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Asia is the birthplace of some of the world’s oldest civilizations. Despite studying the great diversity in religion, culture, geography, economy, and language, which has given (and still gives) rise to conflict, world historians examine how cultural exchange among Asian peoples helped to preserve their individual traditions.
Asia is the world’s largest, most populous, and most culturally diverse continent. It combines extremes of height, depth, temperature, rainfall, humidity, aridity, and population density. People speak hundreds of languages from one end of Asia to the other. It contains different forms of human relationships to the land, including sparse but mobile pastoral groups, desert and jungle dwellers, large agrarian economies, powerful systems of interregional trade, and lately huge industrialized regions. It includes some of the world’s fastest-growing nations as well as some of its poorest and most backward.
We can divide Asia into six basic cultural regions: (1) East Asia is dominated by China and Japan. (2) Southeast Asia is a region of island and peninsular countries and has no one dominant country or culture. (3) South Asia is dominated by India but houses Islamic and Hindu cultures. (4) Central Asia includes Iran and several countries formerly belonging to the Soviet Union. Persian (Iranian) culture has significantly influenced this region, as has the interaction between Sunni Islam and Shi’a Islam. (5) West Asia (excluding the Arabian Peninsula) is mostly successor states of the Ottoman Empire and post–World War I British and French protectorates. Turkey, Iraq, Israel, and Saudi Arabia are key countries in this oil-rich but politically troubled region. (6) North Asia is Russia. A question here is whether the curve formed by the Ural Mountains, the Ural River, the Caspian Sea, and the northern slopes of the Caucasus Mountains separates “European” Russia from the much larger Russian domain east of this line. In his study of Asia’s lands and peoples George Cressey argued that this demarcation made little sense agriculturally or economically. But geographers recognize it because of the West–East political and cultural stance adopted by Russian elites since the time of Czar Peter the Great.
From the perspective of world history the critical areas to look at first are those of West Asia, South Asia, and East Asia. Apart from Egypt and Nubia, these are the areas that gave birth to the earliest major civilizations. The civilization of Mesopotamia, developing around the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, formed the matrix from which arose the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These Asian religions and their peoples have exerted a huge impact on world history as both actors and victims.
Because of the antagonisms that developed among followers of these religions, many people see them as irreconcilable forces accounting for the clash of empires and nations and the rise and decline of civilizations. Certainly the divisions run deep and continue to influence the history of our times. Christianity and Judaism turned against each other during the later first century CE, beginning a long trail of suspicion and hatred that led up to the Holocaust of World War II. For eight centuries Christian and Islamic forces fought over control of Andalusia in Spain. Crusaders stormed Antioch and Jerusalem in 1098–1099, indiscriminately killing Muslims and Jews as infidels. Turkish Ottoman rulers conquered Constantinople (Istanbul in modern Turkey) in 1453, terminating the Byzantine Empire and converting the Hagia Sophia (holy wisdom) church into a mosque. They sent armies into battle in Eastern Europe, seeding Islam in the Balkans and laying the groundwork for Serbian resentment and slaughter of Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo during the 1990s. Between 1894 and 1915 Ottoman forces persecuted Christian Armenians, culminating in the massacres of Armenian refugees in 1915. Reverberations of Christian–Islamic antagonism can be seen in the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980s and the war in Chechnya today. Today seemingly intractable conflicts involving Christian, Jewish, and Islamic armed forces are continuing in Israel, Palestine, and Iraq.
The task of history, however, is not just to account for differences but to examine broader themes represented by these profoundly influential religions and the cultures and people who subscribe to them. These religions all adopted an approach to monotheism of which Abraham is widely regarded as the first exponent. They are advocates for certain values that include adherence to a divine creator, adoption of various sacred texts embodying the norms of Abrahamic monotheism, commitment to justice and mercy in human relations, and almsgiving to the poor. They have given rise to some of the world’s most magnificent art, architecture, gardens, poetry, romances, philosophic reflection, and historical inquiry. Despite all the mutual destruction, they have engaged in trade, intermarriage, and cultural exchange and in various ways preserved each other’s cultural traditions.
During recent years historians have begun to reexamine such common themes and to recognize their benefits to people living all over the world. Most practitioners of the Abrahamic religions are still far from embracing these commonalities. In this respect the global history of the last two hundred years, with its rising theme of Western disdain for, and exploitation of, a supposedly stagnant Asia, has not been conducive to better mutual understanding. Thus, an urgent task for contemporary world historians is to identify texts, historical eras, and personalities that facilitated the practice of positive values and exchanges between Islam, Judaism, and the Christian West, as well as to clarify when and why such exchanges were abandoned and at what cost.
The early history of south Asia presents another matrix for viewing the course of world history. The earliest civilization emerged along the Indus River, where researchers have uncovered the remains of splendid cities rich with artifacts. Unfortunately the written materials unearthed do not include substantial texts and have not yet been deciphered. Until fairly recently experts assumed that this culture was overrun during the middle of the second millennium BCE by Aryan peoples migrating from Central Asia. However, now more experts argue that natural calamities are more likely to have been the main cause for the abandonment of the Indus communities and that a cultural break did not necessarily occur between the people of that culture and the people who created the Vedic literature (relating to the Hindu sacred writings) and traditions identified with the Ganges River valley. If this argument holds, it will confirm a continuity of civilization in the Indian subcontinent going back five or six thousand years, which would in turn help to explain the reverence and tenacity with which so many Indian people subscribe to the texts and traditions of Hinduism.
In viewing world history from this region, one noteworthy theme is the rise and diffusion of Buddhism. Inspired by the life and teachings of the Indian philosopher Siddhartha Gautama (c. 560–480 BCE), Buddhism took root in northern India and developed rapidly under the reign of the Mauryan king and Buddhist convert Asoka (reigned 273–232 BCE). Gautama (known as the Buddha) taught a spiritual practice for gaining liberation from suffering that addressed universal human conditions and thus could be applicable in other cultural settings. As a religious convert, Asoka put the teachings of Gautama into action and sent missionaries to Kashmir, south India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Burma (Myanmar). The historian H. G. Rawlinson described these missions as “amongst the greatest civilizing influences in the world’s history.” Theravada Buddhism, the earliest form of this religion, gradually extended farther into Central Asia and peninsular Southeast Asia.
During the reign of the great Central Asian Kushan king Kanishka (reigned c. 120–162) a new and extended form of Buddhism (Mahayana) came into being. Empowered by doctrines of redemption and rebirth it spread into Central Asia and thence to China, Korea, and Japan, carried partially by Central Asian missionaries but also by traders. The famous grottoes in Dunhuang in northwest China (in Gansu Province) attest to the extraordinary faithfulness of these practitioners, their ability to transcend unbelievable hardships en route, and the sophistication of their visions of human potential. This vision and energy can still be encountered among Buddhist practitioners throughout East Asia. Thus, they invite historians to understand how religious transmission can overcome cultural barriers, survive hostility and opposition, and integrate into cultures with different historical traditions.
A third form of Buddhism (Tantric) made its way across the Himalayas to Tibet, Mongolia, and parts of eastern Russia, where it continues to flourish. The dispersal of Tibetan people throughout the world since 1959—when eight years of occupation by China culminated in an uprising that led to the exile of Tibet’s spiritual leader, the fourteenth Dalai Lama—has attracted considerable attention to Tantric Buddhism. The provocative visual symbology of Tantrism, its intense rituals and extremities of devotion (exhibited in the grueling kneeling and prostrating pilgrimages to Lhasa and Mount Kailas in Tibet), and its adherence to doctrines of karma and rebirth represent a challenge to the materialism pursued in both East and West. This challenge is still in its early days, and its impact remains to be determined.
Ironically Buddhism lost ground in India to a reviving Hinduism and to invasions by Islamic armies who laid waste to Hindu and Buddhist communities during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. More than 400 million Muslims now live in the Indian subcontinent, alongside 700 million or more followers of Hinduism. This has been an uneasy cohabitation. At its height the Islamic Mughal dynasty under Akbar (reigned 1556–1605) and Shah Jehan (reigned 1628–1657) provided a civilized and in many ways enlightened regime, of which the most famous legacy is the sublime Taj Mahal in Agra, India. Unfortunately, times have changed. Since the end of the British Raj (rule) and the partition of India in 1946, millions have died in civil war, in religious confrontations, and in the ongoing war in Kashmir. The conflict between India and Pakistan—now both nuclear powers—continues to threaten world stability. The lack of understanding about India in the United States and the unwillingness to admit the extent to which religion can drive political agendas are problems that need attention if this threat is to be diminished.
China also enjoys five thousand or more years of civilization. Its unique writing system emerged during the early to middle years of the second millennium BCE. The doctrine of the Mandate of Heaven, through which a ruler’s right to power was sanctioned by a divine being, began to take shape at the beginning of the Zhou dynasty (1045–256 BCE) during the eleventh century BCE, and the earliest poetic and historical documents followed not long after. From these early traditions emerged the philosophies of Confucianism and Daoism, which have done so much to shape political and cultural thinking in China and also in Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. From Confucianism emerged the systems of education and bureaucratic management through which China’s agrarian empires were managed and its histories produced, and from Daoism came the investigation of being and nonbeing through which Chinese were able to practice ways of living that were an alternative to those required in the public arena. These alternative images of existence, onto which Mahayana Buddhism was superimposed, enabled Chinese culture to survive repeated fluctuations of expansion and contraction, including subjugation by foreign peoples, and to maintain a distinctive world perspective to the present day.
From the viewpoint of world history one can explore various themes in the Chinese context. One theme is the interaction between nomadic pastoral cultures and the powerful agrarian state that grew up around the Huang (Yellow) and Yangzi (Chang) rivers. This interaction goes back to prehistoric eras; it enters the historical record during the Zhou dynasty and becomes a dominant theme during the four hundred years of the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE). At that time the Xiongnu were the dominant nomadic contenders, and much of Han statecraft was taken up in efforts to bring these aggressive raiders under control. During the fourth and fifth centuries Turkic peoples ruled much of north China. During the Song dynasty (960–1279) their role was taken mainly by Khitans and Jurchen peoples from northeast Asia. Then the Mongol regime, which had taken over north China under the rule of Chinggis (Genghis) Khan (c. 1162–1227) and his immediate successors, seized control of the rest and installed its own Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) over all China. The Ming dynasty (1368–1644) was able to push the Mongols back into Inner Asia but not to subdue them. In 1644 another northeast Asian regime, led by Manchus, seized control of north China, setting up the Qing dynasty (1644–1911/12). During the next forty years it suppressed all opposition, and in the mid-eighteenth century it brought the remaining Mongol regimes to heel.
Thus, for long periods foreigners have ruled China. Mongols also imposed regimes with much bloodshed in central and western Asia and for a brief period appeared poised to overrun eastern Europe. Later Central Asian empires, such as those created by Timur (reigned 1370–1405) and the Mughal dynasty founded by Babur (1483–1530), were offspring of the original Mongol regimes, testifying to the remarkable and sustained military and political power consolidated by Chinggis Khan and his successors. That is why the history of these regimes demands the attention of world historians. Although these regimes arose from a marginal, steppe-bound cultural base, within a generation or two they were able to produce sophisticated rulers, such as Khubilai Khan (1215–1294) and Akbar, who were open to new ideas and personalities. Thus, the Polo family members of Italy were able to travel between Venice and eastern Asia, Roman Catholics to set up churches in the Yuan capital of Beijing, and Chinese Nestorian Christians to travel to western Asia and as far as France.
During the Mongol era Islam began to take root in China. Islam had been moving into Central Asia from the eighth century CE on, replacing Buddhism and other religions. Compared with Buddhism, however, its access into China and eastern Asia has been limited. The Hui segment of Chinese practitioners of Islam live in northwest and southwest China and in small numbers elsewhere, and Turkic Muslims live in larger numbers in China’s most westerly province of Xinjiang. But in China, Muslims have run up against resistance and conflict from the dominant Confucian Han people. During the mid-nineteenth century this resistance and conflict resulted in two huge Muslim rebellions in southwest and northwest China, both of which were brutally suppressed. Thus, Islam remains strongest on the margins of Chinese civilization. It has had much greater success penetrating Southeast Asia and has become the dominant religious and cultural presence in Malaysia and Indonesia.
Although the rise of the West is generally traced (in the West) to the explorations sponsored by the Portuguese prince known as Henry the Navigator, and to those of the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus and the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama, the activities of these men were of no concern in the Asian world, where much vaster political and military forces were deployed. From an Asian perspective one cannot speak seriously of the rise of the West until the later eighteenth century, when the British East India Company made inroads into the political and economic control of Bengal in India. Not until the mid-nineteenth century did British and U.S. forces successfully challenge the governments in Beijing and Tokyo.
But from the mid-nineteenth century on all areas of Asia came under increasing pressure from Western countries. Britain established hegemony over India and to a certain extent over Iran. France took control in Southeast Asia and Holland in Indonesia. British power overflowed into Burma and the Straits Settlements (now Malaysia and Singapore). Britain, France, the United States, and later Germany all competed for power in China and were able through diplomacy and coercion to force the Chinese government to yield treaty ports, concessions, extraterritorial legal privileges, and spheres of influence. Meanwhile, during the late seventeenth century czarist Russia began its long drive into eastern and Central Asia. To the east it encroached on the hinterlands of the Manchu regime and managed through adroit diplomacy to carve off huge territories that are now part of Russia, including the vital seaport of Vladivostok. By the mid-nineteenth century Russia’s encroachment into Central Asia began to rub up against the hinterlands of the British Raj in Tibet, Afghanistan, and Iran, precipitating what became known as the “Great Game” for control of the petty kingdoms and principalities throughout Central Asia. Because of czarist Russia’s ability to deploy superior military forces this was a game that czarist Russia and its successor, the Soviet Union, were destined to win. Indeed, not until the Soviet debacle in Afghanistan during the 1980s and the collapse of the Soviet Union shortly thereafter was Russian power in Central Asia significantly set back.
Rise and Fall
An understanding of the forces underlying the rise of Western imperialism and the decline of Asian sovereignty has long relied on two basic arguments. The first is the inherent superiority of Western values as expressed in democracy and market capitalism, a line of thinking originating with the Scottish economist Adam Smith and the French philosophes (deistic or materialistic writers and thinkers of the eighteenth-century French Enlightenment) and developed by the German sociologist Max Weber and others. The second is the Leninist argument that Western imperialism is an exploitative extension of bourgeois capitalism (manifested, for example, in the sale of opium) that would collapse with the achievement of worldwide socialist revolution. During most of the twentieth century these arguments battled for mastery. The collapse of Western colonialism during and after World War II, the retreat of the British from India, and the crowning success of the Chinese Communist revolution appeared to validate the Leninist case and put the West on the defensive. The postwar revival of the Western and Japanese economies, followed in due course by the collapse of the Soviet Union, China’s near abandonment of its socialist economy during the 1980s and 1990s, and continuing political travails in Islamic countries appeared to do the reverse. Leninist arguments now carry little weight, and Western market capitalism and democracy seem to be in the ascendant.
But before Western pride goes too far, we should recall the deep roots of non-Western civilizations and consider how their values could influence global history in the future. Eastern civilizations are not inevitably at a disadvantage against the West, as the rapid rise of Japan during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries testifies. Today China is on the march. During the last twenty-five years China’s economy has been growing at an average annual rate of at least 7 percent. Large areas of urban China (a region of 400–500 million people and growing rapidly) have converted themselves into modern cities with new transportation and telecommunication infrastructures and massive new developments in industrial plants, office buildings, and high-rise housing. The Pearl River delta region is becoming the workshop of the world, just as Britain was during the later nineteenth century, and Walmart is one of its leading customers. India is about twenty years behind China, but developments in Bangalore indicate what could be achieved elsewhere during the next few decades. No one can hold down such deep-rooted cultures indefinitely. One hundred and fifty years of subordination to the West is a long time, but that time is now abating, at least for China and India, as it already has for South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore and as it did so forty years ago for Japan.
For other areas of Asia the future is less rosy. In Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan or in communities in Iraq, Palestine, and North Korea and in some rural areas of China, India, and Siberia, life is hard, and governments are too often corrupt and oppressive. Consider these data: The infant mortality rate in Afghanistan in 2009 was 151.95 deaths per 1,000 live births. In Laos it was 77.82 per 1,000, in Myanmar 72.11 per 1,000. However, in Japan it was 2.79 per 1,000. Literacy in Afghanistan was 28.1 percent, in Laos 68.7 percent, in Myanmar 81 percent, and in Japan 99 percent. In every case except the last, literacy of women is much lower. For Afghanistan the gross domestic product per person is calculated at $800 per year; in Myanmar it is $1,500. In Japan it is $34,100. Figures such as these help to explain why Afghanistan and Myanmar (Burma) are now the world’s leading producers of opium, and why warlords control their governments.
Does it have to be that way? Two thousand years ago Afghanistan flourished under great empires enriched by the Ghandaran culture that grew out of the invasions of Alexander the Great. Afghanistan was the site of one of the world’s greatest Buddhist monuments at Bamiyan until the Taliban destroyed it in 2001. Silk Roads commerce at its height brought wealth and opportunity into Central Asia. Under Abbasid and Seljuk rule Samarqand in Uzbekistan became one of the world’s richest and most cultured cities, the home of the brilliant eleventh-century poet and mathematician Omar Khayyam. Although devastated by Mongol invasion, the city rose to new heights as the capital of the Timurid Empire and became one of the architectural wonders of the world. Balkh in Afghanistan was the birthplace in 1207 of Rumi (Jalal ud-Din Rumi, a SufiMuslim mystic) and one of the world’s most inspired poets. No region is without its glories or follies, and Asia is a rich source for the study of civilization and its problems.
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