Amitai Etzioni’s review in The Diplomat on Henry Kissinger’s new book World Order noted Kissinger’s (correct) insight that the concept of Asia is a western construct. This point seems to have generated much debate in the comments section and deserves further discussion.
I have always personally been uncomfortable myself with the definition of the continent of Asia, because a close look at the histories and cultures of Asia will tell you that the continent of Asia, in its traditional definition, is simply an umbrella term for the portion of the Eurasian landmass to the east of Europe. From a historical perspective, the idea that Europe and Asia were different “continents” came from the ancient Greek view that the lands to the east of Greece somehow made up a single, organic whole called Asia, while the lands to its west made up another whole, known as Europe. This view eventually became the modern Western understanding of Europe and Asia as separate continents.
The idea of Asia as a distinct continent is problematic in both a geological and cultural sense. Geologically, there is no particular distinction between Europe and the rest of Asia; together, they sit on the same geological plate, the Eurasian plate. The Ural Mountains, which are traditionally considered the boundary between Europe and Asia, are moreover not very distinct and are hardly an impediment to the movement of peoples. South Asia, which lies on a separate tectonic plate and is separated by the far more formidable Himalayas, is actually physically much more distinct from the rest of Eurasia than Europe is (South Asia is also not too dissimilar in size to Europe, minus Russia).Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Culturally, Asia is also a problematic concept. What is Asia, other than a way of setting apart a group of non-Western cultures from the West? The West, is fairly well defined – to put it simply, it is a civilization that arose from Roman civilization, Christianized, and then went through developments such as the Renaissance, Enlightenment, and Industrial Revolution. But what, really, is Asia? It consists of cultures as diverse as Japan and the Arabs, who really have no more in common with each other than with Europeans. It can in fact be strongly argued that Islamic civilization is, in many ways, more similar to the West because of their related religious origins than to China. This is not to say that there are no common histories or cultures in Asia; rather Asia has many regions, each as distinct as Europe, which share their own commonalities, such as East Asia (Chinese civilization and states influenced by Chinese culture such as Japan and Korea) or South Asia. Between these civilizations, there was, of course, some interaction so it is reasonable to see all of Europe and Asia as an interconnected system with specific sub-regions.
It is important, in fact, to not worry too much about the exact definition of regions or continents, since doing so often creates mental boxes that obscure rather than clarify reality. A few decades ago, the idea of pan-Asian solidarity or brotherhood became popular in many parts of Asia, but this was the result of Asians internalizing a Western construct. It led to some beliefs, for example, in India that Indian and Chinese interests or patterns of thought were similar when, in fact, this was not the case.
Connections between regions are also often obscured by the tendency to classify and separate territories into regions. It is not as if there is a sudden break in the cultures, or even genetics of people who live next to each other who happen to inhabit countries separated into different regions. For example, Greece is in Europe while Turkey is considered to be part of the Middle East (which is geographically in Asia, technically). Notwithstanding this, Greeks tend to exhibit cultural traits much more similar to those of the Turks than to Europe’s Swedes (for example). Iran and Afghanistan, meanwhile, share a common heritage and language but they are placed in different regions in most classification schemes, with Iran being part of the Middle East and Afghanistan in South or Central Asia. All this obscures the connections between regions in Europe and Asia and the fact that they generally gently transition into other cultures without there being huge breaks.
Is there then, culturally speaking, any distinct Asian culture that justifies the existence of Asia as a cultural continent? The answer is no. For example, it is quite common for people in the West, including fairly well educated people to lump together Indian and Chinese civilizations as representative of some sort of “eastern” mode of civilization. This, however, greatly misinterprets both Indian and Chinese civilizations as well as Western civilization. It would be more accurate to posit that while Indian civilization does share some commonalities with Chinese civilization, it shares an equal number of elements with Western civilization, including in some crucial areas, such its philosophical premises. Thus, the civilizations of Eurasia are generally quite distinct from each other, and none deserve to be lumped together. This is not to obscure the fact that some regions have more similarities to one another than with other regions. Observers of South Asia would know that today, despite the earlier historical influence of Buddhism in Southeast and East Asia, South Asia is generally closer culturally (and genetically) to the Middle East than it is to East and Southeast Asia.
A much more accurate way of looking at Europe and Asia (and Africa) is to consider them, geographically, all part of a single large landmass. However, since the major divisions within this landmass are cultural and civilizational, the descriptive terms within this landmass would have to reflect this fact. Thus, this landmass would either have several continents of which Europe would be one, or would have several regions, including Europe and many others. Different manners of division could emphasize civilization (Western, Islamic, Hindu, Confucian, and so on in Samuel Huntington’s sense) or common zones of interaction (the Mediterranean, for example). However, the simplest shorthand manner of describing Asia is to define it as a physical continent (including Europe) with approximately seven evolving regions, which balance geography and culture, and do not follow exact political boundaries: Europe, the Middle East (including North Africa), South Asia, Central Asia, Russia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia, with several transitional zones in between.
I do not reject the use of the word Asia as a casual shorthand to describe certain regions, especially the eastern parts of the Eurasian landmass by the Pacific Ocean. However, I do not hold that Asia holds any valid geographical or cultural meaning as a single whole. Rather, I see a single geographical landmass, Eurasia, with separate and distinct regions, which is not to diminish the fact that these regions have all shared many common cultural and historical events and trends.