Asia is the world’s largest continent, sharing the landmass of Eurasia with Europe. The UralMountains of Russia are considered the dividing line between Asia and Europe. Asia was the site of three of the world’s earliest civilizations in Mesopotamia, India and China. Today Asia has three-fifths of the world’s population and the two most populous countries in the world, China and India. Because Asia is so huge, geographers have divided Asia into several regions. On the western side of Asia is the Middle East, which includes Asia Minor (present day Turkey). Farther east is central Asia. To the south lies the Indian subcontinent. On the eastern side of Asia are East Asia (sometimes called the Far East) and Southeast Asia.
Most of the country of India is a triangular-shaped peninsula that juts into the Indian Ocean. Due to its central location on the Indian Ocean between China and the Middle East, India became the ancient world’s largest trading center. India also gave the world important new ideas including the numbering system we use today and the religions of Hinduism and Buddhism. Today India is the second most populous country in the world after China, and India is the world’s largest democracy. The capital of India is New Delhi. India and nearby countries form a region known as the Indiansubcontinent or SouthernAsia.
After civilization first emerged in Mesopotamia and Egypt, it spread east to India. The earliest civilization in India grew along the Indus River valley of western India (now Pakistan) around 2500 BC. The IndusValleyCivilization had a written language and large cities with sophisticated plumbing systems.
These were the first people to grow cotton. Ships and overland trade caravans connected India to Mesopotamia and Egypt in an early international trading network. The Indus Valley Civilization lasted for about a thousand years; it was replaced by a new culture ruled by nomadic raiders arriving from central Asia.
the caste system
The chariot warriors from the north who took control of India are called Aryans. Because India’s early cities collapsed, and the Aryans were illiterate (could not read and write), civilization was lost in India for several centuries. Nonetheless, the light-skinned Aryan invaders from the north made themselves the ruling class in the caste system, a social system that still has influence in India today. Under India’s caste system, people were born into permanent classes for life, and they could marry only within their own caste.
There are four main castes with complicated rules of behavior: 1) the priests, 2) the warriors, 3) the merchants, and 4) the common people, mostly peasants and laborers. Most people of ancient India were members of the commoner class, which had limited rights. A fifth group, the Untouchables, was outside the caste system. Considered not human, Untouchables performed the worst jobs such as cleaning toilets and burying the dead. While the caste system may seem unfair to us today, it provided a means for different kinds of people to live together peacefully while avoiding the slavery common to many ancient cultures.
Hinduism is the oldest major religion in the world today; it survived so long by changing and adjusting to new circumstances. To Hindus all religions are acceptable, and the practices of other religions may be included as part of Hindu worship. Hindus believe in an eternal and infinite spiritual principle called Brahman that is the ultimate reality and foundation of all existence. Brahman can take the form of many gods including Brahma the creator of the universe, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer.
For Hindus, a proper life is unconcerned with worldly riches; the goal is to seek union with Brahman, a quest that may take many lifetimes. Hindus believe in reincarnation, meaning the soul never dies and may be reborn again in a different body. Karma, all of the actions of a person’s life, will determine if a person returns in the next life at a higher level on the ladder of incarnation and closer to union with Brahman.
Hinduism is the largest religion of India and a defining feature of Indian culture. Hinduism and the caste system served to maintain order among India’s many ethnic groups because each person knew his or her place in society, and people who followed the rules could hope to move to a higher caste in the next life.
Not everyone in India was satisfied with Hinduism. In the 500s BC, a young Hindu prince raised in luxury became troubled by the suffering he saw in the world. He left his wife and infant son to become a wandering monk, seeking a way to end the suffering. After six years of solitary searching, he found an answer and began to teach. His followers called him the “Buddha” or “the enlightened one.”
Buddha taught that our life in the physical world is merely an illusion. When people let go of their worldly pain and worries, they can unite with the universal soul and achieve a state of complete peace called nirvana. Like Hindus, Buddhists believe nothing is permanent, that life constantly moves through cycles of birth, death, and rebirth like the turning of a wheel. Although Buddha accepted the Hindu belief in reincarnation, he taught that people could achieve nirvana from their actions in this life alone, and he rejected the caste system. For these reasons, Buddhism became popular among the lower classes in India.
Today Buddhism is a major world religion. Although it began in India, Buddhism spread to the east and declined in India as Buddhism was absorbed into Hinduism. Buddhists are now found in the greatest numbers in East Asia and Southeast Asia.
Centuries after the Indus Valley Civilization died, cities and civilization arose again farther to the east in the fertile Ganges river valley. India was torn by warfare between kingdoms until the first Indian empire was established in the Ganges valley by the Mauryan dynasty in 324 BC. Its greatest leader was Asoka, who extended his empire to the south in a bloody invasion that conquered all but the southern tip of India.
Then Asoka had a sudden change of heart. He publicly announced his grief at the suffering caused by his armies, and he rejected violence. He even gave up hunting and eating meat. Asoka converted to Buddhism, and he spread Buddhist ideals throughout India and to neighboring countries. Ruling India with Buddhist ideals, Asoka’s government promoted the welfare of the people by kind acts such as digging new wells, building hospitals for people and animals, allowing freedom of religion, and easing harsh laws.
Asoka also encouraged long-distance ocean trade. It was during his reign that India became the center of a vast southern ocean-trading network that stretched from China to Africa and the Middle East.
Historians consider the Mauryan Empire and the Gupta Empire that followed (in the 300s and 400s AD) to be the greatest civilizations of India’s classicalperiod, a period when India underwent great cultural and political advancement. The reign of the Gupta Empire has been called India’s “golden age,” a high point of Indian history when art, drama, literature, and science flourished.
Gupta mathematicians invented the zero, an amazing number with no value that gives value to the place of other numbers. The zero made it possible to calculate numbers faster and more accurately, and it was adopted the world over. Doctors developed an inoculation against smallpox. Farmers learned how to turn the juice from sugarcane into dried sugar crystals that could be easily stored and traded over long distances. Cotton from India clothed people across much of the ancient world. Gupta India was a land of wonders.
The Gupta Empire declined in the early 500s AD when tribes of nomadic horsemen called Huns invaded from grasslands to the north, but the cultural patterns that developed during India’s classical period created a vital civilization in southern Asia that endures to this day.
People of ancient times developed four basic patterns for making a living. Some were still hunters and gatherers stalking wild game herds, but most people lived in farming villages. Another group lived in cities supported largely by wealth from agriculture. A fourth group lived in pastoral societies; these were nomadic herders of the grasslands who did not settle down in one place like farmers. They moved their domesticated (tame) animals -- sheep, goats, cows, horses, and camels -- from pasture to pasture with the seasons.
Pastoral people were mobile, and they developed military tactics to protect their animals from thieves. Pastoral nomads of the steppes (grasslands of central Eurasia) became skilled at using horses in warfare, and they sometimes raided settled communities. These were the nomadic raiders who attacked Jericho, Sumer, the Gupta Empire, and others. Many governments of Eurasia began with nomads sweeping in from the steppes and taking control. Centuries of warfare between nomadic raiders and civilized peoples in Eurasia led to advancements in military organization and technology unmatched elsewhere in the world.
The world’s fourth great civilization also got its start along a river valley, the Yellow river of northeastern China where farmers grew millet and wheat. Farming later moved south to the Yangtze (YONG-zuh) river, where rice production led to an increase in China’s population. The land between the rivers became the center of Chinese civilization, the so-called “Middle Kingdom.” Early Chinese culture grew in relative isolation due to physical barriers and long distances that separated it from other major civilizations of Eurasia. The world’s highest mountain range, the Himalayas, separate China from India.
The Chinese have long believed in a philosophy that recognizes a fundamental balance in nature between opposite but complimentary principles called yinandyang. Examples include day-night, hot-cold, wet-dry, and male-female. Central to Chinese philosophy and religion is a belief that people should avoid extremes and seek harmony with the balance of nature. (A philosophy is a system of basic beliefs about life.)
With nearly one-fourth of the world’s population, China today is the world’s most populous country, and it has a fast-growing economy. China was a superpower in the past, and it has become a superpower again in this century. China and its neighboring countries of Mongolia, Korea, and Japan form a region bordering the Pacific Ocean known as EastAsia or the Far East.
mandate from heaven
The Zhou (JOH) dynasty took control of China in 1122 BC and ruled for nearly 900 years. To give their government legitimacy, Zhou and later Chinese rulers claimed to rule with approval from the gods, a mandate from heaven. Although this claim was meant to enhance the emperor’s authority, it also established the right to overthrow an ineffective emperor. The emperor was expected to protect his people by ruling in a way that pleased the gods. If trouble developed in the empire -- droughts or military defeats, for example -- people might say the emperor had lost his mandate from heaven, and the emperor could be overthrown.
Over many centuries, China’s history experienced a recurring pattern. A ruling dynasty would start out strong and gradually weaken over time until it was replaced by a new dynasty. Then the pattern would repeat. Zhou rulers controlled their kingdom through a feudalsystem, meaning they divided the land into smaller territories and appointed officials to govern them. When the Zhou dynasty eventually weakened, some of these territories developed into strong states that opposed the emperor and began fighting among themselves. These bloody conflicts lasted for over two centuries, a time called the “Warring States” period.
Confucius was born in 551 BC when Zhou rulers were losing control of their empire. He tried to return harmony to China with a philosophy based on devotion to the family, respect between the classes, high moral ideals, and learning. He emphasized individual duty and responsibility, what we might call a strong work ethic. The family was the center of Confucian society with the father at the head. The mother and children owed total obedience to the father. Family ancestors were honored and not forgotten.
Confucius promoted an orderly society in which people of higher rank were courteous to those below, and those of lower rank were respectful to those above. Confucius said a ruler should act like a good father and lead by example, not through power and harsh laws. “When the ruler does right, all men will imitate his self-control.” While the teachings of Confucius were not influential in his lifetime, they soon became a guiding philosophy of Chinese civilization, and they still exert a strong influence on Chinese culture today.
The First Emperor
One of China’s warring states, the Qin (CHIN) kingdom of western China, grew wealthy from agriculture based on extensive irrigation. With this wealth, the Qin ruler raised a powerful army and spent twenty years ruthlessly conquering China’s warring states. He declared himself First Emperor in 221 BC. Thus, it was the First Emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, who created the country of China and gave China its name.
In order to unify China, the First Emperor stripped the regional warlords of their power, and he forced them to move to the capital where he could control them. He also standardized the Chinese language, money, roads, and weights and measures. The First Emperor ruled with a philosophy that considered people selfish and evil by nature; he adopted strict laws and harsh punishments to keep people in line. He also tried to control what people could think. It is said he buried scholars alive, burned books including the teachings of Confucius, and he brutally eliminated those who disagreed with him.
Great Wall of China
Natural barriers protected China on three sides: oceans to the east and south, mountains and desert to the west. But, China’s northern border lay open to attack from Huns. The First Emperor ordered a number of individual walls joined together to form one great stone wall to defend China’s northern border from attack. Hundreds of thousands of laborers worked on the Great Wall for years, and many workers died under the harsh conditions. Gates in the wall became centers of trade with the nomadic peoples who lived outside. The Great Wall was repaired and rebuilt a number of times over the centuries, and parts of it still stand.
The First Emperor also built for himself a magnificent underground tomb, and nearby he buried a terra-cottaarmy of life-size soldiers to protect him for eternity. (Terra cotta is the brownish-orange pottery used today to make flowerpots.) One pit contained sculptures of 6,000 infantrymen (foot soldiers), and a second pit held the cavalry (mounted soldiers) complete with life-size horses, all arranged in battle formation. Each clay soldier was modeled after an actual soldier of the emperor’s army. One of the great archeological finds of the twentieth century, the terra-cotta army was uncovered accidentally in 1974 by a farmer digging a well.
Hoping to find a way to avoid death, the First Emperor experimented with a number of potions until he killed himself by accidental poisoning. The Qin Dynasty lasted for only fifteen years, but it began a Chinese tradition of strong central governments controlled by powerful rulers.
The harsh rule of the First Emperor was so unpopular that the Qin Dynasty was overthrown shortly after the emperor’s death. Following a period of civil war, the Han Dynasty took control of China in 206 BC.
Han rulers adopted Confucian ideas about creating a respectful and orderly society, and they set-up a civilservicesystem to run the government with well-educated officials chosen by written tests.
The Han Dynasty expanded China’s empire to the south and west, and it produced marvels that would change the world including the ship’s rudder, the magnetic compass, and paper. The four-hundred-year reign of the Han Empire was so successful that it is considered the greatest of China’s classical dynasties. The Han Empire eventually weakened, fell apart, and was replaced by three kingdoms in 220 AD. About a hundred years later, Hun invaders took control of the Chinese heartland. The period of classical civilization in China was over, but the Chinese were left with an enduring belief that China was the center of civilization.
the Silk Road
During the Han Dynasty, regular trade began over the Silk Road, actually a network of trails that stretched 4,000 miles from China to the Roman Empire. Only the Chinese knew how to raise silkworms and weave silk; Chinese silk was worth its weight in gold in Rome. Europeans also acquired a taste for other Asian luxury goods including spices, a taste that would later send Columbus on his voyages of discovery.
The Silk Road was a two-way street. Asian goods were traded for Western goods, which flowed back along the Silk Road to China. Imports from the west to China included gold, silver, powerful horses, new foods, and Buddhism. This overland trade was made possible by the camel, the “ship of the desert,” with its large padded feet for walking on shifting desert sands and its ability go long distances without food or water.
Trade routes such as the Silk Road were pioneered by nomads. For a price, nomads provided caravans with pack animals and protection. The Silk Road in the north joined with the southern ocean shipping routes to form a trading web that spread goods, technologies, and ideas between Asia, Europe, and North Africa
The Bronze Age was followed by the Iron Age. This is when people learned how to use a draft of air from a furnace or bellows to produce the hot temperatures needed to melt iron from iron ore and to shape it into tools and weapons. Iron was much stronger than bronze, and it was less expensive because iron ore was easier to find than the tin needed to make bronze. Iron working not only meant better tools and weapons, it meant lots more of them, a major technological change.
Iron working probably began in the Middle East about 1200 BC and quickly spread. Iron had a big impact on agriculture and warfare. Iron plow blades and hoes made it possible to work heavier soils than before, extending agriculture into new lands and boosting human populations. Armies grew bigger and deadlier due to more effective and less expensive iron weapons and armor. The Iron Age continues to the present day, although some might say we live in the “Industrial Age” or the “Digital Age.”