Asia, the largest continent of the world. It contains about 17-1/2 million square miles, and exceeds by about one million square miles the New World, falling short to about the same extent of the collective area of the other great divisions of the Old World, viz. Europe, Africa, and Australasia. Europe and Africa are indeed from a geographical point of view appendages of Asia, while geologically the large and important group of islands extending from Sumatra to Australia are connected with the south-eastern seaboard of Asia. On three sides Asia is bounded by oceans; by the Arctic on the north, by the Pacific on the east, and by the Indian on the south. At its extreme north-eastern point Asia is separated by a strait barely 36 miles wide from the westernmost promontory of the New World. From Cape Romania, the extreme point of the Malay peninsula, to Cape Chelyuskin, which juts into the Arctic Sea, it is about 5,300 miles, and from the narrow waterway of the Suez Canal to Behring's Straits is about 6,700 miles. The general configuration of the continent is that of a rough quadrangle facing towards the four points of the compass, but broken on the south by the Arabian, Indian, and Malayan peninsulas, three promontories which offer a curious analogy to the three corresponding peninsulas of Southern Europe, viz. Spain, Italy, and Greece.
The islands of Asia, beginning from the east, are Sakhalin, Japan, where the climate is agreeably modified by the Kuro Siwo, the eastern counterpart of the Gulf Stream; the smaller group of the Liu-Kiu islands, which have long formed a subject of contention between Japan and China; Formosa, whence the transition through the Batanes and Babuyan groups to the Philippines is easy. Formosa, crossed by the Tropic of Cancer, stands on the verge of the torrid and temperate zones, and marks the extreme northern extension of the Malay, which here meets the Chinese race. Beyond one passes with the Philippines into Australasia proper, and the Malayan archipelago, through which the south-eastern extremity of Asia merges into the Australian continent. Modern scientific research has indicated a line of physical separation along the channel between Borneo and the Celebes, called the Straits of Macassar, to the west of which the flora and fauna are essentially Asiatic in their type, while to the south and east the Australian element begins to be distinctly marked. This is called Wallace's boundary, after the distinguished naturalist whose investigations established this physical conclusion.
The entire northern confines of the continent are occupied by a broad belt of lowland marshes called tundras, which are fast frozen for some nine months in the year, and over which the Samoyedes hunt and fish. Hither in the short summer the reindeer comes to crop the mosses - the only vegetation in this rigorous climate. A few hundred miles to the south the tundras give place to the rising ground and highlands of Southern Siberia. The whole of the interior consists of the loftiest and most extensive table-land in the world, with a height ranging up to 15,000 ft., and traversed by the mighty mountain ranges of Himalaya, Hindu Kush, Kuen Lun, Tian Shan, and Altai. This table-land widens out to the east, but towards the west four of the mountain chains converge towards a central knot, the Pamir or Roof of the World. A western extension of the same table-land is formed by the Iranian plateau, which stretches through Afghanistan, Baluchistan, and Persia, and even as far as Asia Minor and Mount Lebanon. This great plateau has several well defined divisions, such as the Tibetan highlands, the loftiest of all, buttressed by the Himalayas, and the Kuen Lun, the Pamir already mentioned, the Tsaidam depression north of Tibet, and the basin of the Tarim river which drains into Lob Nor at an altitude of about 2,000 feet. This huge mountainous mass, between the 65th and 100th meridian east of Greenwich, and the 28th and 35th degree of N. latitude, is the predominant feature of the continent. Notwithstanding the marked differences within its area, the enormous extent and great mean elevation of the whole region are enough to give to the entire continent an average altitude of no less than 1,600 feet, or about 600 feet more than Europe, and 500 more than the estimate made by Humboldt on the data available early in the present century. While the interior of the continent presents evidence of increasing desiccation, around the seaboard a slow process of upheaval has been going on. On the north coast, islands which a hundred years ago stood at some distance from the land are now connected with it by rocky isthmuses, and similar tendencies have been observed at various points from the Black Sea in the west to Kamschatka in the east.
Hydrography. - There are several distinct systems of inland drainage in Asia, such as the basin of the Tarim, which drains the vast plain of Eastern Turkistan, a region now occupied by an expanse of sandy desert fringed with oases dotted at intervals along its northern and southern confines, but formerly studded with populous cities and traversed by the historic route of the silk traders who trafficked between Cathay and the West. Other land-locked basins are the hamun or lake into which the Halmand conveys the drainage of Southern Afghanistan, the Dead Sea fed by the Jordan, and the Aral Sea, which receives the drainage of a vast area through the twin rivers Oxus (Amu-daria) and Jaxartes (Sir Daria). Formerly the basin of the Aral must have been of far greater extent, communicating with the Black Sea, the Caspian, and Arctic Ocean, and forming a vast Asiatic Mediterranean. Altogether the area of the interior catchment basins is estimated at about four million square miles, while Africa can boast of few besides the Chad and Ngami basins, and Europe and America have no such inland drainage. In large freshwater lakes Asia is singularly deficient, Lake Baikal being the only lake comparable to those of Central Africa and North America.
The seaward drainage comprises some of the largest rivers of the world. The Obi and Yenisei rise south of the mountains fringing the Mongolian plateau, and with the Lena (which now rises on the outer slopes, though it seems to have been formerly connected with the Angara basin) discharge their waters into the Arctic Ocean. The Amur rises beyond the encircling range of the Mongolian tableland, and the head waters of the Hoang-ho and Yang-tse-kiang are found far inland on the crest of the Tibetan highlands. These three rivers flow to the Pacific. The southern rivers, the Mekong, Salwen, Irrawaddy, Brahmaputra or Sanpo, and Indus, rise behind the range of the Himalaya mountains, while the Ganges and Jumna rise on their outer slopes. In the extreme west of the continent the Tigris and Euphrates flow to the Persian Gulf, and the Araxis to the Caspian from the Armenian and Kurdistan highlands. The list of great Asiatic rivers is almost completed by the Kizil-Somak and Orontes in Asia Minor, and the Nerbudda, Godavari, and Kistna of peninsular India.
The greater part of this vast continent is characterised by extremes of heat and cold and by great dryness. In former times moisture was more abundant in Central Asia than at present. The Tarim basin was flooded by the Sihai or Western Sea, a vast expanse of water communicating through the so-called Dzungarian strait or depression with the still more extensive Han-hai. But while the inland plateaux and those of Persia and Arabia are among the driest, the great southern and south-eastern peninsulas are perhaps the wettest on the globe.
Flora. - The extensive limits of the continent, which stretch from Cape Chelyuskin within twelve degrees of the North Pole to Cape Romania near the equator, embrace a great variety of animal and vegetable life. While the southern peninsulas abound in tropical and aromatic products, the northern tundras are almost destitute of vegetation. In India, China, and the intermediate regions rice forms the staple food of many hundred millions of human beings, whereas the nomad Kirghiz and Kalmuck tribes of the Mongolian and Siberian steppes are limited almost entirely to an animal diet. The tea plant flourishes in Japan, China, and Assam, and within the last twenty years has made such progress in Assam, Ceylon, and on the Himalayan hills that the quantity exported thence to the United Kingdom exceeds the quantity brought from China. Coffee, which is supposed to be indigenous in Arabia, is cultivated in Ceylon and Southern India. Opium is largely grown in India and China, indigo and sugar flourish in the two eastern peninsulas, cinnamon in Assam and Ceylon, and aromatic plants in Arabia. Forest trees are found along the coast of the Euxine, Caucasia, the southern shore of the Caspian, the southern slopes of the Himalayas, Indo China, and South Siberia. Among the more useful species are the oak, walnut, pine, cedar, box, poplar, teak, bamboo, cocoanut, date palm, apricot, peach, and other fruit trees.
Central Asia produces most of the European grains and tree fruits, oranges, lemons and grapes, melons of special excellence, peaches and apricots, the fig and olive, vines and nut trees, besides hemp and flax, the garden rose and many other cultivated flowering plants. From India the banana has spread out to all parts of the tropical world, with rice and the sugar cane, indigo, and several sorts of cotton; it is also the home of several palms, the cocoa and the areca palm or betel nut; it has the largest poppy fields, yielding opium (though the cultivation of the plant has enormously extended of late years in China), giant bamboos, ebony, teak (for ship building), and other durable and useful timber.
The hilly region intermediate between China and North-Eastern India is probably the native home of the tea-plant; the East India islands and the Malay peninsula of spices, cinnamon, black pepper, and cloves, and of the guttapercha tree or ficus elastica.
Fauna. - The uplands of Central Asia are the native land of the horse and the ass, of the ox and buffalo, the sheep and goat, from which the domesticated varieties appear to have derived their origin. Both varieties of the camel (the Arabian and Baktrian, the single and double humped) are Asiatic. The yak with its coat of long hair is to the inhabitants of the highland of Tibet what the reindeer is to the tribes of the Northern Siberian plains, an important means of support and locomotion. Antelopes in vast numbers are also found on the Tibetan plateaux. The elephant, smaller, but more intelligent than the African variety, is a native of the tropical parts of Asia; the lion of Southern Asia is smaller than that of Africa; the tiger is found in its greatest beauty and strength in the south-eastern parts of the continent, though it does occur as far north as the Altai; bears are found in most parts, the white bear in the extreme north, and other formidable species in the more temperate parts, while those of the tropical region are harmless feeders on fruits and honey. Dogs are used by some of the Siberian tribes as sledge drawers; others are fattened in China for food; but in all Muhammadan Asia the dog is an unclean animal and prowls about as the scavenger of the towns and villages.
Mongolia and the central plateaux adjoining produce the argali, ovis poli, and other large wild sheep and goats, the Tibetan and Angora breeds being noted for the fineness of their fleeces. Farther northward are found the sable, civet, marten, blue and silver fox, and other valuable fur-bearing animals, which are mercilessly hunted throughout Siberia and Manchuria.
Tropical Asia abounds in monkeys, the largest being the orang-utan, the "wild man of the woods" of Borneo and Sumatra, while the gibbon is also found among others. Some are tailed, others, such as the orang, are tailless, but none have prehensile tails like the American monkeys.
The domestic poultry of all parts of the world seem also to be derived from the numerous gallinaceous birds of Asia; the pheasant takes its name from the Phasis river (the modern Rion, flowing to the Black Sea from the Caucasus), from the banks of which it was brought at an early period into Greece; the splendid peacock is a native of the East Indies.
Minerals. - Siberia, the flora and fauna of which are almost limited to its fine woods and fur-bearing animals, makes up for this deficiency by its mineral treasures; it is the great mining region of Asia, yielding gold, silver and platinum, copper and lead, coal and graphite. India was formerly the home of the Golcondah diamonds, and now yields coal, iron, and salt; the regions adjacent to the Caspian yield salt, and the mineral oil of Baku, whither the Ghebr fire worshippers formerly made pilgrimages. The oil is now used in place of coal for the steamers or the Caspian and the locomotives on the Trans Caspian Railway, and a brisk export to India has sprung up. The Dead Sea also occasionally casts up large masses of asphaltum or bitumen, whence its ancient name of Lacus Asphaltites.
Asia has given the rest of the world most of its domesticated animals and cultivated plants; it has also been the centre in which the germs of religion and learning have been fostered, and whence these have spread outward. The three monotheistic religions which have taken the widest hold on the minds of men (Jewish, Christian, and Muhammadan) arose from the Semitic peoples of South-western Asia. Muhammadanism prevails in all South-Western Asia, in Asiatic Turkey and Arabia, in Persia and Turkestan, and has penetrated deeply into Hindustan, and among the Malays of the East Indies. The religion founded by Zoroaster of Baktria (the doctrine of the Magi of the ancient world), with its scriptures called the Zend-avesta, is interesting from its antiquity. Originally a pure monotheism, it passed afterwards into a belief in a conflict between the powers of good and evil, light and darkness, the former of which will ultimately triumph. The descendants of the votaries of this religion are known as the Ghebrs (Turkish Ghiaur), and are scattered here and there over Persia at the present day. A branch of them after many migrations found shelter in India in the sixteenth century, and as the Parsees (people of Pars or Fars) now form about 20 per cent. of the population of the neighbourhood of Bombay.
In Hindustan, so far as Muhammadanism has not taken its place, the Brahminical religion (in several sects) prevails, and from it, based on the same philosophy, arose the religion of Buddha, which spread over Farther India, Tibet, China, and Japan, and which has far more numerous adherents than any other faith in the world. The Brahminical religion has three principal gods - Brahma, the creator of the universe; Siva, the destroyer; and Vishnu, the preserver. Its scriptures are the Vedas, probably the oldest literary documents in existence. The transmigration of souls is an important part of this faith.
Buddha, from whom the Buddhist faith sprang, was prince, in the 6th century, of a kingdom which lay on the borders of Nepal and Oudh, and for forty years he preached in Northern India, whence his teaching spread to China in the subsequent centuries. In Tibet it has taken a somewhat different form, known as Lamaism, which has much in common with Roman Catholicism in its observances, especially in regard to processions, rosaries, and patron saints. In China the religion of Buddha keeps its place along with the systems of philosophy of Confucius and Lao-tze (Taoism). In Japan, also, Buddhism has been modified by contact with the much older faith in the gods, or Sintuism, the hierarchy of which is composed of the Mikado, or spiritual emperor, besides ecclesiastical judges, monks, and priests.
Population. - Asia, supposed by some to be the cradle of the human race, is still the home of over half of the inhabitants of the globe. But the distribution is far from uniform. While the frozen tundra in the Arctic portion of the continent, the deserts of Gobi, and Eastern Turkestan are almost uninhabited, and Siberia, Tibet, Persia, and Arabia are mainly occupied by nomad tribes, the alluvial plains of the Ganges, Yang-tse-kiang, and Hoang-ho are among the most densely-peopled regions in the world. On the whole, the density of the population is in direct ratio to the abundance of the rainfall; and India, Indo-China, China, and Japan, which are directly exposed to the moist winds from the Indian and Pacific oceans, embrace over half of the human race.
Political divisions. - While from a geographical point of view Europe may be described as a dependency of Asia, politically Asia may almost be regarded as a dependency of Europe, considering the influence and possessions of Russia and England. The continent may be divided into four political regions, which roughly correspond to the four main natural divisions, and even to the four predominant religious systems. The Russian possessions in the north have mainly an Arctic and inland drainage; and here is the original home of Shamanism. In the west, still held by the two great Moslem Powers of Turkey and Persia, the drainage is chiefly to the Euxine, Mediterranean, and Persian Gulf. The southern or British division drains into the Indian Ocean, and here Brahmanism is the prevailing belief; while the Buddhist world, occupying the eastern region, and comprising the Chinese Empire, Japan, and most of Farther India, drain mainly into the Pacific Ocean.
Inhabitants. - Asia is certainly the cradle of the Mongolic, and most probably also of the Caucasic division of mankind. Apart from the dark negritos of the Malay peninsula and the Deccan, who may be regarded as intruders from the Oceanic region (Eastern Archipelago), the whole continent has been occupied since neolithic times exclusively by these two stocks - Mongols chiefly in the north, east, and centre, Caucasians chiefly in the southwest. The ethnological parting line may have originally corresponded roughly with the western section of the main axis, running through the Caucasus and North Iranian escarpments to the Hindu-Kush and Pamir plateau. The primeval home of the Caucasic division would thus have been restricted to the Iranian table-land and the peninsulas of Arabia and Asia Minor, all the rest of the continent comprising the Mongolic division. But already before the dawn of history this parting line had been overlapped at several points, and from the earliest times Mongols, such as the Babylonian Accads, are found encroaching on the Caucasic domain, and Caucasians, such as the Aryan Hindus, encroaching on the Mongolic domain. Such migratory movements and interminglings have continued throughout the historic period mainly to the advantage of the Mongols, who have occupied most of Asia Minor and considerable portions of the Caucasus and Irania (North and Central Persia and North Afghanistan). The Caucasian gain is chiefly represented by the recent political ascendency of the Aryans (Russians, English, and French) in the north and south, and by the stream of Russian migration which has overflowed into central Asia, Siberia, and the Amur valley.
At present the Mongolic division comprises two main branches: - 1. The Indo-Chinese, all of whom speak languages of the isolating or absolutely uninflectional type wrongly called "monosyllabic." Their chief sub-groups are the Bod-pa (Tibetans) of Tibet and South Himalayan slopes; the Burmese, Kakhyen (Chins) and Karens of the Irawady and Salwen basin, Arakan and Tenasserim; the Tai (Siamese, Shans, or Laos) of the Menam basin, middle Mekhong and south-west Chinese frontier; the Sinico-Anamitic (Chinese, Tonkinese, and Cochin-Chinese, collectively Anamese); the Mon (Talaings or Peguans) of the Salwen and Irawady deltas; the Nayas, Khasi, and others of the South Assamese hills. 2. The Mongolo-Tatars (Ural-Altaic family), all of whom speak languages of the agglutinating or loosely inflectional type derived from one primitive stock-language. Their chief sub-groups are the Mongols proper (Khalkas of East and Kalmucks of West Mongolia); the Turki or Tatar peoples; Yakuts of the Lena basin; Kirghiz of the south-west Siberian steppes; Usbegs of Khiva, Bokhara, and North Afghanistan; Turkomans of Turkestan, North Persia, East Caucasia, and Asia Minor; the Tungus (Tungus proper of Central and East Siberia), Manchus of Manchuria; the Samoyed, Chukchi, Ostyak, Wogul, and other nomad tribes of North and West Siberia. Outlying and more or less aberrant branches of the Mongolic division are the Coreans and Japanese with the Liu-kiu islanders in the extreme east; the Dravidians of Southern India (Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, and others); the Cambojans, Chams, and Malays, of Indo-China and Malay Peninsula.
The Caucasic division comprises three main branches: - 1. The Eastern Aryans (Hindus of India, Galchas of the Pamir and both slopes of the Hindu-Kush), Afghans and Baluchi of East Irania, Persians, Kurds, Armenians, and Ossetians, of West Irania, Armenia, and Central Caucasus, Hellenes or Greeks of the Anatolian seaboard. 2. The Semites, now mainly represented by the Arabs of Arabia, Mesopotamia, and East Syria, the Arab-speaking Syrians, Druses, Maronites of West Syria; the Arab-speaking "Chaldeans" of the Tigris basin and Lake Urmiah; and the Jews, chiefly in Syria, Palestine, and Arabia. 3. The Caucasians proper, of the Caucasus, all speaking highly agglutinating tongues, which belong to several stock languages. Their chief sub-groups are the Karthrelians or Southern Caucasians (Georgians, Svanetians, Mingrelians, Lazes); the Cherkesses (Circassians), and Abkhasians of West Caucasus, who since the Russian conquest have mostly retired to Turkey; the Lesghians, Chechenzes and others of Daghistan or East Caucasus; the Kabardians of Central Caucasus. An aberrant Caucasic group would appear to be the Ainos of Yesso and the Kurile Islands. For details see articles Aryans, Caucasians, Dravidians, Monguls, Semites, Turks, Tatars, and special entries.