HONOURS GEOGRAPHY
Introduction to Asia
 
*Asia is one of the three traditional continents of world history (along with Europe and Africa), and has often been seen as the opposite of Europe—the two regions are often called the East and the West, or the Orient and the Occident.  Asia has always been seen as exotic, mysterious, and wealthy (although that did not stop Europe from eventually taking over most of it).

*Asia is the largest continent in the world (19,187,230 square miles in area), and the most populous, with over 4 billion people (about 60% of the world’s population).

*Asia is so large that parts of it are studied in six different units in the text book:  parts of Russia, parts of the Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia, and even some of the islands and island groups that will be studied along with Australia are all in Asia.

*There are over 50 countries in Asia, but for the next few weeks, we will speak of those in three regions:  South Asia (with 7), East Asia (with 6 (counting Taiwan and Red China as separate countries)), and Southeast Asia (with 11), for a total of 14 countries.

*The largest country in all of Asia (and the world) is Russia, but of those we will study as Asian, the largest is China (4th largest in the world; its area is about 3.7 million square miles).  The third largest is India (#7 worldwide, 1.26 million square miles).  4th is Kazakhstan (#9 worldwide, 1 million square miles), 5th is Saudi Arabia (#14, 756,984 square miles), 6th is Indonesia (#15), 7th is Iran (#17), 8th is Mongolia (#18), 9th is Pakistan (#34), and 10th is Turkey (#36).

*Asia has more people than any other continent or, indeed, all the other continents combined.  It also has the three of the four most populous countries in the world:  China (#1, with 1.3 billion), India (#2, with 1.1 billion,) and Indonesia (#4, with 242 million).  The next largest Asian countries are Pakistan (#6, with 162.4 million), Bangladesh (#7, with 144.3 million), Russia (#8, with 143.4 million), and Japan (#10, with 127.4 million).

*All of Asia put together produces about $8 trillion worth of goods and services a year, less than either the United States or the European Union.  However, when adjusted for purchasing power parity, this is worth over $18 trillion locally.  Still, the average GDP/capita is only $2,195 ($4,518 adjusted) per year.

*The most productive country in Asia is Japan (#2 worldwide, $4.6 trillion/year).  China is second (#7 worldwide, $1.7 trillion/year, although when adjusted for local purchasing power it beats Japan), India is third (#10; $691.8 billion), South Korea is fourth (#11; 679.8 billion), Russia is fifth (#15; $582 billion), Indonesia is sixth (#22; $257 billion), and Saudi Arabia is seventh ($250 billion).

*In terms of per capita GDP, the wealthiest country in Asia is the Middle Eastern country of Qatar, where the average person makes $37,610 per annum (#9 worldwide).  Next is Japan (#11; 36,595), then Singapore (#22; $24,740), 4th is the UAE (#23; $23,968), and 5th is Kuwait (#25; $19,559).  South Korea is 34th worldwide ($14,151), Taiwan is 36th worldwide ($13,451), and the People’s Republic of China is 110th of 180 tracked by the International Monetary Fund ($1,272 per year).

*South Asia is also known as the Subcontinent, because most of the regions is on a separate tectonic plate that is being pushed into Asia, raising the Himalayan Mountains as it does so. 

*South Asia is studied as one region because most of the people there are either Muslim or Hindu (Hinduism (the world’s 3rd largest religion, with 900 million adherents) and Buddhism (4th largest, with 560 million) both began in India, and even today almost all the world’s Hindus are there), because all seven of the countries in the region (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Nepal, and Bhutan) were at one point British colonies, and because the majority of the people in the region speak Indo-European languages.  Among the most important of these are Urdu (the main language of Pakistan) and Hindi (one of India’s 21 official languages).  Sanskrit, the classical language of Hinduism is also important, as is English, the language of the British Empire, which survives as both a lingua franca and a status symbol.

*The major linguistic exceptions are Bhutan (whose language is related to Tibetan, and the major religion is Buddhism), and the Dravidian languages spoken mostly in southern India and parts of Sri Lanka.  It is thought that the languages in this family were native to India before the Indo-European (or Aryan) invasion.

*East Asia is largely China’s sphere of influence, although Japan might resent this description of the region.  China has traditionally been the most powerful nation in the region, and at times has dominated all of its neighbours (so that most have writing systems based in some way on Chinese ideograms).  Even today, the Chinese call their country the ‘Middle Kingdom,’ implying it is at the centre of everything.  Today there are six independent countries in the region, although some do not recognise the existence of the others.

*Most of this region was not colonised by European powers, although in the late 19th century China was divided up into ‘spheres of influence’ dominated by other countries, and Mongolia was heavily influenced by the USSR.  However, Japan conquered large parts of the region between 1895 and 1940, and was in turn defeated by the USA in 1945, ending WWII.

*Despite China’s dominance in the region, the other nations of East Asia have retained distinct cultures and languages.  It has been speculated that Mongolian, Korean, and Japanese may all be part of a vast Altaic family, linking them to Turkish, Finnish, and Hungarian, but this is in dispute.  It is also possible that Japanese and Korean are related to each other, but to nothing else, or that they are, in fact, linguistic isolates outright (and in each country it is unpopular to suggest that the local language is related to the other one).

*China in turn has not one Chinese language, but many ‘dialects’ (which are often more different from each other than European languages are from one another).  Despite their differences in pronunciation, the different dialects are all written the same way (or almost; there are some minor local variations).  The major dialects are Mandarin (the official ‘Chinese language,’ most common in north-eastern China)) and Cantonese (most common in south-eastern China), but many more exist (a total of between 6 and 12, depending on the classification scheme).  Tibetan is also related to Chinese; they are in the Sino-Tibetan Family.

*Buddhism is very common in East Asia, and Japan also practises Shinto.  Alongside Buddhism, many Chinese follow the teachings of Confucius, which are more a system of philosophy and ethical behaviour than a religion, although Confucianism is often treated as a religion by outsiders who do not understand it. 

*Southeast Asia, also known as Indochina (because it was between India and China) is everything left over in Asia.  It was a heavily colonised region, with parts claimed by the British, the Dutch, the French, the Spanish, the Portuguese, and even the United States.  However, Thailand was never conquered by any European nation.

*This area has a wide range of ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups, and has seen warfare and instability since decolonisation.  Most of these countries use different writing systems, although Vietnam uses the Latin alphabet.

*Within the region, Chinese and other related Sino-Tibetan languages are spoken in Singapore, Burma (Myanmar), and parts of other countries.

*Tai-Kadai languages are spoken in Thailand, Laos, and parts of other countries.

*Austronesian languages are spoken on many of the islands of the region including many of those in Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, East Timor, and the Philippines (Tagalog).

*Austroasiatic languages are thought to be the native languages of the region, but today only Vietnamese and Cambodia’s Khmer remain as major languages.

*Many other minor and major non-national languages exist, most notably those of the Hmong peoples who are found throughout Southeast Asia, but who have increasingly begun to emigrate (including to the USA) due to warfare and ethnic tension.

*Much of mainland Southeast Asia is Buddhist, although Catholicism is popular in the Philippines, and Islam is very important on all the islands in the area.

*Although Asia has the world’s largest population and a fairly high birth rate (and fairly low death rate), the birth rate is declining, as much of Asia moves into the final stage of a transition from a traditional to a modern economy.  Although Asia’s population overall will continue to grow, its grown should slow down relatively soon, and in some places, notably China (with its One Child Policy) and Japan (with very low fertility rates), it will decline. 

*On the other hand, Asia is growing increasingly wealthy, and has a wide range of markets, from saturated markets that still need and produce high-end goods (like that of Japan) to emerging markets in China and India. 

*Asia also grows more powerful, as India and Pakistan have recently joined the club of nations known to have nuclear weapons, to which China has long belonged and Iran and North Korea aspire to join. Asia will be one of the most exciting world regions to watch in the coming century.



This page last updated 14 November, 2005.