The idea of Asia

The idea of Asia


22 | 05 | 2023


What defines the concept of Asia? Is Asia primarily a European construct? A captivating journey through written history, going beyond the realms of well-known religious and court literature.

In the picture

Cover of Nile Green's book 'How Asia Found Herself: A Story of Intercultural Understanding by Nile Green' (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022) 472 pages.

When beginning my course on International Relations in Asia, I find myself contemplating a series of thought-provoking questions: "What defines the concept of Asia?", "How did the notion of Asia emerge?", "Is Asia primarily a European construct?", and "Did Asians possess a sense of unity?". These questions hold great significance as the idea of Asia as a distinct continent is not self-evident. Asia, unlike other continents (except Europe) with clear geographical uniqueness or strong religious, historical and cultural unifying trends, lacks any semblance of unity.

The term "Asia" was initially coined by Greek geographers as a convenient label for the lands situated east of the Mediterranean. However, this term primarily served to emphasize the differences between Europe and Asia rather than highlighting any unifying identity among Asians. It played a role in Europe's construction of a significant "other" to establish a sense of "self," as thoroughly detailed in Edward Said's book, Orientalism.

The anti-colonial and post-colonial Pan-Asianism movement that emerged in Asia in the late nineteenth and during the twentieth century, spearheaded by B figures such as Rabindranath Tagore and Vivekananda from India, as well as Okakura Tenshin from Japan, argue that Asia resurfaced from the isolation imposed by colonialism, seeking to rediscover itself. This narrative took on an ideological and political nature, with deliberate efforts made to find unifying themes across the diverse Asian lands collectively referred to as "Asia." This political movement aimed to identify a common thread based on spirituality, transcendentalism, and commercial and cultural interactions.

This is the background against which the book by Nile Green, "How Asia Found Herself: A Story of Intercultural Understanding" must be contextualized. It is said that the opposite of a fact may be a falsehood, but the opposite of one profound truth may very well be another profound truth. It is this complexity that the author and historian Nile Green has brought out through his comprehensive research in the book called "How Asia Found Herself: A Story of Intercultural Understanding".

In his extensive research, author and historian Nile Green explores the notion that Asian unity is a myth fabricated for political purposes. He redirects our attention from the illusion of Asia toward the intricate process of intercultural understanding, which proves to be multifaceted, layered, and laden with challenges. Green explains that mere commercial interactions and cross-cultural travel do not automatically lead to understanding. In his words, connectivity does not always imply comprehension.

As a historian, Green takes readers on a captivating journey through written history, going beyond the realms of well-known religious and court literature. Through extensive and meticulous archival research, he unveils the stories of lesser-known missionaries, merchants, travelers, and even soldiers, shedding light on their roles in fostering intercultural understanding in Asia. The book reveals the existence of intercultural understanding processes within Asia, which, despite the efforts of many, remained relatively limited. It highlights the challenges that hindered a deeper intercultural understanding and were often overlooked by proponents of Pan-Asianism and scholars alike.

Green elucidates the various processes that facilitated a certain degree of intercultural understanding, such as the role of religious polemics by Christian missionaries. Initially intended to demonstrate the superiority of Christianity over Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Bahaism, these polemics inadvertently fostered a greater understanding of these religions. Consequently, missionaries from Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism responded with polemical arguments, inadvertently strengthening intercultural understanding.

While outlining the processes that enabled intercultural understanding, he draws attention to the challenges that impeded it. Green explains this by highlighting the difficulties of language acquisition and translation in the absence of dictionaries and primers, as well as the challenges of cultural interpretation and the lack of institutional support. The difficulties are multiplied in Asia with its rich diversity of languages and the large numbers of non-literate people. The book is also replete with fascinating details, including the challenges of interpretive understanding such as the translation of the Bible as a "Book of Dharma" in India. The story of a north Indian Muslim Abd al-Khaliq who travels to Burma in the late 19th century to study what he calls the "religion of Burma", without any knowledge that the religion of Burma, Buddhism, originated in India. This example elucidates the reality of inter-Asia awareness.

Green is of the view that intercultural understanding of Asia unintentionally intensified due to the infrastructures of the empire and the communication revolution triggered by Christian missionaries. It resulted from empire-driven interconnectivity, although it remained hard-won, provisional, and partial.It is worth noting that Green may have slightly overstated the inadvertent role played by colonialism in generating intercultural understanding. Nevertheless, he provides the important disclaimer that his intention is not to argue that European Orientalists made greater contributions to understanding Asia than the Asianists did. He vehemently opposes simplistic dichotomies between Asia and Europe, emphasizing that the intercultural knowledge exchange is part of a broader and longer world-historical process of Eurasian and Afro-Eurasian interaction, posing challenges to all parties involved.

Green posits that we must disentangle the mechanical process of connection from the semantic process of comprehension. However, does comprehension always guarantee understanding? Despite the information revolution and the abundance of knowledge tools, different cultures often struggle to genuinely understand one another. Nonetheless, a sense of unity prevails in Europe. The assumption that comprehension and understanding form the basis of shared unity may be exaggerated by the author. Additionally, the author overlooks the impact of oral history and traditions in generating an understanding of other cultures. Integrating oral history could provide a slightly different perspective on the matter.

However, it must be stated that the purpose of this book is not to advocate for a simplistic, diary-driven approach that prioritizes the contributions of colonialism and Orientalists over the Asianists in understanding Asia. Instead, it invites readers on a thought-provoking journey through the intricacies of intercultural understanding and the challenges that accompany it. 'How Asia Found Herself: A Journey of Intercultural Understanding' serves as a valuable resource for anyone interested in delving into the complex dynamics of Asia's cultural tapestry.