Skip to main content
main-content
Top

About this book

The nations of Asia now make up more than half of the world's population. With increasingly affluent, educated middle classes and vigorous, innovative industries, they are more populous and powerful than ever before, and their influence on the rest of the world is only growing. Colin Mason provides a clear, readable introduction to their histories and traditions, from the Stone Age right up to the present day.

This thoroughly revised, updated and expanded third edition contains new chapters on Mongolia, Nepal and Bhutan, separate expanded chapters on the South Asian nations, and revised chapters on all the modern states. A new introduction explores the nature and implications of the new politics of 'guided democracy', and the current clash between industrialisation and the consequences of climate change. Enriched with maps and a guide to further reading, this book is the essential guide to the history of a fascinating continent and its peoples.

Table of Contents

Introduction

1. Introduction

Abstract
Six out of every ten people who exist today are Asian. Most are Chinese or Indian — these two Asian giants make up two and a half billion of the world population, contrasting with the third runner, the United States, at 312 million, and around 700 million in the whole of Europe. China is rapidly becoming the wealthiest nation on earth, she has the largest and fastest growth of new infrastructure in history, her middle class is growing in size and affluence so fast that Chinese tourists spent more on foreign travel in 2012 than any other nation, while Asian central banks held more than half of world reserves of foreign exchange and gold in that year.
Colin Mason

Before Imperialism

Frontmatter

2. Prehistory and the First Indian Civilizations

Abstract
The Asia of remote prehistory was very different from the teeming continent and islands of today. Its population was tiny and dispersed, living mostly on the seacoasts and the plains of the big rivers, each small group of humanity separated from the others by virgin forest, full of wild animals. Families stayed together, developed into clans for mutual protection. Life was precarious, death came early and was often sudden and violent.
Colin Mason

3. The Development of Indian Culture: Hinduism and Buddhism

Abstract
A distinctive quality of this expansion of Indian culture was a class system of such vigour that it still exists today, although it is now infinitely more complex. This culture and religion — for it is both — is generally called Hinduism by Europeans, by Indians sanatan dharma.
Colin Mason

4. Early South-east Asia: the Ships from India

Abstract
The Indian merchant-adventurers’ first journeys were probably slow passages hugging the Bay of Bengal coast, always in sight of land. Their early acquaintance with south-east Asia must have been due not so much to enterprise as the facts of geography. The art of sailing was elementary indeed, and it was not until relatively recently that one of the most important of man’s inventions — how to sail efficiently into the wind — evolved.
Colin Mason

5. China: the Eternal Nation

Abstract
China’s story is among the most remarkable of humankind; her river valleys have been the location of a society that has not only shown continuity and consistency for perhaps 4000 years, but was also the inventor of paper, printing, firearms, credit banking and paper money, rudder steering and watertight compartments for ships, blast-furnace steel production and lock systems for canals, among many other foundations and tribulations of the modern world. The transfer of such things to Europe was slow but nevertheless consequential.
Colin Mason

6. Early Japan and the Tang Dynasty in China

Abstract
The original inhabitants of this small, sunny but cool group of mountainous islands off the coast of China were not the people now known as the Japanese. Recent archaeological evidence indicates occupancy as early as 15000 BCE by an enigmatic race who made pottery and, apparently benefiting from a brief phase of warming during the last ice age, may have been the world’s first farming villagers. Then whatever social structure they had achieved appears to have been obliterated by the renewed onset of extreme cold. The broken shards of their pots reveal little else about them, except a hint that they caught and cooked fish. The record next identifies primitive hunter-gatherers who, by perhaps 5000 BCE, had established small farming settlements, and whose simple round- or pointed-bottomed pottery is radiocarbon dated back to around 10000 BCE. During the preceding ice age the Japanese islands, part of a mountain range skirting the Asian mainland coast, were joined to that mainland, allowing free passage to animals and humans.
Colin Mason

7. The Awakening of Europe and the Challenge of Islam

Abstract
Medieval Europe still consisted largely of small villages and somewhat larger castle towns, scattered through the forests. To this comparative handful of uneducated people Asia was little more than a legend. While a few scholars were dimly aware that great civilizations flourished there, their concepts were largely of a region of queer, supernatural events, acted out by personalities either grotesque or larger than life.
Colin Mason

8. Flood Tide in China: the Song, Mongol and Ming Dynasties

Abstract
In 1206 a central Asian people, the Mongols, gathered in conference and elected a new leader, Genghis Khan. The choice was a prudent one, since this man already had a high reputation as a military strategist among a people notorious for their ability and ruthlessness in war. Under the leadership of Genghis Khan and his successors the Mongols built up the largest empire the world had yet seen, occupying the greater part of the Eurasian land mass. The Chinese section of this vast empire was ruled directly by the Great Khans, Genghis himself, and his successors. Regions farther west were virtually autonomous, but their rulers owed a token allegiance to the Great Khan.
Colin Mason

9. China: Ebb Tide

Abstract
Power to replace the Ming was already waiting — to the north, as Yongle had feared. In 1583 a gifted leader called Nurhacu had persuaded a group of nomad tribes to unite in a largely military union, the Manchu confederacy. When in 1644 Beijing fell to Chinese warlord Li Zicheng, one of many who exploited and exacerbated the prevailing social disorder and poverty, the Manchus took advantage of a last desperate struggle between Li and the Ming loyalists to invade China unopposed. When they entered Beijing with the support of the Ming generals they at first insisted they were only there to support the lawful authority, but when a Ming prince was proclaimed in Nanjing they made war on him and proclaimed their own child emperor ruler of China. Seventeen years later the Ming prince was forced into exile in Burma but the Manchu agents, fully aware of the dangers of a living Ming pretender, pursued him even there and killed him by strangling with a bowstring.
Colin Mason

10. The Three Makers of Japan and the Tokugawa Period

Abstract
Japan as a unified nation was the creation of three opportunistic and treacherous men, artful enough to outwit and confuse the multitude of regional lords who in the 16th century controlled the country, and strong enough to set an imprint that would endure for many centuries.
Colin Mason

The ‘White Man’s Burden’

Frontmatter

11. The Dominators and the Dominated

Abstract
The 19th and early 20th centuries saw the development of imperialism on a scale never known before. The long and traumatic Napoleonic wars were over, Europe was industrializing, and there were radical advances in the means of transport, notably shipping and railways, and naval power. A crucial factor in the conquest of empires was the development of deadlier light weapons. American farm machinery technician Richard Gordon Gatling developed a machine gun in 1862 that would fire 350 rounds a minute, a new device for mass killing which was quickly adopted by all the colonial powers. For the first time, natives inclined to fight back could be — and were — mown down in hundreds.
Colin Mason

12. South-east Asia: the European and Chinese Impacts

Abstract
Many chapters could be devoted, without much profit, to the dynastic successions, transitory empires and constant wars which, over the centuries, make up the chronicles of south-east Asia. However, since the source material deals almost exclusively with the affairs of ruling families, and frequently shows scant regard for credibility, much less truth — for instance, we are told that a Vietnamese king, Phat Ma, straightened a sagging pillar in a ruined temple simply by looking at it — it is largely unreliable.
Colin Mason

13. The Malay World: Majapahit and Malacca

Abstract
The Javanese empire of Majapahit, which existed for about 200 years from 1293 CE, was one of the last of the major Hinduized states of island south-east Asia, and probably the best remembered. In this lies possibly its greatest importance, for the Majapahit tradition has been adopted as part of its national heritage by modern Indonesia. Some Indonesians have seen in Majapahit a pan-Malay empire which might again be realized in the future.
Colin Mason

14. Indonesia: the Last Independent Kingdoms and the Extension of Dutch Rule

Abstract
The merchant adventurers of Holland began that country’s three and a half centuries of association with the fertile islands they called the East Indies under a haze of cannon smoke. They were treacherous, cruel and rapacious, and from first acquaintance excited fear and hatred among the local people.
Colin Mason

15. India under Two Masters: the Grand Moguls and the East India Company

Abstract
After the decline of the Gupta Empire no unifying force comparable with it emerged for nine centuries, leaving north India at the mercy of any marauding band that chose to ride down through the passes. Revealed instead are cruel and extortionate north Indian kingdoms, like those of the Muslim sultans of Delhi, and the petty empires of scores of warlike princelings, each the predator of a tract of country dominated by a central fortress. Although incessantly preoccupied with war, these rulers, the Rajputs, contributed to their country’s defencelessness by their quarrelling, lack of a common purpose, and retention of old-fashioned if romantic military methods against enemies who had cannon and had advanced the use of cavalry to an exact science. Reckless, indeed suicidal, bravery was no effective answer to these things. It was a tradition of the Rajputs, when one of their fortresses was doomed to fall, to burn all their women and children alive on a funeral pyre while the men sallied out to meet death at the hands of their enemies.
Colin Mason

16. Gandhi’s India: the Struggle for Liberty

Abstract
Universities teaching the Western humanities were founded in the three main Indian colonial cities, Kolkata, Mumbai and Chennai, in 1857, the same year as the ‘Indian mutiny’. Of the two events the first was arguably the more significant, since Indian nationalism developed largely among the graduates of those universities. During the next 30 years nearly 50,000 Indians passed the entrance examinations, which themselves required literacy in English — hence the advent of a curious qualification — ‘failed BA’. Nevertheless 5000 did achieve the Bachelor of Arts degree.
Colin Mason

The Modern Nations

Frontmatter

17. The Second World War and the End of Empire

Abstract
Granted peace rather than war in 1939, the colonial era could have dragged on longer in Asia. But as it was, the next six years of conflict saw the empires crumble. Their demise after the end of the war in 1945 became only a matter of time.
Colin Mason

18. South Asia: Freedom and Poverty

Abstract
The south Asian nations, with more than one and a half billion people, are now the largest fraction of humans in the world. Accordingly, what happens to them must be a matter of global concern — the more so because all of the five larger countries of the region face greater and more fundamental problems than other parts of Asia. These include an uncomfortably high rate of population growth, some of the world’s lowest percentages of literate people, and high incidences of poverty and fatal or disabling diseases.
Colin Mason

19. India

Abstract
When war came to Europe in 1939, Britain had little leisure to consider the shaping of political forces in south Asia. Nehru had foreseen the war and had told the 1936 meeting of the Congress Party that ‘it becomes necessary … to declare now our opposition to India’s participation in an imperialist war’. With the coming of that war, Congress demanded immediate self-government on a basis to be decided by a constituent assembly of Indians. In 1942 Britain sent a Socialist member of her War Cabinet — Sir Stafford Cripps, long known as a supporter of Indian nationalist aspirations — to Delhi. Cripps brought with him a plan for an independent India with Dominion status and the right to secede from the Commonwealth, to be established immediately after the war.
Colin Mason

20. Pakistan

Abstract
Of all the south Asian states Pakistan seems at the greatest risk of social and political collapse. Government has been weak, veering between incompetent and corrupt ‘democratic’ regimes and self-serving military dictatorships. The leading figures in both have been and still are members of a small wealthy elite closely connected with the military, governing a vast mass of desperately poor and disadvantaged people. Around two-thirds of Pakistanis work on the land, often on small subsistence plots that can barely provide them with enough food, and frequently, as the tenants of wealthy absentee landlords, are trapped in a cycle of poverty and debt. More than 60 years as an independent state have done little to change this. The population, 40 million in 1947, had grown to 190 million in 2012.
Colin Mason

21. Bangladesh

Abstract
Bangladesh has had a short and tumultuous history, including one very destructive war, at least five severe cyclones accompanied by catastrophic flooding and regular alternation between parliamentary democracy and military dictatorships. Of all the Asian countries, she faces perhaps the most serious threat from climate change — a 2012 World Bank report assessed her as ‘highly vulnerable’. One of the most crowded countries on earth, she has 160 million people on 150,000 hectares of fertile but mostly low-lying land on the delta of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers. Because 10 per cent of Bangladesh is barely three feet above mean high tide level, the country is already suffering from large areas of inundation and the destruction of productive land by salt-water incursions. On some estimates the number of climate refugees from there will be above 20 million over the next half-century.
Colin Mason

22. Afghanistan

Abstract
Any who contemplate a military adventure in Afghanistan might first consider the British retreat from its capital, Kabul, in 1842. Of 700 British soldiers, 3800 sepoys — native troops — and 14,000 civilians who fled from Kabul in the winter of that year, only one survivor, a man riding an exhausted horse, made it to the British fort at Jalalabad to bring the dreadful news. Britain occupied Kabul in 1839 (300 camels were needed to carry in the wine), but as time passed the occupying force became less and less welcome until they were destroyed in retreat by the full fury of jihad — a new word to the world at that time. The war, which cost £50 billion in today’s money, achieved nothing — the king it had aimed to supplant, Dost Mohammad, returned to his throne.
Colin Mason

23. The Mountain States: Nepal and Bhutan

Abstract
Nepal and Bhutan are classic ‘buffer states’, extending along almost a thousand miles of the Himalayan border between China and India — this close proximity to the world’s two largest nations has profoundly influenced their history, and is likely to go on doing so. Nepal is changing rapidly, and can no longer be regarded as a romanticized ‘Shangri La’, or as a ‘small’ state, for that matter. Around 9 million in 1960, its population of almost 30 million people now easily exceeds the total of the three Scandinavian nations, or of Australia and New Zealand combined. As with other South Asian states, its high birth rate can largely be set down to a failure to educate girls, most of whom marry early, and begin to bear children almost at once. Bhutan, with 700,000 people, is much smaller, wealthier and better governed.
Colin Mason

24. Sri Lanka

Abstract
Sri Lanka, a tropical island off the south Indian coast about the size of Scotland and with a population of 22 million, has been occupied by humans — and pre-humans — for a very long time. Homo erectus lived there as much as half a million years ago, and modern humans making advanced stone tools, keeping domestic dogs and possibly herding livestock were in evidence 30,000 years ago. These Balangoda people, who were hunter-gatherers, were probably the ancestors of the Vedda tribes still to be found in small numbers in the centre and north-east of the island.
Colin Mason

25. China: Two Revolutions

Abstract
In 1896 there was a curious happening in England. A 30-year-old Chinese doctor, who had graduated only two years before from the medical school in Hong Kong, was kidnapped from a London street and secretly imprisoned inside the Chinese Legation. He was held there for 13 days, but before he could be spirited away to China for execution a warning note was smuggled to an English friend, and he was released by the British police.
Colin Mason

26. Modern China: the Communist State

Abstract
The Communist victory saw the world’s most populous nation at one of the lowest points in its long history. The currency was worthless, the great mass of the people illiterate, only a shadow of internal organization remained, the exhausted soil was eroded and treeless, and everywhere profound social, medical and economic problems clamoured for a solution.
Colin Mason

27. Taiwan: Chinese or Not?

Abstract
‘The dogs have gone. The pigs are here.’ Such was the wry utterance current in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, when at the end of the Second World War the defeated Japanese left and Chinese Nationalist troops occupied the island.
Colin Mason

28. Mongolia

Abstract
This place of land-locked deserts and formidable mountains has seen some of the earth’s oldest cultures. Homo erectus lived here in the crystal-lined White Cave 800,000 years ago and in a canyon in the Gobi there are rock engravings dating back to at least 3000 BCE which depict men riding horses. Other human-like forms with greatly enlarged hands and ears seem even older — so strange the local people regard these as the work of aliens. Evidence of the use of horses and wheeled vehicles dated earlier than 2000 BCE have been found at the Bronze Age Afanasevo sites. Wooden tools there have been carbon dated to 3700 BCE, and there is evidence of the early use of metals and herding of cattle and sheep by a people some anthropologists believe might have been white Caucasians. While little more than this is known of this early society — and some of it is disputed — the horse-riding nomadic lifestyle that became typical of Mongolia, and persisted for thousands of years, seemed first to appear at this time. This society evolved through several later cultures — the complex of second millennium BCE cultures loosely described as the Andronovo is typical. These people mined copper in the Altai Mountains, lived in log cabins partly underground, and buried their dead with ornamented pottery. They are widely credited with having invented the spoked-wheel chariot.
Colin Mason

29. Indonesia and Timor-Leste

Abstract
A tropical archipelago of more than 17,000 islands of great diversity and beauty, Indonesia is the world’s fourth largest country in terms of population and potentially immensely wealthy, yet slightly over half her 240 million people are poor — in the words of the Djakarta Post, ‘hovering around the poverty line on less than US$2 a day’. According to the Asian Development Bank, Indonesia is the only south-east Asian country in which the numbers of the poor are rising — ‘a situation of chronic hardcore poverty’. The World Bank reports that 55 per cent of these poor people have limited primary education, 50 per cent have no access to clean water, and a quarter of their children under 5 are malnourished. It is estimated that by 2015 almost half of this underclass will be living in city slums.
Colin Mason

30. Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei

Abstract
Malaysia is a new nation in more ways than one — her development as an organized community has taken place almost entirely within the last century and a half. Kuala Lumpur, the capital, and now the major centre of population and industry, was settled only after tin was discovered there in 1860. In the late 19th century the total population was a small fraction of the current 30 million, probably well under a million people. They were mostly seafaring tribesmen who lived in wood and attap-thatched villages straggling along the muddy banks of river estuaries. Apart from the brief and limited traditions of Malacca and Johore there was little sense of nationhood.
Colin Mason

31. Japan: the Iron Triangle

Abstract
The opening of Japan to trade with the rest of the world after almost three centuries of isolation, and her rapid progress from a seemingly rigid feudalism to a Western-style capitalist economy, made her a major world power within a single generation. This was without doubt a revolution, although quite different from others in colonial Asia. Even so, the transformation of Japanese society after she had concluded the first trade treaties with the West in 1854 was not as sudden as it seemed. Feudalism, already far into decay, was ready to collapse at a touch.
Colin Mason

32. Thailand: Two Hats — the Struggle for Democracy

Abstract
Thailand, as Siam came to be renamed, is in many respects the most advanced state in mainland south-east Asia, in spite of the fact that the succeeding authority to its absolute monarchy has been, effectively, the army. Army officers frequently wear ‘two hats’, meaning they have another job in the nominally civilian administration. Parliamentary democracy has been regularly punctuated by military coups, although an increasingly educated and assertive middle class has, over the last decade, become less tolerant of the pervasive influence of the military. The Thai armed forces, numbering more than 270,000, nevertheless remain a significant force in the community — even, in the last analysis, the decisive one.
Colin Mason

33. The Philippines: Trouble in Paradise

Abstract
Like Indonesia, the Philippines is a chain of islands, of which Mindanao in the south, and Luzon in the north, are the largest, between them making up rather more than half the total land area of the republic. The central part consists of eight larger and thousands of smaller islands, collectively known as the Visayas. Most of the others are tiny islets — some 4000 of them so small they are not even named. Off to the west is the long, narrow Palawan, grouped around which are 200 more islets, many no more than barely visible coral reefs.
Colin Mason

34. Korea: Divided Nation

Abstract
Although Communist North Korea and the southern Republic of Korea confront one another across one of the most heavily militarized frontiers in the world, as late as 2013 this resulted in no more than an elaborate propaganda barrage mounted by the north — rhetoric rather than war. This is almost always the case when the United States stages annual military exercises with its ally, South Korea, which it is pledged to protect. When the United States flew two nuclear-capable B2 Stealth bombers over South Korea, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un claimed he had ordered his missile batteries to prepare for nuclear strikes against the American mainland and its Pacific bases. None of this happened — in any case it is improbable that North Korea has the military hardware to carry out such a threat.
Colin Mason

35. Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia

Abstract
Vietnam, once a much oppressed colony of France, and then a Communist state, improved its economy and the life of its people rapidly after two decades of destructive war and the trauma of recovery. This change of values in 1986 away from doctrinaire Communism to a market economy — similar to the Chinese model — is not yet complete, and Vietnam remains a one-party state, with a Communist Party of 2 million. While the economic indicators have improved, a rash of corruption, bad debt and billion-dollar defalcations in 2012 checked investor confidence in Vietnam. There is also increasing concern about the government’s human rights record.
Colin Mason

36. Burma: Rule by the Gun

Abstract
Of the countries of south-east Asia Burma (Myanmar) is perhaps the most varied and beautiful, ranging as it does from placid beaches in the south through broad and fertile river plains to snow-clad uplands in the wild border regions with China and Laos. Cherry trees, rhododendrons, magnolia and juniper grow wild in these mountains, in which bears, tigers, leopards and elephants can still be found. A timeless river life continues on and alongside the huge Irrawaddy, over a thousand miles long, that divides the country as it flows to a fertile delta, once the most prolific rice-growing region in the world. Teak from rapidly reducing forests is moved along the river, mostly into China. The Irrawaddy is the main highway of Burma, used by river steamers, fishing boats and barges on which whole families live out their lives.
Colin Mason

37. The Asian Century?

Abstract
Will this be the Asian century? This term, which was probably first used in conversations between Chinese and Indian leaders Deng Xiaoping and Rajiv Gandhi in 1988, has turned up in various contexts thousands of times since. Vague enough to be accepted at face value by many people, it nevertheless has connotations that need to be looked at more carefully. Will one or more of the Asian nations assume global leadership, militarily, economically and perhaps most important of all, in developing a political philosophy which might inform government of most of the world? What methods are being used to achieve that most illusory measure of prosperity, higher gross national product — is anything really changing for the mass of Asian people, billions of them, in the villages, urban slums and industrial sweatshops?
Colin Mason
Additional information