Introduction to 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
*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
*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
*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,
*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
*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
*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
*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