernizedits economy, as have Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore. The majority ofthe continent’s population is employed in agriculture characterized bylow yields and low labor productivity. Rice is the food-staple crop ofthe south and east, although wheat and other dry grains are also grown. In Asia’s drier interior regions, the raising of cattle, sheep, and horsesis important. Lumbering is an important industry in most Southeast Asiancountries. Marine fisheries are extremely important throughout coastalAsia.
Japan is the world’s leading fishing country, and China follows closely. Mining also is an important activity in most Asian countries; petroleumis the most important mineral export. Many areas have petroleum resources,but Southwest Asia contains the largest reserves. Relatively few people in Asia are employedin manufacturing. In general, urban centers and their industries are notwell integrated economically with the rural sector, and transportationsystems, both within countries and between them, are poorly developed.
A very high proportion of Asia’s world trade is with countries on othercontinents, rather than between Asian countries. The important exceptionsare the flow of oil and raw materials from other Asian nations to Japan,and the export of Japanese manufactured goods to Southeast Asia. HistoryThe following historical survey attemptsto show the interactions, collisions, and successions of Asian civilizationsin continental terms. For additional information on countries or regionsmentioned, see the history sections of articles on the individual Asiancountries. The earliest known civilizations arosein the great river valleys of Southwest Asia, northwest India, and northernChina before 3000 BC.
All were agricultural societies that developed advancedsocial and political structures to maintain irrigation and flood-controlsystems. Raiding nomadic herders forced the populations to live in walledcities for defense and to entrust their protection to an aristocratic classof leaders. Eventually artisans provided trade items, which brought exchangesbetween cultures. From 500 BC to AD 600, the early civilizationsexpanded and interacted. By AD 500 the major world religions and philosophies,with the exception of Islam (which had not yet been founded), had spreadfar from their places of origin. In the west and south, elements of Persian,Greek, and Indian culture spread widely.
In the east, Chinese influencespread until, in the early centuries AD, waves of Turkic, Mongol, and Hunnishinvaders set off tribal movements that pushed through Central Asia. ManyChinese fled south to the Yangtze Valley. Chinese culture spread from thereto Korea and Japan. From the 7th century to the 15th century,two forces dominated Asian events: the spread of the new religion of Islamand the expansion of the Mongols, who conquered much of Asia and threatenedEurope. 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 twocenturies originated in the vast Asian steppeland.
They came to power underGenghis Khan, who conquered western and North China and parts of CentralAsia in the early 1200s. His sons and grandsons expanded the Mongol Empire,which eventually extended from China to the Middle East and the edges ofEurope. Meanwhile, Japan was strongly influencedby Chinese culture, in both government and socioeconomic ideas. As theprovincial nobility grew stronger, the Fujiwara clan gained control (794-1185)until the Minamoto clan seized power, ruling through military dictatorscalled shogunshogunsmperors remained powerless figureheads (1185-1333).
The Mongols failed to conquer Japan. After the Mongols were overthrown by theMing dynasty (1368-1644) in China and by others elsewhere in Asia, rivalempires contended for power. The political disintegration closed overlandtrade just as Europe’s new national states entered an era of explorationand colonialism. The resulting international competition for trade subjectedAsia to encroachment by the empire-building Europeans. By the mid-19thcentury, 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 Russiareached the Pacific in 1632, occupied Turkistan in 1750, and secured claimsto the Caucasus in 1828.
China’s experience in this period wasquite different. China traded with Europeans but confined them to a fewrestricted ports to discourage European expansion. In the mid-19th century,armed clashes between China and foreign powers forced China to grant tradeand diplomatic concessions. In Japan western trade stopped, with few exceptions,until an 1854 American mission secured a treaty opening relations. In establishing supremacy, the Europeancolonizers generally took a gradual approach.
Requests for trade were followedby demands for forts and land. Advisers were then pressed on local rulers. The ultimate result was annexation and direct rule. The imperialists builtrailroads, roads, canals, and some schools. They invested in the economy,but most economic profits went abroad.
By World War II (1939-1945), nationalismand socialism had spread among the Western-educated Asian elite, and movementsfor self-government and independence emerged everywhere. The training ofnative 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 betweenthe nationalist Kuomintang and the Communists. Some nations managed to maintain theirindependence. 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 ultranationalistpolicies, which resulted in a buildup in arms and a Japanese colonial expansionin Manchuria, China, and Southeast Asia.
World War II catapulted Asia intoworld prominence. India became a staging area for Allied forces, and theAllies occupied strategic areas in southwestern Asia to protect supplyroutes. The Allied victory in the war further stimulated Asian expectationsfor independence and modernization. By the end of the 1950s, militant independencemovements had largely ended colonial rule in Asia. Postwar rivalry between Communist and non-Communistideologies was part of the global contest between the USSR and the UnitedStates.
Communism appealed to many Asians eager for independence, participatorygovernment, and social reforms. The victory of the Soviet-supported People’sRepublic of China over U. S. -backed Nationalist forces in 1949 was a majorCommunist triumph. In other locations, such as the Philippines, Malaysia,and Indonesia, Communist forces lost.
Other ideological conflicts werefought in Korea, Indochina, and Afghanistan. No Asian country was untouchedby the confrontation between Communist and non-Communist ideologies. Inrecent years, economic and industrial expansion has transformed some Asianareas into world leaders in wealth and industrial output. Despite conflictingambitions and ideologies, and local problems, wide sectors of Asia in the1980s and early 1990s enjoyed economic growth, increased democracy, andimproved living standards!