Asian has a surprisingly complex history. In the 1930s it began to replace the term Asiatic to describe people and customs from the continent of Asia. As the OED makes clear, the word asiatic was seen as derogatory by the people it described. Curiously, while Asian appears in the online OED, the word Asia does not (although its cognate Europe does).
For a word which many take for granted, Asian presents us with further complexity when we look at it in every day usage, especially in the context of censuses, surveys and monitoring. In the United States, Asian generally refers to someone with ancestry in China or Japan, Laos or Vietnam. In the U.K. many people limit theirusage of the term “British Asian” to people with South Asian (Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi or Sri Lankan) ancestry. The contrast is telling because it is conditioned by colonial or military histories. The term Asian, which seems so categorical and definitive a descriptor, is in fact relative, and relatively recent as a coinage.
There is further complexity when we consider that the idea of Asia is also contested. Writing in an essay about the idea of Asia, Chinese thinker Wang Hui observes that,
The accounts of Asia discussed here demonstrate not so much Asia’s autonomy as the ambiguities and contradictions in the idea of Asia itself: the idea is at once colonialist and anticolonialist, conservative and revolutionary, nationalist and internationalist, originating in Europe and, alternatively, shaping Europe’s image of itself. It is closely related to issues of both nation-state and empire, a notion of a civilization seen as the opposite of the European, and a geographic category established through geopolitics. I believe that as we examine the political, economic, and cultural autonomy of Asia, we must take seriously the derivativeness, ambiguity, and inconsistency that were intertwined with the history of its advent – these are products of specific historical relationships, and it is only from these relationships that they can be transcended or overcome.
Hui goes on to explore how ideas of Europe and Asia developed symbiotically, making each other possible. Thus in many senses, as Said points out elsewhere, occidental notions of civilisation develop in contradistinction to ideas of the Oriental – in this case the Asian.
Fourth, the category of an Asian totality was established in contradistinction to Europe, and it encompasses heterogeneous cultures, religions, and other social elements. Whether from the perspective of historical traditions or contemporary institutions, Asia lacks the conditions for creating a European Union-style superstate. Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, Daoism, and Confucianism all originated on this continent we call Asia, which represents three-fifths of the worlds landmass and contains more than half of the worlds population; thus, any attempt to characterize Asia as a unitary culture is not plausible.
Hui’s argument alone should alert cultural professionals to the rich and complex history and politics and heterogeneity that lies behind this deceptively simple word.