Asia. Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)


Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern WorldWorld of Earth ScienceThe Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Further reading




ASIA. Three centuries separate the missions of Vasco da Gama to India in 1498 and George Macartney to China in 1793. Da Gama opened a new sea route to the Orient; Lord Macartney, ambassador of Great Britain, sought to renegotiate the terms of trade with the Qing (Manchu) empire. During the course of the intervening centuries, successive waves of Europeans sailed into Asiaafter the Portuguese came the Dutch, English, Spanish, and French. Their experiences taught them that there was more than one Asia. In south and east Asia, there were the powerful and expansive continental empires of the Mughals and the Manchus. In northeast Asia, there were the secluded kingdoms of Korea and Japan. But initially, for the Europeans, there was above all the Asia of the Indian Ocean trading network.


The Indian Ocean network consisted of three inter-locking circuitsthe Arabian Seas, the Bay of Bengal, and Indonesiaeast Asia. It was in this Asia that European merchantmen established small but permanent bases stretching around the entire Indian Ocean littoral, from the port of Mombasa in the west to Nagasaki in the east. From those bases, Europeans pressed for monopoly control over the spices, silks, porcelain, and other products that crossed the Indian Ocean's trading network. Until 1850, European ambitions in Asia raced ahead of their limited resource bases. Before the industrial revolution and the European drive for expansion, European states lacked both the financial means and the military power to effect any grand design in Asia.

As the first to arrive in Asian waters via the sea route around Africa, the Portuguese established a trading empire in the Arabian Seas circuit and maintained partial control over it for most of the sixteenth century. A century later the Dutch constructed the first colonial empire in Asia and revolutionized almost every dimension of the Indian Ocean trading systemfrom how it was organized to how business was transacted. The English East India Company arrived on the scene contemporaneously with the Dutch but did not become a major force in Asian trade until after the latter went into decline, between 1680 and 1720. Over the course of the remainder of the eighteenth century, the English developed a passion for empire, first in India and then in China. After 1720 they pushed first the Dutch and subsequently the late-arriving French East India Company aside and established themselves as the dominant European trader in Asian waters. Concurrently, they commenced building an empire on the subcontinent of Asia, and in 1793, with the Macartney mission to China, inaugurated a clash between the expanding empires of England and Qing China in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Two facets of the early modern history of European empire building in the Indian Ocean deserve to be emphasized. First is the intra-Asian or "country trade," to call it by its eighteenth-century name. From the Asian perspective, the emergence of three great Muslim empires (Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal) by the sixteenth century and the unprecedented growth of the Kiangnan region in the lower Yangtze valley of the Ming-Qing empire greatly stimulated the expansion of the intra-Asian regional trade, and with it, a nascent consumer culture in Asia. From the European perspective, it was Europe's good fortune to arrive at the moment the Asian system was undergoing a period of unprecedented growth. Once the Europeans learned how the system operated and the role Asian merchants played in it, they sought out partnerships with those merchants. For their part, the European traders contributed to the further expansion of the system by linking the "country trade" to the long-distance Atlantic trade routes that carried Asian products to Europe's own emergent consumer culture. Thus, over time, these partnerships, such as those between Portuguese and Gujarati merchants or between Dutch and Chinese traders, became one of the central features of the system. The English, too, were attuned to the importance of such partnerships and made a series of them during their eighteenth-century rise to dominance. It is worth repeating that Asian-European partnerships were a key feature of the Indian Ocean trading system and played an important role in its continued growth. From a world-historical perspective, some historians identify this as the "age of partnership" and interpret it as part of the deeper integration and globalization of trade linked to an emergent consumer culture in both East and West.

Alongside the intra-Asian trade, European initiatives came to be central to early modern European empire building in Asia. The collective effect of these initiatives transformed the Asian system of trade. These initiatives came in two chronological waves, the first in the sixteenth century and the second in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The first wave was primarily Portuguese in origin and included the opening of the Atlantic sea route around Africa to the Orient and the linkage of the intra-Asian regional trade routes to the Atlantic route; the introduction of the large ships called armed merchantmen; and the emergence of cultural intermediaries, the first of whom were Jesuit missionaries. In later centuries, sea voyagers and official embassies from various European countries greatly expanded the fund of European knowledge about Asia.

The Dutch and English sponsored the second wave of initiatives. These initiatives were truly revolutionary in terms of their impact on the Indian Ocean trading networks. Over a two-century period (16001800) they fundamentally transformed the Asian trading system. The two most important of these second-wave initiatives were the transplantation of a novel form of business organization (the joint stock company) into Asia and the fusion of private merchant interests and state policy. Ranking close behind these two initiatives in significance were the systematization of the intra-Asian carrying trade and its transference to European control after 1700; the shift of the center of trade from the west coast of India (the Arabian Seas circuit) to the Bay of Bengal and Indonesian circuits; and the altered composition of the trade, from spices and porcelains to "drug foods" (such as sugar, coffee, tea, and opium) and cotton textiles.

By the mid-eighteenth century, the combined effects of these initiatives were transforming not just Euro-Asian relations but also the world economy. Regarding the former, partnerships more and more resembled patron-client relationships, and Asians west of Guangzhou (Canton) were the clients. Regarding the European initiatives, by about 1750 they had begun to shift the center of gravity of the world economy away from the shores of the Indian Ocean to those of Atlantic Europe. In other words, the important economic decisions were more often made in Amsterdam and London rather than in Surat or Melaka or Guangzhou. Nonetheless, this shift was incremental. Although still incomplete by the time Lord Macartney undertook his mission to China in 1793, it eventually culminated in an armed confrontation between the expanding British and Qing empires over trade and sovereignty.


In 1498, all of this, of course, lay in the future. Neither Vasco da Gama nor his immediate successors, especially Afonso de Albuquerque (14531515), the chief architect of the Portuguese empire in Asia, entertained the slightest notion of creating partnerships with Asian merchants. Their intent was to establish trade monopolies and redirect the spice trade away from the Levantine caravan routes, with their links to the Arabian Seas circuit. Between 1500 and 1515, from their base at Goa, the Portuguese used their superior naval forces to effect a significant measure of control over most of this circuit, which included the Malabar Coast of western India, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and the related caravan routes of Persia and the Tigris-Euphrates valley. During that brief period, they identified and then captured control of many of the major choke points of the Indian Ocean, such as strategically located entrepôts of Hormuz at the entrance of the Persian Gulf and Melaka on the Straits of Melaka. The latter controlled the trade of the Far Eastern circuit of the Indian Ocean. However, the Portuguese failed to capture Aden, located at the entrance of the Red Sea. That failure meant that the Levantine trade routes via the Red Sea remained open, and Portugal could not and did not establish a complete monopoly over the spice trade.

The Estado da India nonetheless remitted handsome profits from the pepper trade back to Lisbon for most of the sixteenth century. Estado officials and private Portuguese traders realized that even greater profits could be made through partnerships with Asian merchants. Together they continued to expand the trade of the Indian Ocean, linked some of its commerce to the new sea route around Africa, and grew wealthy servicing the expanding intra-Asian trade with silver, tin, copper, spices, and horses. By the mid-sixteenth century, the Portuguese had also become involved in the lucrative trade of the Far Eastern circuit. In fact, between about 1550 and 1637, Portuguese merchantmen had linked together all three trading circuits of the Indian Ocean, moving a variety of goods between its major entrepôts.

In 1637, a seemingly minor event in Japanthe decision of the military government to expel the Portuguese for meddling in Japanese politicsset in motion a series of events that undermined the Portuguese in east Asian waters, opened the way for Dutch competitors to displace them, and all but eliminated Japanese participation in intra-Asian trade until the 1860s. In any case, the Portuguese crown had received little if any of the profits from the intra-Asian trade; they primarily flowed into the pockets of corrupt Estado officials and private Portuguese merchants and their Asian partners. Thus, within a half-century of the Portuguese seizure of Goa and Melaka, Asians had assimilated most Portuguese into their social world, or, in the case of the Japanese, had expelled them. By about 1600 Asia was looking very much as it had before the Portuguese arrival in 1498.

In Europe, in spite or more likely because of the Wars of Religion, the Dutch seized the opportunity to enter the Asian market. With their powerful market economy, the Dutch were well positioned to enter the arena of long-distance trading. They possessed an astonishingly rich resource base and a working knowledge of Asian waters. Jan Huyghen van Linschoten provided the latter. In 1594, he returned to Holland after serving the Portuguese for ten years, six of them in Goa. Using van Linschoten's maps, sailing directions, and detailed information about the spice trade, separate groups of Dutch merchants posted sixty-five ships to Asian waters between 1595 and 1602. As anticipated, the ships returned with cargoes of fine spicesmace, cloves, and nutmegthat earned their sponsors handsome profits.

These unplanned ventures came at a cost, a marketplace glutted with spices. In order to remedy this situation, several groups of Dutch merchants agreed to pool their resources to create a unique commercial organization, the United East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, or VOC, founded in 1602). Its initial capitalization was an astounding 6.5 million guldens. What made the VOC unique was the separation of investors from the company's professional managers. In the early years of this experiment in business organization, the VOC usually paid between 25 and 30 percent dividends on shares in the company. The Dutch creation would soon be known as a "joint stock" company, a revolutionary business structure that had revolutionary consequences for Asian trade.


Among the most successful of the first generation of VOC managers were Governors-General Jan Pieterszoon Coen (served 16171629) and his able successor Anthony van Diemen (served 16361645). Over the course of the seventeenth century, they and their successors fundamentally restructured the Indian Ocean trading network.

When Coen arrived in Asian waters, he discovered that the Spice Islands (the Moluccas) were not only a source of wealth but also stood at the crossroads of trade between India, China, and Japan. He decided that the center of trade had to be moved from the Arabian Seas circuit to the Indonesiaeast Asia circuit. This meant abandoning the idea of a trading empire in favor of the establishment of an overseas capital, strategically located in Indonesia. From Indonesia he could deploy superior Dutch naval power, westward toward the Coromandel coast of India and the Bay of Bengal and eastward toward Japan and China. The navy would also be used to maintain control of the Spice Islands themselves.

As a first step, in 1619, Governor-General Coen seized the Javanese port of Jakarta and renamed it Batavia, the Roman name of Holland; it became the "major naval base, shipbuilding center, and entrepôt for the Dutch East India Company" (Ringrose, p. 158). Coen found local allies in the large Chinese community of Batavia. His two chief Chinese collaborators were Su Minggang, a godfather figure in the Chinese community, and his chief aide Jan Con, whose primary function was to recruit laborers from the southeastern coastal province of Fujian. Su and Jan also advised Coen and van Diemen on market conditions in the two eastern circuits of the Indian Ocean and, on their own initiative, developed the hinterland of Batavia. The Chinese established sugar plantations and harvested the timber resources of Java. In both cases, they used the labor of Fujianese coolies. Coen's collaboration with the Chinese points to an important reality about Batavia, that it was from the outset both a Dutch and a Chinese town. With the passage of time, the Chinese community became more and more robust at the expense of the Dutch. Finally, in the mid-eighteenth century, the Dutch turned on the Chinese residents (their former collaborators), massacring ten thousand of them and looting their homes and businesses.

Shocking as this massacre may seem, the Dutch had long before acquired a reputation for cruelty in their empire building. In fact, the systematic use of naval power was a basic tactic in Coen's strategy to create a "ring of force" around the Moluccas and the other Spice Islands (Fernandez-Armesto, p. 326). In pursuit of that goal, the Dutch used maximum force on a number of occasions. For example, in 1621 Dutch forces either killed or deported as slaves the entire population of the island of Banda. When the Ceramese rebelled against Dutch policy and killed 160 Dutch in 1651, the Dutch in retaliation forcibly resettled twelve thousand Ceramese from Ceram Island to Amboina and Manipa.

The Dutch completed their ring of force around the Spice Islands in 1669, when they reduced Makassar (Ujung Pandang), the most powerful of the Indonesian states, to a colony. The defeat of Makassar gave the Dutch a world monopoly over the production of spices. Only Bantam maintained a semblance of independence from the Dutch, but by 1682 it, too, had become a VOC colony. The isolated and fragmented island polities of Indonesia were simply no match for the powerful Dutch navy and the VOC's single-minded drive to control spice production.

Was the spice monopoly worth the price? Most historians would agree that an Asian market for spices remained very active throughout this period, while European spice consumption was declining. Only the growing mid-eighteenth-century popularity of cinnamon from Ceylon increased the total VOC revenue from spices. Still, the question persists, and it may well be that the VOC's spice monopoly was not profitable in the long run. First, it limited the ability of the VOC to maneuver in a changing world market. Although spices were a safe source of profit, they had little potential for growth, at least in Europe. Meanwhile, a consumer culture had emerged in Europe and Asia that was demanding such goods as textiles, tea, and coffee. The VOC seemed incapable of responding to these new demands, because its labyrinthine bureaucratic structure was tied to the flow of spices. The VOC's chief rival, the English East India Company (EEIC), founded in 1600, had already decided that these new commodities had a much larger potential market than spices. Furthermore, the cost of maintaining a naval force large enough to enforce the VOC's monopoly was enormous. In other words, the cost of empire may ultimately have exceeded its profits. The Dutch were able to reduce the gap between cost and profit only by introducing the cultivation of coffee in the eighteenth century.

Creating a ring of force around the fine spices in Indonesia was but one aspect of the Dutch presence in Asia. Indeed, the largest part of seventeenth-century VOC activity was in the "country trade" of the Indian Ocean. In the 1630s and 1640s the company derived its largest profits from its monopoly over the sale of spices within Asia and its transportation of Japanese silver to China. More importantly, in carving out a major role for the VOC in the "country trade," the Dutch fundamentally altered the intraregional trading system. The revolutionary organizational structure of the VOC allowed the Dutch to systematize the intra-Asian carrying trade in a way never before possible, and, in the process, displace Asian merchants. By 1700, VOC managers through the organizational efficiencies of their company were transforming once-independent Asian merchants into their clients. The decline of the Asian merchants' status continued into the eighteenth century as the Dutch (and later the English) came to control more and more of the country trade through their joint stock companies.


The decline of the VOC relative to its European competitors, primarily the EEIC, can be placed somewhere between 1680 and 1720. It has been attributed to three factors: excessive dividends; the high cost of maintaining the spice monopoly; and the inflexibility of VOC, which rendered it unable to respond to the demands of new consumer cultures of Europe and Asia. Although the VOC remained a viable economic force in Asia throughout the eighteenth century, the EEIC was also slowly displacing it as the dominant European trader in Asia.

In 1600, no one could have predicted that England would become Europe's most successful empire builder in Asia. The earlier achievements of the Portuguese and Dutch and those of the late-arriving French pale in comparison with English successes of the eighteenth century. In a matter of a half-century, from about 1750 to about 1800, the English had become masters of most of the Indian subcontinent, and in 1793 they were prepared to push farther east and challenge the mighty Qing empire for sovereignty and power in east Asia.

What historical pushes and pulls transformed the English East India Company from its seventeenth-century status as beggar at the court of the great Mughal emperors to that of masters of a British India in the eighteenth century? In 1600, the English did indeed beg the Mughals of India for a farman, an imperial directive that would grant England regular trading privileges throughout the Mughal empire and, with it, access to the markets of south Asia. In 1608 Captain William Hawkins (c. 15601613), the first of the English East India Company's envoys, received permission for the company to trade at Surat, but the Mughal emperor offered no farman encompassing the whole empire. Other envoys followed, Sir Thomas Roe in 1618 and William Hedges in 1682. The latter's mission is particularly revealing of the EEIC's status in late-seventeenth-century Mughal India.

EEIC officials in Bengal and the company's governor in London, Sir Josiah Child, interfered with Hughes's mission, causing Emperor Aurangzeb (Ālamgir; ruled 16581707) to break off the negotiations. Challenged, or, perhaps embarrassed, Child decided on war with the Mughals. "Child's War," 16861690, ended in disaster for the English. In 1689 the Mughal fleet commanded by the African Sidi Yakub took Bombay, which had been an English entrepôt since 1668. After a year of resistance, the English surrendered, and in 1690 the company sent envoys to Aurangzeb's camp to plead for a pardon. The company's envoys had to prostrate themselves before the emperor, pay an enormous indemnity, and promise better behavior in the future. The emperor withdrew his troops and the company subsequently reestablished itself in Bombay and set up a new base in Calcutta.

The 1690s were the start of a period of economic expansion for the EEIC in Asia. Only Bombay on the subcontinent's west coast did not share in the general expansion of the company's other major entrepôts, Madras and Calcutta, on the east coast. Bombay's trade suffered because the Marathan admiral Kanhoji Angria targeted its shipping, and until the 1730s, the advantage lay with Kanhoji. Meanwhile, Madras and Calcutta prospered as the volume of trade grew exponentially in such items as cotton textiles, silks, molasses, and saltpeter. Although the tea trade had its origins back in the 1660s, it was not until the turn of the century that it began to take hold as the preferred beverage among English of all social strata; the boom in tea profits had to wait until the eighteenth century. Meanwhile, American silver paid for the bulk of English imports, including tea. London critics denounced the outflow of bullion for Asian goods, but handsome dividends had a way of silencing mercantilist rhetoric.

Beginning in the 1690s and reaching into the 1750s, the EEIC started shedding its beggar status and laying claim to a loftier standing within the Asian trading world. Neither the EEIC nor its ally, the English government, had decided on a course of empire building in Asia. Rather, the convergence of a number of historical developments in the mid-eighteenth century not only made empire building possible but also invited it. First, the EEIC encouraged its servants and free traders to pursue trade aggressively within the intra-Asian trading system. This policy allowed men like the country trader Thomas Pitt, who later became governor of Madras, to earn vast fortunes. A second development was the company's merger with the many private syndicates operating in Asian waters. These syndicates, called "interlopers," had regularly disregarded the EEIC's legal monopoly over Asian trade. The merger resulted in the heavy recapitalization of the EEIC (at about 3.2 million pounds) and its renaming in 1708 as the United East India Company. Third, concurrent with the merger with the "interloper" syndicates was the systematization of the company's bureaucracy. Its streamlined organization gave it a competitive edge over the VOC and Indian-operated shipping. The effects of this combinationheavy English investment and an efficiently functioning bureaucracywere almost immediately visible. English shipping interests pushed the Dutch aside and greatly reduced Indian participation in the intra-Asian trade of the Indian Ocean. Fourth, the early successes of the EEIC depended upon alliances with Indian merchants, like the house of Jagat Seth. By the mid-eighteenth century, however, the Indian partners had already begun the long slide into dependency on the company. Such dependencies would become a feature of English-Indian relations after 1750, as partnerships gave way to client status for Indian merchants. In this regard, the eighteenth-century English experience in Asia paralleled to a great extent that of the Dutch in Indonesia.

The English East India Company's continued fortunes in south Asia ultimately turned on its ability to obtain an empire-wide farman from the now declining Mughal overlords of India. After another English ambassador in 1701 had failed to obtain the elusive guarantee, a new mission to Delhi headed by John Surman threatened to withdraw the company's factors from Surat and its other establishments in Gujarat unless it was granted. Because the company's economic stake in this western region of India generated a significant amount of revenue for the Mughals, the emperor, Farrukhsiyar, relented. He granted a farman on 31 December 1716, little realizing the far-reaching consequences of his action. EEIC officials now resembled other imperial officeholders of the Mughal empire. More importantly, under the terms of the directive, the EEIC could take action against anyone infringing on its rights. It was this aspect of the farman that opened the way for future intervention in the political affairs of India, and intervention over the course of the eighteenth century eventually led to the incorporation of India into a British empire.

Was English intervention after 1716 a result of an alliance struck between the company and wealthy and powerful Indian merchants, such as the house of Jagat Seth? Was the company drawn into Indian politics in order to safeguard its own growing economic, political, and territorial investments? Was conquest the result of the transplantation of eighteenth-century Anglo-French rivalries into Asian waters, a rivalry that carried over into Indian politics? These are some of the questions historians are presently debating regarding the British conquest of India. The debate continues; the best that can be offered here is a brief account of the stages of the conquest, with an eye toward Macartney's 1793 mission to China.

Eighteenth-century English expansion into India falls into three periods. The first was a period in which the company agents and private traders found their way into "a lively market in commercial, fiscal and military opportunities" (Keay, p. 377). This was the "market opportunities" stage, 17161748. "Colonial imperialism" made its appearance in the 1740s. Beginning in that decade, the English and French engaged in a series of wars for empire. In India, the most famous protagonists of these conflicts were Joseph-François Dupleix and Charles de Bussy-Castelnau on the French side and Robert Clive and Charles Watson on the English side. Victory ultimately came to the English in the 1760s because of three factors: the decisive leadership of men like Clive, Watson, and William Pitt, the architect of victory in the Seven Years' War (17561763); the superior ability of the English to pay for Indian allies and Indian troops (called sepoys); and finally an appetite for empire, which had begun to emerge during the course of the Seven Years' War in India. Certainly Robert Clive was its first proponent, and almost all of his late-eighteenth-century successors, especially Richard Wellesley, shared Pitt's and Clive's imperial ambitions.

The period between 1764 and the end of the century marked the true beginnings of British dominion in India. The French had been defeated. However, before the English could truly lay claim to the title of raj, they had to overcome stiff Indian resistance. In addition to the Four Mysore wars (17671804), the three Maratha wars (17801803), and the two Sikh wars (c. 18401856), there were a host of lesser battles fought and won. The English may not have had a plan of conquest for India, but this succession of wars strongly suggests that their appetite for empire grew with the eating of the Indian pudding. Seen from this perspective, the mission of Macartney to China was but a further extension of England's expanding Asian empire.

Before the Macartney mission, English East Indiamen had been trading on the South China coast since the second decade of the eighteenth century. What had attracted them was tea, a product for which there was an expanding consumer market in the Atlantic world. By the 1780s, Western demand had grown to a point where it was causing balance of payment problems for English merchantmen. As mercantilists they parted reluctantly with their silver, but that was precisely what the Chinese demanded for their tea. Secondly, English traders chafed under Qing empireimposed restrictions requiring that all commerce must be conducted at the port of Canton (Guangzhou) and through designated Chinese merchants. It was in hopes of ending these trade restrictions and opening markets for English manufactured products as a way to solve the balance of payments problem that the British government dispatched Macartney to China in 1793.


By the time Ambassador Macartney sailed for China, Eurocentrically imagined Asians had become familiar figures on the European scene. During the nearly three centuries since Vasco da Gama had made landfall on the Malabar coast, a large body of literature about Asia and Asians had accumulated. Contributors included Jesuit missionaries, land and sea voyagers, official embassies, fictional writers, and "Asianist" scholars of several varieties, none of whom had ever visited any part of Asia, but who still wrote "knowingly" about it. From the fifteenth-century beginnings of Europe's contacts with Asia, Asia became whatever suited the needs of the Western imagination. More importantly, the Western perspective on Asia shifted over time. The shift occurred very late in the early modern period, around the 1770s. Until then an idealized Asia prevailed. At some indeterminate moment in the late seventeenth century China came to represent this idealized Asia. Asia (read China) was a land of wisdom, moral philosophy, and good government by a cultured elite. China was everything Europe should be. The idealization culminated in the eighteenth-century China vogue known as chinoiserie. In France, it expressed itself in a cult of Confucius, and in England it influenced everything from art to architecture to garden designs.

Suddenly, in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, this particular Eurocentrically idealized imagine of Asia came crashing down. Those who brought it down were men of the high Enlightenment, the Daniel Defoes, Horace Walpoles, Montesquieus, and Voltaires. Aided by a new "scientific" approach to history, the philosophes discovered that Asia (read China) was backward, despotic, and intellectually stagnant, and that Asians were physically inferior. From the vantage point of this new perspective, Europeans believed that they had little to learn from Asians, but that Asians had much to learn from progressive, modern Europeans. It was this perspective that Macartney took with him when he met the Qing emperor in 1793. It has been this perspective that has informed much of the writings about Europe's contact with Asia since then. It was only in the last twenty years or so of the twentieth century that a rising generation of historians has sought to revise this Eurocentrically imagined perspective of Asia and reimagine Eurasia in a global setting.

See also British Colonies: India ; Cartography and Geography ; Colonialism ; Dutch Colonies: The East Indies ; Europe and the World ; Exploration ; French Colonies: India ; Gama, Vasco da ; Goa ; Portuguese Colonies: The Indian Ocean and Asia ; Trading Companies.


Barendse, R. J. "Trade and State in the Arabian Seas: A Survey from the Fifteenth to the Eighteenth Century." Journal of World History 11, no. 2 (2000): 173225.

Braudel, Fernand. The Wheels of Commerce. Translated by Siân Reynolds. New York, 1982.

Chaudhuri, K. N. Asia before Europe: Economy and Civilisation of the Indian Ocean from the Rise of Islam to 1750. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1990.

. Trade and Civilisation in the Indian Ocean: An Economic History from the Rise of Islam to 1750. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1985.

Fernandez-Armesto, Felipe. Millennium. New York and London, 1995.

Hevia, James L. Cherishing Men from Afar: Qing Guest Ritual and the Macartney Embassy of 1793. Durham, N.C., 1995.

Keay, John. India: A History. London, 2000.

Linton, Derek S. "Asia and the West in the New World EconomyThe Limited Thalassocracies: The Portuguese and the Dutch in Asia, 14981700." In Asia in Western and World History: A Guide for Teaching. Edited by Ainslie T. Embree and Carol Gluck. Armonk, N.Y., 1997.

. "Asia and the West in the New World OrderFrom Trading Companies to Free Trade Imperialism: The British and their Rivals in Asia, 17001850." In Asia in Western and World History: A Guide for Teaching. Edited by Ainslie T. Embree and Carol Gluck. Armonk, N.Y., 1997.

Mungello, D. E. The Great Encounter of China and the West, 15001800. Lanham, Md., 1999.

Parry, J. H. The Establishment of the European Hegemony: 14151715: Trade and Exploration in the Age of the Renaissance. New York, 1966.

Pomeranz, Kenneth. The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy. Princeton, 2000.

Pomeranz, Kenneth, and Steven Topik. The World That Trade Created: Society, Culture, and the World Economy, 1400 to the Present. Armonk, N.Y., 1999.

Reid, Anthony. Charting the Shape of Early Modern Southeast Asia. Singapore, 2000.

Ringrose, David R. Expansion and Global Interaction, 12001700. New York, 2000.

Robb, Peter. A History of India. Basingstoke, U.K., 2002.

SarDesai, D. R. Southeast Asia Past and Present. 4th ed. Boulder, Colo., 1997.

Spence, Jonathan D. The Chan's Great Continent: China in Western Minds. New York, 1998.

Thompson, William R. "The Military Superiority Thesis and the Ascendancy of Western Eurasia in the World System." Journal of World History 10, no. 1 (1999): 143178.

Charles Lilley

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

LILLEY, CHARLES. "Asia." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. 2004. 30 May. 2016 <>.

LILLEY, CHARLES. "Asia." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. 2004. (May 30, 2016).

LILLEY, CHARLES. "Asia." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. 2004. Retrieved May 30, 2016 from



The history of Christian missions in Asia is tied, for better or worse, to European expansion. When the Byzantine capital of Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, Christian Europe was reduced to the status of a backwater area in world civilizations. Overshadowed and threatened by the ascendant Muslim empires, first by the Ottomans in the eastern Mediterranean and later by the Safavids (after 1502) in Persia and the Mughuls (after 1526) in India, Europeans were anxious about their future. Farther to the east, China was the colossus of the age and by almost any standard the greatest empire in the world. As Europe had receded, so had Christianity. Although missionaries since the time of Jesus had carried Christianity to Asia, churches there were now contracting and struggling to stay alive.


Shortly after 1450, Europe reached its nadir and began its ascent. In one of the ironies of history, the rapacious conquistador spirit of the Portuguese and Spanish trader-explorer-adventurers provided the ships that carried Christian missionaries to remote Asian lands. The committed missionaries who boarded these ships were inspired to do so by the fervor of the Counter-Reformation. (They were nearly all Catholic; Protestants did not send out missionaries until after 1789.) Hence, the love of Christ was spread in collusion with the lust for wealth, power, and adventure. It might therefore appear that the church was making a pact with the devil, but it is doubtful that these Europeans were aware of the contradiction. Furthermore, this intermingling of pure and selfish motives had a powerful effect not only in spreading the dominant religion of early modern Europeans to Asia, but also in shaping European culture. Europe's contact with Asia was a two-way process of mutual influence, and the expansionist Europe of the early modern period was much more open to Asian influences than the imperialistic Europe that followed.

The path of missionaries to Asia was opened by the success of two small and previously insignificant nations seeking trade routes to Asia. After years of Portuguese effort on the western coast of Africa, Vasco da Gama (c. 14601524) sailed east to India in 1498, six years after the Genoan explorer Christopher Columbus (14511506) opened a trade route to the west for Spain in 1492. With papal assistance, Portugal and Spain had divided the world between them and established their mission monopolies (Portuguese padroado and Spanish patronato ) with the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. Thereafter, most European missionaries bound for Asia would travel on Portuguese ships, although a smaller number took Spanish ships to Mexico and then crossed the Pacific Ocean to the Philippines. This sole Spanish base in Asia proved to be the most fertile mission field of all. The Augustinians were the first to arrive, in 1565, and within one century, the entire population of the Philippines was converted to Christianity.


Throughout Asia, the triumphalism and chauvinism of the Counter-Reformation Catholic Church were tempered by the accommodating spirit of a remarkable new religious order called the Society of Jesus. The Jesuits had emerged as the right arm of the pope in the Counter-Reformation struggle with the Protestants. Far more educated and sophisticated than most other missionaries, the Jesuits tended to missionize by cultivating the local elites. This led them to study the indigenous cultures with an aim toward accommodating Christianity with local cultural elements that were not in blatant conflict with Christianity. Many other missionaries accused the Jesuits of being too accommodating, and the early Jesuits manifested an arrogance that aroused a very unchristian hatred among their critics. Nevertheless, in retrospect, it is clear that the process of inculturation that the Jesuits sought for Christianity in Asia was a necessary foundation for the long-term viability of the faith there.

Jesuit accommodation did not dominate the missions in Asia but had to compete with the rivalry of other religious orders as well as nationalistic and Eurocentric forces. When the Portuguese first landed in India, they had encountered a group of approximately 100,000 Christians in the south, said to have been converted by the apostle Saint Thomas. These were Nestorian Christians of the Syrian church who were technically under the control of the patriarch in Babylon. The Portuguese, through their colonial base at Goa, forced the Saint Thomas Christians to submit to the authority of the pope via the Portuguese representative of the archbishop of Goa. This fostered great resentment among the Saint Thomas Christians. When the Jesuits first arrived in India, they went to the court of the Mughul emperor Akbar (ruled 15561605) in the hope of converting the emperor, but they were disappointed to learn that Akbar was merely using their views to forge a new religion called the Divine Faith.

Hopes for the mission in India were renewed in 1605 when a brilliant young Italian Jesuit named Robert de Nobili (15771656) arrived; he spent the following half century developing a new and fruitful approach to inculturating Christianity into Tamil culture in south India. Nobili focused his efforts on the highest of the four castes of Hindu culture, the Brahmans, or priestly caste. He studied the languages of ancient India (Sanskrit and classical Tamil), adopted the indigenous ocher robe, and renounced attachments to the worldeven cutting himself off from other Christians. Nevertheless, the conversions resulting from Nobili's work were limited until missionizing was extended to the lower castes.

The strong Buddhist beliefs of southeast Asia resisted the penetration of Christianity, with the notable exception of Vietnam. The remarkable success there can be traced to the work of the French Jesuit Alexandre de Rhodes (15911660), who arrived in Macau in 1623, hoping to go on to Japan. But with entry into Japan barred to missionaries, Rhodes was sent to Vietnam, whence he was expelled in 1625, 1630, and 1645. Nevertheless, he developed a remarkably effective missionary method by creating a Vietnamese group of catechists who were trained in basic medicine and who lived as a celibate brotherhood. They fostered thousands of conversions. Rhodes also developed a system for transliterating the Vietnam written language from Chinese characters to the Latin alphabet.

In Japan, missionaries met with striking initial success followed by harsh persecution. (This Japanese resistance to Christianity has been portrayed in the best-selling novel Silence [1969] by the Japanese Catholic author Shusaku Endo.) The first mission was led by the great Jesuit Francis Xavier, who arrived in 1549, when Japan was still in a period of warring feudal chaos without centralized leadership. This chaos provided an opportunity for the missionaries, and within sixty-five years there were 300,000 Christians in a Japanese population of twenty million. However, most of these Christians were concentrated in the southern part of Japan where the allegiance of the daimyo (feudal lords) to the shogun was regarded with suspicion, a suspicion that was strengthened when several of these daimyo converted to Christianity. The shogun (who ruled in the name of the emperor) decided to preempt any possibility of subversive rebellion by expelling the missionaries in 1614. When the missionaries surreptitiously returned, the shogunal court resorted to harsh persecution, including the torture and execution of many Japanese Christians and several Portuguese priests. The Catholic Church records the death of 3,125 Christian martyrs in the years 15971660. Christianity was exterminated in Japan, except for a small group of faithful followers who continued to worship in secret in the area of Nagasaki throughout the Tokugawa period (16001867).


Of all Asian lands, none received more attention from missionaries of early modern Europe than China. Its great distance from Europe and high level of civilization made it a tremendous challenge. The Jesuits in particular, who served "for the greater glory of God" (ad majorem Dei gloriam), sought to fulfill their motto by converting what was then the greatest nation in the world. Consequently, from 1552 until the Society of Jesus was temporarily abolished in 1773, nearly a thousand (the best source lists 920) Jesuits participated in the China mission, far more than any other religious order. In second place were the Franciscans (Order of Friars Minor) who sent approximately 130 of their members to China in the years 14501789. Smaller numbers were sent by the Dominicans (Order of Preachers), Augustinians, the Missions étrangères de Paris, and the Lazarists.

However, these missionaries were not entirely controlled by the superiors of their own orders. Even the Jesuits, who were notorious for their "corpse-like obedience" in obeying orders passed down in a militaristic chain of command from the Jesuit father general in Rome, were subject to the monarchs in whose territory they served. Particularly notable in this regard were the Portuguese, who constituted the largest segment of the Jesuits in China (314 out of 920). The Portuguese court exploited their mission monopoly to dominate the office of vice-provincial, which directed the China mission. Through their control of the colonies on the trade routes between Europe and China (most notably Goa in India and Macau in southeast China) the Portuguese restricted the entry of missionaries of other nationalities, particularly their Spanish rivals. The latter were forced to enter China from the Philippines by way of the pirate-infested coast of Fujian Province. The French Jesuits tried to circumvent the Portuguese control of entry at Macau by landing a group of five French Jesuits at Ningbo in 1687.

Because Rome felt that these nationalistic rivalries were harming the missionary effort, not only in China but throughout the world, Rome in 1622 had created the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, commonly known by its Latin name Propaganda Fide (or simply Propaganda). While the Portuguese continued to control the appointment of ordinary bishops throughout Asia, Propaganda appointed a special sort of bishop called a "vicar apostolic" who was consecrated directly by Rome. Consequently, in China and elsewhere, missionaries under the control of Propaganda competed with missionaries controlled by Portugal or the Jesuit father general. The Portuguese king struggled with Propaganda over the administrative division of China and eventually nine dioceses were established, with a vicar apostolic appointed to head each of them. However, when one of the appointed vicars apostolic, Bishop Bernardino Della Chiesa, attempted to take control of his newly appointed office of bishop of the diocese of Beijing in 1700, he was forced by the Portuguese Jesuits to establish his base outside of Beijing in a neighboring province.

Because the Jesuits tended to make conversions from the top down, focusing first on the imperial court or socioeconomic elites, their efforts in China had been shaped by the drive to establish a base in the Chinese capital. The great Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci achieved this goal in 1601 and the Jesuits thereafter became valued servants of the Chinese emperor. Their training enabled them to be useful in a number of capacities, particularly in over-seeing the Bureau of Astronomy, which was responsible for compiling the annual calendar, and in painting, architecture, cannon making, and even in serving as translators in diplomatic negotiations with the Russians in formulating the Treaty of Nerchinsk (1689).

However, the Jesuit strategy tied the fate of the mission to the whims of particular rulers. Other missionary orders in China attempted to ground Christianity in conversions among people in the provinces. The Jesuit strategy peaked in the years 16441661 when the Jesuit father Adam Schall developed a close relationship with the youthful Shunzhi emperor, who at one point was thought to be near converting. However, the mission later suffered persecution when the throne was occupied by a hostile ruler, such as the Yongzheng emperor (ruled 17231735). In terms of the overall development of Christianity in China, the Jesuits placed too much emphasis on cultivating the court but were wise in their emphasis on cultural accommodation. Ultimately, Christianity survived because of conversions effected by both Jesuit and non-Jesuit orders among the people in the provinces.


The missionaries' contact with China influenced the development of early modern Europe in substantive ways. Missionaries (mainly Jesuits) returning from China wrote books about its remarkable culture that were avidly read by some of the most important European thinkers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Francis Bacon (15611626), a leading figure in the scientific revolution, saw in the Chinese written script elements of a universal language. The dates of biblical chronology developed by the Anglican archbishop James Ussher in 16501654 and printed in the margins of the King James version of the Bible were modified to avoid contradicting the Chinese chronology introduced to Europe by the Jesuit Martino Martini.

The great philosopher-mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (16461716), who corresponded with the French Jesuit Joachim Bouvet in Beijing, concluded that the most ancient Chinese classic, the I Ching, or Book of Changes, had anticipated his discovery of a binary system of arithmetic by several millennia. Leibniz also believed that the Chinese surpassed Europeans in "practical philosophy" or the adaptation of ethics and politics to contemporary life. Enlightenment thinkers like Christian Wolff (16791754) and Voltaire (16941778) agreed; they extolled the philosophy of Confucius and sought to adapt Confucian teachings to Europe.

Whereas in seventeenth-century Europe China was the preoccupation of mainly learned savants, by the eighteenth century "sinomania" had become a popular preoccupation. Almost all the information about China was supplied by China missionaries. Louis XV of France in 1756 and Joseph II of Austria in 1769 imitated the Chinese emperor in performing the ritual plowing of the earth in spring. European artists were influenced by Chinese art to create a new hybrid and fanciful style called chinoiserie. English gardeners abandoned the geometrical forms of French gardens and imitated the Chinese in an attempt to reproduce the irregular and varied patterns of nature found in Chinese gardens. The Chinese economy provided inspiration for the French to help regain their lost status in the aftermath of their disastrous defeat in the Seven Years' War (17561763). François Quesnay advocated emulating the Chinese model in reorganizing the French economy around agriculture (with minimal government intervention) and gave birth to the economic philosophy of laissez-faire. Chinese porcelains were so technically and aesthetically superior to European stoneware that they shaped European tastes.

The Jesuits' accommodative approach was wellsuited to the syncretic culture of the late Ming dynasty (13681644) and made a number of conversions of prominent literati. While Buddhism and Taoism were difficult to reconcile with Christian teachings, the moral philosophy of Confucianism was much more amenable. Chinese teachings typically were transmitted from master to pupil. The prominent scholar-official Xu Guangqi (15621633) was the founding teacher in a Confucian-Christian tradition. Xu developed the formula bu Ru yi Fo ('supplement the Confucians and displace the Buddhists'), a four-character phrase of the sort favored by Chinese literati. Xu's formula was later developed further by other Christian literati, such as Shang Huqing (1619after 1698) and Zhang Xingyao (1633after 1715).

However, after the Manchu conquest of 1644 and the establishment of a new dynasty, the Qing, and the emergence of a less experimental and more conservative culture, the intellectual quality and prominence of the converts deteriorated. The conversion of scholar-officials was made more difficult by a bitter interorder dispute called the Chinese Rites Controversy (1715). It produced Eurocentric rulings from Rome that opposed flexibility in dealing with converts' rites of reverence to their ancestors and to Confucius. Consequently, most of the conversions of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were made by non-Jesuit missionaries working in the provincial cities and rural areas of China. As the missionaries lost the support of the court, magistrates became increasingly harsh in their treatment of Christians and anti-Christian persecutions grew in intensity. Nevertheless, many of the Catholic converts made in villages continued to practice Christianity with remarkable continuity, passing their practices in filial-pious style from generation to generation down to the present day.

See also Colonialism ; Columbus, Christopher ; Gama, Vasco da ; Jesuits ; Portugal ; Portuguese Colonies: The Indian Ocean and Asia ; Spain ; Spanish Colonies: the Philippines .


Dehergne, Joseph, S.J. Répertoire des Jésuites de Chine 1552 à 1800. Rome, 1973.

Gernet, Jacques. China and the Christian Impact: A Conflict of Cultures. Translated by Janet Lloyd. Cambridge, U.K., 1985.

Jensen, Lionel M. Manufacturing Confucianism: Chinese Traditions and Universal Civilization. Durham, N.C., 1997.

Lach, Donald F. Asia in the Making of Europe. Vols. 13. Chicago, 19651993.

Mungello, D. E. Curious Land: Jesuit Accommodation and the Origins of Sinology. Stuttgart, 1984.

. The Great Encounter of China and the West, 15001800. Lanham, Md., 1999.

. The Spirit and the Flesh in Shandong, 16501785. Lanham, Md., 2001.

Neill, Stephen. A History of Christian Missions. Harmondsworth, U.K., 1964.

Pfister, Louis, S.J. Notices biographiques et biblioigraphiques sur les Jésuites de l'ancienne mission de Chine, 15521773. Variétés sinologiques 59. Shanghai, 1932.

Sinica Franciscana. Vols. 210. Quaracchi-Firenze, Rome and Madrid, 19331997.

Standaert, Nicolas, ed. Handbook of Christianity in China. Vol. 1, 6351800. Leiden, 2001.

Van Damme, Daniel, O.F.M. Necrologium Fratrum Minorum in Sinis. 3rd ed. Hong Kong, 1978. 1st ed. by Joannes Ricci, O.F.M. (1934); 2nd ed. by Kilian Menz, O.F.M. (1944).

Xu, Zongze. Ming-Qing jian yesu hui shi yi zhu ti yao. Beijing, 1989.

D. E. Mungello

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

MUNGELLO, D. E.. "Asia." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. 2004. 30 May. 2016 <>.

MUNGELLO, D. E.. "Asia." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. 2004. (May 30, 2016).

MUNGELLO, D. E.. "Asia." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. 2004. Retrieved May 30, 2016 from



Asia is the world's largest continent, encompassing an area of 17,177,000 sq mi (44,500,000 sq km), 29.8% of the world's land area. The Himalaya Mountains, which are the highest and youngest mountain range in the world, stretch across the continent from Afghanistan to Burma. The highest of the Himalayan peaks, Mount Everest, reaches an altitude of 29,028 ft (8,848 m). There are many famous deserts in Asia, including the Gobi Desert , the Thar Desert, and Ar-Rubʾal-Khali ("the Empty Quarter"). The continent has a wide range of climatic zones, from the tropical jungles of the south to the Arctic wastelands of the north in Siberia.

The continent of Asia encompasses such an enormous area and contains so many countries and islands that its exact borders remain unclear. In the broadest sense, it includes central and eastern Russia, the countries of the Arabian Peninsula, the Far Eastern countries, the Indian subcontinent, and numerous island chains. It is convenient to divide this huge region into five categories: the Middle East, South Asia, Central Asia, the Far East, and Southeast Asia.

The Middle Eastern countries lie on the Arabian Peninsula, southwest of Russia and northeast of Africa , separated from the African continent by the Red Sea and from Europe in the northwest by the Mediterranean Sea. This area stretches from Turkey in the northwest to Yemen in the south, which is bordered by the Arabian Sea. In general, the climate is extremely dry, and much of the area is still a desert wilderness. Precipitation is low, so the fertile regions of the Middle East lie around the rivers or in valleys that drain the mountains. Much of the coastal areas are arid, and the vegetation is mostly desert scrub.

Saudi Arabia is the largest of the Middle Eastern countries. In the west it is bordered by the Red Sea, which lies between Saudi Arabia and the African continent. The Hijaz Mountains run parallel to this coast in the northwest, rising sharply from the sea to elevations ranging from 3,000 to 9,000 ft (910 to 2,740 m). In the south is another mountainous region called the Asir, stretching along the coast for about 230 mi (370 km) and inland about 180200 mi (290320 km). Between the two ranges lies a narrow coastal plain called the Tihamat ash-Sham. East of the Hijaz Mountains are two great plateaus called the Najd, which slopes gradually downward over a range of about 3,000 ft (910 m) from west to east, and the Hasa, which is only about 800 ft (240 m) above sea level. Between these two plateaus is a desert region called the Dahna.

About one third of Saudi Arabia is estimated to be desert. The largest of these is the Ar-Rub'al-Khali, which lies in the south and covers an area of about 250,000 sq mi (647,500 sq km). In the north is another desert, called the An-Nafud. The climate in Saudi Arabia is generally very dry; there are no lakes and only seasonally flowing rivers. Saudi Arabia, like most of the Middle Eastern countries, has large oil reserves; also found here are rich gold and silver mines which are thought to date from the time of King Solomon.

Israel contains three main regions. Along the Mediterranean Sea lies a coastal plain. Inland is a hilly area that includes the hills of Galilee in the north and Samaria and Judea in the center. In the south of Israel lies the Negev Desert, which covers about half of Israel's land area. The two bodies of water in Israel are the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. The latter, which takes its name from its heavy salinity, lies 1,290 ft (393 m) below sea level, and is the lowest point on the earth's landmasses. It is also a great resource for potassium chloride, magnesium bromide, and many other salts. Jordan borders on Israel in the east near the Dead Sea. To the east of the Jordan River, which feeds the Dead Sea, is a plateau region. The low hills gradually slope downward to a large desert, which occupies most of the eastern part of the country.

Lebanon borders Israel in the north and is divided up by its steep mountain ranges. These have been carved by erosion into intricate clefts and valleys, lending the landscape an unusual rugged beauty. On the western border, which lies along the Mediterranean Sea, is the Mount Lebanon area. These mountains rise from sea level to a height of 6,6009,800 ft (2,0003,000 m) in less than 25 mi (40 km). On the eastern border is the Anti-Lebanon mountain range, which separates Lebanon from Syria. Between the mountains lies Bekaa Valley, Lebanon's main fertile region.

Syria has three major mountain ranges. In the southwest, the Anti-Lebanon mountain range separates the country geographically from Lebanon. In the southeast is the Jabal Ad-Duruz range, and in the northwest, running parallel to the Mediterranean coast, are the Ansariyah Mountains. Between these and the sea is a thin stretch of coastal plains. The most fertile area is in the central part of the country east of the Anti-Lebanon and Ansariyah mountains; the east and northeastern part of Syria is made up of steppe and desert region.

Turkey, at the extreme north of the Arabian Peninsula, borders on the Aegean, the Mediterranean, and the Black Seas . Much of the country is cut up by mountain ranges, and the highest peak, called Mount Ararat, reaches an altitude of 16,854 ft (5,137 m). In the northwest is the Sea of Marmara, which connects the Black Sea with the Aegean Sea. Most of this area, called Turkish Thrace, is fertile and has a temperate climate. In the south, along the Mediterranean, there are two fertile plains called the Adana and the Antalya, which are separated by the Taurus Mountains.

The two largest lakes in Turkey are called Lake Van, which is close to the border with Iraq, and Lake Tuz, which lies in the center of the country. Lake Tuz has such a high level of salinity that it is actually used as a source of salt. Turkey is a country of seismic activity, and earthquakes are frequent.

Most of the Far Eastern countries are rugged and mountainous, but rainfall is more plentiful than in the Middle East, so there are many forested regions. Volcanic activity and plate tectonics have formed many island chains in this region of the world, and nearly all the countries on the coast include some of these among their territories.

China, with a land area of 3,646,448 sq mi (9,444,292 sq km), is an enormous territory. The northeastern part of the country is an area of mountains and rich forestland, and its mineral resources include iron , coal , gold, oil, lead , copper, and magnesium. In the north, most of the land is made up of fertile plains. It is here that the Yellow (Huang) River is found, which has been called "China's sorrow" because of its great flooding. The northwest of China is a region of mountains and highlands, including the cold and arid steppes of Inner Mongolia. It is here that the Gobi Desert, the fifth largest desert in the world, is found. The Gobi was named by the Mongolians, and its name means "waterless place." It encompasses an area of 500,000 sq mi (1,295,000 sq km), and averages 24 in (510 cm) of rainfall a year. In contrast, central China is a region of fertile land and temperate climate. Many rivers, including the great Chang (Yangtze) River, flow through this region, and there are several freshwater lakes. The largest of these, and the largest in China, is called the Poyang Hu. In the south of China the climate becomes tropical, and the land is very fertile; the Pearl (Zhu or Chu) River delta , which lies in this region, has some of the richest agricultural land in China. In the southwestern region, the land becomes mountainous in parts, and coal, iron, phosphorous, manganese, aluminum , tin, natural gas , copper, and gold are all found here. In the west, before the line of the Himalayas which divides China from India, lies Tibet, which is about twice as large as Texas and makes up about a quarter of China's land area. This is a high plateau region, and the climate is cold and arid. A little to the north and east of Tibet lies a region of mountains and grasslands where the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers arise.

Japan consists of a group of four large islands, called Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku, and more than 3,000 smaller islands. It is a country of intense volcanic activity, with more than 60 active volcanoes, and frequent earthquakes. The terrain is rugged and mountainous, with lowlands making up only about 29% of the country. The highest of the mountain peaks is an extinct volcano found on Honshu called Mount Fuji. It reaches an altitude of 12,388 ft (3,776 m). Although the climate is generally mild, tropical cyclones usually strike in the fall, and can cause severe damage.

Central Asia includes Mongolia and central and eastern Russia. This part of Asia is mostly cold and inhospitable. While only 5% of the country is mountainous, Mongolia has an average elevation of 5,184 ft (1,580 m). Most of the country consists of plateaus. The temperature variation is extreme, ranging from 40 to 104°F (40 to 40°C). The Gobi Desert takes up about 17% of Mongolia's land mass, and an additional 28% is desert steppe. The remainder of the country is forest steppe and rolling plains.

North of China and Mongolia lies Russian Siberia. This region is almost half as large as the African continent, and is usually divided into the eastern and western regions. About the top third of Siberia lies within the Arctic Circle, and the climate is very harsh. The most extreme temperatures occur in eastern Siberia, where it falls as low as 94°F (70°C), and there are only 100 days a year when it climbs above 50°F (10°C). Most of the region along the east coast is mountainous, but in the west lies the vast West Siberian Plain.

The most important lake in this area, and one of the most important lakes in the world, is called Lake Baikal. Its surface area is about the size of Belgium, but it is a mile deep and contains about a fifth of the world's fresh water supply. The diversity of aquatic life found here is unparalleled; it is the only habitat of 600 kinds of plants and 1,200 kinds of animals, making it the home of two-thirds of the freshwater species on Earth.

Southeast Asia includes a number of island chains as well as the countries east of India and south of China on the mainland. The area is quite tropical, and tends to be very humid. Much of the mountainous regions are extremely rugged and inaccessible; they are taken up by forest and jungle and have been left largely untouched; as a result, they provide habitat for much unusual wildlife.

Thailand, which is a country almost twice the size of Colorado, has a hot and humid tropical climate. In the north, northeast, west, and southeast are highlands that surround a central lowland plain. This plain is drained by the river Chao Phraya, and is rich and fertile land. The highlands are mostly covered with forests , which include tropical rainforests, deciduous forests, and coniferous pine forests. Thailand also has two coastal regions; the largest borders on the Gulf of Thailand in the east and southeast, and on the west is the shore of the Andaman Sea.

South of the mainland countries lie the island chains of Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. The latter two are both sites of much volcanic activity; Indonesia is estimated to have 100 active volcanoes. These islands, in particular Malaysia, are extremely fertile and have large regions of tropical rain forests with an enormous diversity in the native plant and wildlife.

South Asia includes three main regions: the Himalayan mountains, the Ganges Plains, and the Indian Peninsula.

The Himalayas stretch about 1,860 mi (3,000 km) across Asia, from Afghanistan to Burma, and range from 150 to 210 mi (250 to 350 km) wide. They are the highest mountains in the world, and are still being pushed upward at a rate of about 2.3 in (6 cm) a year. This great mountain range originated when the Indian subcontinent collided with Asia, which occurred due to the subduction of the Indian plate beneath the Asian continent. The Himalayas are the youngest mountains in the world, which accounts in part for their great height. At present they are still growing as India continues to push into the Asian continent at the rate of about 2.3 in (6 cm) annually. The Indian subcontinent is believed to have penetrated at least 1,240 mi (2,000 km) into Asia thus far. The range begins in Afghanistan, which is a land of harsh climate and rugged environment.

Bordered by China, several former Russian breakaway republics, Pakistan, and Iran, Afghanistan is completely land-locked. High, barren mountains separate the northern plains of Turan from the southwestern desert region, which covers most of Afghanistan's land area. This desert is subject to violent sandstorms during the winter months. The mountains of Afghanistan, which include a spur of the Himalayas called the Hindu Kush, reach an elevation of more than 20,000 ft (6,100m), and some are snow-covered year-round and contain glaciers . The rivers of the country flow outward from the mountain range in the center of the country; the largest of these are the Kabul, the Helmand, the Hari Rud, and the Kunduz. Except for the Kabul, all of these dry up soon after flowing onto the dry plains.

To the east of Afghanistan and separated from it by the Hindu Kush, lies Pakistan. In the north of the country are the mountain ranges of the Himalayas and the Karakoram, the highest mountains in the world. Most of the peaks are over 15,000 ft (4,580 m) and almost 70 are higher than 22,000 ft (6,700 m). By comparison, the highest mountain in the United States, Mount McKinley in Alaska, is only 20,321 ft (6,194m). Not surprisingly, many of the mountains in this range are covered with glaciers.

In the west of the country, bordering on Afghanistan, is the Baluchistan Plateau, which reaches an altitude of about 3,0004,000 ft (9001,200 m). Further south, the mountains disappear, replaced by a stony and sandy desert. The major rivers of Pakistan are the Kabul, the Jhelum, the Chenab, the Ravi, and the Sutlej; all of these drain into the Indus River, which flows into the Arabian Sea in the south of Pakistan.

Also found in the Himalaya Mountains are Nepal and the kingdom of Bhutan. Both of these countries border on the fertile Ganges Plains, so that in the south they are densely forested with tropical jungles; but most of both territories consist of high mountains. It is in Nepal that the highest peak in the world, called Mount Everest, is found; it is 29,028 ft (8,848 m) high.

South of the Himalaya Mountains, India is divided into two major regions. In the north are the Ganges Plains, which stretch from the Indus to the Ganges River delta. This part of India is almost completely flat and immensely fertile; it is thought to have alluvium reaching a depth of 9,842 ft (3,000m). It is fed by the snow and ice from the high peaks, and streams and rivers from the mountains have carved up the northern edge of the plains into rough gullies and crevices. Bangladesh, a country to the north and east of India, lies within the Ganges Plains. The Ganges and the Brahmaputra flow into Bangladesh from India, and they are fed by many tributaries, so the country is one of the most well-watered and fertile regions of Asia. However, it is also close to sea level, and plagued by frequent flooding.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Asia." World of Earth Science. 2003. 30 May. 2016 <>.

"Asia." World of Earth Science. 2003. (May 30, 2016).

"Asia." World of Earth Science. 2003. Retrieved May 30, 2016 from


Asia (ā´zhə), the world's largest continent, 17,139,000 sq mi (44,390,000 sq km), with about 3.3 billion people, nearly three fifths of the world's total population.


Asia's border with Europe—which, geographically, may be regarded as a peninsula of the Eurasian landmass—lies approximately along the Urals, the Ural River, the Caspian Sea, the Caucasus, the Black Sea, the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits, and the Aegean Sea. The connection of Asia with Africa is broken only by the Suez Canal between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. In the far northeast of Asia, Siberia is separated from North America by the Bering Strait. The continent of Asia is washed on the S by the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea, and the Bay of Bengal; on the E by the South China Sea, East China Sea, Yellow Sea, Sea of Japan, Sea of Okhotsk, and Bering Sea; and on the N by the Arctic Ocean.

Geology and Geography

Geologically, Asia consists of ancient Precambrian landmasses—the Arabian and Indian peninsulas in the south and the central Siberian plateau in the north—enclosing a central zone of folded ridges. In accordance with this underlying structure, Asia falls into the following major physiographic structures: the northern lowlands covering W central Asia and most of Siberia; the vast central highland zone of high plateaus, rising to c.15,000 ft (4,570 m) in Tibet in China and enclosed by some of the world's greatest mountain ranges (the Himalayas, the Karakorum, the Kunlun, the Tian Shan, and the Hindu Kush); the southern peninsular plateaus of India and Arabia, merging, respectively, into the Ganges and Tigris-Euphrates plains; and the lowlands of E Asia, especially in China, which are separated by mountain spurs of the central highland zone. Mt. Everest (29,029 ft/8,848 m), in Nepal, is the world's highest peak; the Dead Sea (1,312 ft/400 m below sea level) is the world's lowest point. Great peninsulas extend out from the mainland, dividing the oceans into seas and bays, many of them protected by Asia's numerous offshore islands. Asia's rivers, among the longest in the world, generally rise in the high plateaus and break through the great chains toward the peripheral lowlands. They include the Ob-Irtysh, the Yenisei-Argana, and Lena of Siberia; the Amur-Argun, Huang He, Chang (Yangtze), Xi, Mekong, Thanlwin, and Ayeyarwady of E and SE Asia; and the Ganges-Brahmaputra, Indus, and Tigris-Euphrates of S and SW Asia. Central Asia has vast areas of interior drainage, including the Amu Darya, Syr Darya, Ili, and Tarim rivers, which empty into inland lakes or disappear into desert sands. Lake Baykal and Lake Balkash are among the world's largest lakes. Climatically, the continent ranges through all extremes, from torrid heat to arctic cold and from torrential rains (the product of monsoons) to extreme aridity (as in the Tarim Basin).

Asia can be divided into six regions, each possessing distinctive physical, cultural, economic, and political characteristics. Southwest Asia (Iran; Turkey, in Asia Minor; and the nations of the Fertile Crescent and the Arabian peninsula or Arabia), long a strategic crossroad, is characterized by an arid climate and irrigated agriculture, great petroleum reserves, and the predominance of Islam. South Asia (Afghanistan and the nations of the Indian subcontinent) is isolated from the rest of Asia by great mountain barriers. Southeast Asia (the nations of the southeastern peninsula and the Malay Archipelago) is characterized by monsoon climate, maritime orientation, the fusion of Indian and Chinese cultures, and a great diversity of ethnic groups, languages, religions, and politics. East Asia (China, Mongolia, Korea, and the islands of Taiwan and Japan) is located in the mid-latitudes on the Pacific Ocean, and is characterized by cultures strongly influenced by civilizations of the Huang He and Chang (Yangtze) river systems. It forms the most industrialized region of Asia. Russian Asia (in the northern third of the continent) consists of the vast region of Siberia and the Russian Far East. In the center of the continent is Central Asia, formed of a set of independent former republics of the Soviet Union. This region is characterized by desert conditions and irrigated agriculture, with ancient traditions of nomadic herding.

Population, Culture, and Economy

The distribution of Asia's huge population is governed by climate and topography, with the monsoons and the fertile alluvial plains determining the areas of greatest density. Such are the Ganges plains of India and the Chang (Yangtze) and northern plains of China, the small alluvial plains of Japan, and the fertile volcanic soils of the Malay Archipelago. Urbanization is greatest in the industrialized regions of Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, but huge urban centers are to be found throughout the continent.

Almost two thirds of Asia's indigenous population is of Mongolic stock. Major religions are Hinduism (in India); Theravada Buddhism (in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos); Lamaism, or Tibetan Buddhism (in Mongolia and China, particularly Tibet); East Asian Buddhism (in China and Korea, mixed with Confucianism, shamanism, and Taoism; in Japan mixed with Shinto and Confucianism); Islam (in SW and S Asia, W central Asia, and Indonesia); and Catholicism (in the Philippines, East Timor, and Vietnam).

Subsistence hunting and fishing economies prevail in the forest regions of N and S Asia, and nomadic pastoralism in the central and southwestern regions, while industrial complexes and intensive rice cultivation are found in the coastal plains and rivers of S and E Asia. Because of extremes in climate and topography, less than 10% of Asia is under cultivation. Rice, by far the most important food crop, is grown for local consumption in the heavily populated countries (e.g., China, India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Japan), while countries with smaller populations (Thailand, Vietnam, and Pakistan) are generally rice exporters. Other important crops are wheat, soybeans, peanuts, sugarcane, cotton, jute, silk, rubber, tea, and coconuts.

Although Asia's economy is predominantly agricultural, regions where power facilities, trained labor, modern transport, and access to raw materials are available have developed industrially. Japan, China, Russian Asia, South Korea, Taiwan, Turkey, and Israel are distinguished for their industrialization. China and India are making considerable strides in this direction. The most spectacular industrialization has occurred in Japan and the "Four Little Dragons" —Taiwan, Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong. The economies of Thailand, Indonesia, and South China are booming thanks to Japanese investment in plants and to cheap indigenous labor. The development of railroads is greatest in the industrialized countries, with Japan, India, China, and Russian Asia having the greatest track mileage.

Also contributing greatly to the income of many Asian countries are vital mineral exports—petroleum in SW Asia, Russian Asia, and Indonesia and tin in Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia. Asia's other valuable mineral exports include manganese from India and chromite from Turkey and the Philippines; China produces great amounts of tungsten, antimony, coal, and oil.

Outline of History

Asia was the home of some of the world's oldest civilizations. The empires of Sumer, Babylonia, Assyria, Media, and Persia and the civilizations of Islam flourished in SW Asia, while in the east the ancient civilizations of India, China, and Japan prospered. Later, nomadic tribes (Huns, Mongols, and Turks) in N and central Asia established great empires and gave rise to great westward migration. Their tribal, military-state organizations reached their highest form in the 13th–14th cent. under the Mongols, whose court was visited by early European travelers, notably the Italian Marco Polo.

The Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama reached India by sea in 1498, beginning the era of European imperialism in Asia. In N Asia Russian Cossacks crossed Siberia and reached the Pacific by 1640. With the formation of English, French, Dutch, and Portuguese trading companies in the 17th cent., great trade rivalry developed along the coasts of India, SE Asia, and China and resulted in increasing European control of Asian lands. By exploiting local disputes and utilizing a technological edge brought on by the industrial revolution, European powers extended political control over first the Indian subcontinent, then SW and SE Asia. European pressure opened China and Japan to trade. World War I led to a weakening of European stature in Asia, and the Wilson doctrine of self-determination inspired many nationalist and revolutionary movements.

World War II and the conflicts of its aftermath hit Asia heavily. In the postwar years, the center of conflict in international affairs tended to shift from Europe, the focus of both world wars, to Asia, where the decolonization process and the emergence of the cold war resulted in many smaller wars and unstable nations. The Arab-Israeli Wars, the Korean War, and the emergence of Communist governments in China, North Korea, and North Vietnam were among the events that heightened tensions in Asia. In the 1950s the Western powers built up military alliances (the Baghdad Pact—later the Central Treaty Organization—in the Middle East, and the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization [SEATO]) to counter the threat of Soviet and Chinese domination of Asia. In the 1960s, however, the Sino-Soviet rift reduced the possibility of joint Communist efforts in Asia.

At the end of World War II the United States, Britain, France, and the Netherlands were still major forces in Asia; but in the postwar period India, Japan, China, Indonesia, and other Asian nations sought a more independent role on the world scene. In the 1960s and 70s the British decision to withdraw "east of Suez" and the U.S. defeat in the Vietnam War foreshadowed new power alignments in the area. China's growing strength and a Soviet drive to expand relations with Asian states (particularly India and the Middle East Arab nations) polarized perceptions of Asian instability as a contest between pro-Communist and anti-Communist powers.

Other forces, however, were also shaping Asia in the 1970s and 80s. Constant high population growth left many nations struggling with chronic poverty, inadequate health care, a largely underemployed workforce, and rapid degradation of environmentally sensitive areas. Nations with powerful militaries—Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, India, China, Vietnam, and Indonesia—invaded weakly guarded neighbors and fought low-level wars against one another. The former Euro-American–dominated world economic order received rude shocks from the Middle East–led oil embargo crises of 1973–74 and 1979 and the economic strength of Japan and the "Little Dragons." As conflicts with their origins in ethnic self-determination and perceived inequalities of borders ground on in the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, Myanmar, and Tibet, a new force, Islamic fundamentalism, swept to power in Iran in 1979 and threatened secular governments throughout S and SW Asia; fundamentalists gained the upper hand in Afghanistan in the 1990s.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, an event in part triggered by its failed invasion of Afghanistan, led to the evaporation of the cold war polarization and to the birth of a new group of independent nations in Asia's center. In the 1990s, China emerged as a growing economic giant, but the booming economies of SE Asia suffered setbacks in the late 1990s. In Indonesia economic collapse led to the downfall of Suharto and the beginning of greater democracy as well as demands for independence or autonomy, particularly in East Timor, Aceh, and Papua. The 1990s also saw the gradual emergence of peace between a number of former combatants in the Arab-Israeli conflict.


See D. Stamp, Asia: A Regional Geography (1967); G. B. Cressey, Asia's Lands and Peoples (1968); T. Welty, The Asians (1984); V. Ramahappa, Modern Asia (1985); C. Pullapilly and E. J. Van Kley, ed., Asia and the West (1986); N. Nielson, Religions in Asia (1988); R. A. Scalapino et al., ed., Asian Economic Development (1988); L. A. Ziring and D. G. Dickinson, ed., Asian Security Issues (1988); J. Weiss, The Asian Century (1989).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Asia." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. 2016. 30 May. 2016 <>.

"Asia." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. 2016. (May 30, 2016).

"Asia." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. 2016. Retrieved May 30, 2016 from



Asia is the world's largest continent, encompassing an area of 17,139,000 square miles (44,390,000 square kilometers), almost 30 percent of the world's land area. Because Asia covers such an enormous area and contains so many countries and islands, its exact borders remain unclear. In the broadest sense, it includes central and eastern Russia, the countries of the Arabian Peninsula, the far eastern countries, the Indian subcontinent, and numerous island chains. It is convenient to divide this huge area into five regions: the Middle East, South Asia, Central Asia, the Far East, and Southeast Asia.

The Himalayan mountains, which are the highest and youngest mountain range in the world, stretch across the Asian continent from Afghanistan to Burma. Mount Everest, the highest of the Himalayan peaks, reaches an altitude of 29,028 feet (8,848 meters). There are many famous deserts in Asia, including the Gobi, the Thar, and Rubʿal-Khali ("empty quarter"). The continent contains some of the world's largest lakes and longest-running rivers. It also features a wide range of climatic

zones, from the tropical jungles of the south to the arctic wastelands of the north.

The Middle East

The Middle East region contains the countries of Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Most of these countries lie on the Arabian Peninsula, an area that stretches from Turkey in the northwest to Yemen in the south. The peninsula is bordered on the east by the Persian Gulf and on the west by the Red Sea. In general, precipitation is low and the climate is extremely dry. Much of the area is still a desert wilderness. Vegetation is mostly desert scrub. One area that is well-watered and fertile is the historic Fertile Crescent, which includes parts of Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. The fertile river plains and valleys of this area are watered by the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers.

The Dead Sea, located in Israel, is the lowest point on Earth's land-masses, lying 1,290 feet (393 meters) below sea level. It takes its name from the fact that it is one of the saltiest bodies of water in the world and, therefore, supports no aquatic life. It yields large amounts of potassium chloride, magnesium bromide, and many other mineral salts. Lake Tuz, in Turkey, also has a high level of salinity and is used as a source of salt.

Words to Know

Coniferous: Refers to trees, such as pines and firs, that bear cones and have needle-like leaves that are not shed all at once.

Deciduous: Refers to trees, such as oaks and maples, that shed all their leaves at the end of the growing season.

Delta: Triangular-shaped area where a river flows into an ocean or lake, depositing sand, mud, and other sediment it has carried along its flow.

Plateau: An elevated area which is flat on top; also called tableland.

Seismic: Related to earthquakes.

Steppe: Wide expanses of relatively level plains, found in cool climates.

Large oil reserves are found in most Middle Eastern countries, especially Saudi Arabia. The world's largest oil field is in southern Saudi Arabia in the Rubʿal-Khali Desert. This virtually uninhabited desert covers an area of about 250,000 square miles (647,500 square kilometers). It features sand dunes that rise to over 66 feet (200 meters).

Steep mountain ranges divide up both Lebanon and Turkey. The ranges in Lebanon have been carved by erosion into intricate clefts and valleys, lending the landscape an unusual rugged beauty. Turkey's highest peak, Mount Ararat (legendary resting place of Noah's ark), reaches 16,945 feet (5,165 meters). Turkey is also a country of seismic activity, and earthquakes are frequent.

South Asia

The South Asia region contains the countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Great mountain barriers isolate this region from the rest of Asia. South Asia can be further divided into three subregions: the Himalayan Mountains, the Ganges Plain, and the Indian peninsula.

The Himalayas stretch about 1,500 miles (2,410 kilometers) across Asia, from Pakistan through India, Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan. They range from 150 to 210 miles (250 to 350 kilometers) wide. The Himalayas are the highest mountains in the world, and are still being pushed upwards at a rate of about 2.5 inches (6.3 centimeters) a year. This great mountain range originated about 25 to 70 million years ago when the Indian subcontinent collided with Asia, forcing Earth's crust to fold. The Himalayas are the youngest mountains in the world, which accounts in part for their great height. Some 30 peaks in the Himalayas rise to more than 25,000 feet (7,620 meters), including Mount Everest between Nepal and Tibet. Not surprisingly, many of the mountains in this range are covered with glaciers.

South of the Himalayan mountains, lying in northern India, is the Ganges Plain, which holds the Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers. The plain is one of the most well-watered and fertile regions of Asia, fed by many tributaries and by the snow and ice from nearby mountains. Because the majority of the plain is flat and close to sea level, however, it is plagued by frequent flooding.

South of the plain is the Indian peninsula, a region of low plateaus and river valleys. It is bounded on the west by the Ghat mountain range and on the north by the Thar Desert, a desolate region about 500 miles (800 kilometers) long and 250 miles (400 kilometers) wide. In its southern extent, the Thar borders on salt marshes and the great lava expanse called the Deccan plateau.

Central Asia

Central Asia includes the countries of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Russia (central and eastern areas), Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Many of the areas in this region are cold and inhospitable. Plateaus, desert and forest steppes (wide expanses of relatively level plains), and irrigated farmland mark a majority of the areas in this region. Mountains rise mainly along the east coast of Russia.

Temperatures are often extreme in this region. In Mongolia, temperatures fluctuate wildly, from 40 to 104°F (40 to 40°C). The top one-third of Russian Siberia lies within the Arctic Circle. The climate is very harsh. Temperatures fall as low as 94°F (70°C), and there are only 100 days a year when it climbs above 50°F (10°C).

Lake Baikal, in southern Siberia, is the largest freshwater lake in both Asia and Europe. It covers an area of 12,160 square miles (31,494 square kilometers). The world's deepest lake, it has a maximum depth of 5,714 feet (1,742 meters). Baikal is rich in aquatic life. It is the only habitat of 600 kinds of plants and 1,200 kinds of animals, making it home to two-thirds of the freshwater species on Earth.

The Far East

The Far East region contains the countries of China, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, and Taiwan. Most of these countries are rugged and mountainous. Many forested areas exist in the region, though, since rainfall is more plentiful than in the Middle East.

Volcanic activity and the movement of Earth's crust formed many island chains in this region. Japan is a country of frequent earthquakes and intense volcanic activity, with more than 60 active volcanoes. Over 70 percent of its terrain is mountainous. The highest mountain peak is an extinct volcano called Mount Fuji, which reaches an altitude of 12,388 feet (3,776 meters).

The Korean peninsula, on which North and South Korea lie, is also very mountainous. Lowlands and plains compose only about 20 to 30 percent of the peninsula's land area. Mount Paektu, an extinct volcano with a lake in its crater, is the highest point on the peninsula at 9,003 feet (2,744 meters).

In contrast, China contains many regions of fertile land and temperate climate. In northern China, most of the land is made up of fertile plains. Running through this area is the Yellow River (Huang He), which has been called China's Sorrow because of its great flooding. Central China also contains many rivers, including the great Yangtze. Several freshwater lakes are spread across this area. The largest of these, and the largest in China, is called the Poyang. The climate in southern China is tropical and the land is very fertile. The Pearl River delta, which lies in this region, has some of the richest agricultural land in China.

In western China, fertile lands give way to cold and arid regions of mountains and highlands. The Gobi Desert, the fifth largest desert in the world, is located in northwestern China. The Gobi, which means "waterless place," encompasses an area of 500,000 square miles (1,295,000 square kilometers) and averages two to four inches of rainfall a year.

Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia includes the countries of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. The region is quite tropical and tends to be very humid and rainy. Mountainous areas are extremely rugged. Both mountains and highlands throughout the region are covered by jungles and forests, including tropical rain forests, deciduous forests, and coniferous forests. Because these remote areas are often inaccessible to humans, they have become home for many unusual animal and plant species.

Great rivers often drain the mountainous areas in the region, flowing into plains. In Thailand, the Chao Phraya River flows through a central lowland plain, making the surrounding land rich and fertile. The Mekong River, which begins in the highlands of Tibet, flows through Laos along most of its western boundary with Thailand before entering Cambodia. In the center of Cambodia is the Tonle Sap (Great Lake), and many of the rivers that water Cambodia flow into this lake. During the winter, when the Mekong River floods, it forces the flow back from the Tonle Sap into its tributaries, flooding the surrounding area with rich silt. The Mekong finally reaches the South China Sea in south Vietnam where it forms a wide delta. Extremely fertile, this delta is one of the greatest rice-growing areas in Asia.

The island chains of Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines are extremely fertile and have large regions of tropical rain forests containing an enormous variety of native wildlife. Indonesia and the Philippines are also sites of much volcanic activity. Indonesia has an estimated 100 active volcanoes.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Asia." UXL Encyclopedia of Science. 2002. 30 May. 2016 <>.

"Asia." UXL Encyclopedia of Science. 2002. (May 30, 2016).

"Asia." UXL Encyclopedia of Science. 2002. Retrieved May 30, 2016 from



Rock group

One of the first super groups of the 1980s, rock band Asia was comprised of four musicians who had previously had worldwide success in various 1970s progressive rock bands. Formed in 1981, the quartet included musicians that played with ground-breaking bands such as Emerson, Lake & Palmer, King Crimson, Yes, Roxy Music, and The Buggles. The quartet's 1982 self-titled debut, which included the mega hit "Heat of the Moment," was nothing like the elaborate and indulgent prog-rock of their previous bands; it proved to be more suitable for the three-minute radio track and the arena rock format. Asia sold seven million copies of their first album, but they never matched that success again. The original lineup released only two albums before they broke up in 1985. Various members reunited in an assortment of different Asia lineups, and continued to tour and release albums. The original foursome would not reassemble as the original Asia until 2006, for a twenty-fifth anniversary tour to commemorate their debut album.

Asia began in London, England, in 1981. The match of the four musicians seemed perfect: all of them came from respected prog-rock backgrounds. Keyboardist Geoff Downes made a name for himself in the United States in 1980 as part of The Buggles. The latter's hit single "Video Killed the Radio Star" became a hit again when it debuted as the first video to be played on MTV, in 1981. In 1980 keyboardist and singer Downes and his Buggles bandmate, producer Trevor Horn, joined the group Yes, who were getting out of prog rock and into a more radio-friendly style. In Yes, Downes met guitarist Steve Howe. Asia's lead singer and bassist came out of years playing with groups like Family, Roxy Music, Uriah Heep, and most notably, King Crimson. Last but not least was Asia's drummer, Carl Palmer. Launching as a mostly unknown drummer, in 1970 Palmer teamed up with veterans Keith Emerson (of The Nice) and Greg Lake (of King Crimson) for the influential band Emerson, Lake & Palmer (or ELP).

Each member of Asia had been involved in bands that played dramatic, long, jam-filled progressive rock songs, but from the beginning, Asia was going to be different. It was the 1980s, and people wanted short pop songs that could easily be played in a variety of radio formats. Downes and Wetton were the primary songwriters in 1981 when Asia began work on their debut album. "I just did what I did," Wetton told, about Asia's song structures. "If you look at what I've done with all of the bands that I've been in, I'm the one that provided the three-minute song. … And the bands I was in usually were the ones that would want to extend that into a mini opera." For five months Asia wrote and recorded with producer Mike Stone (Queen, Journey) in London.

"I think that we all knew as soon as we recorded the first few songs that it was going somewhere special," Wetton said on the band's official Web site. "I don't think we knew, however, until we recorded ‘Heat of the Moment’ that we had a monster on our hands. I think that once we had done that, everyone knew that it was going to be successful." In March of 1982 Geffen Records released Asia's eponymous album. The first single, "Heat of the Moment," was an instant hit on radio and MTV. By May, the record was number one on the Billboard charts, where it stayed for a staggering nine weeks. Asia eventually sold seven million copies and was certified quadruple platinum.

Asia spent most of 1982 touring around the world to sold-out arenas. It took a toll on the band members by the time they started to record their second album in the winter of 1983. Instead of working in England, Asia went to Morin Heights, Quebec, Canada, to record. By the end of the year, Asia released the platinum-selling Alpha. The record's singles "Don't Cry" And "The Smile Has Left Your Eyes" fared well, but didn't match the success of "Heat of the Moment." After the launch of Alpha, Asia was set to play to a sold-out crowd at Tokyo's famous Budokan arena in December, which would also be aired live on MTV. Before the band left for their Asian tour, bassist and singer Wetton opted out, due to a heavy drinking problem. Asia asked Emerson, Lake & Palmer's Greg Lake to fill in at the show and for the tour.

Wetton eventually rejoined Asia in late 1984, and at the same time, Howe left to form his new band GTR (with Steve Hackett of Genesis). Howe was replaced by former Krokus guitarist Mandy Meyer for the band's third album, Astra, released in 1985. Astra 's hit single "Voice of America" did fairly well, but it was clear that Asia had hit its peak with its first album. The group did not tour to promote the album. Instead, they went on an official hiatus in 1986 (they never formally broke up). Each member of Asia continued to play music, but chose to do so with other musicians. Palmer reunited with ELP's Keith Emerson and new bassist Robert Berry for the group 3. Wetton did some work with Phil Manzanera, while Downes did a few projects, including producing GTR and releasing the solo album The Light Programme (under the moniker of The New Dance Orchestra).

In 1990 Palmer, Wetton, and Downes were eager to regroup, but Howe was not. American guitarist Pat Thrall joined the trio instead, to record some new songs for the greatest hits collection Then & Now. That summer the new lineup of Asia toured Europe with the Beach Boys. They ended up touring for almost two years. "Each of us had been doing mainly studio work just prior to that tour," Downes said on Asia's Web site. "When it gets right down to it, we all missed playing together and the feeling of a band, the excitement of playing live and getting on a big stage again." Howe, Downes, and Palmer were eager to record again, this time with new lead singer/bassist John Payne, and a second guitarist, Al Pitrelli. In 1992, with Payne on lead vocals, Asia issued the album Aqua. Palmer then regrouped with Wetton, not for Asia, but instead for their new band Quango. The band went on one U.K. tour before calling it quits. Palmer then started his own group, The Carl Palmer Band, and Howe rejoined Yes for a tour. That left Downes as the only original member of Asia, when the band (with Payne and Pitrelli) released the 1994 record Aria, and Downes and Payne for the 2001's Aura.

In a surprise to fans, in April of 2006 all four original members of Asia—Downes, Howe, Palmer, and Wetton—reunited for a 25th anniversary tour. The reinvigorated band went on tour to commemorate the anniversary of the release of their debut album. "We like the chemistry now more than ever," Howe told Billboard writer Gary Graff. "This (reunion) is proof there was a great chemistry originally. … We felt we owed it to each other to put it right." The band played all of Asia's hits as well as popular songs from their previous 1970s bands. In the summer of 2007, Downes, Howe, Palmer, and Wetton began work on a new album of original Asia material. They signed a worldwide record deal with Italian label Frontiers Records for their forthcoming record. Asia was delayed while Wetton underwent an emergency triple bypass in August, but as soon as he recovered, the band finished recording. "We're trying to make an album that isn't terribly predictable for us," Howe said to Graff. "We're not doing retrospective music; we're certainly going to try to show our histories but still have a slightly more diverse range." Asia's new record, Phoenix, was set for release in the spring of 2008.

For the Record …

Members include Geoff Downes , vocals, keyboards; Steve Howe , guitar, vocals; Carl Palmer , drums; John Payne (joined 1992), vocals, bass; Al Pitrelli (joined 1992), guitar; John Wetton , vocals, bass. Other members included Aziz Ibraham (1996); Greg Lake , guitar (1983); Mandy Meyer , guitar (1985); Elliott Randall (1996); Michael Sturgis (1996); Pat Thrall , guitar.

Group formed in London, England, c. 1981; released quadruple-platinum debut, Asia, Geffen, 1992; released Alpha, Geffen, 1983; Howe departed, 1984; group released Astra, Geffen, 1985; disbanded, 1986; reunited with guitarist Pat Thrall in place of Howe, 1990; various members released Aqua, Rhino, 1992, and Aria, Mayhem, 1994; with various musicians, recorded Arena, Resurgent, 1996; released Aura, Spitfire, 2001; four original members reunited in 2006 for the 25th anniversary of Asia; toured in 2006; signed to Frontiers Records, 2007; released Phoenix, 2008.

Addresses: Record company—Frontiers Records, Via G. Gonzaga, 18, 80125 Napoli, Italy. Web site—Asia Official Web site:

Selected discography

Asia, Geffen, 1982.

Alpha, Geffen, 1983.

Astra, Geffen, 1985.

Then & Now, Geffen, 1990.

Aqua, Rhino, 1992.

Aria, Mayhem, 1994.

Arena, Resurgent, 1996.

Now Nottingham Live, Resurgent, 1997.

Live in Osaka, Resurgent, 1997.

Aura, Spitfire, 2001.

Fantasia: Live in Tokyo, Eagle, 2007.

Phoenix, Frontiers Records, 2008.



The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Simon & Schuster, 2001.


"Asia," All Music Guide, (February 1, 2008).

Asia Official Reunion Site, (February 1, 2008).

"The John Wetton Interview,", (February 1, 2008).

"Reunited Asia Begins Recording New Album," Billboard, (February 1, 2008).

—Shannon McCarthy

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Asia." Contemporary Musicians. 2008. 30 May. 2016 <>.

"Asia." Contemporary Musicians. 2008. (May 30, 2016).

"Asia." Contemporary Musicians. 2008. Retrieved May 30, 2016 from


Asia World's largest continent. Entirely in the Eastern Hemisphere, it extends from n of the Arctic Circle in Russia to s of the Equator in Indonesia.


On the w, Asia's boundary with Europe follows a line through the Ural Mountains, w of the Caspian Sea and along the Caucasus. Geographically, Europe and Asia are one enormous continent (Eurasia) but historically they have always been regarded as separate. Asia has six regions, each largely defined by mountain ranges. Northern Asia includes the massive inhospitable region of Siberia. A large part lies within the Arctic Circle forming a vast cold, treeless plain (tundra) where the soil, except on the surface, is permanently frozen to depths exceeding 700m (2000ft). Southern Siberia includes great coniferous forests (taiga) and the Russian steppes. Its s boundary runs through the Tian Shan and Yablonovy mountains and Lake Baikal, the world's deepest lake. The high plateau area of Central Asia extends s to the Himalayas and includes the w Chinese provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang as well as Mongolia. This is a region of low rainfall and very low winter temperatures. Much of the area is desert, the largest being the Gobi and Takla Makan. The Tibetan plateau is mostly barren. Eastern Asia lies between the plateaux of Central Asia and the Pacific. It is a region of highlands and plains, watered by broad rivers. Off the e coast there are many islands, the most important being the Japanese islands of Hokkaido, Honshu, and Kyushu, and the Chinese island of Taiwan. Southeast Asia includes the Indochina peninsula, part of which forms the Malay Peninsula, Burma and a large number of islands, among which the Philippines and Indonesia are the most important. The n of this region is mountainous and the s mainly low-lying. Southern Asia consists of the Indian subcontinent and the island of Sri Lanka. In the n it is bounded by the Hindu Kush, Pamir, Karakoram, and Himalayan mountains. In the Himalayas is Mount Everest, the world's highest mountain. To the s of the mountains lie wide plains, crossed by rivers flowing from the Himalayas. Farther s is the Deccan plateau that rises on its e and w edges culminating in the e and w Ghats. South-west Asia includes most of the region known as the Middle East. It is made up largely of two peninsulas; Anatolia (Asia Minor) and the vast Arabian Peninsula. It is also a region of large inland seas: the Aral, Caspian, Dead and Black seas.

Structure and geology

The most striking feature of the continent is the massive range of Himalayan fold mountains that were formed when the Indo-Australian and Eurasian tectonic plates collided in the Mesozoic era. Most of China and s central Asia is composed of folded Palaeozoic and Mesozoic sediments, and large expanses of central Siberia consist of flat-lying sediments of the same age. The Indian subcontinent is largely pre-Cambrian except for the Deccan Plateau which is a complex series of lava flows.

Lakes and rivers

Most of the major Asian lakes are found in the centre of the continent, and include the Caspian Sea, the Aral Sea, and Lake Balkhash. The River Yangtze in China, is Asia's longest. The River Huang He is China's other major river and, until control measures were taken, it flooded regularly, drowning thousands of people. Like these rivers, the three principal waterways of se Asia (Irrawaddy, Salween, Mekong) rise on the Tibetan plateau but flow s instead of e. The Indus, Brahmaputra and Ganges are the largest rivers of the Indian subcontinent, and the Ob, Yenisei and Lena are the continent's major n-flowing rivers, emptying into the Arctic Ocean.

Climate and vegetation

Except for the w temperate seaboards, all the world's major climatic divisions (with local variations) are represented in the continent. The monsoon climates of India and Southeast Asia are peculiar to these regions and, apart from extremes of heat and cold, typify the continent. Large expanses are covered by desert and semi-arid grassland, with belts of coniferous forest to the n and tropical forest to the s.


Asians constitute 60% of the world's population. The main language groups are Indo-Aryan, Sino-Tibetan, Ural-Altaic, Malayan, and Semitic. Mandarin Chinese is the most numerous (if not the most widespread) language. Hinduism is the religion with the most adherents, although it is confined to India and se Asia. Islam, Confucianism, Buddhism, Shinto, Christianity, Taoism, and Judaism are also important, with Islamic influence stretching from Turkey to Indonesia.


Agriculture is important, although less than 10% of the continent is cultivated. Asia produces more than 90% of the world's rice, rubber, cotton and tobacco. Rice is the major crop in the e and s, wheat and barley are grown in the w and n. China, Japan, and Russia are the most highly industrialized countries in terms of traditional heavy materials. Oil is the most important export of many Middle East countries. Since the 1960s there has been dramatic commercial growth in several se and e Asian countries based on a combination of household and high-tech products. Following Japan's example, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand form the ‘tiger’ economies. In 1997 these economies plunged into recession, fuelling fears of a worldwide depression.

Recent history

Since World War II, the history of Asia has been dominated by three main themes: the legacy of colonialism, the growth of communism, and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. The Indian subcontinent gained its independence from Britain in 1947, when India and Pakistan became separate nations. Indonesia achieved formal independence from the Netherlands in 1949. During the 1950s, Indochina and Malaysia won independence from France and Britain respectively after military confrontations. The spread of communism began with the victory of Mao Zedong in China in 1949. North Korea failed, in its war with South Korea (1950–53), to establish a united communist state and communism was also repulsed with Western help, in Indonesia. Communism did finally gain control of Vietnam and Cambodia, following the Vietnam War. The break-up of the Soviet Union led to the creation of eight ‘new’ countries in central Asia, few of which were politically stable or economically strong. In the Middle East, Israel remained on uneasy terms with its Arab neighbours, and Iraq was involved in a prolonged war with Iran (1980–88) and later with an international coalition, headed by the USA, following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Total area: 44,391,206sq km (17,139,445sq mi) Highest mountain Mount Everest (Nepal) 8848m (29,029ft) Longest river Yangtze (China) 6300km (3900mi) Population 3,780 million Largest cities Shanghai (14,173,000); Mumbai (11,914,398); Tokyo (8,130,000); See also articles on individual countries

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Asia." World Encyclopedia. 2005. 30 May. 2016 <>.

"Asia." World Encyclopedia. 2005. (May 30, 2016).

"Asia." World Encyclopedia. 2005. Retrieved May 30, 2016 from


AsiaAsher, clasher, Falasha, flasher, lasher, masher, Natasha, pasha, rasher, Sasha, slasher, smasher, thrasher •haberdasher • gatecrasher • Marsha •rancher •flesher, fresher, pressure, thresher •welsher •adventure, bencher, censure, dementia, front-bencher, trencher, venture, wencher •backbencher • acupressure •acacia, Asia, Croatia, Dalmatia, ex gratia, geisha •Lucretia, magnesia, Rhodesia, Venetia •Fischer, fisher, fissure, justiciar, Laetitia, militia, Patricia, Phoenicia, Tricia •clincher, flincher, lyncher, wincher •Frobisher • furbisher • brandisher •Yiddisher • kingfisher • establisher •embellisher •abolisher, demolisher, polisher •publisher • skirmisher • replenisher •finisher • punisher •burnisher, furnisher •perisher •flourisher, nourisher •Britisher • ravisher • languisher •vanquisher • well-wisher •extinguisher • Elisha

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Asia." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. 2007. 30 May. 2016 <>.

"Asia." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. 2007. (May 30, 2016).

"Asia." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. 2007. Retrieved May 30, 2016 from


ASIA Airlines Staff International Association

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA




Facts and information from other sites