The invention of Asia and what this says about colonial ideology

Nov 2017
Asia, also known as the "Orient", the "East", is an European colonial imposition on the geography of the "Asian" peoples they colonised, and the rest of the world as well. No "Asian" before the 16th century actually used this name to identify themselves, but now we have to use it due to the generalisation of European colonial geography to better dominate their colonies.

When and where does the concept of "Asia" originate? The name is of Hittite origin, or at least the Hittite origin is the most likely, and referred almost exclusively to the area around the Aegean Sea. Herodotus would later take this term, from earlier Greek writers like Ctesias whose works no longer survive, and apply it to the entire landmass east of the Aegean Sea, with particular reference to the large Persian Empire that conquered parts of the Hellenic world.

Herodotus also not just defined Asia geographically, but invented a whole set of stereotypes associated with it as well. Asia for him was a menace to the Greek world, at least he implied it to be, due to the powerful conquering Persian hosts that he basically presented as a destructive force out to annihilate the Greeks and everything in their path.

Of course, being big also meant that it was the source of inexhaustible riches, with the most inexhaustible of all being India, Herodotus claiming that no other part of the Persian Empire providing as much wealth as India. However, in spite of India's size, for him India was also the source of horrendous creatures and mythical monsters like dog-faced cannibals and gigantic gold-digging ants, alongside other assortment of monsters.

Not only that but he also associated India with Ethiopia - the land of the famous monstrous "Troglodytes" -, believing that both were somehow connected by land and associating both due to the swarthyness of both Ethiopian and Indian skin. This would leave not just India but the whole of Asia as well associated with inhuman creatures of swarthy skin completely different from anything found not just in Greece but the rest of Europe as well, with its more normal light skinned humans, meaning Europe simply wasn't as exotic nor as populated by said creatures as Asia.

Herodotus would go on to influence pretty much every Greco-Roman writer on Asia, such as Xenophon, Megasthenes, Diodorus of Sicily, Arrian, Pliny the Elder, Plutarch, Philostratus, Diogenes Laertius and the writer of what is now known as the "Alexander romance", one of the most popular works of antiquity, all repeating the same demonised vision of an Asia populated by dark skinned cannibals and monsters, and all also presenting Asia as an enemy that, while tremendously rich and wealthy, has to be subjugated in a titanic struggle of good against evil, especially to prevent being assimilated by this demonic land of monsters.

This image would go on to pass to medieval Europe after the fragmentation of the Roman Empire and the cultural shift from Hellenism to Christianity. Asia remained the land of invading Persians, only now these Persians were transformed, first into Huns, and then into Arabs, Saracens and Moors, though all following the same Herodotian stereotype of dark skinned bloodthirsty and monstrous invaders ready to conquer and devastate Europe. Even the Huns were described as being swarthy by Jordanes and other Christian historians.

The European maps of the Middle Ages also continued the Herodotan stereotype of Asia, especially India, being full of all fabulous and monstrous creatures. Naked savages who lived like the Golden Age described by the Greco-Roman poets lived side by side with cyclops, one-footed men and so on according to these maps, showing the extent of Greco-Roman influence, and especially Herodotian influence, on medieval Christians.

This should make us compare Herodotus with the Bible and their depiction of the same lands. The Bible in this regard is far different. It does not speak of inhuman creatures inhabiting the far eastern regions. Ethiopia is the place of a powerful kingdom and one that can be pious as well, not the place of naked cavemen cannibals. Nor is it associated with India as well, which goes on to show just how much greater Greek influence was over the holiest book of Christianity even during the Middle Ages.

It is with this tradition of Asia in mind that Marco Polo wrote his exaggerated writings that would go on to motivate the European colonial invasions, both the good and bad of Herodotus. His writings emulate him, and his tradition perhaps best represented by the Alexander romance so popular in the Middle Ages, of an Asia, and especially a Cathay, though India still remains prominent in Polo's writings, of utterly inexhaustible wealth, with so much gold that entire palaces are made of it, but that is at the same time populated with cannibals and with massive armies ready to conquer and devastate the world, with Polo implying that Europe will be a particular victim of this.

Asia is thus the place of fabulous riches, but also of eternal invaders ready to destroy Europe. It's a kind of evil reflection of Europe, its ultimate enemy and ultimate opposite, having to be fully subjugated for it to be peace, an idea that was used to justify European colonialism starting with the Portuguese themselves, who not only wanted to emulate Alexander the Great and his campaigns in India to extract India's mythical wealth, but also under the idea that Indians, being a land of potentially cannibalistic Persians and Moors, the eternal rivals of Europeans, had to be conquered in order to preempt any possible invasion.

This would continue with the Dutch, the English, the French and the Danish. India was a place of invading dark skinned cannibals, possibly the original homeland of these dark skinned cannibals that had terrorised Europe since the days of Darius and Xerxes and continuing with the monstrous swarthy hosts of Attila, Muhammad and even Genghis Khan, all living proof that "Asians" were out there determined to destroy everything European.

This image of Asia, now the "East" or the "Orient", survives to this day. The idea of this eternal evil reflection of Europe, its demonic counterpart, is invoked for Muslims, who are said to continue the battle in the name of evil against Europe, now the "West", as we are told not just by US presidents, but also by Bernard Lewis, Anthony Pagden, Niall Ferguson, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and even native informant Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who tell us the "West" is waging a war - more like wars, in plural - for all that is good against a Satanic enemy that wants to destroy it, an utterly racist characterisation that is a continuation of the colonial rhetoric that started in the 16th century.

But the rhetoric of the "War on Terror", as the set of Western wars against Iraq, Afghanistan and other Muslim countries is known, is not the only racist colonial rhetoric about Asia that exists. We still see Westerners insisting that India is inhabited by cannibalistic naked savages, whether in Kashmir, Nagaland or the Andaman Islands, a continuation of Herodotus's myth of Indian cannibalism, which is also extended to East Asia with common attacks on Chinese, Vietnamese and Koreans for eating dogs and other animals that Westerners have humanised, basically making these East Asians semi-cannibals.

Of course, the rhetoric of the giant with infinite wealth is also alive, with people gushing over the economic growth of India, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and especially China, with economists talking about economic "dragons" and "tigers" that are about to overtake the West. This gushing praise of course has the Western imperialist insinuation that Asia is a threat to be contained, but it is also part of the tradition started by Herodotus of the fabulously gigantic Asia of mythical riches.

Finally, the Asia that has lasted in European imagination and become part of the ideology of colonialism is a stereotype that demonstrates just how little Christianity contributed to said colonial ideology. It's Greco-Roman culture, not Christianity, that provided the main justification for colonial conquests with the stereotype of Asia created by Herodotus and continued by Greco-Roman authors, and it continues to do so as seen with the War on Terror and the rhetoric of morally corrupt East Asian aggression.