Holiday fun times: Define Asia

Given it’s still the offseason, I thought we might want to revisit an passtime of a previous time. When I was a child in the 90s, during the Keating era, there was a fairly pointless question (they never bothered to actually debate it); Is Australia part of Asia? Whilst the question did have implications for membership in various diplomatic clubs, here it was usually framed as part of culture wars inanity. For me, finding the implications rather mild, it’s mainly an academic diversion.

And the problem, as I see it, isn’t determining where Australia belongs, or whether belonging in one category precludes belonging in others (like “The West” or “The Anglosphere”). It’s working out what “Asia” is anyway. Can we really come up with a non-arbitrary definition that includes every country we usually call Asia without including Australia?

The most basic definition is geographic. Things within certain bounds are “Asia”. Things outside it are not Asian. This is the basis for the map at right. There’s obvious problems here though. Oceans are big, so drawing a border at say, the Pacific (excluding North America) or the Indian Ocean (excluding Antarctica), but if you can jump the Malacca straits or the Richard Green Sea [fn1] or any of the other innumerable straits and seas that separate islands from the continental mass, why suddenly say that the Timor Sea or Torres Strait is too far, let alone the tiny rivulet of the Suez Canal? And if you can cross the Himalayas, taller than any other, why balk at the modesty of the Urals, or the Caucasus mountains. If there was something beneath it all, as is literally the case with plate tectonics, we might have something, but there is a mass of plates underneath “Asia”, Australia shares a plate with parts of Indonesia (“Asian” by common consent) and almost all of Europe and all of China is on a single plate.

So geographically there is little case for excluding Australia from Asia, and even less for excluding Europe. To exclude them would be to determine that Asia is defined by whatever boundaries we draw, and on that basis we may as well include Mars.

Even so, the map is too broad for the debate of my childhood. They weren’t asking how Australia related to Tajikistan (with whom we do not have an embassy) or the “Asia” referred to by the ancient Mediterraneans (which made more sense given the limited geographic knowledge of the times) – now better known as “The Middle East”. What the 90s debates referred to was more likely something called “East and South East Asia”. The “Asia” closest to us.

The geographic definitions are still unsatisfactory here, so we turn to cultural explanations.

The most identifiable part of culture is language – in fact the Mandarin ?? – “culture” – translates as “language blossom”. Linguists make a great passtime of arranging languages into families. Can we identify Asia by these? Australia, as an English speaking country, speaks an Indo-European language. If we exclude this from our definition of “Asia” we would also have to exclude India, but many of the debaters of the 90s may have been doing this anyway. If we bundle together the Sino-Tibetan language family, the Austronesian language family and a few isolates like Japanese and Korean we do manage to get all the usual suspects. But on what basis do we bundle this language families together? Why would we assume these separate families have a togetherness that excludes Indo-European languages? Moreover, even if we could, the inclusion of Austronesian languages necessitates calling the nations of the South Pacific “Asian”, and even doing the same for Madagascar. I really doubt anyone was including them in their crude definitions of Asia.

What about religion, or broader worldview? There’s little common denominator here. There is an important, and real (at least in a tendency towards bureaucratic government) “Confucian” sphere comprising Greater China, Vietnam, Korea and Japan that excludes Australia, but it also excludes a great deal of what we are used to calling Asia. Likewise, Buddhism is widespread, but it not present or a majority in many of the countries involved. Even in countries where it is present it has a historical association with political elites, and may say no more about national identity than that those same elites now can speak English. In Japan, amongst the darkest on that map, Buddhism is for the most part a veneer at funerals, to compliment the Shinto veneer at birth and the peculiar faux Christianity at weddings. The Muslims in Indonesia and Malaysia have a shared Abrahamic heritage with Christian majority societies like Australia that is entirely absent with other “Asian” countries and the Phillipines, as well as sizable and growing minorities elsewhere are Christian. There’s little help here.

We could turn to the Wallace line, which represents a sharp biological divide, but;  What do these other species have to do with Human affairs? It may divide off Australia, but where do we draw lines elsewhere to make an “Asia? And would this make BJ Habibie one of us?

There is no historical empire that once covered them all, they don’t have a shared colonial experience and looking for racial characteristics is as distasteful as it is fruitless (would we then decide that Australia is roughly 8% part of Asia). Where do we turn?

The last “Banyan” – the pseudonym used for The Economist’s Asian correspondent, tried an attitudinal tact when defending the idea of Asia.

What a huge chunk of Asia does have in common is a joint adventure, namely the pursuit of materialism based on rapid economic development. The optimism is striking. Tomorrow may look different from today, but everyone agrees that it is likely to be better.

But as I put it here

Banyan’s effort at finding a definition of Asia is a fair stab at defending the concept. Whilst it excludes the Middle East (The original ‘Asia’), Central Asia and parts of South Asia by it’s focus on optimism, growth, dynamism and expectations of change, it also interestingly excludes Japan, who in her malaise must seem far more Western.

On the other hand, the only thing that appears to exclude Australia (which remains far more positive than any of her apparent peers in the ‘West’) from Asia by Banyan’s standard is the lack of a history of violently insane governments that gives Banyan pause whenever they see arrogance arising. I don’t think we are alone in Asia in this, or maybe we could claim indigenous history on our membership form.

The second paragraph refers to Banyan’s apprehensions about the standard of governance, and what he sees as shallow rooted democracies. It may well be  that Australia differs from “Asia” is this regard, given no democracy in Asia behaves the way ours has done consistently over the past century. But neither does any in Africa or South America, nor do most in Europe (note the paucity of democracies by 1939) and the South Pacific. Given this apparent rarity, our democracy may help define Australia, but it in no way helps define an Asia for us not to be a part of – even if we accept the all too easy dismissal of Asian democracy.

This has been entertaining, and I invite you all to try it as well, but I have to conclude that Australia is not part of Asia for the same reason that it is not part of Purple Dinokranskyland: Because Asia doesn’t exist.

[fn1] Thus I triangulate the dispute and bring peace to the world

About Richard Tsukamasa Green

Richard Tsukamasa Green is an economist. Public employment means he can't post on policy much anymore. Also found at @RHTGreen on twitter.
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14 Responses to Holiday fun times: Define Asia

  1. J Rosencrantz says:

    Richard, you’ve definitely covered a wide base there! At times it does seem like the term ‘Asia’ is just used as a catch-all term. That is, if it comes from this particular geographic region, and it’s not British/European, then it must be Asian. Try to push any deeper, and you’re forced to break it up (Chinese, Indian, Indonesian, etc).

    But for my two cents, perhaps Asia could be defined according to a history of interactions? Take Europe: its countries traded with, travelled to, stole from, and made war with, each other over a long period of time. Their cultures could be called ‘linked’. So, if countries in Asia interacted with each other in a similar way, but not with Europe/elsewhere, this could give rise to a cultural ‘otherness’ distinct from Europe.

    Of course, I have little to no knowledge of Asian history, so this is all a stab in the dark. But hey, it’s plausible!

    By this definition, Australia would be excluded, both on the colonial side (mostly British) and, most likely, on the Aboriginal side. Though it must be said that not being part of Asia doesn’t stop one from interacting with Asia!

  2. The Brits call Indians ‘Asians’, while Australians tend to think that Indians and Asians are two separate groups (with internal diversity).

    Here it is mainly an ethnic term. People are still described as ‘Asian’ if their families origingally came from China, Japan, etc even if they speak only English and are entirely Western in their culture.

  3. conrad says:

    The biggest group of contiguous countries where people are generally hopeless at sports that require high degrees of athleticism, and where people generally don’t care about that either. Obviously you could point to China here winning medals at the Olympic games, but that’s really a function of the government trying to abuse sport for nationalistic purposes (and the huge pool of people to select from), rather than people actually caring about it.

  4. Patrick says:

    What about Asia means what we use it to mean, which depends on the context in which it is used?

    Does any word have a more precise real definition at the end of the day?

  5. Richard Tsukamasa Green says:

    Andrew – This puts us in an interesting place regarding “Asia”. If we start with “Asian” as an ethnicity, and thus make Asia “The place from which Asians have their ancestry”, we would exclude Australia largely on the basis that “Australian” is not an ethnicity. And then of course there’s trying to work out why we can put someone of Malaysian decent in the same box as someone of Chinese descent when the cultural and historical links arguably put them closer to someone of Indian descent.

    Conrad – I admire the alternative approach, but in an hour I’m about to watch the incredibly popular South Korean football team play the Socceroos, and I have previously been in a 80000 strong crowd in Yokohama seeing the also popular Japanese team doing the same (and having seen a full week of incessant media coverage of the event)I’m prone to doubt it. Given soccer does require athletic ability and has wide cross cultural appeal elsewhere, I think it’s a very valid thing to test you hypothesis. Even in SE Asia and China, the popularity and interest in the sport is astonishingly high, the failure of local and national teams is more due maladministration – something that was true in Australia until recently and in Japan and Korea prior to the mid 90s.

    Patrick – Of course not, but its an entertaining distraction. Nonetheless, whilst we can agree that Wittgenstein’s beetle is what is in the box, with Asia we can’t decide what the box is

  6. murph the surf. says:

    I haven’t often thought of the words fun and holiday being used together as an adjective.
    Then again the questions asked are all set up to fail as the final conclusion is that there ain’t no such thing as Asia.
    The writer tackles the geographical,linguistic and cultural approaches to finding a unified area which could then be labelled as asian-all have deficiencies in some way.
    The exception is the Wallace line.This is a definite border and is recognised as such.
    The map in the wikipedia article about sino-tibetan languages look as close to the mark on what I usually think of as Asia an with a bit of fudging you can just say south east asia is really just a set ot ex-tribute states under the influence of China so they can be included too!
    Finally it struck me and this is probably not unrelated to the fact that at 7.23 am I am about to eat breakfast- the stable diet argument – those areas where rice is the venerated food could be used to define what areas are asian.
    The Uighers are out- bread and bun lovers the lot, as is the middle east and the north west of the indian subcontinent.
    You could even tweak the definition to include how the rice is prepared – do the locals wash it before boiling and do they use the absorption technique? Are rice farmers elevated in the social standing as well?

  7. Richard – Because ‘Australian’ is not an ethnic category, I have no trouble thinking of someone who is Malaysian-born of Indian background as ‘Australian’. But I would not without some further clarification describe them as ‘Asian’. Given ethnic troubles in Malaysia, perhaps there are similar issues there.

    Now that you mention Wittgenstein, his idea of family resemblances might be useful here – nobody in the family might have all the same features, but there is enough overlap that we can see that they are linked and different from other families.

    Others would know more about this than me, but I have been struck in the past by how even very young children are able to classify quite different looking animals and objects into the correct broad categories. Something in the human mind lets us do this even if as adults we still struggle to articulate the common features.

  8. Patrick says:

    That is bascially what I was gettng at Richard. Andrew I agree.

  9. conrad says:

    “Something in the human mind lets us do this even if as adults we still struggle to articulate the common features.”

    There’s oodles of stuff on that in the psychology literature. Basically, if you are constantly in contact with members or even things of the same category, then your system used to perceive things starts making more and more minute differences salient — a bit like learning the features of a fractal. You could start with the top level, but as you got familiar with that, you could start learning the more specific features and so on ad infinitum. There are some arguments about you having to learn some differences amongst a small number of things really early on in life to be able to tell the differences between them later on, but the general pattern still holds.

    Apart from the stereotyped examples, where we think people of some races all look the same, a really good example of this are people that keep lots of the same type of bird. For example, for all intents and purposes, most chickens look the same to me (apart from being white, brown or black). But in places of the world where chickens just seem to run around everywhere, you’ll find that their owners can distinguish happily between them, and can often rank them on various morphological characteristic that could be used in breeding that your average city dweller would have a hard time even describing.

    I think what this means is that ranking humans based on _perceived_ morphological variability isn’t going to work, because people’s perception of the variability differs depending on whom they are exposed to — hence the idea of family resemblance won’t work because you need some common set of things most people think or can at least implicitly categorize things on, but this doesn’t exist (i.e., the set features you use to categorize humans on is different to the set I use).

    Alternative you could cluster humans based on genetic differences. If you did this, you do get categories like “East Asian”, “Caucasian” etc. However, even this won’t work well, because it relies on you stopping with a certain number of clusters, and if you want categories like “East Asian” or “Caucasian” you are really stopping at a very small number of clusters (and the category “African” is entirely hopeless, since it contains more genetic diversity than the rest of the world put together). This means means that there will always be some places where the population falls in-between clusters, sometimes even within countries (e.g., Western China).

  10. While a ‘ranking’ may not have any validity, the ‘family resemblance’ is usable enough in everyday language in describing someone’s ethnicity. A combination of factors of skin colour, facial features, eye and hair colour, and build will provide generally reliable predictions of a person’s ethnic origins, and the more you know the more likely it is you are going to get a more precise location (as with your chicken example).

  11. conrad says:

    “the ‘family resemblance’ is usable enough in everyday language in describing someone’s ethnicity…”

    To some extent, but there are problems both cross-culturally and even within cultures — I guess it depends on what you mean by reliable and what you mean by ethnicity. For example, try asking a white guy over 60 if people from China and the Philippines look the same. The answer will probably be yes. Now ask someone from China or the Philippines (or possibly most people in Aus under a certain age). The answer will be no.

  12. Richard Tsukamasa Green says:

    Japanese stereotype (note that stereotypes are ecological fallacies rather than inaccurate observations) Koreans as having square faces, the Koreans stereotype the Japanese as short, as do Northern Chinese from Southern Chinese.

    If we were to use features, I wonder what feature we would use. The best I can think of is “a country with x proportion of the population has single eyelids”. No country has 100% with single eyelids, not 100% without, but the feature is a stereotype of East and SE Asia. But that would make a doubled eyelidded person Asian by virtue of their neighbours.

  13. An old white guy might have trouble telling the difference between people from the Phillipines and China, but nobody he is likely to mee would tell him he is wrong if he described both as Asian.

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