Asia’s Self-Discovery: How Different Regions of the Continent Came to Understand Each Other (Guest post by Prof Nile Green)

Nile Green


The idea of ‘Asia’ lies at the foundation of the Royal Asiatic Society, as well as the many subdisciplines of Asian studies that emerged from such pioneering institutions. But since ‘Asia’ is of course a European term, it begs the question of how it spread among the languages of Asia itself? How did speakers of those languages respond to this imported concept of a single unitary continent that encompassed so many cultures? Moreover, how were those different cultures interpreted within this great continent? These questions—and the final one especially—are at the heart of my new book, How Asia Found Herself: A Story of Intercultural Understanding.


Nowadays, few people have probably never heard of the Buddha or Confucius, especially in Asia. But we’d be mistaken to assume that such intercultural understanding (or even simple name recognition) is a timeless, default feature of the Asian experience. Based on several hundred sources in a range of languages, my book explores both what different regions of Asia understood about each other, and how that understanding came about. Far from assuming such inter-Asian knowledge had always existed, I chart the massive expansion of Asian-language writings about different regions and religions of the continent enabled by the steam- and print-based Asian communications revolution of the nineteenth to mid-twentieth century.


Yet despite such technological enablers, there remained numerous barriers to inter-Asian understanding, not least the continent’s many distinct languages and writing systems. Translations between culturally or linguistically cognate languages had been made for centuries, whether between Arabic and Turkish or Chinese and Japanese. But as late as the mid-twentieth century, there were still no dictionaries or grammars between many of Asia’s major languages. This prompted various would-be translators to rely on what professional interpreters call a ‘pivot language’. Since the period I survey was also of course the age of Europe’s empires, in effect this meant that European languages—whether English, French, Russian, or Latin—played such pivot roles as intermediaries for translating between various other languages. This was particularly the case with translations between East Asian languages and the languages of West and South Asia, whether the earliest Urdu translations of Confucius or the translation of the Quran into Chinese and Japanese alike, which were made from intermediary European versions rather than directly from Chinese into Urdu, and so on. Even today, this pragmatic translational pattern continues apace, a fact that belies much academic and political rhetoric about inter-Asian interactions.


As a world historian who has spent much of his career mapping out connections across Asia, during the decade I spent searching for then reading such ‘inter-Asian’ writings—whether travelogues, histories, phrase books, newspaper articles, or other such translations—I was surprised myself by some of these findings. One was the extraordinary role that Chinese Hui Muslims played as intercultural intermediaries by learning to write about Chinese history in Arabic as well as Urdu. Another was the Middle Eastern and Indian rediscovery of the religion of Buddha that, from the 1890s onwards, manifested in dozens of accounts of the Buddha ranging from re-translations of Orientalist translations of the Dhammapada to first-hand Muslim descriptions of Buddhism in Southeast Asia. Yet closer attention to such texts revealed flaws as well as breakthroughs, not least in the case of historical forgeries or debunked data that also circulated through the new public sphere that stretched from Istanbul to Yokohama.


Having begun my research with the lazy assumption that a good deal of intercultural understanding had been shared across the Asian continent itself for a very long time, I began to realize that such knowledge is perhaps more the exception than the rule of world history. And this led me to ask what made such knowledge possible, encouraging me to zoom in and out from particular texts to the larger infrastructures of inter-Asian understanding that emerged in the mid-nineteenth century, whether by way of learned institutions and language guides, or new ideologies and concepts (not least that of ‘Asia’ itself). Little by little, I pieced together a series of surprising stories about the forgotten inter-Asian interpreters to whom I ultimately dedicated my book.


And so, I finally returned with more critical eyes to the most basic supposition I began with: the idea of Asia itself that had been introduced to the region it designated in the seventeenth (and especially nineteenth) century. But in as much as the book I wrote is a critique of assumptions of Asian interconnectivity, it is also a celebration of the unsung interpreters who overcame so many interpretive barriers to bring about the imperfect but nonetheless remarkable process of Asia’s self-discovery.


Nile Green, How Asia Found Herself: A Story of Intercultural Understanding (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022).


Quotes from the Press:

“Green’s book is a tour de force… The question he asks—what is Asia, and on whose terms?—is thrilling, invigorating and important.”—Peter Frankopan, The Spectator.


“For centuries the people of the region’s western and southern parts and those of the east and south-east have struggled to make sense of each other. That struggle is at the heart of ‘How Asia Found Herself’” —The Economist.


“In this fascinating and original study, Green explores sources in Arabic, Persian, Urdu and other languages to see how Bahai, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and Zoroastrian travelers, merchants, and polemicists tried to understand and influence the societies and cultures of China, Japan, and Southeast Asia.” – Andrew J. Nathan, Foreign Affairs.


“Green’s book tells the story of how writers in various Asian countries attempted to make sense of a continent that was bestowed upon them—or foisted, if you prefer—by European cartographers, explorers, merchants and colonizers …. a book of rigorous—and refreshing—honesty.”—Tunku Varadarajan, Wall Street Journal.


“A majestic study of inter-Asian interactions. Green explains in dazzling detail how Asians came to understand the concept of Asia.”—Tansen Sen, author of India, China, and the World.