Asia is the largest of all the continents and includes within its limits an area of 17,159,995 sq mi, or about 33% of the world’s total land surface and the greater part of the Eurasian land mass. The border between Europe is traditionally drawn as an imaginary zigzag line passing down the spine of the Ural Mountains and through the Caspian Sea, Caucasus Mountains, and Black Sea. The boundary dividing Asia and Africa is generally placed along the Suez Canal, and the boundary between Asia and Australasia is usually placed between the island of New Guinea and Australia.
Asia is by far the most populous of all the continents, with an estimated population in 1992 of 3,275,200,000, or more than 60% of the world’s total population. The population is, however, diverse and divided by language, race, religion, politics, economics, and cultural origins into a complex cultural mosaic.
The nations of Asia are usually grouped into five main geographical and political-cultural subdivisions:
1. Southwest Asia, which includes Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Cyprus, Georgia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen, plus Asian Turkey and Egypt east of the Suez Canal (Sinai Peninsula).
5. Central and North Asia, which includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, plus Asian Russia (Siberia) and three of the five autonomous regions of China (Inner Mongolia, Sinkiang-Uighur, Tibet)
LAND AND RESOURCES
The topography of Asia comprises of a series of high mountain belts, which are the dominant land forms, and a related complex of plateaus, basins, island arcs, and alluvial lowlands. The highest point is Mount Everest, which towers to 29,028 ft in Nepal; the lowest point is 1,296 ft below sea level along the shores of the Dead Sea in Israel and Jordan. The Ural Mountains on the western edge of Asia trend in a north-south direction, but most other belts extend across the continent in a general west-east direction and converge in a knot of high mountains in the Pamirs, located where the borders of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, China, and Afghanistan come together. West of the Pamirs, two main mountain belts are discernible. The southern one crosses the island of Cyprus, enters the mainland to form the Taurus Mountains along the southern edge of Turkey, swings along the southern edge of the Iranian Plateau to form the Zagros Mountains, and on into Pakistan before turning north to become the Hindu Kush and join the Pamirs. The northern mountain belt in Asia west of the Pamirs enters the continent at the Crimean Peninsula, swings eastward to form the Caucasus Mountains between the Black and Caspian seas, continues south of the Caspian Sea as the Elburz Mountains of Iran and the Kopet Mountains on the Iran-Azerbaijan border, and crosses into Afghanistan to merge with the Hindu Kush and the Pamirs.
East of the Pamirs, three mountain belts are discernible. One belt trends northeastward toward the Pacific Ocean and forms the Alai Range in Kyrgyzstan, the Tian Shan (Tien Shan) and Da Hinggan (Greater Khinghan) Range in China, the Altai Mountains in Kazakhstan, and the Sayan, Yablonovy, and Stanovoi mountains in Russia. A second mountain belt, located farther south, extends eastward from the Pamirs to form the Kunlun Mountains, Astin Tagh, and Nan Shan in China. This belt continues across the middle of China, separating North China from South China, as the Qin Ling (Tsinling).
The third and most southerly of the mountain belts radiating eastward from the Pamirs turns southeastward to form the Karakoram Range and the Himalayas and then abruptly southward at the eastern end of the Tibetan Plateau, where it splits into lesser ranges that continue southward as the Arakan Yoma in Burma, the mountainous rib of the Malay Peninsula, and the Annam Mountains (Annamitic Cordillera) in Vietnam.
Numerous plateaus and structural basins are located within or along the margins of these mountain ranges. The highest is the Tibetan Plateau, which has an average elevation of over13,000 ft and is bordered by some of the world’s highest mountains, including the Himalayas on the south, the Karakoram on the west, and the Kunlun Mountains on the north. This entire complex of high mountains and plateaus is often referred to as the “roof of the world.” To the north of Tibet are three important Chinese basins: the Qaidam (Tsaidam) Basin, the Tarim Basin , and the Junggar (Dzungarian) Basin.
Also important to China are the Sichuan (Szechwan, or Red) Basin, located in the western province of Sichuan; the Gobi Plateau, a vast, semidesert upland located in Mongolia and China’s Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region and the Loess Plateau, located south of the Gobi, which is covered with an immense thickness of windblown loess deposits derived from the Gobi. Other plateaus in Asia are the Anatolian Plateau, in Turkey; the Arabian Plateau, mainly in Saudi Arabia; the Deccan Plateau, in peninsular India; and the Vitim and Aldan plateaus, in Russia.
Numerous islands, arranged in a series of arcs, fringe the Southeast Asian and Pacific coasts of the continent. The islands of the Southeast Asian archipelago pick up the main trend lines of Burma’s Arakan Yoma and continue them through the Andaman and Nicobar islands of India and the islands of Sumatra, Java, and Bali in the Indonesian archipelago. Near Bali the main trend of the mountainous belt splits into two segments. One segment continues eastward through the islands of Timor, the Moluccas, and New Guinea and eventually forms the mountains of New Zealand; the other segment turns northeastward and passes in a series of arcs through Borneo, the Philippine archipelago, Taiwan, the Ryukyu Islands, Japan, and Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands before touching the mainland in the Kamchatka Peninsula (Russia). These island arcs are seismically active, and earthquakes and volcanic eruptions frequently occur.
Asia’s most extensive lowlands are located in former Soviet Asia. They are the Western Siberian Plain, a vast, subarctic forested region located east of the Urals, and the Kirghiz Steppe, a semiarid plain located mainly in Kazakhstan. Other important lowlands are mainly in the alluvial valleys and deltas developed by rivers flowing to the south and east. The largest of the alluvial valleys is the Indo-Gangetic Plain, located in the Indian subcontinent between the Himalayas and the Deccan Plateau. Occupying parts of Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, it is drained by the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra rivers; river water is diverted extensively across the plain for irrigation, and the region is one of the world’s most intensively cultivated and most densely populated places. Other Asian lowlands are the North China Plain, its soils enriched for centuries by loess sediments spread over the valley and deltas of the Huang He (Hwang Ho, or Yellow River); the alluvial valleys and deltas of the Yangtze (China), Irrawaddy (Burma), and Mekong (Cambodia) rivers; and the Fertile Crescent of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Iraq.
Five Asian “shield” areas (geologically stable areas of ancient crystalline rock) are usually recognized. They are the Arabian and Indian shields in the south and the Tarim Basin (Seridian massif), Northern China (the Chinese massif), and the Siberian (Angara) Shield. Great thicknesses of sediments accumulated between these blocks of stable rocks and were subsequently folded and uplifted in periods of mountain building (orogenies). Asia has had a complex orogenic (mountain-building) history. The Caldonian Orogeny occurred in the Silurian and Devonian periods and is recorded in Asia by the Sayan and other mountains of eastern Siberia. The Hercynian Orogeny occurred in the Late Carboniferous (Pennsylvanian) and Permian periods and created several mountain ranges–the Urals, Tian Shan, Kunlun, and Qin Ling (Tsingling).
According to plate-tectonics theory, by the close of the Permian Period, Asia, together with the ancestral cores of all the other continents, formed the supercontinent known as Pangaea. During the Triassic Period, Pangaea split apart into the northern land mass of Laurasia (from which North America, Europe, and northern Asia later developed) and the southern land mass of Gondwanaland (from which India and the continents of the Southern Hemisphere later developed). A large sea called Tethys separated the two landmasses. By the end of the Jurassic Period, Gondwanaland fragmented, and the Indian plate began a northeastward movement. It eventually collided with and was drawn under the edge of the Eurasian plate, and in the process Tethyan sediments were deformed and uplifted to form the Himalayas, Tibetan Plateau, and other high mountains of southern Asia. The African plate moved northward and collided with Eurasia to thrust up the European Alps and the mountains of Asia west of the Himalayas. Much later, probably during the Miocene Epoch, rifting and seafloor spreading created the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, and Arabia split away from Africa to form a separate plate. Earth movements occur today in the Indonesian, Japanese, Philippine, and other Pacific island arcs; in these areas there is widespread seismic and volcanic activity, attesting to the geological instability of the region.
Three broad climatic realms may be distinguished in Asia. They are: monsoon Asia, dry Asia, and cold Asia.
1. Monsoon Asia
The climate of South, Southeast, and East Asia is strongly influenced by the immensity of the Asian land mass, the barrier presented by its great highland core, and the monsoon wind system. In summer, the continental interior of Asia heats up rapidly as a result of increased isolation as the overhead sun moves toward the Tropic of Cancer. Warm air above the heart of Asia rises and creates low-pressure centers. The air pressures above the Pacific and Indian oceans are relatively high. Consequently, strong, moisture-laden winds are drawn inland from the oceans into the low-pressure areas of Asia, bringing heavy rainfall wherever they are forced to rise up over low hills, mountains, or other topographic obstacles. The summer monsoon in India interrupts a very hot, dry spell. Elsewhere in Southeast and East Asia the break is not as dramatic, but rainfall in all of monsoon Asia is concentrated in the summer months. In the coastal region of East Asia, tropical cyclones (typhoons) bring additional precipitation and devastating winds.
In winter, the land surface in the interior of Asia cools off more rapidly than the surrounding oceans. As a result, cold descending air currents over the heart of Asia generate high-pressure centers facing the relatively low-pressure zones over the Indian and Pacific oceans, where temperatures are higher. From October to about April, cold, dry, continental winds blow offshore from inland Asia. This is the season of the winter monsoon.
Places exposed to the monsoons are warmer in summer and colder in winter than places in corresponding latitudes not under their influence. They are also, for the most part, the wettest parts of Asia.
Within this large monsoon area, important temperature differences exist between north and south. An equatorial climate predominates over much of Indonesia and Malaysia; average annual temperature is about 70 degrees F and average annual rainfall more than 80 in. North of the equatorial region is a tropical monsoon area, in which summers are hot and humid (average temperatures over 80 degrees F) and winters cool (50 degrees F) and dry. Rainfall is more than 50 in). Climates in the rest of monsoon Asia range from warm temperate in central China and southern Japan to cool temperate in northern China and Japan. Similarly, the length of the growing season, which is the period between killing frosts in the warm half of the year, decreases gradually from almost a full year in Indonesia to about four months in China’s northeast.
2. Dry Asia
Parts of Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and Mongolia have a wide range of dry climates that range latitudinally from the tropical deserts of the Arabian Peninsula in the west to the subtropical steppe climate present in Iran and Afghanistan and the mid latitude steppe and deserts of Mongolia and northern China. Rainfall varies from a low of less than 1 in in parts of the Gobi Desert to 8 in in Central Asia. Throughout this belt, rainfall is extremely unpredictable. The eastern coastal fringe of the Mediterranean Basin (the Levant) has a typical Mediterranean climate and receives rain in winter; average annual precipitation along this Western edge of dry Asia is about 20 in.
3. Cold Asia
Most of Asian Russia has a cold climate. The southern regions have a subarctic climate, where summers are mild (70 degrees F) and short, lasting for less than four months. Rainfall decreases from about 20 inches in coastal locations to less than 10 in in the interior. The extreme northern section of Asia is dominated by the polar tundra climate, where the low year-round temperatures (warmest month averages below 50 degrees F) create a permanently frozen subsoil known as permafrost.
The major rivers of Asia, that is, those reaching the sea, include the Ob, Yenisei, and Lena, which flow northward to the Arctic Ocean; the Amur, Huang He, and Yangtze (the world’s third-longest river, after the Nile and the Amazon), which drain eastward to the Sea of Okhotsk, Yellow Sea, and East China Sea, respectively, all coastal seas of the Pacific Ocean; the Ganges, Indus, and Brahmaputra rivers, which flow southward toward the Indian Ocean; the Mekong, Irrawaddy, and Salween, which rise in eastern Tibet and drain southward through the peninsulas of Southeast Asia; and the Tigris and Euphrates system, which flows into the Persian Gulf, an arm of the Indian Ocean. In addition, about 5,000,000 sq mi of land in Central Asia are drained by rivers that do not reach the sea. This is the internal, or inland, drainage area of Asia. The Ili flows into Lake Balkhash; the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya into the Aral Sea; and the Ural River into the Caspian Sea. Others are intermittent streams, which flow only after heavy rains; their waters evaporate in the deserts, and some end in salt lakes or playas, which may be dry part of the year.
The Dead Sea, a saltwater lake whose shore is the lowest point on Earth, is fed by the Jordan River. The Caspian Sea, also saline and the world’s largest inland body of water, loses more water by evaporation than it receives from streams and precipitation. The Aral Sea, about175 mi to the east, is also saline and once covered a much larger area. Lake Baikal in southern Siberia is the world’s deepest lake (5,712 ft) and has only one outlet, the Angara River. The waters of Lake Baikal are fresh.
Soil types correspond closely to their respective climatic and natural vegetation regions. In the permafrost region of northern Asia are tundra soils, unusable for agriculture because of the short growing season and impeded drainage but otherwise rich in organic matter. South of the tundra, in the vast coniferous forest region of cold temperate Asia, are podzols with high acidity and low organic content. Farther south, in the zone of mixed coniferous and deciduous forests, the gray brown forest soils have higher humus content and are less acidic than the podzols. Between the temperate forests of northern Asia and the deserts of Central Asia a belt of chernozem and chestnut soils appears. These black to dark-brown soils are very rich in humus and mineral nutrients and are very productive when farmed. The desert and mountain soils of dry Asia have little to offer for agricultural production. Even where irrigation is possible, a danger of salt and alkali accumulation in the topsoil exists resulting from the evaporation of mineralized underground water through capillary action. Consequently, cultivation in dry Asia is confined to well-drained alluvial soils along major river valleys.
The soils of hot, humid monsoon Asia belong to the major soil category known as pedalfers. These soils are rich in iron and aluminum material. High temperatures promote rapid oxidation and contribute to their reddish or yellowish appearance. Heavy rainfall washes soluble mineral and organic matter from the topsoil to the subsoil, leaving insoluble minerals, such as aluminum, in the topsoil. These tropical red earths are generally infertile, and therefore agriculture in monsoon Asia is confined mostly to alluvial soils along river valleys. Some prominent exceptions exist: soils developed on basic volcanic ash in the northeastern Deccan Plateau (India) and in Java are among the richest soils in monsoon Asia.
Much of the original green cover in monsoon Asia has been replaced by secondary growth or farmlands as a result of centuries of cultivation. Even in the equatorial region of Southeast Asia periodic burning by shifting cultivators has greatly reduced the extent of tropical rain forest, and tropical deciduous forests dominate what little forest area remains. These forests yield valuable tropical hardwoods, such as teak, sal, ironwood, and bamboo.
In dry Asia limited vegetation, such as short grasses, will occur even on the edges of the most barren desert areas. Most of these desert plants are xerophytic (drought resistant) and halophytic (salt tolerant). More significant vegetation occurs where ground water is available near the surface.
Separating cold Asia from dry Asia is an extensive band of low grasslands called the steppe. Steppe vegetation predominates in Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. North of the steppe land is a narrow transition zone of mixed forest. Farther to the north lies the vast expanse of coniferous forest known as taiga in Russia. The taiga is a rich storehouse of commercially valuable needle leaf softwoods, such as spruce, larch, fir, and pine. Even farther north, lichens, mosses, and occasional dwarf willows manage to survive in the cold tundra.
Arctic animals, although noted for their mobility, are even less diverse than arctic plants. Polar bears, mouse like lemmings, reindeer, and arctic foxes are common animals in the tundra region. The mammals and birds of subarctic Asiatic Russia are of the cold, hardy type. Examples are the Altai elk, brown bear, wolf, ermine, sable, and the erne (a Siberian eagle similar to the bald eagle). Birds are prominent vertebrates in Asian deserts. Animals peculiar to dry Asia include the kuland (Mongolian wild ass), the Bactrian camel, the saiga (an antelope), the Tibetan antelope, the kiang, the yak, the argali (wild sheep), and the markhor (wild goat). In East Asia are found such indigenous animals as the takin, bharal (wild Himalayan sheep), goral (a rock goat), musk deer, sika, Thor-old’s deer, Pere David’s deer, panda, Asiatic black bear, and high-altitude salamanders. Tigers and elephants are still found in some southern parts of the continent.
Asia’s coal deposits are the largest in the world. About one-fourth of the world’s total reserves are located in Russia; other coal reserves occur in nearly every province of China, in Indonesia, in India, in Korea, in Kyrgyzstan, and in Uzbekistan. In 1991, China ranked 1st in world coal production and India 5th. Nearly half of the coal extracted in the former USSR, which ranked 3d in world production in 1991, is mined in Russia. Asia also has vast oil deposits, especially in the Persian Gulf area; in the South China and Yellow seas and other parts of the continental shelf off the coasts of East, Southeast, and South Asia; and in Russia, with smaller deposits in Turkmenistan. The former USSR ranked 1st among world crude-oil producers in 1991, Saudi Arabia 2nd, Iran 4th, and China 5th; the United Arab Emirates, Indonesia, Kuwait, Egypt, Oman, Malaysia, India, Iraq, Syria, and Qatar are also significant producers. Nearly one-third of the world’s natural gas reserves are located in Russia, although marketing difficulties limited production there before the construction of a pipeline in the 1980s that enabled Russia to supply Western Europe as well as to increase domestic supplies.
Iron ore is abundant in China, which ranked 2d in world production in 1989, and in India, which ranked 6th. Tin is widely distributed in Southeast Asia, with Malaysia and Indonesia ranking among the top world producers. Asia also has large deposits of bauxite and a variety of other minerals, including major world deposits of chromium, manganese, mercury, selenium, tellurium, tungsten, zinc, graphite, magnesite, mica, pyrite, and talc. Japan, although it is the industrial giant in Asia, has few of the mineral resources needed for modern industry and must import them.
Irrigation canals crisscross the Indo-Gangetic Plain, Yangtze Valley, and other alluvial lowlands of monsoon Asia. Irrigation during the dry season of the monsoon makes possible a double and triple cropping of land where year-round temperatures are warm enough and has been a major factor in the ability of Asia’s river valleys to support such large population clusters. Irrigation and the availability of ground water for growing crops in oases are also major factors in the settlement and economic development of most of dry Asia in the southwest. Rivers remain the primary means of transportation for most Asian countries outside Japan. Road and rail facilities are generally limited, although India’s network is extensive.
Only a small part of the continent’s vast hydroelectric power potential has been developed, most of it in such fuel-deficient nations as Japan and Bangladesh or as part of a larger program of river improvements as in the Indus and Mekong river basin projects. Rivers with enormous hydroelectric potential are the Yangtze, Ob, Lena, and Yenisei.
Only about 17% of all Asia excluding the former USSR is planted in crops and only 14% of all Asia including the former USSR. India has the most arable land, with 403,629,000 acres, or 50% of its total area, under cultivation. China ranks second, with 255,070,000 acres, or 11% of its total area, under crops; and Turkey a poor third, with 67,739,000 acres, or 35% of its total area, under crops. Other large arable landholdings are in Iran, which has 50,002,000 acres, or 12% of its total area, under crops; Indonesia, which has 47,938,000 acres, or 10% of its area, cultivated; and Pakistan, which has 42,219,000 acres, or 24% of its total area, planted to crops.
Forest and Fish Resources
Forests cover about one-third of Russia and 20% of the rest of Asia. Russia has the largest reserves of commercial softwoods in the world (mostly east of the Urals) and leads the world in timber production. Deciduous forests are extensive in southern Asia, especially in the tropical and subtropical parts of monsoon Asia. Indonesia and India together account for half of all Asian woods cut from deciduous forests. In the wake of industrialization, however, deforestation is occurring in South and Southeast Asia, as it had earlier in China.
Japan and Russia are the world’s two top-ranking fish producers, and both maintain large oceangoing fishing fleets. China is the third-ranking fish producer, and India is fourth. In keeping with the intensive cultivation of land in Asia, fish are also raised in flooded rice fields.
Traditional Culture Areas
Asia has a long cultural heritage of great diversity. Sedentary agriculture and the beginnings of urban life and civilization developed before 4000 BC in Mesopotamia (southwestern Asia), about 3000 BC at Harappa and Mohenjo-daro in the Indus Valley, now in Pakistan , and about 2000 BC in the unrelated development of Chinese culture in the loess lands of China’s middle Huang He valley . These three areas of early civilization served as “culture hearths,” or centers from which major cultural traditions, modified by later differences in religion, nationalism, and historical circumstance, were transferred outward and adopted over wide areas of Asia (and sometimes beyond).
Six major cultural regions are recognized in Asia. The three dominant ones are Southwest (or Islamic) Asia, South (or Indic) Asia, and East (or Sinic) Asia, which developed from the three original culture hearths. The fourth is Southeast Asia. Set between China and India, this region is what political and cultural geographers call a “shatter zone,” or culture area dominated by two or more strong neighboring cultures. The remaining two culture areas are Northern (or Russian) Asia and Central (or Interior) Asia, both sparsely populated and peripherally located in terms of the major culture hearths.
Southwest (or Islamic) Asia roughly coincides with the dry belt of desert and semidesert lands that extend eastward from the eastern Mediterranean (Levant) shores as far as Afghanistan. This area is customarily linked with North Africa under the labels Near or Middle East or Arab World; the latter is misleading, however, because non-Arabs constitute a majority of the population in Iran, Israel, and Turkey. The Southwest Asian culture area saw the development of early agriculture in Mesopotamia and the rise and fall of numerous ancient kingdoms and empires. It was unified by Islam in the 7th century, but important concentrations of non-Islamic peoples remain, including Christians in Syria, Armenia, and Lebanon, and Jews, mainly in Israel.
South (or Indic) Asia is located on the Indian subcontinent and dominated by India. The culture dates from about 1500 BC when Aryans invaded northern India. Their Vedic religion merged with indigenous customs and beliefs to produce Hinduism, which continues to play a major role in social organization and structure; it remains an important influence even in northern areas where Islam now prevails. Buddhism, founded in India in the 6th century BC, had its main cultural impact elsewhere.
The nations included in East (or Sinic) Asia share a common culture developed by the ancient Chinese in the Huang He loesslands and unified during the Shang dynasty about 1500 BC. Periodically invaded by nomads from the northern steppes, the East Asian culture region included most of modern China by about 100 BC, began to move southward into Vietnam about the same time, and reached out to Korea and Japan about AD 400. Social organization and structure within the region are strongly influenced by ancient Chinese concepts of familial duty and ancestor worship that were articulated in Confucianism and Japanese Shinto, and to a lesser degree in Daoism (Taoism) and Chinese Buddhism.
Southeast Asia embraces the peninsulas and islands located between India and China. The indigenous peoples of this region were pushed from the lowlands into isolated hill areas by migrants from China and the rest of Asia in a process beginning 2,500 years ago. Buddhism became the dominant religion, but Islamic influences, brought by Arab traders after the 12th century AD, and colonial penetrations by the British, French, Dutch, Spanish, and Americans after the 17th century brought much cultural diversification.
North Asia (Asiatic Russia) borders on Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and China to the south and extends northward across Siberia to the shores of the Arctic Ocean. The Russians brought European influences into North Asia and the steppe regions to their south from the 17th century on.
Central (or Inner) Asia is made up of five former Soviet republics–Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan–plus Mongolia and three autonomous regions of China–Tibet, Xinjiang-Uygur, and Inner Mongolia. Isolated by high mountains or broad deserts, Central Asia was for centuries the domain of nomadic herders and various indigenous peoples, including Mongols, Tatars, Tungus, and Yakuts. Central Asia was long feared by the Chinese as the homeland from which invaders repeatedly entered the settled lands of eastern China. Chinese settlement and influence in much of this region has greatly increased in recent years. Islamic influences have gained strength in much of former Soviet Central Asia since 1991.
Racial and Ethnic Groups
Asia has a great diversity of ethnic groups, with two-thirds of all Asian peoples belonging to the Mongoloid group. The largest ethnic group is the Han Chinese, who constitute about 94% of the total population of China and dominate the eastern half of that nation. The remaining 6% of that nation’s population includes Mongols, Uygurs, Huis, Zhuangs, Tibetans, and other groups. The second largest Asian group is the Japanese, who except for a few thousand Ainu on the northern island of Hokkaido, constitute a single ethnic group in Japan. India, by contrast, is ethnically