Peter Frankopan

What, if anything, unites Asia as a continent?

Nile Green blames ancient European geographers for lumping multitudes together in a landmass, regardless of their diversities

Portuguese merchants – or ‘southern barbarians’, as Europeans were known by the Japanese – bearing gifts in Nagasaki, c.1600. Detail of a byobu screen painting by Kano Naizen (1570-1616). [Alamy]

‘Asia is one’, wrote Okakura Kakuzo, the Japanese art historian, at the start of his The Ideals of the East in 1901. Nile Green disagrees in this sparky and impressive book. There is no reason why ‘Buddhism, Confucianism or Shinto should be more intelligible to a “fellow Asian” from the Middle East or India than to a European’. For one thing, ‘Asia’ is home to a vast number of language groups, including ‘Sino-Tibetan and Turkic, Indo-European and Semitic, Dravidian and Japonic, Austroasiatic, and others’, as well as ‘to a far wider variety of writing systems than Europe, Africa and the Americas combined’. So how and why, then, did the clumsy label come into being and stick?

The blame, argues Green, lies with Europeans. Ancient European geographers had grouped large numbers of people together as ‘Asians’, leading to the formulation of a ‘European idea of Asia’ that came to be widely adopted – not least by ‘cultures that had for centuries cultivated their own conceptions of geography’. One greatly overlooked outcome of the rise of global European empires was a set of more intense interactions with Europe – something that Green sets out to correct by ‘looking at printed books and magazines in Urdu, Persian, Arabic, Gujarati, Ottoman, and occasionally Bengali, Japanese, Burmese, and other languages’ to reconstruct ‘what the broader reading public knew – or at least potentially knew – about other parts of Asia’.

Green also pays attention to maps and textbooks translated from English, of which Clift’s First Geography (published in Bengali, Urdu and Tamil) was a classic example, which established and then cemented preconceptions about different regions in Asia to create ideas of homogeneity that bore little resemblance to the complexities and diversities of reality.

A Russian chancer named Nikolai Notovich claimed to have found proof that Jesus once studied in India

Rather than being a home to peoples who were connected through extensive exchange networks, says Green, interactions between different parts of Asia were highly localised, and characterised by levels of contact that were somewhere between low and non-existent.

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