A History of Asia
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A History of Asia

Rhoads Murphey, Kristin Stapleton

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A History of Asia

Rhoads Murphey, Kristin Stapleton

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A History of Asia is the only textbook to provide a historical overview of the whole of this region, encompassing India, China, Korea, Japan, and Southeast Asia. Engaging and lively, it chronicles the complex political, social, and intellectual histories of the area from prehistory to the present day.

Taking a comparative approach throughout, the book offers a balanced history of each major tradition, also dedicating coverage to countries or regions such as Vietnam and Central Asia that are less frequently discussed in depth. This eighth edition has been streamlined and updated to reflect the most recent scholarship on Asian history, bringing the book up to date with recent events and key trends in historical research. Highlights of the book include close-up portraits of significant Asian cities, detailed discussion of environmental factors that have shaped Asian history, quotes from Asian poetry and philosophical writing, and attention to questions of gender and national identity.

Highly illustrated with images and maps, each chapter also contains discussion questions, primary source excerpts, and in-depth boxed features. Written clearly throughout, A History of Asia is the perfect introductory textbook for all students of the history, culture, and politics of this fascinating region.

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THIS CHAPTER SUMMARIZES what we know about the beginnings of the human species in Asia, the long Paleolithic period or Old Stone Age, the Neolithic revolution, the origins of agriculture in Southwest and Southeast Asia, the beginnings of civilization in India, Southeast Asia, China, Korea, and Japan, and the close connection between Korea and early Japan. It aims to set the stage for our exploration of the literate societies that emerged in Asia in the second millennium B.C.E., when written records provide much richer sources for understanding the history of the peoples of Asia.


The direct ancestors of the human species seem clearly to have evolved first in East Africa some three million years ago. After another million years or perhaps more, these creatures, known as Homo erectus, slightly smaller than modern humans but walking erect, using fire, and making crude stone tools, had spread to Asia and Europe. The earliest Asian finds of Homo erectus were made in Java (now in Indonesia) in 1891, and near Beijing in 1921, labeled respectively “Java Man” and “Peking Man” (Peking is the old spelling of the Chinese capital city, Beijing, near where the find was made). Both original finds were dated approximately 1 million B.C.E., although subsequent discoveries in Java have now pushed the date of “Java Man” back further, and other finds suggest that this species was reasonably widespread in Asia by 1.5 million years ago. More recently, remains of Homo erectus have been found in Yunnan in southwest China dated about a million years ago, and near Xi’an in the northwest dated about 600,000 B.C.E. Homo erectus merged with later humanoid species after about 300,000 B.C.E., Given the span of time and the mixing of peoples since, it is reasonable to think of these creatures as ancestors of modern people in general, rather than as early Asians. They fashioned handheld stone axes with a cutting edge, probably used for chopping, scraping, and digging, and may have been cannibals, or at least have ritually eaten the brains and bone marrow of their own dead.
The hand axes they produced were remarkably uniform and look much the same at sites scattered over most of Asia, Africa, and Europe as far as Britain. After about 150,000 B.C.E., a new species, called Homo neanderthalis (from the Neander River valley in Germany where one of the first finds was made), rose to dominance over the Old World of Eurasia and Africa.
In the course of the last glaciation, between approximately 70,000 and 20,000 B.C.E., Homo neanderthalis, the chief successor to Homo erectus, was gradually displaced or superseded by modern humans, whom we call Homo sapiens; since that time Homo sapiens has been the only human inhabitant of the globe. Physical differences among Homo sapiens communities that flourished in various parts of the world before the age of easy travel are relatively slight; they are most marked in shades of skin and a few other superficial and external features such as hair color and texture, amount of body hair, and facial features. Since few of these minor attributes are discernible for long after death, we cannot date with any precision the emergence of the small physical distinctions on which nineteenth-century scientific racism fixated. It may be that people who lived or remained in hot, sunny climates retained what was probably the original human skin color—dark, as a protection against strong sunlight—while those who migrated into, or were overtaken by, colder or cloudier climates slowly evolved lighter skin in response to the beneficial effects of sunlight on the body, especially as a source of vitamin D.
Until very recently, the inhabited areas of Africa, Asia, and Europe—the units of the Old World divided only by the narrowest of water barriers (the Bosporus and the Gulf of Suez) and hence sometimes called “the world island”—were largely isolated from each other by deserts and mountains. Since about 200,000 B.C.E. the minor physical differences we now observe between humans of European, African, and Asian origins slowly began to emerge. Inuit (Eskimos) and American Indians share some physical characteristics with Asians, since their ancestors migrated from eastern Asia thousands of years ago. Physical evolution is an extremely slow process on any human timescale, and there are few discernible physical differences between contemporary humans and those who lived when recorded history begins. Well-preserved bodies from the Egypt of 2500 B.C.E., for example, or from Han dynasty China of the first century C.E. are indistinguishable from people today, including what evidence remains of skin and hair, tooth and bone structure, vital organs, brain capacity, and so on. The same would almost certainly be true for the people of 10,000 B.C.E. or even much earlier.
One exception to this general rule was found on the island of Flores, east of Java and Bali. There, a subspecies called Homo floresiensis, half the size of modern people, lived about 13,000 B.C.E. Nicknamed the Hobbits, these late Paleolithic creatures died out by about 6000 B.C.E. or so.
It is not necessary to deal here in any detail with the almost equally slow early evolution of culture—how people lived and what they created—during the thousands of years of the Paleolithic period (the Old Stone Age). This lasted from about one million years ago or more to about 25,000 B.C.E. During this time, people gradually learned to use fire, build shelters or make use of caves, and fashion garments out of skins or furs; slowly they improved their stone tools and increased the effectiveness of their hunting, developing stone-tipped spears. Soon after 30,000 B.C.E., however, the pace of change began to quicken, probably hastened by the last phase of glacial ice advance and its subsequent retreat. Magnificent paintings on cave walls in northern Spain and southern France, then near the edge of the glacial ice sheet, dating from 28,000 to 10,000 B.C.E., attest to the skill and artistic imagination of the people who created them and suggest a highly developed social organization. Rock and cave paintings from the latter part of this same period in North Africa, the Middle East, and monsoon Asia suggest similar developments. By this time, Homo sapiens had migrated from the Old World to the Americas and to Australia. The earliest New World finds are dated about 20,000 B.C.E., but there is good reason to believe that by about 40,000 B.C.E. or even earlier people had crossed the land bridge that emerged between northeastern-most Asia and Alaska as ocean levels fell around the Bering Strait, and that others had reached Australia across what may then also have been a nearly complete land bridge from the Asian mainland by about the same time.
Note: Dates are approximate.
1 million B.C.E. Homo erectus widespread in Asia
40,000 B.C.E. Homo sapiens widespread in Asia
10,000 B.C.E. Origins of agriculture in Southwest and Southeast Asia
6000–300 B.C.E. Jƍmon culture in Japan
5000–1000 B.C.E. Agriculturalist migrations from south China into peninsular Southeast Asia replacing and assimilating Malay hunter-gatherers
4000 B.C.E. Urbanization in Sumer (Mesopotamia) and in Egypt
3000 B.C.E. Urbanization in the Indus River system; Dravidian culture in South Asia
2500–2000 B.C.E. Longshan and Yangshao pottery cultures in China
2000 B.C.E. Urban centers in China Bronze culture in Southeast Asia
1600–1400 B.C.E. Aryans to India
1600–1050 B.C.E. Shang dynasty Chinese civilization in Korea
600 B.C.E.—200 C.E. Dong Son bronze drum culture (northern Vietnam and across Southeast Asia)
500 B.C.E. Iron use in Malay Peninsula and island Southeast Asia
300 B.C.E.—300 C.E. Yayoi (Japan)
With the last retreat of the ice in Europe and Asia, beginning about 20,000 B.C.E. and reaching its present limits by about 3000 B.C.E., forests slowly replaced the ice sheets and the treeless tundra along their margins. The game, such as the wooly mammoth, that the Paleolithic people had hunted also moved northward or became extinct. Basic changes in the environment required basic human adjustment, as had been necessary when the ice sheets were advancing. Some groups developed new techniques, including the bow and arrow, for hunting in the forest; others moved to coastal sites and lived primarily on fish and shellfish, creating new or improved tools such as needles for sewing and fishhooks, now made of bone. But far more significant and rapid changes were beginning to take place in drier areas, centered in the region we call Mesopotamia or Southwest Asia.


The term Neolithic is to some degree a misnomer, since it means literally “New Stone Age,” referring to the rapid improvement and new variety in finely made stone tools. But although stone tools continued to be made in great quantities, bone and clay were of increasing importance, and toward the end of the period tools and weapons began to be made of metal. The term revolution is more appropriately applied to the beginnings of agriculture. This made possible large permanent settlements, a great increase in population, the accumulation of surpluses, the consequent need for writing (in part to keep records), and the growth of the first cities, from which our word civilization comes, via its Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit roots. In the few thousand years between about 10,000 B.C.E. and about 4000 B.C.E.—an extremely short space of time compared with the almost imperceptible pace of change during Paleolithic times—most of the elements of what we call modern civilization emerged.
By 3000 B.C.E., early cities in Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley had bureaucrats, tax collectors, priests, metalworkers, scribes, schools, housing and traffic problems, and almost all of the features of our own times. As the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes put it about 200 B.C.E., a view that we can echo today: “There is no new thing under the sun. Is there anything whereof it may be said, See, this is new? It hath been already of old time, which was before us.”1
That is in fact a very Asian view. The changes of which we are so conscious in our own times are extremely recent and center on new technology beginning with the steam engine a mere two centuries ago and accelerating rapidly in the second half of the twentieth century. But people, human society, and their problems have not changed much since the building of the first cities some five thousand years ago.
The Neolithic revolution in agriculture and town building transformed the lives of everyone involved. The change came about over several thousand years, probably first in Southwest Asia and Egypt and then spreading to other parts of the Old World; similar developments in eastern Asia and much later in Mexico and Peru probably began independently. Neolithic refers to a stage of development, with its associated technologies and living patterns. It came later in Western Europe and most of the rest of the world; isolated areas such as Australia or the tropical rain forests were still in the Paleolithic period when they were invaded by modern Europeans after the eighteenth century.
Archaeological evidence suggests four main areas as the earliest cradles of settled agriculture: the uplands of Southwest Asia surrounding the Tigris-Euphrates lowland of Mesopotamia; the Nile delta; coastal Peru, where remains of clearly domesticated animals and even grindstones have been found; and the coastal or near-coastal areas of mainland Southeast Asia. There is clear evidence of early settlement in southern Anatolia (now in modern Turkey), Palestine and Syria, northern Iraq, and western Iran. Steppe grasses that included the wild ancestors of wheat and barley grew in these semiarid areas with some winter rainfall. Early Neolithic stone-toothed sickles dated to about 10,000 B.C.E. have been found here and have a sheen from cutting such grasses with their grain heads. Dating from a little later, small hoards of stored grains have been found. It must have been a long process of adaptation from gathering such grasses or grains in the wild to planting them, perhaps originally by accident, in fields that then could be prepared and tended until harvest. Fields growing only the desired grain could obviously yield far more than could be gathered in the wild, but they did require care and hence a permanent settlement of farmers at a given site, usually one where a supply of water was available. Soon after 10,000 B.C.E., stone mortars appeared, indicating that the grain was milled (ground into flour) and that it helped to support a population already beginning to grow beyond what could be sustained by hunting and gathering.
Figure 1.1 Pottery from Baluchistan, c. 3000 B.C.E. (World History Archive/Alamy Stock Photo)
Figure 1.1 Pottery from Baluchistan, c. 3000 B.C.E.
(World History Archive/Alamy Stock Photo)
By about 7000 B.C.E. there were large and numerous storage pits for grain, and early clay pots for the same purpose and for carrying or storing water. By this time cultivated wheat, barley, and peas had clearly evolved into more productive forms than their wild ancestors, through purposeful selection by the cultivators. Sheep, goats, and dogs were domesticated instead of being hunted as prey or used as hunting assistants. A thousand years later cattle and pigs had joined the list of domesticates. There is a reasonably clear record of this evolution at a number of Southwest Asian sites including Jericho in southern Palestine, Cayonu and Catal Huyuk in southern Anatolia, Jarmo in northern Iraq, Hassuna and Ali Kosh in western Iran, and many others.
By about 4000 B.C.E. or slightly earlier, agricultural techniques were far enough advanced and populations large enough to permit an expansion into the different environment of the Tigris-Euphr...