Asia’s geographical conditions, its mountain ranges and deserts, have, during pre-industrial times, made contacts between the communities that have emerged in its various parts. The continent has no unified history; what can be described are some common features of civilizations and societies in different parts of it, how they met and how they influenced each other.

Source Conditions

Our knowledge of Asia’s ancient and ancient history comes from archaeological excavations. Among the oldest written sources are wedge writing boards from Babylonia. The Sumerian texts are mythologically embossed; from Assyrian and New Babylonian times there are also royal chronicles and other original records.

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In ancient Greece and Rome there were historians who portrayed the conditions in Asia, especially Asia Minor. Early Greek descriptions of more distant parts of Asia were based on hearsay. Herodotus stated that India’s population was the largest in the world and that South Asia was the end of the world, near the rising sun. Some of the Greek scholars included Alexander the Great, and the Greek historian Megasthenes was an ambassador to the Mauryadynasty founder Candragupta’s court in the 300s BC. His “Indika” in four volumes has been lost, but the work has been used by later historians. Immediately after Kr.f. came “Periplus maris Erythraei”, a script that describes shipping on the Indian Ocean. Roman geographers also mention the gold country east of the Ganges, probably Malaysia.

  • Countryaah: Offers a full list of 48 countries and territories in the continent of Asia in alphabetical order.

Contemporary with the Roman representations are the Chinese Han annals and historian Sima Qian’s work “Shiji”. In China, as in West Asia, records of one’s own history were considered an important state concern, and for each Chinese dynasty an official history was written. The historical works mainly deal with China but also touch on neighboring parts of Southeast Asia.

In Indian history writing, human life was allowed to enter into the background for depictions of the origin and cycle of the universe. Man was inserted into the cosmic order. Buddhist and Jainist historical representations were often biographically and chronologically imprinted, but emphasized their own religious teachings and foregrounds. In Ceylonese chronicles, historical facts were mixed with myths, anecdotes and legends. From the 200th to the 700s, there are eyewitness accounts from India and other parts of Asia, authored by Chinese pilgrims, as well as Persian and Arabic travel stories.

The historical literature in Persian was extensive but often characterized by lack of source criticism. Islamic historical writing was characterized by greater historical awareness, and detailed chronicles were prepared. Sources were cited and objectivity was sought by historians such as at-Tabari in the 9th century and Ibn Khaldun in the 13th century.

About India and China but above all about the Mongolian kingdom at the end of the 13th century is Marco Polo’s account, which was received with mistrust of his time. The Franciscan William of Ruysbroek’s “Journey through Asia” also belongs to the 13th century. Some later Islamic representations deliberately gave a negative picture of the Mongols. Similarly, European depictions of the Ottoman Empire were strongly negative.

In Portuguese chronicles, history was seen as a divinely dictated course, while Jesuits like Francisco Xavier and Matteo Ricci in the 16th and 16th centuries provided a more reality-based picture of India and Japan and China respectively. For more recent times, there are eyewitness accounts of travelers, e.g. The Linnélärjungen Carl Peter Thunbergs, a rich Asian archival material, the archives of the colonial powers, the annals of the Asian trading companies and trade history works. Chinese, Arabic and Western historical writing developed independently of each other until the 19th century, when historical writing was increasingly liberated from mythology, religion and moral teachings and gained an intrinsic value.

Country Air Force (male) Fleet (man) Army (man)
Afghanistan 7,300 (2017) 167 000 (2017)
Bahrain 1,500 (2017) 700 (2017) 6,000 (2017)
Bangladesh 14,000 (2017) 16 900 (2017) 126 150 (2017)
Brunei 1,100 (2017) 1,200 (2017) 4 900 (2017)
Burma 15,000 (2017) 16,000 (2017) 375 000 (2017)
Philippines 15,000 (2017) 24,000 (2017) 86 000 (2017)
United Arab Emirates 4,500 (2017) 2,500 (2017) 44,000 (2017)
India 127 200 (2017) 58 350 (2017) 1,200,000 (2017)
Indonesia 30 100 (2017) 65,000 (2017) 300 400 (2017)
Iraq 4,000 (2017) 3,000 (2017) 54,000 (2017)
Iran 30,000 (2017) 18,000 (2017) 350 000 (2017)
Israel 34 000 (2017) 9,500 (2017) 133,000 (2017)
Japanese 46,950 (2017) 45 350 (2017) 150,850 (2017)
Yemen 3,000 (2015) 1,700 (2015) 60,000 (2015)
Jordan 12,000 (2017) 500 (2017) 74 000 (2017)
Cambodia 1,500 (2017) 2,800 (2017) 75,000 (2017)
Kazakhstan 12,000 (2017) 3,000 (2017) 20,000 (2017)
China 395 000 (2017) 240,000 (2017) 975 000 (2017)
Kyrgyzstan 2,400 (2017) 8,500 (2017)
Kuwait 2,500 (2017) 2,000 (2017) 11,000 (2017)
Laos 3,500 (2017) 600 (2015) 25 600 (2017)
Lebanon 1 600 (2017) 1,800 (2017) 56 600 (2017)
Malaysia 15,000 (2017) 14,000 (2017) 80,000 (2017)
Mongolia 800 (2017) 8,900 (2017)
Nepal 96 600 (2017)
North Korea 110 000 (2017) 60,000 (2017) 1,100,000 (2017)
Oman 5,000 (2017) 4 200 (2017) 25,000 (2017)
Pakistan 70 000 (2017) 23 800 (2017) 560,000 (2017)
Qatar 1,500 (2017) 1,800 (2017) 8,500 (2017)
Saudi Arabia 2,000 (2017) 13,500 (2017) 75,000 (2017)
Singapore 13,500 (2017) 9,000 (2017) 50,000 (2017)
Sri Lanka 28,000 (2017) 15,000 (2017) 200,000 (2017)
South Korea 65,000 (2017) 70 000 (2017) 495 000 (2017)
Syria 15,000 (2017) 2,500 (2017) 105 000 (2017)
Tajikistan 1,500 (2017) 7,300 (2017)
Taiwan 45,000 (2017) 40,000 (2017) 130,000 (2017)
Thailand 46 000 (2017) 69 850 (2017) 245,000 (2017)
Turkmenistan 3,000 (2017) 500 (2017) 33,000 (2017)
Uzbekistan 7,500 (2017) 24,500 (2017)
Vietnam 30,000 (2017) 40,000 (2017) 412,000 (2017)
East Timor 80 (2017) 1,250 (2017)

Early river cultures

According to, most of Asia’s population still lives in rural areas, and so it has been since humans began to abandon nomadic life for a living as a farmer about 10,000 years ago. The prerequisite for cultivation is water, and as settlement areas, river valleys and oases were therefore primarily chosen. Population growth required more food, and the prerequisite for this was greater cultivated area or increased productivity, which in turn required irrigation plants, ponds to utilize the water during rainy periods, channels to increase the cultivated area and banks to protect against the floods. All of this presupposed an organized society. With the need for coordinated resources, state formation arose in the areas around the great rivers and around the oases. Euphrates – Tigris, Indus, Ganges.

Until the industrial revolution in Europe came many inventions and technological innovations from Asia: the decimal system, pi (π), wheel, wheelbarrow, saddle, stirrup, rudder, gunpowder, magnetic compass, paper, writing, porcelain, letterpress art, etc.

Early “world empire”

In the Euphrates-Tigris Valley, the great kingdom and dynasties succeeded each other in power: Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians. Trade and cultural exchange occurred between the Sumerians and Mohenjo-Daro in the Indus Valley around 2000 BC. The dominion over the trade routes between the East and the West was the basis for the power of the Assyrian Empire.

Rulers in the Euphrates-Tigris area called themselves “king over the four continents”. The same belief about being a world empire existed from around 1500 BC. in China, where the emperor was perceived as the “Son of Heaven”, ruler of the “Kingdom of the Middle”, inhabited by the only civilized people on earth.

The centuries after 2000 BC Indigenous tribes from Central Asia began to penetrate into West Asia and South Asia, where several large cracks were crushed. In South Asia, the Indians’ language, religion and oral tradition spread. Clergy and royal power were strengthened, caste beings and rituals developed. Hinduism spread across the Indian subcontinent.

The major world religions originated in Asia: Hinduism and Buddhism in India, Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Islam in West Asia, Confucianism and Daoism in China. In opposition to the priesthood of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism emerged in the 500s BC. India’s first empire, Emperor Ashokas in the 20th century BC, was Buddhist. From India, Buddhism spread in a northern branch through Central Asia to China, Korea and Japan, and in a southern branch via Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Burma to Southeast Asia. Along the trade routes, monasteries were built, where merchants could deposit and borrow money. The power and wealth of the monastery was increased by adding land.

The centuries around Kr.f. mastered Indian ships the Indian Ocean and sailed both to the east coast of Africa and to Southeast Asia. Hindu merchants and priests settled in Southeast Asia and contributed to the growth of commercial cities and to the rise of kingdoms that based their economy not only on rice cultivation but largely on trade. The rulers declared themselves to be kings of God, connected with the world of gods, and exercised their power with the help of Hindu religion and ritual. Hindu empire and temple towns that were also commercial and agricultural centers emerged, e.g. Pagan, Funan, Champariket, Angkor, Srivijaya and Majapahit.

In the Persian world empire in the 500s BC “The Persian peace”. Persian gold coins were in circulation even outside the empire’s borders. Weights and dimensions were standardized. Roads connected the parts of the kingdom with each other, and a nationwide post office was set up. In the 300s BC Alexander the Great defeated the Persian armies and claimed to be “King of Asia”. His victorious army reached east to the tributaries of the Indus. With Alexander’s army train came Hellenistic cultural influence, visible among other things. in Gandhara art buddha sculptures, which unite Greek, Semitic and Iranian styles.

Trade routes

Trade contacts between East and West increased during the following centuries. The shooters in southern Russia conveyed Greek culture east along the Silk Road. Through West Asia, considerable trade was conducted between the continents. Southern India was the center of Asian-Roman trade, and South Indian kings employed Roman lego nectars. During the 300–400 AD the rest of India was ruled by the Hindu Gup kingdom. From the 20th century BC an Iranian empire grew. For nine hundred years, the kingdom, first during the Parthians and then during the Sasanids, was a meeting place for trade and cultures, intersected by trade routes, e.g. The Silk Road, which stretched from China to the Mediterranean. At the same time, an east-west trade also went by sea via the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. In the Sasanidic (Nypersian) empire, Zoroastrianism was state religion. As Islam expanded, Zoroastrians fled to western India, where they were called Parsis. From Zoroastrianism emerged Manikeism, which was spread to China by Turkish tribes. Christianity had reached Iran in its Nestorian form, and from there it spread along the caravan roads to East Asia.

Since the caravan trader Muhammad appeared in the 600s, Islam spread along the trade routes. To its rapid spread, the merchants of Mecca and Medina and their already established transit trade contributed. Islamic merchants controlled the desert roads east toward China, the Indian Ocean’s coasts and inlets to the Red Sea and the Gulf of Persia. Then as now religion, culture, politics and trade were intertwined. Islam’s expansion was facilitated by tolerance to the “book religions” (Judaism and Christianity), by tax relief for converts, and by the Koran schools that were run similarly throughout the sphere of propagation. The advanced technology and administration of water resources, cultural expressions and scientific achievements contributed to the success of Islam. In addition, several of the great people of the time were weakened and had internal problems with populations that lived in oppression for long periods. In the seventies, Muslims ruled a kingdom (the “Caliphate”) that stretched from western China to Spain.

In 751, Muslim armies defeated the Chinese empire on the Talas River, thus halting a Chinese expansion westward that has been purposefully going on since about 100 BC. The Chinese expansion had also been directed towards the south. The first Chinese campaign against Vietnam took place in the 20th century BC, and northern Vietnam was an integral part of China for more than a thousand years. The Chinese expansion occurred not only in the form of campaigns, but also as migratory waves to areas where Chinese settled and where they brought their language, their writing and their culture. Often working as merchants and bankers, they influenced the administration’s design in the new settlement area. Confucianism contributed both to the continuity of the two-thousand-year-old Chinese empire and to the cohesion between Chinese at home and abroad. In Southeast Asia, the Chinese cultural circle met the previously established Indian. During the 500s and 600s, Chinese culture, Confucianism and administrative practice spread north to Korea and the Japanese islands. Buddhism and Confucianism were mixed with the Japanese Shinto religion.

Central Asian expansion

The nomad tribes of Central Asia had livestock management as their main industry and moved across large areas to satisfy the need for grazing land for the growing population of the growing population. In the 7th century, the Uighurs dominated trade in China. In the 11th century, the Seljuks founded a Muslim empire, which formally extended from the Mediterranean to Xinjiang and developed into a high culture. In the west, however, the empire was weakened by the 11th century crusades, which led to, among other things, of the desire of Italian commercial towns to gain access to the port cities of West Asia. Mongolian looting trains in different directions were followed by the Jingi Khan in the 13th century by conquest trains and also extended to China. The Mongol Empire became the world’s largest to date, extending from the Pacific to Eastern Europe. The road system was developed and connected China with Persia. The 13th century is characterized by “Mongolian peace”. The country road became safer than the sea route, and caravan transport increased in importance. In the 12th and 14th centuries, however, sea transport was the most significant. Chinese vessels sailed to India, East Africa, West Asia and the Philippines.

The Ottoman Empire, the capital of Constantinople, was a major power in Asia from the mid-1400s. The kingdom existed until 1923. The Ottoman sultan became patron of the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina, since his troops in 1516 defeated the Mamluks’ kingdom in Egypt.

In India, Central Asian conquerors in the 13th century had founded the Delhi Sultanate, which came to cover the whole of northern India. Southern India was ruled by various Hindu kingdoms, especially Vijayanagar, which grew strongly during the 1300s. In Delhi, the Mughal emperors, who came from Central Asia via Afghanistan, assumed power in the 1520s. Their titles indicate the territorial claims: “the world conqueror” (jahangir) and “the king of the world” (shah jahan).

European colonialism

In the Middle Ages Europe, demand for the Oriental supply of goods, mainly spices, grew. After the disintegration of the Mongol Empire, caravan transport became more difficult, and the sea route to the Orient appeared as an alternative. Competition for trade monopoly and trading stations in the Orient intensified. In the latter part of the 16th century, the Spanish took possession of the Philippines, and the Portuguese began to establish themselves in the 16th century on economically strategic points in South and Southeast Asia. When Portuguese ships with Arab pilots sailed to India in 1498, there were long ago Arab, Turkish, Persian, Indian, Malay and Chinese vessels in the waters. For over a hundred years, the Portuguese dominated the European spice trade. The king of Portugal appointed a “governor of Asia”, stationed in Goa on the west coast of India. Around 1600, the Portuguese were outmaneuvered by the Dutch, which include took the Sunda Sound between Sumatra and Java, an important traffic route on which Batavia (now Jakarta) was founded. The Dutch forced the cultivation of sought-after goods in Europe such as coffee, tobacco, sugar and indigo. Marginal significance for the Asian power play was the trading stations of the Danish East Asian Company in India and its trading in East Asia, as well as the Chinese Company’s China trade.

The British East India Company gradually took over most of India, which at this time was weakened by mutual struggles within the Mogul kingdom. To protect their possessions in India and the trade routes there, the British gained control of Burma and Aden and increased their influence over other parts of Arabia and Persia. They built Singapore and thus mastered the Strait of Malacca, which, after the arrival of the Suez Canal in 1869, became the most important trade route between Europe and China. The direct telegraph cable from Britain to Australia via India and Singapore (1870) strengthened the influence of colonial powers in Asia, as did the steamers and the opening of the Suez Canal.

A second stage in Asia’s colonial history began when the European superpowers turned their trading stations into bases for territorial conquests, enabling increased control over trade routes and production areas. Russia penetrated East Siberia during the 16th and 16th centuries and reached the Pacific. During the second half of the 19th century, France ravaged parts of Southeast Asia (French Indochina). Siam (Thailand) became a buffer state between the French and British territories and could thus remain independent. Germany took part in part of New Guinea in 1884. The United States conquered the Philippines from Spain in 1898.

Japan and China are isolating themselves

Japan and China resisted European attempts to colonize Asia. Japan shielded itself from the outside world from the mid-1600s to the mid-1800s. However, the Dutch, by virtue of a trade monopoly, had access and were not compromised in Japanese eyes because they did not engage in Christian missionary activities. The Shoguns – generals who were the real rulers – wanted to gain knowledge about new drugs and cannons, binoculars, maps, globes and ship drawings. Many European experts, including Swedish, therefore went into Dutch service and worked in Japan, but only for short periods and under Japanese conditions.

From 1868, Japan was purposefully reformed and obtained role models for state, educational system, economy, army and navy from various countries in the western world. Around the turn of the century, Japan conquered Taiwan, defeated China and Russia, and incorporated Korea with its territory. Commodity famines drove Japan to subdue Manchuria as well. However, the global economic crisis of 1930 hit Japan hard. Population pressure, as well as the need for commodities and export markets, helped to bring Japan into World War II and, under the motto “Asia for Asians,” conquer large parts of East and Southeast Asia.

In the 17th century, China was closed to foreign ships. The exception was Guangzhou (Canton), where seafarers were allowed to enter trade matters during the summer but where they were kept shielded from the Chinese population. China’s rulers were uninterested in contacts with “the foreign devils” and of change and modernization. During the 19th century, Britain and other Western powers forced themselves on China, including through the opium wars. The country was forced to open several ports for British, French, German and Russian vessels. China remained formally independent, but European powers divided large parts of the country into spheres of interest. The “Boxer Rebellion” (1899-1900) was defeated by a European-Japanese-American army. In the years 1911–12, Chinese reformers under Sun Yat’s leadership overthrew the 2,000-year empire. Of the European powers, for a long time only the newly formed Soviet Union treated China as an equal and was prepared to provide support. China boycotted Japanese and British goods in the 1920s. Splitting power, social divisions, famine, Japanese occupation and civil war characterized China until the end of the 1940s.

Asian stagnation – the effects of imperialism

With the industrial revolution, the colonial powers’ need for raw materials increased, while at the same time they needed larger markets for continued economic growth. The colonies became the complement to the European market that the European states sought. As a result, the colonial powers increasingly regulated crop selection and set prices for colonialized areas’ production with regard mainly to their own profit interest and the demand of the world market. For the colonies, this meant depletion of the economy and structural changes that led to starvation and suffering. Colonialism meant modernizing the infrastructure of the Western model: building roads, canals, railroads, expanding mail and telegraphs, bringing medical knowledge from Western medical institutions, investing in higher education, however, preferably in the humanities of Western origin – all in order for the colony to be the optimal complement to the mother country’s economy with the least effort. On the other hand, it failed to expand the colony’s own business resources. Asia would remain the raw material supplier and importer of European industrial goods.

Asia History